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Dreams to Remember

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1

John woke to a sharp pain in his left side.

When he tried to move into a more comfortable position, it quickly became apparent why the muscles running up his ribcage had seized up on him. He lay twisted half-on, half-off the white couch in his—no, not his—room, his torso and right arm hanging over the edge, his left leg awkwardly turned into the back of the couch.

Moving set off a wave of spasms in his muscles and caused his breath to hitch sharply in his chest. It was an effort to turn his neck.

He grunted as he levered himself up and off the couch. Faint light streamed through the window blinds and his eyes adjusted slowly. He didn’t recognize anything distinctive until a collection of framed certificates hanging on the wall caught his eye.

A soft snore filtered through his disorientation. He turned his head but didn’t see anyone else in the room with him. A few feet away, the bed, with no one on it, although the sheets were twisted all to hell. John rubbed his aching head. He stumbled toward the door, putting his hand out for balance when he thought he was going to tip over and fall flat on his face.

Two steps later, he almost tripped over McKay lying prone on the floor in nothing but blue plaid boxer shorts, head resting on his forearm and drool pooling on the floor scant inches below his face.

John stepped over McKay and stopped in front of the door. A quick glance around the room left him feeling unsettled, but he couldn’t explain why. A sudden groan and twitch from Rodney ended with Rodney’s cheek slipping off his arm and landing with a wet slap on the floor. Eyes fluttered but didn’t open and another groan followed. He sounded like he was trying to wake up with a hangover. A terrible, achy, what the hell did I just do kind of hangover.

John grimaced and waved his hand in front of the Ancient door control. A hasty retreat seemed like a good idea about right now.

John’s gritty eyes didn’t want to focus as he walked down the halls of Atlantis. By the time he made it to his room, his joints had loosened, and he was sure a shower was all he needed to feel normal again.

In the bathroom, he scrubbed at his chin with the back of his hand and stared down at the mess he’d found under his pants.

He was pretty sure he was going to have to rip out some hair to get his underwear off. He tugged, winced, and then gritted out, “Son of a bitch!”

Where the hell had this mess come from?

Hadn’t he just been in Beckett’s lab? Or...wait. No, no, that wasn’t right. He’d been... Where had he been?

He scraped his hand over the back of his neck. He couldn’t remember.

He needed a hot shower. Hot showers always helped.

*

An uncertain amount of time later, John watched Elizabeth and Dr. Beckett enter her office, followed by two other medical personnel. He didn’t know either of their names, but he didn’t figure it was any big deal. He had the names of his military forces memorized, finally, and about half the science staff. The rest would come to him in time. He’d always been good at remembering faces.

Rodney stopped beside him and pointed to the closing doors. “Hey, shouldn’t we be in there?”

“Elizabeth said she needs to have a private meeting with Beckett and his staff before she meets with us this morning.”

“Really?”

“No. I made it up.”

Rodney’s gaze jerked to John’s face. “Oh. Ha ha.” He waved his hand in the vague direction of the control room. “So, am I the only one who got up with a migraine the size of Atlantis this morning? I was talking to—oh, hell—Zelenka maybe, and he said he woke up locked in one of the labs. And I woke up on the floor, do you believe that?” Rodney waved off the answer John wasn’t even thinking about giving. “Why would I do that? I have a bad back. I sleep on a prescription mattress for a reason and it isn’t because it smells better—which it actually really kind of does incidentally.”

“Yeah, McKay, you know, your back isn’t my main concern right now. You might be surprised what I would believe this morning. I think Elizabeth knows something about all this that the rest of us don’t, and as the top of the military chain of command right now, I should know about it.”

Rodney’s eyes flickered up to meet John’s before darting away. He appeared to take up a sudden interest in a piece of lint on his jacket sleeve. “I...well...something wasn’t right about this morning.” He sounded strangely reticent to John, who had quickly become used to Rodney’s outlandish exaggerations and biting sarcasm since they’d come to Atlantis.

“What do you mean?” John caught Rodney’s furtive look only because he was staring hard at him, waiting for him to say more.

“Hm, I’d love to share, but I’m too busy freaking out right now. I found evidence that seems to say, to say that I—” his voice had risen and he stopped and cleared his throat, “you know, never mind. This is too personal. Really, really too personal.” Rodney’s mouth had that stubborn slant and his lips were mashed together tight. His eyes, however, were wide and blue and confused. John didn’t bother trying to get him to say more, because he’d had his own freak-out worthy discovery this morning and frankly, he wasn’t sure he was over it just yet.

He had bruises and tender spots in places he didn’t want to think about. He even had what looked like a hickey, for god’s sake—okay, more than one, but he’d stopped counting when he found one on the inside of his thigh.

“Come on,” he said, and he grabbed the sleeve of Rodney’s jacket and pulled him along toward the closed doors of Elizabeth’s office. But when they got there, it was to discover that Elizabeth had locked everyone out.

Son of a bitch.

*

“Major Sheppard, I’ve already made my decision. If we were able to contact Earth, I’m positive everyone at the SGC would back me up on this. What happened here poses no ongoing threat and therefore the records are being sealed for the good of the members of this expedition.”

“How can you know there’s no ongoing threat? Why do we have a city full of people who can’t remember anything at all about the past three days?” John leaned forward in the chair across from Elizabeth’s desk, putting his hands on his knees, ready to push himself to his feet. “What the hell happened?”

Instead of answering, Elizabeth folded down the monitor on her computer with a sharp snick. “Major Sheppard, you had no right to barge in here when I was having a closed meeting with my medical staff. Medical conferences are not a military matter and I am in charge of this expedition.” Elizabeth stared at him with that look she seemed to have perfected in their short acquaintance, the one that made him feel like he’d done something very wrong, even when he knew he was in the right.

“I need to know what happened,” he said, surging to his feet. He could see the indecision in her eyes. If he pushed just a little harder...

Her gaze shifted toward the door behind him then returned to his face. “Major..., John,” she said, speaking low, her words measured and precise. “Everyone on this base had a blackout event. My records show the cause was destroyed, but not before the city became contaminated. The city has been purged and Dr. Beckett assures me there should be no lasting effects. If you want to know anything else about this, you will have to wait until we reestablish contact with Earth. My decision is final. The records are sealed.”

John clenched his jaw.

Elizabeth placed her hands carefully on the flat surface of her desk on either side of her computer. “Don’t fight me on this, John,” she said. “I will not back down. We need unity in this expedition. We’re fighting for our lives here and we can’t afford dissension at every turn. We only have each other. It’s important to everyone on this expedition that we work together as smoothly as possible.”

John could agree to that, but he had a feeling she was telling him more than she realized. Only he didn’t get it.

Over the next week, Beckett declared everyone no worse for the wear and gave the go-ahead to schedule missions again, and soon everything was back to normal. Or what passed for normal on Atlantis. John didn’t mind. By the end of the week, he couldn’t really remember why Beckett had chosen now to give everyone a thorough exam anyway.

*

The planet had a near tropical climate and the jungle-like growth between the Stargate and the nearest village made walking mandatory. The dense undergrowth made the trek torturous and slow, but Teyla had assured them all in this morning’s briefing that it would be worth it. Many worlds traded with this one for their abundant supply of fresh fruits year round.

The ants, however, came as a big surprise.

John could hear what sounded like a burbling creek off in the distance, when to his right, Teyla stopped abruptly.

“Major Sheppard—John, do not move,” Teyla said, reaching for the tail of his jacket. “If you kill it, more will come.”

It was just an ant, but John did as she suggested and carefully flicked it off his jacket.

She smiled at him and glanced toward his feet. “We should watch our steps and stay on the path. If we wander from within its boundaries, we could encounter more of these insects.”

Rodney came up behind them. “What’s so special about the ants?” he asked.

“These particular...ants,” she said, waiting for John to acknowledge the name. When he nodded, she continued. “They are not so bad, but if you kill one of them, many more will swarm the area where the insect was killed and—”

“What? Seriously?” Rodney interrupted. “Like killer bees? Are you telling us there are killer ants here that wi—oh, oh—” Rodney’s eyes widened abruptly.

John grabbed for Rodney’s hand, but it was too late. Rodney slapped at his pants in the vicinity of his shin. “No. No, no, no. You have got to be kidding me....” He started reaching back into his pack, chasing it almost like a dog chasing his tail, while still trying to slap at his clothes. “Bug spray, where the hell’s the bug spray?”

John might have growled, or even laughed at Rodney’s antics, but just about then, he felt the first stinging bite, and shit, that hurt. His breathed hissed through his teeth as the first bite turned into the second and then he was feeling them all over his legs and—

“Damn it, they’re crawling up the inside of my pants!” His boots should have stopped them being able to get inside, but obviously hadn’t. With another curse, he grabbed for Rodney’s flailing arms and yanked him closer so he could get into Rodney’s pack. His legs were on fire before he could pull out the spray, but he managed it and immediately started dousing both Rodney and himself in the stuff.

It helped. A little. It didn’t kill the ants already inside his pants and it sure didn’t stop Rodney’s refrain of “Ow, Ow, Ow, hurry, damn it, hurry! Is it really that hard for you to spray a damn bottle?”

Teyla reached for John’s arm. “This way,” she said. She started pulling him along toward the sound of the running water.

“McKay, Ford, follow us.” John didn’t leave it up to chance. He yanked at the back of Rodney’s pack and pulled him along behind him. Ford followed at a distance. Neither he nor Teyla appeared to be in any distress.

When they cut through a tight swath of foliage, a heavy green leaf smacking John in the face, they came out on the other side right in front of a swiftly moving creek. Rounded rocks jutted up through the foaming water, but several spots looked deep enough to sink knee deep in.

Teyla pointed to a spot just downstream and said, “There, that should be deep enough. The insects do not like water and will try to get away or drown. Hurry, before more come.”

John dropped his P-90, threw off his jacket, shucked his belt, yanked off his thigh holster, untied his boots and kicked them off as quickly as humanly possible, and finally with only the briefest hesitation for modesty, shimmied his pants over his hips and waded into the water, taking his pants and jacket with him. He headed straight for the deepest eddy he could find and splashed directly into it. The water was just about the perfect temperature for cooling off, so it wasn’t a hardship to lay back and let it flow over and around him, taking with it the stinging, biting ants. He flicked at a particularly stubborn one that had somehow made it onto his upper arm and it swirled away.

Water splashed beside him and he looked over to see Rodney teetering on a slippery rock but also making his way into one of the deeper pools.

“I am sorry, but you should wash out your clothing,” Teyla called. “If any of the insects survive, you would only have to do this again.”

“Not how I expected to be spending my day,” Rodney muttered just loud enough for John to hear. “Killer ants. Of course. Of course. And, and, and—” But he shut up and looked everywhere but at John, who was looking up at him from his cool spot where he was laid out on his back in the middle of the creek.

John noticed then that Rodney was wearing nothing but his t-shirt and blue plaid boxer shorts, and for a crazy second, something about those shorts brought a furrow to his brow. He’d seen them before. He—

“Ow!” Rodney went down on his backside in a pool of water and a wave splashed up and hit John right in the face.

John raked water off his eyes and sputtered through the burning in the back of his nose where some of the water had gone. “Watch yourself McKay! If you break a leg out here, I’m not carrying you back to the gate.”

“Oh, this feels good,” Rodney said.

John sat up in the water and looked over at Teyla and Ford standing by the low bank. “You sure you guys are okay? No ants?”

“No sir,” Ford answered.

“I am fine,” Teyla said. She smiled at them and watched patiently while Ford walked cautiously around the edge of the creek, his motions making it clear he was watching both above and below for possible threats.

John took a few more minutes to be sure he had all the ants off his body. Then he stood up and started swishing his pants through the cloudy water. When he and Rodney had splashed into the creek, they had stirred up the silt at the bottom, leaving the water muddy brown and gritty, but it was working. The so-called ants were being swept away. Rodney followed his lead and bent over to submerge his own clothing.

“What are we supposed to do about our boots?” Rodney asked.

“Shake them out.”

“But what if—”

“McKay,” John interrupted. “We don’t have a lot of options. Shake them out.”

“Should have had your pants tucked in, Sir,” Ford called.

John could hear the glee in Ford’s voice, and he just said, “Yeah, I know that now. Thanks.” But none of them hardly ever bothered with that these days, and John could now see why such complacency might not have been wise.

Although the sun made only patchy appearances through the thick canopy of trees, the hot, damp air kept John from feeling a chill as he struggled to pull on his wet pants. They wanted to cling in all the wrong places, and it gave him a small measure of satisfaction to notice that McKay was having the same problem.

“Uh, you might want to—” Ford paused as he took several steps backward, moving away from the thickest area of jungle growth and toward the narrow path Teyla had followed to lead them to the small creek. “Teyla...we’ve got a problem.” John could see Ford’s nervous apprehension in the way he held himself taut and ready.

John grabbed his gear and then jogged over to Ford’s location, reaching him at about the same time as Teyla came up on his other side.

A few feet away, the ground swarmed with tiny black insects, all moving dauntlessly in their direction. As the ants closed on them, John could hear a rush of noise coming with them, a trillion tiny feet stalking across the jungle floor, louder than any single large predator would ever be.

“We should leave this place,” Teyla said. “Now.”

“Okay, that’s it. Back to the gate,” John ordered. “This mission is officially being postponed!”

Rodney had just finished tying his second bootlace, while John still had to get his boots on his feet. In the end, he ran barefoot through the jungle, one hand holding his boots, his P-90 thrown across his back, and the other fist wadded up around his belt and the fly of his pants. In his haste to see what had caught Ford’s attention, he hadn’t buttoned them, and crap, what a mistake that had turned out to be.

It might have been funny if he wasn’t the one about to lose his damn pants.

*

“Okay. I take it the mission didn’t go well,” Elizabeth said once she’d taken in John and Rodney’s disheveled appearances. Ford and Teyla looked as put together as always, clean, neat, tidy. Fully clothed.

John gave a disgruntled sigh and rolled his left shoulder and neck. He might have pulled a muscle; he’d have to wait and see. “There was a change of plans after we encountered some of the indigenous insect-life on the planet and they decided they liked the way McKay and I tasted,” he said.

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows.

“We had ants climbing up the inside of our pants,” Rodney said. “The little bastards stung the crap out of my legs. I probably need to go to the infirmary and make sure they didn’t inject me with some kind of deadly alien-ant venom or, or, or toxin.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened and John could almost see the smile she hid. The guards stepped back as it became clear the unscheduled off-world activation wasn’t a true crisis and that they were no longer needed.

“They hurt,” John said, and if he sounded defensive, he ignored it and continued. “We had to partially strip down and—well, you can see the results.”

Elizabeth’s gaze took in his filthy socks, skipped over his fisted hand, still clutching the front of his pants, and climbed to his flushed face. “You should let Carson check out those bites,” she said smoothly, offering him a way to save the rest of his dignity in front of the others gathered around the gate.

Rodney didn’t seem to care that Elizabeth wasn’t talking directly to him. “Yes, yes. We definitely need medical treatment. I might be dying here and not even know it.” Rodney left them all standing there as he trotted off to the infirmary without a backward glance.

John shook his head at Elizabeth, held onto his boots, his pants, and his dignity, and followed.

*

2

Under other circumstances, the visit to P2E-459 might have been another unremarkable, unmemorable visit to a dead planet, long abandoned by its people.

“There’s definitely a power source down there.”

John looked over at Rodney and raised an eyebrow in question.

“It’s strong,” Rodney said. “Stronger than almost anything we’ve come across lately. You should set us down here.” He pointed to a spot near the center of the Heads Up Display. John studied it for a moment. They would have to walk a few miles each way because there weren’t many good locations nearby to land the jumper.

John nodded anyway. After the siege by the Wraith a few months ago they now had semi-regular contact with Earth through the Daedalus and the ability to dial Earth’s Stargate from Atlantis, but opportunities to get their hands on power sources were still almost always worth pursuing except in the most extreme cases.

So he said, “Sounds like a plan,” and prepared to land the ship.

Rodney turned his attention back to the tablet he carried everywhere these days, already distracted by more readings. The address for this planet had come from the Ancient’s database and Rodney had suggested it for their next mission several weeks ago, but a little problem with an Ancient warship, a couple of stasis pods, and a Wraith had gotten in the way and they hadn’t been able to get to it until now. Neither Teyla nor Ronon had ever visited this world as far as either could remember. John was okay with that. Mixing up the trade missions with more exploratory missions kept things fresh.

He put the jumper down in the first location he had thought might work for a landing because it turned out to be perfectly acceptable. Teyla gathered her gear and strapped on her P-90 while Rodney disconnected his computer and Ronon stood and stretched.

“The light on this planet is strange,” Teyla commented to no one in particular.

“Yeah. Don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it,” Ronon said.

“It’s because of the sun,” Rodney answered with only a brief look in their direction. He shoved his computer into his pack and started to zip it closed. “It’s less luminous than what we’re used to, but it’s still within the parameters that support human life. Oh, there was also some other mention of this planet in the database too, but...well.”

“Yes?” John asked. He wondered if he should admit that he’d pretty much skimmed the details of the report when he’d realized what kind of mission this was going to be.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Rodney said absently. “I didn’t pay much attention when it started waxing poetic about the indigenous flora and fauna.”

Great.

They exited the back of the jumper to walk into thick, tall prairie grass and a wide open field. Two miles later, the grass had disappeared to be replaced by craggy rock and tall, thin trees that were nearly overwhelmed with leaves.

Rodney looked down at the tablet cradled in the crook of his elbow, looked up, and then pointed off to their left. “There. Just over there.”

John adjusted the angle of his P-90 to sit more comfortably against his arm. “That’s what you said five minutes ago.”

“Yes. Yes. I know. But this time I’m positive. It’s not my fault these readings keep jumping around. Let’s see you try to trace it down and do better.”

“I’d offer, but then I’d have no reason to bring you along and I just so love having to listen to you when you get all superior on us. What would we do without you?”

“Die, probably,” Rodney said. “You would have all died several times over by now without me and you know it.”

John shook his head at Rodney and wondered when they’d gone from being friendly team members to actual friends. It had happened sometime last year when he wasn’t paying attention; that’s all he knew for sure.

They crested a craggy outcropping of rock to find the corner of a metal building sticking up out of a pile of stone and grass. The entrance was completely obscured and at first glance it appeared to have been a simple cave-in blocking the door.

John tapped his fingers against his P-90. “That’s not natural,” he said.

Rodney dropped his pack on the ground and left his tablet with it, and then walked around the outside edge of the pile of debris. “No. No, I don’t think it is. Maybe a self-destruct. Or an attack from the air? Somebody didn’t want anyone getting inside this facility.”

The hair on the back of John’s neck bristled. He looked over his shoulder but didn’t see anything in the trees behind him. “These trees wouldn’t have been here when the complex was built, would they?”

“How would I—Oh, no, probably not. This complex is in all likelihood very, very old.”

“Ancient old?”

“Probably not. But possibly.” He pulled out the life signs detector from his jacket pocket and then waved it around, using its scanning abilities, then he studied the screen for a moment. “There seems to be a large subterranean complex underneath the ground here. And when I say large, I mean gigantic.”

“Is there another way—”

“No.” Rodney paced the ground in front of the blocked entrance, rubbed at the back of his neck and kept staring at the device in his hand.

“Are you sure?”

“Probably. I mean, maybe. Well, there could be, but I don’t know where it would be and this—” he raised his hand that held the life signs detector, “—isn’t really capable of telling me if there is. It just shows all the walled off empty spaces underground.”

“Is it really that hard to admit that you don’t know?”

Rodney stilled. “Yes. It really is.”

Ronon spoke up from behind John. “We could blast our way in.”

Rodney twisted around to glare at Ronon. “Oh, that’s brilliant. Why didn’t I think of that one? Oh yeah, because it might destroy whatever it is we’re trying to find!” Rodney turned to John, “We need to at least get the engineers here to see if there’s any way to clear out the debris without damaging whatever might be inside. If that doesn’t work, then we can try blasting our way in, but not before.”

“It’s too late to get them out here tonight. The sun’s already going down.”

“We should visit the village we saw as we flew in before we return to the ship,” Teyla said. “Maybe the former inhabitants left behind something of use.”

Rodney frowned. “Really? My legs are kind of tired and—”

“Sounds like a plan,” John said, and if it felt a little good to spite Rodney, he wasn’t going to admit it.

The village was back the way they had come, but because of its location in the middle of a forested area, the jumper wouldn’t have a place to land, so they left it where it was and hiked through the growing dimness toward the thick collection of dilapidated buildings.

When they got close enough to make out details, John could tell the wood slats of the walls were falling apart and that no one could have lived here for at least a hundred years. Possibly longer if the weather always held as it was today, cool, but no breeze, dry air, and a crisp smell as if spring was coming on. It was really quite nice if you could get used to the lower level of light. John thought he possibly could. He hadn’t even had to get his sunglasses out today despite the lack of clouds in the sky.

The first building they came to had only part of a door blocking the entrance. Hinges held the top half twisted but still hanging in place, while rot had eaten through the lower portion. John glanced inside, saw nothing of interest, and said, “Maybe the next one.”

“This place is nothing but a pile of rotting wood and fungi. We’re not going to find anything here.” Rodney’s exasperated voice cut sharply into the stillness.

Teyla turned her head. “I feel...” but she hesitated to finish her sentence.

“Like somebody’s watching us,” Ronon said. Not a question.

John eyed the empty, silent homes, then the forest surrounding them all. “Yeah. Me too.”

Rodney jerked his gaze around, obviously trying to take in everything at once. “Is it Wraith? It better not be Wraith. There’s no reason—”

“No, you are correct,” Teyla said. “There’s no reason the Wraith should be interested in this place. It is obvious no one has lived here for many years.”

“The life signs detector doesn’t show anyone,” Rodney said. “I checked.”

“Check again.”

“Fine, but—” Rodney turned in a slow circle. “Oh.”

“What?”

“Something strange—I don’t recognize these symbols. I don’t think the life signs detector has ever used these designations before.”

“So there’s somebody else here?”

“No. This doesn’t mean people. There aren’t any dots, per se, just these little pinpricks all clustered together. Here, see.” Rodney thrust the detector under John’s nose.

John reached out and pushed it back. “I can’t see it if you put it right in my face.” But Rodney was right. There were strange clusters of sparkly lights scattered around the screen—surrounding their own life sign signals, closer than he’d like them to be.

“Maybe some kind of animal or plant life?” he asked.

“It’s never shown that kind of detail before. I didn’t think it was capable of recognizing anything smaller than a child—although I’ve always wondered if it could be adapted—”

“So maybe these are large animals,” John cut in. He found himself looking around again, more cautiously than before, uneasy with the idea of being so far from the jumper.

“Maybe we should go back,” Rodney said.

“Yes,” Teyla agreed in her quiet voice.

“I still don’t see anything,” Ronon said. “Maybe it’s just big rats or something.”

“He could be right.” Rodney said, but his expression wasn’t hopeful and John could tell he didn’t actually believe that. But then he said, “Huh. You know, they’re really not moving. Not much anyway.”

Rodney scrunched up his face in an expression of concentration and then his eyes widened. “Maybe it’s some kind of organic energy source and the detector is mistaking it for a life sign. That’s possible, it really is.”

“If you say so,” John said. Then he thought about Rodney and how he hated leaving any planet he’d specifically recommended for a mission without something to show for it. He asked abruptly, “Are you sure that’s not just wishful thinking?”

“Oh, yes. I’m the team optimist.” Rodney pointed in the direction of one of the buildings about thirty feet away. “We should check it out. There’s a cluster in that direction.”

John lowered his weapon and checked that it was ready to fire. “All right. Come on. Ronon, you take our six.” He led the way. If giant rats ended up chasing them out of the village, he would find a way to make Rodney pay, let there be no doubt about that.

*

They entered the home cautiously. Rodney waited until Colonel Sheppard gave the all clear before he walked through the doorway that John had propped open with a loose board of wood. The dimness inside what Rodney could only call a hovel made it hard to tell where he was going, but the light on Sheppard’s gun cut through the shadows. All he could make out was a few thin spider webs, some bits of twig and leaves piled in the corners, lots of dust, and a table and two benches, one on each side. His eyes adjusted after a moment, and he let out a frustrated puff of breath. “According to this, whatever it’s picking up should be right here.” But of course, other than the items he’d already cataloged, there was nothing.

He stomped over to the bench and sat down, tossing his pack onto the spot beside him. He grabbed the edge of the table and shook it, but it seemed sturdy enough.

“What are you doing?” Sheppard asked.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” he asked sharply. He was just pulling out his computer, which he then set on the table. “Besides, I want to check something. And I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten anything in over four hours.”

“So you want a break?”

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. “Yes, I do.”

“Why didn’t you just say so?”

“I tried to, back at the—the—the subterranean thing!”

“I could also use some refreshment,” Teyla said, giving both Rodney and Sheppard a firm look. Rodney ducked his head down and dug through his pack for food. Sheppard wouldn’t argue with Teyla.

Ten minutes later, Rodney had his blood-sugar levels in much better shape but his mood wasn’t. His computer wasn’t telling him anything new. Teyla was standing at the door looking out and Ronon was sitting beside Rodney on the other side of Rodney’s pack, using his knife to gouge more holes in the already heavily gouged top of the wood table. Sheppard sat on the bench across from him, with his legs propped up.

Rodney tapped through a few more screens, but by this point, he knew he was wasting his time. Soon, it would be dark out and there was really no reason to hang around any longer.

He glanced up and caught the tail end of something Sheppard was saying to Ronon but didn’t catch the words. Instead, he noticed the corner of John’s mouth curl upward as he let out a sharp breath that turned into a laugh. Rodney heard Ronon laugh too, but it was that curve of lips that Rodney couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from, until Sheppard’s eyelashes raised and his head turned, and those hazel green eyes met his. Rodney jerked his gaze back down to the computer. He shut it down.

“Are we about done here?” Sheppard said while lowering his feet to the floor.

Rodney nodded, and added, “Yes, we’re all done.”

It had been happening a lot lately. He wasn’t even sure what had set it off, but one day, he’d looked up and realized he’d been staring and it had hit him that it wasn’t the first time, although no one had ever said anything to him about it. Of course, once he became aware of his fixation with the corner of Sheppard’s mouth, Rodney had started to notice himself staring every time he turned around. He was also able to put a stop to it. Mostly.

It was just that...it reminded him of something, and he could never quite put his finger on what, but it was there, in the back of his mind in a place he couldn’t touch, and occasionally, he thought the not remembering was going to drive him crazy.

Rodney stuffed his computer into his pack.

When Rodney looked across the table this time, a dark shape hovered over Sheppard’s left shoulder.

Rodney screamed. He jumped to his feet so fast the bench flipped over and scraped across the floor behind him.

Sheppard leaped to his feet; Ronon followed quickly. Teyla dropped into a graceful crouch near the door, ready to defend or attack as the situation warranted. But they were all looking in the wrong direction.

“Up! Up up up,” he screeched, pointing over Sheppard’s shoulder. “What the hell is it?”

Sheppard glanced up and nearly fell over backward jumping out of the way of what looked a hell of a lot like a giant spider. Four times as large as the biggest arachnid Rodney had ever seen—in his life, it dangled at the end of a shiny thin web right over where Sheppard had been sitting, its huge glistening eyes black and menacing, each of its fangs as big as one of Rodney’s fingers.

“What the hell?” Sheppard demanded. “That wasn’t in the briefing!”

Teyla took aim with her P-90, and the light cut across the body of the spider-like creature. It let out a piercing shriek and recoiled up the web. Rodney heard skittering feet but couldn’t see anything on this side of the broad wood beams holding up the ceiling. They each darted their weapons around the room, spotlighting any suspicious shadows and casing the room for more predators.

Rodney had himself under control now, but he was still looking up nervously at the place where the large spider had gone back into hiding. How many more of those things were up there, just waiting for a chance to drop down on his head?

Oh. Oh.

Oh, no.

Sheppard glared over at him. “What was that? You said you read the database entries for this planet and that it was safe!”

“Don’t blame me!” he shouted, digging the life signs detector out of his jacket pocket. Oh, oh shit.

“I have never seen anything like that before,” Teyla said.

Ronon was already backing toward the open door. “I have.”

All eyes turned briefly in his direction before going back to scanning the dingy, badly lit room.

“Well?” Rodney demanded.

“They feed on the Iratus bugs.”

“Seriously?” Rodney said, his interest piqued, even if he was a bit distracted at the moment. Fear was beating through his chest at a rapid-fire pace, possibly a result of the sudden and unexpected surge of adrenaline that had flooded his body when he’d seen the spider dropping toward Sheppard’s head.

Then again, it could have something to do with the growing number of clusters on the life signs detector.

“Yeah,” Ronon said.

Rodney jerked around toward the sound of more skittering in a far corner. “We need to get out of here.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Sheppard said. “I hate spiders.”

Sheppard gestured for Ronon to lead the way through the open door and into the swiftly lowering light outside. Rodney followed, with Teyla behind him, and Sheppard bringing up the rear.

*

Outside, the night was closing in fast. The distance of the sun from the planet and the speed of the planet’s rotation brought the daylight to an abrupt end.

Rodney made his second spider sighting about halfway between the village and the jumper while they were passing through a copse of tall trees. Strangely enough, one of the creatures scurried away as Rodney came too close to a jagged gray stone jutting out of the ground. Baleful eyes reflected the light of his flashlight and venom glistened at the end of sharply tapered fangs.

Rodney swallowed roughly and contemplated the distance to the puddle jumper. “We’re screwed,” he muttered to himself.

Sheppard must have heard him. “Keep moving,” he said. “They’re coming out now that it’s almost completely dark. I want to be back at the jumper in fifteen minutes.”

“Oh, like that’s going to happen. We’re still miles away!”

Ronon pushed Rodney between the shoulder blades, but not hard enough to make him stumble, for which Rodney was embarrassingly grateful. As Sheppard had so eloquently put it earlier, Rodney hated spiders too.

“We might have to run. Think you can make it?”

“If I have to,” Rodney said.

He jerked when gunfire ahead startled him. Sheppard’s P-90 flared bright and bullets sprayed in an arc across the path. Something shrieked, the sound eerily familiar.

“For god’s sake, this feels as bad as having Wraith on our tail.” He heard the panic in his voice, but hell, he figured having giant spiders after him gave him the right. He fumbled for his gun, pulling it out of his thigh holster. He really needed more bullets. Forget that. He needed a bigger gun. If they made it back to Atlantis, maybe it was time he demanded one.

Rustling noises to his left brought him around and he swung his flashlight wide, bathing the trees in a swath of illumination. A thousand starry reflections glared back, each darting away at the contact. “Oh my god. Oh my god.”

Sheppard yelled at him, “McKay—Rodney, you’re not losing it on me, are you? Keep it together!”

He was keeping it together. He was—shit—he was not keeping it together. Ronon seemed to instinctively understand and he grabbed Rodney by the collar of his jacket and pulled him along.

Rodney was pathetically grateful. This wasn’t some technological problem he could solve by using his panic-driven energy to hyper focus and bring him brilliant flashes of insight at just the right moment. This was giant spiders and running through the woods and fleeing for their lives.

A protruding tree root tripped him and he stumbled loose from Ronon’s grip and fell to the forest floor. Leaves crunched under him and something skittered away. His own harsh breaths were all he could hear for a second, and then he heard Teyla, “We are almost there, Rodney, but you are going to have to hurry.”

Rodney scrambled to his feet. More gunfire sounded, and then something dropped to the ground directly in front of him, cutting him and Ronon off from Sheppard and Teyla. A blast from Ronon’s gun flashed in the darkness, taking out the threat, but not before Rodney got a good look at the ugliest, scariest spider he’d ever seen this side of a horror film.

“They don’t like the lights,” he yelled to the others, in case any one of them hadn’t noticed that yet. “Shine your light in their eyes and they run away.”

“I’d rather us keep running away. Let’s go people.”

When Rodney put weight on his right leg, he knew immediately he was in trouble. He almost went down again but managed to catch his balance on his other leg just in time. He grunted and hobbled forward, at a much slower pace than the others. Ronon gripped his upper arm and tried to pull him along but Rodney only stumbled again and gasped out in pain.

“What’s wrong?” Ronon demanded.

“It’s my knee. I think I twisted it when I fell. I’m not going to be able to keep up. Oh my god, you’re going to have to leave me behind.”

He couldn’t see Ronon’s face, couldn’t make out his expression, but he had no trouble hearing his snort. “Here,” Ronon said, “Climb up on my back.” He fired off two shots before he turned his back to Rodney and squatted low enough for Rodney to get his arms around Ronon’s neck and his legs around Ronon’s hips.

Rodney hadn’t ridden anyone’s back like this since he was a child, and it was a hell of a lot harder to hold on than he remembered. But Ronon managed to carry him forward, even if strictly speaking Rodney was a few pounds heavier than he should have been, and Rodney tried not to choke Ronon but held on with every ounce of panic he had left in him.

By then, Sheppard and Teyla were firing their weapons with alarming regularity. They must have realized what was going on with him and Ronon, because Teyla had slipped back behind them and Sheppard stayed at point, making it so that Ronon only had to fire his weapon occasionally when something swung out of the trees directly over them, or in front of them, or once, making right for Rodney’s head. He ducked that time, but very nearly toppled him and Ronon both with his gut reaction and quick jerk. Ronon growled, and Rodney stammered, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, won’t happen again.”

Finally, the jumper loomed out of the shadows. The hatch lowered, the lights flared to life, and an uncountable number of spider creatures scurried away as fast as their legs could carry them.

They staggered into the back of the ship and the hatch raised as quickly as Teyla entered.

“Oh my god,” Rodney said one final time and slipped right off Ronon’s back to land in a heap on the floor. “I can’t believe what just happened.”

“Pray like hell that we don’t bring any of them back with us to Atlantis,” Sheppard said.

Rodney dropped his head back against the edge of the bench seat behind him. “I’m going to have nightmares for years because of this.”

Ronon holstered his gun. “You’re not the only one. I hate spiders.”

It was such an incongruous comment to come from Ronon that for a minute Rodney wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. Then Sheppard dropped down into the pilot’s seat and laughed, and Rodney thought maybe Ronon might not be so scary after all.

Teyla gave them each a look, chest rising and falling in a very interesting way with each fatigued breath she took and simply said, “I am not afraid of spiders.”

*

Further analysis showed P2E-459 aka “the spider planet” as an unacceptable risk, so Rodney had to let go of the idea that he would ever discover what kind of energy source hid in the bowels of the subterranean complex. He gave up without much of a fight and concentrated on digging through the database in search of his next big find while keeping up his work in the labs. Labs took precedence, of course, but he was grounded until his knee healed up, per Carson’s orders, anyway, so he had a little more free time than usual.

He looked at the clock on his computer screen and then tapped his radio. “Colonel Sheppard.”

“Yes, McKay?”

“Are you near the mess?”

A moment of silence followed, then, “Maybe.”

“Oh, good. I’m starving. Grab me a sandwich, would you? I’m not in the mood to hobble down there on my crutches and fall flat on my face for everyone’s entertainment today.” Not that anyone had laughed yesterday, but oh, they’d wanted to. Bastards. Only his glare had stopped them—and the fact that Sheppard and Ronon weren’t there to lead the pack. Sheppard’s sense of humor left a lot to be desired as far as Rodney was concerned, and Ronon’s wasn’t any better.

“Yeah, I heard about that nasty spill yesterday.” Sheppard’s casual tone didn’t fool Rodney.

“It wasn’t funny. It could have set my recovery back by weeks!”

“Elizabeth caught you.” Sheppard might possibly be laughing at him. “Or should I say, cushioned your fall?”

“Oh, hell, no, you don’t. I did not land on her. Zelenka saw the whole thing. He’ll attest to the facts of the matter, just ask him.”

“He’s the one telling everybody you ended up with your face buried in Elizabeth’s boobs.” Sheppard was definitely laughing at him now.

Rodney scowled. “Just bring me a damn sandwich,” he muttered. “Oh, and a pudding, and—and a fruit cup.”

“Yeah. All right. But I’m not your damn gopher, McKay, so quit calling me to run errands for you! This is the last—”

Rodney tapped his radio off.

Ah, that felt good.

*

“I had a very strange dream last night,” Radek said to Rodney over the top of his monitor.

“What the hell does that have to do with the Ancient database?” Rodney asked. “We’re looking for ZPM planets, not talking about dreams.”

Rodney had no intention of talking dreams today, since his had been anything but ordinary after the spider planet. Since then, he’d felt like he was getting closer to revealing whatever it was that he couldn’t remember. He would fall asleep, see Sheppard’s mouth curve and wake up shaky and disturbed. Nothing more ever came of it though and it was getting annoying.

“Nothing, Rodney. I am talking about a dream about you.”

That brought Rodney’s head up. “About me? What, did I suffocate in Elizabeth’s breasts or something?”

“That is not my dream,” Radek said, wide-eyed.

Rodney jabbed at a key. “Elizabeth’s not my type.”

He wasn’t sure what his type was these days. He would have sworn it was Sam and women of her ilk, smart, sexy, annoying, but—no, he wasn’t thinking about that. He’d ignored it for nearly a year and a half now and he was going to keep ignoring it as long as it took to go away.

Far far away.

“Colonel Sheppard dragged you away from the lab, and—”

“That sounds like what happened last week. I had a lot of work to do and he dragged me away to talk about the puddle jumpers.”

“No no no. That is not what I mean. Colonel Sheppard dragged you away on the floor. By your shirt.”

“Okay. Weird, but no whales, right? I dream about whales a lot.”

“No, Rodney.” Radek’s expression took on a stubborn cast. “I say this and you cannot repeat it ever, do you understand?”

Rodney nodded, but from the look on Radek’s face, he wasn’t sure he should have.

“You tried to kiss me. Many times—”

Rodney choked on a too-hastily indrawn breath. He waved his hands frantically at Radek as he coughed.

“But Colonel Sheppard came and took you away. Then I woke up.”

Rodney gasped out, “Oh my god. Why? Why did you tell me this? I don’t want to hear about any sex dreams you’ve had about me!”

“My point is—”

“Thank god you have a point,” Rodney said, still wheezing. “I hope it’s really good.”

Radek continued as if Rodney hadn’t rudely interrupted. “My dream was vague but—how can I say this to make sense? It felt much like a memory and not a dream. I have never had an experience like it before.”

“That’s...disturbing.”

“Yes, exactly,” Radek said, flashing Rodney a smile, as if Rodney finally got it. Which he didn’t.

“Are you secretly in love with me?”

Radek threw his hands up into the air and huffed. “You are—” followed by a barrage of words in Radek’s native tongue of which Rodney understood only one. Imbecile. Because he’d looked it up, sometime last year after Radek had started using it against him regularly.

Rodney twisted in his chair to follow Radek’s stomping exit, but it was marred when Radek nearly bumped into Sheppard, carrying a tray from the mess hall.

“Whoa there.” Sheppard pulled back the blue plastic tray just fast enough to keep Radek from knocking it out of his hands.

“So sorry, Colonel.” He gave Rodney one last glare over his shoulder before he stepped out of Rodney’s line of sight.

“Here you go, McKay.” Sheppard plunked something that was definitely not a sandwich down in front of Rodney, right onto his laptop’s keyboard.

“That’s not—”

“You want me to take it back?”

“Of course not. Leave it.” A pale yellow mash of some kind and a thick stew took up most of the space on the tray, along with a prepackaged blue jello and saltine crackers. Rodney’s stomach grumbled, loudly. Sheppard laughed, while he pulled out a chair from farther along the lab table and dragged it under him. When he sat back, he propped his feet up on the bar beneath Rodney’s own chair.

“What were you and Radek arguing about this time?”

“He had a sex dream about me. That’s what he said anyway.”

“He told you that?”

“Yes. Yes, he did. Oh, don’t worry, you were in it too.”

Sheppard’s eyebrows rose. “Not sure I needed to know that.”

“That’s what I said,” Rodney said just before he raised a spoonful of stew and sniffed. “Smells okay.” He ate it.

“You still looking for planets for us to visit?”

“Yeah, but not just anything will do.”

“No, you want to find the mother lode of ZPMs or Ancient tech so you can lord it over everybody.”

“That’s not true! But we need planets that are worth the resources we expend exploring them. This ‘go to a planet, get run off by indigenous life forms’ isn’t working for me. I keep getting injured. At this rate, I’ll be dead before I make any great discoveries.”

“What about Atlantis? You’ve made plenty of great discoveries here.”

“You’re only as good as your last paper,” Rodney said, mouth full again.

Sheppard rolled his eyes and changed the subject by asking, with a sly grin, “So tell me about Zelenka’s dream.”

Rodney sighed. “Really? This is what you want to talk about while I eat?” He took another bite, this time trying out the yellow mash. Hm. Not half-bad. “He was trying to tell me something about how the dream was some kind of repressed memory—although he didn’t say that in so many words—but I think I’d remember if I started making passes at Zelenka. Not going to happen. He’s obviously suffering from hero worship, probably because I’ve single-handedly saved our collective asses more than a few times since we got here.”

“Single-handedly?” Sheppard’s voice sounded strained, disbelieving.

“I’ll have you know—okay, almost single-handedly a few times. I can give credit where credit’s due.”

“So you made a pass at Zelenka in his dreams. Creepy. Where do I fit in?”

“You grabbed my shirt and dragged me away, or that’s what he said anyway.”

Sheppard tilted his head. “Huh.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” Sheppard pushed his chair back with his foot, and since his foot was on the bar beneath Rodney’s chair, also sent Rodney’s chair rolling.

“Hey, watch it.” Rodney grabbed the edge of his lab table and pulled himself back into place before the jello wobbling on the end of his spoon could plop to the floor. “Where are you going?”

Sheppard slapped the back of Rodney’s chair. “I’ve got to get back to work, but call me if you find anything worth checking out. I want to see the database entries myself this time.” Which was said with a distinct emphasis Rodney was certain was meant to impress upon him not to make the same mistake twice. Sheppard was still aggravated about the giant spiders. The database had, in fact, mentioned the pervasive nature of the local arachnids in a linked footnote Rodney had skimmed right past in his excitement over finding references to a renewable energy source.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Rodney said loudly, not for the first time since their return from P2E-459. “So quit blaming me. Botany and biology were supposed to review that stuff before we actually went on the mission. They’re the ones who didn’t catch it.”

“Yeah but you’re smarter than they are,” Sheppard said on his way out the door. “They missed it, you shouldn’t have.”

*

3

Politics sucked. John hated dealing with bureaucrats and politicians with equal fervor, and today, he’d spent entirely too much time dealing with both.

Coming on top of his recent experiences with Earth politics and bureaucracy after the return of the Ancients to Atlantis and their subsequent demise at the hands of the Asurans, aka replicators, the Nadean political unrest, exacerbated by Atlantis’s first visit less than a week ago, was almost too much for John to deal with. If he had to listen to another sneering councilman blame him and his team for yesterday’s attempted coup, he might have to punch somebody.

Currently, Norval was the councilman of choice, with his close cropped brown hair and thin eyes, gaudy jacket and filigree rings on every finger.

John and his team stood a few feet in front of the Stargate, dead center in the city square, surrounded by stone and brick buildings, some as high as four stories. Sunlight fought the gloomy shadows between the closely spaced structures and had little chance of winning. John hadn’t expected such a large contingent of guards after reading the reports from the team that had made first contact with the Nadeans. The Nadeans had been labeled “eager” and “cooperative” and “excited about the possibilities of trade.”

John had been a little leery when Elizabeth had told him that the timing of the last culling on Nadea coincided with the first wave of Wraith after the arrival of the Atlantis expedition in Pegasus, but the Nadeans hadn’t seemed aware that Atlantis’s newest inhabitants had been the people who had awakened the Wraith decades, possibly centuries, early.

“We didn’t come here to take sides in your civil war,” John said. “We only wanted to talk trade, and possibly offer our help in exchange for information or an alliance. You were all for this three days ago.”

“That was before your people incited an insurrection.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” John said.

Norval stepped forward and raised his hand, palm out, first two fingers pointed up. “Your people came through the ring three days ago and began discussing trade with us, as if you intended to share your superior knowledge and technology with us. Two days ago, a faction of our people intent on rebellion and insurrection conveniently discovered several well-hidden tunnels beneath our city’s council chambers and took several of our most prestigious leaders and dignitaries hostage. Yesterday, these same people killed all those within the chambers when our Governors refused to meet their demands. They tried to escape retribution by using the Ancestors’ technology to disappear into the catacombs—”

“Wait, are you saying there are—”

John yanked Rodney’s arm, hard, and cut him off. He nearly growled the words, “Not now, McKay.”

“But there might be Ancient—” Rodney started, but shut up quickly when John glared at him.

The councilman’s eyes flickered between John and Rodney, his disgust clear in the turn of his mouth, and continued, “Your people either showed them how to use this technology or provided them with the means to use it, and you will be punished for your part in this matter.”

“Now wait a minute,” John said.

“Take them into custody.”

“Don’t you—”

“Let go—”

Guns raised chest level, and John said firmly, “Ronon, no.”

Although Ronon had his weapon aimed and ready and the guns being pointed at them were single shot rifles, Rodney and Teyla were both within point blank range of two guards who had steady hands and cold eyes. John recognized trained killers when he saw them.

“Look,” he said, “There’s been a misunderstanding here.”

“There has been no misunderstanding,” Norval said.

From behind, rough hands gripped John’s arms above the elbows. He allowed his weapon to be taken by a third guard while he watched Ronon hand over his gun to another with a scowl. Rodney had that wide-eyed look he got when things didn’t go the way he expected and Teyla merely stared at their captors, grave and intent.

“Kidnapping us and holding us hostage isn’t going to get you a better deal with our people,” Rodney said. “If you think they’re going to let you get away with this and still trade with you, you don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

“Stop trying to help,” John said while giving Rodney a pointed look.

“We came here in peace,” Teyla said, with a raise of her brow and a tilt of her head. “And yet you treat as us criminals, assuming the worst with no evidence.”

“The evidence speaks for itself,” Norval said. He jerked his head toward the street behind him. “Take them to a holding cell in the city prison. Remove the remainder of their weapons and see that they are brought to the courtyard at dawn tomorrow. They have been sentenced to death.”

“What?” Rodney’s voice went so high it cracked on the end of the word. “Oh, this is just stupid. There’s no way we had anything to do with your pathetic insurgency.” Then one of the guards took hold of the back of Rodney’s neck and squeezed and he pushed Rodney forward. Rodney grunted and stumbled. John scowled, but when Rodney looked his way, he nodded, and Rodney gave up resisting and walked in the direction he was being steered.

Teyla’s captor guided her more gently, while Ronon was prodded forward at the point of a gun. John was the last to be manhandled out of the city square and pushed along the narrow path between two of the shorter buildings until they came to a guarded door.

The hand holding tight to his arm kept up a bruising grip as John was pulled through the door behind Ronon. Inside, no one spoke to them as they were brought to a single small cell and searched at gunpoint. The guards went about it quickly but thoroughly and when they were through, John didn’t even have his watch or sunglasses left on him.

The guards shoved John into the barred room with a heavy hand, and he almost tripped at the threshold. The cell door clanged loudly behind him. When he turned, it was to see the guards who had hauled them in leaving the building. Only two guards remained behind, each wearing an ill-fitting uniform of red and black.

“We need to speak to our people,” John said, reaching out to grab the bars. He jerked back when a sharp electrical charge zinged through his fingers and palms and up into his forearms. “Hey, that’s not fair!” he yelled. “Somebody should have warned us not to touch the bars!”

The guard on the left of the door to the outside turned his head in John’s direction. “Do not touch the bars,” he said. “It will only hurt you.”

“Now you tell me,” John muttered.

*

Guards brought in a meal sometime after sunset. Rodney sniffed at the food, as if he was afraid it had been poisoned. John doubted that was the case, even though they had apparently been sentenced to death. He had a moment where he wondered if the Nadeans might be speaking metaphorically about that death sentence but stopped himself from going any further down that road by looking around at their jail cell. This was not a room that precipitated anything related to metaphor.

“You got a plan yet?” Ronon asked from the floor where he leaned against the back wall of the cell, his left knee pulled up and his right leg stretched out long and straight in front of him. He picked at a string that was sticking out from his pants at his knee.

“I’m working on it,” John said. The reality was, he had no idea how to get them out of here without C-4 and a weapon. Any plan he made would have to take advantage of the fact that the guards had been told to deliver them to the courtyard, wherever that happened to be, tomorrow morning at dawn.

“We’re so screwed,” Rodney said as if he knew exactly what John was thinking.

“We’ll get out of here,” Ronon said, “even if I have to kill the guards with my bare hands.” He looked up and sneered at the guards, who stared straight ahead and wouldn’t meet his eyes.

Teyla rubbed her upper arms. Even John had noticed the chill in the cell but he wore considerably more clothes than Teyla, who had dressed for this mission in her customary Athosian garments instead of in a tac vest and BDUs. “I am concerned. I do not know these people well, but I sense great unrest. We could be in grave danger.”

“The death sentence didn’t clue you in?” Rodney demanded from his spot on the edge of the cot furthest from the barred door. But then his brows drew together and he clenched his fingers around his thighs. “Forget I said that. Sorry.”

John stopped pacing long enough to say, “Funny how when you say crap like that to me, I don’t ever get an apology.”

“Oh, for god’s sake—”

“Me neither,” Ronon said.

Rodney’s head came up from contemplating the plate of food he still hadn’t eaten. “Fine, I’m sorry if I’ve ever said anything that hurt your feelings. Are you happy now?”

“I didn’t say it hurt my feelings.”

“Me neither.”

“You might as well have, because that’s what it means.”

John stared at the cell door and its lock before turning back to Rodney. “What what means?”

“Oh, please. Now you’re just messing with me,” Rodney said. He gave one last longing look at the food and set it in the floor. John could tell he was remembering another time when they’d been locked up and force-fed a drug laced meal. If the Marines hadn’t arrived when they did to save their asses, Rodney would have spilled all their secrets without a moment’s hesitation. Drugs tended to have that affect on him.

John moved over to sit beside Rodney on the cot. It was big enough for two people, if they didn’t mind being squeezed together like sardines in a tin can, but since there were only two cots, it was either going to be that or sleeping on the cold, stone floor.

“I’ll take this one with Rodney,” John told Ronon. “You get lucky. You get the soft one.”

Ronon grinned. He knew John wasn’t talking about the bed.

“Why does he get to sleep with Teyla?” Rodney demanded. Then, “I mean, sleep, not sleep, but—seriously, you know exactly what I mean. She’s smaller—and—and, she is softer, and it’s not fair. I never get to sleep with Teyla.”

“I do not mind sharing with either of you, but John is right to suggest Ronon and I take this cot. Ronon is much larger than you and he will need more space.”

“But—but—” Rodney’s mouth worked but nothing else came out. His eyes, on the other hand, spoke volumes. John tried not to take it personally.

“Still got a problem with it?” John asked instead. He might have mentioned that Rodney was soft enough for both of them, but he was pretty sure Rodney would take it the wrong way. Hell, he wasn’t even sure how he meant it in his head. Things had been messed up in there for a while now, ever since, hell, ever since Zelenka had described part of John’s own oddly recurring dream in his telling of his dream to Rodney. That had been—wow—nearly a year ago.

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. “You snore, okay? It interferes with my sleep and god knows I need my sleep to keep my brain working in top form. We’re going to have to find a way to get out of here tomorrow before they do any more death sentencing and I might need to be sharp.”

“Well—you drool. You don’t hear me complaining.” John couldn’t believe how plaintive he sounded to his own ears. God, Rodney brought out the worst in him sometimes.

“I’d squash you,” Ronon said.

“Oh, yes, and yet Teyla is perfectly safe. I see how it is.”

Ronon grinned, all teeth and laughter.

Rodney rolled his eyes and turned and flopped back on the thin mattress. “Let’s just hope we don’t wake up with bedbugs or lice tomorrow, that’s all I need to make this disaster complete.”

No one had mentioned the seriousness of their situation yet. No one had asked the big question. Would it be firing squad, hanging, electrocution, death by drowning... all were possibilities in the countless cultures that made up the Pegasus galaxy and each had its own horror.

John was really going to have to come up with a plan.

*

The evening dragged out, until the only light that remained in the cell was from the glow of a couple of dingy wall fixtures and a splash of moonlight from a thin, long window near the ceiling.

Rodney had badgered the guards for hours demanding he be allowed to speak with his people, as had Sheppard. Teyla had appealed to their sense of fairness and compassion. Neither strategy had worked, the guards standing stoic and silent until sundown had brought a shift change and a generous evening meal Rodney had again been afraid to eat. No one else had touched theirs either. The guards hadn’t seemed to care when they had removed the untouched food a while later.

Sheppard and Ronon had spent a lot of time surreptitiously studying their cell, testing the strength of the stone walls and floor. The window was unreachable. The bars zapped anyone who touched them, except when the guards pulled a stout lever sticking out of the wall on the other side of the room and shut down power to the cell. That had happened only when they had been shoved inside and later when the food was slipped through a slot next to the floor.

“I’m getting some rest,” Sheppard said.

After hours of nothing but sitting, pacing, and yelling, Rodney had to admit that was the best idea he’d heard since they’d been jailed.

“I’ll keep watch,” Ronon said.

“That’s a waste of time. Nobody’s coming for us until dawn. Didn’t you hear that Norval guy?”

“Something might change,” Sheppard said, scooting down from where he’d been sitting propped against the wall, legs stretched across the bed. He eased back and sighed loud enough for Rodney to hear it. “Move over.”

Sheppard pushed at Rodney’s hip with his booted foot.

Rodney realized he was going to have to move too, because the narrow cot wouldn’t accommodate both of them unless they lay side by side. He shifted around until he was on his right side, looking at Sheppard’s profile. Neither of them had room to move around and the side of Sheppard’s thigh pressed against Rodney’s and Rodney might as well have rested his head on Sheppard’s shoulder, they were so close. This wasn’t going to work. Rodney grunted, shifted, and tried to turn to his other side to face the wall.

“Ow! Watch your elbow, McKay.”

“Sorry! I’m just trying—”

“Aw crap, that was my knee,” Sheppard groaned out.

Rodney jerked away from Sheppard. “Hey! Stop poking me in the ass!” The silence after that remark brought a flash of heat to Rodney’s face.

“It was the buckle on my belt!” Sheppard finally said, fierce but quiet.

“Uh, huh,” Ronon said from across the room.

“Shut the hell up,” Sheppard said.

“Make me,” Ronon said, but it was hard to take him seriously with the laughter.

Sheppard jostled around until his back was to Rodney. “I just got comfortable, or I would. Trust me.”

“Yeah. Anytime, Sheppard.”

Teyla’s quiet laugh followed.

Rodney closed his eyes and tried not to think about his nose scraping against the rough stone wall—or the man at his back.

The quiet was broken only by the sounds of shuffling feet, rustling fabric—the guards obviously not as still and silent as they appeared, and breathing. Sleep settled in around him and Rodney drifted into an oft-visited dreamscape that had him sliding along a floor, doors whooshing open and closed, pressure holding him up against a wall, giddy relief and heat spreading through his body, and—

He woke to darkness and the sound of his own gasp.

Heavy warmth pushed against his back while chilled air swirled around his face and arms. The cell was cooler than it had been, edging on uncomfortable, and the lights had been turned out. Now only the moonlight filtered in and was hardly enough to see by.

Sheppard grumbled something Rodney couldn’t hear, but Rodney ignored him, closed his eyes and slept miserably until dawn.

Someone banged on the door of the jail. Rodney flailed away from the wall; Sheppard’s weight at his back disappeared.

“What? What is it?” he croaked out.

“Prepare them,” he heard someone outside the cell say. “The people have gathered.”

Rodney rolled over. When he sat up on the edge of the bed, he saw Sheppard stretching out his back. Ronon and Teyla shifted around on their shared cot, each looking mussed but rested.

Rodney rubbed his hands over his face and gave Sheppard a bleary-eyed look of disgust. When he pushed himself to his feet, he groaned. He thought of hot showers and therapeutic mattresses, but it didn’t help the ache in his lower back or the stabbing crick in his neck.

“This day is going to suck,” he said.

He walked over to stand beside Sheppard and watch the door.

“I guess it’s time to get this show on the road,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard had a plan. Of course he did. Rodney breathed deeply and thought of wide open spaces and hot coffee and as many ZPMs as he could ever want. Of course Sheppard had a plan.

“I don’t have a plan,” Sheppard said, and the wide open spaces dissolved right in front of Rodney’s eyes to be replaced with cold iron bars and the guards filing into the room outside their cell. “We’re going to have to take our chances and fight our way out of this. As soon as we get out in the open and figure out what they’re planning to do with us, we’ll have to make our move, and if they try to separate us, we’ll have to do something sooner.”

“Their guns only hold one shot at a time,” Ronon said just loud enough for Rodney, Teyla, and Sheppard to hear. “You load ‘em through the muzzle.”

“What? Black powder rifles?” Rodney asked. “That’s all they’ve got?” He waved his right hand at Ronon’s chest. “I mean, they’ll still kill us, but it seems so—so—pathetic that we have the fancy weapons but we’re the ones about to die here.”

Ronon tapped his hand against his thigh, a staccato beat of flesh on leather. “Yeah, something like that.”

Sheppard stepped forward, putting himself just to the front of the rest of the team. “Not the guns I’m worried about,” Sheppard said out of the corner of his mouth. “They all have knives, and I’d bet they’re good with them.”

“I’m better.”

“Well I’m not,” Rodney muttered. “I’m so screwed.”

No one bothered to reply.

Two guards stepped toward their cell.

“Stand back,” the shortest guard said. Three others aimed long barreled rifles in the direction of the cell. Rodney raised his hands to shoulder height and kept them there. Teyla, Ronon, and Sheppard did not.

The guard opened the cell door. “Come. It’s time to go.”

“Where are we going?” Sheppard asked, leading the way out into the jail, Rodney following, with Teyla and Ronon behind him.

“To your execution,” the guard replied, sounding strangely apologetic even though his impassive features belied any concern.

“Oh no. I’m not ready for this,” Rodney said. He whispered forward to Sheppard, “You have a plan now, right? Please tell me you have a plan.” He hoped no one else heard, but panic could be setting in, and his voice always seemed to get louder when he started to panic. He knew this about himself, but in the moment, it was never easy to control.

“We’d rather talk to your leaders,” Sheppard said. “Not really in the mood to die today.”

The guard standing to Sheppard’s left spared him a look. Something about the man’s eyes, his furtive glances back at the rest of them, over to his own left, caught Rodney’s attention. Rodney looked around, but saw nothing except stiff-necked guards and a tight stone path that cut between two buildings.

Norval stood at the mouth of the alleyway, along with several other men and women, all dressed in the same style of ostentatious jacket as that which Norval had worn yesterday, every shift and shuffle of shoulders and arms flashing silver and gold in the spill of cold morning light.

The guard standing directly beside Sheppard poked him in the hip with the end of his rifle and motioned toward Norval. Sheppard scowled and stepped forward. The man beside Norval watched, his intent gaze giving Rodney the feeling he was more important than he appeared.

“Follow us,” Norval said.

The guards completely surrounded them. Rodney wondered if there was even the vaguest possibility of Sheppard’s not-a-plan plan working. Two guards held guns pointed at Sheppard and Ronon, the barrels pressing right into the spaces between Sheppard’s and Ronon’s shoulder blades. Even the old-style weapons would be highly effective killers at that range. But four other guards, two to the left of Rodney and John and two to the right of Ronon and Teyla, flanked them, and the final guard stayed back, gun pointed in their direction but at no one in particular, for a total of seven. The flanking guards did not carry guns, however, and Sheppard’s earlier warning about knives flashed in Rodney’s memory.

John turned his head to look at Rodney, lifting his brows. If that was supposed to be a sign or something, Rodney wasn’t getting it. What the hell was he supposed to do?

They moved out of the alley and into the glare of sharp morning light.

The mob of Nadean citizenry fell away, opening a swath for the guards herding Rodney, John, Teyla, and Ronon through the crowd. They came out into a central courtyard, and any thought other than “oh my god” stuttered away with the beat of Rodney’s heart.

A guillotine, horrifyingly similar to something one might find on Earth, loomed dead center of the city square. Raw wood and shiny, deadly blade stole every thought from his head and his gulp was an audible thing.

He heard Sheppard’s hiss of breath from beside him and Ronon’s near growl.

He heard Teyla say, “You and your people will regret this.”

He saw no one’s reaction, because he couldn’t take his eyes off the wicked blade, sharp on an angle but less so than the Earth version. He blinked. The blade would have a harder time getting all the way through a person’s neck without that sharp angle to cut through the muscles and tendons before hitting bone... Oh, hell, no. He refused to think—

And then Norval spoke. “We are here to make right your transgressions against the ruling council and Governors of Nadea. You, people from Atlantis, have interfered with the proper and just ruling of Nadea. You have aided insurrectionists in their efforts to destroy the Nadean government. You have aided those who would like nothing better than to see the end of our very way of life.”

Norval stepped back into the shadow of the man to his left. Steady brown eyes swept over each of them. In a voice that carried over the growing rumblings of the crowd, the man said, “I sentence each of you to death by guillotine.”

Rodney jerked out of his stupor. “Oh, for god’s sake, you can’t be serious!” Rodney grabbed Sheppard’s forearm. “Are they serious?”

The guards nearest Rodney seized his arms.

“We are entirely serious.” Norval gestured to the men holding Rodney. “We will do this right, as an example for all to see and remember. This one first. Take him.”

“Are you—no. No, no, no. Really. You might need me. I can do all kinds of things. I’m a great scientist. I can do—I can—I can—I’m brilliant—shit, that hurts!” Rodney felt his feet slide out from under him and his entire body weight pulled at the hands holding him up, bruising his upper arms. He hadn’t even been able to turn his head to look back at Sheppard and Ronon and Teyla when someone shoved him between the shoulder blades and his body stumbled forward. Hard wood rushed up to meet his chest and for a moment, his breath was knocked out of him.

He smelled death on the wood boards holding him up, saw the bloodstains and felt the splinters against his right cheek. He couldn’t see behind him, couldn’t see any of his team, couldn’t see John, couldn’t hear them. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to hyperventilate, but it was a lost cause. 

Someone dragged him forward along the foot-wide board and lifted his head by the hair at the back of his neck.

“This is a horrible mistake,” he gasped out. “A horrible, horrible mistake! I’m not ready to die, you can’t do this—oomph...” His throat jammed against wood and he had to cough to breathe. He twisted his neck but all he saw was an unpainted wood board with a half-moon circle cut out of its bottom edge coming toward the back of his head. A sliver of daylight sandwiched between the two boards—not one after all—brought to mind the blade that would slide between them, slicing through his neck, and oh, god, he was going to die today.

Then someone locked him in place and the hands forcing him down quit touching him. Only, he couldn’t move more than a few inches because of the wood boards on each side of his neck. He pulled, he twisted, he just about knocked himself out yanking his head against the wood, and all he could hear was his own frantic breathing, harsh and fast, and himself chanting, “Oh my god, oh my god, I’m so dead, oh my god...”

He could see a hand on a lever, too close to make out anything more, but he heard the whoosh of the blade and—and—and gunfire. Rapid, semi-automatic gunfire and bullets and the reverberating pling of bullets rending through metal and the wood frame shook, vibrating through his neck and head and the blade thunked hard into wood.

He fainted.

*

A guillotine had never figured into his nightmares. It should have. It would from now on. Rodney came to with a gasp and a yelled, “Ow!”

His face stung where he’d been slapped, hard, but Sheppard was standing in front of him, his crotch shoved against Rodney’s face as he struggled with the wood trapping Rodney in place.

Screams and yelling echoed from every direction, and what the hell? He was alive and breathing and his head was still attached to his body and he had no idea, absolutely no idea, how it had happened. But, “Oh, thank god. Thank god. I’m alive. Get me out of here. I need to get out of here—” He bucked wildly against the restraint.

“We’re working on it!” Sheppard leaned forward and the fabric of his pants grazed Rodney’s cheek. “Ronon, pull harder.”

Sheppard grunted; Ronon beat against something over Rodney’s head. The wood pressed down hard into the back of Rodney’s neck for a brief moment, before releasing, fast. Rodney yelped.

Teyla knelt beside him and touched his shoulder. “The blade is warped and torn from the bullets and it is stuck in the wood of the thing holding you down. We are working to free you as quickly as possible.”

Ronon growled a filthy string of words and kicked the base of the guillotine.

“Oh, please, take your time,” Rodney said. “It’s not like this isn’t comfortable. Who wouldn’t want to spend some quality time trapped—” his voice rose sharply, “—in a fucking guillotine! Get me the fuck out of here before I lose my head completely—pun intended!”

“Too late for that,” Ronon said, but his thighs bulged, muscles shifting, and then all the pressure on Rodney’s neck disappeared.

Sheppard’s voice yelled in his ear, “What the hell are you waiting for—an engraved invitation? Get the hell up! We have to go—now!”

Rodney scrambled backward on the thick board, palms and knees thudding against the wood. His head cleared the hole just as Sheppard clenched a hand around his upper arm and yanked him to his feet. They all took off at a dead run, away from the vicious riot in the courtyard.

Rodney had never thought he would love the feel of air burning through his lungs or the fiery pain of oxygen deprived muscles. But in that moment, he did. He loved every second of it.

*

John had no time to come up with an alternative to the good old “run for the gate as fast as humanly possible” plan after freeing Rodney from the guillotine. They had their guns and their radios back, along with their IDCs. He’d left the rest of their things, their packs and the trade samples and everything else, in the interest of getting the hell out alive. Rodney was going to shit himself when he found out how close he’d really been to dying, how close they’d all been, but that was for later.

They skidded around the corner of the fourth building away from their former position and spilled out into another courtyard square, this one the location where the Stargate should have been.

John stopped so fast he nearly tripped over his own feet. “What the hell?” he said.

Rodney bumped into his back. “Oomph— Are we lost? Did you get us lost? Where’s the Stargate? Where’s the DHD?”

Teyla halted more gracefully next to them. “This is the right place.”

“Then where’s the gate?” Ronon asked.

John looked around, baffled. “Hell if I know.”

Rodney scurried around John. “Here! Look,” he said. He pointed at a crease on the ground. Although stone covered much of the square, a lighter, smoother surface made up a large area right in the spot where the Stargate had stood. “It looks like a giant H. These panels probably slide back... “ Rodney gestured with his hands. “It’s retractable. Oh, that’s—They’ve got catacombs beneath the city, tunnels leading to the council chambers, insurrectionists using Ancient tech. There’s something down there. Seriously, this is amazing.”

John smacked his P-90 against his thigh. “Son of a bitch. We can’t get home until we find a way to get to the gate.”

“Maybe I can help.” A woman stepped out of the shadows of the nearest building to their right.

John whipped his weapon up and crouched, ready to fire.

The woman’s simple clothes fit her loosely, and she wore her brown hair twisted up in a knot. She carried no visible weapons and as he watched, she raised her hands palm out in a gesture of surrender. “My name is Meriss. I know a way into the catacombs. All I ask is that you consider reopening trade with our people when we’ve removed the current Governors from power.”

“Why would we want to do that?” John asked. “You people just tried to take our heads off.”

“Because my people helped you. You have your weapons back. You have your strange body ornaments. We returned it all to you in time for you to save your companion.” Here she nodded at Rodney, who stood partway between John and her, but not within his line of fire. “We spent many hours last evening coming up with a plan to stop your slaughter today. Whether you realize it or not, you owe us your lives. And here we are, once again offering you assistance.” She took a step closer.

John straightened but didn’t lower his gun. “That’s far enough.” He heard scudding feet in the alley behind them coming their way.

“We have to go now or the Governors’ men will recapture you. Make a decision.” Her eyes flickered between him, Rodney, Ronon, and Teyla. “Please. We want to help and we ask such a small thing in return. The current government will fall, if not today, then soon. Don’t punish all our people because of the actions of a selfish, tyrannical few.”

Rodney’s attention swiveled between John and Meriss. “Why is this a hard decision?” Rodney asked, chin up, jaw held stubbornly tight. “There’s no Stargate! There’s nowhere else to go.”

“Fine, McKay.” John jerked his weapon down and rocked back on his heels. He caught Meriss’s hopeful gaze. “We’ll see what we can do, but our own leader has the final say.”

“I understand.” She offered them an earnest smile, then, her lips turned in a gentle, soft curve. John finally noticed how attractive she was, and a glance at Rodney showed Rodney had definitely noticed too.

“Then lead on.”

*

“Can you believe that?” Rodney pointed at Ronon’s back. Ronon, who had taken it upon himself with a gruff, “I’ll watch her,” strutted down the tunnel Meriss had led them to through a hidden door in a building on the outer edge of the city.

Getting out of the city had not taken long. Meriss hadn’t hesitated when John had given her the go ahead. She had turned away from them and urged, “Hurry. This way,” and slipped away into the shadows from which she’d appeared. They’d followed and now, twenty minutes later, they were walking down a walled, dimly lit corridor Meriss had said was a direct path into the ancient catacombs beneath the city.

John gave Rodney a look and lifted his brows. “Jealous?”

“No, but—no, I’m not. Don’t look at me like that. Are you telling me you don’t think she’s hot? Because I can tell by the way you were eyeing her assets earlier that you think she’s hot.”

“She’s...attractive,” John said.

“Now you’re just insulting me.”

“What does it matter? I’m not about to step on Ronon’s toes. This is the first time he’s shown an interest in a girl since he joined us.”

“It’s certainly not like she’s going to look at either one of us while he’s giving her that grin.” Rodney pointed again. John understood what he meant when he saw the way Ronon ducked his head and his entire face appeared relaxed and young. Rodney had it right. They wouldn’t stand a chance against Ronon like that.

Not that John had been thinking of that anyway. She was no doubt attractive, but lately...the usual hadn’t appealed to him.

Teyla spoke up for the first time in a while. “She would not suit either of you. She is considerably younger than you or Colonel Sheppard.”

John choked on a laugh but still put up a token defense. “Hey, I wouldn’t say I was old.”

“I’m—That’s—What do you mean?” Rodney’s hands darted between him and John. “I’m younger than him.”

John scoffed at Rodney. “By less than a year.”

“That’s still something.”

“You’re starting to sound kind of pathetic, McKay. You might want to change the subject.”

Teyla laughed lightly, and Rodney stood with his mouth open, stuttering nonsense, while John and Teyla continued on without him. John heard Rodney pick up the pace a moment later and soon he was walking side-by-side with John again and Teyla was back to watching their six.

Light glowed up ahead. They rounded a corner and John found himself on the threshold between old stone walls and smooth tunnels of Ancient design.

“That’s—Wow. These tunnels might be older than Atlantis,” Rodney said. “Look at the way that—Oh.” He rubbed his hand along the slick wall, lit panels inset into the surface. It almost looked like a checkerboard of softly glowing squares interspersed with simple copper-colored tiles. The design felt Ancient, but it wasn’t quite like anything John had seen before.

Meriss glanced over her shoulder at John, Rodney, and Teyla. “We need to go this way.” She pointed ahead to the right, where the tunnel they were about to cross into intersected another at ninety degrees. “Eventually, that one branches off into another, but it does lead to the Great Ring. One could easily become lost in here, but we’ve mapped out almost a third of the catacombs. It’s taken a great many years.”

“Exactly how many?” Rodney asked.

“We first discovered the catacombs several hundred years ago, but after a devastating culling by the Wraith, we lost them again for many years. Then my brother found references to the “city beneath the city” in the ancient writings left by our ancestors. We created a way for some of us to access the tunnels that wouldn’t alert the Governors’ to our presence underground. That was about ten years ago. I was just a girl then but I’ve lived most of the rest of my life here.”

That would make her about, oh, twenty, maybe twenty-three, twenty-four. John raked his hand over his chin, scraping coarse day-old whiskers. Maybe he really was getting old, but he didn’t feel old. He was lonely some days, when he woke to find his bed empty, but marriage hadn’t suited him, and he hadn’t found anyone he could put up with in the way you had to put up with someone you were in a relationship with, with them always in your back pocket, well, except Rodney, but that was something else, and damn, it really was time to change the subject. “So this insurrection everybody keeps talking about—we just had the bad luck to show up when we did?”

“Oh no. Not at all. When your people first came through the Great Ring, the catacombs awoke with a blaze of light and for the first time since we rediscovered them, they’ve been very much alive. Your arrival in Nadea was the sign we had been waiting for.”

“Ah.” Crap.

“Really? I find that hard to believe,” Rodney said, with that twist he sometimes gave words that set John’s teeth on edge. The man sounded insulting and confrontational all in one go, and it was no wonder he had so much trouble getting along with others.

John elbowed him, hoping it would shut him up. Rodney grunted, danced out of John’s reach, and continued, with a sharp gesture of his hand at the wall beside them, “Ancient technology—and that’s what this looks like—usually has to be initialized by someone with the right—” The flat of John’s palm caught Rodney between the shoulders. “Oomph—”

“What he’s saying,” John said and smiled at Meriss, rocking up on the balls of his feet, “is that we don’t know why your tunnels lit up when we got here but that’s not usually how it happens so maybe it was just a coincidence and one of your own guys did something that brought her to life.”

Her brows drew together. She shook her head minutely and her gaze flickered to Ronon, hulking silent and still beside her. “We should keep moving,” she said. She turned and walked on. Ronon trailed her.

Teyla’s voice carried softly forward. “Your words have upset her.”

“I noticed that.”

“I don’t see how she could be right, though,” Rodney said. “Every piece of dormant Ancient tech I’ve come across has had to be initialized by someone with the gene. The—” Rodney stopped talking suddenly, and John jostled Rodney’s shoulder with his own.

“Oh, it’s just, I was thinking, and maybe—you know, she could be right. What if the retractable platform the Stargate is on could tell when someone with the ATA gene has stepped across it, and that in turn remotely activates parts of the city?” Rodney’s face took on that wide-eyed look of discovery and he turned his bright gaze on John. “Wasn’t it Major Lorne’s team that made first contact with these people?”

“Yes, I believe so,” Teyla answered. “And Major Lorne does have the ATA gene.”

“Yeah,” echoed John. “He does.”

“So, so that’s it then.”

“Oh yeah, that’s great,” John said. “We did set off the civil war tearing this place apart now.”

“Oh,” Rodney said.

“I am afraid you might be correct, John.” Despite her quiet reserve, Teyla’s use of his given name told John how much the thought disturbed her.

Ronon stared back at them over his shoulder and gave John his “it’s not our problem” glare. He had a point. They needed to concentrate on contacting Atlantis and getting home.

*

The Great Ring towered over the small crowd gathered around it. When Meriss had mentioned her people, John hadn’t imagined quite so many of them.

“This is my brother, Prentiss.” Meriss bowed her head to a tall, thin man wearing simple trousers and tunic similar to those she wore. “He’s a scholar and he knows the most about the Ancestors’ writings and technology.”

Prentiss had a sharp-eyed gaze that took in each member of John’s team with quick deliberation. Prentiss stood in front of an Ancient console, and John noticed that no one else touched any of the other consoles in the cavernous room now that Prentiss no longer stood behind his.

“I see they’re all present,” Prentiss said. He smiled fleetingly at Meriss and then offered a nod to John. “There was no way to be certain our men would reach you with your weapons in time to stop at least one of your people from being executed. I’m pleased to see they succeeded against such overwhelming odds.”

John clasped his hands together over his weapon and braced his feet apart. “Me too,” John said.

Rodney threw up his hand and added, “I second that.”

The corner of Prentiss’s mouth curved. “I would like us to become allies in the future. The Wraith are a blight that has seemed unstoppable for too many generations to count.”

“Right now, we just want to contact our own people and let them know what’s going on. Has the gate activated any since we got here?”

“You’re referring to the Great Ring? Yes, several times.”

“Then how about we go ahead and dial up my people so we can go home and discuss your situation with our leader?”

“Acceptable.” Prentiss turned to the a young boy standing back and to his right, just out of touching distance, and waved him forward. “Jorval, please show her—Teyla, I believe?”

John acknowledged the question with a nod, even though Prentiss seemed confident of the answer.

Prentiss continued, “To the Great Map so she can input their world’s location.”

Teyla looked between Prentiss and John. John bent his head in acknowledgement of her unspoken question and she rightly took that for his assent. She followed the young boy away from the group, unclipping her radio as she went.

“You must understand. It was a great moment when the tunnels came alive with light and the crystals glowed for us. We’ve been waiting for a sign from the Ancestors for years. After the last culling several years ago, we had almost given up hope. This technology is so far beyond us some of our people believe it to be magic.”

“But not you.” John wondered why Prentiss seemed to be stalling him and the rest of his team. Contacting Atlantis would take only a few minutes, and in all likelihood, Prentiss knew that. Yet he had sent Teyla to make contact and kept the rest of the team here, out of sight of the DHD and far enough away from the gate that they couldn’t easily leave. And yet, they did have their weapons and no one seemed anxious to take them away.

“I’m an expert on this kind of technology,” Rodney said, confident as always. “I should take a look at what you’ve got here and—”

“There will be time for that later, Dr. McKay.” Prentiss didn’t even hesitate over the name this time, his attempt at careful courtesy gone.

“But I probably know more about how this stuff works than the smartest person here—”

“Dr. McKay. Please. Do not interrupt again. For now I would like to tell you why it’s so important that we wrest control of our people away from the Governors.”

In the background, the gate’s chevrons flashed bright, one after another. The forming wormhole whooshed and rushed to fill the empty space at the center of the ring.

Rodney straightened abruptly, as if his very intelligence had been brought into question. “Excuse me, but I’m sure Colonel Sheppard is interested in your history. I could be a lot more useful if I could look at those control panels.”

“McKay—” John’s radio crackled, but he reached down and twisted the volume down. If his host had meant for him to be the one making contact with Atlantis, he would not have chosen Teyla to dial the gate.

Prentiss spared an annoyed look for Rodney before he turned to John and deliberately ignored Rodney’s presence at John’s side. Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and stuck out his chin, stubborn frustration in every line of his body.

“There are caves and many abandoned buildings of the Ancestors to the north of the city that go deep into the mountainside. The Governors and those they deem worthy are allowed to hide there when the Wraith come. Our ordinary citizens, those with little power or wealth, are forced to suffer the cullings unprotected. Most do not even know where the Governors and their families and friends go to hide.”

“That sucks,” Rodney said in a flat, hard tone. “Maybe you should have let them come down here. There must be some kind of shielding, or the Wraith would have already infiltrated the place and destroyed it. But if you knew a fraction of what I do about your Ancestors’ technology, you’d already know that.”

Meriss, who had until then been silent in deference to her brother, gasped. Ronon shuffled on his feet.

Okay, that was enough of that.

“McKay, drop it. These people saved your ass less than an hour ago. Show some gratitude.”

Rodney’s crooked mouth flattened, but his wide blue eyes glimmered with both betrayal and remorse. John ignored the guilt that swept through him. Rodney had asked for it by not knowing when to give it up, and having to call Rodney on it was not John’s fault.

The tight lines that had formed around Prentiss’s mouth eased. “Thank you, Colonel Sheppard, for your understanding.”

John caught sight of Teyla returning. She reached them before Rodney could work himself up to another snide comment.

“Dr. Weir suggests we return to Atlantis to discuss the possibility of future trade with the Nadeans. The political unrest must settle before she can make a decision.” Teyla turned a conciliatory smile to Prentiss. “She regrets to inform you that we cannot take sides in your conflict until we know considerably more than we do now. We will need time.”

Prentiss placed his hand on John’s shoulder. “I’m afraid those terms are not acceptable. Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay will have to stay behind while you and your people discuss our proposal with your leader.”

Three, eight, then fourteen hands thrust toward them, a knife clutched in each one. Deceptively small and delicate, wickedly thin and sharp, John recognized knives meant to slip between bone, slice through to the organs beneath and kill quickly.

Ronon shrugged off Meriss’s hand on his forearm, just as she also brought her other hand around, pulling a sleek-bladed knife with a bone handle from beneath her tunic sleeve.

John only had time to raise his P-90 and realize they were seriously outnumbered.

He pressed his lips together and sighed. Damn it. He’d seen this coming. There was always a catch.

*

The face-off had not lasted long. John and Rodney had been asked to surrender their weapons; Teyla and Ronon had been allowed to leave through the gate.

“Come with me,” Prentiss had said. “We will finish this conversation elsewhere.”

Elsewhere turned out to be a room several floors below the gate room into the bowels of the Ancient city, which appeared as deep as Atlantis’s central spire was tall. The breathtaking view took in several open levels down, with balconies and glimmering, shining walls and glowing stained glass as far as the eye could see. The light deceived the eye, and John had a hard time believing they were entirely underground.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Prentiss walked beside John, Rodney to the rear, under guard. “We’ve had only days to get used to the beauty and wonder of it all, but it’s more than we could have ever hoped for. Exploration will be much easier now, and we have you to thank for that.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’m sorry, Colonel Sheppard, but the needs of our people prohibit us from letting you walk away with only the vaguest assurance that you will consider our request for future trade and alliance. You might do the same if you were in our situation.”

“I can’t say what we would do,” John said. “But I don’t think we’d kidnap anyone.”

“Be that as it may, we’re only doing what we must. Your arrival allowed us to work the dais on which the Great Ring sits, so the Governors will not escape retribution this time.” Prentiss’s voice turned grave and John understood Prentiss meant every word with a deep conviction. “Once their power has been stripped, the Governors and their followers will have no way to flee the wrath of the people.”

Then, they stepped around a corner, and Prentiss waved them into a narrow room, which opened up in the back, in much the same way as many of the private residences in Atlantis.

The furniture consisted of a single bed frame covered in mattress and white blanket, short armless couch, again, white, and octagonal bedside table, also white.

All in all a bland little functional room in a city of remarkable beauty.

“I’m sorry, but we can’t spare the guards to split you into separate quarters. I’m certain you’ll be able to make do. I’ll dine with you shortly.”

Rodney shouldered his way forward, nearly elbowing Prentiss in the process, possibly by mistake. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Rodney was looking around with a look of horror on his face all out of proportion to their circumstances. They were no longer under threat of execution; Teyla and Ronon were back in Atlantis and in all probability talking with Weir at that very moment about their situation; and honestly, John didn’t think Weir would have a problem with the demands these people were making unless they changed their tune now that they had hostages. Although Prentiss made John antsy, John didn’t get the feeling the man was unstable or unreasonable.

Rodney plopped down onto the pristine couch. “You won’t get any weapons from Weir, if that’s what you’re after. She doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. Ask Sheppard. Or the Genii. No way, no how.”

“We know of the Genii. Their crude tactics and little respect for human life and honor made them undesirable allies.”

“Thank God for that. Don’t happen to have any Wraith stashed away here somewhere, do you?”

My god, Rodney was serious. John might strangle him yet.

“Absolutely not!” The outrage burning on Prentiss’s face was the most emotion John had seen from him yet. “We would not suffer to let a Wraith live within these walls.” So he hated the Wraith more than he hated the Governors, but John could tell it was a close race.

“Yes, yes, yes, excellent. Really.” Rodney waved his hands in a vague way, shorthand for whatever. “When’s that food going to be here? I’m starving. It’s hours past my breakfast time.”

“I will return in about an hour,” Prentiss said. He directed a curt nod at John and left.

John and Rodney had been alone only seconds when Rodney looked up at John and cleared his throat. “Um, well.”

John raised his eyebrows. McKay sat in silence, gazing around the room with glassy eyes. Now that things had finally calmed down, the major dangers of the day in the past, McKay could be due for a harsh bout of anxiety. He had almost died today. No one came out of that kind of situation unscathed.

Scraping his hand across the back of his neck, trying to work out the tension, John paced the length of the room, the walls too close for comfort. He didn’t like being at the mercy of a group of people determined to wipe out their government at all cost. He and Rodney were only valuable until Elizabeth made her decision. He didn’t necessarily think things would go sour but he’d known plenty of situations that had turned in the blink of an eye.

Rodney’s eyes locked on the bed, and he leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Are you going to sleep on the couch?” Rodney asked. “Because I really think I should have the bed tonight. My back is killing me. And my neck—I’ve had a crick in my neck all day. That cot last night wasn’t exactly a therapeutic mattress. Besides, I’m the one who nearly lost his head this morning. I deserve the bed.”

John let out a low groan. Had he thought earlier that he could put up with Rodney? “Fine, take the bed.”

“I wonder if the showers are working in here?” Rodney raised his arm and sniffed at the wet circle under his armpit, almost immediately jerking his head away. “Oh, that’s terrible.”

“We all probably stink about now. We came here yesterday thinking we were only going to be here for a few hours and ended up in jail waiting to be executed. Almost getting your head chopped off would make anybody sweat.”

Rodney put his hands down beside him on the seat like he was getting ready to push himself up.

“Oh no you don’t,” John said. “You got the bed. I get the shower first.”

“Oh, that’s not fair!” Rodney plopped back against the back of the couch and threw his hands up. “I knew today was going to suck when I got up off that cot this morning.”

“If all you have left to complain about is that you don’t get the shower first, I think you can count this day as a winner, McKay. Suck it up.”

Twelve or so minutes later, John was letting hot, steamy, pounding water beat over his head, neck, and shoulders, rinsing away the sweat and grime of the day. He finished a few minutes later, and stepped out to shake off the water. No towels, no soap, no razor, but hell, clean enough to feel like a new man.

He wrangled his still mostly wet body into yesterday’s underwear before he grabbed up his pants and t-shirt, socks and watch. When he stepped into the main room again, Rodney was already waiting at the door. “Crap, McKay, don’t do that! I almost decked you.”

“What?” Rodney gave him a look as he pushed past John into the bathroom, but he didn’t wait for an answer before shutting the door with a swipe of his hand.

John fell back on the couch sideways and stretched his left arm over his head, intending only to let himself dry off a little more before pulling the rest of his clothes back on. Prentiss had said he would be returning to dine with them.

He rested his eyes while he waited on Rodney to finish his shower.

When John heard the door to the bathroom open, he brought his watch to his face and looked at the time. Forty-six minutes since their host had left.

He was rolling off the couch when he saw Rodney crossing from the bathroom to the bed, his skin slick with water that had nowhere to go without a towel to leach it away. Like John, he carried his clothes in his arms, wearing only his boxers—pale blue, soft, striped with another darker blue, and there was something so familiar about those shorts John could almost taste it. He stared, too long, he knew, but maybe it was only a fraction of a second, because John felt himself reach the edge of the couch, realized what was about to happen and stuck his arm out wildly, but it was too late to stop his descent.

John smacked into the floor, hitting his elbow with a loud thud and a sharp burst of tingling pain all the way into his fingers. “Damn it!”

Rodney hopped backward and then gave a startled yelp as his knee twisted out from under him, pitching him forward. He smacked hard to the floor, landing on his stomach, his clothes scattering.

And there it was again, that strange sensation of having seen this before—Rodney laid out, in nothing but his boxers, his thighs slightly spread, his ass covered in nothing but pale blue—

What—the—hell.

John tore his gaze away and struggled to his feet.

He pushed the palm of his hand against his forehead, trying to scrub away the fog. “We’ve got less than fifteen, if that Prentiss guy actually shows up with dinner when he said.”

Rodney groaned and flopped over onto his back. “I don’t know if I can get up. This is all your fault. What the hell were you doing anyway? You scared the shit out of me.”

“I hope you’re not talking literal here.”

“Oh, ha ha.” Rodney raised up on his elbows. “Of course I’m not talking literal.”

“I don’t know what happened. I slipped off the couch.” John rubbed briskly at this still throbbing elbow. “Sometimes...” He shook off the urge to tell Rodney about the strange sensation of déjà vu. “I don’t know. I fell.”

Rodney pulled up his legs and started to turn to push himself to his feet. John didn’t mean to notice, would have turned his head away if he’d realized what was going to happen, but it was too late. Rodney’s boxers gaped open at the front and a pale flash of skin and hair burned its way into John’s head.

John felt his face heat up. “For god’s sake, McKay, watch your fly!”

Rodney’s face reddened even as he yanked his fly together and struggled to his feet. “You know, I’ve had a terrible, terrible day, and I really want to go home and sleep in my own bed and eat something not-half-bad from the mess and not have to worry about being poisoned, drugged, executed, or kidnapped and held against my will in an Ancient—Oh my god, there are probably ZPMs here....”

Huh.

Rodney had a point. John wondered why he hadn’t thought of that.

“If my brain wasn’t half-dead from food and sleep deprivation, I might have realized that a hell of a lot sooner!” In his excitement, Rodney started yanking on his clothes with fitful abandon. He jerked his pants up one leg and hopped around when his foot became wedged in the top half above the knee while his other foot stayed firmly on the bottom of the pant leg. He jerked again and stumbled back onto the bed. “I can’t believe I didn’t think about this earlier. We have to convince this guy to let us look around this place while we wait on Elizabeth.”

Rodney shot John a brief look before bending over to grab his boots. “You know she’s going to agree to trade with these people when Teyla tells her about the Ancient city here. There’s no way she’ll be able to pass that up, not with these guys claiming they’re just trying to get out from under the rule of tyrants.”

“Alleged tyrants,” John said, managing to get it in when Rodney had to take a deep breath before he bent over to tie his boot laces. “Every conflict like this has two sides. We can’t trust either side until we know the whole story.”

“Alleged, shmeged. They put me in a guillotine without a shred of evidence! They were this close to killing us.” Rodney thrust up his hand, pinching his thumb and forefinger together until only a sliver of light made it through.

“I’m just saying we can’t jump to conclusions here. And they were kind of right about us. We might not have meant to but even these guys say it was our arrival that brought this city to life.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Rodney looked up at John again, but quickly returned his gaze to his remaining untied boot lace before saying, “You going to stand there all day in your underwear?”

John cursed under his breath and turned to find his clothes.

*

Just when things weren’t looking so bad for them, it all went to hell. Prentiss didn’t show up with their lunch. In fact, no one showed up at all. Rodney was starving and asked the guards seven times “where’s the damn food?” before the guards quit opening the door and answering him. But he was hungry. He hadn’t eaten anything since before they’d left Atlantis yesterday afternoon and it was now hours and hours after daybreak.

He still wasn’t completely sure what Prentiss had meant when he told Sheppard that the city came alive for them when the Atlantis team had arrived. Obviously something had been initialized, but just as obviously, these guys had been living down here, using some of the Ancient technology even without that initialization. Maybe it was the age factor. This place looked really, really old by Ancient standards, and if the Ancients had built it before they had worked their Ancient gene into all the systems of their cities, that might explain a few things. These guys obviously knew enough about the Ancient city to know how to open and close doors, and keep them locked. The doors required power to work, so the city couldn’t have been powerless if it were being occupied by these people.

Rodney had been working to get the door open from the inside for a good five minutes.

“Must have it locked down from a remote location,” he told Sheppard.

Sheppard stared at him. “Uh, huh.”

Rodney huffed and turned back to the door control. “The damn crystal configuration isn’t the same,” he said. “It’s not my fault.”

He was just about to start cursing the door when the rewiring worked, the swapped crystals bridged the connection, and the door opened, smooth and quiet.

Guards no longer stood in the hall outside. Rodney peered around the door and then stepped into the corridor, Sheppard beside him. Sheppard threw him a questioning look before starting off down the hall at a trot. “Stay with me,” Sheppard said.

Yeah, like he was going to go running off alone.

They passed empty rooms and deserted hallways, vacant stairwells and transporters that wouldn’t work. Because of the latter, the trip back up to the level where the Stargate had last been seen took much longer than the trip down. Rodney’s lungs burned, along with his thighs and calves. He wasn’t breathing any longer; he wheezed and groaned, muttering imprecations at whomever had been responsible for the non-functioning transporters. Three-fourths of the way up, in a connecting hallway, they found Meriss.

“She’s dead.” Sheppard knelt by her body, his fingers moving to her throat and testing her pulse, even though it was obvious from the long line of blood soaking the front of her cream-colored tunic and the great rend in the fabric that she couldn’t possibly still be alive.

Rodney felt a distinct queasiness settle into his stomach and for the moment, he was grateful he hadn’t eaten recently.

He couldn’t help but think about Ronon’s interest in the girl, and he had to turn his head away.

“These people are way too fond of blades,” Rodney said.

“I think we should assume the way into the city’s been discovered by the other side,” Sheppard said, rising to his feet and studying the surrounding hallway, still empty, still eerily quiet. “We need to get out of here.”

“You think?” Rodney shoved his hand into his pocket. “I still have this,” he said, pulling something out with his hand. “They took our weapons, but they left me the life signs detector and a few more of the things you gave back to me after we first met up with Meriss.”

“They returned everything to us out in the courtyard, but we had to leave the packs and some of the other stuff behind. The fighting was getting too close and we had to get out of there.”

“So what do you have?”

“I have my watch, my radio, and my IDC. You have yours?”

“No. It wasn’t in the stuff you gave back to me.”

“Then you better stick close no matter what happens because if we get separated—”

“I get it. No IDC means I don’t let you out of my sight. But—” Rodney twisted and pointed behind him. “We should really check for those ZPMs before we leave.”

“No.”

“What do you mean no?”

“I mean no.” Sheppard grabbed Rodney’s shoulder and started pulling him along. “We need to get back to Atlantis. We’ve already been gone too long and I don’t like the way this situation feels. It’s been a hell of a ride, but it’s time to get off this train.”

“This could be the biggest find we’ve made since—well, ever. And we’re just going to walk away from it?”

“We’re not hurting for power in the city right now. We’re not taking that kind of risk when we don’t know the situation. Deal with it. We’re going for the gate and we’re going to find a way off this planet before these crazy sons of bitches kill us. Are you ready to die for a ZPM?”

Rodney spluttered, then said, “No, no, not really.”

“Didn’t think so.” John gestured at the life signs detector Rodney held. “What are we looking at?”

Rodney looked down. “Nothing.”

“Let’s move then.” Sheppard led the way down the corridor. Rodney followed his lead and stayed near the wall.

As they neared the upper level they discovered more and more dead bodies. Some wore the simple tunic and trousers favored by Meriss, her brother, and their people. Some wore uniforms identical to those worn by the men who had guarded their Nadean jail cell while they awaited execution.

Rodney started paying attention to how many had died of knife wounds—most of them—and how many lay twisted in a heap on the floor, bruised and bleeding from wounds likely gathered in deadly hand-to-hand combat—most of the rest, and those who had been shot—very few. Sheppard removed a knife from one of the slain bodies, that of a blonde-haired young man, not more than twenty years old, and tucked the blade into the empty holster in his boot.

“This blade thing is getting creepy,” Rodney said.

What would lead to the development of a society where knives were the weapon of choice over guns? Or were the guns even still being manufactured? Now that he thought about it, the rifles had all looked older, antique even. Each Wraith culling interfered with the progression of technology, and they already knew these people had gone through a culling shortly after the expedition arrived in Pegasus and woke the Wraith.

He still really didn’t like these people.

Sheppard eyed Rodney over his shoulder and said nothing. He pushed to his feet. He had just started up the corridor when Rodney glanced down at the life signs detector, then jumped forward and yanked on the tail of Sheppard’s t-shirt. Sheppard looked back at him with his eyebrows raised.

“There’s something moving around that corner,” Rodney whispered too loud.

Sheppard glowered at him and slashed his hand across his throat in the universal sign for shut up.

Rodney pointed to the left side of the intersecting hallway ahead.

Sheppard reached down and in one smooth motion pulled the borrowed knife from his boot. He held the blade loosely in his right hand, hefting and twisting until he seemed to have the grip he wanted.

Rodney fought off a surge of light-headedness and wished fervently he’d thought to pick up a knife of his own. Who cared if he didn’t know how to use it to gut someone? He’d feel a hell of a lot better having it.

He could hardly breathe past the tightness in his chest as Sheppard crept toward the intersection. When Sheppard was less than ten feet away, he flattened himself back against the wall and scooted nearer the corner and the glowing dot Rodney was watching in between frantic glances up and down the corridor.

He eased closer to Sheppard’s position.

Cautiously, Sheppard crouched low and leaned out around the corner. When he saw Sheppard relax, Rodney let out a breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding.

“Colonel Sheppard!”

Oh thank god.

Sheppard rose to his feet. “Prentiss.”

Rodney moved to stand beside Sheppard just as Prentiss stepped into the opening to their hallway.

Blood spatter covered Prentiss’s tunic and trousers, and his hand wielded a slim, curved blade, bloody and flecked with colored bits of something Rodney didn’t want to identify.

“You must leave at once,” Prentiss said with a harshness they hadn’t heard from him when they met earlier. “Our hiding place has been discovered and the Governors have no intention of letting any of us escape. We’ve driven them back to the entrance of the tunnels, but I don’t know how long we can keep them out. Some of our younger people are traveling through the Great Ring to escape.” Prentiss glanced around. “Where is Meriss? I sent her to bring you.”

“She never made it,” Sheppard said. “I’m sorry.”

Prentiss flinched at the news.

“Yeah. Her, uh--” Rodney started to gesture to his midsection, caught Sheppard’s glare, and shut up, dropping his hand to his side.

Prentiss closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them, he appeared calmer than Rodney expected. If Jeannie had died like that...

“This way,” Prentiss said. He used the bloody knife to point to an intersecting corridor. “It’s the long way around to the main room where the Great Ring sits now, but we shouldn’t run into any of the Governors’ men.”

“I hope to hell you’re right about that,” Rodney said. “I’ve already almost died once today. Another close call is just overkill.”

Prentiss ignored Rodney and started off at a brisk trot, leading the way. Rodney followed, the pace pushing him to his limits, until finally, halfway up a flight of stairs he was huffing out every breath in an agony of burning lungs and thighs and calves and he had to stop.

Sheppard grabbed Rodney’s shirt and hauled him forward. “No time for a break right now.”

“Unless you want me to die, there is. I can’t take another step until I catch my breath. Just give me a second.” He pulled loose from Sheppard’s one-handed grip and bent over double, hands on his knees.

Sheppard scowled at him.

Rodney waved him on. “I’ll be right behind you. Won’t let you get too far ahead.”

“Doesn’t work that way. You stay here and somebody’s going to come up on you and you’ll have a knife in your belly before you can scream.”

Roughly, Sheppard grabbed Rodney just under the arm and pulled him upright. “You’re only making it worse. Stand up straight. Get some air in your lungs.”

“Okay, okay.” Rodney straightened, but when he did, his head spun and the walls tilted at a swift downward angle. “Oh, oh, I’m gonna—” His knees buckled.

He blinked his eyes open to find Sheppard bent over him, patting his cheek a little rougher than Rodney thought necessary. “McKay? Rodney?”

“Huh.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were about to faint?”

“Uh, because I didn’t know?” He thought about the missed meals and the running and sitting and climbing stairs and sneaking around and, realized, oh yes, he was definitely overdue. “I have hypoglycemia,” he said, and then he felt stupid. Of course he had hypoglycemia. Sheppard knew that. Everyone on Atlantis knew that.

Prentiss stood on a step behind Sheppard, looming over them. “Is he going to be able to continue? We don’t have much time.”

The stair treads were cutting into the back of Rodney’s legs and shoulders but at least he didn’t feel as if he’d fallen down the flight of stairs. He could move his fingers and toes; he could feel the aches and pains of the last two days. He moved and a sharp stab of pain in his neck freaked him out for the few seconds it took him to remember the crick he’d been fighting all morning. He probably hadn’t broken his neck after all.

“I’m okay,” he said.

Sheppard offered his hand to Rodney, and Rodney used it to pull himself to his feet. His legs felt wobbly and weak but that faded once he took a couple of deep breaths.

“We must go,” Prentiss said. He started up the steps again, knife held with a casualness Rodney found disturbing.

“Not to sound ungrateful, but why are you using valuable time helping us when your people are under attack?” Sheppard asked.

Prentiss paused a few steps from the top of the flight. His impatience came through in a thousand ways, from the shifting of his feet to his pulled-back shoulders and clenching jaw. “We will regroup, and we will try again, and again, for as long as it takes to remove the Governors from power. You must have the blood of the Ancestors or our city would not have awakened at your arrival. You can teach us many things about our Great City. We would like to think we might have an ally in your people in the future.”

Rodney looked around for the life signs detector, saying to Sheppard, “He has a point. We die, no alliance. Elizabeth likes us.”

“One of us anyway,” Sheppard said.

“Ha. You’re too funny today. Elizabeth likes me just fine.” Then, because it just occurred to him to ask, “She does like me, doesn’t she? She hasn’t said anything to--”

Sheppard gave him that look that said he might be taking things too seriously.

“Ah,” Rodney said. “Ha ha ha.” At that moment, he spotted the life signs detector at the bottom of the stairs.

Prentiss reached the top.

A war cry, sharp and loud, came around the corner of the landing.

Rodney threw himself down the last two steps and scrambled for the detector. One glance told him all he needed to know.

Rodney gasped air into his breathless lungs. “Two more coming down the next corridor!”

He glanced up, quickly matched the screen image to the configuration of corridors and intersections ahead, and stabbed his fingers in the general direction the glowing dots appeared on the screen. “That one!”

But Sheppard wasn’t paying attention. The attacker who had let out the battle yell had overtaken their position and Sheppard was slashing his knife around skillfully but still barely holding off the man’s blade as the guy swiped and lunged with a skill that would have rivaled Ronon on his best day.

Prentiss came up behind the man and made a purposeful violent thrust. Blood gurgled out of the man’s mouth and Rodney stood there in shock as he realized Prentiss had stabbed directly into the man’s heart and lungs.

Sheppard danced back out of the way of the dead man’s toppling body. The man hit the floor, sightless eyes open and staring directly at Rodney’s face.

“McKay, come on.”

Rodney rushed up the remaining stairs to catch up with Sheppard.

He heard footsteps pounding down the intersecting hallway.

“We have to go,” he gasped. “We’ve only got seconds to get ahead of these dots.”

Maybe they were some of Prentiss’s men, then again, maybe not. It would be too late when they found out so it was best to assume they were the bad guys.

Prentiss pointed ahead of himself with his bloody knife. “I’ll hold them off if it proves necessary. Go that way. You will arrive just outside the room where it waits.”

They ran around the corner and up another flight of stairs, then down another hallway. Then the Stargate loomed up out of floor ahead, so large, so encompassing, so perfect that Rodney almost missed the sight of the two men and one woman standing beside the DHD, watching the doorway anxiously.

He hesitated, gasping for breath, and he saw Sheppard’s body tense but keep moving forward, as if he was ready to take on all three if he had to, but then the woman leaned forward and started pushing down on the glyphs.

“Thank the Great Ancestors you’re finally here,” she said. “I’m entering the location of your world.”

Rodney groaned--he was exhausted--and ran over to the DHD to confirm she was dialing the correct planet. He wasn’t about to trust his and Sheppard’s life to these people. He didn’t like them; he sure as hell didn’t trust them.

The glyphs for Atlantis’s address glowed. A wormhole swooshed into place inside the ring.

“Sending,” Sheppard hollered at him, all the while punching his code into the IDC. He watched Sheppard wait for the signal, holding his breath for the seconds it took, and when Sheppard yelled, “Go,” he exhaled in a rush.

Sheppard ran for the open gate.

The woman who had dialed the DHD grabbed Rodney’s wrist just as he was rounding the DHD. She pressed a piece of paper into his palm with her other hand. “Here is where we have sent our children. Please help them if we are not able to go after them.”

Rodney stared down at her hands on his, freaking out a little to have been singled out for this. Sheppard disappeared into the event horizon. What could he say? So he nodded. “Yes, yes, we’ll check on them.”

“No, you must agree to take them in if something happens to all of us. They’ll be killed if they come back here and the Governors have reclaimed the Great Ring. Promise me.” Tears ran down her cheeks; her mouth trembled.

“Okay, okay, okay. We’ll take them,” he said. “We won’t let them die.”

He just knew this was going to bite him in the ass later. But how could he say no? It was the best he could do under the circumstances.

“Thank you for accepting this burden of honor,” she said. She released his arm, his hand, and he turned away quickly and rushed through the Stargate.

*

Elizabeth sent a team to check out the address Rodney gave her for the Nadean children. By the time they got there, several hours later, they found only a long abandoned village and no sign that anyone had recently occupied the place. Rodney felt a moment of discomfort at the thought of what might have happened, whether the children had been captured by the other Nadeans or if they’d been reclaimed by their parents.

Either way it was out of their hands now. They couldn’t risk sending a team back to the Nadean world to find out what had happened. They would have to wait until they had news from another source. Maybe one of the Nadeans would contact someone on a world Atlantis had regular contact with. Otherwise, there was nothing else they could do while they waited for the Nadean situation to stabilize, despite the desperate itch Rodney had to get back to that city.

Something had to power the massive complex, so reminiscent of Atlantis, and he’d bet that Nobel he was owed that it was at least one ZPM.

In the meantime, Rodney went to sleep that night and dreamed again of sliding along the floor and curving lips and the whoosh of a door.

*

“Okay, this is just pathetic,” Rodney said, swiping water droplets off the screen of his tablet computer with the sleeve of his jacket. “You’re getting water everywhere. And mud—crap.” He used his foot to scoot his box of tools across the jumper floor away from Sheppard. “Look at your boots. They’re covered in mud.”

Sitting across from him on the bench in the back of the jumper, Sheppard curled his fingers around the edge of the seat. With his dripping wet hair plastered to his head, his clothes no better, and his face speckled with mud, he glared at Rodney through tired, but nonetheless fierce, eyes, and Rodney felt a twinge of misplaced guilt.

“This was not my fault,” Rodney said abruptly.

“If you hadn’t moved it—” Sheppard sluiced water off his forearms with his hands.

Rodney noticed faint tremors in Sheppard’s fingers and interrupted with, “Oh, don’t tell me you were dumb enough to let yourself go into hypothermia out there!”

Sheppard grimaced. “No, I was not. I’m just cold, McKay. You would be too if you’d just spent an hour out in the freezing rain, slogging through the mud, looking for the damn jumper!”

“You’re the one who told me to keep it cloaked,” Rodney said. “You should have taken your little remote thingy so you could uncloak the ship yourself.”

“I did! It didn’t work.”

“Oh, right, damaged crystal,” Rodney said. “It still wasn’t my fault!”

“You could have taken thirty seconds and noticed I hadn’t made it back yet and wondered where the hell I was!”

“I did!” Rodney’s voice cracked and he realized he might be yelling, for no real reason. This wasn’t a life or death situation. No one was going to miss them, because they were supposed to be gone overnight, to keep an eye out for anyone coming through the gate. They were on the planet whose address Rodney had brought back from Nadea, on the off-chance anyone showed up and they were able to garner some news about the status of the Nadean civil war as they were now calling it.

Two days had passed, and Elizabeth hadn’t liked the thought of abandoning hope for the insurrectionists, not after putting all the puzzle-pieces together and concluding that maybe they had a right to feel the way they did and to want to rid themselves of a tyrannical government. Of course, Rodney hadn’t argued that it wasn’t their problem for the simple fact that he really, really wanted to go back there and study their underground city and look for ZPMs, because it didn’t take a genius to know they would never run out of uses for working ZPMs.

Also, children might have had something to do with it. No one seemed to want to be the one to say it wasn’t worth the manpower to find out what had happened to the Nadean children the woman had asked Rodney to take in.

Regardless, Elizabeth had decided to send him and Sheppard on the mission, alone, after Teyla took Ronon with her to visit the Athosians for some kind of tent building festival where they put everyone to work and then celebrated hard later. Rodney wasn’t that disappointed he hadn’t been invited, but Sheppard seemed to have taken it somewhat personally.

Rodney thought it was probably that he and Sheppard had been the ones who had spent the most time with Prentiss and his people and Elizabeth wanted any contact to be with friendly faces. If they got into trouble, they had the jumper this time and they could simply fly away or cloak the ship, so the additional backup from Teyla or Ronon wasn’t really necessary.

They had landed far enough away from the gate to stop anyone from accidentally walking into the cloaked jumper.

Elizabeth probably hadn’t imagined trouble would turn out to be a crappy rainstorm and a shorted-out, hard to replace crystal damaged by a rogue lightning bolt. Although the lightning had only singed the ship, it had struck close enough to send a spike of electricity feeding back into the delicate crystal consoles. Rodney had spent several hours working to fix the problem. Sheppard had gotten bored and walked off to check out the perimeter, going far enough afield to get lost in the tree line.

The rain had started not long after Sheppard had left.

“I tried to radio you, but you never responded. I was just about to come looking when you showed up and started pounding on the bay door.”

“Why the hell did you move it?”

“Something in the ground was drawing the lightning right to us. I had to move quick when I realized what was going on because a static charge was building up remarkably fast. We’d be toast now if I hadn’t moved the ship to a safer spot.” Rodney leaned back into the bench seat and crossed his arms over his chest, defending his choice with a jerk of his chin and a pointed stare.

“In the middle of the biggest mud puddle you could find!”

“I said I moved to the safest spot I could find. You’ll notice I didn’t say it was perfect. There’s no pleasing you! I saved the ship and you chew me out because you have to walk a little further to find it.”

“A little? We can’t even see the gate now.” Sheppard nearly growled the words, but Rodney noticed Sheppard was winding down. It had been a long day, a long week really. They needed a break. Elizabeth must have known that and given them this mission as a way of forcing them to take it easy. Rodney thought it would have been a good plan too, if it weren’t for the lightning.

“Just calm down. You need to get dried off and warmed up. You know as well as I do that the chance of any of the Nadeans showing up here is unbelievably slim. Elizabeth is just making herself feel better with this move and, not that I blame her, but she probably had an ulterior motive for getting us away from the city for an overnight trip to watch the gate.”

“Has it been that bad?”

Yes, it had. Sheppard had been a real bastard over the last few days, probably fighting off misplaced guilt because they’d managed to set off a civil war that had apparently been brewing for decades. “Hey, I didn’t want to see any of those guys die either, but there’s nothing we can do about it. They want to kill themselves in a civil war, they’re welcome to it. We’ve got bigger fish to fry—metaphorically speaking.”

Sheppard grabbed the back of his sopping wet shirt and pulled it over his head. “Like anyone’s going to mistake that for a literal statement.”

“You’d be surprised at how many of the people I work with on a daily basis who can’t tell the difference between the literal and the figurative and they’re supposed to be the smartest people in their fields. It’s disgusting.”

Sheppard raised his brow.

Rodney lowered his head and stared at the tablet perched on his knees. He tapped through a few screens, not really paying attention to what he was looking at, instead listening to the rustle of Sheppard searching through his pack for a clean, dry t-shirt. Pants. Socks. Possibly underwear. Damn it.

Rodney stabbed at another flashing icon and scrolled through the data he found.

“I’ve been having these dreams,” he said, feeling both anxious and determined, but not taking his eyes off the screen.

“Crap, McKay, do I want to hear this?”

“You remember that conversation we had a while back about Radek and his dream?”

Sheppard stilled and Rodney glanced up to catch an odd look of dismay on Sheppard’s face. “What? Radek’s dream about me kissing him freak you out that bad?”

“No. Hell no. Get over yourself.”

“Well, it freaked me out, and now I don’t know what’s happened, but I keep having my own version of it, and it’s the weirdest dream I’ve ever had. Doesn’t feel like a dream. Feels like some kind of repressed memory. I should know. I’ve had my fair share of those pop up over the years and they suck.” His mouth turned down at the corner and he fought the frown forming.

Sheppard just gave him a look and said, “Huh.”

“So, I was thinking, do you think there’s something to them?”

Sheppard hesitated, before saying, “No. I don’t. They’re just dreams. It probably messed with your head when he told you that and now you can’t get it out.”

“Oh that’s just fantastic. Exactly what I needed, more crazy in my dreams.”

“Listen, it’s probably just the stress. We work all the time and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve nearly died and you know you have too. We’re going to be lucky to come out of Pegasus without more than a few loose marbles.”

Rodney stabbed his finger against his temple. “I can not afford to lose any more of my marbles, thank you very much. My genius, and all our lives, depend on them too much for my own comfort these days.”

Sheppard snorted. “Bullshit, McKay. You get off on being needed so much in Atlantis.”

Rodney flattened his mouth, thought about retorting with something appropriately acidic and sharp, but settled for a haughty tilt of his head and a slightly less edgy, “Everyone would be dead—oh, I don’t know, about a hundred times over—without me.”

“You can quit posturing. We all know Atlantis needs you.”

It was then, for no particular reason, that Rodney noticed Sheppard hadn’t put on dry socks. His feet stuck out under the hem of his pants, his toes sharp-boned and covered with a smattering of dark hairs in the same manner as his fingers. Sheppard was leaning over, his forearms propped on his knees, his hands dangling between them. His damp hair stuck up in a crazy array of spikes and cowlicks. The skin of his face and neck had warmed from a pale clammy white to a ruddy pink and his mouth—his mouth was curved just so and Rodney found himself unfolding his arms, reaching up, reaching out, and Sheppard’s eyes widened as Rodney’s finger brushed the corner of his lips.

And then Rodney realized what he’d done, and he sputtered, frantic and apologetic, “Oh my god. I’m sorry, I’m really, really sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I don’t know why I did. I swear. I do. I mean, I do swear I don’t know why. It was a—”

Sheppard thrust his hand out, palm toward Rodney. “Stop, okay? Forget it.”

Rodney’s heart wouldn’t settle down, the beat loud and harsh in his ears, the throb making it hard to think. Why the hell had he done that?

Sheppard got to his feet and moved to the front of the jumper. Rodney followed.

The HUD popped up, information flowing into place to blend with the rapidly falling rain just outside the jumper’s front window.

“We should scan for life signs again. It’s been awhile.”

“And now we can’t see the gate, I get it, you already mentioned that,” Rodney said, grateful for anything to say that didn’t involve inappropriate and unexplainable touching.

Sheppard scooted into the pilot’s seat while throwing Rodney a look of irritation. “I wasn’t going to say that.”

“Yes, well, it’s better than the alternative,” Rodney said, turning his head away and focusing on the controls he’d been working on earlier. He’d repaired them. There was nothing else to do here, but he couldn’t look at Sheppard right now or he might find himself babbling and begging for forgiveness again. He wasn’t ready to think about losing one of the only real friendships he’d ever had over something as stupid as poking his finger at the man’s lips.

“I said forget it. It’s no big deal.” Sheppard cleared his throat. “Let’s see if anybody’s made an appearance on this rock in the last hour.”

*

John jerked his boots on over his hastily donned socks and prepared to plunge back out into the rain and mud, this time accompanied by Rodney. He stood and shrugged into his jacket.

Twenty-four life signs had appeared suddenly on the HUD, all gathered around the Stargate. They’d have taken the jumper to check it out but something about the area near the gate was drawing the lightning to the jumper and since they didn’t know what it was, he wasn’t willing to risk any more of the jumper’s crystals getting fried.

“Is this really necessary?” Rodney asked. “I mean, if we stay off the ground, the lightning probably won’t be a problem. It’s not like this is some kind of freak storm. It’s actually pretty ordinary.”

“Doesn’t matter. I don’t want to take any chances with the jumper. We’ve lost quite a lot over the last few years and I don’t want to start treating them as if they’re expendable. The only others we’ve found were on, oh what was it called?” When Rodney just looked at him, John blew out an exasperated breath. “Crap. That planet with the tower and the woman who wanted to have my baby?”

“You mean the one where I nearly got trapped underground in a cave in?” Rodney said. He struggled into a rain jacket while he talked. “So nice of you to remind me of that. You know, I really do hate you sometimes. You get the girl while I nearly die. Life is so unfair.”

“Yeah, that one.” John checked his guns for ammunition and then patted down his pockets to make sure everything that was supposed to be there was there. He watched as Rodney did the same, and said, “A little rain isn’t going to kill you and when we finish checking things out, we can return to the jumper and be all safe and sound and cozy and warm. Happy?”

“No, as a matter of fact, I’m not. I’d rather stay in the jumper and be safe and sound and cozy and warm now.”

The jumper bay was opening as Rodney finished his little speech. Rain poured over the upper edge in a curtain of water and ran down the ramp. John spoke into the radio to test it, waited for Rodney’s nod, and then led the way out into the cold, wet afternoon on another alien planet. Despite Rodney’s complaints, he followed John without hesitation. John did hear him muttering under his breath, however, and wasn’t a bit surprised about that. He would’ve been worried if Rodney had kept quiet.

The mud wasn’t thick. John’s earlier description of their location had been wholly accurate though, because they stepped out into a mud puddle that reached the top edge of their boots. Which really sucked, because the water was cold.

“Oh, dear god,” McKay said, his tone just shy of scathing. “This is going to be miserable. I hope those Nadeans realize someday what we’ve gone through to help them out.”

“I’m sure they’ll be suitably grateful if we rescue their children,” John said, the squelching of his boots already annoying and uncomfortable.

“If they’re still alive to be grateful,” Rodney said, sounding almost regretful. Rodney wasn’t a bad guy, John knew, even if he sometimes came across as too brash, too conceited, too self-involved. Sometimes John thought Rodney just hid it better from everyone else, including Rodney himself.

They entered the tree line from the direction opposite the Stargate’s location, Rodney having flown the jumper to the leeward side of the copse of trees, which was one of the main reasons John had almost never found the damn jumper and why they couldn’t now see the Stargate itself.

Branches snapped underfoot as they walked. When they approached the edge of the copse, John waved Rodney to a stop and crouched so he could see through the trees toward the Stargate. He adjusted his P-90, took up position and waited, Rodney squatting beside him.

He could see well enough with his naked eye to tell that no one lingered near the gate any longer. He turned his head to face Rodney, and whispered, “Where are they?”

“They’re on the other side of that hill now.” Rodney lowered the handheld life signs detector and raised his head. He pointed toward the left of the Stargate which was at a right angle to their current location. The hill wasn’t that big, so John guessed it must drop at a steeper angle in the back than it did in the front to be able to hide anything of human height behind it.

“If it’s a bunch of kids from Nadea, I don’t understand why they’d just now be coming through the gate considering how that Nadean woman acted about the whole thing. What if it’s some kind of trap?”

“What kind of trap?”

“Did I not just ask if this was some kind of trap? How would I know what kind of trap it is if I don’t even know if it is a trap? Seriously. Do you even listen to me half the time?”

“What?” John pulled out his binoculars. Using his hand to shield the lenses from the falling rain, he stared out over the distance between them and the Stargate and the hill. Nothing moved as far as the eye could see.

“Oh, yes, that’s so funny. A riot of laughs.”

“Shut up. I need to listen. You hear that?”

“I don’t hear a thing but the damn rain beating me in the head and—oh, wait, maybe.” Rodney twisted around in the direction of the jumper but his feet slipped and his knees landed with a splat in the wet leaves covering the ground. John strained to hear over Rodney’s vicious grumbling, but whatever it was seemed to be just out of range. He couldn’t make out what it was or where it was coming from, until—

“Oh, shit,” Rodney said in a high-pitched panic. “It’s a dart.”

“Crap. That’s what I was afraid of.” John lurched to his feet, Rodney flailing upward nearly as fast. “We might have to make a run for it.” When Rodney started to move in the direction of the jumper, John grabbed his arm and spun him around. “Wrong direction.”

“You’re kidding me.” But he took off after John, running toward the life signs on the detector, John praying all the way that he wasn’t leading them into a trap, because it had become clear over the years that Rodney trusted him to know what to do anytime things got out of control. Those life signs didn’t necessarily have to be friendlies. They could just as easily belong to Wraith or guillotine-happy Nadeans. But the idea that they might indicate children spurred him on. Who the hell could resist the lure of needy, helpless children?

“Wait, wait!” Rodney yelled. “They’re gone. They’re all gone. They just disappeared.”

John skidded to a halt, the wet ground nearly taking his feet out from under him. “Where’d they go?”

“Do I sound like I know? They were there and now they’re not. Where’s the dart?”

“Not here yet. Maybe there’s something—”

“Yes, yes. Shielding!” Rodney flung his arm toward John, as if John had enough time to catch a glimpse of the detector, watch for the dart, and keep an eye on the hill all that the same time. “Something’s shielding them. That would explain why we haven’t seen them before and why we didn’t find them when we came looking earlier. And possibly—”

“What about an energy signature?”

“No, no, no. Nothing. But—but it could be something naturally occurring that’s shielding them.” Rodney talked so fast John had to focus to keep up. “Could be why the Nadeans picked this planet. They’re smart enough to understand that. Remember, according to Prentiss’s story those Governors hid in caves and Ancient buildings that protected them from the Wraith. Whatever it is could be the cause of the lightning strike to the jumper.”

“Okay, then, let’s go. Dart’s closing on us.”

They ran for the hill, Rodney’s head hunched low and his rain jacket flapping, John keeping his eyes on the sky as much as he could and not take a fall on the slippery wet ground.

Cresting the top, John looked down on a precipitously descending ravine and saw footsteps leading into a barely there crevice set back in a rocky crag.

“Oh hell no,” Rodney said beside him. “I can’t climb down there. I didn’t even make it up the practice wall you set up for training at the last alpha site. Pulled a hamstring on my first attempt, remember?”

“Get over it. We can’t make it back to the jumper now. The dart’s almost on top of us.”

The shrill whine of the dart came nearer.

“Okay, I take that back. Anything’s better than becoming a Wraith hors d’oeuvre.” Rodney looked a little wild-eyed as he followed John’s scramble over the edge. He fumbled the life signs detector, trying to shove it into his vest pocket under the edge of his rain jacket but his fingers must have slipped because John watched it careen over a pile of rocks and bounce before tumbling end over end until it smacked into the ground at the bottom of the ravine.

“Okay, that’s not good,” Rodney said, gazing over his shoulder at the detector lying twenty feet below them.

John shook his head. “Move it!”

“I’m trying.”

“Your hands haven’t changed position since you grabbed that rock! Now come on, Rodney, you can do this.” John had tried to sound coaxing but really he just sounded loud and grating to his own ears. Rodney responded anyway, and shifted his grip to another rock a little lower and then clambered down a few more feet.

John breathed a sigh of relief and focused on his own efforts to climb down the side of the ravine.

“We’re almost there,” he said. Then he was, and he had to suck in his breath hard and push and pull himself into the narrow crack, barely wide enough for him and his vest. How was he going to get Rodney through there?

“Here you are,” John said. He grabbed the front of Rodney’s jacket before Rodney could slip and hauled Rodney against the opening. “You’re going to have to take off your jacket and your vest,” he said, “or you’ll never make it through.”

“How the hell am I supposed to do that? If I let go, I’ll fall to my death!”

“I’ve got you. I won’t let go. Promise.” John smiled, thin and hard, hoping it was enough to reassure Rodney. But this was going to be tricky.

“How? Seriously, how? I don’t see it.”

John fumbled with the one arm he could fit easily through the crevice and jerked the flap of Rodney’s rain jacket open. He stuffed his hand down the front of Rodney’s pants, feeling the give of soft warm skin against the back of his fingers as he fisted his hand around Rodney’s belt and fly and yanked forward.

Rodney “Oomphed” as his chest plowed into the rock face, his hands scrambling for purchase.

John heard a sound behind him. “Crap. Get a move on! We’re running out of time.” He tried to turn his head, but he was smashed up against the rocks that came together to make the crevice in the cliff side and if he pulled back to allow his head to move, he’d have to release his grip on Rodney.

Rodney was talking fast now, words John couldn’t make out but he knew they weren’t really directed at him. Rodney fumbled with his jacket, getting it off and out of the way, and then he twisted, his movements yanking hard against John’s hand and wrist, trying to get the vest unfastened and then off his shoulders. “God, maybe I really do need to lose some weight,” he said. “Carson keeps telling me I’m not doing myself any favors with the doughnuts.” And then Rodney was muttering again, and John quit paying attention, because—

Another shuffle behind him, and John knew without a doubt he was no longer alone.

And then someone—a child—said, “You need to come further into the tunnel or you’ll lead the Wraith here.”

And then the relief set in.

Rodney twisted one final time, shoved his vest and jacket at the crack where they fell to the ground at John’s feet, and shimmied his way through the narrow opening and into the dry tunnel.

“Oh thank god. I’m not dead.”

“We’re not alone, either,” John said. He turned around, and there stood a young boy, about twelve or thirteen years old, holding a lit candle, the flame guttering in the flow of fresh air coming from the entrance.

They followed the boy about thirty feet deeper into the tunnel, winding around several corners of jagged rock before the boy turned back to John. “No one has come for us. Did our parents send you? We’re ready to go home.”

The relief faded at the realization of what that probably meant for the Nadeans and their civil war.

*

Twenty-three other children huddled in the cavern the young boy led them to. The air smelled of rain, even though a small fire burned in the center of the cave, just large enough to light the room, so John was pretty sure there was adequate ventilation. He could see another young child—a girl this time—feeding the fire with nothing larger than twigs.

John put his hand on the shoulder of the child they’d followed, to get his attention. “Why did you leave the cave earlier to go to the gate?” At the confusion on the boy’s face, John added, “I think your people call it the Great Ring.”

The boy blinked up at him. “We heard a noise.”

“That would have probably been when I moved the jumper,” Rodney said. Rodney hadn’t moved out from behind John. When several of the kids looked his way, Rodney slunk back a little further behind John. Rodney and kids didn’t get along, at least as far as Rodney was concerned, and he’d made that very well known a few years ago when they’d traveled to a planet populated entirely by people less than twenty-five years old. Since then, he’d tortured many of his scientists by sending them to that planet whenever something came up requiring technical expertise.

John sent a look of disgust over his shoulder at Rodney before turning back to the kid. “So you climbed all the way out of this place to go check it out? All of you?”

“We all want to go home,” the boy answered.

Another boy said, “Someone was supposed to come for us.”

“I miss my mother,” another said, this time a girl, and she sounded like she wanted to cry. John felt a flicker of panic start to claw at the back of his neck. John liked children just fine. Crying? Not so much.

Rodney shuffled his feet. “Um. Well. This is—We’re not—Sheppard?” His question ended on a high-pitched whine.

John studied the group of kids. Only one of them appeared younger than ten; the rest seemed to be between ten and fourteen, maybe fifteen. “We should take them to Elizabeth,” he said.

“Yes!” Relief edged out the sound of Rodney’s own incipient panic. “Yes. Exactly.”

“As soon as we’re sure that Wraith dart is out of the picture.”

“Oh.” Rodney said, disappointment replacing relief.

“Is the jumper safe?”

“Should be. The cloak was still working fine when we left it.”

“Then—”

Rodney interrupted, eyes wide, “Oh, no. The life signs detector. What if a Wraith finds it? We’re dead. We’re so dead.”

“They’re probably not going to just stumble across it. It’s a big planet.”

“They’d have to be looking for it,” Rodney agreed quickly. “In the ravine.”

“Sure.”

“So. We wait?”

John gave Rodney a short nod.

“I have a question,” John said, turning his head away from the staring kids and lowering his voice. “Where’d the dart come from? The Stargate hasn’t been active except when we came through in the jumper.”

Rodney stared back at him, mouth working, eyes wide open. John could almost see Rodney’s brain flitting from one possibility to another as he sought an answer that made sense. Then Rodney breathed a quiet gasp of air and came to the conclusion John had reached a while back. “Oh god. There’s a hive ship somewhere nearby.”

*

“What would a hive ship be doing on this planet?” Rodney asked as soon as they’d left the kids behind in the tunnel and made their way far enough toward the entrance to speak freely. “It’s uninhabited—yes, okay, usually uninhabited, and our scans didn’t indicate anything of real interest.”

John raised his eyebrows and rested his arms across his P-90 which was still clipped to his vest. “Except...?”

“Except what? I got nothing.”

“Except that it seems this planet has a lot of—”

“Natural shielding!” Rodney snapped his fingers rapid-fire, once, twice, three times. “And the Wraith could be using this planet for any number of things and no one would be the wiser because the shielding would protect it from scans and keep whatever they were doing from being discovered by any other Wraith ships! Of course.”

“Keep your voice down. I don’t want them to overhear us.” John rubbed his hand over his chin, noticing as he did that it was already time for a shave again. “Look, we’ve got to get them out of here and back to Atlantis. We can’t leave them.”

“I know that,” Rodney said in a stage whisper, proving once again he couldn’t actually be quiet outside of a life or death situation. “I never even suggested—”

John pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m just saying.”

“Well I’m just saying too.” Rodney sounded—John had to think about it for a second before he came up with the word he was looking for—hurt.

“We can’t fit twenty-four kids in the jumper, so we’re going to have to go straight for the gate. You lead the kids to the gate after I get a head start for the jumper, and then while you’re dialing the gate and getting them through, I’ll take out any darts or Wraith that might try to get in the way using the ship’s weapons.”

“We’re all going to die,” Rodney said bleakly.

“If we do,” John said, “look on the bright side. You really will be able to say you died saving a bunch of kids.”

“Oh, fantastic. You forgot one essential piece of logic. I’ll be dead. And, no one will ever know what happened!”

*

John didn’t like splitting up and leaving Rodney alone with the task of getting twenty-four kids to the Stargate before they were discovered by the Wraith, but they hadn’t heard the dart for a while and hiding out any longer wasn’t going to gain them any ground, so he squeezed out of the cave, climbed awkwardly in the rain to the top of the ravine, scoped out the area, and then ran flat out for the jumper, splashing through mud puddles and slipping on wet leaves the whole way.

His breath was coming hard by the time he lowered the ramp. He tapped his radio. “McKay, I made it. Get moving.”

“This is never going to work, Sheppard.”

John threw himself into the pilot’s seat and breathed a sigh of relief. The radio worked. They’d had a backup plan in case it didn’t, one that involved Rodney leaving the protection of the shielded cavern with the kids at a specific time, but John was grateful for the voice contact. Rodney should, however, already be as close to the entrance as possible without stepping outside and that could account for the working radios. “Don’t be such a spoilsport. It’ll work.”

“I’ve got twenty-four kids here who can only climb so fast! If that dart comes back, we’re done for. And I haven’t even started up the cliff!”

“It’s not really a cliff. More like a steep rocky hill.” John curled his fingers around the hand grips and the ship came alive for him, rising swiftly into the air. He nudged his right hand over, shifting minutely, and the ship rolled and turned before leveling off and heading in the direction of the Stargate and the hill beyond where Rodney and the kids should be cresting the edge of the ravine at any moment.

“It’s a cliff, damn it, and it’s going to get me killed.”

“Just concentrate on getting those kids up safely.”

He heard Rodney’s breath change from a steady huff to a harsh pant. “They’re not the ones having that problem. They’re like a bunch of monkeys. Really fast monkeys who—won’t—shut—up. Be quiet!” Rodney yelled. “Do you guys want to end up in the belly of a dart, for god’s sake?”

John winced at the ringing in his ear. A little warning would have been nice there.

John thought about life signs and the HUD responded with a display. “Oh, crap,” he muttered.

Rodney picked up on it and said, “What? What? What do you see? What is it?”

“I’m over the trees, McKay. Where are you?”

“I’m still climbing!”

“Don’t look down.”

“Why—Aw, you’ve got to be kidding! What the hell is this, a hundred and one ways to kill Rodney McKay day?”

“Is it Wraith?”

“Yes!” More panting, more cursing, more yelling as something happened on Rodney’s end. “No no, I’ve got you. It’s okay, you’re not dead, we’re not dead. Just—no, not like that! You’ll drag us both down! And I for one do not want to die today!”

John ground his teeth together and concentrated hard, focusing on his flying and listening to Rodney’s frantic chatter in his ear. He needed to be there—now. The trees fell behind him, out of view, and the mostly flat plain on which the Stargate sat sped away—and then he was. The puddle jumper zoomed over the hill, down into the ravine, and swept along the shallow flow of water at the base that was accumulating from the heavy rain, spraying the water up in an arc as the shield just scraped the surface.

At the splash of water, two of the four Wraith soldiers John could see running toward Rodney’s position pulled up short. They fired in the direction of the cloaked jumper with their stunners, but John knew they would have to bring something more effective to bear before he had to worry about swapping to the shield.

John twisted his left hand and focused on where he needed to be to fire at the Wraith who were blasting stunners at the handful of children still scrambling on hands and knees toward the top of the cliff. Rodney followed at the end of the line, and he seemed to be dragging a girl along with him, his hand fisted in the back of her shirt.

As long as Rodney had someone else to worry about, he would be all right.

Most of the other children milled around the crest of the hill, and a few had dropped to their bellies with their arms stretched out over the edge offering hands down to those nearing the top.

The Wraith still ran toward them from too far away to get off an accurate shot at the group of kids and Rodney, but someone was bound to get lucky soon. John thought angles and trajectories before he sent his thoughts out to the ship, locking on his targets, and the jumper responded by sending out a volley of drones.

Four explosions flared bright as debris burst into the air in all directions, leaving behind only scattered Wraith remains. Very little came down near Rodney, who was finally just feet away from cresting the hill himself. He watched through the windscreen as Rodney clambered up onto flat ground and hauled the girl over the edge with him.

A flash on the HUD caught John’s attention.

“McKay, you’re gonna have to get your ass to the gate,” John said on a surge of adrenaline. “I’m picking up darts headed our way.”

Static crackled over the radio and then nothing. Whatever had interfered with their radio signals earlier that day was back in effect.

If he’d thought about it he would have realized before now that Rodney had been strangely silent for the last few minutes.

He couldn’t wait until the darts were on top of them. John dialed the gate and hoped it wasn’t so premature that the wormhole closed down on Rodney before he could reach it and send his IDC through.

John had time for one last look at Rodney and the gaggle of kids running over the flat wet ground toward the gate, before he set the ship on an intercept course for the closest incoming dart.

*

“Quit panicking!” Rodney yelled. “We’re almost there!” His boots splashed through puddles of rainwater and he puffed out his breaths faster than he could take them in—or so his oxygen-starved lungs were telling him. The burn of deprivation would probably send his muscles into spasms later, but if he could just hold them off for now...

The little girl who had almost sent him and herself plummeting to their deaths stumbled along beside him, tripping again, and this time, Rodney grunted and lifted her and tucked her under his arm like he would carry his computer, her little legs wiggling in the air behind him and her hands clutched in a death grip around his forearm. “God, you’re heavy for a kid,” he gasped.

Then, over the sound of his own harsh pants and children crying and feet squelching through rain soaked grass, he heard the first shrill whine of darts, two, three, four at least, and he yelled into his radio with what little breath he could spare, “Sheppard!” No reply. “Sheppard! John! Where the hell are you?”

Still no reply and he had to give up to concentrate on running without falling and making sure he didn’t lose track of a single child.

The gate loomed on the open field ahead, the wormhole’s event horizon already glimmering in the center. Rodney panicked for a moment, his eyes wide, gaze streaking over the sky. Without Sheppard’s voice to tell him if it was Atlantis on the other side, Rodney would be walking through blindly.

“Don’t go through until I give the okay!” he yelled at the kids ahead of him. Sheppard had already drilled them on how important it was that they not run through the Great Ring until Rodney told them it was safe, but Rodney had a flash of sheer terror as he wondered if any of them had even really paid attention. They were kids, after all, still dumb and unruly, just like every other kid he’d ever had the displeasure to know.

Still running, but finally close enough, he stuttered to a halt, the girl he carried nearly tumbling to the ground from under his arm. He patted her head absently in apology and then tapped his code into the IDC device and when he looked up, she was staring at him with stark brown eyes.

He slapped at his ear, trying to jar his radio into working. He heard static, but then—

“Dr. McKay, you’re all clear!” he heard, just as his IDC signaled that the shield was down.

And, “McKay! Rodney! I got a dart coming up on your rear fast! Get through the damn gate!”

“Go!” Rodney shouted, waving his arms frantically toward the gate, “Go go go go go!”

Sheppard’s static-laced voice came through again, “Tell Elizabeth to raise the shield as soon as you’re through....dart heading right for you!”

And nearly as one, the kids ran with their legs pumping, outpacing Rodney and piling through the shimmering blue circle of the event horizon. Rodney didn’t look back as the whining flash of light just missed him, and then he was through.

*

John saw the spike of lightning and recognized its path in the very instant the jumper jolted sideways and he heard the spark and pop of something exploding in one of the panels behind him. 

The ship didn’t fall out of the sky, but John felt a sluggishness creep in. He glared at the HUD, thinking quickly of the landscape and the darts, getting readouts on both in quick succession. The darts had moved away, since he had traded his shield for a cloak the minute the gate had disengaged and he’d pulled away from the dart chasing after Rodney and the kids.

The cloak held, just as it had after the last strike, but if he stayed here, he could end up the recipient of another, so he had no choice but to fly away from the gate. He had to allow enough time for Rodney to get them to clear out the area around the gate before he attempted to fly through, but if the ship couldn’t recover—

“Crap.” John bit his tongue and thought fiercely of soft landings and the safe spot behind the trees. And cloaks that worked. He had nowhere to go if he lost the cloak. The Wraith would be all over the cave by now, and even if they weren’t, he couldn’t risk it.

But luck was with him, and his skill with the jumper didn’t hurt. The ship came down just feet away from the spot Rodney had determined was safest when Rodney had been forced to move the jumper earlier that day.

John pushed out of the pilot’s seat. He blew out a rough breath and shook out his hands. The tension had coiled around him like a vise and he needed to shake it off so he could concentrate on what needed to be done now.

He walked into the back of the jumper and checked the panel from where tendrils of light gray smoke filtered into the air. No fire. Just some blown crystals. Again. Rodney’s earlier fixes were probably done for.

He dropped the bay door to let in some fresh air to help out with ventilation. Deciding to take the moment to manually check the status of the cloak, he shrugged his P-90 and vest off, having had no time to do so earlier, and then walked down the ramp and out into the damn mud puddle that hadn’t done anything but grow in circumference since he’d taken the ship up to cover Rodney.

The cloak was active, which meant he didn’t have to abandon the ship.

Which also meant things weren’t as bad as they could have been. If he couldn’t get the ship back into the air, which realistically, he probably wouldn’t manage without Rodney here—plan A, he could at least run for the gate and get back to Atlantis that way—plan B.

He closed the bay door, walked back to the pilot’s seat, and started checking out the systems.

“Damn it,” he muttered.

Communications were down. He still had his radio, but to use it, he would need to be closer to the gate to get a clear signal through. If it even worked. Something about this planet wasn’t playing well with their technology.

He thought “repair schematics” and the HUD responded by displaying a complicated set of diagrams and Ancient text that he couldn’t really read. He couldn’t even tell if these were for the communications systems or something else. So—no go for that idea.

He brought up the sensor data, even though he now knew the data wasn’t exactly to be trusted because of the strange shielding effect they’d discovered. The darts had gone out of range at some point. He trusted that data, because he hadn’t heard any of their distinctive whining when he’d stepped outside the ship.

But there was a disturbing spike in life signs, converging on the gate. Had some of the darts dropped Wraith soldiers in the area? He had no way of knowing without a visual. The sun on this planet had started to set. Soon it would be full dark.

John rubbed his palms over his thighs and stared at the HUD.

He would hunker down for the night in the ship and see if the Wraith left the area. If that didn’t work—well, he’d worry about that tomorrow. For now, he figured Elizabeth would refuse to send a rescue team while there was a possibility of the rescuers being swept up into a Wraith dart. Elizabeth was smart. She would wait for some kind of signal from John, or send a MALP through at some point to check for trouble.

Through the windscreen, John noticed the rainfall slow. He stood up and stretched, and then headed to the back.

He stretched out on the bench in the back of the jumper, propping himself up against the wall separating the front compartment from the jumper bay. He prowled through his pack and found an MRE, which he prepared and ate in the span of a half-hour.

Then he eyed the computers Rodney had left scattered, noticing that Rodney had brought along the tablet he considered his personal property these days. John leaned over and reached for it, dragging it back up onto the bench with him and laying it across his thighs. There had to be some kind of game on it that would occupy him for a few hours anyway.

John scrolled through the directories, and after not seeing anything that looked promising, muttered, “Come on, Rodney, you have to keep some damn kind of entertainment on here...”

And then he found a password protected directory named dreamlogs. Huh.

Rodney kept a log of his dreams. Weird. John raised his eyebrows and tapped his fingers against the edge of the tablet.

John knew he shouldn’t, but—well, it was Rodney. And he needed something to occupy his mind or the boredom of waiting around was going to eat him alive.

He tried the master password Rodney had once told him and never expected him to remember.

Just like that, he was in.

He felt a flicker of guilt, squashed it, and started skimming. Some good blackmail material might come in handy if he ever wanted Rodney to perform a bit of technical magic for him.

He started opening random files named by date.

Whales were mentioned too many times to count, followed by Samantha Carter, dark spaces, empty rooms, whooshing doors, sliding along a floor, and—

“Holy crap.”

John saw his name, more than once.

“...Sheppard smiles at me and I can’t remember why. Then I wake up suddenly.”

“Sheppard does that thing with his mouth and then I wake up.”

“... and John smiles at me again. I can’t figure out why it bothers me. Of course, I wake up as soon as it happens.”

“Sheppard smirks, as usual, just before I wake up.”

“And again, Sheppard’s mouth. Why the hell do I keep seeing this?”

There were more instances but they all pretty much said the same thing, although the context and repetition of the event in the dream made no real sense. Mixed in with the strange references were plenty of other notes of other, more ordinary dreams. Some definitely had blackmail potential, but now John was pretty sure he would never be able to use it because knowing Rodney knew about John knowing about Rodney’s “Sheppard dream” would just be too weird.

John wondered at the coincidence of Rodney’s recurring dream. John had one of his own, that he had carefully never told anyone about. It involved his hand and the collar of Rodney’s shirt at the back of his neck. It was strange as hell and he’d been having it for a long time now.

But, another glance at the list of dreams answered one question for John. He might have an explanation now for why Rodney had reached out and touched the corner of his mouth today.

Rodney’s finger should have been rough and calloused but John had only felt smooth softness graze his skin. And yeah—this would be a great time to check that those life signs weren’t getting too close to the jumper, because a cloak only worked so well. The Wraith might still stumble right into the ship and then he would have no chance of getting the hell out of here tomorrow.

*

Rodney, Teyla, Ronon, and Major Lorne’s team waited in front of the gate, geared up and ready to go. Elizabeth stood in the operations area on the floor above, staring out over the balcony at them. The MALP had shown no Wraith activity, although the video feed had cut out after only a few minutes.

There’d been no radio contact from Sheppard overnight, but Rodney had explained that Sheppard might have had to pull back to safe ground because of the odd electrical buildup they’d experienced yesterday. After that discussion, they’d all decided that taking a jumper back to the planet wouldn’t be a great idea. So, they were walking.

From Rodney’s vantage point near the gate, Elizabeth seemed to be watching the video feed one last time, before she raised her head and nodded at Rodney and the others. At her signal, Lorne led the way through the gate. Lorne’s team, then Rodney, followed, leaving Teyla and Ronon to bring up the rear.

Coming out the other side of the wormhole and into chill damp air made Rodney groan. “It probably rained all night,” he said, “and now I’m going to get wet again.”

“Sky’s clear,” Ronon said. “You’ll make it.”

Teyla raised her face to the sun. “Yes, I believe the rain is over.”

“It’s still wet,” Rodney mumbled.

Major Lorne was talking to his men, but Rodney didn’t pay attention to what they were saying. He had brought along another life signs detector, and he rapped his fingertips against the screen repeatedly, but it didn’t help. This was bad. He’d been hoping to get some readings right out of the gate. “I’m getting nothing,” he said. “No life signs, no energy readings, nothing.”

Lorne shared a look with his men. Teyla looked to Ronon, who shrugged.

Rodney said what none of the others wanted to say, although he seriously hoped he was wrong, “What if something happened to the ship? What if he’s dead? What if the Wraith got him?”

Teyla sighed and touched Rodney’s forearm. “You yourself said there’s something unusual about this planet, Rodney. If John is not showing up on your device, that does not mean he is not okay and waiting for us to find him.”

Rodney shook his head. “Who are we kidding? We all know he would have returned to Atlantis by now if he could have.”

“We’ll fan out and start searching the area you told us about,” Lorne said. “We’ll also keep trying the radio. We might get a signal through when we get away from the Stargate.”

Rodney nodded and tucked the Ancient device into his vest pocket. Lorne had been filled in on the events of yesterday, and they had all decided in the mission briefing that the first place they’d look for Sheppard would be the location where Rodney had had to move the jumper to protect it from the building electrical charges. If Sheppard had been able to land the ship, that was the most likely place he would have chosen.

This sucked though. Worrying about one of his teammates like this made Rodney’s ulcer hurt—and despite Carson’s adamant denial that Rodney even had an ulcer, Rodney was sure Carson was missing something on the scan.

He tucked his hand around his weapon and began the tromp over wet ground, mud squishing up around the soles of his boots with every step.

They finally reached the copse of trees.

Rodney heard Lorne try Sheppard on the radio, “Colonel Sheppard, do you copy?”

Everyone stayed alert, eyes scanning for signs of Wraith.

Lorne repeated himself, and they all kept moving forward through the trees. Rodney cursed as another spattering of cold water droplets fell on his head from the leaves above. Rodney decided he hated this planet. First inappropriate touching, then kids and Wraith darts, and a missing John Sheppard, and now this.

Lorne shook his head at Rodney. Sheppard hadn’t replied.

They traveled on through the copse without incident and came out on the other side. Rodney looked around for signs of the jumper. He still had his remote device and he decided now was as good a time as any, so he pulled it out and pointed it in the vague direction of where the ship had been parked yesterday and pressed the button.

The ship shimmered into existence.

Everyone stopped in their tracks.

“Okay, that was easier than I expected.” Rodney looked over at Lorne.

Lorne gestured his men forward. “Colonel Sheppard, we’re approaching the puddle jumper, do you copy?”

“The ship looks okay,” Ronon said.

“I do not sense any Wraith presence,” Teyla said, turning her head to look over at Lorne, who was a few feet to her right.

Rodney pointed the device again and thought about lowering the bay door while he clicked the button again. The back of the jumper opened with a small hiss.

Lorne and Ronon eased up to the ship and peered around the edge. Ronon walked inside. Lorne shot a look back to Rodney and the others and shook his head. “He’s not here.”

“Then where is he?” asked one of Lorne’s men, a young sergeant if Rodney remembered correctly.

But Rodney just looked at Lorne and fought back a churning in his stomach. What if he’d been right and the Wraith had gotten Sheppard? What if John was dead?

*

“Way to go, John.” Maybe it said something that he’d started talking to himself, but it wouldn’t be the first time, and if he made it out of this mess, it probably wouldn’t be the last.

Last night his plan had been simple. His team would come through once the Wraith cleared away from the Stargate, Rodney would fix the jumper, or bring back a bunch of scientists who would, and then they’d get the ship back through to Atlantis where it could be more thoroughly repaired and put back into service.

This morning, the Wraith had appeared to be gone. Since John couldn’t fully trust the sensors, he’d decided it was time for that visual. It was still wet, but the rain had finally stopped. The sun was rising, if slowly, and burning off a thin layer of fog.

John had been gearing up after managing a few short naps overnight in between keeping an eye on the life signs and watching for any indications of dangerous energy buildups like those that had put the jumper out of commission, not once but twice, when he’d seen a strange energy reading on the HUD. Not a power build up, but a sharp spike that came and went in a rhythmic pulse. It had appeared to be less than two miles away from the ship, in the direction away from the gate with no nearby life signs showing up on the HUD.

Now here he was, knee deep in a raging river about fifteen feet wide, struggling to keep his feet under him and failing. He’d already be floating downriver if he hadn’t managed to grab onto a thick tree branch sticking out over the ledge he’d slid down when he’d dodged that stunner blast.

This was why he didn’t let his team members go off on recon missions alone when they were on unexplored planets. And yet, here he was.

He had his answer to the question of whether the Wraith were using the planet’s unusual shielding effects to hide their presence on the planet. What he needed now was Rodney to tell him how the hell it was happening.

But first—

He grunted, swinging his legs up, scrabbling, boots slipping along the muddy slope of the river bank. The Wraith soldiers would be coming up on him fast, and he either needed to get back to solid ground quick so he could make a run for it back to the jumper, or he was going to have to let go and take his chances with the roiling waters of the river under him.

The rain had stirred up the river and it flowed swift and hard, swirling around his knees, soaking him up to his thighs in cold, cold water. He’d bet his newest batch of sudoku puzzles this planet was just coming out of winter weather. Although the air temperature couldn’t be lower than sixty or sixty-five degrees, the icy chill of the river was making his teeth chatter and his fingers stiff despite the adrenaline flooding his body.

Suddenly, he could hear the thrashing of heavy bodies through the trees up above where the river cut into the soupy ground. He weighed his options, took a deep breath, and let go.

*

“The ship won’t fly,” Rodney told Lorne. Rodney sat in the pilot’s seat of the jumper. Lorne leaned over him from behind the seat, resting his hand on the console for support and watching Rodney flip through diagnostics screens on his computer.

Rodney continued, “There are several important crystals that have been fried, and some wiring that will have to be replaced. He’s lucky he got it down in one piece.”

“So we can’t fly her back to Atlantis?”

Rodney spared a sharp look for Lorne. “Did I not just say the ship won’t fly? Seriously, you’re asking that question?”

Rodney stared at the screen of the tablet he’d interfaced with the jumper to help him determine just how bad the damage was. “Whatever caused the new damage created a cascade failure that was compounded by the workarounds I’d already put in place because of the lightning strike. Let me put this in simple words. This ship will not fly. That help?”

“Doc,” Lorne said, in a tone that called Rodney out for being a smartass. Rodney huffed and twisted around in the seat. Lorne was hovering too close and Rodney could feel claustrophobia setting in.

Teyla came up beside them and rested her hand on the back of the empty co-pilot’s seat. “I believe John’s gear is missing.”

“He’s probably scouting the area,” Ronon said. He was sitting on the bench in the back, twirling his gun in his hand, around, up, down, around... Driving Rodney absolutely crazy with it because every time he turned to look at another reading on his computer or check a crystal he could see the spinning weapon out of the corner of his eye.

A light flared on the HUD. Rodney dropped his tablet to the console in front of him and stared hard at the display. “Wait, wait, I think I’m finally picking something up again. See this? It appears to be some kind of pulsating energy signature. Maybe it’s shown up before and Sheppard went to check it out.”

“That might explain the colonel’s absence better than your theory that he’s been captured or killed by the Wraith.”

“That could still be the case,” Rodney said. “I’m still not picking up—No, I have no idea what kind of energy signature this is.”

Lorne leaned closer and studied the readout on the HUD. He said something into the radio Rodney didn’t catch, probably giving instructions to his guys standing around outside.

“If everybody would shut up for a minute so I could think, maybe I could figure out where Sheppard is so we won’t be walking around blind, hoping to bump into him. This is a big planet. A little planning might do wonders for the chances of us actually finding—huh. Something just blipped—and again. Oh, oh, wait, I do have something alive out there, about three and a half kilometers—” Rodney swiveled in the seat, got his bearings and then pointed to the right side of the ship. “In that direction and moving away fast. Not that far from the energy reading.”

Lorne narrowed his eyes at the HUD readout, then reached out and adjusted Rodney’s pointing arm a few degrees to the left. “I think that’s a better approximation, Dr. McKay.”

“I wasn’t trying to be exact,” Rodney said. “Really, I was close enough. It might not be him, you know.”

“Well, it’s the best we’ve got,” Lorne said, pushing back and finally, finally getting out of Rodney’s space. “Let’s move out.”

Lorne checked his gun in a move that seemed more habit than anything else. “Stay together. If what Dr. McKay told us yesterday is correct, the radios can’t be counted on and neither can the life signs detector.”

“If?” Rodney asked. “Something is definitely going on with this planet. Mark my words, there’s a disaster waiting at the end of this mission for us and that’s not just my natural pessimism speaking. I’ve got a bad feeling about this whole thing.”

Rodney heard Lorne sigh and caught the look he passed to Teyla. Rodney mashed his lips together. Who knew what could be waiting for them out there? If it weren’t for the fact that it was John who needed them... But that probably wasn’t true either.

They exited the jumper quickly, checked their gear, and then Rodney set the cloak on the ship.

“Keep your guard up,” Lorne said. “We might not like it, but Dr. McKay’s right. We have no way of knowing who or what we’re chasing. Let’s keep the chatter to a minimum.”

*

“I’m getting more than one life sign now,” Rodney said, “and they’re not that far ahead, but they’re moving away at a steady clip.”

They had covered most of the distance between the jumper and the location of the energy reading. So far they hadn’t seen any sign of other people or Wraith, only thickening forest and underbrush. They were nearing a waterway of some kind. Rodney had yet to see anything, but by the sound of things, it was fast moving and loud.

“How many?” Ronon asked.

“Five—no, six. They keep popping up. I think they’re wandering out of a shielded area.”

“We can take ‘em,” Ronon said.

Rodney glanced up from the detector long enough to see Lorne lower his gun and look around, checking everyone’s position.

“See how long that number holds steady,” Lorne said. “We need to know if we’re walking into a trap.” Lorne raised his eyebrows and met Ronon’s fierce gaze. “We can only take on so many.”

Rodney didn’t believe Ronon had a weak bone in his body. Anyone who knew Ronon knew he would take on an entire hive ship alone if given half the chance. Ronon wasn’t that stupid, but Ronon’s hatred of the Wraith knew no bounds.

“I’m aware of that, even if he isn’t,” Rodney said to Lorne. “I’ll let you know. Right now, it’s holding steady at six, and one of them appears to be leading the others around. It might be—”

“Colonel Sheppard?” Lorne cut in.

Rodney clenched his teeth. “Yes, that was what I was about to say. Your deductive reasoning skills boggle even my genius sometimes.”

“Can we circle around to come out on his side and surprise the others?”

“If there was any way to be sure that the one out front is Colonel Sheppard!” Rodney thrust his free hand out, gesturing wildly at the screen of the life signs detector. “A few blinking dots on a device that doesn’t differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys doesn’t tell us that. Also, I need to find out what this energy reading is. It might have something to do with what the Wraith are doing on this planet. If they’re hiding something important and Sheppard got too close—”

“We must find John first, Rodney,” Teyla said.

“Of course we do. I know that,” Rodney said. “I’m just saying.”

“Then let us first find Colonel Sheppard, and then we can decide what to do next.”

Rodney couldn’t counter her logic.

“We’ll circle around,” Lorne said. “Keep me informed about the direction of the lone guy and we’ll try to cut him off. If it’s not Colonel Sheppard, we’ll worry about that when the time comes.”

Lorne gestured forward and he and his guys led the way. Rodney trudged behind the others, Teyla and Ronon flanking him, and tried to stay alert.

Sheppard had better not get himself killed out here today. Rodney would never forgive him for that.

*

John wedged his hand in between two rocks and heaved, pulling his shivering body up the low, rocky river bank and onto mostly dry ground. The earth he scrambled onto was covered in sandy, loose dirt and scrubby brush. Trees grew tall a few feet back from the bank, the undergrowth thick enough to impede his view into most of the forest surrounding the narrow river.

The rough and tumble ride had been a risk but it looked like a banged up shoulder and a throbbing bruise on his hip were going to be the worst of his injuries. The shivers wracking his body told him he wasn’t too close to hypothermia, and the ambient air temperature was actually rising from the heat of the bright sun so he’d be fine once he started to dry out. The Wraith on his tail had fallen behind as the churning waters had propelled him down the river.

The downside was that he was now considerably further from both the gate and the ship he’d left behind. And, oh yeah, the Wraith were still out there somewhere.

But his team should have returned for him by now, and if Elizabeth was acting according to protocol, they’d have backup.

He shook the water off his gun. It should still fire okay for now, but he wasn’t happy about having soaked it in silt-laden river water. He felt for his earpiece and found it still attached. He tapped it on. “This is Sheppard. Anyone copy?”

Static answered, but then a short burst of sound that made him wince.

“I repeat, this is Sheppard. Say again?”

“If you’re who...think you are—”

What? John frowned. The transmission was breaking up, but he got the gist of it and it still didn’t make any sense. Rodney would know who he was from his voice.

“—then you’re...to get some company! You...get out of there!”

Oh.

Oh, crap.

John dashed for the nearest tree. When he reached it, he threw himself against the trunk, feeling the bark scratch at his clothing and skin. Rodney must have brought another life signs detector with him. He would not be able to tell the life signs apart and that meant there must be more than one clustered together.

“What direction?” John whispered. He studied the forest around him, and then carefully peered around the tree. Nothing but brush and woods in any direction.

“Can’t...”

“Direction?” John repeated. “I need to know the direction they’re coming from.”

“...degrees to the left...sun’s current position,” Rodney said. John realized that was the best he could probably do since north, south, east, and west really only meant anything back on Earth.

John tilted his head back to stare up through the canopy of branches covered in orange and gold leaves. He pinpointed the sun’s location easily enough and then followed it down through the trees to establish the direction Rodney had given him.

Son of a bitch. He was on the wrong side of the tree.

John shifted position, and then listened intently for the sounds of pursuit. He heard nothing for a moment, until a loud crack drew his attention to a thick collection of brush, nearer to the river than he’d been expecting.

Suddenly, two Wraith soldiers thrashed their way through the thicket. John twisted out of view to hide behind the wide trunk and jerked his gun up. He breathed deep, counted to three and then yanked himself around and shot off a burst of gunfire at the Wraith who were closing fast. He spun away and ran for a better position, stunner blasts coming close enough to taste in the air around him.

John took cover behind another large tree trunk and shot off another burst of gunfire. This time he hit the Wraith closest to him enough times to drop it to the ground. He immediately switched his focus to the other Wraith, but the stunner caught the edge of his right arm and he lost his grip on the trigger.

“Shit!” He turned and ran, weaving his way through the trees. He struggled to shuffle the gun from his numb hand into his working one, getting a left-handed grip on it before he spun around and let loose with another less well-controlled burst of gunfire. He growled out in frustration, and then shouted into his radio, “How many? How close are you? I could use some backup.”

His right arm was numb from fingers to shoulder. He was barely staying ahead of the Wraith chasing him down, and no one had answered his radio call. He ducked down behind another tree, this one not nearly wide enough to hide him completely. He dodged a searingly close blast from the Wraith’s stunner and then leaned out and fired, using the last of his clip. Getting another in before the Wraith overtook him was going to be too close for comfort.

John worked as quickly as he could with only one hand, but damn it, he was slow. Too slow.

As soon as he had the fresh clip in, he leaned out again, almost expecting to see the Wraith right on top of him. Instead, he saw the Wraith’s fallen body a few feet away. He breathed a sigh of relief, but it was cut short when he spotted another two Wraith flanking him to the left. He spun on the balls of his feet in the direction of the new threat, leaning on the tree for balance, only to hear a sudden flurry of birds taking flight behind him.

Then the world around him dissolved in a spasm of light and the sudden release of tension in every muscle in his body.

*

“Only four life-signs left,” Rodney managed to get out around the breath jolting in and out of his body. He ran through the forest, the life signs detector clutched in his hand, losing ground to Ronon and Lorne, but Teyla was sticking close to him, as if she understood he had the information they needed to best help Sheppard. But that last bit was all he had, and now it was up to them to take out the Wraith before they took out John, and the sudden halt of movement from the dot Rodney had been sure was Sheppard was just as responsible for the sweat running down his temple as any of the rest of the hell he was going through.

John had better appreciate this later, when they dragged his ass back to Atlantis in one piece. Rodney figured he was owed at least a couple passes in the gym—maybe a hell of a lot more. Briars and jutting tree limbs smacked at his arms and face, and the tender crease of his neck once, and hell, that had really hurt. Like the others, he was on a mad sprint through the heavily wooded forest, in full gear, carrying a P-90—which was definitely not his usual style, but which he was thankful to have now that there were Wraith around, and he was about to burst a lung with what he was sure was a bad case of exercise induced asthma, Carson’s medical opinion be damned.

“I got one!” yelled one of Lorne’s guys. Gunfire erupted ahead of Rodney. Rodney jerked his gun up and stumbled to a stop. God, he hoped Sheppard stayed out of the line of fire.

Rodney heard the distinctive blare of Ronon’s gun going off, saw Teyla brace herself and let loose a volley of shots in the direction of a hulking shadow Rodney could see only from the corner of his eye, smelled the crush of wet leaves and the near-ozone scent of electricity. He fumbled the detector where he was trying to hold it over the top of his gun, realized the number of blips had changed, and almost froze when he saw three—six—seven more appear at the edges of the screen, life signs coming out of nowhere.

“Oh god, we’re totally screwed. Ronon! Teyla! Lorne! We have a problem! More Wraith. Or something. Headed our way.”

“How many?” More gunshots, until suddenly, only one last burst of gunfire and then silence and three dead Wraith on the ground.

“I have John,” Teyla called out. “He is alive, but unconscious.”

“Oh, thank god.” Rodney released his weapon and it dropped to dangle from its strap. He wiped his shaky hand over his mouth and jaw, brushing away stinging sweat and smearing blood on the palm of his hand. “Oh.” He reached up and fingered his cheek and discovered several tender scratches.

“How many?” Lorne repeated, louder this time and it jolted Rodney back to the problem heading their way.

“It doesn’t even matter. We’re going to get cut off from the Stargate if we don’t get moving.” Rodney moved closer to Lorne and showed him the newest dots.

Lorne pointed in a direction that cut between the new life signs and the Stargate. “We’re going to have to abandon the jumper for now,” Lorne said. “We’ll go straight for the gate. The jumper should be as safe as it’s going to be for the time being—it’s cloaked. There’s not much else we can do.”

Rodney couldn’t argue with that assessment. Teyla only nodded her head and Ronon looked like he couldn’t care one way or the other.

Ronon leaned down and reached for John’s arm and used it to lever John up and over his shoulder. John groaned but didn’t regain consciousness.

Grimacing, Ronon said, “He’s wet.”

“Again?” Rodney said. When the others just looked at him with blank expressions, he added, “Never mind. I don’t have time to tell you the story and you probably wouldn’t think it was nearly as funny as I do anyway.”

*

“Your plan’s not going to work, McKay,” Ronon said. He pointed with his gun through the trees. “The gate’s crawling with Wraith now.”

Along with a large contingent of Wraith drones, some clearly standing guard before the gate, two Wraith warriors looked out over the plain, none close enough to see the small group Rodney was part of clustered behind some of the thick underbrush of the surrounding forest.

Rodney handed Teyla’s binoculars back to her and twisted his head in Ronon’s direction, away from the view of Wraith milling around. “It wasn’t my plan. I just supplied the information. Lorne came up with the plan.”

Ronon shrugged, bent at the knees, and shifted John’s limp body on his shoulder. “Sheppard needs to wake up.”

Ha. Rodney couldn’t resist a brief smirk. “What? Is he getting too heavy for you?”

“No, he just comes up with better plans than you do.”

Rodney’s smirk turned into a glower. “That’s not true,” he said. Ronon’s steady stare and Teyla’s raised eyebrow encouraged him to amend his statement. “Okay, that’s not always true. But I’ve come up with some awesome plans. And I keep telling you, this wasn’t my plan.”

“No,” Lorne said, coming up beside Rodney and the others, “it was the best plan at the time, but it looks like we’re going to have to circle back around to the jumper. At least we’ll be hid inside the cloak. You’ll have to get it flying again, Dr. McKay—”

“Of course I will. Even if it’s not even a remote possibility—”

“Colonel Sheppard trusts you and that means I trust you. You’ll get it done.”

“Oh, thanks for that. A few pats on the back and everyone expects miracles.”

Lorne shouldered his gun and asked, in all seriousness, “Are you saying the jumper isn’t fixable?”

Rodney waved his hands in a gesture meant to convey “how can I know this without further data?” but from the expression on Lorne’s—and Teyla’s and Ronon’s—face, he wasn’t sure anyone understood. He exhaled a loud sigh. “Look, there’s always a chance even I can’t fix it, but no, I don’t think it’s completely beyond repair at this point. Not from what I saw earlier.”

“Then that’s what we have to do. There’s no way we can take the gate with the odds we have right now. We need that jumper to get off this planet.”

“Then let’s get moving,” Ronon said, “Sheppard’s heavier than he looks.”

“Oh, so now you admit it.”

Ronon’s grunt of acknowledgement wasn’t at all satisfying.

*

Rodney tried to creep quietly through the trees beside Teyla, Ronon just ahead of them, with the still unconscious Sheppard swaying over his shoulder.

“I do not understand why John has not recovered. Are you not concerned?”

“It’s...different,” Rodney said, “but he could have been hit by multiple blasts.”

“And that would cause him to remain unconscious for a longer period of time?” She sounded as if she already suspected the answer and only wanted confirmation.

“I’d say yes.”

She gave a short nod and turned back to watching their surroundings.

Rodney had been keeping an eye on the life signs detector, but as before, all the life signs other than their own appeared to be converged around the Stargate for the time being. They shouldn’t run into anyone on the trek back to the jumper, although Rodney had reminded everyone that the detector still wasn’t to be trusted one-hundred percent.

Sheppard’s arms hung down to the back of Ronon’s thighs, and they swung with every step Ronon took. Sheppard’s hair had given way to gravity and stuck out every which way. Rodney was watching the bounce and jump of Sheppard’s torso against Ronon’s back when he saw Sheppard’s body stiffen suddenly and he realized Sheppard had just come out of his stupor.

Ronon had obviously noticed the difference too, because he stopped and leaned forward, and dropped Sheppard to the ground in front of him.

Sheppard landed hard on his ass, with a thump and the crackle of dead leaves under him.

Rodney breathed a sigh of relief as Sheppard groaned and reached for his head. “What happened? My head’s pounding like a son of a bitch.”

“You got stunned,” Ronon said. He flexed his shoulder and then rubbed the back of his neck. Rodney tried to feel sorry for him, but—No one ever seemed to feel sorry for him when he was working his ass off on repairs or miracles. They each had their place on the team. This was Ronon’s as far as Rodney was concerned.

Rodney was the brains, Ronon the brawn, John the leader, and Teyla, the diplomat—and maybe she carried a bit of the brawn title too.

“We saved you,” Rodney said.

“I got that,” Sheppard said. “What’s going on?”

“We’re trying to get off this damned planet, that’s what,” Rodney said.

“We tried to return to the Stargate, but the Wraith have blocked our escape,” Teyla said. She tapped her radio on. “Major Lorne, Colonel Sheppard has regained consciousness.”

“Copy that. We’ll wait here for you to catch up.”

“So, what? It’s time for plan B?” Sheppard pushed himself up on his elbows and looked around through squinted eyes, giving Rodney a glimpse of how bad Sheppard’s head must be hurting.

“Uh, more like plan D,” Rodney said.

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“It isn’t McKay’s plan,” Ronon said.

Rodney glared at Ronon. He was pretty sure Ronon had just said that to piss him off.

Sheppard raised his eyebrows, looking between Ronon and Rodney. Rodney said, “It’s Lorne’s.”

“Lorne knows what he’s doing.”

Teyla offered her hand to Sheppard. He took it and let her draw him to his feet. Sheppard’s gaze took in the forest around them. “Where is he?”

“Just ahead,” Teyla answered. “Did you not hear his reply on the radio?”

Sheppard’s eyes looked blank, until he reached up and touched his ear piece. “Ah, maybe it shorted out. It got wet—”

“And stunned,” Rodney interrupted.

Sheppard gave Rodney an undeserved look of irritation. “And stunned.” He shrugged and jiggled the radio receiver. “It doesn’t seem to be working anymore.”

“Let me see it.” Rodney held out his hand. “It might be broken.”

“Yes, Rodney, it might be broken.” Sheppard slapped the piece of gear onto Rodney palm.

“We should go,” Sheppard said. He squeezed his forehead between his thumb and fingers and then straightened. “Come on. We shouldn’t waste time. This planet is crawling with Wraith.”

Sheppard led the way toward Lorne’s position and the jumper. Rodney followed and Ronon and Teyla brought up the rear.

*

John found himself eyeballing Rodney’s computer, for the umpteenth time as he sat in the crowded jumper, watching Rodney work on the panel of crystals across from him near the roof.

He would never be able to tease Rodney with any of the blackmail worthy material he’d discovered in Rodney’s log of dreams—Samantha Carter, for god’s sake, in nothing but a pair of boots and what the hell was that about?—because of the weird stuff in there about him. If John mentioned the one, Rodney would know he’d seen the other, and then, things might just get weird between them. John didn’t want to gamble their comfortable, if sometimes antagonistic, friendship just for the chance to have a little fun with Rodney.

His head still hurt and the residual effects of the stun blast might have worn off, but his crack against the tree hadn’t, nor had his wild ride down the river. He ached, all over.

“You guys had great timing,” he said to Teyla, to distract himself from thoughts of dreams and weirdness and Rodney. He leaned back on the bench and stretched out his legs. The movement pulled something in his ribs and he gave an exaggerated groan.

Rodney glanced down from the crystal panel and John noticed Rodney look him over. Rodney’s frown brought out the sharp slant of his mouth, leaving John to wonder what Rodney was thinking. He probably didn’t want to know. In fact, he was supposed to be distracting himself.

“You might want to move your legs,” Rodney said, pointing to where John’s booted feet bracketed Rodney’s. “If I fall and break any of these crystals, we can kiss this ride back to Atlantis goodbye. Not even my genius will get this thing back in the air.”

John kicked lightly at Rodney’s foot. “You’re just messing with me. You know you can fix it.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t fix it. Your run in with the lightning on top of the workarounds I’d already done mean we don’t have any wiggle room. I need every last crystal I have here.”

“How long’s this going to take?”

“Hours—assuming people quit distracting me with useless chatter and pointless conversation.”

“Rodney...”

“Yes, fine. Two hours. Maybe more.”

“That’s the best you can do?”

“If I could do it faster, I would. I don’t want to be on this planet any longer than anyone else. Less so, if we’re honest. Any time we get stuck somewhere, everything goes to hell and I’d rather not be here when that happens, thank you very much.”

John tapped his fingers against the bench seat. He looked across the space to Ronon, who stood against the open bulkhead door separating the front and back of the jumper. He looked bored as hell.

No one stood outside the jumper, although Lorne’s three guys were at the open ramp, watching the surrounding area as best they could from inside the protection of the cloak.

John glanced to Teyla at his side, and Lorne on her other side, both sitting on the bench, radiating calm. John liked Lorne for that reason. The man could do patience even when he was completely exasperated, as his ability to tolerate Rodney’s brash attitude proved. Most of Atlantis’s personnel had gotten used to Rodney, respected his contributions, and him, but there were still a few who didn’t get Rodney, not like John and the rest of the team did. It was nice to know that some of the people John liked best also understood how he expected them to treat Rodney, despite Rodney’s personality issues.

“Okay,” John said to no one in particular. “This would be a good time to get a look at that power spike we keep reading. If we take the life signs detector, we stand a good chance of staying out of the way of the Wraith, so Teyla, Ronon, you’re with me. Lorne, you stay here with Rodney.”

“What?” Rodney demanded. “I wanted to get a look at that myself.”

“You think anybody else can fix the jumper?”

Rodney’s lips thinned and he turned back to the panel, stabbing at it with the stylus-sized device he used to work with the crystals. “This is so unfair. What makes you think you won’t run right into the Wraith again just like you did this morning?”

“Life signs detector. See? I thought I mentioned that.” John knew he had. Rodney was just looking for an excuse to complain about John getting to run off and do something interesting.

“Yeah. Whatever. I have work to do. Quit bothering me.”

John shrugged off Rodney’s jealousy with a muffled laugh and a shared grin with Ronon and Teyla. He reached for his handheld backup radio from his pack and starting gearing up.

*

The mid-day sun warmed John’s face and neck. The morning chill had disappeared, and if John had been on Earth, he might have thought this was one of the last days of fall, where the temperature fluctuated wildly before the real cold of winter finally set in. At a comfortable walk, the heat wasn’t bad, but all geared up, the rising temperature caused sweat to break out under his t-shirt. It didn’t help that he was still damp in places from his trip downriver.

Teyla and Ronon walked nearby, each staying within sight of the other. John carried the life signs detector, keeping an eye out for unexpected company, and also watching the fluctuations of the pulsing energy signature. Sometimes it would disappear altogether, but it had yet to disappear permanently.

“We’re not that far away, now,” John said. He kept his voice down, because they also weren’t that far away from where he’d run into the Wraith that morning and ended up in the nearby river.

Teyla slowed her pace and fell back to his position. “It is strangely quiet here except for the sound of the river.”

Ronon came up on John’s right. “You’d expect to hear birds or something,” he said. “There ain’t nothing moving in the trees. First time it’s been this quiet.”

“Yeah,” John said. “Noticed that too this morning, but I got distracted when those Wraith started shooting at me.”

Teyla kept her gaze on the trees around them, watching. “Either the Wraith are searching for something on this planet or they are hiding something here.”

John felt a flicker of unease. He glanced at the detector, but nothing new appeared. “That’s what I’ve been thinking,” he said.

He walked forward at a slow, careful pace, keeping an eye on Teyla. She had good instincts and he trusted them. He swept the forest with his senses, watching, listening, much the same as Teyla seemed to be doing, then caught sight of Ronon’s thumb flickering over the handle of his gun with his peripheral vision. “Something making you jittery, Ronon?”

“Maybe. Don’t know.” Ronon’s hand stopped moving, his fingers curled around the hilt of his weapon. “Doesn’t feel right.”

“Same here,” John said, quieter than before. The hush of the forest shrieked warnings at him, but the life signs detector remained clear of anything in their vicinity except for themselves. He eased forward, gun up and ready to shoot at the first provocation.

Teyla shrieked, sudden and sharp, and John spun on his heel in her direction only to see her fall into the earth.

Ronon ran to her position, stopping quickly. “There’s a hole. Watch yourself,” he said, thrusting out his arm and stopping John from coming too close to the treacherous drop into a dark abyss.

John dropped to his knees, then his stomach and looked down over the edge. “Teyla!”

He heard her groan. The sound echoed off what could have been metal, but it hadn’t come from too deep into the ground. He felt an immense surge of relief that at least she wasn’t dead.

“Teyla,” he called again, Ronon leaning right over his shoulder. They both waited for a reply.

“I am...here.” Teyla sounded breathless and she coughed loud and hard for a moment. “The fall...knocked my breath from my body,” she said. “And it is very dusty down here.”

“Are you okay?” John pointed his P-90 into the darkness and flipped the light on. The beam of light scattered through a thousand particles of dust and dirt floating in the air and swept across a dark stone floor, bounced off reflective metallic walls and came to rest on Teyla’s form, sitting upright in the center of what appeared to be a narrow rectangular room.

“My ankle hurts. It does not feel broken, but I cannot be certain. The pain is tolerable.” She leaned over and reached for her gun, and then dragged it to her. She flicked on her own light and moved it around her position.

“See anything?”

John played his light over the walls and heard her shifting around. He swept his light over Teyla again to see her hobbling to her feet, before he returned his light to illuminate the wall opposite her. A wide metal staircase rose toward the ground away from Teyla. He saw her look up, following the lines of the metal supports.

“There is a stairway leading to the surface,” she said. “I believe I see an entrance. The stairs look solid.” She turned back to face John and Ronon. “The ceiling beam beneath the ground where I fell appears to have rotted through.” She looked around, and John thought she must be studying the ceiling of the rest of the room. “The other beams appear whole and undamaged.”

Because of the Wraith, many of the people of the Pegasus galaxy had built below ground in an effort to protect themselves and their civilizations from culling. Not many had succeeded in holding off the destruction of their technologies, sciences, and cultures, but John couldn’t blame them for trying. The number of underground facilities they came across continued to grow with the number of planets they explored.

This could be another dead civilization’s last remaining legacy.

“John, Ronon.” Teyla’s tone of voice had changed. “There is Wraith technology down here.”

Or not.

“We’re going to need Rodney, aren’t we?”

“I am afraid so,” Teyla answered.

“Crap,” John said, with feeling. He wasn’t upset that they needed Rodney’s expertise. But if Rodney were here, then no one would be working to fix the jumper. John pulled his radio out of his vest, clicked it on, and said, “Major Lorne, do you copy?” He got nothing but static back. He tried again, with the same result.

Ronon pushed back from the edge. “I’ll get him.”

John tucked his radio back into his vest. “Hurry back—and be careful.”

Ronon gave him a look that asked why had John even bothered to suggest he wouldn’t. John shrugged. Sometimes he liked being the leader just because he didn’t have to answer those kinds of unspoken questions. He turned back to Teyla, and said, “Hold tight. I’ll see if I can make my way down, while Ronon goes after Rodney.”

He heard Ronon’s grunt before Ronon ran off into the trees.

*

Rodney wasn’t sure what he expected to find at the bottom of the hole in the ground. On the way back to Sheppard’s and Teyla’s position, Ronon had said little about what they’d discovered. Rodney wasn’t sure if it was because Ronon didn’t really know, or if he was just in a foul mood and didn’t want to talk.

The trek went quickly, with Ronon scanning the forest as they walked. Or maybe Rodney should have said trotted, because Ronon barely kept his gait slow enough for Rodney to keep up without breaking into a run. By the time they reached the spot where Teyla had apparently stepped right into their big discovery, Rodney was flushed and out of breath and a little pissed off, because if they’d brought him along to begin with—like he had damn well suggested, he wouldn’t have been rushed along after the fact.

Sheppard poked his head up out of the ground, then stepped up what Rodney quickly realized was a set of stairs.

“What took you guys so long?” Sheppard asked.

Rodney rolled his eyes at Sheppard’s tone and ignored the question entirely. He stepped cautiously over the metal ramp that lay on the ground and put his foot on the first stair tread. It crossed his mind that they had no idea how old this metal was, if it was strong enough to hold more than one man at a time, or if it was even strong enough to hold him.

The low clank of boots on metal accompanied all of them as Sheppard led the way back down.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Rodney asked, trying—and failing—to keep the pitch of his voice from climbing. “Metal doesn’t last forever, you know. This thing could be rusted out or—”

“It’s safe enough, Rodney. Quit whining.”

“That’s not—” Rodney hated it when Sheppard did that. “Okay, fine. I won’t say a word when this thing falls down around us and kills us all.”

Metal creaked and groaned at the combined weight of Sheppard, Rodney, and Ronon, and mid-way down, a loud pop echoed into the fading light of the underground room.

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Rodney muttered. “Don’t you dare.”

“Are you talking to the stairs, Rodney?” John was laughing at him. Bastard.

“Just because you tromped safely up and down this pathetic excuse of a stairway doesn’t mean it’s going to hold up for me. I’m ten pounds—okay, that look was not necessary, Sheppard. I’m maybe, possibly, fifteen pounds heavier than you.”

“Twenty,” John said.

Ronon shrugged and looked over his shoulder at Rodney. “Twenty-five.”

“Oh, ha ha ha.”

A few more steps and they were at the bottom of the staircase where Teyla waited. Thank god the thing hadn’t collapsed, because Rodney was sure if it had, there’s no way in hell he would have been able to keep from saying I told you so.

When the light of Sheppard’s flashlight glanced off Teyla, Rodney noticed her right leg was bent at the knee. Rodney frowned. No one had told him Teyla was injured, but clearly something was wrong.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes, Rodney, I will be fine. It is a sprain, nothing more.” She turned, wincing when her right foot scraped the floor.

Sheppard moved close and put his arm around her waist, giving her the support she obviously needed.

She continued, “We have discovered a door that leads to several corridors. There are also several Wraith devices here.”

Rodney pulled his computer out of the pack he’d thrown it into when Ronon had shown up unexpectedly to interrupt his work on the jumper and demanded that Rodney come with him.

“Over there?”

“Yeah,” Sheppard answered. Teyla nodded. Ronon hung back, staying out of the way. Rodney had noticed Ronon was actually quite good at that these days. It was Sheppard who always ended up in the way. This time, though, Sheppard was busy helping Teyla and couldn’t saunter over and hover while Rodney worked.

The device Rodney had noticed first was some kind of organic metallic hybrid. Although Wraith tech always seemed to have the shiny slimy texture, this had a matte white powder coating the long conduits that flowed along the wall and disappeared down into the floor. Rodney coughed, noticed it was getting a little hard to breathe, and realized at about the same time that the white powder coating was actually some kind of mold growth on the conduits.

“Oh, wow. This is more disgusting than usual,” he said. He coughed again. “I might be allergic. Anybody got a bandana or handkerchief? I need something to wrap around my face so I can breathe without worrying about spores taking up residence in my lungs.”

“Here.” Ronon reached down into the front of his pants, hand sliding under his twisted leather belt, and pulled out a long piece of cloth.

“Oh, that is not funny!” Rodney said.

Even Sheppard said, “Aw, buddy, I don’t think McKay’s going to go for that.”

“What? It’s saved my life a bunch of times. Stopped me from bleeding out. I don’t go anywhere without it.”

“Oh, that’s going to make me change my mind. I want to breathe through your bloody tourniquet.”

Sheppard dug around in his upper left vest pocket with the hand that wasn’t wrapped around Teyla’s waist. “Here you go. Try this.”

It was a green bandana. Rodney folded it into a large triangle, wrapped it around his face, covering his nose and mouth, and tied it behind his head.

Then he reached for the conduit. When the white coating flaked off into a powder as fine as chalk dust and floated visibly on the air in the beam of the flashlight, he felt hugely grateful for the mask. 

He studied the thickness of the organic conduit, its temperature, its texture. He said, disgust muffled by the cloth, “I’m pretty sure this is dead. Whatever its purpose at one time, I think it reached the end of its useful life a long time ago—a very, very long time ago. I won’t be able to get anything from this.”

“Then we should check out those corridors,” Sheppard said. “Come on.”

Rodney yanked off the bandana and tucked it into his pants pocket. He put his unused computer back into his pack for the time being and followed Sheppard and Teyla to the other side of the long rectangular room. 

Sheppard pulled the life signs detector out of his pocket and juggled it one-handed against his chest and gun, trying to hold it under the light. “Huh,” Sheppard said. He dropped his hand and leaned into Teyla, allowing her to rest her weight on his shoulder while she stood beside him.

Rodney took the life signs detector from Sheppard. He glanced at it and sighed. Nothing was showing up on it, not even them. Something seemed to be interfering with the ability of the device to locate individual energy signatures, even those close by. The device was worthless to them down here—except, there it was, the strange power spike. It flared bright on the screen, then dissolved as quickly as it had appeared. But Rodney had been watching, and now knew what direction to take.

He put out his hand. “Guys, we’re going the wrong way. Back there—” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “That’s where the energy reading is coming from. Was there a door over there?”

“Yeah, but the exposed metal is rusted over, and the rest of it’s covered with that white stuff.”

Rodney aimed his flashlight in the direction of the energy reading and grimaced at what he saw. Nonetheless, flashlight guiding him, he crossed the room toward the door.

Sheppard and Teyla hobbled after him, with Ronon behind them.

A control panel clung to the wall a meter or so above waist height. Rodney tucked his flashlight under his chin and grasped the edges of the panel. A pop and a groan later, the metal folded down on a bottom hinge, opening to expose a few badly preserved cables and wires. The white dust had also infiltrated the box, and Rodney wished he hadn’t removed the bandana. He coughed into his elbow, not wanting to get his dust-coated hands near his face.

“This sucks,” he said. He let go of the metal lid, and it clanged against the wall, rusty hinges screaking when it bounced. “Also, there’s no power getting to this panel. We’ll have to force the door.”

He heard Ronon’s weapon charge. He jerked his hands up to cover his head. “I didn’t say shoot it!”

Too late. The panel flared bright as Ronon’s gun blasted through it and the layer of metal behind it, leaving a large semi-circular hole in its wake, bleeding smoke.

The door shifted with a hiss, and a strip of pale green light showed between the door and the wall.

Rodney straightened. “There’s no way you could know that would work!” Rodney said.

“Worth trying,” Ronon said. He shrugged and then shouldered by Rodney and stuck his hand in the gap, curled his fingers around the edge of the door, and grunted with effort. The door grated open, and Rodney winced at the loud screech.

Sheppard shifted, catching Rodney’s attention with a wave of his light. “Rodney, you’re going to have to help Teyla. Ronon, watch our back. Make sure no Wraith sneak up on our tail. They figure out we’re down here, we could end up trapped.”

Rodney noticed Sheppard’s grimace when he released Teyla and he remembered that Sheppard had had a much rougher time this morning than the rest of them. “You okay?” he asked.

Sheppard gave him a curt nod. The green light spilling through the doorway wasn’t doing Sheppard’s look any favors though and Rodney thought maybe Sheppard hurt more than he let on.

Rodney moved to Teyla’s side. Teyla hopped on one foot until Rodney was in position to slip under her arm and wrap his own around her waist. She hissed through her teeth when her foot bumped against Rodney’s boot.

“And you’re sure it’s not broken?” he asked.

“I have had broken bones before. The injury is painful, but I don’t believe it is anything more than a serious sprain. I believe the swelling is to blame for most of the pain.”

No matter how badly Rodney wanted to check out that energy source, he wasn’t sure dragging Teyla along with them was a good idea. “Sheppard?”

Sheppard shook his head, seeming to know what Rodney was about to ask. “The life signs detector isn’t working at all down here and Teyla’s the only one of us who can sense the Wraith. We’re not splitting up.”

“John gave me something for the pain while we waited for your arrival. I am sure it will ease soon.” Teyla sounded as if she was trying to reassure herself as much as him. Rodney should have suggested they turn around and go back to the jumper where he could fix it and get them all off this planet—but the Wraith presence here indicated something of value, whether it was technology or just information about the Wraith and their plans. He finally blew out a breath and ignored his misgivings. Teyla could take care of herself; they all knew that. If she had a problem with their plans, she would have said something. He was wasting valuable time worrying.

Rodney, acting as Teyla’s crutch, followed Sheppard into the corridor on the other side of the door. The green glow intensified, with light spilling down the walls from fixtures mounted near the ceiling, giving off just enough light to see by. Rodney assumed it was some kind of emergency lighting system, and he had no real way of knowing if it had been on for years or if it had been triggered when the door had opened.

They walked about twenty feet before they came to a row of doorways, and Sheppard peered cautiously into the first room, then stepped back in the hall. “Looks clear,” he said. “Check it out if you want.”

Rodney’s flashlight illuminated the far corners of the small room, with its tables and wall-mounted glass cabinets. Some were intact, some had shards of glass barely held in by thin metal frames. Glass glinted green on the table tops and across the floor. Bottles rested on their sides on several of the shelves, and much of the room’s surfaces seemed to be coated in the fine white powder.

“Some kind of lab,” he said. “Medical, probably.”

“That’d be my guess,” Ronon said.

“I agree,” Teyla said.

Sheppard continued down the hall and they followed. They passed three more rooms that looked about the same as the first.

“That energy spike wasn’t really that far away,” Rodney said. “We should be right on top of it soon.”

“Good,” Sheppard said, while peering into another doorway. “Hey.” He waved Rodney forward. “Think something like this might be a sign we’re getting close?”

Rodney stuck his neck out to see between the doorway and Sheppard’s shoulder. At the other end of another small room, which also appeared to be nothing more than a medical lab of some kind, a thick collection of organic cables streamed from a junction in the wall to the floor, each appearing slimy and very much alive. Beside them, a big door loomed, a green square at eye level containing a row of markings probably indicating some kind of alien text.

A Wraith console stood on the other side of the cables, hooked in through feeder vines. Now this—this was something Rodney could work with.

He looked at Teyla. “Can you—”

“Yes, Rodney. I will be fine.”

Rodney waited until Teyla had a strong grip on the frame of the doorway for support before he moved away. He squeezed by Sheppard and went straight for the console. He kept the Wraith translation program on all his systems these days, ever since that Wraith virus had attacked the Daedalus about a year and a half ago. Maybe he would finally make some sense out of what was going on with the Wraith and this planet.

Behind him, he heard the rest of the team shuffling into the room, but he concentrated on finding the best way to interface his computer with the Wraith system. He’d done this a time or two before, most recently a few months ago when they’d found the Wraith device that had gone haywire, and where incidentally, Sheppard had shot him. The thought of which still caused his heart to flutter alarmingly. Only dumb luck had saved him that day.

Sheppard still owed him for that, accident or no.

A sudden beep from his computer brought his attention back to his work. He was in. Rodney waved his hand back behind him without turning his attention away from his computer. “Got it,” he muttered. He sorted through the data the computer was pulling out. The soft whisper of feet crisscrossing the dusty floor filled the silence.

Rodney read, skimming as much as he could, until something useful caught his eye. “This is—No...Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, I think I’ve got something interesting—” He waved them forward, not bothering to look to see if anyone responded. They always did. “Wow. That wasn’t what I expected to find.”

“What is it?” Sheppard asked, leaning right over his shoulder, his breath tickling the back of Rodney’s ear. The puff of air cooled Rodney’s skin, the faint whish of sound reminding him of something he couldn’t place.

Rodney reached up and rubbed, finally twisting his head around so he could frown at Sheppard. He stared for a second, trying to get his thoughts back on track. “This is a cloning facility.”

“Wraith clones? That’s not good. Doesn’t look like—”

“No, no. The Wraith have obviously appropriated someone else’s cloning technology. They’ve hybridized the whole place to work for them, but the original builders were obviously advanced enough to have been working on cloning technology for a while. I’ve pulled up some research notes of the Wraith scientists working on this project. It’s very, very old. I’d say pre-war technology, belonging to a race well below the level of Ancient technology but also, well beyond Earth’s current tech levels. The war may have wiped them out, whoever they were, but the Wraith then stepped in and took over.”

“And you got all that from a few minutes of skimming through somebody’s research notes?”

“Well, no, some of it. But it’s obvious—”

“Okay, just take what you can. I don’t want to stay down here too long. Let’s find that energy source.”

“Wait. You don’t understand. This isn’t a Wraith cloning facility. They were making human clones. For food.”

Sheppard’s eyebrows rose dramatically. He pulled away from Rodney and rocked back on his heels. “You mean they were making clones and then feeding off of them?”

“Yes. Exactly. Or trying to. From what I’ve skimmed so far, it sounds like something was wrong though and it wasn’t working out so they abandoned it.”

Teyla spoke up from the doorway. “What if the Wraith have come looking for this technology again in an effort to perfect it and create a more abundant food supply?”

“They start feeding on clones, and there’ll be no reason to keep killing each other off,” Ronon added, his grave tone almost angry. “They’ll grow even stronger and we’ll never kill all the damn things.”

Sheppard looked at each of them in turn. “So we plant some C4 before we leave and blow the place to smithereens. Then it won’t matter if they find it.”

Rodney didn’t bother glowering. He went straight for the I’m talking to stupid people look. “Not before we find the source of that energy reading. The amount of power that’s giving off—if we start throwing explosions at it, we could blow up a hell of a lot more than we mean to.”

“What’s it matter? There’s nobody here but Wraith.”

“As far as we can tell with all the damn sensor malfunctions, but that’s not even the point—”

“Give me the damn point then.”

“We won’t want to be here if that goes up is the point! We could blow up the whole damn continent with us still on it!”

“Alright then! What the hell do you want to do, Rodney?”

“I want to find that energy source and then you can come up with whatever crazy plan you want to destroy this place.” Rodney turned to Ronon and let loose the glower. “And you think he always comes up with the better plans? I’ll have you know that was a terrible plan!”

Ronon grinned, all teeth and attitude.

Sheppard started for the big door. “Come on then, we need to move. If they’re really looking for this place, it’s just a matter of time before they find it. We don’t want to be here when they do.”

Rodney disconnected his computer from the Wraith console and then shoved it into his pack. Ronon had Teyla this time, so Rodney shrugged his pack over his shoulder and grabbed his P-90, holding it the way he’d been trained to use it. Fun times, he thought, wincing when he had to shift his shoulder to accommodate the awkwardness of carrying a weapon he didn’t often use. His 9mm sat heavy on his thigh, but he barely noticed it anymore after more than three years of carrying it. The P-90 was different, because although he could use it, he wasn’t used to using it. Frankly, he liked it that way. Whenever it was time to pull out the big guns was when he started getting the palm sweats and the rapid heartbeat and the godawful sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that made him positively certain he was developing another ulcer Carson wouldn’t acknowledge as real.

Sheppard wrapped his hands around the big rusty lever across the front of the door and heaved. The lever jerked higher, turning in a counterclockwise circle.

Rodney hoped like hell there wasn’t anything trapped on the other side—radiation, toxic gas, deadly mold, Wraith. He really hated when missions went bad and this one had already gone that way a good thirty hours ago.

Grinding, scraping, loud and harsh, heralded the opening of the door as it swung away from them. Old didn’t begin to describe the age of this facility from what Rodney had gathered. Why the Wraith had forgotten its existence until now, or if a prior Queen had deliberately kept the information secret and it had been lost over time, didn’t matter. Any Wraith presence on the planet, especially that of a Hive ship, probably meant only one thing. A Queen now knew about the facility and she was ready to try again.

In fact, Rodney would have been more surprised if this was something the Wraith had never tried before. Their feeding grounds were too thin to support the current number of Wraith, even with all the infighting these days. Why not experiment with a cloned food supply?

Of course, the research he’d pulled indicated there was a problem with the feedings, leading to a failure of the project, but that didn’t mean the Wraith couldn’t have kept trying. Rodney found it puzzling that instead they had just given up. He would have to dig into the data he had downloaded from the Wraith console once he was back on Atlantis and try to make sense of it all.

Rodney couldn’t see Sheppard’s face as Sheppard took his first look into the room beyond, but he could see the sudden stiffness in Sheppard’s body before he waved them in after him.

More green light seeped through the opening. When Rodney walked over the threshold, he felt the hairs on his neck and arms stand up. He attributed it to the creepy green lighting and the long row of handles on the wall that reminded him of a morgue, with drawers, only these were enclosed at the end with a transparent material, so he could see the curve of dull gray skulls and tufts of human hair.

On the dusty white floor, Sheppard was leaving behind a set of clearly delineated boot prints in his wake and Rodney followed them down the aisle. Many of the bodies were adult-sized, but there were also smaller, less mature skeletons caged in the drawers. It was as if when the experiment in cloning had been terminated everyone had just walked away, leaving behind the facility and all its work to rot over the millennia to come.

Rodney was surprised there was this much left, but if some energy source had protected the facility... Maybe that energy source was failing or malfunctioning and the decay had started only then, leading to what they had discovered so far.

“There’s another door down here,” Sheppard said, having continued through the lab while Rodney stared at crumbling skeletons.

Rodney lowered his gun to reach into his pocket and pull out the detector. The energy reading flared bright in a rhythmic pulse. “Whatever’s causing the power spike, it’s close,” he said. “We should be just about right on top of it.”

He moved closer to the door Sheppard stood in front of. “Definitely in there,” Rodney said.

“Then let’s get this over with.” Sheppard’s P-90 dropped to hang against his chest and he reached for the same style lever as that on the other door. Sheppard’s arms flexed as he pulled and pushed, but Rodney noticed the lack of rusty squeals when the door swung open.

Orange light strobed across Sheppard’s face, the walls, the floor, Rodney’s arms. A low whine set Rodney’s teeth on edge, the vibration almost painful.

“Okay, this doesn’t sound good,” he said.

“And I thought I had a headache before,” Sheppard said. He scraped his fingers through his hair. “This can’t be good for us.”

“No, probably not,” Rodney said, sparing Sheppard a quick look. He plowed into the room without waiting for anyone else, but he knew power, and he knew something was terribly wrong with whatever was in that room.

Rodney heard Sheppard say, “Teyla, Ronon, keep an eye on things out here.”

Eyeing the huge bank of controls to the left of the entrance, Rodney traced the path of the conduits and workstations around the room, until his gaze came to rest on a single Wraith console tucked into the corner, where it had been grafted into the alien system. That would be his best chance of connecting, simply because he could translate the data from that point. The other alien text around the room, words or symbols, meant nothing to him.

At the center of the room, a pillar rose out of the floor to about chest height. Covered with alien glyphs and glowing stripes that cut around the device, the structure pulsed orange light intermittently and seemed to be the primary source of the micro-vibration Rodney could feel all the way into his bones. Because the pillar was set into the floor and seemed to continue down into a lower level of the facility, Rodney couldn’t guess how large it truly was.

Rodney stared at the device momentarily, before he shook off the sense of impending doom, and forced himself to think instead of feeling his way through this.

He reached behind him and tore his computer free of the pack holding it to his back. With sure and steady fingers, he worked to interface his computer with the Wraith technology as quickly as he could.

He felt Sheppard peering over his shoulder even though he hadn’t turned to look.

His fingers tingled when they came into contact with the cables stretching from the Wraith console to drape along the wall and ceiling and traverse across the room to interconnect with many of the other devices. Whatever the Wraith had done, it seemed apparent this device had been integrated into the heart of the alien tech.

The combination of the green emergency lights and the orange pulse coming from the large round device just behind him created a sickly glow in the room that messed with his stomach. Rodney could feel the slightest swell of what felt like motion sickness shiver through him. He clenched his teeth against the sensation and focused hard on getting his computer to tell him something about this room.

He flicked through a multitude of screens before he found anything he could use. By then, Sheppard paced behind him, circling the room’s central pillar.

“Come on,” Sheppard said, stopping behind Rodney.

“Working, here,” Rodney said, waving Sheppard off. “Don’t distract me.”

“Work faster.”

“I would, but somebody won’t quit pacing. You’re distracting me.”

“God, McKay, this thing is punching holes in my head. We might have to abandon this plan and move straight to the C4.”

“That would—” Rodney interrupted himself when he found a graphical representation of the power output and distribution. He flipped through a few screens that told him nothing and then— “That’s not good.”

“Would that be the punching holes in my head or the plan to blow this joint, both literally and figuratively?”

“Don’t think it matters,” Rodney said, not trying to hide his dismay. Disaster loomed and plans were going to have to change.

“See this?” Rodney pointed at the sharply rising curve at the far end of the graph he’d just found. “Power’s been rising wildly and these random spikes—” He poked his finger at a specific example. “Indicate potential overload events that have just luckily enough not set off an explosion within the power generator. If this thing is interacting with the planet’s EM field that could explain a lot about the lightning strikes on the jumper. This thing is a disaster waiting to happen. And if I had to guess, I’d say soon.”

“How soon?”

Rodney yanked at the cable connecting his computer to the Wraith console. “I suggest strongly that we leave now and don’t look back.”

Rodney knelt and strapped his computer in place, then jerked around and used a hand on the Wraith device to pull himself to his feet. Sheppard hopped back out of the way.

“What about the Wraith?” Sheppard asked.

“The chances of them finding this place and figuring out how to stop the imminent explosion are about as good as you being voted smartest guy in Atlantis.”

Sheppard glared at Rodney. Rodney stared back.

“So, unlikely but not impossible.”

“Funny.” Rodney started for the door. “We need to get Ronon and Teyla.”

Sheppard reached for his vest pocket. “We’ll plant the C4 and then we’ll head back—”

“We’re underground and we’re really not that far from the gate.” Rodney thrust his arm out, forefinger jabbing in the direction of the orange pillar. “When—and I say when, not if, because there’s not a chance in hell this thing isn’t on its way to a massive failure of the worst sort—when this thing explodes, it’s going to take the Stargate with it, and with the naquadah in it—nothing, and I mean nothing, is going to be left standing. If we’re still here when that happens, we can kiss our asses goodbye.”

“Well why didn’t you say so?” Sheppard grabbed Rodney’s arm and hauled him along as Sheppard marched for the door. “We’ll still have to get that jumper fixed. We can’t take on all those Wraith and I don’t think explaining the situation to them is going to help.”

“I did say so!”

They scurried out into the lab beyond, and Teyla and Ronon stood near the far door, watching the corridor, guns at the ready.

“Haven’t seen anything,” Ronon said. “Just got back from checking the hall. Everything’s still clear.”

Teyla tucked her gun against her chest and pushed away from the wall. “I am finding it easier to put weight on my foot now,” she said. “Although I am not certain how far I can walk without assistance.”

“That’s good,” Sheppard said. “Rodney thinks things are about to get nasty here, so we’re heading back now. We can’t set off the C4 without setting off a massive explosion that’ll take us and the gate with it, so that plan’s out.”

It was then that a deep rumble shuddered through the room. Orange light pulsed bright and a wave of vibrating air hit Rodney and knocked him sideways, smacking him into Sheppard’s left side.

“What the—”

“Oh my god,” Rodney said, scrambling to get his balance over the pitching of his stomach. He couldn’t seem to stand up straight and his teeth ached, and his left ear suddenly felt hot and wet inside. “I think it’s started.”

Ronon grabbed at Teyla’s waist, Rodney grabbed Sheppard’s arm, and they all ran. Rodney breathed hard and fast, but he couldn’t seem to run in a straight line. He glanced over to see blood oozing out of Sheppard’s left ear, dripping down his earlobe and the side of his jaw. Rodney rubbed his hand over his own ear, and yes, his was bleeding too.

He weaved to the right, not realizing it until he’d plowed into Sheppard again, running them both into the wall.

“Come on, Rodney. Keep it straight.” Sheppard’s voice sounded funny, but at least Rodney could hear it. Not like a few months ago when the whales seeking shelter from the sun’s coronal mass ejection had perforated their eardrums. This felt different, but—

“I can’t—uh.” Rodney staggered to a stop, letting go of Sheppard’s arm and bent over double, dropping to his hands and knees on the floor, heaving.

“Not—oh, crap, I can’t watch this. Ronon, Teyla, keep going! We’ll catch up.”

Rodney saw Sheppard’s boots turn away just before he emptied his stomach on the ground beside them. He spit a few times, trying to clear his mouth of the taste, but his effort was wasted. He sat back on his heels and rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth and chin. Then a canteen shoved against his chest. “Here, drink this but make it quick.”

“Thanks,” he said. He sounded shaky, but he felt better. He took a sip of the water.

Sheppard thrust his hand out. Rodney took it and let Sheppard pull him to his feet.

Rodney glanced back the way they’d come. If he had to guess, he’d say they’d be lucky if they had hours.

He turned to Sheppard and handed him the water. “That was mortifying enough, but I think I can walk a straight line now.”

“Good. Let’s get out of here.” Sheppard said, tucking his canteen away.

They jogged toward the exit.

*

“Work faster, work harder... You’d think I was just standing here playing with my thumbs.” Rodney jabbed at his computer and then looked up at the crystals over his head. Rodney’s mumbles had gotten louder in the last few minutes, probably in reaction to John’s question of how much longer and Ronon’s continued stalking around the jumper. Or maybe just Rodney’s own incipient panic. Rodney seemed to believe they were lucky that the power source for the cloning facility hadn’t already gone boom on them.

John could feel the tension, could see it in the set of Rodney’s shoulders and jaw, in the tilt of his head. Sitting around sucked, but there wasn’t anything he could do except wait on Rodney. John took it out on Rodney by asking him every few minutes why he couldn’t work faster. John might feel bad about that if he didn’t already know it was the most reliable way to keep Rodney focused on his work and not on his theories of how everything was going to end badly. Rodney seemed able to shed his bleak outlook only when under the strain of imminent disaster. John shifted restlessly. He would feel sorry for Rodney, if he didn’t find Rodney’s behavior oddly...fascinating.

Lorne and his guys watched for Wraith through the open bay door of the ship. Teyla rested in the co-pilot’s seat, to stay out of Rodney’s furious path. She couldn’t jump up and down and get out of his way fast enough in her current condition and John hadn’t wanted to see her frustrated look again.

Rodney closed the panel he’d been working on with a snap of his hand. “If that doesn’t fix it, it can’t be fixed,” Rodney said. “Get it in the air.” Rodney gave John a wide-eyed look and gestured at the panel. “But take it slow, because I can guarantee the inertial dampeners aren’t working right and I don’t want to end up flattened against a bulkhead. And don’t get hit by any more lightning, or we’re completely screwed.”

“Yes sir,” John said, drawling the words out and raising his eyebrows at Rodney.

Rodney stomped past John and took the seat in the forward compartment behind the pilot’s chair.

John told Lorne, “Let’s close her up.”

Ronon followed him into the front to drop heavily into his seat behind Teyla, and John took the pilot’s seat with a sigh of relief. Finally. He curled his fingers around the controls.

John frowned.

“You weren’t exaggerating,” John said over his shoulder to Rodney. The ship was in bad shape and John was going to have to make this flight count.

“And you thought I was?” Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and spun his seat. “Never mind. Of course you did. I did the best I could with what I had and if it had been anyone else here, we wouldn’t be taking off, but you can thank me later. Just get us the hell off this planet before it explodes. I’m too young to die.”

John didn’t bother answering with words. The jumper responded to his mental commands. It rose into the air, up and up, and then shot toward the gate, squeezing the air from his lungs and pushing his eyeballs back in his head.

He heard Rodney squawk behind him, Ronon grunt, Teyla gasped out a short sharp breath. Lorne and his guys were too far away for him to hear anything but the sound of bodies shifting.

Inertial dampeners weren’t sluggish. They were offline completely. John slowed the ship with a frantic thought and the pressure forcing his head back and pushing his body into the seat fell away.

“You could have warned me!” he shouted.

“I did!” Rodney shouted back.

John skimmed the ship up and over the trees. “Telling me the inertial dampeners aren’t working right is not—”

“John,” Teyla’s voice cut into their argument. “What is this?” Her finger pointed to a pinpoint of light surrounded by a flashing circle of red on the HUD. “The Stargate is near here, is it not?”

“Yeah.”

Not good.

Rodney leaned forward, practically squeezing between John and Teyla. “That’s a charge building up. If you get too close to it, it could take out the jumper again.”

“That’s a problem,” John said. “That’s our path to the gate. No way around it. Only other choice is to ditch the jumper and fight it out with the Wraith.”

Rodney’s eyes darted across the HUD readings. “We’re so screwed.”

“I’ve got an idea.”

It was chancy as hell, but if he could just get—

“You’re flying in the wrong direction! What are you doing that for? We don’t have weapons!”

“McKay, sit back and shut up. I have a plan.”

He could hear Rodney in the background, probably talking to Ronon. “I don’t know what the plan is, but this is not good! The Wraith are going to—oh, oh. I get it. Oh my god, that’s brilliant.” And John felt a moment of smug satisfaction followed by the irritating thought that Rodney didn’t have to sound so damn surprised.

The cloak shut down and the shield came on. He flew away from the plain where the Stargate waited, but not getting too far away from the burgeoning electrical charge. The ship’s response time was dragging, only micro-seconds, but he could feel the difference. One, two, then three darts appeared on the HUD.

“Dial the gate. No IDC yet.”

Teyla entered the address, quick and sure.

John circled around and tried to stay ahead of the darts, leading them straight for the gate, until he pulled up sharply, everyone falling back into their seats, pressure too great for even groans to slip out, loose equipment skidding across the floor, bumping into whatever was in the way. John knew how to hold out, he was afraid most of the others, except maybe Lorne wouldn’t be able to hang on. Even he started to see spots in his vision, before the forces relaxed as he pulled back around, and—there, two darts flashed out of existence on the HUD, the third still too close.

Time was up. They had to take their chances with the ship being fried by an electrical charge—one he hoped those missing darts had dissipated—versus being blown to microscopic bits and pieces by the remaining dart.

“The IDC,” he said, his voice a growl of command to whomever was listening.

“It’s in,” he heard Rodney say. “They got it. We’re clear.”

He dived straight for the gate, swept into the event horizon, and came to a sudden stop inside Atlantis, his forehead smacking hard into the controls and something plowing into the back of his seat.

“Ow!” came Rodney’s strident voice from behind him.

*

“So the kids are being sent to stay with the Athosians?” Rodney set his computer aside and opened the packaged cupcake Sheppard had thrown at his chest when Sheppard had entered his quarters.

“It’s temporary until we hear something from the Nadeans or we find them a permanent home, but yeah, they agreed to take them in.”

“Well, that’s good.” Rodney waved Sheppard toward a seat. Usually it was Rodney who headed to Sheppard’s room, not the other way around, but he didn’t mind the company. “Too bad about that planet. We might have found something interesting if we’d had more time to explore.” He took a bite of fluffy white cake. “Um, this is good.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You owed me. I nearly passed out when you took off. And I could have a concussion from being thrown around when you slammed on the brakes.”

“Beckett said you’d be fine. Your ear isn’t even that bad.”

“Carson isn’t infallible.”

Sheppard’s brow furrowed and his tongue moistened his bottom lip. “You’re the one who didn’t fix the inertial dampeners. Why do I get the blame? And yes, you still owe me a thank you.”

“You didn’t thank me for fixing the ship, I don’t know why I should have to thank you for bringing me a cupcake. I didn’t ask for it.”

Sheppard gave him a hard stare. “Fixing the ship is your job.”

“And as the leader, keeping the team in peak working condition is yours. So we’re even.”

Sheppard’s grin gave Rodney fair warning that he wasn’t going to like what Sheppard was about to say. Sheppard reached over and patted Rodney’s knee. “In that case, buddy, I guess it’s my responsibility to set up a workout schedule for you, then, isn’t it? You’re not exactly in peak working efficiency these days.”

Rodney laughed so abruptly he sucked cake into his lungs. He coughed and beat his fist against his chest, but when Sheppard slapped him on the back, he glowered. “Not—helpful,” he managed to gasp out, while twisting to block another attempted pat on the back.

“So you going to thank me?”

“Oh, yeah. Thank you very much,” Rodney choked out. “What are you doing, trying to kill me?”

“As bad as I want to sometimes, Elizabeth would probably kill me if I did.”

“Ha ha. You know you’d miss me.”

Sheppard just grinned, a smooth curve of his lips, and Rodney found himself transfixed by the sight. Rodney watched Sheppard push himself to his feet and turn to leave.

John, Rodney decided, he should start thinking of Sheppard as John. He didn’t think of Sam as Carter, or Carson as Beckett, and John and him had been friendly enough for a long while now.

Sheppard might not say it—and Rodney was perfectly fine with that, because he sure as hell wasn’t about to say it—but Sheppard, Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon were much more than co-workers these days. They all cared. Probably too much, probably enough to do stupid things for each other when they ought to know better. And what was wrong with him? Too much adrenaline over the last week, too many close calls. Now he was getting maudlin and—and—of course. That was why he had been thinking of Sheppard, dreaming, why he had touched him, when that was the stupidest, stupidest thing he could have ever done.

The door slid open and the hall light spilled around John and into Rodney’s dimly lit room. John paused to look back at Rodney and said, “See you in the mess later.”

Rodney nodded, waved John off with his hand, and answered, “Yeah, yeah.”

When the door closed behind John, Rodney looked down at his hands and wondered what he was going to do. He couldn’t keep dreaming about John’s mouth forever. It must be some kind of cosmic joke at his expense.

Maybe he should start seeing more of Katie Brown. She was really very attractive.

Soon. He would make a point of visiting her soon.

*

The next day, the Atlantis Stargate refused to make a connection with the Stargate of the planet John and his team had returned from the day before. The Daedalus finally made a trip out there a few weeks later and discovered that an explosion had taken a chunk out of the planet the size of Texas. John watched the video footage of the destruction, most of the crater hidden behind clouds of debris littering the atmosphere.

“Oh, that’s terrible,” Radek said, standing behind the chair holding Dr. Watts, a geologist. John stood on Watts’s right, leaning toward the monitor, his left hand on the back of Watts’s chair holding him up.

Dr. Watts stared at the screen intently, watching, rewinding, replaying, until finally, he said, “It’ll take years for this planet to recover. It’s highly unlikely there’s anything of use to the Wraith left standing, unless it’s on the other side of the planet, and even then, the atmospheric conditions will continue to be a problem for the entire planet.”

John pushed back from the monitor and said, “Alright then. We’ll consider this problem solved and move on.”

“Sounds entirely appropriate to me,” Radek said.

And that was that.

*

Chapter Text

4

The first night after John’s extended recovery from the Kirsan fever, he dreamed of Ronon shooting him. The second night, he dreamed of Lorne and a photograph and flying the jumper when he couldn’t even remember where he was supposed to put his hands until Ronon grabbed his fingers and placed them on the controls.

The third night, he dreamed of Carson and Bates and Peter Grodin, and even though he didn’t understand what was going on or why Carson kept telling him, “Now, now, it’s just a wee bit of blood, that’s all,” and asking, “How do you feel, Major? Have ya noticed any symptoms?” he felt the bittersweet knowledge of Grodin’s sacrifice and Carson’s death.

The fourth night, he didn’t dream of anything, because he was dog tired after a crazy mission to rescue Lorne and his team, along with a large number of livestock, from a raging flood on the planet belonging to one of their oldest trading partners.

The night after that, his dreams got weird.

He didn’t feel himself slip into the dream. He was just there. The room was over-bright and Zelenka and Rodney were standing a little too close.

“You are not so much yourself now either,” Zelenka was saying. Zelenka’s voice sounded high and reedy to John’s ears. But his eyes hurt at the brightness of the light and his head felt heavy and strange.

And Rodney chose that moment to say, “Trust me, I’m fine. It’s not affecting me yet—I’d know if it were—but Major Sheppard—oh, seriously, he’s—sweaty palms, dilated eyes—”

“Neither do your eyes look so normal. I think you are not well. I will call Dr. Beckett for—” Zelenka’s offer ended on a squeak when Rodney pushed him against the edge of the lab table.

John stepped over the threshold of the lab’s door.

Zelenka’s panicked face turned John’s way, the image like an overexposed photograph, a blaze of white around the edges. “Oh, oh, Major Sheppard! Here. We are in here. Dr. McKay—”

And that was the moment Rodney kissed Zelenka.

And then there was a jump and he knew time had passed but he couldn’t figure out where he was or why and there was a pair of pale blue boxers on a body on the floor and he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember anything—

John jerked awake in a haze of confusion and he could still feel the pressure of something against his face. He blinked his eyes open and realized he was asleep on his stomach, his forehead smashed into his pillow, his mouth crushed against his forearm. His arm tingled with the pain of impeded circulation and he groaned as he rolled over onto his back. He rolled his shoulder, but the tingle turned into a throbbing ache that lasted long enough for him to groan again and stretch out his back and legs and gently raise his arms over his head until the ache went away.

He was having the Zelenka dream again, only this time there was so much detail, he had to wonder if he was fooling himself to think it was nothing but a dream. But if it was anything else, it didn’t make any sense.

*

“Okay, Radek, I’m going to put you on the spot here, but I need to know something from you.” John leaned forward onto his elbows and stared at Zelenka across the mess hall table. The team wasn’t here yet, and John was taking advantage of their absence to corner Zelenka without involving Rodney or the others.

“Yes, Colonel Sheppard?” Always formal with the military personnel, even after years in Atlantis, Zelenka stared back at John, his eyes wide and clear.

“I need you to tell me about that dream you have about McKay.”

Zelenka blinked and lowered his sandwich. His eyes flickered around the room, before he returned his gaze to John. “I do not know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, come on, Radek. Rodney told me all about it—like what?—two years ago, so you might as well fess up. I swear I won’t tell a soul. It’s important.” John leaned closer, spoke low and serious. “It could be really important.” John hoped he’d put the right amount of earnestness into his plea. This was driving him crazy. He had to know.

“Rodney is—” Words in a foreign language followed, and John didn’t have to guess hard to figure it was Czech—and insulting. “He could not keep secret if his next meal depended on it.” Zelenka stared at John through narrowed eyes and used his finger to push his glasses up his nose. “I will tell you, because I trust you. And I still believe there’s something strange about this dream. Also it keeps coming back and now it’s more crazy than ever.”

“I know he said you told him I was in it.”

“Yes, you are. As is Rodney, and many other people too. But Rodney is the crazy person and—” Zelenka grimaced. “I’m sorry to say, but in this dream, I think you are a crazy person too.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.” John glanced around the room, making sure they were still relatively isolated. No one had taken any of the nearby seats and Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon had still not entered. “So start at the beginning and try not to leave anything out.”

“As I said to Rodney, or maybe some of this has been new, I can’t remember what exactly I told him now. He comes into my lab and he is acting strangely. He tells me about everyone being affected by some kind of—something, I do not know, but that he is okay. Only, I do not think he looks okay. I tell him so but he doesn’t believe me. Then he kisses me.” Zelenka rubbed his chin. “Oh, yes, I am sorry, before that happens, he pushes me. Then I see you in the door and you come in and take him away. I think to isolate him, but you look strange too, so I don’t know where you take him for certain. Then I go back to my lab and lock the door. It feels like I stay there for a long time, but it is fuzzy still.”

“So what’s the crazier than ever part? Because that sounds pretty crazy.”

“Rodney is not the first person to try to kiss me. That is the crazy part. But maybe it is only wishful thinking of me, because it is one of your lady soldiers who is not here anymore and Teyla.”

John coughed, raising his fist to hide his mouth. But it was either that or laugh, because Zelenka looked so hopeful when he said it, but—Teyla? Then again—Rodney? And unfortunately, that was John’s problem too.

He gave the table a sharp pat with the flat of his hand. “Radek, I owe you one.”

“You will not tell anyone of this? Rodney is already an ass most of the time. He still tells me I am secretly in love with him. As if I would torture myself to fall in love with Rodney McKay. I would rather feed my pigeons to a—a whale. Hah.”

“I won’t tell another soul.”

*

John watched Rodney sling his arms around as he tried to explain his point to the Nadean diplomat who had met them at the gate, which was once again above ground in the middle of the city courtyard. Despite Rodney’s best efforts to date, he had not been able to convince any of the Nadean’s new government officials to allow him to enter the catacombs beneath the city.

Three months ago, not long after they had moved Atlantis to its new planet, Nadea had found a way to contact Atlantis through another group of people who had regular contact with one of the Atlantis teams. The contact had been unexpected and surprising, and John had thought briefly of how Elizabeth would have been interested to know that the insurrectionists had finally won out, after nearly four months of fighting and an unfortunate amount of bloodshed on both sides, including Prentiss, Norval, and most of the old Governors of Nadea.

And for the three months since that the Nadeans had been making contact with Atlantis, they had continued to refuse to let anyone discuss anything about the hidden Ancient city with them.

Their missing children though was another matter entirely. Every contact seemed to come to the same conclusion. Where are the rest of our children? Why haven’t they been returned?

Most of the kids had been relocated to a planet with a simple farm community where a large part of the younger population had been wiped out by a disease very much like measles. Only a few had stayed with the Athosians—who were now missing, and no one could have predicted that would happen when the decision had been made to let some of the rescued Nadean children live with the Athosians.

Still, the Nadeans weren’t happy about it and their retaliation had been to deny access to the Ancient city, despite the return of twenty of the original twenty-four children whom John and Rodney had saved from a planet on the verge of destruction.

The Nadeans knew only that nothing happened when they tried to connect with the Great Ring on the world where they had sent their children. They were desperate for news. They had explained this to John and his team when they had met the first time after successfully making contact with Atlantis after their internal conflict ended. John had been the one who had to tell them not only that some of their children were still missing, but that the Great Ring on that planet had exploded.

Rodney was giving it all he had though, using his mouth as a human battering ram, hoping every time they visited that he was getting closer to breaking down their wall of resistance. John could have saved him the trouble. He could see it in their eyes. These people weren’t going to yield. They thought the Ancient city was their only leverage and they wanted their four missing children returned to them.

John stood a few feet back behind Rodney, with his hands resting at ease on his gun, and he could tell Rodney was reaching the end of his argument. Rodney’s voice rose as he said, “We’re really, really sorry about your missing kids, but there’s nothing else we can do. We’ve put everything we have into the search and you don’t seem to understand what a fantastic find your city is. There’s so much I could teach you about it, if you’d just let me in!”

“And for your efforts, we are very grateful, Dr. McKay, but we will not relent. You, nor any member of your team, will be allowed into the catacombs until our children are returned. Consider it an incentive to do your best. Our children mean everything to us, especially in light of how many we lost during the revolution.”

Rodney’s face screwed up in a tight expression of disgust and he slapped his arms together over his chest. “Well that’s just great. You know we’re not the only ones losing out here. You can’t know a—” He threw his hand up and pinched his thumb and forefinger together. “A microscopic fraction of what we could tell you about your precious city. And that’s really too bad for you.”

“That’s enough, McKay. We should go.”

“That’s not necessary, Colonel Sheppard.” The diplomat—he’d introduced himself as Torviss—turned his smooth young face toward John, his light colored eyes friendly despite Rodney’s belligerence. “We would like to discuss trade of other things with you. That’s why we requested your presence here. Please, consider accepting our hospitality for the night. We would like to take you to the open market where we gather all our best wares.”

“Ah. Okay.” John shot a look toward Rodney who just shrugged. “How far away are we talking?”

“Several hours journey, but I promise you, we have done our best to make sure you’ll find something of interest. We need skilled physicians and many medical supplies. The revolution has been difficult on our people, but now, even our poorest may no longer have to live in fear of the Wraith cullings. We only hope these...Replicators, as you call them, don’t discover our world.”

John hoped so too.

Too many people had already been lost to the Replicators. Although the fight against both the Wraith and the Replicators was taking a lot of resources, John didn’t think Colonel Carter would begrudge medical assistance to anyone, especially not when Atlantis might be getting something in return. He could think of no reason why they might want to turn down the request for trade.

“I’m going to have to contact my leader, but I think we can help you.”

“Hmm,” came from Rodney. John ignored him.

“We’ll give you a few moments to contact your people,” Torviss said. He nodded to John and Rodney in turn, and then walked about thirty feet away to the edge of the courtyard where several others stood.

John turned to Rodney, ducking his head away from their watchers. “You going to throw away your second chance to try again to convince them to let you into their Ancient city?”

“They’re never going to let me in. I’m wasting my time here.” Rodney eyed the people standing apart from them over John’s shoulder.

John looked back at the group, to see Torviss nodding and listening to an older woman.

Rodney continued with a wave in their direction, “But that’s going to be a long walk and you see their clothes? It’s getting cold here. I’m not sure I want to freeze my ass off to look at some low tech wares being offered up in exchange for high tech medicine—not that I’m saying we can’t help them—but think about it—maybe we should just get Sam to send back another team—this is kind of below our—” Rodney grimaced and waved his hand again and finished with, “Well, I’ve got a lot of work to do and you know, we’re too important for this kind of thing.” He looked at John expectantly. “Maybe Teyla and Ronon?”

John shook his head. “Teyla’s still not feeling well and Ronon’s following up a lead for Teyla. We’d be with him if he hadn’t convinced Carter he needed to go alone for this one.”

“Yeah,” Rodney said. “What was that about?”

“Don’t know, but that means we were stuck answering the call from the Nadeans and we’re already here. We can handle one night, look over whatever it is they want to show us and take the info back to Atlantis and let someone else work out the details.” John tapped Rodney’s chest with the back of his hand, startling a grunt from Rodney. “Now buck up. I’m putting in the call to Atlantis and then we’re taking a long stroll. We have wares to look at.”

“Great.”

John walked away, only to hear Rodney call after him, “If I start showing signs of hypothermia, you’re the one who gets to rub the feeling back into my fingers and toes!”

John found himself smiling as he dialed the DHD. Rodney would probably try to nag him until he did it too.

*

The ride to the market passed uneventful. Rodney had seemed as surprised as John was when a couple of men had approached Torviss with a low-wheeled, high-sided cart, just wide enough to haul all of them, with the catch being they all had to stand for the trip. Torviss, Rodney, John, and two others crowded into the back of the cart, while an elderly woman sat on a single-person bench behind a stout looking pair of animals that reminded John of gray-haired donkeys. 

He was able to prop his hip against the outer wall of the cart and rest his hands on its edge and mostly relax. Rodney bounced and jostled against him the entire trip, as if his body couldn’t find a steady center of gravity, but for the most part, even Rodney seemed glad they weren’t walking, since the trip turned out to be across excessively hilly terrain.

The sun glared in John’s eyes and he dug out his sunglasses. Rodney rolled his eyes at him, but kept his face turned away from the direction of the sun. The bright light did nothing to cut through the chill, and John thought it looked a lot like the hard shine of a dry but bitter cold winter day.

The cart halted just at the outer edge of a tall iron gate set into stone. John followed Torviss from the cart, followed by Rodney and the others. The old woman drew the cart away, and they waited beside Torviss as he talked with an old man guarding the gate. John studied the wall and the gate, and realized it was possible the iron gate held an electrical charge just like their jail cell had so many months before.

“I wonder where they’re getting their power,” Rodney said, low, for John’s ears only. “They seem so rustic, and then, something like this.”

“Could be leftovers from a previous civilization, or from one of their own. Some generation that made progress before the Wraith destroyed them with cullings and pushed them back into the Dark Ages.”

“Oh, I don’t think this qualifies as the Dark Ages. Even I can tell those vicious blades of theirs are too finely crafted.”

“We haven’t seen any blades today,” John said, keeping the conversation low, while Torviss watched the gate swing open.

“Thank god. The blades come out, and I’m out of here. You remember what almost happened to me the last time I was here.”

“Yeah, they fed you soup, apologized for the unprovoked behavior of the Governors who aren’t in power anymore, and thanked you—again—for returning most of their children.”

“Not that time—you know what I meant,” Rodney said. “They almost chopped my head off.”

John tried not to remember that, another in a long line of close calls that gave him the chills in the dead of night. He changed the subject, saying, “What I’d like to know is why most of these people haven’t been moved into the Ancient city. It should be plenty large enough for everyone.” John felt a shiver run through him. “It’s damn cold out here.”

Then Torviss approached, interrupting, and John realized the gate had opened wide before them.

Torviss gestured to the flat, wide stone path and said, “Come.”

John and Rodney walked a few paces behind Torviss, and when they crossed the threshold of the walled market, John realized the stone path flared in both directions and surfaced the ground for as far as John could see.

John faced a moment of confusion when he realized the open market Torviss had mentioned was actually inside a collection of buildings laid out in a pattern similar to that of the city they had left a few hours ago. It was huge, and crowded, and the gusty cold wind that bit through his jacket and vest made the canvas style signs hanging over the doors of the different buildings flap madly, the din only intensified by the clamor of so many people gathered in close proximity.

The wall had kept the noise down, but now, the full force of sound assaulted John. 

To say he was only a little surprised by the size and complexity of the market was to say Rodney was calm in a crisis.

“This way,” Torviss said, indicating with a wave of his arm that they should follow him. Rodney looked to John. John nodded and Rodney seemed to understand that John wanted him to go first. John hung back a few feet and tried to scope out as much of the surroundings as he could while they passed.

Torviss stopped near a barracks-like building on the outskirts of the dense cluster of alleys and stone walls. “Evening will be upon us soon and there are guest quarters for you here. We have everything ready because we had hoped you would agree and we didn’t want to be caught unprepared. In the morning, we’ll take you through the market and point out the items we believe you’ll find most interesting.”

John heard Rodney shuffling beside him. Rodney rubbed his hands together and blew into his cupped palms, as if to remind John of the cold and his earlier threat.

John jabbed Rodney with his elbow. “Knock it off. It’s not that cold.”

Except it really was. John could tell by the thickness of the robe Torviss wore over his pants and shirt that these people were used to the weather. He wished he’d asked Carter to send them some winter weather gear. There might not be any visible sign of the cold on the landscape, but the sun was on a downward path across the sky and the temperature was beginning to drop fast and far.

Torviss led the way into the building. Wall lights illuminated the open room inside, off which several hallways branched. The room was simply furnished, with a dining table and eight chairs on one end, a long low table along the wall behind it, and on the other end, six partially upholstered chairs with polished wood arms and two square side tables covered with undyed cloth.

They took the rightmost hallway, and Torviss stopped them in front of the third door, spaced further apart from the second than the first door, leading John to believe they were probably getting a larger room.

Yet when Torviss opened the door and led them inside, John was surprised to find only a simple sofa, small round table with two chairs, and a single large bed piled with quilted covers and three small pillows.

“The nights are cold so we prepared only one room for you to share. With only two of you, you might find you need to make use of a bedwarmer, otherwise your sleep will be uncomfortable.”

“Come on, how cold are we talking here?” Rodney asked, his tone as belligerent as earlier. “You have enough electricity to run a current to your lights and to zap anyone you stick into a jail cell, but you don’t have enough to create heat?”

“I don’t understand,” Torviss said. “The lights have worked for generations. We have a few skilled workers who can repair them, but they’re highly valued and spend much of their days traveling from city to city.”

“What about a fireplace? Are you telling me you have absolutely no source of indoor heating?”

“Fires in these old buildings are dangerous. We banned them a long time ago. Although we have many things to thank our ancestors for, these buildings were never meant to have fire in them. Too many people have died. So we make do in other ways during the cold season.” Torviss smiled at them, in a way that made John think he was humoring them. “As I said before, you might want to make use of a bedwarmer, or even two. You’re honored guests. I’m sure several could be spared to keep you warm.” 

“It’s all right,” John said, glaring pointedly at Rodney. “We’ll survive.”

Rodney turned an accusing stare on John. “Watch who you speak for,” Rodney said. “Hypothermia can kill.”

“Rodney, you’re not going to get hypothermia.” John couldn’t believe he was going to say it, and then he did, “For god’s sake, we’ll share body heat if it comes down to it.”

Looking between John and Rodney, Torviss edged toward the door. “Night comes on fast here. If you need a meal, come to the front room and something will be offered to you. I’ll also send a bedwarmer to you.”

“Thank you,” John said, knowing he had to speak for both himself and Rodney, because Rodney would never bother to remember to say it.

“Yes, yes,” Rodney said. “We don’t want to freeze. Send several.”

*

Crap, John couldn’t believe how cold it was. He might as well be trapped on a snow field in Antarctica. In shorts.

Okay, maybe he was exaggerating things, but it was hard to compare reality to memory, when the misery of reality invariably won out every time.

“Come here,” he said to Rodney. “You’re too far away to make things any better.”

The iron frame of the bed creaked. Rodney wiggled around until his back was pressed more firmly up against John’s. Rodney’s warmth bled into John’s skin, but it didn’t stop the wracking shiver that coursed over him. He tucked his hands tighter under his arms and pulled his legs in a little closer to his chest.

“Ha. You shouldn’t have turned down the bedwarmers.” Rodney’s voice sounded both righteous and indignant.

“You wanted somebody sleeping in the bed with us because it was their freaking job?” Oh, yes. That revelation had been interesting. Bedwarmers on Nadea weren’t hot bricks or hot water bottles. They were people, paid to snuggle with you while you slept. If you had enough money, or clout, or were a trader being wooed by the new government, you could even afford a pair, who would sandwich you between them and do their best to keep you toasty warm.

“Hey, I wouldn’t have minded a bit,” Rodney said. “At least then I wouldn’t be freezing my ass off!”

“Argue some more, that’s going to help us sleep.”

“Oh yes, sleep tonight? What a joke.”

“Yeah, well you better try, because you suck when you haven’t had enough sleep. I would know, because I’ve had to put up with you for four damn years!”

“Put up with? What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Rodney flopped over onto his back, shoving against John and pushing him further toward the edge of the bed. “I get plenty of sleep, I’ll have you know. I need my beauty sleep to do my best work.”

“So you’re telling me you just enjoy being an asshole?”

“Oh, yes, that’s it, exactly. I play the asshole just for the hell of it and it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I spend my days, and nights, working with people who are so far beneath my level of intelligence that I have spent half my life just explaining crap to them instead of solving the kinds of problems that would make all our lives better and might—just might—occasionally save all our lives. Oh yes. You got the nail on the head with that one, Colonel Sheppard.”

Okay. Maybe he had asked for that. John blew out a sigh and watched his breath puff visibly in front of his face. He hoped this was as cold as it would get. Couldn’t one of the Nadeans have come up with some way to keep warm without fire?

Oh, yeah, they had. Bedwarmers. Big hulking fellas who probably would have given off heat like a furnace... Maybe Rodney was right and he shouldn’t have sent them away, but he’d had a knee jerk reaction to the idea of sharing the bed with a bunch of strangers, and not even pretty, soft bodies at that.

“Go to sleep,” he growled at Rodney, too cold to keep arguing. The low temperature and the damn shivering had sucked all the fight out of him. “It’s going to be a long night.”

“And why not?” Rodney grumbled beside him, his movements finally settling down after his outburst of anger. “I should be back in Atlantis working on my nanite code, but instead I’m here. I swore I was never coming back to this godforsaken planet after they tried to chop off my head, and yet here I am. Whose fault is that, hm? I should have never let you talk me into changing my mind.”

John tuned out Rodney’s prattling and drifted in that hazy place between wakefulness and sleep for a while, until Rodney’s voice faded and silence edged out the last of his scattered thoughts.

He woke suddenly, his eyes snapping open to darkness.

A warm weight crushed his chest and hips into the bed and an arm curled snug around his ribs. Not his own. Rodney, whose thigh had somehow made its way to lie across the back of John’s own thighs, and what the hell?

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep, so he brought his watch up to his nose and peered at the face of it. Fantastic. Two hours and a few minutes since he’d climbed under the heavy covers and stretched out on the lumpy mattress.

“Alright,” he grunted, shoving back—Rodney wasn’t exactly a light-weight so John had to put some effort into it—and pushed Rodney over.

John felt the mattress give and heard Rodney flop onto his back.

“What? What?” Rodney’s elbow jabbed John in the spine.

“Ow!”

“What are you doing?” Rodney demanded, going from sleepy slur to outrage in four words. “I was finally comfortable. Do you know how long it took me to get to sleep?”

“I’m not your pillow.” John shifted on the bed, turned on his side toward Rodney. He could make out the silhouette of Rodney’s nose and chin in the dark. “And as a matter of fact, I do. I couldn’t go to sleep until you finally shut up.”

The cover humped up over Rodney’s belly and John imagined Rodney had threaded his fingers together there.

Rodney sighed and then said, “You woke me up in the middle of a dream.”

“So?”

“So now it’s going to stick with me for the rest of the day and I hate when that happens.”

John couldn’t help himself. He gave a soft snort. “Whale eat you again?”

Back when John had discovered Rodney’s log of dreams, he hadn’t realized he would find himself curious about why. Why whales? In a strange twist, he’d gotten the answer to that question not that long ago when a crystal entity had begun infiltrating everyone’s dreams and people had started to share stories. Rodney had shared with the whole team one morning. Moby Dick. John never would have guessed it.

Rodney’s head turned sideways, and if there’d been enough light to see by, John imagined Rodney’s glare would have been fierce.

“No, a whale did not eat me again,” Rodney said, scorn clearly audible. “Although I’m sure it would have gotten there, eventually.”

“So, Carter in boots then?” As soon as the words left his mouth, John realized he’d made a mistake. He shut his eyes and fell back onto the bed.

“How do you—” A sharp gasp and then the bed shook, rocking John. “You’ve been reading my personal logs! That’s a total invasion of my privacy! How did you do that? That stuff is password protected.”

John raised up on his elbow and reached over and put his left hand in the center of Rodney’s chest. “Hey! Calm down. It was just one time and it was a mistake, okay?” A serious mistake. Now that he’d been having those newly complete, vivid, confusing dreams, he realized what that mistake might be telling him. He could put two and two together and get four just as easily as the next guy, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to.

“When?” Rodney asked, short and demanding. Through his hand, John could feel Rodney breathing a little fast. Probably nervous. John realized moving around so much had also been a mistake. All the shifting had let cold air drift under the covers and goosebumps pebbled his skin. He pulled his hand away from Rodney’s warm chest and tucked his arm back against his side.

“Back on that planet where we saved the Nadean kids,” John said. “I was all alone in the jumper and I got bored. Your computer was there.” This was going to get embarrassing for the both of them if John didn’t do something quick. “It’s your fault,” he said and he added a twist to the words, the one that he knew annoyed the crap out of Rodney. “You should have left a few games on it. Solitaire at the very least. Freecell would have been nice. Chess. Maybe even hearts. I could’ve played hearts.”

“There are plenty of games on my computer. How is it my fault if you couldn’t find them?”

“I’m just saying. I wouldn’t have had to resort to putting myself to sleep with your boring logs if I’d had a few games to play.”

“You know what? I’m cold and I’m tired, and I’m going back to sleep.” With that, Rodney rolled away from John, curled up into himself, and didn’t say another word.

John didn’t mind so much.

*

Oh, good god. John had read his personal logs. Those ones that had, I don’t know, two hundred mentions of John and his mouth and that damn smile of his. Rodney quietly, carefully moved his hand up to his face and rubbed his eyes, trying not to disturb John or to let John know he wasn’t actually asleep, just like John was making a point of staying still and quiet, and breathing evenly, even though they both knew he wasn’t asleep either.

Rodney couldn’t have cared less about John knowing about his dreams about Sam. Seriously. Even though she was the leader of the Atlantis expedition now, that didn’t mean he couldn’t still think she was hot. Really, really hot. Because she was. In a blonde, female, busty, brainy kind of way that had always done it for him. He was just as red-blooded as the next guy, for god’s sake. There was no way even John didn’t find her attractive, although he would probably never admit it.

But all that was beside the point. How creepy must John have found it to find references to himself in Rodney’s dream log? Huh? Huh? Rodney blinked. This was a disaster. Then he blinked again. Okay, so that had been—what?—months and months ago. John had never let on. Although, now that he thought about it, more recently, John hadn’t seemed that surprised by Rodney’s tale of whale dreams and Moby Dick. Rodney had glanced up to see John staring at him and chewing his breakfast, acting pretty normal and disinterested. Nothing new there.

So maybe this wasn’t the end of the world he’d envisioned a few minutes ago, when John had admitted what he’d done.

Rodney hoped so. Humiliation sucked.

A full body shiver worked its way through him. He put his hand up and breathed warm air onto his cold nose. It didn’t really help him feel better.

With that thought, his heart slowed and the tightness in his chest eased. Everything would be fine. Of course it would.

But what if it wasn’t? A burst of wind whined through the alleyway on the other side of the far wall. Wood shutters rattled and canvas flapped, the sound muffled but still loud enough to startle.

Rodney gave up trying to be quiet, scooted back against John—because who were they kidding? It was too cold to be stupid about it—and closed his eyes.

John shimmied his back a little closer to Rodney too, until they were touching and warmth replaced the chill of drafting air under the covers. Rodney took that as a sign John intended to continue to ignore the issue of dreams, and Rodney was perfectly fine with that.

*

It was like those times when you woke from a dream and then fell right back into it. Despite having been awake long enough to argue with John, Rodney went from dreaming of bright halls and whooshing doors, to arguing with John, and when his eyes closed, right back to whooshing doors.

He felt scratchy whiskers against his cheek, rough like two days growth, and he realized he was kissing someone, and it wasn’t right. Blue eyes stared wide through round lenses and conveyed shock in a tight dilation of pupils, and Rodney thought maybe something was wrong with him after all because why was he kissing Radek Zelenka?

And then he wasn’t. A sharp yank on the back of his shirt brought his arms out in a futile attempt to save himself from falling, but it was too late. His ass hit the floor and all the breath left his body in a rush. Only the hand at his collar didn’t let go and he felt himself slide backward as someone pulled.

“Hey, hey, what—” He twisted his neck around and caught sight of the hairy arm dragging him along the shiny floor. “Major?” he said, but then he wasn’t surprised, because Major Sheppard had looked on the verge of running down the halls earlier during the conference with Carson and Bates and Elizabeth. “You’re supposed to be in the infirmary,” Rodney said, and he knew he sounded funny, but then, he thought maybe he should be feeling weird about being dragged down the halls of Atlantis by the collar of his shirt, and yet, he really wasn’t. He just kept thinking how nice the major’s forearm looked with all that dark thick hair covering it.

Oh.

“I’m showing symptoms,” he said, to no one in particular.

John answered anyway, “Beckett took blood, but he never said... But then he fondled me and I’m pretty sure that’s not normal for him.”

“No, no, you’re right.”

“You were kissing Dr. Zelenka.”

“Yes, yes, I was.”

It hit him then, that they were having this conversation while the major’s fingers were still fisted in his shirt, his ass was still sliding along the corridor, unresisting, and the major’s footsteps had never slowed despite his hunched back.

“You should let me go,” Rodney said. “Really. Right now.”

“I’m going to lock you in your quarters.”

“Oh.” He tried to turn again, to see Major Sheppard’s face. He slipped instead and tumbled over on his side, while Sheppard’s hand twisted up tight in Rodney’s collar, nearly choking him.

“Sorry, buddy,” Sheppard said but he didn’t release Rodney. He grabbed Rodney’s shoulder with his other hand, righting him, and then resumed his pull down the hall.

“What about you?” Rodney said, relaxing into the soft slide when he probably should have been doing something to get away. Even token resistance would have been nice... but his body didn’t respond to the thought.

“I’m going to lock myself in my quarters next.”

Rodney raised one hand, forefinger pointing high in the air. “I kissed Zelenka. You realize what that could mean? I think I do, and—and, and if you try to come on to me in my quarters, I’m probably not going to fight you off. You look really hot right now.”

“Huh.”

They had reached a transporter. Sheppard dragged Rodney inside, and he finally let go of Rodney’s pitiful, stretched-out t-shirt. Rodney put his hands out on both sides of his thighs on the floor to stop himself from falling over, and then leaned his back against the wall under the glowing panel and watched upside down as Sheppard tapped the spot that would bring them out closest to Rodney’s quarters.

Sheppard turned and propped himself against the wall. “This is a hell of a way to go,” Sheppard said, a disconcerting tremble in his voice that made Rodney feel a moment of hopeless panic. He wasn’t himself; neither was the major. Carson didn’t know what would happen to all of them in the end. They might die.

The door whooshed shut.

Rodney woke up.

Faint light filtered in through the gaps in the window shutters. He realized morning had arrived, finally. Thank god.

He stretched out his legs under the covers, noticing he had somehow managed to stay huddled in a tight ball for most of the night, still pressed snug against John. Cold stiff muscles and an aching back drew a rough groan out of him, and he felt the bed shake with John’s movement behind him.

Pieces of his dream floated back to him, and Rodney remembered this one. It wasn’t a new dream. Since his recovery from the Pegasus galaxy’s amnesia causing flu—oh, what a quaint name that one had, Kirsan fever—the dream had been recurring with astonishing regularity, along with dreams of walking down long hallways, writing on his arms, staring at a computer monitor in absolute terror of pushing the wrong button, and Teyla’s face. He logged them all, of course, for posterity. Who knew when there might turn out to be hidden genius in one or the other?

“You going to lay there all morning?” John asked, his voice sounding gruff from sleep.

“Not if you paid me in ZPMs,” Rodney said.

“Those bedwarmers would’ve probably been nice to have around last night.”

Rodney turned his head to glare balefully at the side of John’s face. “Ha ha. If only someone hadn’t sent them away.”

John sat up, the covers falling to his waist, exposing a seriously wrinkled black t-shirt. Neither of them had chosen to strip down further than shirts and pants. His hair stuck up wildly on one side but was mashed flat on the other.

Rodney didn’t even want to know what his own hair looked like.

John’s face also had a crease mashed into it that in the dim light looked almost like a scar. With a day old beard and bags under his eyes, John looked like hell.

Rodney could relate.

“At least we stayed out of the wind,” John said. He ran his fingers through his hair, and just like that, he looked almost normal, thick black hair standing up on both sides of his head now.

“That’s really not fair,” Rodney said. His own hair thinned a little more every year.

“What?” John just looked at him with raised eyebrows.

Rodney answered with a scowl in John’s direction. He raised his hands up and patted his own hair down as best he could, then gave up and shoved the covers aside. He stumbled out of bed on stiff legs. “I wonder if they’re going to offer us some breakfast?”

“We’re guests,” John said. “So probably, but we have supplies if they don’t.” John rolled out of bed and landed on his feet without a single grunt or groan, despite how worn out he looked.

Rodney tromped over to his pack. He yanked the zipper open. They were nearly the same age, for god’s sake, but you’d think John was ten years younger the way he moved around. Oh yes, that Wraith who had given back the life he’d taken from John last year had certainly given back a few extra years, whether John admitted it or not. Lucky bastard. Rodney bit back a sigh. Someday Rodney was going to end up on that workout schedule John kept threatening him with, or he was going to start getting left behind on missions.

“What’s got you all bent out of shape this morning?”

Rodney rummaged in his pack for the extra shirt he carried. “Oh, just the fact that I didn’t want to be here, but I am, and I didn’t want to freeze my ass off last night, but oh joy how I did, and now I don’t want to walk through a market full of pre-industrial, useless wares looking for trade goods out in the cold wind, but oh, I certainly will. This is a colossal waste of my valuable time and you know it.”

“Way to get up on the wrong side of the bed.”

“No, I actually got up on the right side of the bed, it just didn’t help.” Rodney pulled the shirt on over his head. It was one of the older blue shirts, like those they’d worn during the first weeks and months in Atlantis. He didn’t care if he stank of day old sweat, he wasn’t going outside this morning without extra layers. His jacket wasn’t thick enough by far.

When Rodney’s head slipped through the neck of the t-shirt, he caught John watching him. Rodney thought John would look away, move to gear up, do something, but he didn’t.

“John?” Rodney asked, frowning. He started to tuck his two shirts into his pants.

“What? Oh.” John cleared his throat and moved toward his boots which were on the floor near the foot of the iron-framed bed. “I was—I don’t know. Thinking about the market. This won’t take long. The morning will be over before you know it and we can head back to Atlantis where you’ll have all the heat you can stand.”

John sat down on the edge of the bed and started pulling on his boots.

The market? Rodney was observant enough to realize John had made that up on the spot to cover whatever it was he’d really been thinking about. Rodney really hoped it had nothing to do with last night’s revelation about his dreams.

Rodney hesitated, then said, “Are we okay?”

John turned his head in Rodney’s direction, still leaning forward with one boot on and one foot halfway in the other.

Rodney gestured between them. “I mean, last night, I thought—well, it’s been a while since you read my logs, so I thought it must not have—”

“No,” John interrupted. “No. It’s fine. We’re fine. Really.”

“Really.” Rodney didn’t feel reassured. He could feel a cold sweat starting under his arms. He’d been right to worry. He’d known nothing good would come of those damn dreams.

“I shouldn’t—look, don’t worry about it.” John grabbed up his vest and slipped his arms into it. “We’re fine.” He emphasized the last word not only with the tone of his voice but with widened eyes and raised eyebrows. The scrape of the zipper followed as John looked down at his hands, tugging, pulling, fitting his vest into place.

“Well...” Rodney stood there, counting the passing seconds in his head, not sure what else to say. Not wanting to bring up anything specific, because neither him nor John had actually said anything about the frequent mention of John in Rodney’s logs.

John remained on the other side of the room, his hands at his sides, his fingers splayed, a couple of them tapping against the side of his thigh. He shrugged. “So.”

Rodney bent his arm and thrust his thumb out, pointing back over his shoulder at the door. “They might have food. We should—”

“Get some. Yeah. Let’s do that.” John pointed at Rodney’s pile of gear. “You might want to—”

“Oh, yes. Yes.” Rodney nodded vigorously and bent for his own boots. “I’ll just—do that first.”

*

After a breakfast of dried fruit and meat pie, which Rodney ate with an unusual attentiveness to good manners, not once talking with his mouth full, John noticed, probably because he didn’t have any more idea than John what to say into the oddly strained silence, Torviss took them out into the already bustling market. John noticed the wind had died down, although the day was much colder than yesterday. He was also sure the Stargate was at a lower elevation than this place so the temperature difference could be a matter of location. Sunlight glinted on the bleached gray and white stone and glared into John’s eyes, until he had to take out his sunglasses and slide them on.

Torviss led them to many different buildings, where canvas-like awnings covered large openings and narrow, crowded table lined alleys. Most of the people shifted away from them as they followed Torviss’s determined stride, letting Torviss point out items of interest. John kept his expression polite and curious, whether he was looking at dyed furs and woven fabrics or intricately designed knife hilts and gleaming blades.

John nodded a few times, but overall, he didn’t see much in the way of wares that lived up to yesterday’s promises from Torviss.

Until—

“Is that—” Rodney damn near leapt forward as they stepped up to the next set of buildings, divided from the rest by a wider, less-traveled alley. His shoulder bumped John’s and John reached out with a cold-stiffened hand to steady himself against Rodney’s broad back. Rodney looked over his shoulder at John, his eyes bright and wide, his lips parted.

“This is Ancient technology,” Rodney said, breathless and eager.

John merely crooked the corner of his mouth up and tilted his head, looking around Rodney to see something that looked like Ancient drones in miniature. “Are those micro drones?” he asked, feeling the urge to whistle.

Rodney jerked his hand in their direction, touching before anyone could tell him not to, although no one did. “And I’m supposed to know that exactly how? I need to examine them before I make an official pronouncement, but if I had to guess, in my expert opinion, then yes, they do look like very small drones.”

“So micro drones, then.”

Rodney’s chin came up. “Yes, fine. Micro drones. Are you happy now?”

Torviss stepped up next to Rodney. Torviss’s face seemed to hold a smug tightness to it John hadn’t noticed earlier, as if he’d known all along how little John was interested in the other goods he’d been shown. “We have many of these items to trade with you, and other goods of a similar nature from the abandoned places of the Great Ancestors. In exchange, we would value any medical supplies and assistance you could provide.”

“I’m sure we can make some kind of deal,” John said, flashing a quick smile at Torviss and the silent male trader standing behind the table, who was carefully watching Rodney twist and turn the tiny drone, examining every crack and crevice. The man had short dark hair and no beard and stood evenly matched with Rodney in height and breadth.

“We wouldn’t have brought you here if we didn’t also believe so,” Torviss said. Torviss shared a look with the trader, who nodded and reached under the table. The man pulled out a cloth sack and placed several of the tiny drones inside, along with several other unknown but equally small devices that also appeared to be of Ancient design.

“Dr. McKay, please accept these with our sincere hope that you will find something of value in them.”

“Oh, yes.” Rodney thrust out his arm, his fingers waving until the man handed over the sack. Rodney stuffed the goods carefully into his backpack and asked, “Where’d you get these?”

The trader looked to Torviss, his expression questioning and cautious.

Rodney crossed his arms and exhaled impatiently. John kicked the back of Rodney’s boot. Rodney turned his head and glared at John.

Torviss nodded.

The man turned back to Rodney and said, “There are many places of the ancestors where we visit and collect artifacts for trade. One such place is less than a day’s walk from here, although the goods that were inside are long gone. We must travel great distances these days to bring back artifacts. That’s why they are so valuable.”

“Hm. You should take us there.”

“Why?” Torviss said.

The abrupt question seemed to catch Rodney by surprise but he didn’t hesitate to throw back, “You won’t let me in to your Ancient city. Only an idiot would turn down the use of my expertise out of spite. We were just trying to help those kids. It’s not our fault—”

“It’s entirely your fault, Dr. McKay, since your people were entrusted with their care. It matters very little to us that you didn’t ask for that burden of honor. You accepted it by retrieving the children, when they could have been left for us to retrieve later.”

“And they were very lucky we did because the big ring exploded,” John said, stepping forward. He gave Rodney’s shoulder a brisk pat. It was time to stop this argument. Rodney had gone over all this before and it was pointless for him to keep beating at the same dead horse. “We should be heading back soon,” he said.

“I’d really like to see the place where these things came from,” Rodney said.

Torviss nodded. “We will show you.”

*

They should have gone back for a jumper. John realized this after another cart ride over winding roads and through a dense forest that took two hours. By the time the cart stopped next to a sheer rock face that rose hundreds of feet toward the sky, John thought he was never going to get rid of the chill in his bones or the ache in his back and hip from standing against the high-sided slats of the cart as it bumped and jolted over every rock and pothole on the rutted path.

Rodney’s bitching hadn’t let up either, but John had just let that wash right over him, the inventive collection of complaints background noise for John’s careful observations of their route, the terrain, and their companions, Torviss, the still silent trader, and the cart’s driver, an old man this time.

Getting so far away from the Stargate had left him feeling unsettled. The new Nadean government had been easy to deal with on most issues, and they were being as reasonable as could be expected about their still missing children, but without Ronon and Teyla along, his and Rodney’s safety was entirely in his hands.

John watched Rodney’s breath puff out in little clouds as they climbed out of the cart. Rodney shoved his hands under his armpits, awkward as that was over the bulk of his jacket and tac vest. They both wore gloves but after not moving around for a couple of hours, the cold had seeped into John’s fingers too.

“Those carts are the worst use of the wheel ever,” Rodney said. “Seriously, they couldn’t have invented something with seats in it?”

John squeezed his fingers, trying to ease the stiffness brought on by the chill. “Maybe they like to stand.”

Rodney scoffed. “And maybe you’re just arguing to be contrary.”

John felt the grin that curled up the corners of his mouth but couldn’t stop it.

Rodney just shook his head at him.

“This way,” Torviss said, coming up on John’s right. He pointed at a yawning black doorway cut into the base of the cliff. “This is one of many places of the Ancestors on our world.”

The doorway had been cut right into the towering rock. John had to lean his head back to see the top edge of the cliff, although he’d had a better view half an hour ago when they were on their approach. Once they’d gotten close, it had been harder to see the top of the escarpment. No trees grew out of the cliff face, no grass clung to the sheer vertical wall of weathered black and gray rock and John thought it was easy to see why now that he stood in front of the imposing formation. The wall of rock had no pockets of dirt or ledges that would allow anything to take root; bare rock stretched at least a few hundred feet in every direction.

“That’s...something,” he said.

“There’s a fault line here,” Rodney said and pointed to a spot where the different patterns of rock seemed to swirl together in a fascinating display of the malleability of something that John couldn’t imagine as malleable at all.

The trader had joined them for the trip, Cor he had called himself in the cramped cart, and he stepped forward. His thick brown leather coat draped him from neck to boot. “We must take our own light with us. The place has been dead for as long as we have been collecting artifacts.”

“Got this,” Rodney said, patting his pocket, then reaching in and pulling out his flashlight and a handheld device John figured was a scanner of some kind.

John flipped on the light attached to his P-90. Rodney was already walking toward the opening, eyes narrowed on the scanner readout.

“Hey, wait up,” John called out. Too late though because Rodney stepped over the threshold, flashlight flaring bright as it came on, and John saw the quiver at the edge of the doorway and realized what was about to happen a fraction of a second before a door slid across the space and thudded into place. Shit.

Torviss’s eyes widened. “This is not supposed to happen.”

He jabbed his finger against the radio earpiece. “Rodney, do you copy?” He counted three seconds of silence while he walked up to the sealed doorway. “Rodney? Why the hell didn’t you wait?”

No response.

Cor jammed his fingers into the crevice where the door joined to rock face. John did the same. John’s muscles strained, tightening painfully, and his boots slipped on the dry dirt underfoot, but the door didn’t budge. Cor gasped just before he released his grip, and then stood there beside John, harsh plumes of his breath visible in the cold air. John grunted and let go. The door wasn’t going to open.

“Damn it. Rodney. If you can hear this, make some kind of noise. I’m not picking you up.”

John banged on the metal with his fist and heard a faint echo of sound reverberate on the other side of the door. He slapped his palms against the door and leaned in, mashing his ear flat against the freezing cold metal surface. A shiver raced over his skin. Nothing.

John smacked the door again for good measure and blew out a harsh breath.

“Is there another way in?” he demanded.

Torviss looked to Cor. Cor said in a hesitant voice, “We’ve never found another entrance. If we cannot get this door open, Dr. McKay will be trapped.”

*

Rodney felt the air stutter in his lungs before he lurched around in the near pitch black. “Oh, this is not good,” he muttered, followed by a considerably louder, panic stricken, “Sheppard? Sheppard! Oh my god, Sheppard, the door’s stuck.”

A tinny voice came over his radio, “Rodney, do you copy?”

“Sheppard—John! The door slammed shut behind me. It’s dark in here. I don’t know what the hell happened.”

And then John’s voice again, “Rodney? Why the hell didn’t you wait?”

“Oh, like it would have made any difference! As soon as I—”

“Damn it. Rodney,” John’s voice interrupted. “If you can hear this, make some kind of noise. I’m not picking you up.”

What? Rodney swung his flashlight toward the door. How could he—He scurried to the door and banged the side of his fist against the ridged surface. He couldn’t say how thick the door might be, but it felt solid and heavy and he doubted seriously John would hear a thing. The muscles across his shoulders tightened and he had to remind himself to quit breathing so fast. He hated tight spaces. Dark spaces. Cold spaces. Okay. Not helping. His hand clenched around the flashlight’s metal casing.

He heard John ask, “Is there another way in?” and realized John’s radio was still transmitting. “Crap. You sure about that?” John had to be talking to either Torviss or Cor.

Okay, okay. He had to think. Surely he could do that. The air didn’t smell funny, just a crisp mineral tang to it that he could taste on his tongue. He had his flashlight, a few power bars, some water, and his gun. He had his computer, and a few small tools, and—and—and a radio that wasn’t transmitting and those power bars weren’t going to go far, maybe a couple of hours because it had been a long time since breakfast, and he would die of dehydration pretty damn quick with the amount of water he had on him.

Rodney stepped back and rubbed his shaking hand over his chest. He would feel a lot better if John got that door open. He turned around and faced into the room he’d barely had time to notice before he’d been locked in.

His flashlight beam cut through the unrelenting dark, giving Rodney glimpses of Ancient writing on rusted metal walls. The place was in bad shape and a draft of cold air had to be coming from somewhere since the door behind him had slammed tight. He clenched his fist around the flashlight to hold it steady. His hands never trembled, and if they seemed to be doing it this time, well, it was probably just the cold.

John’s side of the conversation made it sound like Cor and Torviss were telling him there wasn’t another way in, but they had to be wrong. Something had to account for that draft of air breezing over Rodney’s forehead and cheeks, throat and ears.

He tried his radio again. “Come on, Sheppard. Why can’t you hear me? This is ridiculous. I really don’t like being—” He jerked his head around to the left. “What was that?”

He pointed the flashlight in the direction the sound came from, and his throat got a little tight as he looked into a deep, dark corridor that sank back into the wall. The circle of light darted over the ceiling, the floor, around the opening, but couldn’t pick out anything in the gaping hole beyond a few feet.

A prickle of unease ghosted over the nape of his neck. He fumbled for his gun. He managed to unsnap the thigh holster and pull the weapon out, raising and resting it alongside the barrel of the flashlight.

Whap...whap...whap...

The door behind him might be the way out if he could take the time to see if there were any controls nearby, but he couldn’t turn his back on the creepy corridor and the feeling that he wasn’t alone.

He squeezed his eyes shut, shook his head. “I’m in the middle of a third rate horror film,” he said. “There’s no way I’m chasing after strange sounds alone in the dark.” He grimaced. “Not happening. Absolutely, under no circumstances, nada, never. No way.” He pulled his right arm back and scratched the corner of his nose with his thumb, not easing his grip on his gun for a second. Despite the cold, he felt the moisture of sweat touch the back of his knuckle.

Whap...whap...whap...whap...

He thrust his arm forward, pointing into the dark at something he could hear but couldn’t see. “Oh, come on,” he said in fierce denial. “I’m not doing it! You’re just going to have to come out here and get me because I’m not coming in there!”

A bone-chilling scream and something rushed forward, straight for Rodney. Instinct told him to run like hell but there was nowhere to run so Rodney pulled the trigger, fast and furious and scrambled backwards, slamming his body up against the door, his heart thudding and his blood rushing loud in his ears, his skull digging along the ridges of the surface behind him. The light from his flashlight bobbed wildly and glanced off a shiny gray thing low to the ground, two glittering eyes speeding toward him.

He jerked the gun right at those eyes and kept firing. Bullets ricocheted with a pling, thunked and twanged as they missed their mark, and then he heard an ear-splitting squeal. Something wet splattered Rodney’s left cheek and the noise ceased abruptly.

In the sudden eerie quiet Rodney could hear nothing but his own ragged breathing. He started to bring his flashlight up and then—Whap.

He jerked and let out a sharp yell. He fired blindly at the floor at his feet until he realized he was out of bullets and was dry firing his gun. Rodney sucked cold air into his lungs. Might be hyperventilating, he thought. He unclenched his fingers and forced himself to take a couple of slow, even breaths, and was amazed at how hard it was to keep from gulping air. He fumbled the extra ammunition clip out of his holster. He blinked rapidly, caught a piece of his skin between the clip and gun. He cursed below his breath.

Whatever was lying on the floor didn’t move or make a sound. Rodney loaded the fresh clip into his gun anyway. When that was done, he steadied his flashlight and looked down at the—the thing that had tried to attack him.

It looked like a lizard the size of a naquadah generator, with a thick tail as long as its fat body. Other than the size, it reminded him of a komodo dragon.

In death, its black forked tongue hung out of the corner of its large mouth, big—really big—teeth sharp and wet.

“Oh, that’s just perfect. You’re probably venomous,” Rodney said, and he might have been embarrassed by the underlying tremor in his voice if anyone else had been around to notice. The tingle on this cheek startled him and after his last thought, he quickly jerked his arm up and scraped at his skin with the sleeve covering his forearm.

He listened for anything else that sounded out of place, but there was nothing to hear except for his own loud breathing. He could easily imagine an entire family of giant venomous lizards just waiting for their chance to attack.

He looked around, picking out his surroundings as best as he could in the dark. He quickly discovered that the only obvious way out—out being relative to where he was now—was down the corridor the creature had come from.

“Sheppard,” he said into his radio, knowing he probably wasn’t going to be heard but feeling the need to say something anyway, “I sure hope you’re trying to get my ass out of here before any more lizard creatures show up and try to make a tasty meal out of me.”

*

Four hours of crouching on the floor, working on a crystal door control that had obviously seen better days—oh, he didn’t know, but he could make a highly educated guess—ten thousand fucking years ago!—left Rodney so far beyond frustrated and angry that his teeth and jaw ached from the gritting and grinding he’d done to keep from giving in to the near uncontrollable urge to beat the shit out of the control panel and be done with it. He was too smart to do something like that though, knowing it might be his only way out, but oh how he hated this damn door.

A foil lined wrapper crinkled under his knee. He swept it aside with stiff, swollen fingers, then straightened his back, groaning at the pain in his tired muscles. His knee slipped on the smooth floor, knocking over the flashlight he’d stood on end to shine up into the door controls. The light spun away and then rolled to a stop against the base of a tray of dead crystals sticking out from a wall console. He’d pulled the tray out to check for replacement crystals once he’d discovered the damage a ricocheting bullet had caused to the already—apparently—malfunctioning door.

Which explained why the door had shut as soon as he’d walked through it. Somehow the systems had recognized his ATA gene and then promptly malfunctioned, slamming the door closed behind him and trapping him in a facility that half-worked, half the time.

Resting momentarily on his knees and sitting back on his heels, Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose. His eyes hurt and he’d developed a headache about an hour ago, he hoped from the strain of trying to see in the dark with nothing but the glaring light of his flashlight to see by. Secondary possibilities included tainted air, toxic fumes, dehydration, or poison. He wasn’t out of water yet, but he would be shortly.

A cool breeze fluttered around him and the skin along the back of his neck prickled. He’d noticed the temperature rising, slowly, over the last several hours, and the ventilation seemed to be working only sporadically. Even though it was warmer in here than it had been outside, the air filtering down around him felt chill against his skin.

He couldn’t say if the problems with this place stemmed from actual damage suffered thousands of years ago, or if it was simply a case of too many artifacts having been removed by the locals. Either way, it was stupid, stupid, stupid that he was stuck here, where every small noise made him grab for his gun and flashlight and spin around toward the creepy corridor that just waited to spit out another vicious creature looking for a meal.

“Sheppard, any time now would be good you know.” He spoke to the empty room, and his voice echoed quietly. With his hands on his thighs, he pushed himself to his feet. He needed to walk around for a minute to get the feeling back in his legs. They tingled from the lack of circulation, burning as he stretched out and walked in a small circle.

“Okay, okay, okay,” he muttered. “What would Sheppard do? He would have blown the door. Why hasn’t he tried to blow the door?” He paused and rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead, wincing at the warmth he felt. He answered his question with the only logical explanations he could think of. “He’s afraid the blast might kill me. Or he’s already tried it and it didn’t work. Or the Nadeans won’t let him...” He shook his head, making another circuit, going wider this time, depending on his memory to keep himself from walking into any of the number of consoles and tables scattered around the space. His flashlight still rested on the floor where it had rolled to a stop, illuminating the wall nearest where he’d dragged the lizard creature after he’d realized he couldn’t concentrate with the creature lying dead behind him as he worked on the door controls.

He smoothed his thumb over the tips of his fingers on his right hand. Not quite numb, but desensitized after touching the lizard creature’s ridged skin. Before handling the creature, he had wrapped his hands in yesterday’s shirt from his pack. Of course—of course—it had slipped while he was manhandling the heavy, bulky creature awkwardly across the room and his fingers had glided right over the slimy skin, wet with something that felt like snot.

The numbness hadn’t spread further. “Not poisonous,” he said, tapping his thumb against the pads on his fingertips. His fingernails felt weird, and his hand was definitely warmer than the rest of his body.

“Seriously, what are the chances this, this thing would secrete poison?” He looked down at his hand, but there was nothing to see in the dark but a shadowy outline created by the backwash of light spilling off the wall where the flashlight aimed. But he didn’t need to see his hand to know his fingers had swollen and his knuckles had gone stiff and tight over the last couple of hours. “This is ridiculous. Of course it’s poisonous. I’m so dead.”

He walked over to the corner he’d been eyeing for a while, farthest from the door and the corridor, ever since he had felt the first hint he would have to empty his bladder soon. He’d given up on a quick rescue, but he’d held off pissing on the floor out of sheer stubbornness. He didn’t want to smell urine everywhere if he was stuck here for a while.

But it didn’t matter now, because he’d held it as long as possible. He had to pee.

Getting his fly open was a little more complicated than he expected, no thanks to his swollen hand. His fingers fumbled the top button and sweat popped out on his face, but he got his pants open enough to work his penis out. He grimaced, hoped he wasn’t about to piss on anything he might decide he needed later, and felt a shiver race through him as he relaxed his hold on his too full bladder. Urine hit the floor in a steady stream and the sharp scent of ammonia wafted up.

He had a horrifying moment where his imagination kicked in and he thought about what might happen if another lizard chose that moment to bolt out of the corridor and come running at him while he stood there with his penis hanging out. He shuddered. He finished as quickly as he could, thinking all the while about worse case scenarios and how the hell he was supposed to pee when he was on the verge of an anxiety attack. He managed to get done though and he tucked himself away. 

His fingers fumbled on the zipper. His swollen hand seemed to be getting worse. When he tried to make a fist, the skin felt too tight and his puffy fingers didn’t want to curl, instead rubbing together uncomfortably. He would lose mobility in them soon. The trouble with his zipper showed he’d already lost a lot of his dexterity.

He rubbed the back of his swollen hand. His skin felt hot to the touch. Whatever kind of poison or toxin in the slimy coating on the giant lizard, one thing was certain. His skin had absorbed it by contact alone and his body was probably even now distributing small amounts of it throughout the rest of his body.

“I’m so dead.” He shuffled back toward the door that wouldn’t open. He tapped his radio on again, because he really didn’t like feeling alone here. “John, this is a pathetic excuse for an Ancient research lab. I just want you to know that. If you don’t blow down that door soon, I’m probably going to die in here.”

He bent down and picked up the flashlight and waited for a reply. In vain.

“There’s this corridor,” he said, pausing after the words to rub the bridge of his nose. “There’s this corridor I could try, because this door isn’t going to open, no matter what I do, and this corridor has lizards in it. Big lizards. Giant lizards. And they might enjoy human flesh. I’m not quite sure about that yet but I really don’t want to find out. But you see, I might be dying and if I don’t get out of here soon, it’s not going to matter because they’re going to find me lying on the floor passed out, maybe dead from anaphylactic shock, and they’re going to eat me anyway.”

He paused again, licked his dry lips.

“So, I’m going to have to go into the corridor.”

He looked down the dark hallway, into the pitch black of a room buried under a sheer cliff of rock. His flashlight bobbed, illuminating a crisp circle of metallic wall in the distance.

“I am,” he said. “I’m going to have to go there.”

He blinked a couple of times, thumb rubbing fingertips absently, other hand holding the flashlight mostly steady. The quiet seemed absolute except for the sound of his breathing. The air was dry and unpleasant, and he raised his fingers to rub at his nose.

His decision made, he turned around and shuffled back over to the sealed doorway into the facility to gather his things. He couldn’t know what he might find useful later, so he didn’t plan to leave behind anything he could carry.

*

John felt something bump into his back. He grunted at the sudden jostle and stumbled forward a few steps. “Forgive me,” he heard. Sounded like Cor. John quickly glanced over his shoulder, and then turned his attention back to the gap between two thick branches of evergreen tree that shielded the small group and the horrifying sight that had held his attention for the last two minutes.

“That thing is huge,” John said, carefully keeping his voice low. “And you say it lives in the cave?”

Torviss answered from beside him, just as quietly. “Yes. It does.”

“It looks like an alligator and a komodo dragon made out,” John muttered.

He glanced over in time to notice Torviss give him a strange look.

Cor added, in a voice that wavered and was not meant to carry past their tight hiding spot behind a thicket of evergreen trees, “There’s no guarantee the cave connects to the Ancestor’s Gallery.”

Meaning if Rodney still waited in the main room Torviss and Cor had told John about, they still might not be able to get to him.

“It’s the only thing we’ve got. The C-4 didn’t work, the tools didn’t work. We have to get in there. If McKay could have found a way to get the door working, he would have been out hours ago.”

Torviss turned to look at John again. “You believe your Dr. McKay is that proficient with the Ancestors’ technologies?”

“I know he is. That door would not have stopped McKay from getting out.”

Torviss turned his gaze back to the giant lizard and John followed suit. The large mouth had closed over the hind leg of what looked like a dead deer. The deer was big bodied, thick and heavy, easily the weight of a large man.

The lizard was bigger. A lot bigger.

The sound of bone crunched. John winced.

*

“Okay, Rodney, you’re not hearing things. There’s no whap whap flap flap coming your way. Nothing’s going to get you. Nothing there.”

Rodney eased forward another few feet, the nervous thump of his heart making him queasy. Or maybe that was the toxin. His flashlight couldn’t illuminate everything at once, and the dark corners at the juncture of the wall and floor and the wall and ceiling kept him sweeping his light up and down and then back out into the wide hollow center of the corridor. Cool air wafted past his cheeks and neck at the open collar of his jacket. He felt hot, but every few minutes his skin would pebble and the hair covering it would stand on end. Either he was scared shitless or he had developed a serious fever.

He kind of thought it might be a little of both.

He didn’t have all that many bullets left and if he ran into another lizard monster thing, he wasn’t sure he would be able to hold the gun steady enough to actually hit the animal. In fact, his fingers were now so swollen that he wasn’t sure he could even get his finger through the trigger guard.

He was carrying his light with his left hand and had his right tucked in against his abdomen. It had started throbbing earlier, the numbness wearing off a bit only to be replaced with a slow, steady ache. He was probably going to die here, lizard or no lizard, and that just sucked.

Maybe it was a moment of inattention, but something caused him to stumble. His leg twisted and he went down hard on his knee.

The fall jarred the flashlight out of Rodney’s hand. It went spinning across the floor and smacked into the wall. The light winked out.

“Oh, hell. This sucks! What did I do to deserve this? Huh? Seriously?” Rodney crawled forward, grunting at every contact of his knee to the floor, the pain enough to make him grit his teeth and hesitate on each move. He felt for the wall and the flashlight with his hands. His fingers touched the metal casing. He gripped the light and sat back on his ass, his knee too sore to support his weight any longer.

He shook the light, but nothing happened. He unscrewed the bulb housing from the base and felt around carefully for the bulb itself. It seemed intact but loose. He tightened it and the light flooded back, shining directly into his eyes.

He jerked the light away from his face but it was too late. “Are you kidding me?” he asked the empty corridor. He couldn’t see anything. It would take several minutes for his night vision to fully return.

He would just sit here and—

A reflective glint caught his eye. The light illuminated something in the distance, a change in the texture of the wall.

Not wall. Rock. He guided the light around the space. There, the wall was damaged, cracked wide, and there was an empty cavern on the other side, a cavern with walls speckled by shiny flecks of a reflective mineral of some kind, enough to have caught his attention when his light roamed across it. Now he understood where the lizard might have come from. Likely not another Ancient experiment gone wrong or abandoned after all.

No way he was getting anywhere near that opening. Who knew where it came out. He would rest here for a few minutes, get his vision readjusted to the dark and then continue down the corridor looking for a way out of this death trap.

*

How the hell was he supposed to fight off a giant lizard that the Nadeans didn’t want him to kill,  with nothing but a knife?

John panted, slashed at the tail swinging toward him violently, missed, and danced backward on the balls of his feet. “Torviss, what the hell’s taking you so long?” They were setting a trap for the lizard, hoping to draw it out close enough to an outcropping of rock to push a large boulder down and trap it in a sharply narrowing crevice that paralleled the cave at the rear side of the Ancient facility.

The lizard whipped around, almost too fast for John, and then rushed forward with another swish of its thick tail. John scrambled up a pile of loose stone that had sheared away from the wall. “Torviss, you better be right about this thing and climbing,” he said through gritted teeth.

Torviss had sworn the creature could not climb. John hopped up another three feet of stacked stone and turned to look down. He’d made it about eight feet up from where he’d been and the lizard was pacing in front of the pile, long tongue flicking out in a snake-like manner every time it twisted around to retravel the path it had just taken. It was pissed.

But it didn’t try to chase after John.

Again, John wondered why it wasn’t a good idea to just kill the damn thing with a few well placed bullets.

Oh, yeah. Torviss had said a curse would befall the planet without the allimodo—what the hell had he been thinking to drop that name into the conversation? Rodney was going to laugh his ass off when he found out about it.

“A curse?” John had asked, his skepticism not hidden well at all.

Torviss replied, while Cor looked on with a serious stare and earnest expression, “The creature is called a Latar. It consumes the Spiga and keeps the forests safe for travel. Killing even one of the Latar can have far reaching consequences. They are slow to birth offspring. The Spiga are not.”

“The Spiga are bad, I take it?”

“Very bad. They feed on the Iratus bugs but they’re just as deadly.”

Unease coursed through John. Maybe these Spiga were not what he suddenly imagined they might be. “Just how deadly are we talking?”

“They’re nocturnal creatures. They create cocoons from their webs and store their food in the trees where they feed on the blood of their prey until the prey can no longer produce new blood. Then they feed on the flesh.”

John grimaced. The story put a whole new light on his memories of a dark and dangerous run for the gate a few years ago.

It also gave him something else to worry about.

“Is it possible there are some of those things in there with Rodney?” John asked.

Torviss’s answer had been ambivalent. Cor’s expression had not. Rodney could be in serious trouble, the kind that had nothing to do with being trapped in a building with no apparent means of escape.

The lizard chose that moment to hiss up at John. John jumped back from the edge and a wad of spit slapped onto the toe of his boot. “You didn’t say it was going to spit at me!” he yelled in the general direction of Torviss and Cor. He didn’t take his eyes off the lizard stalking him.

John started moving to the left, toward the crevice where Torviss and Cor had climbed to the top of the rocky outcrop and were levering an enormous rock to the very edge of the short cliff. The crevice cut back into the rock, widening along the way, leading to the other side of the escarpment. Just like it had taken John, Torviss, and Cor hours to reach this side of the Ancient facility, the lizard would spend hours getting back around to them, if it even came back. John had a funny feeling about that, considering the cave, the story of the Spiga, and the lizard’s general demeanor. This was its territory. It wouldn’t abandon it just because it had to find another way back once they blocked its path through the split in the rock wall.

But it did buy them time and they needed that to get Rodney out of that damned facility.

Things would have been a lot easier if he’d just had a few tranquilizer darts with him. Or if the Nadeans here had had a bit more of a technological advantage. Or if he could have killed the damn thing.

He stepped carefully over a hole in the stacked rock. He could feel sweat on his upper lip drying in the cold air, while the chill breeze across his face stung the skin of his cheeks. His fingers would have been warmer in gloves but he needed his hands free. Coming up was the tricky part. The ledge he traveled carried on around the edge of the opening, rising slightly as it went, but once he was inside the crevice with the lizard, he would have to jump for the lip of the outcropping. If he couldn’t jump high enough for Cor to grab onto his wrists and help him up the sheer wall, or if he slipped, he would end up as an afternoon snack for the lizard following him.

Then John was there, past the point of no return. The lizard swung its head around from one side to the other and back again. “What are you waiting for? Come on, follow me!” John yelled. Maybe screaming at the lizard wasn’t a great idea because the loud noise might scare it away, but the creature wasn’t following John in and that was the sum total of their plan: get lizard to chase John, trap lizard on one side of a pile of rocks away from the cave entrance John needed to access.

The lizard ambled forward, slow and cautious. One foot, then two. Then it seemed to come to a decision and changed tactics, rushing at John’s position, throwing up a sandy cloud of dirt in its wake.

John jumped backward, ready to turn and scramble up another level, as close to Cor as he could get, when the sudden squat, hunching motion of the lizard caught his attention.

An odd swish of its tail, a low sound. The lizard leapt at John, clearing ten feet in one bound forward. The large body thumped onto the rocks one level below him.

“What the hell was that?” John yelled at Cor and Torviss. “It can’t climb, you said!”

“It cannot,” Cor’s voice came from above. “But there are stories of amazing leaps. Hurry. I am ready.”

John wasn’t sure he wanted to put his back to that thing, but he did want out of this situation as fast as possible, so he scrambled to the highest point, fingers scraping raw against sharp edges and protruding rock. Cor leaned over the edge, his eyes wide and staring past John. John didn’t have time to look back. He jumped, putting everything he had into his legs, ignoring the burn, ignoring the tight panic building in his gut.

He sure as hell wasn’t going to be eaten by a lizard today. He’d rather crack his head open in a fatal fall than be torn to bits by that damned allimodo.

Besides which, if he died here, Rodney would never quit bitching about John not coming to save his ass...

Strong, calloused hands gripped John’s wrists, tight and hard and painful. The two men above slowly adjusted their grips until they held John’s arms up to his elbows. Fingers bit into the muscle of his forearms while John’s feet dug at the rock wall for leverage. His left foot found a crack and he pushed up, his knee banging into something, his thigh scraping raw against a protruding stone, a high-pitched screech coming from below him, too close for comfort.

A rough stone skinned his belly as he climbed over the edge. He lay face down for a moment, catching his breath while Cor and Torviss rose from their knees quickly and returned to the large boulder. John sat up just as Torviss leaned his shoulder into the rock and pushed, Cor standing beside him with his hands on the boulder, trying to guide it directly ahead instead of to the side as it seemed to want to shift. John pushed himself to his feet and stumbled over to help Cor.

“Here,” he said. He added his shoulder opposite Torviss, and the extra weight against the rock moved it in the right direction. For a moment it teetered on the edge before it crashed to the rocks below.

“More!” Torviss said, already moving to the left to a pile of rubble that seemed to have accumulated from a previous rock fall. Probably from the same place where many of the other piles of stone had come from, those than John had just climbed.

John grabbed stone after stone, throwing it onto the growing pile below, blocking off the escape of the lizard. The loud retort of falling rock echoed sharply in the cold air, until the sound seemed to be too much for the creature to bear and it trundled away.

John dusted his hands off on the thighs of his pants. He looked around. “My pack?” he asked no one in particular.

“There,” Torviss answered. Torviss looked a little wild-eyed, but John didn’t feel like asking if he was okay. Half this idea had belonged to Torviss. John had come up with the rest.

John walked to the pack, more exhausted than he had realized until then. Lunch time had come and gone. He should have been sitting down to dinner back on Atlantis right about now. He pulled out a few power bars, tossed two to the guys, and kept one for himself. He also took a deep swallow of water from his canteen. Torviss and Cor each had their own water supply, taken off the cart before they had sent the old man for help. John hoped it arrived soon but he wasn’t holding his breath. Two hours back to the market, two hours back to the gate, then four hours return trip with assistance, not counting the time it had taken to travel around the escarpment. Even if some of the Nadeans came straight here while others continued on to contact Atlantis, that would still put them several hours away.

There was no time to wait for help. The sun was already on a sharp downward curve as it faded away for the day in a crisp clear sky. The air was bitingly cold and the earlier breeze had disappeared as the frigid air settled in to stay. They had to get back down to the cave and continue on their own.

John pulled out his rope. Time to climb.

*

There was definitely a back way in to the Ancient facility. John, Torviss, and Cor stood and stared at the debris littering the cave floor.

An earthquake, or something as similarly powerful, had destroyed a large section of an exterior wall, leaving a gaping wound in the building. Stalactites had broken off and fallen to the ground, some sticking out of several shallow puddles of water, some resting against the cavern wall in a delicate balance of milk-white beauty in the beam of John’s flashlight.

The cave had led directly here, an easy trip for lizard or human alike. John was grateful. At this point, Rodney had been trapped inside, alone, for seven hours and thirteen minutes, give or take a few. If it had been either Teyla or Ronon, John would have been concerned, sure, but they could take care of themselves. This was Rodney. Scientist. Genius. Militarily inept. Trouble.

They had another hour at most before the sun disappeared completely, according to Torviss.

“I’ll take point,” John said, gesturing ahead. He glimpsed Cor step to the rear, putting Torviss between them. John wasn’t sure if there was a reason, but he caught a glimpse of shiny metal and assumed Cor had taken out one those deadly knives the Nadeans seemed so fond of.

Torviss had surprised John with his willingness to help rescue Rodney. Both he and Cor had not hesitated to stay when they had sent the cart driver after more help.

John stepped cautiously over the threshold of cave and building, scanning the area with his gaze, on the lookout for leaping lizards and the spider-like Spiga. Nothing set off red flags so he stepped further into the building and found himself in a long corridor that faded into darkness past the spill of light from his flashlight. A quick sweep behind him showed more of the same.

“Torviss, have any of your people ever been this far into this facility?”

“It is likely. We explore deeply into the Ancestors’ buildings when we find them to look for artifacts and technologies.”

“There have—” Cor started, but a sharp look from Torviss shut him up quick.

John felt a twinge of irritation. “What?” he demanded.

Torviss turned back to John. “It is nothing you need be concerned with,” he said.

John narrowed his eyes. “I’m concerned,” he said.

Torviss sighed and shook his head. “Nothing I tell you is going to help your Dr. McKay. It will only disturb you.”

“You let me worry about that. I want to know.”

Torviss gave Cor a sharp nod.

Cor darted his tongue out and wet his lips, his gaze flickering around the dark corridor before settling on John. “There have been many groups of explorers who have not returned from their explorations. It happens quite frequently. That is why artifact dealers are so well respected and well compensated. Ours is a risky business.”

John checked his weapon, then ran his fingers along the outer edge to feel the cool metal beneath his skin. “Here?”

“Yes. Here. Six groups.”

John ground his teeth together. “Six? And you didn’t think to tell us about this before you brought us out here with nobody but yourselves and an old man along for support?”

“No one explores here any longer. All the ancestors’ artifacts that are worth trading have been removed.”

Torviss added, “My intention was to bring you here to see only what was in the main entrance. That room would have been safe. That’s likely where Dr. McKay is trapped. He should be safe as long as he doesn’t wander further into the Great Ancestors’ domain.”

“Rodney isn’t going to stay put when he realizes he can’t get out that way.”

Torviss hesitated and John saw the regret in the set of Torviss’s shoulders. “That’s unfortunate,” he said.

*

“Alrighty then. Be that way,” Rodney mumbled against the rusting metal of the wall he was leaning on. The rusty stuff didn’t smell so good, but his legs didn’t want to move any longer, and his aching head kind of liked it here, resting against the wall. His shoulder wasn’t too happy, squashed as it was, and now that he thought about it, his knees trembled a little, as if they were going to give out on him. If that happened—

He slid down the wall, crumpling into a pile of misplaced legs and arms. His right shoulder twinged. His already twisted knee twisted some more and a sharp stab of pain shot up his leg into his hip and back.

This sucked.

Whatever toxin that lizard had used to poison him was messing with his nerves now. His muscles were twitching at odd moments, and his heart was racing. Sweat covered him from head to toe, soaking his hair, trickling down his forehead, stinging his eyes, coating his upper lip, but he was freezing. He hadn’t made it that far back into the facility, wasn’t sure he could keep going much longer. Wasn’t sure he cared anymore.

Then he heard a scuffing noise, faint and far away. For the hell of it, he dragged his arm out from under his chest and reached up to try to tap his radio on. Couldn’t get his fingers to cooperate.

“Damn.”

He tried again. This time he heard the faint crackle of an open channel. “John boy,” he said, giggling a little when he said it. He’d never called John that name before, but he was dying here. He was entitled to a little fun. “John boy,” he said again. “Goodnight. I think I’m going to take a little nap.”

“Rodney?” came back.

Rodney closed his eyes. This was so not fair. He wasn’t ready for hallucinations. He wasn’t ready to be that far gone.

“Rodney?” again. “Can you tell me your position?”

A high giggle escaped Rodney’s dry throat. He might have forgotten to drink anything recently. His tongue felt sticky and thick but he tried to answer, just in case reality hadn’t taken a flying leap. “Prone,” he said. “My position’s kind of...prone.”

“You’re injured?”

Rodney rolled his head to the side to look down the empty, dark tunnel he had traveled. Nothing else felt like moving. He licked his lips. “You could say that.”

“Rodney, you’re not making a lot of sense. Try to be more specific here. I’m trying to get to you, but I don’t know where you are. Are you still near the entrance?”

A soft breeze fluttered over Rodney’s cheeks. The cold air felt nice on his flushed skin. He lay there for a moment, wondering if the panic in John’s voice as he repeated his questions meant he was real or if Rodney was just imagining that this was how John would react if he thought something was wrong with Rodney. The thought that John cared felt warm and...nice. It was nice.

John’s anxious tone made Rodney feel bad for him, real or not. “I’m here,” he said. He tried to wave his hand in the direction of the corridor, but he didn’t have much control over his movements so he gave it up and let his hand thump back down against the cold floor. “I’m here.”

“Are you in a safe location? Are there any...spiders around?”

Rodney blinked. Spiders?

“Lizard,” he said. “Had a run in with a lizard. I think I lost.”

“We know you’re lost. We’ll find you.” John sounded sure of it.

“No—Ah, I’m not lost,” Rodney said. “Think I lost the match against the lizard.”

“Damn it Rodney, don’t tell me you’re bleeding out somewhere.”

“Bleeding? Hm. Don’t think so. Just...hurts.” Rodney grimaced as his calf started to seize up on him again—the reason for his earlier stop to rest against the wall. When the muscle pulled tight and hard, he couldn’t help it. He screamed.

After that, he couldn’t really concentrate on John’s barrage of questions, John’s “I’m going to save you or die trying” voice a small comfort Rodney let wash over him when the cramp subsided.

“Sucks,” he mumbled. He closed his eyes.

*

Footsteps. It was about damn time. John shined his light on the faint impressions in the dust that had drifted in from the cave to coat the floor in a fine powder. The tread was clearly Rodney’s boots, since John had not been down this corridor yet.

“We’ve got him,” John said, looking over his shoulder at Torviss. The man stood at alert, just as Cor did, and John realized they took the threat of an attack very seriously. Despite Torviss’s status as a diplomat, the man had been trained for more. It was apparent in every move he made now that they were inside the facility.

“Excellent,” Torviss said.

John felt the tight knot of fear and worry loosen. Something was wrong with Rodney and until John found him, there was not a damn thing he could do about it, but now, finally he could track Rodney down and get them the hell out of here.

They moved swiftly, balancing caution with John’s very real need to get to Rodney as quickly as humanly possible. His flashlight picked out a heap on the floor ahead and he took off at a jog, leaving Cor and Torviss behind as they kept to their cautious pace.

He skidded to an abrupt stop on the dust slick floor at Rodney’s side. The side of Rodney’s face that wasn’t mashed against the floor glistened with sweat in the glow of John’s light. “Buddy, you look like shit,” John said.

Rodney waved his arm awkwardly along the floor. “Oh, thanks for that. Feel so much better.”

“Here—” With his hand outstretched, John changed his mind and instead went down on his knees beside Rodney. He pressed his fingers against Rodney’s pulse point.

Not good. The frantic thump thump thump registered through the pads of John’s fingers, much too fast for comfort.

John put his hands on Rodney’s shoulder. “I’m going to roll you over.”

Rodney grunted his answer. Torviss and Cor reached them just as John pushed Rodney onto his side, leaning Rodney’s back against the wall.

“I don’t see anything wrong with you,” John said. “What happened?”

“Venom.” Rodney tried to raise his hand to show John something, John wasn’t sure what, but Rodney couldn’t seem to get his hand to do more than waver aimlessly once he had it off the floor. “Hell of a thing. I think I’m dying.”

John took in Rodney’s color, his slurred speech, his jerky, uncoordinated movements.

“We need to get you back to Atlantis,” he said, thinking about the hours of travel time it would take just to reach the gate. The scenario playing out in his head left a lot to be desired but Keller could fix this if John could just get Rodney there. She would. He wouldn’t allow himself to doubt it.

John heard Cor speaking with Torviss behind him, low voiced but anxious. Tor replied, but John couldn’t understand their words, and then Cor walked away, heading up the corridor. Torviss hunkered down beside John and Rodney, caught Rodney’s wrist in his hand. John watched as Torviss turned Rodney’s arm and leaned close. Torviss sniffed at Rodney’s skin. John raised his eyebrows.

Torviss lowered Rodney’s arm abruptly. “He is right. He’s dying. I can smell the Latar’s venom on his skin.”

“See, told you so,” Rodney said, sounding strangely gleeful that he had been correct. He giggled, high-pitched and so wrong that John felt a staggering splash of panic hit his gut like a hard drink after a week long fast.

At that moment, Rodney’s cheek twitched, and then a wave seemed to pass through the muscle underneath Rodney’s flushed skin.

Rodney groaned.

John didn’t have time to wonder if the muscle contraction would get worse before Rodney stiffened, his body bowing. His right arm pulled in tight to his chest, and he screamed and rolled from his side to his belly, jabbing John in the tender part on the inside of his thigh with his elbow.  John lost his balance and sprawled backward on his ass with a sharp grunt.

He jerked up on his knees, ignoring the pull of bruised muscle in his thigh, and leaned forward, but Torviss grabbed his arm just above the elbow. “You can’t help him. The muscle contortions are a reaction to the venom. Leave him be until they subside.”

It was hell listening to Rodney groan and scream again, and then whimper as the spasms passed. John brushed sweat off Rodney’s brow before it could get into his eyes. “I’m getting you back to the gate,” he said. “Keller will be there.”

He turned to look over his shoulder at Torviss. “Let’s—” He stopped. Torviss stilled, not needing to be told that John had heard something, likely because he’d heard it too. John held his breath and listened.

Footsteps pounded down the corridor, coming from the direction Cor had traveled.

Spiga!” Cor yelled. He was not that close yet, but the panic in his voice registered deep in John’s chest. Damn it all to hell. Just what they needed.

The pounding footsteps got closer. A clicking, scurrying sound followed, growing in complexity and strength.

“Time to bust this joint,” John said. He grabbed one of Rodney’s arms and heaved. Torviss got the idea and helped manhandle Rodney upright, despite the harsh groans coming from Rodney at every movement.

Cor broke through the darkness, careened to a stop. One look and he was shoving John away and taking his place under Rodney’s right arm. “Your weapons,” he gasped. “You must keep the Spiga away or we’ll all die.”

He could do that. “Go,” he ordered, positioning his P-90 and aiming his flashlight, trying to take in the dark shadows and the flickering movements and match them up with the scurrying and clicking noises that were getting too close for comfort.

There. A spot of darkness reached the edge of the circle of light from John’s flashlight. John fired. A shriek filled the air and John winced. He fired again, retreating as quickly as Torviss and Cor were dragging Rodney’s limp body between them.

Each slash of John’s flashlight held the creatures back just as well as the bullets coming from his gun. A movement caught his attention from the corner of his eye. He jerked his head up and around, firing at the ceiling. One of the black bodies, hairy, fangs glistening, swept down on a silvery web right toward John’s head. Bullets smacked into the fat body of the Spiga, and it swung backward in a spiral while John fought a full body shiver at how close that thing had come to smacking into his face.

“The entrance!” Torviss yelled. “We’ll be safe on the other side. They will not cross into the Latar’s territory.”

“They better the hell not,” John yelled, “because I’m almost out of ammo!”

He fired again, wildly, aiming at every flash of eyes he saw, and then he was backing over the threshold of fallen rock and stepping into the cooler air of the cave. A shriek from inside the facility became a cacophony of blaring noise as the Spiga seemed to halt their steady assault.

John took a deep breath, threw a quick look over his shoulder and saw that Cor and Torviss hadn’t halted. They had Rodney’s arms draped across their shoulders and his limp body hung there, a dead weight.

John realized he owed these people all the medical support they might ask for, even if every damn one of those Ancient artifacts turned out to be useless.

John backed away from the crack in the Ancient wall for another twenty feet before he trusted the Spiga not to come rushing through the opening at them. Then he turned and ran to catch up with the others.

They came out of the cave into the fading light of sunset. Rodney roused once as they took turns dragging him between them, John trading places first with Torviss, then Cor, so they could each rest.

“Ouch,” Rodney said. “My arms hurt.” That was the extent of his comments.

He faded back into a drowse a moment later. His feet dragged across the earth as John and the others carried him through the trees. Cor and Torviss couldn’t hide their nervousness, but Torviss told John the Spiga wouldn’t nest this close to the Latar so they should be safe until they reached the entrance to the Ancient facility. Where all their troubles had started, John added, not speaking the words but thinking them with a great deal of disgust.

Less than an hour later, they ran into the first rescue party, made up of Nadeans in long coats and carrying poles topped with some kind of Ancient lanterns. The light was bright and plentiful and John felt Rodney’s arm slip loose from his shoulder at about the same time as Cor stumbled.

Rodney hit the hard, cold ground with a thud.

John bent over and rested his hands on his knees for a moment, breathing heavy.

“I’ve never seen anyone react this way to the Latar’s poison,” Torviss said from the side. John tilted his head so he could see Torviss. His frown was visible in the glow of a nearby light. “The venom causes painful muscle contortions, but not this strange lethargy. Usually the victim is racing with excitement and vigor all the way to the death of him.”

“Rodney’s not going to die,” John said, straightening abruptly. He looked around at the milling rescuers, who weren’t really doing anything rescue like at the moment. There were three carts at the base of the escarpment near the sealed door of the Ancient facility. “We need a litter. We can’t hold him upright all the way back to the gate.” He shook his head and added for his companions’ benefit, “The Great Ring.”

Torviss waved a short, stout man over to them. “Carry him,” he ordered, pointing at Rodney. John watched in amazement as the man bent over Rodney and lifted him over his shoulder in one sure move, signaling his effort with nothing more that a short grunt.

“The cart?” the man asked.

“Yes,” Torviss said. He showed the man his palm in strange gesture and it took a minute for John to get it. Respect, shown with an open palm. One of the scientists had said something to him at one time about some interesting customs on Nadea related to their knives.

“The cart will carry your Dr. McKay. You will have to sit close together on the floor of the cart but the alternative is much too slow. If your people wish to save his life, something will have to be done soon. Most people do not live a full day once the Latar poison touches them. It has already been too long.”

“Yeah,” John said. He followed Torviss across the packed ground, and at the cart, he slipped in first, stuffing his pack into the corner and resting his back against it, leaving his feet to stick out the rear. The man holding Rodney wasn’t able to let him down easy.

Two hundred plus pounds of Rodney McKay hit his chest, and John wheezed involuntarily.

“Okay, okay, I got him,” he said. He did his best to situate Rodney so Rodney’s weight wasn’t cutting off the circulation in his thighs, but the man was sitting in his lap so there wasn’t a lot he could do. He pushed a bit roughly at Rodney’s shoulder and Rodney slid into the space between John’s legs.

Rodney’s head slipped to the side then jerked up. His eyes opened, and he blinked a few times. “What’s going on?” he asked, sounding sleepy. The cart jostled and began to roll.

“We’re getting you back to the gate,” John said. He patted Rodney between the shoulder blades. “Keller’s going to fix you right up, buddy.” He could see the lights being held high in the air in the cart following them.

“Oh, no no no. You keep calling me buddy. You’re trying to keep me calm because I’m still dying.”

“You’re not going to die,” John said.

“Tell Keller—” Rodney began. He didn’t finish. A muscle spasm hit and he curled over, gasping for breath. “Oh shit. Shit shit shit,” he muttered.

John clenched his fists and told himself there was nothing he could do.

It really didn’t help.

Rodney didn’t scream this time, but when it was over, he just seemed to wilt against John’s chest.

“Are you still with me?” John asked.

“No,” Rodney said.

“Smartass,” John mumbled, then, “You’re not going to die, Rodney, not here, not now. Just hold on until we get back to Atlantis. Keller isn’t Carson but she knows what she’s doing.”

“I dreamed about him you know. Weird stuff like that dream about you.”

“Huh?” Then John realized what Rodney had said, what Rodney might be going to say and quickly added, “They’re just dreams. Dreams don’t count. Do you want some water?” He thrust his hand behind his back to dig at his pack.

“No no no no no. You don’t un—under—understand. That dream thing.” Rodney’s words were slurred but still coherent. His moment of lucidity might be coming to an end for the time being. Just in time, too, as far as John was concerned. Some things didn’t need to be talked about. “I know you read my journal but—but—but you didn’t say anything.”

“Now isn’t the time to talk about this,” John said. “Save it for after you get better and we’re back in Atlantis.”

“Yeah.” Rodney’s eyelids lowered. John drew in a relieved breath but had no time to let it out. Rodney’s eyes popped open. “No, it can’t wait. I might not make it back. I’m pretty sure I’m dying.”

“Damn it, Rodney. You’re not going to die.”

“Just in case.” Rodney’s left hand came up and patted John’s thigh. “I keep having this really weird dream about you.”

“Rodney.”

“No, okay, okay. When we get back. But don’t let me change my mind.”

“I won’t,” John said not meaning it at all. If Rodney didn’t remember on his own, John wasn’t bringing it up.

Rodney muttered something John couldn’t understand and began to droop forward in a slow slide toward unconsciousness again.

John patted Rodney’s cheek. “Come on, stay with me. Tell me about the lizard.”

Rodney’s head rolled back against John’s shoulder and he looked up. “It tried to kill me. I shot it. It got slime on me and poisoned me.” Rodney’s eyes drifted closed. Lips barely moving, Rodney mumbled, “Hell of a way to go.”

A memory washed over John, too clear and bright to stop.

“This is a hell of a way to go,” he told McKay. He rested his head back against the transporter wall, chased by feelings of helpless panic. He could feel his control slipping, moment by moment. It actually felt kind of nice, euphoric even, but it was scary to think about what might happen when he got McKay to his room. He hadn’t thought about that kind of thing in a long time, not since he had decided he had to let it go. But...he really wanted it right now.

McKay had a sharp, intelligent face, a little rough, a little soft, but fierce and...and it didn’t even matter. McKay wanted it too. They both wanted it.

The transporter doors opened on the view of the hallway leading to McKay’s quarters. McKay just sat there and waited. John reached down and took McKay by the shirt and pulled. He dragged him down the hall, feeling the burn in his arm and back from the awkward position but not caring at all.

Only a few others walked the halls here. Most of the expedition had already been confined to quarters or else they were in the infirmary. John hadn’t been the last in the line for Beckett’s exam, although he might have been the last to get the doctor while he was still halfway lucid. Still, those they did pass didn’t seem that interested in what was going on around them. Only one bothered to speak.

“Is everything okay?” She was a short woman, a scientist, John noted. She had asked McKay the question, not him, and her concern seemed too specific, her attention too focused.

“He’s mine,” John said, “and I’d appreciate it if you got the hell out of the way.”

He plowed forward and she stumbled backward. As they passed, she spun on her heel and watched through bright blue eyes as John flipped her the bird and smirked.

The malicious satisfaction he felt seemed wrong, but he knew in a flash of insight that he had already lost it. He was affected and yet he really, really didn’t care.

McKay snorted a half laugh half grunt as he tilted to the side. John yanked him upright again.

He wanted to kiss McKay, hard, full on the mouth, and feel the scrape of McKay’s afternoon stubble on his cheek and against his nose. He wanted to do a lot of things to McKay right then, but he just kept pulling until they were in front of McKay’s door.

The scientist did not follow them.

Rodney grabbed his wrist and John looked down, blinking. The light had faded almost completely and he could see only the shadowy outline of Rodney’s face where they sat in the bottom of the cart.

No way, he thought. No way those were memories of dreams. He couldn’t keep ignoring his gut feeling that something was very wrong about them.

“Don’t let me forget,” Rodney said. “I’m going crazy.”

Rodney’s swollen fingers loosened on John’s wrist and he lost consciousness again.

“You’re not the only one,” John said quietly. He sat in the bouncing cart and rubbed his cold fingers against Rodney’s fevered cheek, not stopping to wonder why he did it, not thinking about the comforting feel of stubble against his fingertips.

*

A rescue party from Atlantis met them halfway to the gate. Dr. Keller was with the group and she took charge of Rodney immediately. They made it back to Atlantis without Rodney having regained consciousness. John worried the whole time that Rodney wasn’t going to make it even as he refused to think about why he felt so sick at the thought of Rodney dying on him that he wanted to throw up.

Then they were back in Atlantis and Keller’s team carried Rodney off to the infirmary on a gurney, leaving John behind to explain everything to Colonel Carter.

Thirty minutes after that, he and Carter met with Keller.

“Rodney’s lucky,” Keller said. “He almost died.”

“The venom is that deadly?” Carter asked.

“Yeah,” Keller said, looking at both of them in turn with her wide-eyed gaze. “But it wasn’t the venom that almost killed him. I was able to neutralize the venom real quick. It was the pills that had him nearly comatose and on death’s doorstep.”

John listened in disbelief as Keller continued outlining Rodney’s condition and her findings.

He was going to kill Rodney when he woke up.

*

“What the hell were you thinking? You should know better. I should kick your ass. Better yet, I should let Ronon kick your ass. He’d do a better job of it.”

“I thought I was going to die! Okay?” Rodney squirmed to sit up straighter in the infirmary bed but the IV lines tangled around his wrist and he ended up twisted uncomfortably as he tried to gain some slack so he could shift his arm and straighten his shoulder.

“No, it’s not okay!” John said, sounding fierce despite the fact he was trying to keep his voice down.

Rodney wasn’t sure why John was so offended by what he’d done. He’d panicked, thought he was as good as dead and decided his allergy medication might slow things down. He realized now that he hadn’t been thinking clearly at the time and it was possible he’d done a very dumb thing by taking allergy pills and antihistamines willy-nilly.

“Blame my condition!” he said. “I wasn’t in my right mind at the time. How is that my fault?”

John clamped his mouth shut and fisted his hand, his eyes widening almost comically before he deflated right in front of Rodney.

“Damn it Rodney.”

“Sorry,” Rodney said.

John rolled his eyes at him. “Keller says you might have actually saved your life with that stunt.”

“Oh. Really?” He could tell he sounded hopeful.

“Something one of the Nadeans told her about how the victims of the venom usually die. Their hearts beat too fast, they go into arrhythmia—”

“Tachycardia?”

“Whatever. They die from it. You didn’t because of your overdose.”

“See, see. I knew what I was doing—”

“Rodney?”

Rodney stopped. “What?”

“Shut up. “

“Oh, that’s great.” He pointed at his chest with the hand that didn’t have an IV taped to it. “Genius. The voodoo practices of medicine are no match for this.”

John dropped into the chair near the infirmary bed and started digging in his pockets. “Ah, there it is.” He pulled out a handheld game console and flipped it open.

Rodney rested his head back against the pillow, more to the left than the right because he was still sitting somewhat lopsided with an IV line that seemed about a foot too short. “You staying?”

“For a while.” John cleared his throat and didn’t look up from his game. “Got nothing better to do.”

“Oh, okay.”

It was quiet for a few minutes except for the tinny sound of points accumulating in whatever game John was playing.

Rodney said, “Katie came by to see me. Said she wanted to be here when I woke up since I was there for her after the Kirsan fever.”

“That’s—Oh, oh yeah baby.” John pressed hard and fast at the buttons of his game, leaning forward until he was almost out of his seat. A ridiculous flutter started in Rodney’s belly and his eyes flew up to watch John’s open mouthed expression of excitement give way to a teeth clenching “Ahh crap.”

“You lost,” Rodney said.

John snapped the lid shut. “I’ve been trying to beat that thing for weeks.”

“It wouldn’t take much...” Rodney waved his hand in the general direction of the game John was stuffing back into his pocket.

“What and make a cheater out of me? Think I’ll pass.”

“Just saying I could totally do it.”

“I’m sure you could.”

Rodney wasn’t sure he wanted to bring Katie up again. He had the feeling John had staged the whole thing to interrupt him. He might be wrong, of course, considering everything, but this wasn’t the first time John had fortuitously avoided a Katie conversation. He sucked at reading people. Even after all this time, he had no idea what John was thinking when it came to personal stuff.

Which was why John’s next comment knocked him on his ass, figuratively speaking.

“You’re not the only one having dreams,” he said.

Rodney didn’t have to ask what John meant. He cleared his throat and tried again to sit up straighter. “Really? Who?”

“Zelenka. Kemp. Simpson. Lorne. I’ve heard all of them say something about it.” John rubbed his chin. “Me.”

“Why didn’t you say anything to me about it?” Rodney said, too loud. He lowered his voice quickly and continued in a vehement whisper, “I’ve been going crazy wondering what the hell’s going on with me. This is fantastic—” He stopped when he saw John’s eyes widen. “Well, not fantastic, but I mean, I mean, you know—” He didn’t know what else to do, so he reached up with his IV-less hand and massaged the back of his neck. “I mean it’s fantastic that I’m not going crazy.”

“Oh, yeah. Wonderful. We’re all going crazy instead.”

“No. No, no, no. If it’s some kind of mass hallucination, then there has to be a way to fix it. So. Not crazy still stands.”

“One of us has to tell Keller so she can figure out what’s been going on. Maybe. Maybe it’s a side effect of the Kirsan fever.”

They stared at each other. John shook his head just about the same time as Rodney did the same. They both knew it had started before then even if the Kirsan fever seemed to have changed something, made things much more...vivid.

“Uh.” Rodney looked over at the softly beeping monitors. His heart rate was trending upward. Blood pressure might be spiking. Not good at all. “Everything? What if—These are very—” Rodney fought off panic at the thought of telling Keller everything. “I really don’t know if this is a good idea.”

“Here, I’ll flip a coin.”

Rodney watched as John did just that.

“Heads,” Rodney said.

The coin spiraled through the air to plop carelessly on the stark white sheet next to Rodney’s thigh.

“Damn,” John muttered.

*

After John left, Rodney closed his eyes and rested his head on the too-flat pillow. He still felt a twinge of unease at the thought of John going to Keller about the dreams.

His eyes flew open and he stared up at the ceiling.

What, or who, had John been dreaming about all this time?

Rodney had visited John’s nightmares when they had been fighting off the crystal entity but they had been dull, lifeless dreams of some kind of personal struggle John had with himself in the empty gate room. John hadn’t really ever said what else he’d dreamed during that time before Rodney had joined him.

So, so maybe John hadn’t been freaked out by Rodney’s dream log because he had been dreaming the same kind of thing. Or if Rodney was lucky, maybe John’s dream was even weirder and Rodney would never have to feel uncomfortable about it again because hey, his dream was tame in comparison. Lights and doors and writing on his arms and, and, something...

Rodney closed his eyes. The sedatives had kicked in again. The muscle contractions had ended the day before, but he had plenty of muscle aches as a result and Dr. Keller had kept him on a low dose of muscle relaxant to help him cope.

He felt the slide of the room and jerked but a moment later he was in front of his quarters, looking up at the door.

It slid open.

Sheppard dragged him over the threshold and the door slid shut behind them.

The high was like nothing he’d ever experienced before, except that it felt a little like that time he had injected himself with enough Wraith enzyme to nearly kill himself. Only he didn’t feel compelled to move or jump or run or scream or any of it. He felt relaxed, good, a little hot, maybe a lot turned on. He wanted to have sex. He wanted to find out if Sheppard was as loose-limbed, laid-back intense as he seemed sometimes. The contradiction of not sweating the small stuff and smart ass temper bothered Rodney. The man was too hard to pin down.

The thought made him laugh and it came out sounding just like a giggle. “Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa,” he said. He raised his finger. “That sounded—”

“Like a girl,” Sheppard said.

“Not funny,” Rodney said.

“You don’t look like a girl.”

Sheppard bent toward him. Rodney leaned back, but Sheppard just kept coming.

“You look really good right now,” Sheppard said, practically breathing into Rodney’s mouth.

Rodney stared up at Sheppard and watched his lips move closer. Rodney said, “I’ve wondered what it would be like to have sex with a guy, but...well, I’ve never found anybody to try it with.”

“I’ve tried it,” Sheppard said. “It feels really good.”

“We should have sex,” Rodney said.

“We’re going to.”

Sheppard kissed him.

Rodney woke up to a dry mouth and a pounding heart.

*

John rubbed his hands over his face. Morning came early on Atlantis. There was always something to do. Today there was going to be a short celebration for everyone having a birthday this month, but first he’d agreed to finish a set of reassignment recommendations for Colonel Carter. With the continued influx of new scientists and military personnel, it was becoming necessary to shuffle the workload to better fit everyone’s experience and expertise. Atlantis had become nothing more than an off world base to Earth. The cozy days of knowing everyone you met in the halls were long gone.

He wished he had a mission planned. Anything to keep him from having to visit Keller today.

His radio crackled. Colonel Carter’s voice came through crisp and clear. “Colonel Sheppard, I need to see you in the gate room. Right away.”

*

Seven hours later and John was rethinking the anything he’d hoped for to keep him away from Keller.

John sat on the edge of the exam table in the infirmary, waiting for Keller to finish stitching up a small cut on his shoulder. He already had plenty of scars, and this would just be another from a mission gone sour—although no one had died and that always gave him perspective afterwards.

He’d gone out with Lieutenant Kemp’s team to speed up the relocation of a city full of people and ran into spear wielding opposition. Kemp was a good kid, with a fair amount of experience, but Carter had wanted John to go along because they’d been expecting trouble after a disturbing message came in through the gate that morning from the city elders.

Carter had been right to send him, but that didn’t mean he was grateful for it. He always preferred to go out with his own team, but Teyla was still fighting off the flu, Rodney was still in the infirmary a few beds over, and Ronon had just laughed when John had failed to dodge the spear wielding pregnant lady quick enough.

Yeah, a great mission all around, and it hadn’t done more than put off the inevitable for a few hours.

He had hesitated to bring up the dreams for many, many reasons, but crap, they were starting to mess with his head, and his wasn’t the only one. After the thing with the alien crystal entity that had used him and traveled from person to person and killed Kate Heightmeyer, he wasn’t going to be reckless about this. It was time to tell someone.

He decided now was as good a time as any.

“How long is too long to keep having the same dream?” he asked Keller.

“What do you mean?” she said.

He turned his head sideways to look at her, but could see only the tip of her nose and curve of her cheek as she worked her needle into his skin. He winced when he felt the pulling sensation, but the analgesic cream had numbed the injury so it didn’t actually hurt very much. He still missed Carson at times like this, but Keller wasn’t a bad replacement. She was soft-spoken, and she had a delicate touch. She had handled Rodney really well and she even seemed to be able to put up with Rodney’s whining without a fuss.

He took a deep breath, steeling himself. “I’ve been having these crazy dreams ever since I got over that Kirsan fever thing.”

She patted his arm, indicating she was finished, so he hopped off the table and turned to face her. She handed him his shirt and looked at him with her eyebrows raised and her face expectant.

He yanked the shirt on. “They started a while back but it wasn’t until a few nights after I got over that fever that they got really bad. And I’ve been having them ever since. Only—” He stopped, sure he was about to sound crazy. “Only they don’t really feel like dreams. They’re more like memories and they’re all mixed in with the memories of what happened while I was sick. Pointing my gun at Ronon, worrying about Lorne trying to shoot me. That kind of thing.”

Keller peeled off her gloves and tossed them into a nearby bin. “Hm. I have a few of my own from the fever and they don’t seem that strange. Just a little jumbled. Are you sure you’re not just mixing up some random dreams with those recovered memories?”

“I don’t know about you, but even when I remember a dream, it doesn’t feel quite the same as a memory. Close, but not the same. What if that crystal thing is still in here somewhere, messing with me?”

Keller blinked at him and gave him a small smile of reassurance. “I could do a scan, but I’m pretty sure the crystal entity is gone for good.” Her eyebrows rose. “But you know, you’re not the first person to mention weird dreams and memories in the same sentence. It might be something I need to follow up. Especially after everything that’s happened recently. It’s been one close call after another.”

She took a few steps backwards and pointed her thumb over her shoulder. “Just let me get my computer and then you can tell me about the dreams.”

John opened his mouth to protest, but Keller had turned around to walk away from him and didn’t notice.

“I’ll contact the others who’ve reported similar incidents and then maybe I can start to make some comparisons, look for anything the dreams might have in common. Maybe we can find a root cause or a source.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” John said, feeling his face flush with heat. “It’s—kind of personal and—” His voice cracked in a moment of panic. He cleared his throat. “You sure you can’t just make a note of everybody who’s having the dreams and go from there?”

Keller turned around and frowned at him. “I’ll have to know what the dreams are about. How else am I supposed to do any kind of comparisons?”

He raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms over his chest, rocking back on his heels. “Seriously, I don’t think I can tell you, but—” He glanced to the side and saw Rodney’s snoring figure out of the corner of his eye. He felt a moment’s regret for throwing a pal under the bus. “I know somebody who could.”

*

“You told her to ask Zelenka? What the hell were you thinking?” Rodney’s voice carried way too far for John’s comfort.

He leaned in close to Rodney who was hopping around trying to get into a pair of pants. “Keep it down.”

The infirmary was empty; Rodney had woken up about half an hour ago. He was getting ready to go back to his quarters. After a final check of his vitals, Keller had released him a few minutes ago. John realized he probably should have waited to discuss this until they were out of here.

Rodney got his boxers tucked in and zipped his pants. “Zelenka’s going to tell her I tried to kiss him and you’re going to come out of this looking perfectly sane for dragging me off him!” Rodney crossed his arms in front of his chest and stared hard at John. “I am not okay with this.” He sighed and let his arms drop. He looked up at John with eyes that were confused and maybe a little hurt. “Why him? Why not Lorne or somebody else?”

John raked his hand across the back of his neck. “They’re military. The dreams—I don’t know what they are, but I can’t force Lorne and the others to tell something I won’t tell.”

“But, but, who knows what theirs are about. It could be anything. It doesn’t mean it’s, well, you know. Illegal or anything.”

“Mine are. I’m the head honcho—”

“Sam is actually.”

John gave Rodney a pointed stare. “She’s my commanding officer, but I’m still in charge of a hell of a lot of people.”

“I get it. Okay? I do.” Rodney plopped back on the edge of the bed and reached for his shoes. “But I don’t have to like it.”

John wondered if Rodney realized as clearly as he did what their conversation had just signified. Rodney had to know, just as he did, that these dreams weren’t dreams at all, and that whether or not either of them admitted anything to the other, they each knew something neither wanted to actually speak of.

*

“Half the people having the dreams refuse to tell me what their dreams are about,” Dr. Keller told Carter. She stood with Carter in front of Carter’s desk while John sat in the chair across from them. Rodney had wandered in just moments before and had blanched when Keller made her statement. Obviously he was still holding back, whether for his sake or John’s, John couldn’t be sure. John wondered who else wasn’t telling.

Not Zelenka, although John didn’t have proof of that yet. But it made sense considering Zelenka had no reason to hide anything. He had been the first person to tell anyone about them over two years ago.

Maybe if they’d taken this seriously back then, they would already know what the hell was going on—then again, back then no one had been able to remember anything but bits and pieces of the dreams, making the dreams more curiosities than anything else. No one had seemed to understand that they were all connected, that they weren’t random dreams, even though they had never felt exactly normal, but they had finally realized their strangeness now that everyone had started sharing their experiences. A lot of people had come forward, but most of the stories involved being locked up or chased around, and John wasn’t sure many of them weren’t still confusing the Kirsan fever event with the other stuff.

The dreams had unsettled a lot of people. John included. Now they weren’t just bits and pieces. Now they were entire elaborate scenarios played out in vivid color and sound. He could smell it, taste it, feel it, and it freaked him out. Especially because he knew it changed things. If it turned out they were real memories and not elaborate crazy fantasies being cooked up and shared by the entire expedition as some kind of mass hallucination, then hell yes, there would be real fallout from this.

Keller shot a pointed look in his direction, then turned her gaze to Rodney. Carter picked up on the unsubtle hint—who wouldn’t?—and frowned at John. “Colonel Sheppard? You’ve had these dreams? And you McKay?” Her gaze flickered in Rodney’s direction momentarily before settling back on John.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Rodney said. “I’ve been having them for—a while.” His pause didn’t go unnoticed by anyone.

“Exactly how long is a while?” Keller asked. Carter and her both waited for the answer. John tried to sink further into the chair and hoped, against all probable odds, that they’d forget about him.

“Oh, well, really, I can’t say with one-hundred percent certainty but, but—” Rodney waved his hand in a vague gesture of “I’m thinking really hard here how to get out of having to say this but it’s not working” which he finally appeared to give up on. “But I’d say at least, oh, I don’t know, probably about three and a half years.”

“Three and a half years?” Carter asked.

“And you’ve never reported it?” Keller asked.

“Whoa. That’s—huh. Longer than me.” Which John regretted saying instantly as three heads turned his way, catching him with a gaze of surprise, disbelief, and oddly enough, accusation.

“Maybe a little longer,” Rodney added, that accusing gaze never leaving John’s face.

Okay, so maybe he should have said something to Rodney about just how long this had been going on. Maybe their not talking about the whole thing hadn’t actually helped the situation.

Rodney had asked John about the significance of his own recurring dream and he’d done a good job of ignoring Rodney’s log of odd dreams referencing himself. He hadn’t told Rodney anything about his own dreams and maybe he had let Rodney feel a little humiliated and ashamed for no reason. But John knew it hadn’t been a good idea to share then, and frankly, John didn’t think it was a good idea now. This stuff was personal. Very, very personal and a little strange and possibly a lot humiliating, and the idea of talking about such personal things curdled his blood.

Besides, John had his job to think about and it precluded him from telling anyone about what might or might not have happened, whether dream or reality.

“Okay,” Carter said, leaning back on her desk and curling her hands over the edge. She looked at Keller. “Is there anything going on to make you think this poses an immediate threat to the safety of Atlantis?”

Keller sighed and thought for a moment. “No. People are bothered by it. They want to know what the significance of the dreams are, but no one has said anything to me so far that makes me believe there’s any kind of threat at all coming from the dreams.”

Carter straightened. “Then we move on for the moment and put this on the back burner. We have Rodney working furiously on nanite code and a Wraith sitting in our brig. We have replicators taking out entire worlds of people. A few dreams can wait.”

John couldn’t say he was disappointed. Rodney’s relief was easier to see. He sighed and muttered audibly, “Hell yes.”

*

Surprise didn’t come close to explaining John’s reaction to the news that Rodney was about to propose to Katie Brown. Neither was relief an adequate description for his response to the news that Rodney had changed his mind.

Something to keep in mind though if Rodney ever tried to propose to another woman. Lock her in a room with Rodney and see what happened when she was exposed to a few solid hours of Rodney McKay and his neurotic obsessive pessimistic world-view. Not that John knew for sure that was what had happened. He could only guess, because no one was really talking.

That night brought a crazy assortment of images and feelings to bed with him and when he closed his eyes, it was to see Rodney’s stubbled, flushed cheek beneath his lips and feel his breath catching hard and know his hand was curled around hot flesh and that he was giddy with the high of good sex and impending orgasm.

“I’m so glad we did this,” Rodney said. “I never would’ve known how hot you are.”

“Less talk,” John said. He gasped a little when Rodney’s fingers tightened momentarily, slid up before he could reposition his arm, trapped between their bodies. John had him mashed up against the wall of his quarters a few feet from the couch, and they were all tangled up, hands grasping, mouths everywhere they could reach.

“This—this isn’t as good as the—” Rodney’s lips sucked against the side of John’s throat. Hard. He would have a mark later. Probably a lot of them. “—the other thing,” Rodney said, his voice hitching more than once, “but it’s really good.”

“Want me to do that to you again?”

Rodney’s hips bucked against John’s arm almost dislodging John’s hand from around his cock. “Oh, oh, god. Yes, yes. Do it again.”

John let go and dropped down onto his knees and the jarring impact jerked him up in his bed, his heart pounding and his mouth damn near watering with the taste of Rodney on his tongue.

What the hell was he going to do?

He scrubbed his hands over his face and lay back in the bed. Next chance he got, he was getting laid. No question about it.

*

5

John watched Rodney’s eyes because he knew that was where he would see it first.

“Only one?” Rodney asked. “The girl?”

“No,” John said. “Not the girl. She didn’t make it.”

Rodney seemed unusually still, standing there in front of him and Ronon. Ronon wouldn’t know what John knew, couldn’t know because he hadn’t been there to see Rodney carrying her under his arm like a football, if Rodney had ever carried one. John had seen him, in the rush of trying to keep the darts away. It hadn’t been but a moment, but Rodney had told him about it later, how he had carried her all the way to the gate because she’d fallen behind. He’d bitched about the Nadean kids for a week afterward, but John hadn’t been able to miss the pride Rodney showed when he talked about how he’d saved those kids.

Now the Athosians had been found in one of Michael’s facilities. They hadn’t been able to rescue Teyla, but they had brought back far too few rescued Athosians and only one of the four missing Nadean children.

It sucked. So many dead friends and acquaintances because of Michael and his damned experiments. Innocents who didn’t deserve this. John cleared his throat. “Michael gave her some kind of experimental drug. Halling said Jinto did his best to protect them, the boys and her, but they were taken away not long after Michael captured all of them.”

He didn’t think Rodney was going to say anything, because he had that look that said he’d been blindsided and had no idea how to react. But then he rubbed his palm against his hip before slipping his hand into his pocket and stared at John with all the hurt and pain right there for them to see. “I saved her that day, you know. She slipped on the climb up the cliff and I grabbed her before she fell.”

“I know, buddy.” He reached out and patted Rodney’s shoulder because that was all he could think to do. Rodney would understand what he meant. “All we can do now is keep looking for Teyla.”

“I know.”

“We can kill Michael,” Ronon said. “And make it hurt.”

“Yeah,” Rodney said, looking back at John and catching his eye. “That could work for me.”

*

Rodney wasn’t sure when he fell in love with Jennifer. He wasn’t even sure why, except that she was just about the hottest thing that had ever happened to him.

Since the number one hottest thing that had ever happened to him might not have ever actually happened to him he felt safe letting Jennifer take that spot.

Of course, almost dying and actually telling her he was in love with her hadn’t been part of his seduction plans, but hey, sometimes life sucked that way.

Carson and John had left earlier that day to meet up with another one of the teams who had found one of Michael’s abandoned labs. He wasn’t sure when they were supposed to be back, but without John around, he had an opening for dinner.

“You uh, maybe—” He stopped speaking and waved, entering the lab adjacent to the infirmary.

Jennifer smiled at him. “Oh, hi Rodney. I’m just finishing up a few notes for Carson to look over before he goes back to Earth. I’m hoping he’ll look up a few people from the original expedition team who’ve gone back and ask them a few questions for me.”

“Oh, really?”

“About those dreams. You remember? I haven’t forgotten them, but I’ve kind of stalled out making progress on the issue. I did notice something interesting though.”

“Uh huh,” Rodney said, not really wanting to talk about those dreams. He was happy being in love with Jennifer, even if she hadn’t exactly given him a sign that his confession was welcomed. She hadn’t outright rejected him either though, so that had to mean he had a chance, right?

“No one who joined the expedition after Atlantis established contact with Earth has experienced them, only members of the original group. Still can’t get most of the soldiers to fess up details but I’ve had a few finally come forward.”

Rodney glanced around her shoulder, peeking at her computer. He wondered if John had been one of them.

She answered as if she’d just read his mind. “Colonel Sheppard is still holding out, and a few of the scientists.” She turned her head and gave him a pointed look. “But for the most part, I’ve gathered quite a collection of stories. There’s definitely something strange about them. A few fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s really weird.”

“Hence the ‘weird dreams’ label,” Rodney said.

“Yeah, I’m starting to think there’s a lot more to this than a few dreams.” She turned around and leaned back against the lab table, blocking his view of her computer monitor. He realized he was standing very close and that she smelled really nice.

“I think these might be repressed memories,” she added.

Rodney felt his heart speed up. He swallowed over a swiftly forming lump in his throat. Either he was panicking or, well, panicking. He shook his head. “That seems like a stretch when you’ve just talked to a few people.”

“I’ve talked to about sixty,” she said. “Some won’t share details, but all admit to having what they call extraordinarily vivid dreams with high levels of detail and they all claim the Kirsan fever incident set them off. Some were having dreams before the Kirsan fever, but only a few had any real detail to share from that time. Zelenka, a few others, you.”

“Me? Oh, no no no, I haven’t said anything like that.”

“You’re one of the few people who can pinpoint the start of the dreams at about four and a half years ago, giving me a time frame to work with. Sometime between one to six months after you came through the gate to Atlantis.”

Rodney blinked. This was not good. Repressed memories meant sex with John and not just sex, but guy sex. Really hot guy sex.

John was his friend. He didn’t want to mess that up for anything. These people were his family now. He couldn’t go back to being less with any of them.

“So, uh, you’re going to have Carson check out your theory?”

“You know, I haven’t even thought of asking him if he has any of his own dreams.” Her brow furrowed. “He wasn’t here during the Kirsan fever outbreak, but he was certainly a member of the original group through the gate. Well, I mean, the original Carson was but so far every memory he has is an exact duplicate of the original Carson up until the point where he was taken captive by Michael and cloned. I should have thought to ask him about this sooner.”

Rodney shrugged. “You know, he’ll be back later. You can ask him then. I’m going for some food, do you, ah, you want to come along?”

Jennifer pushed away from the lab table with her hip. “Oh, sure. I’m starving. Maybe Teyla will be there, or Ronon.”

Rodney felt the smile drop off his face but thankfully she didn’t seem to notice.

“Son of a bitch,” Rodney muttered. He followed Jennifer out of the lab.

*

It was official. The dreams were not dreams at all.

“Repressed memories?” John asked, a bit strangled. He thought of whisker burn and wet kisses and hot, hot touches and Rodney McKay and felt a little like he was falling down a mine shaft and didn’t know what he was going to find at the bottom, water or rock. Either way, things never turned out well when a mine shaft was involved.

“Aye. We never thought anyone would get their memory of those three days back. Elizabeth and I talked it over and decided the risk to the expedition was too bloody serious. We deleted everythin’ and created a single file with the details we felt should be kept for future reference. It took me quite a while to figure everythin’ out these last few months. A few days ago, I performed a wee little experiment on myself and I do believe I’ve finally unraveled the whole bloody thin’.”

“So, so, so, um, these things really—”

“Yes, Rodney, everythin’ you’ve been rememberin’ really happened.”

Rodney’s face got redder than it had been before, and his eyes flitted around the room, landing on faces and gazes and then darting away just as quickly.

John appreciated the feeling. He swallowed around a dry-as-desert mouth and kept his mouth shut.

Only Woolsey, Keller, Rodney, John, Carson, Zelenka, Lorne, and a few other scientists crowded around the large mahogany table Woolsey had brought with him from Earth. The mood was a mix of disbelief and horror and outright humiliation.

He’d thought it once before, and he knew it now without a doubt. There was going to be major fall out from this revelation and the chances of that fallout being anything but a disaster weren’t good.

Zelenka seemed to be fine. Sitting beside him, Dr. Eltsina looked like she was going to be sick. Lorne sat stoic and calm, but John didn’t miss the small tic at the corner of his right eye. Rodney’s red-faced humiliation wasn’t a secret from anyone and Carson himself wore his embarrassment in his pink cheeks and wide eyes. John didn’t know what he looked like to everyone else, but he could feel the prickle of eyes on him and realized he’d been tapping his forefinger against the table top in a rapid tattoo. Shit. He flattened his palm against the smooth, cool wood.

Keller kept peeking at Rodney, her eyes grazing over his face in a peculiar mix of concern and curiosity. Rodney had probably never told Keller any details of his dreams—John hoped the hell not anyway—so it made sense that she would be curious as to what had Rodney twitching at every turn.

Woolsey cleared his throat, his seeming embarrassment a reflection of the discomfort everyone else projected. “So what exactly did you discover?”

“I vaguely remembered somethin’ that happened back in the eighth week of our time here in the Pegasus galaxy but I couldna put my finger on it, so I started lookin’ through my records. I found a collection of physical exam reports, and then I discovered a short note I’d written myself. It referenced a sealed file in the Atlantis database. Once I recovered the file, I found a comprehensive report Elizabeth had written and another that I’d put away. Apparently, when the incident started, she kept a log even after she became affected and it helped her ta recreate the events of the lost days.”

Carson stopped and took a sip of water.

John noticed Rodney doing his damnedest to avoid looking at either Zelenka or him.

“What happened was a plant had attached itself ta the outside of the city on the east pier. When the city surfaced, the plant started growin’ and before anyone realized what was happenin’ it got into the ventilation and started releasing spores. In the same way the Kirsan fever blocked access to memories, this thin’ sent out a toxin that combined chemically with the chemicals in the brain responsible for storin’ and accessin’ memories and interfered with the entire bloody process. It also gave everybody a bloody high not unlike the Wraith enzyme that messed up poor Lieutenant Ford, with a few distinct differences.”

Woolsey folded his hands on the table in front of him. “Yes, but why was it deemed necessary to conceal the incident from everyone?”

“I’ll be blunt, because there’s goin’ to be a lot of confusion about how this chemical affected everyone’s behavior. It certainly seemed to make everyone a lot less inhibited and do things they probably wouldna done otherwise, but it didn’t make anyone crazy. Some of my earliest notes detail a few fights and apparently my own, ah, wanderin’ hands, but later, as things progressed, I started to notice much more sexually aggressive behavior. We tried to lock down the city, but we didna quite get everyone before it was, ah, too late.”

John watched the brown-haired scientist’s face blanch at the end of the table.

“I was also worried about what was happenin’ to our brains. Early signs showed increased production of a cocktail of hormones and chemicals that could lead to death. We can all be grateful that wee bit o’ bad luck didna pan out.”

Carson clasped his hands in front of him and leaned forward. “I feel terrible about what you’ve all gone through since you started recoverin’ memories, but we were afraid somethin’ like this would jus’ tear the expedition apart when we had nobody but ourselves to count on at the time. We decided we couldna risk it. Frankly, the evidence at the time seemed to indicate the memories weren’t blocked but jus’ weren’t there at all.”

It was funny, but as Carson talked, John remembered something he hadn’t remembered before, a door sliding open on a meeting between Carson and Elizabeth, her looking up at him furious and guilty and Carson’s expression just as serious and anxious as it was now. Rodney standing behind him, ready to follow him in, but seeing Elizabeth’s expression and backing away with a hurried shuffle of his feet and an odd hop, and John remembered why Rodney might have been walking a little stiff and he clamped down on the memories as fast as he could lean back in his chair and cross his arms over his chest.

“So what do you suggest we do now, Dr. Beckett?”

“Frankly, I suggest we get counselin’ for everybody who was with the original expedition. They’re probably goin’ ta need it.” He dragged his hand across his cheek, for the first time showing a crack in his own composure. “My wee little experiment backfired. I think I might verra well need it too.”

Keller shifted her attention from Rodney to Carson. “What happened? Are you okay?”

“Aye, now, I jus’ gave myself a wee bit of the Kirsan fever and discovered a whole heap of memories I think I coulda lived without.”

Keller’s eyes widened. “That was dangerous, deliberately exposing yourself like that.”

“I didna have a lot of choice. The Enchuri plant didna have any effect on the memories. It took a combination of the Kirsan fever and the Enchuri plant and that’s why Teyla is the only person who was here at the time o’ the incident that has ne’er recovered any memories. She didna become infected with Kirsan fever during the outbreak.”

“How can we be sure she wasn’t off world at the time of the, ah, event?” Woolsey asked.

“Oh, we know.” Carson looked across the table at Lorne and blushed.

*

“So what are we going to do?” Rodney asked, his stage whisper no lower than its usual volume of too damn loud.

John grabbed his arm and yanked him into the transporter and then waited for the doors to close.

“Nothing,” he said. “Not a damn thing.”

“You know I can’t do the therapy! I’ll feel compelled to fill the silence and then before you know it, I’ll be spilling my guts. This is bad. So so bad.”

“Rodney, get hold of yourself. We were under the influence of an alien...something. No one is going to hold us responsible for anything that happened and Carson said he wasn’t going to force anyone to do the therapy if they didn’t feel like they needed it.”

“But I do need it!”

“And you need therapy because...?”

“Because I had sex with you! Why the hell do you think I need therapy?” Rodney had that look, the one that said keep up before I decide you’re stupid.

“Ah. Okay.” John tapped the nearest interesting thing on the display, felt an instantaneous tingle and then the doors slid open again.

“Yeah, well, we’ve never really talked about—”

“And we’re not going to,” John said and stepped out in the hallway. “Just pretend like it never happened. That’s what I’m going to do.”

John tapped his fingers against his thigh and walked off down the corridor, ignoring Rodney’s blue, blue eyes on his back and wondering why that flash of hurt Rodney’s words had caused had made him so angry.

*

John’s anger didn’t last long. It was hard to stay angry when he was just grateful that once again Rodney had pulled a miracle out of his ass and saved both himself and Carson from becoming another snack on a Wraith hive. Then Michael almost kicked their asses with a sneak attack on Atlantis and John was just glad it was over for good this time. Michael was really dead.

And then the Nadeans sent a message and John found himself in a late morning meeting with the team waiting on Mr. Woolsey to arrive.

“The Nadeans didn’t stay long.” Rodney twisted around in his seat to look at Ronon who sat beside him. “You were in the gate room when they left, did they say anything?”

Teyla, sitting beside John, tilted her head toward Ronon. “I admit, I’m also curious.”

Ronon shrugged. “Not much. Woolsey was sucking up to the short guy with them.”

“Ha. Not surprised,” Rodney said. “Woolsey doesn’t know those people like I do.” He pointed at his chest. “I’ve always said they’re trouble and they’re not worth our time. Woolsey’s making a huge mistake by trying to keep things going with them.”

“A couple of them saved your life,” John reminded him.

“Oh hell no. You saved my life, they were just along for the ride. Those people tried to kill me and they wouldn’t let me in their city and if that’s the way they want to be, then—”

Mr. Woolsey entered the conference room at that moment and Rodney snapped his mouth closed. Woolsey sat without preamble and spread open his portfolio of notes in front of him.

He looked in the direction of each of them before stopping with his gaze on Rodney. “The Nadean Honor Council has delivered an ultimatum.”

It had been a few months since they’d returned the last Nadean child to Nadea. The eldest boy had been discovered as a hybrid on Michael’s hive ship when they had rescued Teyla. After going through Keller’s successful treatment for the hybrids, the boy had been returned to the Nadeans and that had closed the chapter on the children. A year and a half ago, John and Rodney had rescued twenty-four Nadean children. Twenty-two had been returned. Two had not.

Frankly, John was surprised it had taken them this long to decide what to do about their failed “burden of honor” as the Nadeans called it. He’d figured the Nadeans had decided to write them off. Trade and communications had stopped for months, until yesterday, when the Nadeans had requested a meeting with the leader of Atlantis.

Woolsey lowered his pen to the table beside his open portfolio. “They’ve agreed to accept an honor sacrifice in lieu of your death, Dr. McKay.”

“In lieu of my death?” Rodney’s voice rose with each word. “What the hell’s that about? And anyway, why me? Sheppard was just as responsible for saving those kids as I was.”

“Apparently, when you first told the Nadeans how you saved their children from a planet that was about to explode, you took the most credit. According to their customs, the honor burden belongs to you.”

“That’s not fair!”

“That’s not what you said at the time, Rodney.” John gave the words a little extra twist—after all, Rodney had belabored his part in the daring rescue to the point of being obnoxious about it.

Teyla leaned forward, her arm sliding against the smooth mahogany of the table. “What is this honor sacrifice?”

“Yeah.” Ronon rolled backward in his chair and stretched his left leg out.

Woolsey glanced down at his notes. “The last medical team to leave Nadea reported that the Nadeans actually seemed very sympathetic to the situation we found ourselves in with their children; however, they still felt we owed them for not fulfilling the responsibilities we took on when we removed their children from that planet.”

“That’s a change,” Rodney said. “They sure as hell didn’t seem to care the last time I visited.”

“Regardless, they seem to have adjusted their attitude about the issue now that we have an explanation for what happened. They no longer believe the best way to resolve the conflict is by sacrificing Dr. McKay’s life as restitution for the deaths of their children.”

“So what do they want?” John asked. “What kind of sacrifice are they asking for?”

Woolsey hesitated. John noticed. So did the others. A brief shifting of bodies, a cleared throat, then Woolsey saying, “A child for a child.”

John straightened, his casual slump gone in a blink, outrage in every tightening muscle. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

Teyla’s lips had parted on a soft gasp. Her fierce scowl proved her motherly instincts were every bit as strong as her instincts as the leader of her people had ever been.

Ronon slammed his closed fist onto the table.

Rodney just looked confused, frowning, eyes as wide as they ever were during a crisis. “You mean, like, what? They want my firstborn kid or something?”

“No, I’m afraid it’s not that simple. An arranged marriage, Dr. McKay, and you’re to live with your new wife on Nadea and I quote, ‘deliver to her at least one child forthwith direct from your loins to hers’.”

“Oh—my—god,” Rodney said. “You’re kidding, right? That’s just—just—ridiculous! I can’t do that.”

Ronon snorted.

“Hey!” Rodney seemed to realize there could be a double meaning in their conversation, one that didn’t put him in the best light. “I mean, of course I could do it, but I, um, it’s not a good idea.”

“It’s not going to happen,” John said.

“Of course it isn’t, Colonel Sheppard,” Woolsey said in his most resolute tone.

John’s relief was a little too bright considering he knew no one would ever ask Rodney to make that kind of sacrifice just to satisfy a trade partner, even one that had turned out to be as useful in the last year as the Nadeans.

Their scientists had discovered quickly that those super fancy knives of theirs were made of a metal that was rare throughout most of the Pegasus galaxy. Further investigation had revealed that the defunct Ancient facilities dotting the planet’s surface had been designed to extract and refine the metal from an abundant ore supply. Although the facilities were no longer operational and probably never would be, there was enough of a supply of the refined material to provide a near limitless number of knife blades and trade goods.

That rare metal was also used in the repair of many of Atlantis’s systems, including the shield generators, and all the Nadeans had asked in return was continued medical support for their people and scientists to teach them about the technology left by their own previous civilization. What had started as a trade of medical supplies for bits of Ancient technology had become one of their most lucrative trade deals in Pegasus.

Woolsey picked up his pen and fiddled with the tip. “However, in light of certain concerns...”

“Oh, seriously. You had to say that?”

Woolsey raised his hand. “I realize I’m just starting to get a handle on things here, but we can’t simply ignore this request—”

“It’s not a damn request, it’s a demand for one of our people.”

“We enter negotiations—”

“This is a terrible idea!” Rodney’s eyes darted from Woolsey to John and back again. His mouth parted and John found himself staring too long.

John blinked and turned back to Woolsey, saying, “What happens if they don’t want to be stalled? They’re not going to keep trading with us while—”

“No, but they’ve issued an invitation for Dr. McKay to visit their Ancestors’ City, and—”

“Oh, oh, in that case—”

“Rodney, you’ve got to be kidding me—”

“There’s no way I can pass this up, Sheppard! You know that. That place has to be running on a full complement of ZPMs.”

“There’s no way you can know that.”

“Okay, all right, maybe not, but I’m ninety, okay maybe eighty, seventy percent sure of it.”

Teyla’s calm voice cut through the rapid chatter. “This is all very interesting,” she said, “But you do realize you could return to Atlantis with a wife you did not anticipate acquiring?”

“Yes yes yes,” Rodney said with a grimace, “there’s always that.”

*

The city was more amazing than Rodney could have imagined. The retractable Stargate platform was only the beginning of the differences between the Nadean’s Great City and Atlantis. And three ZPMs? Oh no. Six awesome, fully charged, beautiful, fantastic ZPMs hiding a city that went on forever in every direction beneath the surface of Nadea.

This might have been an earlier settlement of the Atlanteans because the one thing he knew for sure was that it had not been made to leave this place. Many systems worked without apparent initialization, and there was damage to some parts of the city that had occurred at different times in the past, the most recent during the civil war.

On the other hand, the city had a shield system that should protect the entire planet from a Wraith attack.

Lucky bastards.

“Dr. McKay, your time is up. It is time for you to return to negotiations.”

“Oh, come on! Not now.” But Rodney’s shoulders slumped because he’d done this every day for a week and when it was time to negotiate, there was no negotiation. Day before yesterday, he’d fussed more than usual because he had been trying to explain how to monitor the shield frequencies to the short and stocky Wariss and ended up with a single-shot bayonet-tipped rifle pointed at his chest. He had no doubt that the soldier would have stabbed him too, if he hadn’t started moving quickly enough.

He tapped a few keys on his computer, which he had interfaced with the city’s systems, and then closed the lid with a snap of his wrist.

“Come,” the guard repeated, gesturing for Rodney to lead the way.

Rodney held his nerves in check, because today was the final day he’d been given to make a decision. He might not get another chance to get inside this city for a very, very long time, if ever. He had secretly downloaded what he could while he worked with Wariss and a few other of the Nadeans who were capable of understanding even a fraction of the technology here, but it was nothing compared to the whole. There were schematics of Ancient facilities and ships and weapons and a medical database that would make Jennifer and Carson salivate. The one computer he’d been allowed to carry into the city had been able to hold disgustingly little. But...wireless was good for something and Rodney had bled as much as he could get and relayed it through several devices until he’d filled every computer Lorne’s team could sneak through the gate with them. If they’d only let him bring a crystal or two... Woolsey had said no, saying the Nadeans might believe he was stealing technology from their city.

Woolsey had been right to veto the idea.

A soldier blocked the exit from the city into the catacombs. Rodney sighed and thrust out his arms and waited for the pat down. The soldier walking behind him stopped and handed his rifle to another man, and then ran his hands over every inch of Rodney’s clothing and a few other places besides. Rodney jumped when a short scrape against his ribs tickled. “Is this really necessary every single time I come and go?” he griped.

“Yes,” was the short answer. Same as yesterday.

After the soldier had finished his search, they continued through the catacombs and out into the tight city streets, just as gloomy and shadowed as they’d ever been with the too close brick walls and featureless buildings.

After several turns and a few more alleys, they stopped in front of a tall brick building, different from the rest, mud red bricks interspersed with sandy brown in a complex geometric pattern that made Rodney think of math.

Lorne’s reassuring presence waited by the door to the negotiation room. He and the rest of his team had been allowed to keep their weapons. His P-90 hung from the strap against his chest.

Rodney wished John, Teyla, and Ronon were here instead of Lorne and his team, but Woolsey clung to protocol and since he was here, John wasn’t.

“There you are, Dr. McKay.” Woolsey’s tight and anxious voice caught Rodney’s attention.

Rodney glanced around quickly. The Honor Council sat behind a long wooden table, highly polished and just big enough for the five Nadeans sitting opposite Woolsey and two of the anthropologists who had come along for the negotiations. Rodney thought they were wasting their time. The Nadeans were weird and irrational about things that should be common sense, like letting an expert on Ancient technology explore their Ancient city. Soft science was a total waste of time here.

“Dr. McKay.” Sharp and curt, the summons brought Rodney’s attention to the thin man sitting dead center on the other side of the table, Yarval, his gray eyes cool and serious. Rodney started to get a bad feeling. He walked into the center of the bare room, chill despite the warmth outside. Summer had come to Nadea.

“You must choose. We have offered a selection of ten women of childbearing age who are willing to wed you despite your unfamiliarity with our customs and your—” The man waved his hand at Rodney’s body. “Your obvious physical limitations.”

Rodney stood straighter. “Oh, funny. Ha ha. I work out, when I have time. I’m a very busy man.”

The man’s eyebrows rose dramatically. Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and glared.

“Regardless, you must choose. Now.” The man waved at a guard and the room filled with the sudden sounds of guns raising and Lorne barking orders into his radio. Too late though, because a soldier grabbed Rodney’s arm, almost dislodging his computer from his underhanded grip, and pulled him toward the Honor Council members who were pushing back their chairs and rising to their feet.

From Woolsey, “Gentlemen, let’s not be hasty. Our trade agreement has worked out to the benefit of both our people. I really believe we can work out an alternative that will satisfy everyone.”

“We understand, but we have our own people to look out for,” Yarval said. “We will not sway. Your talk of trade and assistance means little to us when our people need someone who can reveal the secrets of the Ancient city and give us children who have the ability—”

“Oh, no no no no no, I think there’s been a really big misunderstanding,” Rodney said waving his free hand frantically. “I had gene therapy, I’m not—I can’t—” The prick of metal against his throat stopped him cold. He swallowed and hoped his bobbing adam’s apple didn’t get him killed.

This would be a good time for John’s backup plan to kick in, he thought a little desperately.

Light flared all around, and between one moment and the next, Rodney found himself stumbling forward as the man holding him disappeared and Rodney was left standing in the cargo bay of the Daedalus, between Woolsey and Lorne.

“Oh thank god.”

“Yes, it would seem Colonel Sheppard was right about the Nadeans.” Woolsey sighed. “Those people certainly weren’t very willing to negotiate.”

*

6

Jennifer was perfect. Really, really perfect. Great sex, with a really hot girl, and here he was thinking about all the ways this could go horribly, terribly wrong.

“Not bad, Dr. McKay, not bad at all.” Jennifer said this with a soft laugh and a pat on his naked stomach, and he knew she was teasing him, and he liked it, really, it felt nice and reassuring, but what if it wasn’t teasing? What if he was just okay and she was used to a lot better than what he had offered up these last five months?

Sometimes he felt like he was trapped in an alternate universe because he’d always known he was hot enough and smart enough to attract a really hot woman—he’d had that thing with Sam, after all, and she’d never really gotten over him, but—oh, hell, who was he fooling here? Sam had said it herself that she was more attracted to him when they hadn’t gotten along and she’d thought he was an ass, but now they’d been friendly for years and Jennifer had had a chance with Ronon the barbarian, for god’s sake and he’d just barely come out on top of that one by the skin of his teeth.

Jennifer leaned over in the bed and kissed Rodney, her soft lips clinging and sweet, tasting of vanilla chapstick.

“Do you have to go now?” he asked.

She smiled at his plaintive tone. “Rodney, you know I do. We just got back to Pegasus and one week isn’t nearly enough time to get everything straightened out in the infirmary, what with everyone trying to reestablish contact with the worlds we were giving medical assistance to and all.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know.” He sighed and sat up in bed. Maybe—maybe he should think about asking her to move into his quarters with him. He looked around and thought about the space requirements for two people and nixed that idea. He would have to move. He wasn’t ready to move. He’d just settled back in.

“No, don’t get up.” She put her hand in the center of his chest and pushed him back down into the perfectly firm mattress. “You’ve been at it for days without a break and you’re going to burn out if you don’t get some real sleep. I want you to promise me you’ll get at least a few hours rest.”

He opened his mouth to deny needing any, but she narrowed her eyes at him and said, “Rodney, promise me.”

He crossed his arms over his naked torso and said, “I promise, okay?”

She smiled again, and then got up and dressed, throwing on her uniform as quickly as they’d tossed it off earlier. He missed her. This was the first time they’d had alone long enough to even think about sex in over four weeks. The prep leading up to the return to Pegasus had kept them apart, and then the trip back and all the work that followed.

Most everyone who had been with Atlantis before the flight to Earth had returned. It wasn’t like they’d been trapped on Atlantis before anyway, so the only people in Atlantis were generally people who wanted to be there. Kavanagh, unfortunately, had decided to give it another go, since Woolsey was still in charge. So now Rodney had to put up with another ass in the labs who might be screwing something up right this very minute.

Jennifer came back to the bed and gave Rodney another quick kiss. “See you later?”

“Of course, of course. Go. I’m just going to sleep. Like I promised.”

The door slid shut behind Jennifer and Rodney was left in the solitary quietness of his quarters with nothing to do but stare at the ceiling and wonder when it would all go wrong.

When his radio buzzed, Rodney jerked up and grabbed the earpiece. “Yeah?”

“What the hell are you doing?” John’s voice. “We need you in the gate room. Why weren’t you answering your radio?”

“What? This is the first I’ve heard it.” Then added for full disclosure and because he couldn’t help bragging a little even after five months, “Jennifer stopped by and well, you know how that goes when you haven’t had any time alone with your girlfriend in a few weeks—”

“Oh for god’s sake, McKay, I don’t want to hear about your romantic hook up with your girlfriend. Get your ass down here.”

Rodney huffed. “Fine, but it’s going to take me a few minutes unless you’d get a kick out of seeing my naked ass walking the halls.”

The sudden silence on the other end of the radio sent a flush riding up Rodney’s neck. “Forget I, um, said that, seriously.”

“Yeah. Will do.”

*

It was an ambush. John realized the truth only moments before the first man went down, hard. The little flying poisoned darts gave him a flashback to another planet and a bad end, and then he was flat on his back and not able to move a muscle. He could still hear though, and that was different. He had kind of expected to be out cold the moment he pulled the dart out of his thigh. Didn’t happen.

He heard Rodney yell to his right, but he couldn’t move his head to get a look at what was going on. Then another body fell beside him, Teyla, landing on her side with her P-90 wedged up under her shoulder. She was going to have a nasty bruise on her cheek when she woke up. That was when he realized he could not only hear, but he could still see. With a lot of effort, he managed to get his head around just in time to see Rodney take off into the woods, running hell-bent for leather, with a good three guys following, wearing long coats and—son of a bitch—

That was when the full force of the drug kicked in and everything blacked out.

*

“So you think it was the Nadeans who took Dr. McKay,” Woolsey said.

John sat on the side of the infirmary’s first exam table, Keller’s hands on his thigh while she took a look at the red mark left by the dart’s needle. He winced when she poked at it, and said, “Yeah, I do. I would recognize those damn knives anywhere.”

“If they took him, what do they want with him?” Keller asked. Her voice quavered, but her hands stayed steady as she swabbed cold antiseptic onto his skin. She was worried; John didn’t blame her. Rodney had been kidnapped and there was not a damn thing they could do about it except wait.

“I’m done,” Keller said. “Let me know if it seems like it’s getting infected.”

John nodded.

She looked over John’s shoulder to where Ronon sat. The nurse was checking out his upper arm where a dart had gotten him. She peeled off her gloves and tossed them in the biohazard bin.  “I’m going to check on Teyla. I’m pretty sure she has a concussion.”

Woolsey stepped back out of John’s way so he could slide off the exam table. “The Daedalus is on its way,” Woolsey said. “That’s really our only alternative since the MALP was destroyed when we tried to make contact with Nadea.”

John yanked his pants up over his undershorts. “I bet they forced Rodney to turn on the gate shield. They knew about ours. They had to suspect their city had one too.”

“You’re probably right,” Woolsey said, “but we can’t jump to conclusions.”

“I can. Those sons of bitches set a trap and we walked right into it. I wonder how long they’ve been planning this. We haven’t been back in Pegasus more than a month.”

*

She was really quite pretty. Rodney removed Zariss’s hand from his thigh for the fifth time and wondered what the hell he was supposed to do with her.

She leaned forward to kiss him and he leaned back, but he could only go so far back on the couch. Her mouth caught up to his and her hands slid between them to rub his crotch. He wasn’t fast enough to clench her fingers in his fist before she twisted her hand away and slid it right down under the edge of the loose fitting drawstring trousers he’d been forced to wear for the last five weeks.

“Oh, no no no no no you don’t,” he said, ending on a near squawk as her fingers curled around his soft cock.

She looked up at him through her blonde eyelashes and smiled a smug little smile, shifting downward on the couch and throwing him off balance enough to tilt sideways and end up sprawled awkwardly on his back. With a tug of her hand she proved her touch wasn’t exactly repugnant to him.

“I’m a man!” he said, fighting a seriously guilty conscience. “I have no control over something that’s hardwired into the human body. That does not mean I want to—Oh, oh, stop that right—oh oh oh my god—that’s—” His hands fluttered through the air and finally settled in her long blonde hair.

He was going to be in so much trouble when he got back to Atlantis.

That night, after Zariss left him alone in his quarters in the Nadeans’ Ancient city, he lay on the bed they’d made for him and thought of Jennifer, and John, and Atlantis.

His eyes closed and he drifted. He had stopped noticing the guards that stayed with him twenty-four seven in the second week. Their quiet shuffle, the sound of someone clearing his throat, and then Rodney was there, in his quarters with John. The lights were almost too bright, but he felt so damn good he couldn’t ever imagine wanting to be anywhere else, and John was saying, “You’ll love it. Trust me.”

Rodney did trust Major Sheppard. He leaned his head back against the wall and John leaned forward and took Rodney’s cock into his warm, wet mouth and it was the hottest thing Rodney had ever experienced.

*

Rodney looked over the graph on his tablet screen for the tenth time that morning and bit the inside of his lip. Someone was definitely trying to send him a message. He carefully placed the tablet on the floor next to him and reached for another crystal. There was nothing he could do at the moment except continue teaching Wariss how to override a malfunctioning door control but if he was reading the message correctly—how he hated Morse code—his rescue was just waiting on him to perform a small miracle.

Thank god. He’d had just about as much as he could take of the Nadeans and their Ancient city. He could produce a miracle if it meant getting out of here in the next few days.

“You’re humming, Dr. McKay. Are you finally coming to accept your place here with us?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Whatever. Here, you see this? You have to bridge the gap between the crystals or the door won’t open.”

“I see. Can I...?”

“Yeah, sure, but don’t—” Sparks popped from the broken control panel and Wariss yelped while Rodney danced backward to avoid being zapped.

“Did I tell you to do that? What the hell happened to the few brain cells you had? You’re a walking disaster waiting to happen! Ridiculous. I might as well be teaching monkeys. I can’t work like this today. I want to go back to my room.”

“Dr. McKay—”

“Now,” Rodney said, shoving aside the tools and the crystals and reaching for his computer, the same one he’d had on him the day he’d been kidnapped.

Wariss gestured to the guards before looking at Rodney with wide brown eyes. “I’m truly sorry. I did not think—”

“That’s the thing. You don’t think. You’re too stupid to be in charge of this stuff. They need to find me someone I can work with.” Rodney jerked his head at the guards. “Let’s go.”

He had a vicious temper these days and it was all their fault. He wanted to go home.

The guards escorted him from the hallway where he’d been working with Wariss to his quarters. As usual, two entered the room with him and took up position by the door. Rodney ignored them, sat down at the small table in the corner and started going over the shield harmonics graphs in which someone, probably Zelenka, maybe John, had figured out how to hide a Morse code message that only Rodney would notice.

He could get the city shields down...hell yes, he could, but he had nowhere to go when it happened. The gate was guarded at all times and so was he. He had known the Daedalus was on its way back to Earth when he’d been kidnapped. Nadea was half a day in the opposite direction away from Atlantis. The earliest they would have been here to attempt a rescue by ship would have been about a month ago. He wouldn’t believe they’d written him off; John, Teyla, and Ronon would never let that happen. Something had delayed them, that was the only explanation Rodney could come up with because there was no reason why they wouldn’t have been able to beam him out of here while the city was unshielded.  But the time frame for his expected rescue had come and gone, the shields went up, and his stall had failed. Those damn knives again. He really hated them.

Wariss wasn’t as stupid as Rodney liked to tell him he was. Wariss had grown up in the Ancient city and had been one of Prentiss’s apprentices. He knew how to read Ancient. He understood how to monitor the controls. He recognized many of the alarms the city generated when stuff went wrong. He had learned a lot over the last year and a half since the team from Atlantis had initialized the city.

He did not know how to hack into the systems though, and that was Rodney’s distinct advantage.

*

Zariss arrived with his evening meal. She was never late; she never complained; she always came dressed in a flowing gown of cream with silver stripes; and she always tried to feed Rodney.

“No, no no no. You’re going to drop it on my computer and I don’t have a spare!” He jerked his tablet off the table and away from the dripping juices of the stew meat she was offering to him on the tips of her long, delicate fingers.

“This has got to stop,” he said, feeling the frustration of two long months of captivity breathing down his neck. “I can’t take this any more. I know how to feed myself!”

“But you’re my husband.”

“Well, you know, your customs aren’t my customs and when I get back to Atlantis I won’t be your husband any longer.”

Her green eyes flickered and her soft tone dissolved with a single indrawn breath through her nose. “You are my husband and I will have your children. I will be the mother of the new ruling class on Nadea. Have no doubt of that.”

Oh, yeah. Her patience with him was starting to wear thin. She’d been having moments like this much more often lately. His wife was a power hungry nutcase who just happened to be really, really good at sneak attacks with her mouth and hands.

She chose that moment to drop the meat back into the bowl, raise her fingers to her lips and quite deliberately lick her fingers clean.

Rodney jumped up from his chair. He knew where this was going and he wasn’t having it tonight. She stood, her hands went to her neckline and with a few deft moves, her gown had been untied. The soft material parted and she let it fall to the floor.

Rodney felt his breathing pick up, because they’d gone through this before. He’d lost. Big time. He glanced at the guards, but they stood as stoic as ever, not a flicker of interest or recognition in their eyes.

He opened his mouth to protest, the usual spiel of words forming in his mind but he realized he was still holding his computer, and he really needed to do something with it before it got broken, and it occurred to him that his plan would be much easier to carry out if he wasn’t distrusted quite so much, and he hadn’t done anything to show that he might really be learning to accept his place here on Nadea...

It didn’t hurt that she really was hot in a not-Jennifer, not-John kind of way, and when she closed her mouth on him and did that thing with her tongue, it never failed to remind him of John.

*

“We have the crystals in place inside the city. All we can do now is wait and hope Rodney got our message,” John said and then waited for Woolsey’s reply over the video feed from Atlantis.

He’d been on the Daedalus for a week this time, as they held position just out of range of Nadea and the city’s short-range sensors. They had no way of knowing if the Nadeans had figured out how to detect the ship, but with Rodney in the city, it was a definite possibility. It was safest to assume they could and stay hidden until it was time to rescue Rodney.

“Do we really believe this is going to work?” Woolsey’s hesitation to believe in their plan irritated John, but he could see the point. The plan was intricate enough for the possibility of something going horribly wrong to be a real concern.

Radek pushed his glasses up on his nose with a curt jab of his finger. “We do not have any choice. We cannot get Rodney out of the Ancient city without his help. It is a fortress now that they have that shield. It is massive and—”

“Impenetrable,” John said. “We can’t even get a cloaked jumper through. McKay’s going to have to get that shield down or he’s going to be stuck there for a very long time.”

Caldwell spoke up. “We certainly can’t leave Dr. McKay trapped with the Nadeans. With the knowledge he has about Atlantis, he’s a huge security risk right now.”

“McKay’s not going to tell them anything about Atlantis,” John said, jaw tight and eyes looking hard at Caldwell.

“I’m not saying he would compromise Atlantis willingly, Colonel Sheppard, but we both know that if they want the information, he won’t stand a chance. He doesn’t have the training.”

Woolsey raised his hand. “Gentlemen, it’s irrelevant. They’ve had him for two months, thanks to the delay the Lucian Alliance caused the Daedalus. Let’s just concentrate on getting him back now.”

Woolsey nodded to John. “Very well, Gentlemen. Good luck.”

The tech cut the signal.

John fought his frustration. He was anxious to get this thing moving, because it had already been way too long. He turned to Zelenka and pointed at the communications terminal. “Keep an eye on anything coming from that city. You know how Rodney thinks better than anyone on this ship. If he got our message, he’s liable to try sending one back.”

He gave Caldwell a sharp nod to excuse himself, and then headed to the mess hall, where he suspected he would find Teyla and Ronon.

He was right. Teyla sat opposite Ronon at a table on the edge of the room, her fingers wrapped around a cup resting in front of her, and they were talking quietly. John poured himself a cup of coffee and then carried it over to their table and slid into an empty seat beside her.

“Zelenka’s going to let us know if he gets anything from Rodney,” he said.

Ronon sniffed and wrinkled his nose. “Coffee stinks,” he said. He shifted in his seat and leaned forward onto the edge of the table. “He ain’t dead. They won’t kill him.”

Teyla nodded. “I agree. They wanted someone who has the ability to work with the Ancestors’ technology. They will not kill him unless they find someone more capable and they will not. Rodney is...” The corner of her mouth twisted up. “Special.”

John took a hot swallow of foul tasting coffee. Nasty. He set the cup down. “He can be a real asshole when he gets in one of his moods,” he said.

Ronon snorted.

Teyla shook her head. “Rodney is smart enough to back down when necessary.”

Ronon glanced up over Teyla’s shoulder. John turned and caught sight of Keller coming into the room. When he turned back, Ronon had dropped his gaze to his fingernail and he was digging under it with a toothpick. He did not look up again until Keller stopped by their table.

“Any news?” she asked, giving them a smile that was both contrite and anxious. This wasn’t the first, or second, time she’d asked the question today.

“No,” John answered. “Not yet.”

“I hope they haven’t hurt him. Rodney can be so stubborn sometimes.” She clasped her hands together in front of her as if she didn’t know what to do with them. “Obstinate. Contrary.” Her eyes widened. “Oh, but he can also be really sweet. I didn’t mean—”

“We get it,” John said. “He has a way about him. That doesn’t mean he’s not a good guy and that we don’t, ah, you know.” John cleared his throat. Why the hell had he gone there?

He looked down at the blackness of his coffee and thought about how wrong everything would be without Rodney.

*

The guards followed him down into the bowels of the city. Rodney tromped through the hallways, following the schematic in his head. He rubbed his fingers together as he walked, not completely able to control the anxious fluttering in his stomach.

The food stores had been put into a space that mirrored the botany labs in Atlantis. “Where are they?” Rodney asked.

The guard everyone called Hor pointed to the far side of the organized but crowded set of rooms. “There.”

Rodney started walking in that direction, squeezing between the rows of wooden crates and open bins of root vegetables, gourds, and other hardy foods that didn’t require special storage. He stopped at the wall of two-foot square crates, looking up and thinking if the damned thing was at the top of the pile he was going to break his back trying to get it. He scanned the markings prominently labeling the goods and saw what he wanted three rows up from the floor at eye level.

He felt a little weak with relief at the sight. It was real. This was real. He was going to get out of here, if the crystals were in there and they worked like they should and if he was able to get them out of the box and into his room where he could sneak them into the right labs, and if—no, no, no, he was not going to start thinking about all the millions of things that could go wrong and trap him in this city for the rest of his damn life with a wife he didn’t want and kids he already knew weren’t going to be born with the gene, and then they’d all be killed and that would be end of his brilliant existence and he’d never see John—or, or, or—Jennifer, again.

“Dr. McKay, is something wrong?” Hor was frowning at him, and Rodney realized he was on the verge of hyperventilating. He forced a slow breath and tried to shake off the doom and gloom.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “Nothing at all.” He rubbed his hands together. “Just have to make sure I get the right stuff.” He tried a casual laugh, but it came out strident and off, much too high-pitched. Hor’s brows drew together. His other guard stepped forward to stand at Rodney’s left.

Rodney raised his hand and gestured vaguely in the air. “It’s Zariss. I, uh, really don’t want to disappoint her, and, and, well—” Not working. Time to change tactics. “Oh my god, she really knows how to, to, you know, and I’d just like to do something nice for her to show her how much I’m starting to like—ah, love, being married. To her.”

Better. Hor’s eyebrows had climbed up his forehead but the suspicion eased. Then he smiled and Rodney thought he might finally be making progress with these guys. Hor looked sideways before leaning forward a little and saying, not too loudly, “Zariss is known for her, ah, specialties.”

“Oh, she is,” the other guard added. “She really is. I heard she could make a man cry in ecstasy with those fingers of hers.”

Rodney choked, trying to not think about where her fingers had been last night. He might have cried. He really didn’t remember much after she had gone to work with her mouth, and tongue, and lips, because, because— He cleared his throat. Damn. Damn, damn, damn John and his mouth and those memories and his own weakness for them. “Ah, yeah, uh, you know, I don’t want to stay gone too long in case she wants to come back and, well, do it again.” He widened his eyes and didn’t have to try to look anxious.

Hor got it.

“Here,” he said. He reached around Rodney and started shifting crates and boxes until he had freed the level that contained the alcohol Warris had given him permission to take back to his quarters with him.

“I, uh, heard some guards talking. They said the last trade went really well,” he’d told Wariss. “That some special stuff came in.”

“Oh yes,” Wariss had said, handing Rodney a crystal from the tray to their right. “Two hundred crates of Barh wine.”

“Is there any way I could convince you guys to let me have a bottle?”

“I don’t know,” Wariss said. “I would have to ask the Honor Council.”

“I’ve been working my ass off for you guys trying to repair your city. I’ve done everything you’ve asked and then some, and—” This was the stretch, the place where he couldn’t push too hard or it would all fall apart. “Well, I could probably have sex with Zariss more often if I was a little drunk. She’s nice enough, but not exactly my type. I, uh, usually prefer brunettes.” To be honest, Rodney had no preference at all as long as the word hot fit in there somewhere.

It hadn’t been fifteen minutes before Wariss had excused himself and left Rodney alone with the guards. Shortly after that, he’d returned and told Rodney to take the guards and get as many bottles of wine as he thought he might enjoy.

Ah, the beauty of being needed for more than just his brain. He’d honestly never thought it would feel so cheap.

He shuffled around Elviss—and oh my god yes, Rodney had laughed his ass off when he’d heard the name the first time—and started shoving boxes aside. There were two hundred crates of the wine and he had to find just the right one or he was wasting his time.

Hor picked up a crate and said, “This is the Barh wine, Dr. McKay.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Rodney said, clenching his fist against the rough wood in front of him. He didn’t see it, the one he needed, the one with a small circle etched into the bottom corner of each side so that no matter how it had been placed he would be able to pick it out of the stack. Two hundred, to lower the chances that the one crate with crystals would stand out and be discovered before Rodney could have a chance to get his hands on it.

Damn it to hell.

Hor stepped back with the crate.

“Just, just one more,” Rodney said. “Maybe two.”

“But—” Elviss said.

Rodney cut him off by grabbing up a crate and shoving it at him. “This one.”

Elviss looked at him funny.

“What the hell are you waiting for? Take it.”

The guards had gotten used to his moods. They were with him every day while he worked with Wariss and the others and they heard him cursing and fussing and belittling their scientists each and every day. Elviss raised his hands and took the crate and then stepped back as if to say fine, go for it, which of course he would never say because the Nadeans didn’t talk that way.

Rodney twisted back to the stack and stared frantically at the crates. “Come on, come on,” he muttered. “Come to papa.”

That was when he saw it, directly to the right, the circle much smaller than he’d imagined but there all the same. That crate had to be the one. He reached out for it and felt freedom in the touch of a rough, splinter-laden slat of wood.

*

Later, back in his quarters, Rodney puttered around in his room, trying to work up the nerve to open the crate. He would have to be quick or the guards would notice something and if that happened, it was all over. He couldn’t take another two months here. He was ready to go now.

These guards were an entirely different sort than Hor and Elviss. They were much more like the silent guards who had kept him and the team locked in a jail cell a couple of years ago.

They didn’t speak; they didn’t watch Rodney’s movements in any obvious way. They afforded him what privacy they could without actually letting him have any privacy whatsoever.

He spilled out a bag full of crystals onto the table that he’d taken from around the city, telling Wariss they needed to be tested for micro-fractures. The crystals scattered wildly across the surface, a few piling up beside the crates he’d stacked earlier in the day, when he’d realized the height of the two crates could shield the important one just enough so that when he removed the top slats it wouldn’t be easy to see what he was doing.

He took a deep breath, peeked at the guards one last time and then moved to stand in front of the crates. He pried off the slats with stiff fingers and saw the single layer of bottles packed in a dried grass. He shoved his hand into the grass and felt for the crystals. He grabbed them quickly, their smooth surface grooved with ridges and dents, one, two, three, and dropped them beside the pile he’d already spread out.

He gripped a bottle in each hand and spun around to face the guards. “Want a bottle for yourselves?” Not a flicker of interest from either guard. “No? Well, I’ll just leave them here for you in case you change your mind.” He plunked them down on the floor beside the table and nearly fell into the chair.

He hid his hands beneath the table for a moment until the tremors subsided and tried to think of wide open spaces and blue skies and eyes that crinkled at the corners with every broad smile. His heartbeat calmed, his breathing got easier, and when he opened his eyes, he looked down at the crystals and knew, knew without a doubt he could do this and that he would be back on Atlantis before tomorrow was over.

*

He was on a dais on his knees digging into the back of a communications terminal trying to reach some loose wires when Wariss walked into the lab with Zariss in tow. Rodney pushed away from the open panel in the base and sat back on his heels.

Wariss smiled at Rodney, the gesture as creepily friendly as always considering Rodney had seen the knife Wariss carried in a sleeve strapped to the inside of his forearm. Two months had given him enough time to learn that the more elaborate the designs, the more skill the user. Wariss’s knife was a highly detailed work of art.

“Zariss is pleased you would wish her to watch you repair our Great City,” Wariss said.

Rodney raised his eyebrows.

Zariss did not look so pleased. Narrowed eyes and a pinched mouth were only one sign of suspicion she directed toward Rodney.

She had not found his sudden conversion from reluctant paramour to happy husband the last two nights that believable. Rodney thought he’d done a great job, but maybe last night his attempt at eager enthusiasm had come across as more let’s get this over with so I can get back to work on my crystals than as I worship your body and want you to have my children.

Her flowing garment wasn’t the same one she wore to his quarters in the evenings, this one tan and gray, made up of a separate long-sleeved shirt and flared trousers that grazed the toes of her leather boots. It was scary how hot she looked even in this less feminine, less busty apparel.

He saw the shadow of something beneath her right sleeve and felt a trickle of apprehension undermine his confidence in his plan.

She had never worn a knife around him before and he had no idea if she was skilled with it. Thinking about the dexterity of her fingers when she had her mouth wrapped around his cock made him swallow over a sudden lump in his throat. Oh yeah, she was probably very skilled at knife play.

He’d only seen Zariss outside of the rooms he occupied once and that had been the day Yarval had introduced him to his new wife. Torviss had been there and had wished Rodney well in his new life on Nadea. Rodney had thought, you son of a bitch, because Rodney was almost sure Torviss’s testimony of his effect on the Ancient facility’s malfunctioning door had sealed Rodney’s fate as the choice of husband-to-be when the Nadean Honor Council had hatched its scheme.

If only John had gone through instead of him...and then of course, Rodney took the thought back, because John would not have known how to get this shield down and he would have been stuck here forever with Zariss, having sex with her and making little Sheppard babies, and oh hell no. Rodney was going to put an end to that possibility in the way a black hole put an end to everything.

Zariss moved to a bench sitting against the wall nearest Rodney, still a good ten feet away. She sat, lithe and graceful, and folded her hands over her lap. When she turned to look at him, her green eyes glittered under the Ancient light coming from the panel overhead.

“I feel privileged you wish to spend your day with me, honored husband,” she said, her tone sweet as lemon pie.

“You kidnapped me. I’m not over that yet. Though I am starting to enjoy some of the fringe benefits.” He smiled brightly at Zariss and wiggled his eyebrows.

She turned to look at Wariss still standing just inside the room. “I am prized, Wariss, can you not see how Dr. McKay appreciates my talent as a wife?”

Red blotches of color appeared on Wariss’s cheeks. “Zariss...”

Rodney scoffed and turned back to the dais and the open panel in front of him. “Just leave her,” he said, already thrusting his arm back into the depths of the device and mashing his cheek against the outside surface as he stretched for a knot of wires that was almost too far away to reach.

Wariss shuffled forward, but stopped after only a few steps when Rodney paid no attention to him. “Do you not wish to teach—”

“I should spend the day getting to know Zariss better, since it’s starting to look obvious I’m going to be stuck here for the rest of my life. She—Ow! Son of a bitch!” A loud sizzle of frying conduit punctuated his yell.

Rodney jerked back, pulling his arm out of the hole and falling backward onto his ass. He looked up at Warris, and the black expression Wariss must have seen brought out an, “Ah, I think I’ll find another task to keep me busy today then.”

Zariss snickered.

Rodney glowered and scrambled to his feet. “Oh, that’s so funny. Laugh it up! I’ll just ask for a new wife next chance I get who has a little more respect for my brilliance.”

Zariss gasped, as did Wariss. A shoe scuffed the floor from the direction of the usually silent guards who haunted Rodney everywhere he went. Wide green eyes stared over at him, stricken and horrified.

“What?” he demanded, pausing in the act of dusting off his hands on his loose pants. “You started this.”

“What have I done to deserve such a shame from you? That you could even consider asking for another after all that I have sacrificed—”

“Hey, I didn’t ask for this! Don’t put this off on me. And—and—sacrificed? I am an honest to god genius. I could have anyone I want back on my world—” He thought of Sam, Teyla, Amelia, Dr. Carey. “Well, almost anyone. Besides which, I have a girlfriend that I’m very happy with! I didn’t need a wife!”

Wariss stepped closer, lowered his voice, and said, “You cannot cast Zariss aside without irreparably damaging her honor and yours. It is not done.”

“Outsider here,” Rodney said, pointing at his own chest. “Did not ask for this. Your concept of honor is fatally flawed when you kidnap someone and expect them to just get over it because you’re nice to him when you aren’t threatening to gut him if he doesn’t marry one of your people.”

“We have offered you everything you could wish for to make you feel comfortable, to allow you to make a home for yourself here in the Great City.”

“I don’t need a new home, I already have one!” His voice rose on every word until he realized he needed to calm down before he blew everything. Rodney took a deep breath. He allowed himself to slump forward and stare at his hands. He had gotten out of control and maybe it would be okay, because they would be suspicious if he overdid the “I’ve finally accepted my new life” act.

A little ambiguity could go a long way.

He looked up at Wariss, who now stood very close, and Zariss, who had moved forward on the bench, her body leaning in his direction, anxiety in every muscle holding her in place.

“I can’t settle in here until I stop being worried at every turn that someone’s going to carve me up into itty bitty pieces.” He thought he did a good job of keeping his voice calm but firm. “I need some space. The guards—” He gestured to Hor and Elviss who stood across the room, and the others that flanked every other door around him in the underground city. “They’re underfoot every time I try to do anything. I can’t breathe for the damn guards.”

Wariss’s brow furrowed and he parted his lips to say something, hesitated, and then said, “I will talk to the council.”

“How’s about you keep them the hell away from me today? Zariss will be with me everywhere I go. I can have some breathing room for god’s sake.”

“I cannot do that.” Wariss sounded shocked at the suggestion. “Your security is on my honor. If anything happens to you...”

“Okay, okay, fine, I get it.” Rodney threw out his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Please, just ask them to give us a little extra space.”

Wariss gave him a curt nod and then turned away and walked toward Hor and Elviss.

Rodney felt a touch of regret at what might happen to Wariss when he disappeared, but then he turned to Zariss, who was looking much like her normal wily self again, and she smiled at him and reached up and touched the very center of her bottom lip with her forefinger.

“What?” he said.

Her pale green eyes drifted down his body. “My fertile time is near. We mustn’t let the extra opportunities slip past. Although...” She paused, and her eyes came back up to meet his gaze. “I do hope you improve somewhat over time.”

Oh, oh, that was just great. A wife and a critic of his sexual prowess. “My girlfriend never complains,” he said, “and neither did—” He cleared his throat and finished meekly, “Anyone else.” He really had not had enough sex since he’d come to Atlantis. Zariss had learned how to push all the wrong buttons with him, shortly after she’d learned how to push all the right ones. She was a menace to his sanity.

Rodney plastered a smile on his face and reached for his bag of crystals and box of tools, most of which had been left by the Ancients who had once lived in this city.

He looked down at the frayed wires sticking out of the column. He’d broken it. On purpose, and a few singed fingers had been a small price to pay.

Never let it be said Rodney McKay didn’t know how to be a vindictive son of a bitch when he wanted.

Now Zariss was going to follow him around all morning while he placed those crystals into the proper slots and hacked the shield and destroyed these people’s ability to ever get the damn thing back up again without him here to fix it.

There would be no chance for the Nadeans to kidnap anyone else from Atlantis, including John, especially John, and keep him trapped here against his will in an effort to create a new ruling class of Nadeans with the Ancient gene.

But no way was he leaving Zariss behind when she might actually be carrying around a little mass of Rodney McKay’s DNA. Not that he was sentimental or anything, but these people didn’t deserve anything from him and he wasn’t leaving a single damn gene behind. He’d return her once she failed a pregnancy test, or god forbid, popped out a baby McKay.

The thought made him feel a little queasy.

*

Rodney’s message, when it arrived, was short and to the point. John leaned over Radek’s shoulder and read the words one more time off the computer screen.

Two to beam. Where the hell have you been? I could have been dead already.

“Two?”

“Yes. Very odd,” Radek said. He had his hands on the keyboard but his fingers weren’t moving. The words flashed by again. “It’s repeating message, like ours.”

“But a simple text message.”

Radek’s head bobbed. “Through the Ancient city’s communications system, yes, sent twenty minutes ago. “

“So he’s probably not locked up somewhere.”

“Which is excellent news. The shield—”

John clapped Radek on the back. “He’ll get it down.” This could work. They were going to get Rodney back. It had been a long two months without him.

“I have missed him,” Radek said. “But I will regret it, I am certain, when he again tells me I am secretly in love with him, but that is Rodney.” Then he said something in his native language in a tone of exasperated aggravation and affection.

“Yeah, that would be Rodney for you.”

“I wonder who is second person?”

John stared at the message and tucked his hands into his pockets, rocking back on his heels. “Good question.”

*

Rodney appeared in a sudden wave of light wearing light brown loose fitting pants and a flowing top with long sleeves and an open neck. John’s first thought was that he looked damn good for a man who had been held hostage for two months. Then a split second later, he noticed the woman. “Welcome back, McKay. Who’s your guest?”

At that moment, said woman jerked as she finally got over her shock at finding herself in the midst of a crowd of strangers on a strange ship and grabbed Rodney by the neck.

Rodney yelped, rising up on his toes.

“Crap,” John said, and raised his gun as fast as she flashed a knife and jabbed it up against Rodney’s back. One thrust in the right direction and she would plunge the wicked blade directly into Rodney’s heart and lungs.

Teyla had reached for the woman’s arm but not fast enough, and even Ronon had only gotten his hands halfway to her when she spun around, taking Rodney with her and demanded, “Do not make me kill him. Where am I? What have you done?” She twisted her face toward Rodney. “How could you do this? Return us to the city.”

“Rodney, what’s going on?” John drew the words out, chastising as much as questioning.

Ronon’s hand slipped toward his weapon. Rodney threw his arms up and out and said, “No. No no no no no, stop. Nobody—” Her knife poked harder at his back and he bowed another few degrees away from the shiny blade. Rodney pulled her around despite the knife at his back and managed to put himself between her and Ronon, and John couldn’t have been the only one that noticed Rodney had moved to block Ronon of his own accord.

What the hell was Rodney trying to do?

“You can’t shoot her! Not yet anyway. Ow!” Rodney twisted his neck and tried to talk over his shoulder at the woman. “Is this really necessary? Seriously? You’re outnumbered and you don’t really want to kill me—okay—okay—okay, maybe you do, but if you kill me they’ll just kill you too and then what happens if, if, if you’ve got a bun in the oven? Huh?”

She frowned. Rodney huffed and said, “Pregnant, what if you’re already pregnant?”

And suddenly there were a whole lot of confused people standing around, and John had to admit he was one of them.

“Why would you do this?” she said.

“Rodney?” John’s voice raised on the end of his name, sharp and demanding. “Fill us in, before we have to shoot her.”

“You can’t shoot her!” Rodney yelled, his face turning red. “Damn it, Zariss, put the knife away and let me go. I am not going to let them hurt you.”

Her eyes darted around the room, taking in the situation quickly, and John recognized experience when he saw it. She seemed to weigh her chances and the risk/reward ratio came up short. Her arm loosened around Rodney’s neck and she slowly released him and lowered the knife to the ground, gently placing it on the decking before standing again, straight and tense.

Rodney rubbed his neck and grimaced.

John stepped over to the knife and kicked it out of the way toward Lorne before he lowered his gun.

“I bet this is going to be interesting,” he said to no one in particular.

“Oh, yes, just great,” Rodney said. He looked at John, then Teyla and Ronon, and then he caught sight of Jennifer, who was standing back and trying not to get in the way of the action. Rodney’s eyes seemed to light up at the sight but then he didn’t step forward or do anything else to acknowledge her, and he did not leave his traveling companion’s side.

Instead, he gestured to her vaguely and said, “Everyone, this is Zariss, my, uh, sort of, wife.”

*

“Sort of wife?” John asked again.

John had not had a chance to do more than ask a few basic questions before Keller had taken Rodney in hand and dragged him to the ship’s infirmary for a full exam. She had been efficient and cool, her words precise and calm, friendly even, but John had noticed the faint tremor when she took Rodney’s blood pressure and the slight waver in her voice when she had asked Rodney if he’d been fed any kind of drugs.

“Said that already. Yes. Wife.” Rodney looked up from the table, where they’d convened to discuss his rescue and his guest now that they were back on Atlantis. “It’s not like it’s legal or anything. They made me marry her.”

“Ah. That makes all the difference.”

“Of course it does. When Jennifer and the others finish checking her out under the scanners and I find out she isn’t, um, well, then she’s out of here as fast as I can dial the gate.”

“Uh, McKay, you’re forgetting about their gate shield.”

“Really? Really? You think I’m too stupid to remember that? I’ve got it taken care of.” Smug satisfaction radiated from the tilt of his head and the slash of his crooked mouth. “I made a few modifications to the crystals Zelenka sent before I put them in place. I’ve got a back door now. They thought I was fixing things for them, well, they’ve got another think coming. Nobody gets away with—”

His rant stopped abruptly. He looked over at John with his blue eyes, wide and serious. “It’s really good to see you guys again.”

“You’re welcome, Rodney. Thought you might have decided you liked it there.”

“Not a chance.”

John swiveled in his seat, once, twice, then said, “Your wife is pretty.”

“She’s a nutcase.”

“She might have a bun in the oven.”

“Quit trying to pump me for information. Yes, she might be pregnant. Yes, unfortunately, it might be a McKay.”

“So... How long?”

“How long what?”

“How long have you been married? What the hell do you think?”

“Oh, well, I—four weeks, five? They wanted me to adjust a little before they added the wife to the mix. Besides, I think there was some political crap going on to decide who got to be the lucky woman.”

“Ah.”

Before John could say anything else, the doors opened and Mr. Woolsey walked in, followed by Zariss, Teyla, and then Keller.

Teyla had seemed like the best choice to watch Zariss, since she had the skills necessary to take out someone of Zariss’s particular abilities if the need came up but she was also a woman and a member of Rodney’s team. Because of the sensitive nature of the issues involved, no one else would be coming to this meeting.

“She isn’t pregnant,” Keller said.

Rodney puffed out a pent up breath. “Oh thank god. I was really worried I was going to end up—”

Keller interrupted. “At least it’s not showing up yet if she is. There’s still a chance because Zariss told us she and—” Keller bit her bottom lip. She avoided looking directly at Rodney, instead directing her report toward John and Woolsey. “She and Rodney had sex just last night. Even the scanners can’t pick up on the viability of a pregnancy this early. We’ll need at least another week to be sure, before we can send her home.”

“Damn it,” Rodney muttered.

During Keller’s report, Teyla had shown Zariss to a seat at the end of the table and sat down beside her.

Keller moved down the table and eased into the seat beside John. Rodney’s brows drew together as he realized she had ignored the empty seat beside him.

“Carson is on his way. I think Dr. McKay would be more comfortable discussing certain issues with him rather than—”

“What?” Rodney turned and leaned far over on the table so he could see Keller on the other side of John. John leaned back quickly, trying to take himself out of the middle of this discussion.

“Rodney, there are things we’ll have to know, things you might have been coerced into doing, things that maybe you’d be too embarrassed to be honest about with me, and—and—” Keller floundered.

Then her calm broke, her cheeks went pink, and John saw the moment her eyes clouded up. She was usually the one who pacified Rodney, their entire relationship seemed built around her ability to ignore Rodney’s aggressive, self-involved tendencies and her desire to help people see the best in themselves.

“She’s your wife, Rodney. You have a wife.” Her voice raised, then cracked and she clenched her hands together, then quickly moved them to her lap. “I’m—I was your girlfriend. I can’t be the one asking these questions.”

Uh oh. John stared between Keller and Rodney, watching as Rodney seemed to get that something was very wrong. Teyla exchanged a quick look with him, while Woolsey raised a finger as if to interrupt but then thought better of it and slowly lowered his hand back to the table.

“Uh, well, I—” Rodney’s brow furrowed and he appeared to struggle hard before finding his natural contrariness. “It’s not like I had a lot of choice! I was stuck on Nadea for two months and everywhere I looked someone was threatening to stick a knife in my belly if I didn’t marry her!”

“You seemed quite taken with me last night, Honored Husband.” Zariss’s pale lashes dipped and she tilted her head back, arrogance in every nuance of the gesture.

Keller’s eyes widened.

Rodney’s mouth popped open.

John winced.

“Do not forget he is still my husband, Dr. Keller. I suggest you move on to another man. This one is mine. We don’t give up that which is ours easily on Nadea.” Zariss’s eyes narrowed as she stared hard at Rodney. “Even when we find them lacking in certain areas of bedroom sport.”

“Oh, you, you—” Rodney stabbed a finger in her direction. “You shut up.”

This was a disaster in the making. John felt the need to rescue Rodney, but he wasn’t that eager to step into the fray.

“I never forced you to do anything,” Zariss said. “You seemed eager enough at the time. You certainly could have refused to let me—”

“Okay, that’s enough,” John said. “Zariss, Dr. Keller, Rodney—”

Rodney jerked his hand around in the air. “Oh really? Tried that, and let me tell you, that didn’t exactly go over well with the guards!” He turned to Keller. “And, and, and, you know what, when you’re locked in a room together every night and your wife is throwing herself at you every time you take a breath, it isn’t exactly easy!”

Keller sucked in her breath.

John pushed up from his chair. Teyla took John’s cue and rose to her feet also. Woolsey watched with a dawning horror as everything spun completely out of control.

John stuck out his hand in Rodney’s direction. “I think everybody just needs to calm down, people.”

“No I will not!” Rodney yelled, his hands clenching at the table and his eyes wild. “That—that—bitch is trying to ruin my relationship with Jennifer and I will not sit here and let it happen.”

Keller pushed back from the table. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be here,” she said. “This isn’t your fault, Rodney, I understand that. I really do. But despite the circumstances of your marriage, which I realize isn’t legal and you have no obligation to honor it, far from it,” Keller said with a short, hostile look at Zariss, “but she’s your wife for now, you did have sex with her, and you could have a baby on the way. Mr. Woolsey, I—I’m very sorry. Carson will be here within a few hours to take over Rodney’s care.”

Rodney jumped up and his chair spiraled backward on its wheels. “Jennifer,” he said.

Rodney stared at her with wide blue eyes and a hurt that was plain to see by everyone in the room. John wanted to reach out and pat the hand Rodney had clenched against the top of the table and tell him it would be okay, but he looked over and saw Zariss sitting back in her chair and it hit him hard that Rodney had a wife even if it was just temporary.

Rodney turned on Zariss, frustration and anger spilling out with every word. “This is all your fault. You’re certifiable, you know that? You, you, your sneak attacks and your wily tricks with your—that thing and—and—and—Oh, fuck this. This is not my fault. I’m being crucified here for something I had no control over.”

Keller winced and gathered her tablet up off the table.

Zariss sneered at Rodney. “You enjoyed every moment of it, and do not deny it. I’m likely the most talented and attractive female you’ve ever had the pleasure of taking to bed. I would wager only this John you mentioned has ever made you feel half so good. Certainly not this Dr. Keller.”

What—the—hell? And then, oh my God. She did not just say that.

“I only ever mentioned him one time by mistake when you—you—you did that—that thing with your—your—your—!” Rodney’s stuttering reached a crescendo.

John shook his head, denial screaming fast and furious.

“John?” From Keller, confused. “You mean Colonel Sheppard?”

John’s gaze flitted around the room. Teyla’s eyes were wide, serious. Mr. Woolsey’s mouth hung open. John looked around frantically for a rescue. None appeared. He burst out, “It was the plant, we were drugged, I swear to God.”

Keller sucked in a breath and let it out in a rush. With wide-eyed shock, she said, “That’s why you never told. Either of you. You were—Oh. Oh.”

Rodney’s lips mashed together tight, his mouth slanted sharply downward, his face so red he looked sunburned. “Why? Why the hell did you have to say that?”

John shook his head again, realizing he had no idea which of them Rodney was talking to.

*

“Gentlemen, this goes no further than this room. You have my word we’ll be circumspect concerning the, ah, revelations here today.” Mr. Woolsey’s earnest expression should have made Rodney feel better, but it didn’t. The damage had been done. Jennifer knew now. John had to have realized Rodney still thought of it enough to have slipped up and said something about it to Zariss. Woolsey knew. Teyla too.

He was humiliated.

He was furious.

He was scared. John might never forgive him for letting it come out this way. John, who had told him to just pretend it had never happened and who had seemed perfectly happy doing just that.

The fight had gone out of Rodney. He slumped back in his chair and with both hands he scrubbed at his face, suddenly tired and overwhelmed and ready to just go, to go to his quarters, his real quarters and plop down on his bed and sleep until he could pretend this had never happened. Any of it.

When he lowered his hands, it was to see that Jennifer still stood by the door, ready to bolt at any moment, her parted mouth only one symptom of her continued shock and—this was so unfair—sudden wild curiosity that lit up her eyes as she kept glancing between him and John.

“Sheppard,” he said. “I’m—” His voice broke. “I’m sorry. Really. I’m just—”

John had a tightness about his eyes and mouth, a stillness that he got sometimes when he was thinking especially hard. But he answered quickly, “It’s all right, McKay. It’s been a rough couple of days.”

“A rough two months, you mean.”

“All right, a rough two months then.”

“It makes complete sense now,” Jennifer said, sounding almost normal except for a slight pitchiness. She seemed to be working on putting pieces of a puzzle together. “Radek’s story, Dr. Carey...”

Zariss pointed at John. “This Colonel Sheppard is John? John is a man? Oh, Great Ancestors, this is—” She laughed, the gentle sound filling the room, echoing warmly off every wall until Rodney hoped she strangled on it.

Teyla turned to glare at Zariss. “This is not the time for any more of your games, Zariss.”

“Oh, but this is no game. I have specialties, you see, and certain men enjoy them more than others. My Honored Husband enjoys them especially—”

“Zariss.” This time Teyla’s voice left nothing to the imagination. Violence threatened. Her hand reached out and covered Zariss’s long fingers on the table top. Zariss snapped her mouth closed.

Mr. Woolsey spared each of them a glance. “I understand the importance of keeping this quiet, for your sake, Colonel Sheppard. I’ve come to realize that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. Wouldn’t you agree, Dr. Keller?”

“Oh. Oh, certainly.” Her reaction still seemed a little off, her bottom lip red where she kept biting it.

Rodney watched her; he wasn’t sure how long. Her soft brown eyes, her cheeks, her neck. He thought of the times he’d touched those places and felt so perfectly happy and terrified and sure that it would all end before he was ready. He still loved her, but the churning in his stomach, the headache blowing up right behind his forehead told him he might have been right.

Gone two months, and now it might be over.

He realized he hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on around him when Zariss started commenting on something he hadn’t even heard Woolsey say.

“The Governors used to hide in the Ancestors’ abandoned buildings during the cullings, leaving the rest of us in the city to defend ourselves from the Wraith. Those of us who knew about the underground city would go into the catacombs and wait for the Wraith to leave. Restoring the Great City was our chance to protect all of our people from the Wraith instead of protecting just a few. You’ve destroyed that chance.”

Mr. Woolsey leaned forward onto this elbows, his fingers threaded together. “We haven’t said we would never be willing to offer assistance to your people should the Wraith discover your planet, but in light of Dr. McKay’s kidnapping and imprisonment, we can’t trust you with that shield.”

“Our people will be enemies forever because of this terrible thing you’ve done. We will never forgive you for this. You may have the Ancestors’ blood and their technology, but we can still fight you tooth and nail at every turn. You will have to watch your back every time you travel through the Great Ring. Mark my words. You will pay for what you’ve done to the Great City of Nadea.”

Well, wasn’t that just great, Rodney thought. Another enemy in Pegasus.

*

Rodney entered John’s room to find John sitting with his legs stretched out on his bed, his back against the wall while he read a magazine.

“She’s definitely not pregnant,” Rodney said as he walked over to the chair near John’s bedside table. He plopped down on the hard seat and finally let out the tension that had been keeping his shoulders stiff and tight. “Thank god.”

“That’s good news.” John flipped the page, eyes never coming up.

“Are you ignoring me? Because I’m getting the feeling you are, but I don’t want to seem like I think you are if you really aren’t.”

John dropped the magazine and twisted around, bringing his legs to the edge of the bed and over. He leaned forward onto his hands and shook his head, staring directly at Rodney. “I’m not ignoring you. How could I? You’re right here.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Rodney, I’m not. I swear. I’ve just been busy. We’re having to reevaluate how we do missions because of the damn Nadeans. They attacked one team already and our guys barely escaped with their lives. Your wife—”

“Zariss. You just call her that to torture me.”

“—wasn’t joking when she said they were going to make us pay. They’re out for blood now and they’re good at getting it.”

“Okay,” Rodney said.

“Okay, then,” John said. He grabbed the magazine and scooted back onto the bed. “So what do you need?”

“Oh, nothing, really.”

John sighed and turned his head to look at Rodney. Rodney watched the skin around John’s eyes crinkle when he asked, “What is it?”

Rodney debated lying again, but ended up sighing himself and looking down at his hands. “I think it’s over. With Jennifer. It’s been a week and she barely talks to me.”

“Maybe when Zariss is gone, she’ll come around, buddy.”

“Oh, there you go again. You’re just saying that.”

“What?”

“Buddy. I’m buddy or pal whenever you’re humoring me.”

“I’m serious, but don’t forget who you’re asking for advice. My one real relationship ended in divorce.”

“Yeah. Didn’t think about that.”

“Should have.”

“Probably.”

The conversation ground to a halt again and Rodney debated getting up and leaving John to his magazine, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to move.

The silence stretched out, until finally, he couldn’t help saying something just to hear a voice. “She was really actually kind of amazing, if you ignore the fact she’s a nutcase.”

“Huh.” John lowered his magazine to his lap. “What do you mean?”

“She did this thing, with her tongue—”

John groaned. “Aw, crap, Rodney, I don’t want you to describe her sexual performance to me.”

“She reminded me of—”

“I get why you slept with her, okay? She’s got that hot blonde thing going, you were probably missing Jennifer...”

“That’s not—You know, that’s not what I was going to say.” Rodney got to his feet. “I’m just going to go.”

“You don’t have to. I wasn’t trying to run you off. We can play a game or something.”

“No, I—” Rodney ran his hand through his hair. He looked at John, thought about how they’d always avoided the subject and thought, hell no, not another five years. “I was going to say she reminded me of you. That’s why I kept letting her get to me, why I kept sleeping with her. Because she reminded me of you.”

John’s hands stilled on the glossy pages, the edges crumpling in his fingers. With a sharp twist of his wrist, John tossed the magazine toward the end of the bed, but it missed, pages flapping. It plopped to the floor. One quick roll and John came off the side of the bed and landed on his feet, rising to stand in front of Rodney.

Before Rodney could put some space between them, John grabbed his arms and started walking him backwards. Rodney oomphed when his back came up against the wall. He cringed. He was about to get his face smashed in, he just knew it.

“She doesn’t look anything like me,” John said, his face too close, his breath feathering warm across Rodney’s cheeks.

“Uh, maybe that wasn’t, if this is a problem, then, how about I leave and come back after you’ve, uh, had a chance to think about it.”

John’s hands clenched a little tighter, but not enough to hurt.

“So what was it about her that reminded you of me?” John’s husky voice shivered through Rodney. John’s head tilted to the side. He actually looked curious. A stutter started up in Rodney’s chest.

“Uh, well, it was the—the way she, uh, well, did this thing with her tongue when she was, uh, sucking my—Do I really have to say it? It was that thing you did back when we did the—the thing.”

“You mean it was the way she sucked your dick?”

Rodney’s breath rushed out of him. “Yes! Exactly. And fingers. She has amazing fingers.”

John’s eyebrows rose.

“Really amazing,” Rodney repeated.

“So you thought my fingers were amazing?”

“If, uh, what I remember is a valid representation of—”

“Yes or no, Rodney.” John released Rodney’s left arm and raised his right hand, wiggling his fingers in front of Rodney’s face.

“Yes. Really, really yes.” Rodney gazed at John, letting his eyes take in all the creases and scars and stubble and hair and imperfections and just, everything. The memories were five years old, but the man pinning him to the wall was just as hot now as he’d ever been.

John blinked, and then his head moved closer and he said, “Just once. So we can see if it was really that good, okay?”

“Yes, yes yes yes yes yes. Oh hell yes. That’s brilliant.”

He leaned toward John, John leaned toward him, and somewhere in the middle their mouths met in a wonderful, hot, beautiful mash of lips and teeth and tongues and scratchy chins and noses and cheeks.

It wasn’t a first kiss, but it felt just like one, the time it took to find just the right angle, just the right level of pressure, and then it was so far beyond a first kiss that Rodney put his hands up on John’s arms and then around him and pulled him in closer. Their bodies smashed together and he knew he wasn’t going crazy any more because he was half-hard but John was—John was definitely past the half-way point.

“You want me to do that thing, don’t you?”

“Oh, god yes. I really do.”

“I remember how much you liked that.”

“I remember how much you liked it,” Rodney countered.

“I still wake up tasting you sometimes.”

“That’s so hot.”

“You don’t know the half of it. I’ve jerked off to those damn memories too many times to count. I need to know if it’s real.”

“I pretended my wife was you.” As if it was a competition to see who had gone the most crazy since the dreams started.

“I asked the hologram of you if you liked it. Waited until I was just about to run through the gate.”

Rodney snickered against John’s neck in between hitched breaths and the tingles spreading through him from his cock to every other spot in his body. “What’d he say?”

“He had no idea what I was talking about. He was a hologram.”

“So I didn’t give him every memory I had, sue me,” Rodney said, then gasped when John’s hand trailed down his shirtfront, his pants, and settled on the bulge that pushed against the back of his fly. He was suffocating here from the pressure on his cock.

“So, uh, you going to do that thing?”


“I’m going to do a lot of things to you, Rodney, and you’re going to love every one of them. Trust me.”

Oh, thank god.

*

Light swirled into the room from outside, the day almost over, but not quite ready for sunset. Atlantis’s walls shimmered with the glow and Rodney stared up at the ceiling from John’s bed and wondered how the hell they’d managed not to fall off and break a bone or twenty.

They hadn’t, and here they were lying shoulder to shoulder, squeezed up against each other too tightly to move without risking a tumble. Rodney’s right arm hung over the edge and he kept pulling it up to his chest but it kept sliding back down. Cool air flowed over his naked skin, sweat still drying on his body.

“So what happens now?” he asked.

John was quiet for a moment. Rodney wondered if this was it. The end of their one more time. Then John said, “We keep it quiet. Discreet.”

Rodney sighed, then looked over at John. “Damn. That’s a good plan.”

John looked at him, “Everybody knows I have the best plans, Rodney.”

“Ha! You’re fooling yourself with that one. How many times would you have died if I hadn’t been there to fix your plan?”

John propped up on one elbow. “Huh.”

“Our plans are always better when we work together.”

“You might have a point.”

Rodney looked up at John, saw the sun spill across John’s bare shoulder.

“I still love her you know.”

“I figured.”

“But... I think Ronon will take good care of her. She’s been spending a lot of time with him this week.”

“Yeah.”

Rodney squeezed John’s hand against the bed and smiled up at him, not feeling sorry for himself at all. “Why don’t you teach me how to do that thing this time. I’m a genius. I can learn anything.”

John grinned, licked his bottom lip and eyed Rodney. “Always thought that mouth could be good for something besides sarcasm and bullshit.”

“Oh, too funny.”