Betas: Thanks to Bastet for plot thoughts and encouragement, and to Derry for that very important stuff I didn't think of first time through.

Personal comment: This has been beta'd extensively. Any remaining grammar errors are either a)deliberate or b) Canadianisms. Such is life.

Another comment: Written before Letters to Pegasus. Serves me right forthinkingKavanagh would be smart enough not to be such a goof...so it's Alternate Universe. At least as far as Mr. Whiner goes.

Disclaimer: I don't have any rights to Stargate:Atlantis, and this is written for personal enjoyment and that of my friends.

Fortitude

Chapter One

It had started out so well.

Elizabeth wrapped her arms around her and stared at the active gate. So many of their missions started well and ended that way. But the few that ended badly stood out in her mind. The Genii, the Hoffans. This one. She shivered a bit. This one beat them all.

Ford, head bandaged, trudged across the bridge towards her. He looked pale, sick, but he was determined. Below the control room, people were gathering. The scientists mixed with the soldiers, talking in hushed tones. Near the gate, Zelenka, Stackhouse, Bates and Thomson stood in a knot, separate from the others. They weren't talking. They were just waiting.

Ford stood by her, leaning on the rail.

"They finally got to him." Weir said. "Last report, they're a few minutes out." Her voice was steady and she was proud. Her job now was to act as the voice of reason, of control. The entire situation could spin out on her if she permitted herself the luxury of emotion, at least in front of the others.

Ford nodded. His face was grim.

"It was an accident." she told him, not knowing the whole story, but knowing enough that the young man did his best. "You couldn't have done anything."

"Appreciate it." he said shortly, but he wasn't convinced, and she realized he was schooling his expression and emotions as tightly as she was. Then there was movement below.

Teyla came through first, back stiff. She nodded slightly at Weir, and moved off the platform. Sheppard and five of the rescue team followed, carrying a bodybag. Carson and the rest trailed behind, tired, covered in dust and mud, drained.

Zelenka led the others up the stairs, pausing before Sheppard. Some sort of unspoken request passed between the two men, and Sheppard nodded. The two scientists and two soldiers displaced four of the bearers, and Teyla moved in and took the fifth's spot, and so it was that Rodney McKay came back to Atlantis.

xxxxx

Sheppard stood on the balcony, toweling his hair. One of the advantages of a base this size - whoever wanted a view, had one.

The tips of his fingers hurt, rubbed raw from frantic digging at the face of the fall before the first team had arrived from Atlantis with work gloves. He winced as he rubbed a tender spot where a falling rock had nailed him. There had been a lot of falling rock.

Sheppard finished, tossed the towel on his bed, ran his hands through his hair, noting absently it was getting a bit long.

It was all his mind's method of self-defense. A detachment deliberately cultivated over years in the service, through other losses.

He glanced at his watch. Three-quarters of an hour to the debrief. They'd be watching him, he knew. They'd be watching them all, but him especially, wondering what he might do.

He dressed, ran a comb through his hair - carefully avoiding the bump - settled the jacket on his shoulders, checked the straightness of the patches in the mirror automatically.

They didn't realize, he mused, what his life experience had truly been. He had lost friends before. Lost people under his command. You mourned them, celebrated their lives, buried them, moved on. Made new friends. It happened over and over. In theory, you got used to it.

Sheppard paused in front of the mirror again, took a moment, stared into the eyes of the man there. They seemed different from the other times, he had to admit. They weren't the cool, controlled eyes of an officer who'd had a man under his command die. They looked - lost, somehow, like someone who'd had his best friend taken from him.

He turned away, rubbing his temples, feeling the sting of tears at the back of his eyes and denying them. Not now. No time to mourn now. Later, after the debrief, then maybe he could sit down alone and evaluate the loss.

What it meant to Atlantis.

What it meant to him to have a world without a cocky, irritating Canadian genius in it.

Chapter Two

Sheppard entered the room, conscious of the others' gaze; consciously trying for the calm demeanor he generally projected.

Ford looked shocked, still, and fatigued. He had a dressing on his scalp, and a patch of hair shaved. A bottle of aspirin sat next to a glass of water in front of him. Teyla sat as she always did, upright, attentive, and it took someone who knew her well to realize she'd been crying. Zelenka was there, too, obviously distressed, and Grodin, who looked like he felt rather out of place. He was relieved to see no Kavanagh. The man was undeniably brilliant, but just rubbed him the wrong way. This would be hard enough without that added friction.

Elizabeth entered behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder - he knew it was meant as consolation, but he felt acutely uncomfortable and moved away, glancing back with a half-grin, trying to make it seem as if it were something he had planned to do anyway.

She looked at him oddly, then took her place, touching the recording device. She spoke the date and the names of all the personnel in attendance, then caught Sheppard's eye. He came to his feet.

"We know the result of this mission." she said flatly. "Major Sheppard, please take us through the specifics."

He stood at parade rest, the formality of the posture helping - a bit.

"As you know, our discussions with the Deemas people were concluded last week, and an agreement was reached - in return for assistance building an aqueduct and giving instruction on irrigation, we were promised eighty bushels of grain now, with twice that from the next harvest. My team embarked yesterday at 12:30 hours, along with four engineers and eight construction crew."

Sheppard relaxed a hair. Reports were something he knew how to give. He could have done it in his sleep, the plain, unemotional statement of what had led up to a catastrophe.

"The construction of the aqueduct was completed in a timely manner and we were invited to stay for a celebration. We had anticipated this and carried camping gear. We were shown to separate hot springs, and once we'd cleaned up we had a feast."

He paused for a moment, lining his thoughts up. Teyla smiled at him encouragingly, and he nodded.

"Soon after, two of the Deemas indicated to Dr. McKay that there was an item of interest - some sort of artifact - not far from the village, in a ruin. Dr. McKay was keen to investigate. I tasked Ford to go with him."

"Why?" Grodin asked.

"Standard procedure, Doctor. My team never splits down smaller than two by two, if we can possibly avoid it. Teyla was renewing a friendship with the head man and his wife, I was discussing the next planting with Werran, so Ford went with him." He paused, but there were no other questions.

"McKay, Ford, Taran and Dran - brothers - had been gone about an hour, and I was thinking about going after them when Dran came running back. The building had collapsed. According to Dran, McKay had been very excited about whatever it was, and had followed a cable or something back into a basement area. Dran said he'd tried to stop him, that it wasn't safe. Ford confirmed that. However, Rodney being Rodney, he had to try."

Sheppard drew a deep breath. "The Deemas mounted a rescue party. We found the Lieutenant just inside, unconscious from a blow to the head, evidently from falling rock - he was just inside when the collapse began, it appeared he was trying to get to Doctor McKay. I surveyed the scene and dispatched Teyla to contact you. The rest, you know."

"Where was Taran?" Zelenka asked.

"He was waiting for us." the Major replied. "He had remained to see if he could locate - locate survivors." He drew a breath. The stutter had been involuntary, unplanned, and it threw him off. "He said he'd heard something…pointed us at a spot, it turned out to be just the rockfall settling."

"How was it the Deemas were able to mount such a search party at short notice?" Grodin asked.

"Evidently, these ruins have a tendency to collapse. But the materials they scavenge are useful, so they take precautions and practise rescues."

"They didn't bother mentioning this - tendency to collapse - to Dr. McKay?"

He sighed. "Taran said he told Rodney not to go into the basement. I believe him. When McKay's on the trail of something he's tenacious." Damn. "He was tenacious."

And that almost did it to him, almost broke the façade he was maintaining so carefully. Sheppard was literally saved by the bell, as the comlink chirped and the attention of the others was drawn from him. He rubbed his temples again. The headache was getting worse.

"Doctor Weir." It was Carson. He knew that Elizabeth had managed to talk the Scot out of doing the autopsy personally, arguing that it was something no one should have to do to a friend. Beckett had agreed to Dr Birroll performing the dissection but insisted on being there and helping out with the necessary lab tests - something he had to do, the last thing he could do for his friend.

"Doctor Beckett."

"We have a preliminary report. Cause of death was crushing injury to the head and upper torso. The hands as well. The damage was extensive, and - and we believe death was instantaneous."

There was an almost audible sigh in the room. Sheppard dropped his head, feeling relief in the midst of his pain. At least it had been quick.

" I have the usual tests pending, but I don't expect to see anything from them. I thought…I thought you might want to know…"

"Thank you, Carson." Weir's voice was compassionate. She toggled the com off, sat a moment, staring at the file in front of her, then said without looking up. "Dr. Zelenka, you will take over as head of science. Grodin, you will assist him. Please review whatever Dr. McKay was working on and maintain continuity of any experiments that he was running. Assess his notes and report back by noon tomorrow." She indicated the door with a tilt of her head. "Dismissed."

The two stood, surprised that the meeting was over that abruptly, but Sheppard nodded at them and they left quietly. Weir still hadn't looked up, but it wasn't till the doors slid shut that she reached up to wipe her eyes and he understood.

He walked around the table. "Elizabeth…" he started, but she glanced up and her gaze was shuttered.

"Major, the Doctor had made a particular request for the disposition of his body, should such an action be necessary." she said flatly.

He nodded. "I'm aware of it."

"Please make the arrangements." Her voice was devoid of emotion.

"Yes, m'am." he replied, matching the tone. Teyla was watching them, confused, and she left at Weir's curt "Dismissed" even more confused.

xxxxx

"Lieutenant Ford."

Ford turned, too fast, and had to lean on the wall to keep his balance. Teyla stepped up beside him quickly, offering an arm.

"Allow me to assist you to your quarters." she said.

He smiled a bit. "Thanks." he said, but pushed off the wall and started on his dogged way again. She dropped her arm and walked beside him.

"I am concerned." she said finally.

"About?"

"Doctor Weir and Major Sheppard. They are attempting to conceal their grief for Doctor McKay. It does not help the pain to pass if it is not expressed."

Ford grimaced. "They can't let it show. Or at least, they think they can't. Not in public."

"Why?"

Ford sighed, stopped. "Sometimes humans are that way. They're both leaders, they feel they have to appear in control at all times. Men even more so than women."

"You are grieving."

He gave her half a grin. "My ancestors were Spanish and Jamaican. We were always hot-blooded. Heck, my dad used to hug me goodbye in front of school. Embarrassed me for a while." He began to walk again. "I learned to strike a balance."

"It would appear the Doctor and the Major should learn from you." she observed.

Ford stopped in front of his door.

"They'll grieve, Teyla - but in their own way and their own time. You can't push it. But you can be there when they need you." he paused. "And I'm here," he continued awkwardly "For you. If you need me."

She smiled at him, shyly, and it struck him suddenly that sometimes even the strongest needed help.

"Come on in." he said. "If you want. We can talk."

She nodded.

Chapter Three

Here he was, back on the balcony again. The moons shone fitfully through the cloud streamers. There was a rainstorm coming, and he thought, idly, he should go in and close the doors.

Instead, he leaned on the rail, watched the clouds gather, obliterating the stars.

They didn't have any undertakers with them. It wasn't that they hadn't considered losses, the decision was made on Earth that anyone who died in the Pegasus galaxy stayed in the Pegasus galaxy. There were seven plots on the mainland. Apparently the Athosian children tended them.

Shortly after the incident with the nano-virus, McKay had brought up something almost off-handedly. It had been a meeting of the three of them, hammering out changes in gate team rotation, working through power demands now that they had one less generator to work with, planning the disposition of the bodies of the scientists they had lost. It had been a hard meeting to go through.

At the end, McKay had mentioned his dislike for the idea of being interred on a planet that he wasn't born on, and suggested instead his preference should it become necessary.

And the idea was, actually, pretty good. The wave of an opening wormhole atomized anything in its path. A body would be reduced to it's constituent components, he had explained, and dispersed to the universe. It seemed a poetic way to discorporeate.

Sheppard had complied with Weir's request. The arrangements were made. He had discussed it with Beckett, and with the gateroom team, and the service was scheduled for sunset the next day.

Zelenka and Grodin had mentioned they would deal with McKay's effects. It made sense, they would recognize anything important more easily than he would.

But it left him at loose ends, something he'd gone out of his way to avoid since coming back. Everything was planned, everything taken care of. Tomorrow - he looked at his watch and amended it - today, in about eighteen hours, the gate would open and McKay would finally be part of the world of physics he loved.

The rain began, fat drops that were almost the same temperature as the air, warm and carrying the hint of ozone. Thunder rolled, and he saw lightning in the distance, skewering the sea and launching from cloud to cloud. It wasn't like that perfect storm, the one that had almost sunk the city - these smaller ones were almost common, and usually, especially when they hit at night, he would find himself with his team, and sometimes Weir and Beckett as well, on the deck off the gateroom, or on someone's balcony. Television wasn't much in this galaxy, he'd mentioned once, and so they made their own amusement. Storm watching was a nice pastime.

The last one had been a couple of months after the hurricane, and they'd all still been on edge from that, sitting under the overhang on the deck drinking coffee and counting lightning strikes. McKay and Ford were betting on the location - they'd split the sea into quadrants with ever-changing boundaries and were engaged in an amiable dispute about the most recent hit.

Finally, McKay had pulled out a grease pencil and headed into the rain, marking the railing to delineate the areas under question. Then he'd stopped, tilted his head back and spread his arms, smiling.

Sheppard remembered allowing as how Canucks were crazy, and this one in particular was pretty much the worst. McKay had just grinned, and reminded him they were in a different galaxy, and when was the last time he'd stood in the rain while on a balcony on a floating city called Atlantis?

They'd all ended up in the rain that night.

Just like now.

It was coming down in earnest, and he closed the doors from the balcony side, and stood with his face turned to the rain, letting it soak him, letting it begin to cool the burning pain of loss, letting it wash the tears away.

xxxxx

Elizabeth closed her doors to the rain, turning back into her quarters and the single light on her desk. She had so much to finish, still, but she couldn't concentrate. Instead, she turned off the light and sat in the dark.

She knew there would be protests from some of the science community - from a logical perspective; Kavanagh was the best choice to take over. Her decision would be called emotional, evidence of favouritism.

Maybe it was. But it was also, partly, a decision based on who would be easier for her to work with, her and Sheppard.

She had dressed Kavanagh down in front of his people. In retrospect that was unforgivable, it was something that every junior supervisor knew - you don't give people hell in front of their peers. But it had been her first major challenge to her authority, and with her - admit it, she told herself - with her friends in trouble she made an error that cost her.

She slammed her hands on the desk. Of all the stupid ways to go. A building collapse. After all that they'd survived - that he'd survived - a building collapse.

Her hands hurt. But she didn't even try to pretend to herself that was why she was crying.

xxxxx

It was a long night. It had already been a long day.

Carson Beckett took his clipboard, nodded to the nurse, made his rounds. A broken leg from a collapsed floor, several concussions, one case of the flu. He knew the names of the people he attended, but he'd been taught, early in his education in the healing arts, that it wasn't wise to become personally involved with his patients. He had to maintain a certain detachment.

He was moderately certain none of his professors had anticipated becoming stranded in a city in another galaxy.

The population wasn't that big. He found his chief problem was restraining his natural friendliness to some extent - as a doctor he knew things that most friends didn't know about each other. On Earth he never treated friends. Here, everyone he treated was a friend.

On Earth he would never have even considered performing an autopsy on a friend.

He closed his eyes for a second, leaned on a chair. Tired, he told himself. Just tired. He opened his eyes, made for his office. Shut the door and put his head down. So tired.

The night nurse opened the door slightly. Beckett's shoulders were shaking. She paused, torn between her desire to help and knowledge of his need for privacy.

Privacy won out. Quietly, she shut the door and turned away.

Chapter Four

Elizabeth Weir had dressed carefully that morning, in her uniform, rather than the business casual clothing that had become standard wear. On her way to the office, she noticed that everyone she met seemed to have had the same idea. The day seemed to call for a bit of formality. She climbed the stairs, turned to her office, and froze for a second.

Kavanagh was waiting.

Oh, she so did not need this.

Weir kept walking, heading for the door, seeing him stand and turn to open it for her. She nodded, moved to her desk, sat.

He sat opposite her, an expression in his eyes she didn't recognize.

"I'm not here to make trouble." he said flatly. "I understand why you chose Zelenka and I'm not going to question it."

She merely nodded. It seemed to confuse him and he stood.

"I'm sorry...for your loss…" he said, and she realized he meant to leave.

"Doctor Kavanagh. Please."

He sat.

"You and McKay never really got along, but you should know something - though he may not have told you, he did have respect for you. He said once it was kind of a shame you two had gotten off on the wrong foot, that you had come to see yourself in an adversarial role."

Kavanagh blinked. This was obviously not what he'd expected.

"Well…I…" he stopped.

"Doctor, I asked Zelenka to act as head, chiefly because he was familiar with the projects that Rodney had been overseeing. I hope that you will be able to assist. Further, I will be scheduling you for training in small arms and hand to hand - I want you, and some of the others, to go offworld with the teams."

"Me?" It was sheer surprise.

"You." she replied. "It was one of Rodney's recommendations that the science community spend - how did he put it - 'more time discovering and less time puttering'. Are you game for that?"

It took a few seconds, but slowly Kavanagh began to smile. "Offworld." he said, almost to himself.

Weir managed a grin. "We can go over the details later. For now, you're dismissed."

He stood, opened the door.

"Doctor Kavanagh?" She waited till he turned, pitched her voice so it would carry.

"I apologize for my rudeness during the situation with the jumper. I was out of line speaking to you in that manner in front of your people."

And Kavanagh was truly floored. He looked around, saw heads busily down and studiously ignoring them, knew they'd heard, nodded.

"Apology accepted."

xxxxx

Sheppard slowed his pace, hearing Teyla's step behind him.

"Morning."

She nodded, fell into step beside him.

"Did you sleep last night?" she asked.

"Not so much." he answered. "You?"

"Aiden and I talked for many hours." she replied. "I now understand why you are not displaying your emotions, and why Doctor Weir does not show hers. I am sorry for that need, but I do understand."

He shot a glance at her. "Well, thank you." he said dryly.

"You are welcome. Are you going to Doctor Weir's office?"

He raised the mess tray. "Figured she would have forgotten about breakfast."

"I will join you."

xxxxx

Beckett cursed, straightening. He hated falling asleep at his desk. He always woke with a terribly stiff neck. He stretched, twisted his head, scrubbed his hands over his face. A folder caught his eye, something that hadn't been there the previous night. He picked it up, scanned it.

When someone died offworld, a series of tests was required. The protocol had been established years ago by Janet Frasier. Full tox screen, full bio screen, DNA, various tests designed to identify possible alien contamination. He leafed through the sheets, noting the list of negatives. He looked through them again.

One was missing.

"Karen?" He stood, went to the door. "Karen, where's the DNA test?"

His head nurse looked up from her desk, an odd expression on her face.

"It's being re-matched, Carson." she said. "It should be done in a few minutes."

"Re-matched? Why?"

"The lab said - said they had an anomaly."

"An anomaly." He blinked.

"Just an anomaly, Carson. Nothing more."

He grabbed his jacket. "I'm going down there."

Chapter Five

Weir sipped the last of the Athosian tea, put the mug down, and nodded her thanks at Sheppard.

"Don't you two have somewhere you should be?"

Sheppard leaned back, glanced at Teyla, who shook her head.

"Me either." he said.

"In fact," Teyla observed "I believe Lieutenant Ford also has no where else that he should be." She looked over the desk, through the glass wall, at Ford mounting the steps.

Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder, smiled slightly. She was turning back when a rush of movement caught her eye, behind Ford, who spun. She stood, hearing Sheppard and Teyla come to their feet behind her. Carson ran up the stairs, pelted over the bridge, opened the door and stood, panting, a sheet of paper in his hand.

"Carson?" Ford came up behind him, and the doctor glanced back, beckoning the Lieutenant in. He shut the door firmly.

xxxxx

Grodin watched surreptitiously. He'd perfected the sideways sneak peek, and it told him more than people realized. In this case, though, it was confusing.

Carson had dropped the paper on Weir's desk, and was pointing at something, talking a mile a minute. She raised her hands, obviously telling the man to slow down. He straightened up, spoke a single sentence very clearly.

Grodin saw Weir drop into her chair. Sheppard seemed to be interrogating Beckett closely, but the doctor kept nodding, saying something over and over. Teyla's face was glowing. Ford seemed to be smiling. It was all very odd…unless…

Sheppard slammed out of the office, face a study in contrasting emotions. "Dial up the Deemas." he ordered curtly. "We're going back."

"Um - certainly." Grodin pulled the address from the computer. "Why?"

"Because the bastards played us. The body we found isn't McKay. The DNA has Genii markers." He almost growled the sentence. "That could mean McKay is still alive - and we're damn well going to find out what happened. And why."

xxxxx

Rodney McKay clung to his fury. The coarse fabric of the too-large jumpsuit concealed the tight bindings on his wrists and ankles, and the rag he'd been gagged with tasted foul. The Genii had taken particular pleasure in making him witness the rescue attempts of the Deemas and the squads from Atlantis, even going as far as to have a radio set to the searchers' frequency.

And his friends thought he was dead.

The frantic shouts of discovery, the urgent commands being relayed back and forth, and then - and the memory of it still burned in his mind - Major Sheppard's voice, calm and contained, requesting a body bag.

The lack of expression had been a source of amusement for his captors, but he knew his friend.

The flatness of his tone was a measure of his emotion. Sheppard became very collected when in circumstances that would make another man emotional - it was one of his strengths.

McKay's captors had remained long enough to see the despondent procession leave the ruins.

"You're dead to them" one had hissed at him, and nodded at another. He'd been bundled into a two-wheeled cart and buried under what looked like wheat. Not long after, he was through the gate on Genii, untied and brought before Cowen.

Anger kept his chin high as Cowen circled him in the bare room, like a pit bull trying to decide whether to attack.

"I take it you didn't like our little stage play?" he queried. "What a shame you never met the star."

McKay didn't reply.

"Come, Doctor, we put such an effort out for you. And we're not asking you to stay forever, not at all. I believe I said once I would wring you out and leave you for the Wraith. Call it my age - I've mellowed. We'll wring you out and send - whatever's left - back to Atlantis."

He hoped his face didn't betray his fear. Wringing out didn't sound good.

"I really must insist on a response, Doctor McKay…" the accented voice came from behind, but McKay resisted the urge to spin to face him.

It might have been a good idea to turn, he decided a second later, when Cowen's fist buried itself just above his right kidney and the starch left his knees. For a long dark time he could only feel the pain, only hear the blood rushing in his ears, only see a white blaze…when he could breathe again, he was hanging between two guards, and Cowen's face was so close to his he could smell the man's breath.

"Ah. Much better. We have a few hours before our scientists will be ready to work with you. Gentlemen?"...a gesture, and McKay was tossed on the floor, where he lay still, trying to conquer the sick feeling in his gut. Cowen looked down and smiled, but it was deaths' head grin, and it didn't reach his eyes.

"Take good care of our guest, will you? And make certain he's still able to help us when you're done."

He nodded at McKay, and left the cell, as the two guards moved in.

Chapter Six

Sheppard had an odd sense of deja-vu, striding over the path to the village.

It hadn't even been forty-eight hours since the whole rescue team had made their despondent way back, he could still remember the feel of the woven nylon handle of the bodybag in his hand…but it hadn't been McKay's body they'd borne back. A man, of identical size and identical weight, same blood type, dressed in McKay's uniform. But not McKay. The face, the hands and fingerprints, the jaw, all carefully destroyed.

The feeling he'd had in his gut when they found the body, that gut-wrenching denial he'd whispered - it was still so close in memory that it hurt freshly each time he recalled it, like prodding a wound with a finger.

And now, the fierce anger he felt - they all felt - burned in him. It had all been planned. The whole scenario had been designed by the Genii to obtain the one thing they had desired ever since they became aware that they needed advanced weapons knowledge - the man who had it.

After Beckett's good news, he had ordered Grodin to call up the Deemas, without any clear idea of what to say to them. Weir had countermanded the order, and for an instant he'd rounded on her, angry, before the rational part of his mind had taken over and he'd stood back, understanding.

Action for the sake of action was wasted.

They needed to understand what had happened first. They didn't know the whole story, and a misstep now could be something they'd have cause to regret later.

Sheppard strode on, seeing nothing, and was so deep in thought he almost missed the turning that led to the village, stopping abruptly.

He knew himself, and he knew he was on edge. It could have a detrimental effect on their task. "Teyla?"

She looked up.

"I think you'd better take point."

xxxxx

Rej was in Cowen's office. He leapt to his feet when Cowen entered.

"You have him, don't you." he said eagerly. "Where is he?"

"He's still defiant." Cowen replied. "Even after his people declared him dead. I left him with Fryn and Hefen."

"What? I want him able to work, Cowen! If they beat him to a pulp it won't help us at all."

"He has to understand the control we have over him, Rej." Cowen said. "I told them he couldn't be permanently damaged. They know what they're doing."

"If he can't work…I'll tell the Council it was your doing."

"Trust me." Cowen's voice was deceptively even. "I know this man. He's weak. He'll co-operate. "

He sat. "Don't forget. If, sometime in the last few months, McKay has grown a spine - however unlikely that is - we always have the hostages."

xxxxx

They were met just outside the village by a group of elders. Teyla held up her hand, and the two behind her stopped. She stepped forward, her stance making no secret of her anger.

"You have betrayed us." she said clearly. "We know our friend lives, and that he is captive. We suspect you of treating with the Genii, who are our enemies. We are here for answers. If none are forthcoming, we are prepared to use force."

Sheppard blinked. It was approximately what he'd intended to say. Maybe he wasn't such a hothead after all…

Ser, the headman, spread his hands in apology.

"We, too, have been betrayed by the Genii. We regret our actions, but we had no choice."

"Ah, bull." Sheppard said coldly. "You always have a choice. You just made the wrong one." His hand was on the butt of his P90, and his eyes were hard.

"Your pardon, but we did not." Ser replied, softly. "They have our children."

Chapter Seven

"What?" Weir said in shock. "They kidnapped…"

"Eleven children. They were taken off-world, but Ser is pretty certain they didn't go back to Genii. The message said they'd be returned when they had McKay." The hiss of transmission didn't conceal Sheppard's opinion of those who hid behind children.

"It's been almost two days."

"And still no kids. The Deemas are willing to help us, but they have no idea where they went."

Weir paced, tapping her finger thoughtfully against her chin. "Eleven kids. Were they all taken at once?"

Static, then Sheppard replied "They woke three mornings ago and they were gone. Genii have been here before, Ser says. They have a kind of Magnificent Seven thing going - raids for food."

Weir nodded. "Two things, then. How did they know you would be there - McKay would be there - and how did they keep eleven children so quiet their parents didn't notice them being kidnapped?"

A small pause.

"There's an informant here." Sheppard said finally. "Thanks, Elizabeth. I'll see what we can find out."

xxxxx

McKay lay on the cot. It was a cell, for certain, doing its best to earn the name dungeon - all that was missing were manacles on the wall and dirty straw in the corner.

They'd dragged him down and dumped him here not that long ago. He spent the first few minutes making certain nothing much was broken - except those cracked ribs - and nothing internal was leaking anything it shouldn't.

After his breathing had eased, he stood and made use of the bucket in the corner - his kidneys were in misery, but there was no blood in the urine.

He got the feeling his guards were well practised at their art.

He lay down again, and his mind turned to Atlantis. He knew they wouldn't be fooled for long - from their first expedition he knew the Genii hadn't begun to map the human genome - didn't even know of it's existence. As soon as they tried to match his DNA to that of the body, they would know they'd been deceived.

Meantime, he had to stay alive, but still not provide his captors with any useful information. And avoid too many more sessions with his own personal gorillas.

He sighed. No matter how he looked at it, he knew he was going to get hurt. No matter how good he was at the balancing act, how careful he was to portion the knowledge out a bit at a time, the truth was inescapable - and frightening - they would eventually become frustrated with him. They would hurt him.

McKay had never thought of himself as particularly brave. If he'd been asked, even a few months ago, if he thought he could stand up to anything he'd dealt with since arriving on Atlantis - the shadow creature, the Wraith, the invasion of Atlantis by the Genii, the nano-virus - he'd have laughed. In derison. And gone back to his nice safe lab.

He stared at the ceiling. If they were making first contact with the Genii now, he knew, he would know enough to keep his mouth shut about his knowledge. In a way it was karma - he'd more or less created the mess he was in.

But there was one hope, and though he was sorry his friends would have to join him in this particular mess, he found his mood lifting, just thinking about it.

His team wouldn't be fooled for long. The DNA test would tell them he wasn't dead. They would find out what happened - they would find the truth. And then they would find him.

As he lay there trying to husband his energy for what he knew was coming, he fixed that one idea in his mind. His team would find him. He just had to survive until then. The Genii wouldn't kill him. They needed him.

He hoped they'd remember that.

xxxxx

"One of my people…" Ser said slowly.

"Must be in contact with the Genii. Yes." Sheppard shifted on the cushion. It was taking time to persuade the headman of what seemed obvious to himself and his team, but he was being patient. Admittedly, it was a brittle sort of patience.

"And the children…"

"Were taken by someone they trusted, or they would have made enough noise to wake their parents. Yes." Teyla shot a sharp glance at him, and he sighed.

"I am sorry, Ser. It's just - the last contact we had, certain threats were made specifically against Doctor McKay, and I don't want to find out Cowen has acted on any of them."

The wrinkled face of the headman folded into a reluctant half smile. "Yes, the Genii are good at threats, aren't they?"

He pondered, and Sheppard opened his mouth to say something, but closed it after Teyla glared at him again.

"I regret to say that there is really only one person who would have been able to control the children - and he was at the collapse for several minutes alone."

He stood, went to the entry. "Taran?" he called.

Chapter Eight

Last time he couldn't resist showing off his knowledge; but it was surprisingly easy, this time, to ignore the procedural errors and the mistakes in calculations.

McKay simply sat there. He was with the scientists, as required, he was working on something - just not exactly what Cowen had specified - so he was, kind of, working with the scientists.

The head of the team - Rej - didn't buy it. He asked question after question, at first trying to convince McKay of the importance of the program, questions which McKay ignored.

Rej tried casting aspersions on his intelligence,and when McKay continued to ignore him, he finally resorted to irritated threats.

McKay ignored him.

Irritation built to frustration, then to anger, and finally his escort brought him to Cowen again.

"Really, Doctor." The man seemed positively regretful. "You must co-operate. There are greater things than your life at stake."

"If you mean the survival of the Genii, forgive me if I don't give a rat's ass."

Cowen laughed. "I didn't think you would care, Doctor." He leaned back.

"I know from your guards that you seem, now, not to be concerned about your own life - which is, if you'll forgive me, not what I expected from you." He paused, but McKay said nothing.

"You evidently don't care about us." he smiled. McKay nodded once.

"But I have children under my control, and you would have to be an evil person indeed not to care about them."

"Children?"

"You weren't surprised that the Deemas had no children in their village? Or did they concoct some story about a teaching trip? The Deemas hate us almost as much as you do. But there are those we have persuaded to become friendly with us. In return, they believe we will reduce our raids on their crops." He stood.

"They have a trusted elder there, Taran. He has the responsibility of educating them in tracking, herb lore…he has a remarkable amount of control over them."

McKay tried to school his expression, but the shock was already there.

"You can't be holding kids. Not even you, Cowen. Speaking of evil people…"

"You don't believe me."

"Hm, megalomaniacal jarhead with a history of lying. Nope."

Cowen sighed. "Then I will have to prove it."

He gestured to McKay's guards.

"Bring him."

xxxxx

"But they promised to leave us alone! Not to attack us anymore!" Taran was panic-stricken. He had come before the headman willingly enough, but when the questions started so did the rationalizations.

"When I described the visitors," he continued "Cowen himself proposed the plan to me. He told me he wouldn't let anyone know I was his contact, and that the Genii would never come through the gate again."

Ser shook his head. "Taran. You know you cannot trust them. They have proven it time and time again. Now. I will ask you again. Where are the children?"

"I…don't know." Taran seemed to deflate, slumping. "They left something for me to give you, though, if you found me out." He tugged out a scrap of paper, handed it over.

Ser read it. He frowned. "It appears the Genii anticipated the possibility you would discover the body was not that of your friend. He informs me that if any attempt is made to rescue Dr. McKay from them, the children …" he swallowed "will be killed."

xxxxx

McKay was tied again, this time only his arms, and - surprisingly - in front of him. They took an exit he'd never seen before, a set of stairs that ended in the back of a house. Then, they escorted him to the gate.

"Distract him." Cowen said, standing at the DHD.

He didn't have time to brace himself before he was hit, again, in the solar plexus, again, and he folded to the ground. The bindings on his wrists pulled, his cracked ribs flared. Distraction. Right.

He heard the gate activate - the hostages weren't on the planet. Because of Cowen's 'distraction', though, he had no idea where they were.

"On your feet." They pulled him up, and he managed to remain standing. "Follow me."

xxxxx

At Sheppard's suggestion, the discussion had moved to Atlantis. From experience, the Major knew anything that could increase the Deemas confidence in their allies would only help the cause.

Atlantis tended to be remarkably confidence-boosting.

The department heads were all in the briefing room, along with Stackhouse and, of all people, Kavanagh - who seemed to have undergone a fairly major attitude adjustment.

"So we rescue the kids." Ford said simply. "Then we rescue the Doc. Then we bomb those rat bastards back to the stone age."

"What he said." Sheppard agreed, pointing at the Lieutenant, nodding at Weir. She regarded him levelly, then turned her attention to Ser.

"We are willing to help you retrieve your children." she said. "We are even willing to overlook this breach of our trust. However, please understand our anger. Doctor McKay is not only an invaluable member of our expedition, he is a very dear friend to all of us in this room." She scanned the table, seeing agreement - or at least no disagreement - in the somber faces.

"We have had to endure the pain of his loss once. We will take all necessary steps to avoid having to do so again." She leaned forward. "Including permanently disabling your Stargate."

Ser nodded. "I understand. To be honest, Doctor Weir, if that is the only way to remove ourselves from the Genii influence, we will gladly do so. Though it would be with more regret, now that we have met your people."

"We understand each other, then." She looked around the table. "Taran has indicated he is willing to help - and he's still trusted by the Genii, so it gives us an advantage. Suggestions?"

Chapter Nine

It was raining when they stepped through on the other side. Three guards, wearing Genii uniforms, held rifles on them until Cowen barked a command. They saluted, then. In fairly sloppy unison, McKay thought.

"Follow me."

Still slightly bent, arm held tightly to his side, hobbling, he did.

Thankfully, it was only a few hundred feet to a small building. Two guards stood in the drizzle outside, saluting Cowen as he approached. One opened the door, and Cowen entered.

McKay followed, slowly, and it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the dimness. Eleven small, scared faces looked back at him.

He caught his breath. Kids weren't his favourite people, but to hold them captive was a truly rotten thing to do. And it made his balancing act that much harder.

His ribs flared and he groaned, falling to one knee.

"'r you ok?" a tiny voice asked. It was a little girl, perhaps six, and she walked up to him. "You're all cut and bumped."

He tried to smile at her. "I'm fine." he said carefully, trying not to wheeze. She touched his face, frowning.

"My father said it's not nice to lie." she told him seriously.

He chuckled a bit, coughed. "It's a white lie." he said. "It doesn't hurt anybody and it makes you feel better."

"I 'member you. When you came to visit. You and the man with spiky hair, and the dark man and the bright woman."

McKay managed a grin. "That's a good description." he said "of everyone. I'm Rodney. I don't remember you, though."

"That's all right. There's lots of us. Can't you stay?"

McKay sighed. His ribs clamoured at him and he wavered. The girl reached for him and he steadied himself on her shoulder, just catching his balance. She stood very still for him.

"I wish I could stay,..."

"Merya. I'm Merya."

"...Merya, but the men behind me are getting impatient, and they're going to take me back soon."

The small hand stroked his hair. "Stay with us and we'll take care of you."

McKay sighed. Cowen was glaring at him, and he shook his head. "I can't. I have to go now. Take care of yourselves, though. And don't be scared. It'll be over soon."

He stood slowly, carefully, smiled at Merya. Behind him, Cowen nodded once, and the guards grabbed him, half-dragging him out the door.

McKay didn't look back. It'll be over, he thought. One way or another - soon.

Cowen dialed back again. Though they'd received no orders, his guards still "distracted" him, and this time he couldn't keep from retching.

There wasn't much to bring up. He lay on his side, panting, feeling the roughness of the rock on his cheek and the burning of his elbows where the gravel had torn the fabric.

He decided he'd let them drag him. Co-operation was something he'd avoided till now, and he hated to change his plans. So, he didn't move when Cowen ordered. It earned him a kick, but eventually the men just picked him up and pulled him through the gate.

It was a small enough victory, but he felt he'd regained some control.

xxxxx

Taran was making contact. The gate was open, and the communication relayed through the unit the Genii had left with Taran, but the teacher was sitting at one of the panels in the control room. Behind them, Ser stood with Weir, and Sheppard waited close by.

"Do you think you will need to disable the gate?" the old man asked wistfully. "I understand why, if you do, but is there no other alternative?"

Weir looked at him, seeing his earnestness.

"We have a shield and a system of recognition codes to protect our gate. You might be able to come up with something else. It could mean leaving a group of armed people to watch the gate day and night."

Sheppard shifted closer. "Might be as easy as having your friends throw a rock through." he added. "No rock, and you attack whoever shows up the moment they appear. Or you could rig a net that would catch them. Or maybe a deadfall…"he showing signs of being on a roll, and Weir interrupted.

"What we mean is that between your people and ours we should be able to come up with something that will keep you in touch with your trading partners, and still reasonably safe."

"And you can always yell for help. I have no objection to kicking some Genii ass." Sheppard contributed. Taran's voice rose over theirs, and conversation stopped as they listened.

"I have to see them. Tell Cowen the deal's off - I'll tell the Atlantis people what happened, if I don't get to see them. I don't need to bring them back, or anything, but…it's my little sister, Revin, I just want to be certain she's ok."

Sheppard and Ser moved to stand with his counselors, listening. Taran shook his head at something the voice on the other end said, and repeated "I just need to see them. That's all. It's not a lot to ask. Just a few moments and I'll leave. I didn't expect them to be gone this long."

Another pause. "Then don't tell him! Revin, we've known each other for a while - can't you just trust me? Just tell the guards not to shoot me on sight, is all."

Silence.

"Thank you." Taran said abjectly. "Oh, thank you, Revin. I'll be there in a few moments. Can you let them know?"

Weir smiled at Taran, and at the rest. "You have a go," she said. "Get them back."

Chapter Ten

He'd been handed a new jumpsuit, a towel and a bucket of water, and ordered to wash and change. His other clothes were much the worse for wear, and he did what he could as far as washing went - discovering new cuts and bruises with every pass of the cloth.

He dressed, unwilling to admit how much better he felt in clean clothes, and inspected the old jumpsuit's damage. There were several bad tears in the elbows and knees. He tugged off a strip of fabric, perhaps half an inch by an inch, and rolled it in his fingers thoughtfully, staring at the door, thinking.

xxxxx

The Genii guards were either well trained, or just lazy. They had orders not to shoot Taran, but when the Deemas man tripped and fell on his face the moment he came through the gate, no one moved towards him.

The horizon shimmered again, and shut down. A sudden breeze shook the trees, and the Genii watched indifferently as Taran picked himself up and stepped down from the platform.

Once on the ground, one man approached.

"Follow me." he said tersely, and Taran did so. It took all his self-control not to look behind him. If he had, he would have seen the other two guards silenced, effectively and permanently.

Sheppard and Ford led the rescue team. Teyla brought up the rear. A medical team remained in the cloaked jumper, to be summoned if needed.

And, again, Sheppard had given the order - 'Shoot to kill'.

xxxxx

Taran paused outside the building, as planned. When the guard turned to him he dropped, as planned. And the shooters took out their targets, as planned.

Sheppard holstered his sidearm. It would have been more satisfying to use the big gun, but one bullet-one target meant less chance of an innocent being wounded. He nodded at Ford, gesturing to the bodies, and took up a position on one side of the door. Teyla had the other.

He turned the handle, lunged in, weapon ready. A huddle of children gasped at his entrance, and he scanned the room - no more Genii. He dropped the muzzle of his P90, stepped aside as Teyla and Taran entered.

Ford joined him a moment later. "I count eleven." Sheppard said to him, satisfied. "All of them seem to be ok."

"We pulled the bodies into the brush." Ford replied. "No need to traumatize these kids more than they already have been."

He looked the children over. Teyla was crouched before one child, talking to her earnestly. She stood, took the girl by the hand and brought him over.

"This is Major Sheppard, and Lieutenant Ford." she said. The girl stared at them, solemnly. "They are my friends, and we are all friends of the man you saw. Please tell them what you told me."

"I'm Merya." she said. Sheppard dropped to one knee in front of her, and she looked at him. "I remember you."

She smiled at Ford, who grinned back, and held Teyla's hand firmly.

"I saw your friend." she continued. "Three men dressed all the same brought him here - he was tied up."

She sighed. "He was all bruised and cut up and he walked funny. The curly haired man who was the boss was mean, but Rodney was nice. He told me he was fine. Like he didn't want to scare me. He said it was a white lie."

She shook her head. "He wasn't fine. They'd hurt him. He was scared. I could tell."

He sat on one haunch, staring at the girl, who looked back at him with surprisingly understanding eyes. "You're looking for him?"

"Yes." he replied. It was hard to swallow past the lump in his throat.

"You'll get him back? He's a nice man. He told me a white lie…"

"doesn't hurt anyone and makes you feel better."

She nodded seriously, staring at him. Then, suddenly, she stepped forward and hugged him. He returned the hug, gently.

Taran walked over and looked down.

"Merya, we're going with our friends, now."

She released Sheppard. "You go get him." she said firmly.

He stood, nodded. "We will." he replied.

And suddenly it was too close and loud in there, and he headed for the door fast, Teyla and Ford in his wake.

He didn't stop till he got to where they'd left the jumper. He stood a moment. Hurt and scared, she'd said.

"The Doctor seems to have a way with children." Teyla observed behind him, finally.

"Even on that other planet - the one with the shield - they kind of gravitated to him." Ford added. "It was cute."

Sheppard drew a deep breath, let it out.

"We have confirmation. The Genii have McKay." He turned. "Let's get this circus on the road, people. Now."

Chapter Eleven

McKay was helping, but not much, and not fast. The math was elementary, and the changes he made were done with a flourish that he hoped would make it look like he was doing far more than he actually was. But it wouldn't fool anyone for long, he knew.

He looked up as Rej slammed a report down in front of him. Busted.

"You know how to make this work." the Genii scientist gritted. "Do it, damnit! Or I'll tell Cowen you're not co-operating." He grinned. "We know what that means. Little bodies, all in a row…"

McKay tried to ignore him, flipping the pages on the report.

"I'd make this work…"he drawled "if your mathematicians had the slightest idea of what they were doing. Where I'm from, they wouldn't have made it out of high school."

"You're not helping." Rej hissed, and reached for the com. "Maybe he'll take you with him."

"Now, see, anyone with the slightest knowledge of particle physics would have caught this error months ago." He held up a sheet, and Rej snatched it from his hand.

"Maybe you'll get to kill one of them" he grinned spitefully. "Maybe I'll get to come along."

"That's what you'd like, isn't it?" McKay returned. "You and your delusions of adequacy. You'd feel like a big man, wouldn't you?" Somewhere, deep down, he knew he was picking a fight, and that it was likely a bad idea - but he couldn't help it. There were so few things he could control, here, and there was a certain satisfaction to learning Rej's triggers for his temper - and pushing them.

Rej leaned forward. "I'm in charge here. You have a job to do." He slapped McKay full in the face. "Do it!"

In response, McKay swung at Rej. It was a clean shot, full of power and precision, and Ford would have been proud of him for such a punch. The impact thrilled up his arm and to his tender ribs, but even that was worth it to see Rej rolling on the ground.

Then Rej stood, wavering, mouth bloody, and he waved at McKay's guards, and McKay found he had to re-evaluate 'worth it'.

xxxxx

The children were all in good shape. Carson bid them farewell with a mix of relief and sadness.

"Miss the Athosian kids?" Karen asked.

"They gave the place a certain - life." Beckett responded. He pushed his hands into his pockets. "That young lass…Merya…she was very worried about Rodney."

"And she's not the only one, I'll bet." she said.

"No. She's not the only one."

xxxxx

It wasn't that much of a stretch to pretend to be almost too weak to walk. But this time, as they half-dragged him into his cell, McKay managed to fall against the wall on the way, and wedged a coil of fabric into the doorjamb, where the lock seated itself.

He lay where they tossed him, and the door closed - but the distinctive 'click' was missing. He smiled - as much as his swollen mouth would let him, climbed carefully to his feet, and listened.

Nothing.

He pushed firmly, right over the latch, and - remarkably - the door swung open.

Now where?

He stood against the wall. One advantage of the age of the Genii bunkers, there weren't that many lights in the halls. He slipped from one patch of darkness to the next, making his way towards the surface, and the gate.

xxxxx

"You had him beaten. Again?" Cowen said flatly.

"He isn't co-operating, Cowen. And he hit me."

"I wouldn't mind hitting you sometimes, Rej." He sighed, stood. "I was hoping to avoid this. Now we'll have to go back and kill someone, and I'll need to bring him with me for the object lesson. Guard!"

Chapter Twelve

He wasn't more than a hundred feet from the barn when he heard the alarms.

"Crap."

McKay began to run - or at least move more quickly. It wasn't escape he had planned, though he wanted nothing more than to go back to Atlantis and let Beckett work his magic. If he did that, though, the children would suffer. He couldn't let that happen.

He couldn't co-operate, though. The Genii, possessing the knowledge of sophisticated Earth style fusion bombs - couldn't happen. Except, again, the children would suffer.

It was a stalemate. He had no control over anything except himself. And he had a plan. It would have been a great way to finish a funeral, the dramatic silver whoosh of the gate atomizing his corpse, but either way it would be an end for him.

And then he stumbled, fell to his knees, and his plans came crashing down. The bald truth was that he just couldn't move fast enough to catch the wave. Not the way he was now. He could hardly stay ahead of the pursuers.

A new plan, then. He crawled to his feet and set off again. Not far now.

The DHD loomed ahead, and pursuit was right behind. He went to his knees - on purpose this time - and pulled open the base. One crystal - out. Turned. Back in.

McKay closed the base and leaned against it, smiling at the Genii as they pounded up to him, grabbed him and dragged him up to Cowen.

"I really wish we didn't have to do this." he said, and went to the DHD.

It wouldn't dial.

He tried again, this time not bothering to conceal the address.

No wormhole formed.

"He did something." one of the guards offered.

"He didn't have time." the other objected. "We were right on him, we'd have seen it."

Cowen drew a deep breath.

"Back to the bunker." he said neutrally. "We're going to finish this. You will be persuaded to work with us, McKay, or you will force us to kill you."

But the kids were safe. McKay fixed that thought in his mind, right next to 'they'll find me'. Things could definitely be worse.

xxxxx

The Deemas, children in tow, had returned home, and Sheppard was standing at the bottom of the stairs.

"We've pulled their teeth, Doctor." he said to Weir. "With your order, I can have a squad ready to go in fifteen minutes. We could take a jumper, come at them cloaked."

"Not yet, Major. Assemble your squad, but do not deploy until you're ordered."

She climbed the stairs; spoke briefly to Grodin, as Sheppard stared after her.

"We're not going?" Ford asked.

Sheppard unclipped his weapon and handed it to the Lieutenant.

"Get that checked and reloaded. Assemble a strike team, full gear. We're going."

Ford watched his superior officer take off in pursuit of Weir, then looked at Teyla uncomfortably. She didn't respond, simply standing, regarding the confrontation that was developing with an impassive gaze.

xxxxx

"I really don't like you." Rej said, standing in front of him.

"Mutual." McKay managed. He'd been tied to a chair, and Rej had backhanded him a couple of times. After his experiences with the gorillas it was more tiresome than alarming, and he was so sore anyway it didn't really make much difference.

"We don't want that much. You know how to separate the material, you told us. We can't get it to work. Teach us, and we'll let you go."

"Not happening." he sighed, closing his eyes.

"We'll see." It was a different voice, deeper, pleasant. It set his teeth on edge, and he opened his eyes again.

A small, dapper man approached, carrying a tray and several electrical cables. Behind him, another man, larger, with a cart on which rested several black blocks that looked suspiciously like batteries.

"Oh, crap." he said, mouth dry. Behind, in the doorway, Cowen stood impassively, arms folded, watching.

"If you say so," the dapper man replied. "My friend Cowen asked me to look in on you, and see if I could make a couple of suggestions. It looks like I might be of help to Rej, after all."

He connected the cables, touched the free ends together, smiling happily at the sparks.

"Now. The word is - co-operation." He stepped towards McKay. The smile never left his face.

Chapter Thirteen

Sheppard took the steps two at a time, coming to a stop just inside Weir's office.

"We're not going in?" He was astonished, and more than a bit angry. "Damnit, Elizabeth, we know he's there! We have to get him back! Who knows what they'll do…"

"Major, I have all intentions of getting him back. Believe it or not, I'm almost as worried about him as you are." The jab was subtle, and he missed it. "However, the fact remains that we only know he's being held by the Genii. We don't know exactly where he's being held, and I will not authorize a random attack just to satisfy your need for vengeance! Particularly as it might well have the effect of killing the man we want so much to save!"

Her fury was evident in her voice. She strode past him, and he followed, silenced for the moment. He stood behind her as she straightened, hands clasped behind her back, and composed herself. Below them, the MALP disappeared into the horizon, and she waited for Grodin to nod before beginning to speak.

"This is Doctor Elizabeth Weir," she said calmly. "This message is for Cowen. It will repeat until a response is received, or until I decide to take further action. Be assured I have no reticence about authorizing further action. And there are those here who have requested my permission to storm your bunker, retrieve Doctor McKay, and destroy your ability to make war. For now I have not granted this permission, but do not presume this means you are safe." She paused.

"You have two choices. Return Dr. McKay to us, whole and unharmed, and we will simply ignore you in the future. No further communication will be permitted. The second choice would be for you to make the error of believing we would refrain from attacking out of fear of injuring the hostage. Be assured that no such fear exists in our minds. We are his friends and we know he would rather die than be forced to create weapons of the sort you are demanding."

She drew a breath. "Should it appear you are opting for the second choice, we will decimate your fields. If you believe you are safe in your bunkers, you are mistaken. We have bombs that will collapse your tunnels, bring down your vaults, and leave what people survive with nothing to eat and nowhere to live."

Sheppard stared at her, nonplussed.

She was almost shaking with anger, and her words were full of venom as she finished "If you wish to respond, simply speak to this remote surveyor. We will open the wormhole every fifteen minutes for two hours. After that…we will see."

She glanced at Grodin again and he cut off the transmission.

"Do not drop that shield under any circumstances." she instructed, and turned to Sheppard.

"Major, the briefing room. Now."

xxxxx

"How can you believe them?" Rej tore the headphones off and threw them on Cowen's desk. "They can't have anything that can break our bunkers. It's a bluff."

Cowen watched the scientist, frowning. "We saw their C4. We know they have nuclear capability. Do you really think these old tunnels can stand one of the larger explosions?"

He stood, retrieved the headphones, stared at the man. "Rej, even with our limited knowledge, couldn't we build a bomb that would destroy our complex?"

Rej sat, fuming. "Yes." he finally answered. "But do you really think they'd use them on us, while we have McKay?"

"In a heartbeat. I've dealt with them before, you remember." Cowen sat on the edge of the desk, ticking off on his fingers. "Think about it. He's attempted to escape, and now our gate isn't working. Without the gate we have no access off-world - and we can't use the hostages to control him. He's been beaten so often he doesn't fear it any more - he knows we can't damage him permanently - it's evident that doesn't work. Elian has been interrogating him for almost an hour with no result - which, I have to say, I certainly didn't expect - he didn't strike me as being that strong."

He ran one hand through his hair and stood, frustrated. "Have you had anything - anything at all - from him that would warrant our losing the complex for this man?"

"Give us time…"Rej pleaded. "We have drugs…we can make him co-operate…"

"Your drugs. Hah." Cowen turned his back on the man. "The one thing you need him for is his brain, and you want to drug him." He sat in his chair, leaned back, sighed heavily.

"No. I am controller of this city and I say we permit him to be retrieved."

"But what he knows…!" Rej whined.

"is inaccessible to us! No! This man is far more trouble than he's worth. We can't waste any more time with him. Our progress has slowed to a halt. Our scientists are losing heart and the focus of our task has been lost." He toggled his desk speaker.

"Sir."

"Retrieve Dr. McKay from Elian. Return him to the brig. We will permit Dr. Weir her rescue party." He looked at Rej, smiled harshly.

"We will succeed in building the bomb, I promise you. And we will test it on Atlantis."

Rej nodded unhappily, left the office. And Cowen leaned back, wondering how it was he'd underestimated McKay so badly.

xxxxx

Sheppard closed the doors and stood, waiting.

"Never do that to me again, Major. We discussed this once before. You have to trust that I will do everything in my power to ensure the safety of the people under my command, just as you do."

He nodded. "I'm sorry, Doctor. I was out of line."

She turned at that, not expecting acquiescence so rapidly, and he gave her a sheepish half-grin that lasted a matter of a second.

"It's just knowing that…" he stopped.

"It threw you for a loop." she said, moving to him.

Sheppard nodded and sat. "The DNA - and then Merya – he was right there, Elizabeth…" he trailed off.

"And now there's hope, and you almost don't want to believe it. You know it would hurt twice as much if we can't get him back."

He wouldn't meet her eyes, simply nodded, slid down in the chair, clasped his hands over his chest.

"And the fact he's your best friend makes it worse."

Sheppard straightened at that, but she held her hand up.

"Just deal with it, John. I've known brothers who didn't have the relationship you have. Losing him - it hit me hard, too, and the others, but I was worried most for you." She sat opposite him. "You've been playing dumb jock pilot for years, and you finally met someone who challenged you, didn't buy the charade. Two sides of a coin."

He shrugged and leaned back again, lips taut.

"We can't lose him, John, but if we can't locate him, we can't leave him to be tortured by the Genii again."

She crossed her arms, eyes distant. " He won't do what they want, not willingly. I don't know how far they'd go to get him to help - given the attempt to use the children as hostages I fear the worst. But in that circumstance, without being certain of rescue, I could see him maybe doing something to engineer his own death."

Sheppard closed his eyes briefly, as if in pain.

"He doesn't know we know." he said flatly. "Crap. He thinks he's alone. He's been there almost a week already, Liz - who knows what's gone on?"

She stared at him, thinking. Tapped her com. "Grodin, we'll give it an hour only. If we have no response I'm authorizing the Major to take action."

It didn't come to that, in fact. The third time they opened the wormhole, the message was waiting.

"This is Cowen." a voice said flatly. "Dr. McKay is alive. You may retrieve him. I believe he has managed to disable the gate controller on our side." A pause. "Oh, and you will require your physician."

Chapter Fourteen

For once Beckett made no complaint about the possibility of going through the gate. Sheppard gave him all the details he could recall about the bunkers, and recruited two Search and Rescue technicians to assist. The jumper was full, and once on the other side they circled the area before landing not far from the main concentration of buildings.

No one was at the gate, no sign of anyone nearby, and it set Sheppard's teeth on edge. With two scouts ahead and the medics behind, protected by the rest of the unit, they set off for the village they'd once visited as friends.

xxxxx

Cowen himself was waiting at the main building, along with two of his guards. He hadn't even bothered changing out of his uniform.

"Major." he greeted coldly.

"Cowen."

If Cowen was perturbed about the number of weapons pointed at him, he didn't show it.

"Follow me."

"Your Doctor McKay is far more - resistant - than I gave him credit for." Cowen said in a conversational way, as he led the squad to the barn access. "He's considerably the worse for wear, but quite alive."

"Do tell." Sheppard's face was closed, neutral, and Carson knew what it concealed, knew the seething anger it hid.

"Yes, he managed to resist us - and our most skilled interrogators - up to the last. He even attacked one of the guards as we were returning him to his cell just now. I do believe he was trying to get us to kill him."

Sheppard said nothing, and Cowen sighed.

"It's a shame he's going back, really. Looks like you don't even care." He grinned widely. "At least we want him."

Stony silence finally killed the attempt at light discussion, and Cowen led the quiet group the rest of the way.

xxxxx

The steel door swung open. They shone flashlights in, over the huddled shape lying on the floor, dropped by guards who couldn't be bothered dragging him the rest of the way to the cot. Ford hit the lights, but only one small bulb illuminated - not enough.

Carson shoved his way in, the techs in tow, and Ford and Teyla pulled out portable lanterns, setting them up and creating a pool of light in the dark.

"Watch him." Sheppard directed the others tersely, jerked his head at Cowen, and joined them.

McKay was unconscious, looked bruised and ill. Beckett and the two techs rolled him carefully, and the partially unzipped, shapeless coverall fell open, revealing ugly bruises that were in varying stages of purpling, and painfully fresh burns on his chest. One arm fell to the floor and McKay groaned, came partly awake…and started to struggle. They were hard pressed to hold him, he fought with surprising strength.

"Back off!" Sheppard commanded.

"Major…" Carson objected.

"He's going to hurt himself worse. Back off. Just for a moment."

They complied.

"Ford, Teyla, stay with me." He knelt, carefully touching one bruised shoulder.

"McKay. Hey, Answer Man."

McKay's brow furrowed and he stared through swollen eyes. Sheppard glanced at Teyla and Ford, beckoning them down. Teyla knelt, brushed her hand over the matted hair, and Ford grasped the least-injured hand gently.

"Hey, Doc." he said.

"We are here, Rodney." Teyla added softly. "We have found you."

"Won't tell." he said, and his voice was worn, gravelly - it spoke of endless screaming and it made Ford's throat tighten. "They'll come. Won't tell…"a ragged breath "…you anything." His eyes drifted, not seeing them, lost in pain and darkness.

"You knew we'd find you." Sheppard said, trying for a conversational tone. "They didn't fool us - you knew we'd discover what happened. And now we're here. It's us."

McKay's eyes closed, he shook his head again. "…won't tell…" he repeated miserably, and the pain in his voice made Sheppard do the least likely and most useful thing he could. He dropped to his knees, reached out, carefully lifted the limp body into his arms.

"We've been looking for you." he whispered.

McKay resisted for a moment, but Teyla knelt opposite Sheppard and wrapped her arms around them both. Ford hesitated only a second coming to one knee over McKay's legs and taking both cold hands, warming them in his. He crouched, looking for recognition in his friend's eyes, any hint of the man they knew.

There was an endless pause, then "…you knew…" a faint statement.

"Yes" "You bet." "Uh huh"

"And we found you." Sheppard said, satisfaction in his voice.

Ford saw McKay's eyes open again, and focus, and recognition dawned. He glanced up at Carson and moved aside a bit.

"Welcome back." Carson crouched next to Ford, took one wrist, reached out to touch McKay's forehead. "I need to check you out, Rodney. We're here to take you back home, but I have to make certain you're strong enough to go through the gate."

"…'d…crawl"

"Pardon?"

Sheppard looked up, and didn't bother to try to conceal the relief in his eyes. "He means he'll make it if he has to crawl."

McKay nodded. Carson laughed, more in surprise than from humour.

"Well, you won't need to do that, my lad." He glanced around at the three. "Are you all fine there for a minute or so?"

Sheppard nodded, and Ford took McKay's hand back.

"Come, let's lay out the litter." Beckett said as he stood up. "Lots of blankets, he's

cold."

xxxxx

They'd found him.

McKay felt himself lifted in a strong embrace - two of them - warmth from the bodies holding him spread through. It was like lying in the sun.

His muscles still quivered from the electrical shocks, and he had been finding it hard to breathe, sprawled on the cold floor - but now, held securely by his friends, the clean, slightly spicy scent of the Athosian soap that everyone was using now over-riding the musty smell of the cell, feeling hands on him that didn't hurt, arms around him that didn't mean him ill, he realized he could relax into the warmth. It was finally over. He didn't have to be brave any more. He could let someone else take control.

They'd found him.

He'd never doubted it.

Chapter Fifteen

McKay's head had dropped to Sheppard's shoulder, half-conscious, knowing he was safe in - quite literally - the arms of his teammates, by the time Carson had the litter prepared. Carefully, they moved him over, and he roused slightly when they eased him onto the blankets, but relaxed again, recognizing the people around him. Carson did a swift assessment, screened from the Genaii by the rest of the squad, and started two IVs. Then he stood and touched Sheppard's shoulder.

"Ready to go." he said. "And we'd best not spare the horses."

They doubletimed it back to the jumper, loaded their friend carefully, fired it up.

Sheppard was last in, and turned at the bottom of the ramp.

"What about our gate?" Cowen demanded.

"What about it? You're so smart, you should be able to figure it out. Maybe we'll come back in a few months and see how that's going for you."

"You can't leave us isolated!"

"Watch us." Sheppard grinned widely. He took a couple of steps up the ramp and stopped, turning.

"Oh – a few things you should know. The kids are safe. Don't bother looking for your guards. The Deemas don't want you on their planet, and if you show up they're going to tell us. That would make us very angry." He smirked.

"Believe it or not, you haven't seen us really angry - not yet. You wouldn't like us when we're angry. Do you understand me?"

He saw Cowen nod.

"We have this body you left us." Sheppard added. "I suppose you want it back?"

"He was a prisoner from a work camp. We couldn't track his family."

"Gee, and I thought you Nazi-types had records of everything. Cowen, I wish I could say it's been a pleasure. But it hasn't."

"For me, certain parts were - very pleasurable. McKay screaming. It rang in the halls very nicely, I have to say..."

And something snapped. Sheppard moved swiftly, faster than Cowen expected, and before he was aware what had happened, exactly, he was on his back, Sheppard pressing the barrel of the P90 into his windpipe, and he was gasping. The Genii guards moved forward but the snap of safeties being removed drew their attention. At the top of the ramp, Ford and two of the squad stood with careless menace, guns aimed.

"Never. Try. This. Again." Sheppard stated, punctuating each word with a shove on the barrel.

"We'll meet again…" Cowen rasped.

Disgusted, Sheppard released the pressure, and nailed Cowen on the jaw with a haymaker of a blow, and stood.

"Don't get up, Cowen." he said.

Cowen didn't.

Chapter Sixteen

Zelenka stayed in the background, well out of the way of the medical team that waited. Atlantis was a closed system, someone had once observed, and rumours flew faster than light. In this case, though, it appeared the stories - which he had originally dismissed as the most wishful of thinking, were actually true.

The chevrons lit, locked, and the gate opened. The shield went up, then dropped, and he saw Weir come partway down the stairs. There was a pause, and the jumper broke through the horizon, spun 180 on its Y-axis, and landed. The squad emerged, bearing a litter with a blanket-wrapped figure, flanked by Teyla and Ford. Carson followed, and a few steps behind was Sheppard, gesturing to the jumper's pilot to take it to the bay.

The medical team busied themselves with the litter, transferring the patient - blankets and all - to the gurney, changing an IV over. Zelenka watched carefully, and was relieved to see a face, battered but recognizable as Rodney, and clearly conscious.

He saw Sheppard drop his kit, handing off his weapon to one of the squad, returning to the gurney as if an irresistible magnetic force drew him there. He crouched by his friend, spoke a moment, and then glanced up at Beckett, who handed the IV bag off to the Major.

"And we're off." Beckett announced, glancing up the stairs at Weir - her tension was almost visible, like heat rising from a flame. She just stared, her body language asking the question she didn't want to voice. Carson answered it, with a simple nod, a slight smile.

She sat, suddenly, her relief almost as shocking as her sorrow. Zelenka saw her in profile, her smile, the way she stood suddenly and ran lightly back up the stairs. He saw Teyla's quiet pride in her teammate, Ford's respect, Sheppard's frank affection for his friend, Beckett's struggle between being a doctor and caring for a comrade. In the shadows he watched, wondered if McKay knew how important he was to these people, found a twinge of envy and eradicated it - and followed.

xxxxx

"Make a hole!" Carson barked, and the impromptu welcoming party that had gathered at the door of the infirmary parted grudgingly.

The number who waited, gathered by a rumour, hoping it was fact, struck Sheppard. It was an almost even split between scientists and soldiers, and he glanced down - McKay had nodded off, warmth and familiar surroundings combining to make sleep impossible to resist. Everyone they passed had smiles, and when they closed the door there were only a few who turned and left.

xxxxx

Weir paused at the corner, looking down the hall at the waiting people in wonder. She'd given Carson almost an hour – actually, if she wanted to be honest with herself, her self-control had lasted almost an hour. It was enough.

She glanced over as a shadow detached itself from an alcove resolving itself into Zelenka. He joined her.

"This..this is..." she started.

"Unexpected?" he supplied. "Surprising?"

She smiled. "Exactly," then frowned a bit. "Why aren't you there?"

He shrugged a fraction.

"Not comfortable." he said simply.

Weir nodded. "Well, acting science chief, come with me. We have one of our people to check on."

Zelenka blinked at that, then trailed after her.

As he passed one of the silver panels, he caught sight of himself, reflected, looking like every old, doddering professor he'd ever had. It stopped him in his tracks. He stood straight, buttoned his collar neatly, straightened his lab coat and strode down to join Weir. She smiled at him approvingly, and together they entered.

Chapter Seventeen

When Beckett had laid out the infirmary originally, he hadn't made provision for the assorted team members and friends that accompanied any injured member of the expedition that had the occasion to arrive in his domain. It had taken only a few days - and a couple of heads-of-department that had an unfortunate tendency to be shot - before he'd established a waiting area, at the far end of the room, cordoned off by portable screens. In a moment of genius, he had scrounged the most comfortable chairs and seating he could, to act as a reward for people who stayed out of his hair.

Weir didn't even bother checking it, though Zelenka peered around the screen. Empty. He came up beside her as she approached the other end of the room, and another area screened off.

"Knock knock." she said, and Sheppard peered out, grinned at her. Noticing Zelenka, he grinned at him, too.

"Carson just let us back here for a few moments." he said. "Then he's going to kick everyone out."

"Aye, that he is." Carson said from behind Sheppard, but Zelenka felt the gruffness was more because it was expected, than it was felt. "Move, ye lump."

He slid past Sheppard, joined them, and glanced in a friendly way at Zelenka.

"You may not have that post much longer, Doctor." Beckett said.

"I would not object to relinquishing it, Doctor." he replied, meaning it.

"Doctor, please report." Weir requested.

Zelenka half listened, hands in lab coat. He was looking in the gap between the screens, trying not to be obvious about it, as Sheppard leaned on the side of the hospital bed and spoke quietly to McKay. The physicist was moderately alert, it seemed, and listening - Teyla and Ford made the occasional comment, Sheppard would elaborate, and through it all McKay wore an expression that could only be described as utterly content.

He wrested his attention back to the doctor's report. Something about the description of McKay's injuries…it seemed vaguely familiar. He'd heard something similar, back in the bad old days…

"Doctor Beckett, you are saying he was both beaten and tortured."

He said it quietly enough not to be heard behind the screen. Weir shot him a glance, but Beckett nodded.

"Yes. And it would appear for several days."

"Doctor, he will need help with this. It is an incredibly traumatic experience, and can cause long term effects."

"We'll see that he gets it." Weir said, and then hesitated. "Doctor, I don't want to get personal, but it seems that you have had experience with this."

Zelenka looked at his feet. "Shall we say…I once resided under a Communist regime…"

Recognizing his reluctance to say more, Weir turned back to Beckett.

"How long will he be here?"

"Perhaps three or four days. Or until I get tired of his team being underfoot," he chuckled.

Weir nodded, smiling. "Doctor…"

"I know, I know - go in. For a moment."

xxxxx

Later that day, a body bag was placed on a wooden riser. Though the service was short, the attendance was surprising.

Elizabeth looked around the gate area, impressed with the turnout, and finished her remarks.

"We thought we had lost one of our own, and we grieved. Through good fortune and luck, though, Dr. McKay has returned to us. But this man had friends, too, and loved ones, and they will never know what happened to him. We regret that. But we say farewell to an unknown victim of suspicion and hate, an example of what may happen when decisions are made in line with the notion that the end justifies the means."

She turned, nodded at Grodin, who dialed. The glyphs lit. The event horizon flashed towards her, engulfing the body bag, and retreated, leaving only small stumps of the wooden frame.

She stood for a moment, staring at the deceptive calm of the horizon, recalling the cycle of emotions from the last few days. Finally, she raised her hand. The gate shut down.

Chapter Eighteen

Zelenka folded the schematic and slotted it into the folder.

"We'll try it that way." he said. "Thank you for the suggestion."

McKay nodded, pushing himself up on the pillows and reaching for the water glass. "Anything else?" He drank, cleared his throat, put the glass down, and glanced up, catching Zelenka staring at him.

"Am I that interesting?" he asked dryly.

"Honestly? Yes." he replied. "But I don't know that you'd want to know why."

That was a mistake, he realized an instant later, as McKay shifted in bed and settled down, obviously ready to hear more. He picked up on Zelenka's hesitation, though.

"Unless it's a deep, dark secret, of course..."

Zelenka eyed him. "You've changed, McKay."

A deep sorrow – a memory - flitted across the physicist's face.

"So they say." he said softly, but said no more, waiting.

Zelenka searched his mind for a circumspect way to ask, but gave up.

"What kept you sane, McKay? I've seen victims of torture before, often with much less severe injuries than yours, and they're - what was the description - basket cases. Yet here you are, working on alien technology, still a thinking, reasoning being."

McKay wasn't prepared for that question, he could tell. The man was silent for a moment, thinking, and Zelenka could see it all on his expressive face - initial instinct to tell him to mind his own business, the possibility of just blowing off the question with a smartass remark, and the realization, finally, that it was an honest question that would not have been asked had the answer not been important to the asker.

"Anger, at first." he replied. "I saw it all, they made certain of that - I wasn't more than a couple hundred yards away when they brought the body out. It might as well have been miles - I was trussed up like a turkey, gagged. I heard everything."

He shook his head, ire rising at the memory. "I saw my team find my body. It made me furious. That got me through - the first round, anyway." The last four words were heavily layered in sarcasm.

"Anger is a volatile emotion." Zelenka observed. McKay was being uncommonly open about his experience, and it gave him hope that perhaps it wouldn't destroy the physicist - not the way it had destroyed…

But McKay was talking again.

"It's like burning pine in a woodstove - burns fast, with heat, but doesn't last. It got pretty depressing in there, I'll tell you that - for that kind of darkness you need oak." He leaned back.

"Oak?"

"Very hard wood. Burns very slowly. Lasts and lasts."

"And you found - oak?" Zelenka heard a tiny sound and cut his eyes sideways for a fraction of a second - a shadow passed by the screen and he thought he heard someone - or someones - shift the bed on the other side very slightly. He debated calling attention to it, but knew this discussion could only help his friend, and decided to trust that whoever was there were friends too.

Given the way the base had responded to this last crisis, it seemed a fairly safe bet.

"You know, it'll sound corny - but it was faith. Maybe - or trust, or knowledge - something like that would describe it. But, see…"he pushed himself up on his elbows, intent. "I knew they'd find me. Cowen had done his best, and those two gorillas, and even that - that bastard with the power cables, but I knew…"he met Zelenka's eyes "like I know my own name, like I know how to play a scale on a piano, I knew that my team wouldn't give up until they found me."

"That's why he went mad…" Zelenka didn't realize he'd spoken until McKay touched his arm - his mind registered another first from the usually standoffish Canadian. He focused again on the present.

"Who?" McKay asked bluntly. "What is it?"

"It was long ago. I was ten. Just as Glasnost began." He was aware that what he said would be heard by the silent listeners as well, but it - surprisingly - didn't bother him.

"My uncle was a writer, in Russia. He wrote articles for the Komsomol - the Communist Youth paper, and he wrote his own - slightly different - articles that were published underground. It was very dangerous, even then. My father came home one night, terribly distressed - he'd been informed my uncle had been taken by the police." He sighed. "We didn't hear about him for two weeks. Then my mother and he had a bad fight - and my uncle arrived the next day…"

He wiped his hand over his mouth, past and present merging in the man before him.

"Pane Boze." he said in Czech. "You and he…so alike…" and his English failed for a moment. McKay simply waited, patiently.

"He could not handle what had happened to him. As his body grew stronger his mind failed. Finally my father had to send him away. I never knew what happened." He laughed a bit, in lieu of crying. "He was a woodsman too - a botanist by hobby. He had no oak. Only pine."

"If I had no hope…" McKay said slowly. "I can see how it would happen." He sat silent for a moment, and Zelenka knew he was trying to imagine no hope, and it was impossible to do - like a woman trying to remember childbirth while looking into the face of her newborn. The power of now over-rode the pain of then. And McKay had always had hope.

"…I can't even conceive of it." he said finally. "I knew they'd come, and that was it. I couldn't give up. Couldn't have them find a body twice."

Zelenka nodded, then brought the folder around with sudden energy.

"I must join the others." he said. "This will help, but we could use you back in the labs - even though Doctor Kavanagh has done his best to help, we still need you."

"Yeah, gotta say that's something I never expected…"

"Doctor Weir and he came to a - a meeting of minds, when we thought you lost. It seems to have had a permanent effect. He is still arrogant - who among us isn't," was that a stifled snort from the next bed "but he listens now."

"Carson said another couple of days and I'm on light duty. Another ten before I can go offworld again."

Ten days of physical and psychiatric assessment, Zelenka knew, not mentioning it.

"You say that with such regret."

"Just that it's gonna take so long!" McKay grinned broadly. "Go on, they're waiting for my words of wisdom. I'll be down soon as Carson springs me."

Zelenka stood, tucked his folder under his arm. He returned McKay's smile.

"I am glad to see you are recovering, Rodney. We look forward to your input."

He turned, slid the screen aside.

"Leave it open?"

He nodded, left it ajar and saw - as he had surmised - Sheppard, Ford and Teyla gathered, perched and standing, by the bed next to McKay's. He met Sheppard's eyes; saw sympathy, and the Major mouthed "Thank you" as he passed. He stopped, nodded, and tilted his head towards the occupied bed.

"Ah, Major Sheppard." he said, a bit louder than needed. "Lieutenant. Madame."

"Hey, guys!" McKay called. "Thought you weren't gonna be here till later."

They passed him by, and again Zelenka was reminded of a magnetic force that drew them together. Teyla stopped, though, and smiled at him, and embraced him in the Athosian way before stepping around him and joining the others.

"We're on stand-down - solar flares." Ford said. "Thought we could teach Teyla to play poker."

"I'm a rotten poker player, you know that."

"Then maybe she'll have someone she can beat." Sheppard replied, and the smile was in his voice.

"Oh. Oh, you are so going down for that..." McKay grumbled.

Zelenka smothered a laugh at that.

"Really." Sheppard drawled. "Well, we'll just have to see about that."

"The Major is going down where?" Teyla asked curiously.

He heard Fords' bark of laughter, and by then he was out of earshot. He patted his folder, feeling happier than he had in days, and headed back to his lab. Some people still had work to do.