"I was right, wasn't I? Armstrong did it!"
"Rodney," Zelenka said patiently, "you thought everyone did it."
He was propped up on a pile of pillows in the infirmary. A week after the crash, he was finally out of intensive care and Beckett was allowing him more-or-less unmoderated visitors ... although whenever Rodney was in the room, the doctor kept one ear attuned to their direction. It would never do to have the two of them get into a typical rantfest and Zelenka pop out a few stitches.
Unfortunately, with Zelenka, Sheppard and Elizabeth all hospitalized, Rodney had been in the infirmary a lot. Sheppard had been released a day or so previously, with orders to stay off his leg that he promptly ignored, but he still kept coming by, too. Carson was starting to make noises about actually enforcing visiting hours for a change. (He left out the part that he'd never decided what the infirmary visiting hours were.)
"In fact," Zelenka added, warming up to the topic, "I believe the only person you didn't suspect was Cora Ludwick, who nearly killed you."
"I suspected her too!" Rodney protested snippishly. "I knew something wasn't right about her from the beginning."
Zelenka just made a "mm-hmm" noise and nestled down in his pillows, obviously deciding to win the argument by the ridiculous ploy of making himself look pitiful. It wouldn't have worked, except that Teyla and Ronon showed up just then and caused Rodney to lose his train of thought by distracting him with food.
"We brought dinner from the mess," Teyla reported, uncovering a tray. This drew Sheppard's attention; he'd been lying on the bed between Zelenka's and Elizabeth's, reading a book and half-listening in amusement to Zelenka and Rodney's argument. Elizabeth was asleep; she'd been moved out of intensive care at about the same time as Zelenka, but had spent most of her time since then drifting in and out. During one of her lucid periods -- which also happened to be during a heated "discussion" between Rodney and Zelenka -- Carson had asked her if she wanted to be moved back in. She just smiled fondly, whispered, "Not at all," and drifted back to sleep.
Sheppard rolled off the bed and joined the others for the cafeteria food that Teyla and Ronon had spread out across a couple of the bedside tables. It had become their routine, before Sheppard was released, for those of the team who had free range of the city to pick up dinner and bring it down to the infirmary so that all of them could eat together. Carson was included in that as well, since he'd been in the infirmary nearly 24-7 with the influx of critically injured patients from the Daedalus. Right now, all four of the core team members had free access to the rest of Atlantis, but they continued to eat here without ever actually mentioning the reasons why.
"They had blueberry muffins earlier," Carson said wistfully, joining them. "At least they looked like 'em. Tasted just like my mum's. Except with an odd sort of ... ferny aftertaste. I don't suppose you --"
Teyla smiled and deposited the muffin from her tray onto his. Carson knew that he probably grinned at her like a fool, but she just looked pleased. "They are made with shahali berries, Doctor, from the planet of Ghenera. What are blueberries?" The question was directed to the room at large.
"Berries," Sheppard said, his mouth full, "and they're blue."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Thank you, oh master of eloquent description. Tell me again why we always let you explain things to the aliens, anyway?"
"Because when you do it, Rodney, they fall asleep." He swallowed his mouthful, and grinned. "At least I'm interesting."
Rodney huffed. "Better accurate than interesting."
Zelenka opened his eyes long enough to add, "Ah, Rodney, you admit that you are boring?"
"What is this, pick-on-Rodney day?"
"Noise, please," Beckett said wearily, casting a quick look around the infirmary at his other patients. He buttered the muffin and wondered if it would be a violation of the Hippocratic Oath to strand them on another ice planet. With warm clothing and suitable provisions, of course. But Teyla had given him her muffin, and that did count for something. He'd let her stay, then.
"I see everything is back to normal around here."
Several heads snapped around towards the two ragged-looking individuals who had just entered the infirmary. Caldwell was limping slightly, the sling on his broken arm so dingy that it was nearly the color of his coveralls, and he'd picked up a few new cuts and bruises during the last few days of overseeing the first stages of the Daedalus repairs. Novak, behind him, looked as if she were about to drop dead from exhaustion.
"Colonel!" Sheppard said in surprise. "We weren't expecting you back yet."
"Actually -- how did you get back?" Rodney demanded, sounding suspicious. "It's a twenty-hour puddlejumper flight, and I just talked to Dewey this morning, so I know you were on the Daedalus a few hours ago. What did you do, teleport?"
"More or less." Caldwell sat down on one of the empty beds. Carson got up quickly, but the Colonel waved him off. "I'm fine. Just tired. You might give Novak a hand, though. No -- we got a ride back with the Asgard. And we'll be leaving again soon, but we needed some supplies from Atlantis."
"Wait, wait." Rodney waved both hands, forgetting that he was holding a fork and nearly stabbing Ronon in the eye. "What are the Asgard doing in the Pegasus Galaxy?"
Caldwell lifted his uninjured shoulder in a half-shrug. "Your guess is as good as mine, but to venture a guess, I'd say that we probably don't know the hundredth part of what the Asgard get up to. But they had a ship in the area, or so they say, and they've offered their help overseeing the repairs."
As Sheppard said, "Well, that's ... convenient," in a tone of heavy sarcasm, Carson turned away from the conversation to help Novak sit down; she was white as a sheet. She offered him a tiny smile when he lifted her arm gently to take a look at the cast on her wrist.
"And what have you been doing to yourself, lass?"
"She's been working for thirty-six hours without a break, and she's officially off duty for the next twenty-four," Caldwell told him. "The Daedalus is crawling with Asgard right now, anyway."
"I really want to know why they're helping us," Rodney said.
Teyla frowned. "From what you have told me, your race and theirs are allies, are you not?"
"Well, yeah, technically, but normally they look at us as the intergalactic equivalent of trailer trash," Rodney told her, which only deepened her look of confusion. "We're those embarrassing sentients from the backwards arm of the galactic spiral. I can't believe they'd have a ship hanging around the Pegasus Galaxy just in case we get in trouble."
Caldwell snorted. "Well, don't forget that according to Thor, the one thing we're good at is war. Frankly, without us around, they're going to be screwed sooner or later -- probably sooner, considering how many galactic-class enemies have turned up in just the last ten years, and how lousy they seem to be at actually fighting them -- and they know it."
There was a brief silence, and then Sheppard said, "Why don't you tell us how you really feel, sir."
Caldwell gave a sharp bark of laughter and sank back onto the infirmary bed with his arm under his head. "I'm sorry, but I don't remember the last time I slept and I've just spent the last six hours on an Asgard ship, being polite. I've got nothing against the Asgard, they're damn sharp little guys, but I know as well as you people do that they're not helping us out of the goodness of their hearts. Having said that, though, Hermiod tells me that they think they can probably have the Daedalus spaceworthy in a month or so, once they load up on various raw materials that they need from Atlantis. Not Atlantis the city, Atlantis the planet. Which they're doing right now. In the meantime, we asked them to drop off some of the more critically exhausted crewmembers -- such as Novak -- and most of the repair crews will be coming back in the next couple of days via the puddlejumpers. I gather that they can do it faster without us underfoot."
Carson had been rebandaging Novak's wrist while listening quietly. A small sigh was the only warning he got as she toppled over sideways; he caught her and lowered her to the bed she'd been sitting on. She appeared to be, as Caldwell had said, suffering from nothing worse than exhaustion. Still ... "How many more of your people are in this condition?"
"Most of us are dead on our feet, but not that bad. The others have been dispatched to temporary quarters." One of the first things that had happened when the jumpers of Daedalus refugees had begun arriving on Atlantis, was the designation of an unused wing of the city for housing the evacuees. "And now that I've brought you all up to speed, I'm going to take a shower and catch a couple hours before heading back out again." He sat up, wearily and reluctantly; a sign of his exhaustion was the length of time it took him to notice that Beckett had materialized at his elbow.
"As soon as I take a look at that arm, Colonel."
"Ling says it's doing fine."
"And Carol is a very competent physician, but she's also working in third-world conditions and probably as tired as the rest of you, so why don't you let me take a look." He glanced around at the others. "And the rest of you should get some sleep in your own quarters."
With varying degrees of reluctance, they drifted out. Zelenka was asleep again, Elizabeth had never awoken at all, and Novak appeared to be dead to the world. After their departure, the infirmary was quiet except for the sound of a nurse, across the room, talking softly to one of the injured Daedalus refugees. Enjoying the temporary peace, Beckett drew a privacy curtain and peeled back the shoulder of Caldwell's coveralls.
"How do you people do it?"
Startled, Beckett looked down at his patient. He couldn't quite see Caldwell's face from this angle, just the curve of his cheekbone. "I'm sorry?"
"This ..." Caldwell raised his good hand, then let it flop down as if he'd lost the energy even to do that. "The last week has been, not to put too fine a point on it, hell. And from what I gather, reading your reports, this isn't entirely out of the ordinary around here. You people live on a frontier, in a war zone."
"I suppose we don't think about it much," Carson said. That was a total lie -- he didn't think a day went by when he didn't think about it. But it wasn't something they ever talked about, and maybe that was something vaguely close to the same thing.
"You know, I've spent most of my adult life in one combat zone after another," Caldwell said thoughtfully. "But there was always something to fall back on. No matter how bad it got, you knew that you were, at worst, never more than a few hours' flight from the friendlies. If you got shot down, they'd send a Blackhawk to find you. If you needed an evac, there were hospitals ..."
He trailed off, and Carson didn't say anything, just finished removing the filthy and damaged cast and replacing it. He knew exactly what Caldwell meant; the only difference, as far as he could see, was that so many of them had had a year to get used to the idea of having no support at all -- and now, after that, being connected to Earth by a three-week flight or the infrequent Stargate access seemed like being just around the corner.
But he didn't know how to explain it, and he didn't really know Caldwell well enough to try. So he did the next best thing.
"If you want a place to sleep where nobody'll bother you, we have beds aplenty. There are showers in the back and a few changes of clean clothes we keep around for the inevitable clothing destruction that usually occurs before someone shows up here."
Caldwell looked up at him, and Beckett saw that the shadows in his eyes were a little less pronounced than they had been when he'd first walked into the infirmary. "I think I might take you up on that, Doctor."
"Also, there are still some muffins ..."
It was an unusually quiet and subdued group that left the infirmary. They came to the point where they should have split up, if they were actually going to head to their separate quarters as Carson had not-so-gently suggested, but they kept walking, still in a group.
Finally Rodney broke the silence. "Hey, I wasn't done eating when Carson threw us out."
"I think most of us had food remaining." Teyla smiled, and pointed. "We are not far from the cafeteria."
"At least one of us probably needs to head up to the gateroom and see if the Asgard need anything," Sheppard said, reluctantly. The three of them -- Sheppard, Rodney and Teyla -- had been rotating leadership duties among themselves ever since the missing two had returned to Atlantis, at least once Carson had found an antibiotic that worked on Sheppard's leg and he'd gotten out of isolation. According to their informal arrangement, the Colonel had been handling most things to do with the military, while Rodney took care of the civilian side and Teyla served as dispute mediator -- with Ronon often lurking silently behind her as an enforcer -- and did a lot of the paperwork. It worked astonishingly well, which was something that none of them had any intention of telling Elizabeth.
Sheppard was surprised, gratified and not just a little uneasy that Caldwell hadn't made any sort of power grab while he'd been in the infirmary. He wasn't sure if it was an olive branch or simply that Caldwell was too caught up in the Daedalus's current problems to worry about Atlantis.
"Don't see why we couldn't get something to eat first," Ronon pointed out.
"I'm with Ronon," Rodney said.
Sheppard wasn't about to admit it, but his leg was starting to hurt like a mother, and given the choice between walking all the way to the nearest teleporter versus walking to the cafeteria just a few doors down ... well, it wasn't that he was wimping out, but discretion was the better part of valor, after all. And he had his radio if anyone needed to contact him. "Well, the Asgard have been taking care of themselves for a few thousand years; I suppose they can hang on for another hour or two."
Ronon grinned and clapped a hand on his shoulder, causing his weight to come down on his bad leg and nearly sending him staggering into a wall. Clenching his teeth against a spike of pain, he recovered before anyone noticed.
"And I'm think we'd better find a table quickly, before someone falls down," Rodney said, loudly.
... or not.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, because you're always that color."
"I will see if they have any more muffins," Teyla said hastily, darting off.
"Teyla and I'll get the food. You two find us a table before they're all taken."
Rodney and Sheppard found themselves suddenly alone. Sheppard looked around; the cafeteria was nearly deserted at this time of night, and none of the tables were in any danger of being taken. "I think this means I've been designated official Sheppard babysitter, which I can assure you is my very favorite role," Rodney said dryly, and gave Sheppard a little shove towards the nearest table.
"Do you want to pull my chair out for me too, McKay?"
"Ha! You can only dream of receiving that kind of service." Rodney plunked himself down at one end of the table and grinned smugly while Sheppard limped around to the other side.
"What was that about servicing me, Rodney?"
It was always entertaining to watch the super-genius parse an insult -- a little furrow formed between his brows and his mobile face flickered from confusion to annoyance. Quite a lot of annoyance, in this case. "I don't know why I bother spending time with you people at all. Do you know how much work I could be getting done right now? Instead I'm sitting here suffering your juvenile attempts at humor."
By the time Ronon and Teyla came back with coffee, muffins, and other assorted edibles, the situation had deteriorated to the two of them throwing crumpled-up napkins at each other. Sheppard's were much more aerodynamic, while Rodney's had a certain self-defensive desperation. Teyla and Ronon exchanged a look, sat down between them and began parceling out the goodies.
"So," Sheppard said as he broke open a muffin. "How's it going with the -- you know?"
Rodney sighed and rolled his eyes, snagging a cookie from Teyla's tray. "You're going to have to be a little more specific than that, Colonel."
"The ... investigation," Sheppard clarified.
"Oh ... that. Nothing new." They had all been quietly looking into the Wraith worshipper problem on Atlantis, with Sheppard focused on the military side while Rodney and Teyla investigated the civilians -- Teyla mostly, since Rodney was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Their one and only confirmed Wraith worshipper, so far, was Dr. Price from Botany, who had apparently met a Wraith cult offworld and had fallen hook, line and sinker. She was presently in the Atlantis brig awaiting a decision from the Earth brass on how to handle her case. The Wraith transmitter that had been found on the Daedalus was one she and Armstrong had apparently swiped from the labs. So far, they'd found no evidence that she'd actually tried to contact the Wraith from Atlantis; and, as with so many things in the Pegasus Galaxy, they simply had to hope for the best and plan for the worst.
"I do not think that the ... problem is as widespread as we had feared," Teyla said.
Rodney shrugged. "Price is a flake, and the rest of the scientists swear up and down that they had no idea. Elizabeth is the one who really should be doing this; that woman could give Caligula lessons on interrogation, and the worst part is she's so polite about it." He paused to take a sip of his coffee, and then choked and spit it out -- all over Sheppard.
"Rodney! Damn it!"
"Teyla! What the hell is this?"
Teyla sniffed at her own cup and then, with an apologetic smile, switched hers for his. "I am sorry, Rodney. I gave you my cup of tea by mistake. The cups look very much alike."
"Tea made from what, a camel's ass?"
"If I've caught anything from you, McKay..." Sheppard growled, dabbing at his wet shirt with a handful of napkins. "Good God, Rodney's right, this stuff smells nasty."
"It is made from the bark of khafos, a tree on the mainland. It is an ... acquired taste. Like your coffee." Teyla's nose wrinkled on the last sentence. She'd never picked up a liking for coffee, despite her teammates' attempts to lead her down the coffee-drinker's path.
"Gah! It's 'acquired' like a case of the flu! My taste buds will never be the same."
"Have a muffin." Ronon plunked one down in front of him.
"Oh, thanks for the pop psychology there, He-Man -- 'have a muffin', that certainly makes up for the trauma I've just experienced. Peh!"
"Gets the taste out of your mouth."
Teyla smacked him in the shoulder. "I have seen you drink khafos-bark tea, Ronon, and you finished your cup."
"I also ate urgu droppings one time 'cause I was starving. Didn't mean I liked it."
This time her punch was less affectionate, and promised quite a bit of pain at their next sparring session.
Sheppard gave up on dabbing at his wet shirt, and leaning on the end of the table, he listened to his team bicker. Didn't have anything to add, not this time. Just wanted to hear it. For the first time since that terrible cold moment when the Daedalus had dropped off Atlantis's sensors, he felt as if he'd finally managed to get warm again.
Thanks to all for the reviews and support. It's been a wonderful, wild ride! I'm still quite boggled at the sheer volume of reviews that this story has received.
I'm already thinking about a sequel to this, because there is quite a LOT that could be addressed -- such as the repair of the Daedalus, the aftermath of Ronon killing Armstrong, and so forth. I figured that it was already long enough and didn't need another ten chapters to deal with aftermath, as the important things were already wrapped up and I wanted to bring it to a conclusion rather than continue dragging it along. But there are a lot of possibilities for a sequel.
Incidentally, I have gone back and made a few very minor changes to the Jeannie scenes to reflect one particular thing that we learned about Rodney in "McKay & Mrs. Miller". It's quite minor. Nothing that I'd really call spoilery, at least the way that it's presented here.
Thank you again for reading!