"I refuse to authorize theft and that's final."
"But, Elizabeth," Rodney wheedled, slowing the cadence of his voice as if to explain irrefutable logic to a small child, "they're not using it."
Teyla cast her eyes sideways and hesitated. "That is not entirely true, Dr. McKay."
"Yes, yes it is. It is wholly and completely true," Rodney argued with his last thread of patience.
John relaxed into his seat and slung an arm casually across the back of his chair. "You know," he mused, scratching his chin thoughtfully, "this is a bit like the tree falling in the forest argument. If a ZPM sits on a shelf is it still a power source?"
"It is not simply sitting on a shelf, Colonel," Elizabeth countered evenly, "it is the central figure of the altar integral to the culture and history of an entire world of people."
Bewildered beyond belief, Rodney shoved out of his chair and began gesticulating wildly, his pitch rising commensurate to the level of his frustration. "Left in the hands of those people it may as well be a paperweight!"
Elizabeth calmly pulled herself to her full height and, placing her hands on the conference table, stared directly at Rodney to emphasize the finality of her statement. "We are not stealing a religious symbol."
"I can't believe it! Two Wraith hive ships on a direct course for Atlantis will be arriving here in less than two weeks. Two weeks. We have a fully stocked drone chair hooked to a ZPM that doesn't have enough juice to operate a microwave. The only thing standing between this city and a fiery death is your inability to swipe some religious trinket! Ridiculous." He fisted his hands on his hips and huffed a small puff of air. "Asinine!"
"She didn't say we weren't going to get it," Ronon observed. "She just said we weren't going to steal it."
"He's right." Elizabeth straightened, folding her arms across her chest. "We need the ZPM and we certainly are not going pass up this opportunity. I will make arrangements with the Postrosians to return tomorrow and see what we can accomplish through negotiation."
Across the table, John's eyes met Elizabeth's. "'We' as in… us and you?"
She shrugged, her features expressionless. "You didn't think I'd let you handle the diplomacy by yourself, did you, John?"
His gaze narrowed. "You just don't trust us not to steal the damn thing."
A smile ghosted across Elizabeth's face and her eyes twinkled mischievously. "There's that, too."
"Elizabeth," John called from behind her, "hold up for a second."
Elizabeth turned to find him jogging down the hall. When he caught up, she pivoted and continued the course to her quarters.
"John," she clasped her hands in front of her, "what can I do for you?"
"You can stay here tomorrow."
"Hmm." Her lips pursed and she made a bigger show than necessary of considering the request. "No, that's not going to happen," she answered firmly. Then she grinned. "Anything else?"
"So am I," she said pointedly.
John watched her for a moment, weighing the best approach to take. "It's an unnecessary risk."
Their movement halted as she reached the door of her room.
"An unnecessary risk for whom?" She arched an eyebrow toward him before swiping a hand across the sensor and entering.
"For Atlantis," John answered as he followed her inside.
"Well, as military commander of this expedition your opinion on that issue certainly bears consideration." Elizabeth toed off her shoes and took a seat on the edge of her bed. "Perhaps I was unclear as to the details of your mission report," she stated contemplatively, pulling one knee under her and making herself comfortable. "Were the Postrosians a particularly violent people?"
"No," John answered cautiously, sensing danger.
"And the extent of their technology, including weaponry, is inferior to our own," Elizabeth continued.
"Yes." John was reluctant to say more.
"Do you anticipate that they can or will threaten us in any way?"
"No," he admitted, somewhat grudgingly.
"Then I don't understand. If you believe they have neither the capacity nor the inclination to pose a threat…" she trailed off, clearly waiting for an explanation.
He cast a nervous glance at the door, confirming it was closed. "Elizabeth," he took a step toward her, "it's just that I have a bad feeling about his mission."
The strain in his voice startled Elizabeth as much as the comment itself and she lifted her head in time to see him run a frustrated hand through his hair. She watched his face, searching for any small clue as to his meaning, but for once she was unable to read his expression. When he didn't continue, she raised her eyebrows at him in challenge. "You don't think I'll be able to handle myself on an off-world mission?"
"I'm not saying that exactly –"
"You are." Her eyes were soft but her intonation remained firm. "I appreciate that you're trying to protect me and I understand your concern." He started to speak, but she stopped him. "I know you mean well John, but I'm the most qualified negotiator on this expedition and we need that ZPM more than anything. This is our opportunity."
"Elizabeth," he sat down beside her, "I'm not saying that you're not capable."
"You're certainly implying it," she countered, confused and beginning to lose her patience.
Concern clearly evident in his voice, he decided to risk one more attempt. The words came out in a rush. "I'm not implying anything more than the fact that I have a bad feeling about this trip, that you aren't combat trained, and that I don't think bringing you along is worth chancing what would become of Atlantis without you."
It took her a moment to find her voice. "What is it about this mission that gives you a bad feeling?"
He glanced up but shifted his gaze back to the floor almost immediately. He blew out his breath. "I don't know," he admitted.
She placed a hand gently on his arm. "I'm sorry, John, but unless you can give me more than that, I see no reason I should stay behind tomorrow."
John gave her one last look before rising and exiting her quarters.
The next morning, Teyla checked the pockets of her vest as she stepped into the armory. She would need to remember to grab a few extra PowerBars before they departed. Dr. McKay had recently formed the habit of relying on her food rations to supplement his own in the field. Though Ronon chose to refuse on principal, she much preferred the inconvenience of carrying additional supplies to suffering through the doctor's incessant complaining.
She was well into the room before she noticed another presence. "Colonel Sheppard," she greeted.
He didn't look up from the box he was digging through, but nodded his head in acknowledgement. She watched him for a moment. He was most certainly tense about something.
Stuffing the canisters into his vest he simply grunted.
"Should we be preparing for heavy combat on this mission, Colonel?"
"We should always be preparing for heavy combat," he replied tersely, his hands once again elbow deep in boxes of ammunition.
Though a diplomat by choice, Teyla was a warrior by trade and disliked going into battle ill prepared. Sheppard's instincts on previous missions had been good and she knew of no reason not to trust them now. And if it was her own opinion that Dr. Weir's late addition to the team could be the source of his additional fervor on this particular trip, pointing that fact out to him would accomplish nothing.
"That is very true," she agreed, grabbing a few grenades for herself.
"Rodney," Elizabeth reprimanded tightly as the scientist ambled into the gate room, nose deep in his data pad, "the people of Postros are expecting us in mere moments. You were supposed to be here fifteen minutes ago."
"Yes, sorry," he mumbled, "I was just –"
"No one cares, McKay," John interrupted, not bothering to mask his irritation. The last time Rodney was late they were forced to listen to him ramble on about the mess cook's attempted homicide by citrus. He was in no mood to listen to pointless prattle. "Don't let it happen again."
"Woke up on the wrong side of the bed, Colonel?" Rodney finally looked up from his data. "And what's with the abominable snowman impersonation? To stuff you with any more weaponry we'd have to call a taxidermist."
"You never know what they'll want in trade," John lied. He wasn't anxious to have his team reading anything into his slightly irrational vigilance when it came to Elizabeth's safety. If he wasn't willing to examine it, he certainly wasn't going to allow others to speculate as to his motives. "Perhaps they'd like to see a demonstration of a flash bang."
Rodney snorted and glared at the colonel. "And the grenades…" he prompted.
"…are for when I need to blow you off the face of the planet." John glanced at Ronon and Teyla, and then turned to Elizabeth. "We're ready."
She nodded to the technician and the wormhole stabilized with a brilliant splash. Even as they walked to the event horizon, John couldn't shake the feeling that this mission was going to end badly.
"You must understand that this item has held great religious significance for our people for thousands of years. It is our last tie to the Ancestors."
"We understand completely, Rahl. We have such symbols in our world," Elizabeth spoke over Rodney's exasperated sigh.
The negotiations had been ongoing for most of the afternoon and John was beginning to side with McKay. The Postrosians were a decent people, and under different circumstances he might have even enjoyed their community. But to sit in a temple and watch Elizabeth attempt to negotiate a reasonable resolution to what he saw as a simple matter of life and death was driving him mad. There was only so much back and forth he could handle and they had passed that mark at hour two. He was more than ready to get this done or get out, dragging Elizabeth back through the Stargate if necessary. Frankly, for the last thirty minutes he had struggled to physically prevent himself from doing just that. The sickening sense of foreboding now penetrated every corner of his consciousness, seemingly growing louder as the minutes ticked by. He squared his shoulders and tightened his grip on his P90.
The high councilor nodded. "Then you understand that we cannot part with the Zero Point Module, as you call it, as it would sever our connection with our own history."
"No," Elizabeth shook her head, "I do not. To you, the ZPM is a symbol of the Ancestors and their accomplishments; a manifestation of their greatness and legend. It represents a rich and meaningful past of which you are understandably proud. The Ancestors protected you and protected this galaxy. It was because of their intelligence, ingenuity and foresight that both you and I sit here today."
John smothered a disapproving cough. His estimation of the Ancients wasn't quite so flattering.
"This is all true," Rahl agreed. "They are the superior beings to which we all aspire."
"And what would the Ancestors do, were they here now?" Elizabeth locked eyes with the leader. "Would they sit idly by and watch an entire planet's destruction?
"Your ZPM can be more than a symbol; it can be hope and prosperity. If you allow us to use it, it will help supply the power needed for a fighting chance against the Wraith when they come knocking on our door. We cannot hope to win this battle without it."
Rahl considered Elizabeth. Inclining her head slightly she signaled to her assistant, Illya, who hesitated before removing the ZPM from its alter and returning to the table.
"Perhaps," Rahl began thoughtfully, "perhaps there is a way for us to find faith in you." She nodded to Illya.
Illya stared back defiantly. "I will not," he spat out, hands curling convulsively around the module.
"Illya, this will be our course of action."
At that moment a piercing scream reverberated through the walls of the temple. John's head snapped up and he looked quickly at Elizabeth. She gave him an affirmative nod and within seconds he was out of his seat and had made his way to the door to assess the threat. Not fifty yards away, the active Stargate spilled two Wraith darts before shutting down. Scanning the area briefly he saw three more already over the town.
John clenched his jaw and turned to his team. "We've got five darts, maybe more."
Illya took advantage of the distraction. Still grasping the ZPM he spun quickly, dodging Elizabeth's attempt to grab him, and bolted toward the back of the room, slipping behind a tapestry and out of sight.
Before John could make a sound of protest Elizabeth was off and running. She paused for just a moment at the door, cast a backwards glance at John, and then pushed through after the ZPM.
John stared after her, his sense of dread growing. Outside, the distinctive whine of the Wraith beams seemed to come from every direction as the chaos neared the temple. He locked eyes with Teyla. "Get Doctor Weir. We'll clear the way to the Stargate."
He saw recognition flare in her dark eyes and then she too had disappeared.
"But what about the –"
"Rodney, not now," he barked. "As far as we know the Wraith don't care about ZPMs. We'll come back for it the moment we get reinforcements. Right now our priority is to get out of here in one piece and we do that by holding the gate for Teyla and Dr. Weir." He shot a concerned look in the direction Elizabeth had disappeared then returned his focus to what was left of his team. "Rodney, you take Rahl. Nobody dies. That's an order." With that he turned and made his way out the front of the temple and toward the Stargate.
Throngs of men, women and children ran in every direction. A small percentage of the local people had hand-held explosive devices and they were firing on the darts. The majority, however, were fleeing into the relative security of the nearby forest. The thick canopy of trees was providing a modicum of protection by obstructing the culling beams, but the Wraith had already begun to transport warriors onto the planet's surface.
To John's right he saw a young woman scrambling frantically to get out the path of three Wraith warriors. She wasn't fast enough. She fought and clawed against them, but it was clear she was losing the battle. With a roar, Ronon threw himself into the fight with murderous abandon. He fired quickly and hit one with a blast even as he hurled himself at another who was bringing his weapon to bear. The massive Satedan hit him in the midsection, burying his shoulder into the Wraith's body, and the momentum slammed them both into a thick tree. The Wraith's eyes bulged as he crumpled to the ground, his mouth working soundlessly. He barely registered Ronon grabbing him by the shirtfront and hauling him up to smash a fist into his jaw.
The woman was in panic-stricken shock, still pinned to the ground by the final Wraith. John couldn't get a clear shot. With surprising swiftness, Ronon spun and closed the gap, dragging him from the woman and wrapping one massive hand around the warrior's throat. Almost beside himself with rage, he tightened his grip and lifted the Wraith off the ground, then heaved him as hard as he could into the nearest tree.
John caught a movement beside him and turned to see Rodney shakily pointing his 9mm at an approaching warrior. Spinning, John took hasty aim and fired in short bursts. The Wraith's body jerked spasmodically as the slugs hit.
John continued toward the Stargate. He was just twenty yards from his goal when the cries of small children drew his attention back to the edge of the forest. Four more Wraith were almost on top of a family racing for safety. He watched helplessly as the mother was disabled by a stunner.
John eased back around the base of the nearest tree and took careful aim. He squeezed off four controlled bursts. One Wraith gave a sharp cry and fell, clutching his leg just above the knee. John hit the second in the chest. The remaining warriors threw themselves toward cover, looking around wildly. John ducked back behind the tree as sporadic return fire started. He could tell from the pattern of their fire that they knew exactly where he was. Grimly, he reloaded his weapon. His job was to clear the way to the Stargate. If that meant distracting half of the Wraith on this damn planet, so be it. He scooted to the other side of a second tree and chanced a quick look. Several blasts hitting the trunk made him yank his head back quickly, but he'd seen enough to confirm his suspicions. The Wraith were heading directly toward him.
He risked a glace backwards toward the Stargate. When he saw Elizabeth stumble into the small clearing he thought he would collapse in relief. Teyla was a few paces behind her, but turned, sweeping her weapon up quickly and discharging it into the pack of Wraith who burst out of the forest on their heels. John cursed under his breath.
Suddenly his attention was drawn back to the crashing in the brush ahead of him. John stuck his hand around the trunk and fired three quick bursts. He braced against the tree and tried to keep an eye on two places at once.
His attention was dragged back to the clearing when he heard Elizabeth's voiced protest over the din of battle. Illya was clutching the ZPM and dialing on the DHD. John knew what was going to happen before it transpired, but he was still too late to stop it. The Stargate whooshed to life and Illya bolted into the sparkling blue expanse with Elizabeth on his heels.
He was positive his heart stopped when he heard the sickening whine of a Wraith dart and saw it pierce the event horizon just after Elizabeth. Son of a bitch!
John didn't hesitate. Keeping as low to the ground as possible and dodging blasts, he sprinted across the distance separating him from the Stargate and launched himself heedlessly through the ring.
He landed roughly on the other side. Picking his head up from the mud, John heard the wormhole close behind him. Through the thick sheets of rain he could just see a bright blue light trace its way across the field – its high pitched screech penetrating his skull. He could do nothing but watch as Elizabeth and Illya disappeared into the beam, leaving him with nothing but the sounds of the storm.
Lightning crashed around him. Gritting his teeth, he shoved himself to his feet and watched the Wraith dart speed away. He had to get that dart.
Making his way to the DHD, John almost stumbled over the ZPM. Well, at least something is going right, he grudgingly admitted as he shoved the module under his arm. Now all he had to do was get to Atlantis and bring the entire military contingent of the city back to this god forsaken planet to extract Elizabeth.
John heard the faint buzz of a dart engine through echoing claps of thunder just as he started again toward the DHD. The sound became louder as the craft neared, at once illuminated in a flash of lightning. He watched helplessly as the Stargate dialed and a wormhole stabilized. John strained to read the characters through the storm but couldn't make them out between the thick rain and mud caking the ring. He shot a fleeting glance at the DHD, but didn't think he could make it in time to see the address. And if the dialing device was compromised he would have missed his only opportunity to save her.
For the second time in ten minutes, John dove blindly into an open wormhole, not knowing what awaited him on the other side.
"Raise the shield!" Teyla shouted as soon as Ronon had cleared the Stargate, a small child in his arms and stunner blasts piercing the event horizon.
Major Lorne signaled to the technician and the shield sprang to life. His eyes scanned the room, mentally checking off the occupants and their varying states of injury. Two dozen women and children, a handful of men, McKay, Teyla, Ronon…
"Colonel Sheppard and Doctor Weir?" he inquired hastily.
Teyla shook her head, swiping at a trickle of blood on her temple. "They are not with us."
Lorne tapped his earpiece. "Medical team to the gate room." Once he received an acknowledgement of his order he turned to the team. "Teyla, Ronon, McKay, you all right?"
Ronon grunted before depositing the young girl into a woman's outstretched arms.
"Good enough," Lorne said, turning on his heel. "Briefing room. Now." Climbing the stairs, he didn't wait to begin his questions. "What the hell happened out there?"
"It was a Wraith attack, Major," Teyla explained evenly. "We saved those that we could." She looked hesitantly at Ronon before continuing, "I believe the colonel and Doctor Weir went through the Stargate to another world, but I cannot be certain."
The expedition leader and the military commander were missing in action. Lorne closed his eyes briefly, compartmentalizing his emotions and focusing on action. Worry and fear were of no use to him right now. Instead, he ran through the list of procedures they had in place should this situation arise. If Sheppard and Weir were gone for more than seventy-two hours, they would need to change a number of codes as well as the location of the Alpha Site – but they would deal with that when the time came. For now, he would step up as temporary head of the military contingent and Dr. McKay would take over Dr. Weir's duties. At that thought, Lorne grimaced. They really ought to get her an assistant of some sort so that, should she be compromised, the expedition would not be forced under that particular scientist's command. Either that, or he could shoot McKay and Dr. Zelenka would take over.
As appealing as that course of action was, Lorne refocused his attention.
"Well, who can be certain?" His voice was edgy.
Ronon pointed to one of the refugees. "She can."
As the buzzing faded in the distance, John shook free of his daze and surveyed his current location. He was face-down in a purplish dust. In front of him was… more dust. Scanning the terrain to his right he noted miles upon miles of a flat violet terrain that led to a monstrous mountain range far off in the distance. To his left was a thick wall of shrubbery that tapered into an evergreen forest. What was most important, however, was what he didn't see: a DHD.
Cursing audibly, he picked himself off the ground surveyed the damage. He was practically unscathed, but the combination of the previous planet's mud and this violet powder had coalesced, swathing him in a thick coat of sludge. He felt like a bastard version of the frosted Barney that sat atop his nephew's 9th birthday cake. After a futile attempt at wiping clean, John gave up, grabbed the ZPM and glanced once more to the left. The dart that had taken Elizabeth had disappeared over the trees. On a positive note, at least he wouldn't have to scale those enormous peaks.
Wading twenty paces into the shrubbery, John hid the ZPM under a squat bush. The foliage was dense around the Stargate, and he was fairly certain that no one would be able to see it unless they were searching for it. He was also certain that lugging the module through the woods would only hinder him, and that if he somehow damaged it McKay would go ballistic.
Once the ZPM was secure he set off in the direction of the forest. All he had to do now was find Elizabeth, rescue her from the Wraith, pick up the ZPM and get back to Atlantis before the ships bearing an undeterminable number of blood-sucking aliens arrived.
Piece of cake.
When Lorne entered the infirmary with Sheppard's team on his heels, Dr. Beckett was crouched over an injured Postrosian.
He nodded to the physician. "Doc."
Carson wrote a quick note on his pad and then turned to his visitors. "Major. What can I do for you?"
"We'd like to speak with…" he trailed off. He never had gotten her name.
"Rahl," Teyla supplied.
"Right, Rahl." Lorne crossed his hands at his waist and stood straighter. "We believe she may have some clue as to the whereabouts of our misplaced leaders."
Carson's brow furrowed. "I'm afraid I've had to sedate her. She came in with a minor head trauma and was quite –"
Rodney cut him of with a fierce glare. "Well, un-sedate her!"
Lorne glanced at his watch. It had taken McKay twelve seconds to blow. That had to be a record. Perhaps the gravity of the situation was magnifying his normal ire.
"Now, Rodney, we are all concerned about Elizabeth and the colonel but I'm not about to jeopardize the health of one of my patients."
"Please," Rodney countered as reasonably as possible, "you said it was a minor head wound. I'm sure if we just woke her up for a second and then knocked her out again she'd be no worse for the wear." He swung his arm lackadaisically as if to demonstrate the ease of the process.
Lorne couldn't hold back a tight, "This from the man who wanted morphine for a paper cut."
"I have a very low threshold for pain!"
The major opened his mouth to suggest that perhaps it was due to lack of experience – a situation that could easily be remedied – when Teyla interrupted.
"How long until she awakens?"
"It won't be for another hour or so," Carson answered apologetically.
Ronon visibly tensed. Lorne could sympathize. The last thing he wanted to do right now was sit on his thumbs while another hour passed by in which Sheppard and Dr. Weir could get further away.
But it seemed as though they didn't have a choice.
"Put two teams together and have them in the jumper bay on standby. We'll move as soon as we get an address."
Elizabeth struggled for awareness, fighting against the blackness that was trying to devour her. It was terrifying, but at the same time seductive. It promised an end to the stress and fear that had come to dominate her life in Atlantis over these past few years. All she had to do was loosen her grip and slide into oblivion. She was so tired it was tempting, but giving up simply wasn't in her. With a formidable effort she pulled herself one step closer to consciousness. With it came the memory of what had happened.
Slowly, she blinked away the darkness and took in her surroundings. Within the span of a moment an all consuming terror forcefully gripped her and two things registered in her mind, crystal-clear and merciless: she knew exactly where she was, and she knew that she was up to her neck in trouble – literally.
Not having too many opportunities to travel off-world, Elizabeth didn't have a good deal of first hand experience in the Pegasus Galaxy's innumerable planets. Instead, she used the descriptions her teams left in their mission reports to create her own images of the places they had traveled. She imagined M7G-677 looked much like some fantastical version of the home of Peter Pan's Lost Boys, with forts and suspension bridges draped from tree to tree. In her mind, P3M-736 was a lush utopia, teeming with flora one could spend hours observing if not for the dangerous radiation. She also had a pretty good mental picture of M1K-439 and its endless waterfalls spilling effortlessly into the raging rivers that swept across the terrain. Sometimes at night she would lie awake and imagine what it would be like to visit these places – to experience them for herself.
Of course, with all of the terrible things the expedition had encountered on the other side of the Stargate, she knew it wasn't just peaceful forests and picturesque hamlets. She could also imagine the dark and ominous underground bunkers of the Genii – though she'd only seen one hallway – as well as the frequent lightning storms that illuminated the death and destruction left behind on the Wraith home world. Elizabeth tried not to dwell on these things, to not let them cloud her mind with visions of shadows and fear. But, like anything else, the more one attempted not to think about the darker things, the easier they slipped into one's thoughts.
As the world before her came into focus she allowed herself a moment of wonder at the fact that her visions of a Wraith hive ship bore an uncanny resemblance to the sight before her.
The blue-hued wash dimmed her ability to see much detail, but she had heard enough about hive ships to know that she was in one of the pods they used to store humans for later feedings. The white web-like material enveloping her was a dead giveaway.
She tried to convince herself that it was purely her imagination, but she was almost certain that she could actually feel the fabric tightening with each inhale, firming its hold on her body. Panic rose in her throat and her instinct to go on the offensive took over. She strained against the web. Perhaps if she could free herself she would be able to find some way off the ship. Not likely, but there was always a chance. Some of Sheppard's miraculous escapes and resurrections had to be luck, hadn't they?
She struggled to reach her pockets, knowing that she never carried a knife but idly hoping that John had slipped one into her gear during one of his overzealous protective moments. Her hands brushed against the soft fabric of her BDUs but she felt nothing of use – no tools or sharp objects. Just for a moment she wished that John or Ronon were there with her, or even Major Lorne – someone who had the foresight to come prepared for anything. Truthfully though, she was infinitely relieved that she was the only one captured and that everyone else was spared the experience.
She could get out of this by herself if need be. She'd survived too damn much to slip quietly away now. If she was going down it would be fighting.
With renewed determination Elizabeth jammed her fingers into the mesh and started to scratch. Her nails clawed at the webbing but did painfully little to damage it. Undeterred, she continued to scrape methodically. Her fingers screamed in protest and, though she couldn't see, she knew her nails were quickly filing down to nothing. Soon only the bare flesh of her fingertips grated across her prison.
"Shit!" she hissed, both at the pain and the knowledge that the sharpest things she had were now useless. "Shit, shit!"
"Doctor Weir?" a feeble voice inquired from her right.
Elizabeth stilled instantly. She didn't have the maneuverability to see much of her periphery and she had thought she was alone. Straining, she twisted as much as possible, squinting to make out a figure beside her. She couldn't see a damn thing.
"Doctor Weir, is that you?" The man was familiar somehow. She had heard that voice before.
"Illya?" she tried, remembering the Postrosian she had chased through the wormhole. She mentally cringed. What had possessed her to barrel alone through the Stargate? Her lips twisted wryly. Nothing more than the need to save her entire expedition, the lost city of the Ancients and Earth.
"Yes," he confirmed. "How long have we been here?"
"I've been conscious for about an hour," she guessed. "But beyond that, I have no clue."
He seemed to consider that for a moment. "Do you know what will happen to us?"
Death, she thought simply. At this point it was the inevitable conclusion.
"No, I don't," she said instead. It seemed useless to reply otherwise.
The moment the words left her mouth she heard the echo of footsteps down the corridor. She quieted immediately.
"They're coming!" Illya whispered unnecessarily.
Elizabeth watched warily as the outline of a backlit, leather-clad Wraith strode into her line of sight. Tall and lean, with pale green features and barred teeth, he suddenly loomed mere inches from her face and hissed. She had tried to prepare herself for what she thought was coming, but those preparations hadn't included being locked in a staring contest with the life-sucking alien. She looked away, willing her pounding heart to settle. After only a moment the Wraith turned his attention to the man beside her.
Suddenly and without warning his hand thrust forward and Illya screamed. She couldn't see him, but Elizabeth could clearly imagine what was happening next to her as the Wraith hissed and twitched, arm extended. Unshed tears welled in her eyes. She was sweating and shaking, flinching involuntarily as the Wraith again met her gaze. Soon Illya's cries choked to a gasp and her whole body chilled with the knowledge that there was nothing she could have done to save him.
The Wraith removed his hand with a jerk, blood dripping from the opening in his palm. Elizabeth tensed, panic leaving her struggling to breathe.
Maybe he's full, was her last coherent thought before an outstretched hand pierced the cocoon, alien fingers digging painfully into her chest.
"Where was he going with the ZPM?" Lorne cut straight to the point.
Rahl placed her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes.
"Don't you go to sleep on us," Rodney barked and snapped his fingers in her face. "We just waited an hour an a half for your Majesty to get her beauty rest. Meanwhile, our friends are in mortal peril somewhere in this vampire-infested galaxy. Give us the address."
"He would have taken it to our sister planet," the woman spoke softly. "It has long been abandoned due to the massive and perpetual storms. It is the only place he would have felt that he could keep the relic safe."
Lorne didn't care about the explanation. "And the address?"
"Give the poor woman a moment, Major," Beckett interjected protectively. "She's still recovering from a traumatic experience and nasty fall."
Rahl shook her head gently and placed her hand on Carson's forearm. "Their reaction is understandable Doctor Beckett, and I am fine." She turned to Lorne. "I can give you the address."
Ronon, Teyla and Rodney started for the jumper bay before Lorne had issued the command.
Elizabeth choked on a gasp as a blinding pain sliced through her back. The searing agony of it made her want to scream but she didn't have enough breath. Swallowing, she fiercely ordered herself to calm down. She could do nothing to help the situation without a clear head.
She tried to take stock of her location. Through tear-clouded eyes she could see the chest of a Wraith in black leather and the walls of the small room behind him glowing a putrid green. A sharp blade digging into her skin forced her to slam her eyes shut. Instinctively, she bit down on her lip, immediately releasing a salty trickle of blood.
In contrast to the burning of her back was a distinct chill on her front. The weight of her body pressed her bare torso firmly onto a cool, hard table. She twisted her arms experimentally and found her wrists bound to whatever it was she was spread across.
Her head swam with questions, the most significant of which being why was she alive. The last thing she remembered was the Wraith spreading his feeding hand on her chest. She had presumed that would signal her demise. As far as she knew, once a Wraith began to feed, he didn't stop voluntarily until he had sucked every last drop of life from the body… so why hadn't he finished her off? Elizabeth tilted her head to look down at her shoulder. No visible wrinkles. From the skin she could see, she did not appear to have aged.
Puzzled, she tried to recall the sensation of being fed upon, but couldn't. She had felt the hand against her chest and then nothing.
Intense pain bit at her nerve endings, and as a wave of numbness washed over her she grit her teeth and willed herself to be strong.
John was getting really tired of this purple crap. It wasn't one of his favorite colors to begin with, and anything in such excess was likely to drive a man insane regardless of a previous aversion. He felt like he was trekking through grape Kool-Aid. The thought made him both irritated and thirsty.
He had been hiking through this warped forest for two days and had nothing to show for his efforts except three less PowerBars in his stash. He took a mental inventory of his tac vest. In all of his irate packing he should have thought to shove a few more snacks in – maybe some honey-roasted peanuts.
The terrain was rough and rocky and the incline minimal but steady. He figured that his current location was a mile or so higher than the elevation of the Stargate. Hills sprouted intermittently, essentially funneling him along a course. Whether or not it was the correct path was anyone's guess.
The sun was tickling the horizon and light was creeping toward nonexistent. He would have to stop for the night within the next few minutes.
As he scanned for a suitable campsite his thoughts turned to Elizabeth. They had been on her for most of the day, but he'd managed to go the last five minutes without brooding over her disappearance. He congratulated himself. A whole five minutes. Maybe he wasn't obsessed after all.
Exhaling, John sunk wearily beside a giant log. He would grab a few hours of sleep while he waited for the light to return and then continue his search for the Wraith ship. He had decided that the only logical explanation for the dart coming to this planet was for it to return to a hive. That meant that either a hive ship was parked on this useless hunk of aquarium gravel or it was in orbit above it. He chose to assume the former, as that would lend itself more easily to rescue.
He just hoped he would make it to her in time; if he wasn't already too late.
Elizabeth considered yelling and shouting – demanding that they release her, asking where they were taking her – but after all they had done to her already, escorting her down a dark corridor seemed the least of their offenses.
Instead she hobbled silently, head held as high as was possible while fighting the spasms in her back and in her current state of undress. She hadn't seen her shirt since she was conscious in the cocoon and her bra hung limply from her shoulders, its unfastened clasp slapping across her tender, recently dissected skin.
As her two warrior guards continued to lead her to an unknown destination, Elizabeth focused on trying to recall similar situations that her teams had encountered. Surely death wasn't as imminent as she was originally inclined to believe. After the failure of the Wraith alliance, Rodney and Ronon had been trapped on a hive ship – cocooned as she had been – and they had escaped. Colonel Sheppard's entire team had accompanied Ford onto a ship, both entering and exiting in one piece. The death on that trip had been the result of enzyme withdrawal rather than direct contact with the enemy. Though she had been unconscious for some time, she didn't imagine they would inject her with anything addictive; she could see no way in which hyping her up on such a drug would benefit them. Finding that conclusion only mildly reassuring, she pushed it aside, again concentrating on prior missions. When Sheppard's team joined the Genii in infiltrating the hive most of them managed to return. Five of the six had survived – those weren't… horrible odds. She cringed. The first time that members of her expedition had stepped foot on a hive ship they lost Sumner and an Athosian.
Perhaps this line of thinking was unwise.
Elizabeth returned her attention to her surroundings. The corridor was quickly coming to an end. The Wraith continued to escort her down the passageway, finally coming to a halt before a solid black wall.
One of her captors released his hold, stepping forward and pressing his hand against a release of some sort. A large door slid away with a steady groan, spilling light and fresh air into the dank ship. She had a moment's peace to breathe in deeply before the warriors gripped her arms tightly and flung her out of the ship. Her body crumpled on impact, triggering a stream of raspy coughs. She lay still for a long moment, trying to force air back into her lungs. What the hell had happened? Carefully she pushed herself up with her hands and attempted to gain her footing. She didn't know what they were planning on doing to her but she imagined that it would be in her best interest to get on her feet. Before she could manage to steady herself, a Wraith tossed something at her with a grunt and the door slid shut leaving her alone outside.
This was certainly unexpected. When did the Wraith just let people…
She closed her eyes and bowed her head. There was only one instance she knew of that had resulted in the freeing of a prisoner. At her feet lay her jacket, her shirt and a stunner.
At least they felt it sporting to have her armed.
Shoving the stunner in her waistband, she grabbed her things and ran.
It was a quarter of an hour later before Elizabeth allowed herself to stop. She was tired, aching, dizzy, thirsty and thoroughly scared.
Taking deep breaths she attempted to calm herself. If she managed to think with a level head she could get out of here.
Gingerly, she slipped on her shirt. Her back was incredibly sore and she was overheated from the physical exertion, but if she was going to pull herself together she was going to be dressed. She tied her jacket around her waist and straightened her posture.
Okay, she thought, what now? She didn't have a lot of options. Staying here meant dying. Running could also mean dying but there was a slim chance that she could somehow escape. She surveyed the woods behind her. They ended after about thirty yards but continued to either side. She'd have to pull straight back, then head left and hope that she found some kind of protection in the terrain. The Wraith had given her a weapon which implied they wanted a challenge. So she could assume they would also give her a head start. That gave her a bit of time to prepare for the hunt. Not that any amount of preparation would make her ready for this, but she would do the best she could.
First, however, she needed to find water. It was time to move.
"McKay," Lorne's voice came over his earpiece, "any progress on the DHD?"
"Oh sure," Rodney replied tartly, "I just booted it up, opened the browser and went into the history file. There's a good deal of porn here, but a few gate addresses as well, so we're all set."
Why was it that everyone was under the impression that he could solve every problem they encountered? Oh, right. Because he could. Or, at least, he had been able to up until now. He was almost certain he'd have the address by now if the damn thing had actually been dialed. But, as luck would have it, no symbols had been depressed on this hunk of junk for at least two years. If a wormhole was opened it was dialed remotely. The destination of a non-DHD connection was something Dr. Rodney McKay just might not be able to figure out.
"Buxom blondes dot net? I've heard good things about that site but haven't had the opportunity to check it out. Cable providers seem disinclined to run intergalactic lines, much to my chagrin."
Rodney scoffed as he shifted his attention to the next crystal, "It's not the size of the chest, it's the size of the intellect," he chided. "Really, Major." Checking the display of his data pad he added absently, "Though I do agree with you about blondes."
There was an awkward silence over the comm. and Rodney took a moment to rewind his last statement in his head. His cheeks flushed and he began to speak rapidly, "I've scanned the primary crystals for some form of recall or imprinting, but there doesn't seem to be a program designed for that type of function. Though one would assume technology with an embedded correlated drift system would be advanced enough to include the ability for something as elementary as redial, regardless of the original source. I'm analyzing the programming codes for the memory buffer now, but thus far the result is that retention is limited to reintegration patterns."
"…Right," Lorne said. "So that's a 'not yet' then."
Rodney sighed. "No, not yet."
"Aerial life sign sweeps aren't showing anything promising." The major was obviously frustrated. "Not to pressure you or anything, but I'd say they gated again. So we're going to need an address."
"I'm working on it."
Lorne's reply was succinct. "Work faster."
Elizabeth smiled. A higher power was definitely on her side. She was alive, upright, armed and standing three feet from a healthy looking creek. Sure, she was stranded on an alien planet with an enemy transmitter surgically implanted in her back, but hey – she was trying to stay positive.
She stepped to the edge of the stream and crouched down, cupping her hands and dipping them in. She brought the cold water to her lips and sipped slowly. It tasted a bit off, almost sour, but her other options were non-existent so she submerged her hands again and drank until she was no longer thirsty.
Sated, Elizabeth splashed her face before climbing to her feet. The cool liquid trickled down her neck, calming her flushed skin. She grimaced slightly. Even without the incentive of aliens trying to kill her, traveling much further across this purple planet was not going to be fun. She gently probed the wound in her back and felt the tension of her body hum beneath her fingers. She desperately wanted to sleep. Dawn had been breaking when she was released from the hive ship and now the sun was low in the sky. She imagined she had about two more hours of light. Bending down to retrieve the stunner she resolved to continue moving and rest only when visibility was gone entirely.
Ideally, she would have liked to remain near the stream, but the lack of growth along the bank would leave her exposed and vulnerable. Instead she moved into the shelter of the forest and attempted to keep the water close enough to be heard but out of sight.
She hadn't been moving for more then twenty minutes when she tensed abruptly, looking over her shoulder. An inexplicable chill crawled up her spine and her muscles clenched reflexively. She swung around slowly, scanning the nearby trees and listening intently. Nothing seemed amiss, and the only sound that reached her ears was the faint bubbling of water in the distance. Shaking it off as paranoia, Elizabeth continued walking as quickly and cautiously as she could, her grip tightening unconsciously on the stunner.
Somewhere close by, gravel crunched. She certainly hadn't imagined that. Elizabeth planted herself against the trunk of a tree and crouched low. She settled in to wait, her eyes constantly sweeping the area around her. Logic dictated that her adversary would stick to the trees, much as she had done. A slight movement caught her eye and she froze, scarcely daring to breathe. Something was definitely out there.
Perfect. She had to be the mouse in the sick and twisted version of Stealth 101. She couldn't have been selected for the class in compassion?
There was no point in hiding so long as she continued to carry the tracker. Elizabeth pulled back from the tree, looking for movement. Taking a deep breath, she put her hand around the trunk, fired three quick bursts with the stunner at what she thought were the most logical hiding places and then took off running. She stayed as low as her protesting back would permit and actually gained ten yards before the shouts and grunts behind her made clear that the Wraith had discovered her retreat. She didn't bother looking back. He was there. The time for caution past, she veered left, picking up speed as she dodged between trees.
A crashing in the underbrush to her right made her pivot and level her weapon. With a menacing hiss, a large Wraith emerged from a tree directly beside her. She didn't have time to figure out how he had caught up with her. She fired but was too slow. The Wraith knocked Elizabeth off her feet and flying into the dust with only a broad swipe of his hand. Her stunner skidded to a halt between them.
Elizabeth noted the hungry look on the Wraith's face almost as an afterthought. All of her attention was focused on his hand coming up and swinging his stunner toward her. Everything was happening so slowly, then the moment of shock passed and the adrenalin kicked in again. MOVE! She threw herself sideways and out of the way of the blast.
Keeping a wary eye on him, Elizabeth silently berated herself for losing her weapon so quickly. The Wraith cocked his head to the side and hissed before marching evenly toward her. Waiting until he was forced to step around a log, she maneuvered herself as close as she dared and then made her move. Shifting her weight to her hands, she kicked her leg forward and swept it under him with all the force she could summon. When her foot hooked just behind his ankle she jerked upwards, causing the Wraith to stumble. He was forced to use his arms to steady himself and regain his balance. Making the most of the brief window during which the Wraith didn't have his weapon trained on her, Elizabeth dove toward her displaced stunner. With one smooth motion she grabbed the weapon, swiveled and fired, engulfing the warrior in an electric blue blast.
Elizabeth pulled herself to her feet, bracing against a tree. Slowly, she stepped toward the fallen Wraith, leveled her stunner and fired again.
In all of his travels throughout the Pegasus Galaxy, John Sheppard had come across remarkably few species of wildlife. No bears or dogs, no lizards or snakes. In fact, he was hard pressed to think of an occasion where he had run across any creature bigger than a fly. Well, besides that one time with the sea-monster. And, of course, the incident with the giant Iratus bug. John shuddered involuntarily. He really did hate bugs.
The apparent lack of animal life hadn't really concerned him – until now. John was certain that there was some sort of scuffle taking place just outside his line of sight. And as much as he was really, really hoping it was a pair of frisky bunnies or something equally innocuous, if his experience thus far in Pegasus had taught him anything it was that strange noises were likely the result of something much stronger and a great deal hungrier. Like, perhaps, something six foot tall with pasty green skin and an insatiable thirst for human souls. What it was wrestling with, however, was anyone's guess.
Carefully and quietly, John closed the distance, gun drawn. When the flash of a Wraith stunner appeared not fifteen yards from him, he took a reflexive step back, then watched as a lifeless black figure fell gracelessly to the ground. Three seconds later, a pale human arm extended from behind a large tree, aimed a weapon at the Wraith and fired.
Shoulder clenched tightly against the stock of his P90, John again crept forward trying to get a view of the gunman. When he did, the sight nearly floored him.
If she heard him, she didn't acknowledge it.
Stunner pointing at the downed Wraith, Elizabeth stood motionless – a visual paradox. She looked so incredibly strong and yet devastatingly vulnerable at the same time. Deep purple smudges streaked her colorless cheeks like so many bruises. The hands that gripped her gun were white with tension. The hair that fell across her face was knotted and wind blown, sweeping along the collar of her torn and tattered uniform.
He'd been so scared when she disappeared. And yet, here she stood; whole before him. And suddenly he could breathe, really breathe, again.
"Elizabeth?" he tried a second time. It took a full minute for her gaze to turn to John, and when it did her shoulders slumped, her knees buckled, and her eyes closed in relief. When she opened them again, they were locked with his.
Elizabeth's arm fell weakly to her side and she released her hold on the weapon, sending it carelessly to the ground.
After a measureless time spent staring at her in silence, words spilled from John's mouth as his legs carried him forward.
"Oh god, Elizabeth," he whispered hoarsely. He pulled her into his arms, trying to be gentle but at the same time desperate to show her the magnitude of his relief. She felt warm and soft and alive.
Her muffled cry caused him to draw back instantly. In the span of mere moments she had blanched three shades of white and was biting her lip to contain a sob. John gently brushed the curls from her face and tilted her head up, concern overwhelming him.
"Elizabeth, what's wrong?"
She wrapped an arm protectively around herself as she struggled for some semblance of control, schooling the grimace from her features and squaring her shoulders. Before his eyes her leader mask slid firmly into place. The transformation was impressive, but it tore at his heart.
"It's my back," she began with even stoicism, "I'm pretty sure…" she trailed off. Whatever it was, she didn't relish explaining it to him. Her expression remained guarded – causing his own to tense in response.
John gritted his teeth in exasperation, but reminded himself that the woman had just been through hell. Before he pressed her too much, he needed answers.
"You were on a hive ship?"
"Yes," she confirmed neutrally.
Rage swelled inside him. That was something that was never supposed to happen to her. His job was to keep her out of those kinds of situations – to protect her. What the hell had she been thinking when she went after the ZPM all by herself? What the hell had he been doing that allowed it to happen?
He bit back a heavy sigh. Self-flagellation wasn't getting him anywhere. "How did you escape?"
She shrugged to disguise the poised tension of her body. "I didn't."
"They let you go?" he wondered aloud.
"Why would they –"
It was one of those revelations that knocked the wind from your lungs.
"I'm sorry, John, you have to stay away from me." She stepped back and retrieved her fallen weapon before kneeling to check the Wraith for anything salvageable.
John clenched his fists tightly. "You're a runner." It wasn't a question.
She stood, shoving her stunner into her jacket. "They've found me once. It won't be long before they find me again." There was no fear in her voice, only grim resignation. "I need to keep moving." Without a backwards glance, she turned and walked away.
John took three long steps and snagged her arm roughly, spinning her toward him. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Where do you think you're going?"
She met his glare coolly, her expression determined. "I need to put distance between us."
The pieces were beginning to fall into place. He had always known that she was an exceptionally stubborn woman, but he had never before this moment thought her stupid.
"Like hell you do."
She looked out into the woods rather than at him and spoke in a tightly controlled voice. "The Wraith are going to show up wherever I am. It's inevitable." She lifted her gaze, finally meeting his eyes. "You being there when they do, however, is not."
"Elizabeth, be reasonable. You have hardly any combat training. It's suicide." John argued, tightening his grip on her arm. "And more to the point, I'm not leaving you to deal with this on your own." Now that he'd found her again there was no way he was letting her go. If he'd learned anything on this damn purple planet it was that he needed her.
Elizabeth jerked against his hold. "So you're planning on getting killed with me?" she hissed. "Just you and me against a hive full of Wraith? And that is supposed to even the odds? Exactly how reasonable is that? It's me they're after, not you!"
At his grunt of disapproval she continued, "I am not going to be responsible for bringing the Wraith to you, John."
"You expect me to sit here and let you sacrifice yourself? It's my job to protect you!" He was beginning to feel a little heated himself; damn her!
The glare she leveled at him could have incinerated half of Pegasus. "I don't want to be the thorn in your side, Colonel," she ground out icily. "You are hereby relieved of your duties."
"This is a military situation, Doctor," he shot back. "And I'm telling you that my job is to get you back to Atlantis!" Dear lord. He wanted to both strangle and kiss some sense into her at the same time.
John took a deep breath and scrubbed his free hand through his hair. This was all wrong. He was angry and she was bitter. But when he thought about it, he realized that he shouldn't be surprised by her attitude. He would do the same thing were he in her place, after all. What he needed to do was to change tactics.
"Hey." He loosened his grip on her arm and let his fingers trail along her skin, dropping his hand to hers and squeezing gently. He waited until she looked up at him. "You know me." He tried an impish smile. "With the amount of trouble I attract, I might as well have a tracking device implanted. They find me everywhere I go." He threw in an eyebrow lift. "You might actually want to stay away from me, lest I bring the bad guys to you."
She didn't smile, but it was a near thing.
"Elizabeth, I can't leave you." His voice was soft and full of determination. "I know that you wouldn't abandon me were our positions reversed so you can't ask me to do it to you. We're in this together now."
She considered him for a moment, and suddenly he was sure that she understood what was lying beneath the surface, everything that he couldn't say. But if she did, she didn't comment. Instead she placed a hand on his chest, resting it there for a moment without saying anything.
Eventually she drew her hand away. "You make a good case, John. It must be my diplomacy skills rubbing off on you." She smiled ruefully, but there was more resignation than amusement in it. "We should keep moving then."
John drew a deep breath and released it slowly. He let go of her hand reluctantly, hesitant to break the contact but needing to get his emotions under control.
Reaching into his vest, he pulled out a PowerBar. "Besides," he grinned as he passed it to her, "I'm the one with the food."
She chuckled softly. "There is that. So how far is the Stargate?" she asked as she greedily tore at the metallic wrapping.
"About three days hike," he estimated and looked at the horizon, "but we'll have to stop for the night pretty soon. It's just about dark."
She nodded and they began to walk. They were quiet for a moment while negotiating the terrain. She glanced over at John, "So, how'd you find me?"
He flashed his best flyboy smile. "Superior tracking skills and an unparalleled instinct."
She gave him a sideways look. "Dumb luck?"
"…and frankly, I refuse to accept it!" Rodney argued vehemently.
Major Lorne took a deep breath. He sympathized with the scientist to an unhealthy degree. Were he not responsible for the welfare of the entire expedition, he would no doubt be in a puddle jumper searching for Weir and Sheppard right now rather than sitting in a conference room. But he had the threat of hive ships to consider and that drew his personal feelings out of the equation.
"Doctor Zelenka," Lorne took control of the debate, "you have had three days to dissect that DHD. In your opinion, is there any way to retrieve previously contacted addresses from anywhere in its memory banks?"
Studiously ignoring the steam coming from McKay, Zelenka shook his head firmly. "No, Major, I am afraid I do not see any conceivable way to extract symbols in the case of remote dialing. We need the sequence to be dialed on the device itself to have any kind of recall."
"Well, then," Rodney's voice was dripping with sarcasm, "why don't we just quit! The great and powerful Radek doesn't think it can be done!" He rolled his eyes and spat furiously, "But let us remember that had we listened to Mr. Naysayer here, we all would have died in the siege!"
"Rodney…" came a scolding voice. For the briefest of moments Lorne thought it was Dr. Weir, disciplining McKay like she had done so many times before. With just his name and that fear-inspiring tone she said all she needed to get her message across. "We all wish there was something we could do to locate Colonel Sheppard and Doctor Weir," Teyla continued, "but you cannot will to happen that which is physically impossible."
Beside her, Ronon looked as though he was ready to give it a try.
"The fact is," Lorne began reluctantly, "short of scouring every single planet in this galaxy there is no way for us to track them down. It's not enough." He looked around the room. "And right now we can't afford to devote the resources. We're not giving up hope, but we are calling off the search."
At Rodney's whimper of protest he continued, "McKay, you may remain on the planet to analyze the DHD. Everyone else, we still have this little issue of impending Wraith hive ships. We need a ZPM and we need it now. Teyla, join Cpl. Bailey's team. Ronon," he turned to the warrior, "go with Sgt. Andrews."
When her eyes opened, dawn's milky strands of first light were threaded weakly through the sky. With a deep, cleansing breath, Elizabeth realized that she had slept almost straight through the night for the first time in days. The soft, even snoring at her neck told her that John was still asleep, so she took care to move slowly as she turned to look at him.
Though his face had regained some of its usual color, the strain these last few days had put on him was reflected clearly in its lines and shadows. His cheeks were pale and drawn, and grey circles still ringed his eyes. But what drew her attention was the worry that pervaded his very countenance, clearly evident even in sleep. The furrowed brow and pained expression were a stark contrast to the calming cadence of his breathing. Here he couldn't mask the stress and fear with his usual cocky air of nonchalance. Logically, she knew that John Sheppard wasn't made of stone – but the image of her anchor in such a vulnerable state was something that she felt deeply.
Her hand reached out of its own volition, needing to calm him, to comfort him, but she stopped the rogue notion before making contact with his skin. A simple touch would do nothing to settle him. She needed to ensure his safety.
Gingerly she rose, taking care not to make a sound. As she made her way from the camp, she forced herself to keep her eyes forward. Looking back would only serve to shake her resolve. Elizabeth needed to shut off her emotions to do the right thing. She'd done it before, in harder situations than this, and she could do it now. After all, it was only a few days of hiking and dodging Wraith to get to the Stargate. Ronon had done it for seven years.
"Out for a little morning exercise?"
"John," she started. He was leaning casually against a tree a few feet ahead of her. How in the world had he passed her without her noticing?
"I would have appreciated an invite, you know. When we get back I'm going to have to continue my runs with Ronon, and I'll be out of shape from all of this time off." He frowned slightly. "He might manage to beat me."
Her rejoinder was reflexive. "He always beats you."
John waved a hand dismissively. "Urban myth."
Elizabeth studied the ground at her feet self-consciously before looking back up at him. "I think it's better if we split up."
He pushed off the tree and walked toward her, eyes narrowed. "Better for whom?"
She looked back down at her feet, but not before he caught her bleak expression. "Better for you."
He was in front of her now, arms crossed and tone serious. "And what about you?" John recognized the edge in his voice, but felt fairly powerless to restrain it.
She lifted her gaze in his direction. "That's not my main concern."
"What if it's mine?"
Elizabeth shook her head. He was ignoring the obvious point. "It's not a question of putting one of our well-beings in front of the other, John. It's whether we put both of us in danger or just one of us."
Her answer did little to ease the tension that had inlaid itself in his shoulders the moment he'd awoken to find her gone.
"So you're leaving to protect me?"
"Well, you won't have a beacon transmitting your location to the Wraith if you separate from me, so I think you'd have better odds at survival, yes," she informed him tightly, though she knew she didn't need to. He was well aware of the fact that he was better off without her. He was just being the typical stubborn, self-sacrificing John; and she was trying hard to resist the urge to stun him.
He gently took hold of her upper arms looked deliberately into her eyes. "Elizabeth, listen to me. I am not going to leave you alone. Period. We're stronger together, we'll be safer together. Do us both a favor and stop thinking otherwise because you know I'm right. And if I haven't sold you yet," he hesitated, swallowing hard, "this will." John squeezed her once. "I need you," he confessed.
Something about his tone made her suddenly feel as though the wind had been knocked out of her. He sounded worried and a bit scared and the touch of his hand was sending a little thrill through her. Stop it, she told herself firmly, he didn't mean it like that. When she finally replied it was in a near-whisper. "What?"
John was distinctly uncomfortable with her reaction. For a moment he thought that he'd seen recognition in her features, but he couldn't be sure. Everything about her was held so carefully – her gaze burning though him, her breath painfully measured, perfectly gauged.
After an awkward moment of doubt he released his hold on her and re-crossed his arms stiffly. "I need the transmitter, I mean." Knowing that the statement wasn't entirely true, he continued on with his explanation but his eyes were dull and lifeless. "There's no DHD on this planet. I'll need a dart to dial out."
Elizabeth swallowed hard. She felt a stab of disappointment but pushed it aside, cursing herself for being ridiculous.
John could see her taking a step back from her emotions. As much as he wanted to protest, to try to explain himself, he knew that now was not the time to start this, especially not while the Wraith were after them. He'd been seven kinds of fool to try to push the issue before he had even worked through it himself.
"Well," she said after a moment, "I guess we're stuck with each other then." She flashed him a weak smile. "So, Colonel Custer, any plan for dealing with our hive full of Wraith?"
John chuckled humorlessly. "I haven't decided yet. Right now it's still a toss-up between requesting their peaceful surrender and surrounding them."
The morning had passed far too quietly for John's liking. While it was true that there was something to be said for stealth, John was fairly certain that Elizabeth's reasons for being both introspective and mute were not borne of military strategy.
He reminded himself that she was in the midst of a difficult situation. Idle chitchat probably wasn't appropriate. She was most likely ruminating on the fact that the Wraith could be on top of them at any moment. Or she could be focusing on getting to the Stargate in once piece. Maybe she was wondering how Atlantis was fairing with the threat of the hive ships. Or, possibly, she was brooding over the fact that he was an ass and had basically told her that the only reason he was trying to save her was because she was his ticket to a ride home.
John winced. That last bit, of course, was far from the truth. But the woman had gotten that look in her eye. She had been moments away from bolting. He had needed something concrete to convince her that the two of them remaining together was a necessity and he'd grasped at the first thing that fit the bill.
Okay, so he had been rude and hadn't inspired the atmosphere for small talk. He would admit to that. But, damn, the silence was deafening.
"So," he offered with forced enthusiasm, "want to play 'Prime, Not Prime?'"
Elizabeth gave a non-committal grunt and kept moving.
"Right. Not everyone thinks math is fun." Hell, he didn't think math was fun. But at least it was something to get her to connect with him, if only superficially. He pursed his lips in thought for a moment. "We could play 'Negotiate, Don't Negotiate.'"
Strike two. He figured 'I Spy' would be rejected outright as well and decided to call it an even three. Feeling awkward and ineffective, he continued to trudge down the hill and resigned himself to silence. It appeared that the afternoon would pass in quite the same manner as the morning.
John halted abruptly, sweeping up his weapon and putting himself between Elizabeth and whatever was coming. He had his P90 loosely against his shoulder with the barrel angled down as he waited tensely.
Elizabeth imagined him sniffing the wind like a hungry predator. She, on the other hand, hardly dared to move. Clearly, there was some danger ahead, but she couldn't hear or see anything. First order of business when she got back to Atlantis: have Teyla help hone her tracking skills. This was definitely becoming a problem.
Very softly she asked, "John, what is it?"
He raised a finger to silence and still her but his eyes never left their fixed point. She tried to follow his gaze but saw nothing out of place.
A slight movement in the shadows made them both pivot. Suddenly an incorporeal mass of darkness swept into her line of sight and just as suddenly disappeared into the void. A faint but piercing screeching drew her focus behind her – and she twisted – just in time to see another black umbra dart through the trees before vanishing.
A crashing in the underbrush had John flattened against a tree with his weapon pointed just to her right. "They're not real," he hissed over his shoulder, grabbing her arm and pulling her toward him. "They're projected by the Wraith to mess with your mind. Look past them," he ordered fiercely.
She nodded distractedly. Tension thrummed through her, tugging at her lungs. She couldn't speak or breathe and the first stirrings of panic tightened in her chest. She shoved it down, forcing herself to concentrate as she continued to circle – the visions screaming in and out of sight – waiting for the real danger to come at any moment.
A burst of stunner fire made her jump and then John dove toward her, shoving her to the ground and flattening her underneath him.
Trying to ignore her sharp cry of pain as they hit the ground, John rolled to the side, returning fire. With a sweeping spray of the P90, his first volley took one Wraith square in the chest, dropping him like a rock.
Elizabeth struggled to regain her ability to breathe, pain blossoming in her shoulder. Her stunner had been knocked from her grasp in the fall, and her eyes darted frantically from side to side in an attempt to pinpoint either the weapon or the threat.
Without warning the shadowy apparitions were gone and two more Wraith warriors advanced on them, weapons poised.
John shouted for Elizabeth to run.
She scrambled to her feet, tripped and caught herself as she forced her way through a tangle of underbrush and away from the advancing Wraith.
From his place on the ground John spun his body, bracing his legs to steady himself as his sub tracked the second Wraith. His onslaught of fire caught the alien in the thigh, causing him to falter. As he lurched toward him John dropped his spent P90 and drew his 9mm before yelling, "Elizabeth, don't stop damn it!"
John emptied his clip into his target and the warrior pitched forward, landing directly on top of John in a cloud of purple dust. His body jerked at the impact. Red-faced and wheezing, John pushed vainly against the dead weight draped across him as the final Wraith continued to advance.
Elizabeth had crouched behind a downed log for cover but now she stood – heart clenching – watching the scene unfold with her stunner uselessly out of reach. Her vision narrowed as the warrior's shadow drenched John in darkness, saliva dripping from his mouth with an angry hiss. An unfamiliar and deep fear clutched at her. Dear god, don't let anything happen to John. Dark rage boiled inside her at the sight of him struggling against the monsters who had enslaved a galaxy – and she allowed it to well to the surface.
Her small frame impacted the Wraith from the side. It was awkward and not as hard as she'd have liked, but it had the desired effect – managing to knock him backward and buying John a few seconds to regroup and roll free.
Her head snapped and she was sent reeling when the Wraith's right hand slammed into her jaw. Spots danced in front of her eyes but she managed to scramble forward on her hand and knees and desperately lunge at the Wraith again. Latching onto the front of his chest she threw herself sideways, dragging the beast to ground. They landed with a thump, grappling furiously for leverage.
Flat on his back, John managed to insert a new magazine. A split second later he had the pistol up, finger curling around the trigger.
The alien gave a furious grunt and with one swift tug he flung Elizabeth violently from him, then he advanced on her.
There was a sharp crack of pistol fire and Elizabeth's eyes widened in surprise as the warrior jerked and then tumbled forward, plummeting into a violet haze.
Slowly, Elizabeth pushed herself into a sitting position and stopped for a moment, resting her head in her hand and closing her eyes. When she heard John say her name in a quiet, worried tone, she gave him a wan smile. "I'm okay, just taking a minute."
Awkwardly, John hoisted himself to his feet. With his left arm hanging limply at his side he made his way over to Elizabeth.
He sank to his knees beside her with only a slight grimace. "You all right?" he breathed.
At her nodded response a sharp pain rolled through her head. The adrenaline was beginning to dissipate and her body was starting to register other sensations. She was scratched and bleeding from her headlong flight through the forest. Her cheek stung, her skull was throbbing and her shoulder ached abominably. She closed her eyes against the new awareness.
John looked over her anxiously. Her eyes were enormous, shadowed and staring from a small, pale face smudged with blood and dirt. Her slight frame was taut with tension. "Do you think you can walk?"
"Yes... no… actually, I'm not sure. Damn." She closed her eyes briefly. "Help me up."
John grabbed a hand and hauled her to her feet, bracing himself to take the weight. Once she was up, he reached down, retrieved her stunner and handed it to her. He flashed a quick, reassuring smile. She was a lot steadier than he thought she'd be, nevertheless, he stayed close as she picked her way through the downed Wraith.
"We need to get out of here."
"Hold up," John said softly. They were in a thick copse of trees, and as far as he could tell they had put a significant distance between themselves and the Wraith. Now they needed a break.
Elizabeth dropped gratefully to the ground and John took the opportunity to examine her more closely. Though she'd settled, she was still breathing heavily. It wasn't surprising; the day had been taxing on both of them. The stress alone was exhausting, not to mention the fact that she'd seen fit to take on a Wraith warrior single-handedly.
He gently pulled Elizabeth's jacket from her waist and turned a sleeve inside out, wetting the tip with water from his canteen. Bringing a hand up to her face, he brushed the tangled curls from her cheek and winced slightly as stray hair clung to matted blood before being swept aside. The wound wasn't deep, but it was sizeable and had bled a considerable amount.
"How're you doing?" he asked in a soothing tone, using the wet material to gently clean her wound.
Elizabeth's eyes fluttered open and she hissed at the contact. She didn't answer right away and he wondered if she was just getting her breath back or if she was trying to come up with a plausible lie to keep him from worrying. Finally she said, "Right now, I'm good."
"Sorry about this," he apologized, continuing to dab cautiously at her skin, "I'll try to be quick."
"It's okay." She looked up to his face. "Is it bad?"
"No," he assured her, "it's a surface cut. It just needs to be cleaned."
He silently concentrated on his work until he'd done all that he could. When he was finished he pulled the jacket away and rifled through his vest, locating something to stop the bleeding. With a gentle touch, he spread the ointment on the wound. His fingers tingled when they brushed her skin, the contact warm and nice. He left them there for a moment, idly rubbing small, comforting strokes with his thumb. She looked up at him, blinking slowly.
John was sure that his eyes must have betrayed his feelings, but for the first time he didn't care.
Elizabeth flinched ever so slightly under his gaze. "John, I'm all right," she said softly. "And, as a bonus, there are a few less Wraith in the galaxy."
"See," he gestured between them, "better together."
She nodded thoughtfully. "I suppose we are."
John wanted to say more, but couldn't seem to come up with the right words. Instead, he simply continued to stare.
Elizabeth ducked her head self-consciously. "All right, I know I look like death warmed over. You don't have to keep looking at me."
John ignored her statement, instead positioning himself to lean against a tree and tugging gently on her arm. "C'mere," he said as he pulled her to recline against him. He felt her settle back on his chest, her head up by his shoulder. Indulging a whim, he let his cheek rest against the side of her head.
Sighing to himself, he searched for a way to open this all-important dialogue with Elizabeth. At last he decided to stop stalling and just wing it. It had to come out somehow, and it couldn't be any worse than some of his previous attempts.
"About what I said earlier," John began tentatively, "I didn't mean to imply that…"
Elizabeth stiffened and shifted to sit up. "Don't worry about it, I understand."
If she was trying to offer him a way out, he didn't want it. He wanted to explain what he had really meant. He wanted her to understand that he was still trying to get a grasp on his emotions and had panicked. "I am worried about it," he insisted. "It came out all wrong and I sounded like a jackass."
She continued to face away from him. "John, it doesn't matter."
"It does matter," he corrected. "You have to understand that I do need you."
"To attract the Wraith," she supplied with no resentment.
She frowned disapprovingly.
"Well, yes," he admitted, "but not solely for that."
Frustrated, John rubbed the heel of one palm into his brow. He was becoming increasingly annoyed at his spectacular inability to have this type of conversation with her. It was usually so easy to talk with Elizabeth, but whenever it came to explaining how he felt about her, he fumbled horribly. He took a steadying breath. "Look, Elizabeth. You're my closest friend. I couldn't leave you alone because if I lost you, then," he hesitated, "if I lost you I'd lose a part myself that I don't think I could ever get back." He winced – could he be more clichéd? He was such a moron. He would never get this out right. "Does that make sense? Or does it sound like some cheesy Lifetime Original movie?"
She grinned. "A little of both?" She placed her hand on his and relaxed into him again. "I think I know what you mean."
He let out a long, relieved breath. "Good." He turned his hand so that their palms were together and squeezed.
Elizabeth discovered a pocket in the massive root system of a thick, sturdy tree and decided that it was as good a place as any to settle in for the night. She lowered herself carefully to the ground, making a valiant effort not to wince as every muscle in her body protested the movement. Rest and sleep were definitely in order.
Untying her jacket from her waist, Elizabeth draped it across her shoulders and pulled the material snug against her body. For some reason, she'd always had a quirk about sleeping. It was next to impossible for her to get any sleep while out in the open; exposed and uncovered. She had to be tucked in, wrapped in something – physically enveloped – to find any peace. Even on the hottest summer nights, her body sticky with sweat, she would still wrap herself in a soft cotton sheet in order to maintain some level of… what was it? Security maybe. Protection? She wasn't entirely sure, but she did know that whatever it was, it was a necessity. Tonight it was the rough bark of a foreign tree and the familiar fabric of her uniform.
Returning from his sweep of the area, John pulled up short when he saw Elizabeth. "I see you've found a little nook," he drawled, eyebrows raised. "Comfy?"
Unabashedly, she grinned up at him and nodded in reply. "I was really lucky with this one. My real estate agent phoned me as soon as she saw the listing." Yawning, she continued, "Not a bad price for a place with a view."
"Well," John put his hands on his hips with false indignation, "I think I'm going to have to have a serious talk with my agent. My options appear to be," he scanned the immediate area, "…yeah, not so good." He stepped toward her and flashed a killer grin. "Need a roomie?"
"Ah," she managed a straight face, "you saw my ad for the cocky flyboy with unmanageable hair."
He laughed and slid in beside her. "Life's no fun if you obey the laws of gravity."
They were silent for a while as he settled into the space between Elizabeth and the forest giant. She felt the heat from his body wash over her and almost without thinking snuggled a little closer.
"Goodnight, John," she said softly.
"G'night, Elizabeth," he replied, his hand finding its way to the dip of her waist, drawing her into the warmth of his side.
Though John may not have been a guarantee of safety or security, he was certainly a layer of comfort and familiarity. He was something tangible that held her firmly in the moment and kept infinity at bay. That, she decided, was what wrapped her up and sent her to sleep at night. And John Sheppard was much cozier than any blanket.
The sky was just turning grey with morning when John woke up. Even in his BDUs the chill of a night spent outdoors ghosted across his skin. It took a few seconds to realize why his bed felt so small and his left side was ten times warmer than his right –– then he remembered he'd fallen asleep with Elizabeth, and he smiled instead of shivering.
John didn't want to move. Apparently, Elizabeth had taken as much exception to the temperature as he did; her hands were tucked beneath her chin, her arms sandwiched between her chest and his body. Her legs had managed to weasel their way under each of his so that the lower half of her body was woven around him. There was also a small, cold point pressing on his neck. When John turned his head to investigate he discovered that it was Elizabeth's nose. Every time she exhaled a soft heat would tickle his skin and his body thrilled at the contact.
He tightened his arm around her, just a little, and allowed himself a moment to wonder how being with her like this could feel so familiar. But the first signs of dawn breaking over the trees eventually forced him back to reality. As much as he hated the thought of disturbing her and breaking their contact, he hated leaving them at the mercy of the Wraith more.
With that last thought driving his actions he tugged lightly on a curl. "Elizabeth," he sang, "rise and shine."
Reflexively, she batted his hand away without opening her eyes. "Ten more minutes," she mumbled, nestling closer.
He watched her with amusement, sorely tempted to comply. "I don't think so." He tugged again. "We have to get moving."
Finally she stirred and her tousled head lifted from his chest as she opened bleary, trusting eyes to him. He could definitely get used to waking up like this every morning.
Only a moment later her eyes snapped fully open and her breath hitched as she surveyed her surroundings. From her startled expression it was apparent that she had, at least for a moment, managed to forget their current situation. He watched as reality settled over her and embarrassment fought its way into the mix.
She smiled sheepishly as she disentangled herself from him. "Sorry, I'm a bit of a clingy sleeper. I should have warned you."
"No worries," he said, sitting up and letting her pull away. "I still respect you. In fact," he tapped her nose with his index finger, "I might even respect you more."
Elizabeth glared at him and playfully swatted at his arm.
"What?" he asked with feigned innocence. "In my dreams when we slept together you were much less conservative. I admire your restraint in these dire times."
"That's funny," she paused while he extended a hand and helped her to her feet, "in my dreams you're Colin Firth."
John laughed, tearing open a PowerBar.
"How are you feeling?"
She brushed the dust off her clothing. "Besides repulsive and dirty?" she asked, one eyebrow raised.
"Nah, you look gr –" he stopped. "I can't even say it with a straight face."
This time she punched him harder.
"I'm sorry," he shrugged as they started to hike, "purple's just not your color."
She laughed. "Oh, and I suppose you think it flatters you?"
"I have it on good authority that I look rakish in every color."
Elizabeth stared at him a moment, then squinted dubiously.
"My mom," he supplied.
"Did she also tell you that Santa Claus was real?"
Stricken, John clasped a hand to his chest. "Are you calling my mother a liar?"
"Not at all," she offered diplomatically. "I'm simply suggesting that she indulged you with fantastical tales during your youth."
"All of which pale in comparison to the science fiction epic we're currently living."
Elizabeth looked thoughtful. "You have a point. I suppose flying reindeer wouldn't really surprise me."
"And purple complimenting my complexion…" he prompted.
"…is totally outside the realm of possibility."
John frowned back at her. "You're hateful."
Elizabeth laughed again. He loved that he could make her laugh.
"So, Pigpen, should we make our way to the river?"
"Receiving MALP telemetry."
At the sound of the tech's voice, the noise level in the control room dropped to an anxious hush.
"No power readings," he continued, scanning incoming data, "and no transmitters."
Lorne shook his head. "All right, bring it back and dial the next one."
There were three teams off-world investigating planets that had abnormal power signatures but Lorne wasn't holding out much hope. The expedition had been on the lookout for ZPMs since their arrival in the Pegasus Galaxy and it seemed highly unlikely that this sort of hasty search would garner any results. Add to that the fact that none of the addresses they had dialed were close enough to Doctor Weir or the colonel to pick up their transmitter signals, and this was shaping up to be a very fruitless process.
"We still have a week," Zelenka said, as if reading his thoughts. "There is a chance."
Lorne left his opinion unvoiced. "How is the database coming?"
"We only have a very small fraction, but it is progressing."
"So by this time next week…" he questioned.
The scientist sighed. "We may have three percent." Shaking his head, he continued, "We should have started this earlier."
"Take it up with Doctor Weir when she gets back," Lorne offered. "Until then, do what you can."
A blue splash drew the pair's attention down to the Stargate.
"Incoming wormhole. Corporal Bailey's IDC."
The shield fizzled out and the four member team stepped through the ring, shoulders slumped in frustration. He didn't need to ask, but he did anyway. "Any luck?"
"No, Major," Teyla replied softly, "we found no sign of a ZPM."
He nodded. "Take a break, all of you. We'll send you out again in two hours."
"As a strapping young lad entering the military, I can honestly say I never imagined that one day I would be where I am now."
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow as she picked her way cautiously through the brush to join John in the stream. "You mean the commanding officer of the military contingent of an intergalactic expedition who became stranded on an alien planet?"
He submerged himself to his neck with a smug grin. "I mean swimming in a river with my superior while only wearing underwear."
"Ah, well then it's a simple matter of you having a lack of imagination."
"Oh, and you knew that one day we'd be here?" He dunked his head, running a hand through his spiky hair when he emerged.
She flinched at the resulting spray. "I always knew I'd see you in your boxers, John."
The gleam in his eye was predatory. "I think I'm going to need you to expand on that, Doctor."
She squirmed a little and avoided his gaze. "Though, I must say, I never predicted that they would have little alligators on them."
"They're ferocious reptiles!" he protested defensively. "And they have fangs!" he added for good measure.
Despite the harrying circumstances Elizabeth allowed herself to relax and enjoy the soothing balm of the water and John's company. She'd forgotten the quiet respite offered by a simple soak. Ironic really, as she lived in a floating city surrounded by 360 degrees of ocean. But for all of Atlantis' wonders she had yet to locate a bath tub. And she'd consistently turned down offers to join the occasional trips to the mainland. There always seemed to be something important waiting on her desk – it would be indulgent of her to spend a day lounging on the beach when an entire expedition was relying on her to get a job done.
But right now the water rushing over her felt like heaven. Sweat and dirt had been caked on like a second skin and it was a relief to have them washed away. And with each clump of purple mud, a little tension was stripped off and lost in the current as well.
When Elizabeth had a particularly difficult day on Earth she would unwind by soaking in a bath and drinking a glass of merlot. It wasn't as glamorous as it sounded – no bubbles, candles or music – just her and a little alcohol steeping in solitude. She hadn't realized how much she missed those little luxuries.
Maybe next time someone asked her to play hooky on the mainland, she'd accept.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
Elizabeth tapped her index finger against her temple. "These babies are worth more than that, I'm afraid."
"They are, are they?" John asked, wading toward her.
She nodded resolutely. "Yes."
"Solving intergalactic crises?" he guessed.
"Wouldn't you like to know." She stuck out her hand, palm up. "I'm going to need payment."
John edged closer. "I'm afraid I don't have any cash on me."
She sighed and said dramatically, "Well then, you appear to be out of luck."
"I've got nothing of value?"
"I'm telling you, those boxers are hideous." She shrugged as if it was obvious.
"Well that's a relief," he was closing in, "I would hope that you wouldn't want my underwear."
For all of his military prowess, Elizabeth found it humorous that John's tactics were so easy to read.
She started to paddle backwards. "You really are twelve. You know that, don't you?" She rolled her eyes, but laughed as he followed her into deeper water.
John's grin was catlike. "But it's endearing, right?"
To her credit, she only conceded the point in her head.
John swam close enough that she had to look up to meet his eyes. She stood her ground, sticking her chin out stubbornly as he glowered down at her. Then he slowly slipped his arm around her and drew her up against him.
She braced herself for the inevitable submersion. "Trapped like a rat."
She actually squeaked when he dunked her briefly. She sputtered and looped her arms around his neck as they surfaced.
"A drowned rat," he amended. Her eyes narrowed. "And I mean that in the most flattering sense of the expression," he continued, acting magnanimous.
"You do?" She smiled and seemed pleased. "You mean without the beady eyes and the long snout?" Now she was fishing.
"Well," he shrugged, "your eyes are pretty beady. But," he continued over her objection, "I think your snout is adorable." To make his point, he dropped a kiss on the tip of her nose.
He pulled back a fraction and their eyes locked. It was one of those moments that, had they been characters in a film, the world around them would have slowed and blurred into soft colors and indefinable shapes. For that immeasurable amount of time she knew he wanted to kiss her. She could see it in his eyes. She could feel it in the way his body brushed against hers – in the way his arms were tight across her waist. And she wanted him to.
She gave herself a mental shake. This is no time for stress-induced lapses in judgment.
Instead she splashed water in his face and swam away with a smile. "We should get moving."
John's face hardened, slipping into his role as the stoic military officer. "Yeah, we should."
Rodney sunk deeper in the mud as he shifted to get a better line of sight. Rain continued to pour from the sky; a never-ending downpour. Somehow 'perpetual' didn't even begin to describe it. As soon as he figured out the address Sheppard and Elizabeth had gated to, Rodney would leave this unrelenting tempest and head directly to the planet with the blazing heat. Screw radiation. It was either that or resign himself to life as one of the California Raisins.
Great. Now he was going to have "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" running through his head for hours.
A white puddle burst from the Stargate and melted into a pool of crystal blue. He looked up to see Teyla step through, arms resting casually on the bag across her chest, and the connection behind her severed.
He turned back to his work as she made her way to his liquid sandbox. He hadn't had a lot of visitors during this little excursion – most likely due to the weather – but perhaps, he admitted to himself, because of his own sour disposition. The only steady company he kept was the lone SF who stood guard, but he wasn't much for conversation. Rodney had so far been unsuccessful in his attempts to get Lorne to recall the pitiable man. Apparently, the military was under the impression that Rodney was incapable of defending himself. Not that a burly nitwit in thirty pounds of wet clothing would be much help should trouble arise.
"Doctor McKay," Teyla greeted as she came up beside him.
Rodney tensed under her scrutiny. He wanted to be left alone. He wanted to be able to concentrate. "If you're here to tell me this is pointless you might as well go home now," he informed her tersely. "I'm not about to give up when there is still a chance that I can figure this out. The colonel has been MIA for a lot longer than a few days and come back to us, so there's no reason to think that we should consider them a lost cause." He was building momentum. "Sheppard can handle himself against the Wraith, the Genii, a time dilation field – anything, really. Don't tell him I said that, of course. Wouldn't want to stroke his ever-expanding ego. And Elizabeth, well, she may not be field trained, but that woman is feisty – and the last thing she would ever do is give up. And to think that for even one moment we would –"
"Doctor McKay," Teyla interrupted. "I did not come to convince you to stop."
Rodney looked up at her, blinking against the rain. "You didn't?"
She shook her head. "I thought you might want something to eat," she said as she opened her bag, retrieving an MRE and a piece of fruit native to the mainland.
"Oh." He took the offering. "Thank you."
"That's the best you can come up with?"
John began rummaging through the pockets of his vest, sarcasm firmly in place. "Well I appear to have left my giant net at home."
Elizabeth pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes in a brief attempt to consider this rationally. So it wasn't the best plan. It wasn't as if they had a plethora of options. Sneaking back to the hive ship to steal a dart wouldn't work. Stealth was completely out of the question when one had a transmitter on their person. They would have to do the best they could with the opportunities and the tools they had on hand. Beacons attracted. Ergo, they'd attract. But he didn't have to be so… nonchalant about it.
"You have no faith in me," he accused, reading her inner monologue.
She folded her arms across her chest looked at him speculatively. "Are you a major league pitcher?"
He scratched the back of his neck and offered, "I played center field in high school."
Her brow furrowed. "Varsity?"
John looked a little sheepish. "Junior Varsity."
"Oh, for heaven's sake."
"It was a big school!"
Elizabeth sighed. Worrying over this wasn't going to help. It would either work or it wouldn't.
"Okay, let's do this."
Levity gone, John stepped closer. "You sure you're ready?"
She met his eyes, finding her own worry reflected in his gentle demeanor. "Not quite." She closed the space between them and wrapped him in a hug. His arms hesitated a moment before encircling her waist. She inhaled deeply, his scent filling her nose. He smelled like dust and sweat and a familiar spice that would always be John. "Thank you," she whispered into his neck before pulling away.
"I hope that wasn't a goodbye hug," he hedged carefully.
"No, no," she assured him with a half-smile. "That was of the 'good luck' variety."
"I suppose I can't tell the difference," he feigned ignorance then smiled boldly. "Could I get it again, so I could better analyze it?"
"John," she warned.
"Right." He batted his hands at her in a shooing gesture. "Go. Be a target."
Elizabeth had never been bait before. And really, it wasn't something she ever imagined she would experience. This was not to say that she didn't think she was up to the challenge. There really wasn't much to it. Go out into the violet abyss, stand still and don't die.
She wiped sweaty hands on her pants, trying to keep her breathing steady. At the moment she was perfecting the "stand still" portion of the program, which was proving to be slightly harder than step one, and was on the verge of morphing into "sit still." The jury was still out on the difficulty of step three, but she didn't have high hopes – John's JV experience notwithstanding.
She looked over to the tree line where John was waiting. It was too great a distance to make out his features, but she could see his silhouette clearly. As she watched the shadowed figure, her lips curved into a soft smile. Somewhere in her subconscious that image was deeply embedded. Until the incident with the nanites she hadn't realized it – hadn't been able to nail it down. But in hindsight it was glaringly obvious. John's presence was a constant and, she recognized now though she hadn't then, a comfort. He could break through to her and pull her to her feet regardless of the circumstances. It was a little daunting to come to grips with having someone so intimately woven into her psyche, but at the same time it felt good. She knew that whatever happened he would always be there – it was stability that she hadn't before experienced.
The mosquito-like buzz of a Wraith dart broke through her thoughts. Ahead of her, the fighter cleared the forest's edge as it made its approach. The terrain rumbled along with the high pitched hum and Elizabeth's fists clenched reflexively. She felt like a rodeo clown, throwing herself recklessly into danger's path. Her heels dug into the gravel and her pulse began to pound. Being a target certainly wasn't good for the blood pressure. Just as she was wishing for the miraculous appearance of some deus ex machina to pull her out of this death-trap, an explosion rocked the dart and sent it flying wildly out of control.
With a heart-stopping roar, the dart fell from the sky in a cloud of black smoke, cutting a ragged path through the landscape before skidding to a halt not ten yards from her feet.
Well, she mused, he really did pull it off. Maybe John was her hand of god.
She waited silently for a moment, peering intently toward the downed craft. The seconds ticked slowly by as she listened for movement, unsure and expecting a Wraith warrior to come for her at any moment. Heart in her throat, Elizabeth raised her stunner and cautiously approached. She would have preferred to have John do this part, but he was still a good hundred yards away and she had to assume that the sooner the pilot was incapacitated the better.
Her hands were tentatively exploring the canopy for a release when it sprang open and the Wraith emerged like a demented jack-in-the-box. Startled, she hesitated a moment too long. The Wraith lashed out, striking her across the face. Reeling, she managed to maintain her footing and spun back to him, raising her stunner and firing. With a howl the warrior jerked and spilled across the open cockpit, his own weapon dropping from his grasp.
The sting of his hand on her cheek was still burning as John ran up.
"You okay?" he asked breathlessly. Elizabeth's mind flashed back to when John had grabbed her hand after rescuing her from Kolya. He had used that same worried tone, had shown that same apprehension and uncertainty in his eyes.
But she was a different person now. And this time her answer was different.
"I am," she nodded decisively. Dropping her weapon, she reached for the Wraith and began to tug. "Let's get the hell out of here."
Together they managed to drag the pilot from his seat. With one last look John climbed into the dart. He located the dialing mechanism and poised his finger above the consol. "Any requests?"
She smiled wryly. "Anywhere that isn't purple."
"He's just caught a bit of a bug," Beckett explained. "Those few days in the rain did a number on his immune system. He'll recover, but I've ordered him confined to his quarters for rest." He hesitated a moment. "I'd also recommend some mandatory sessions with Dr. Heightmeyer."
Lorne nodded absently.
"You as well, Major." At his puzzled expression Beckett continued, "Rodney's not the only one who's been affected by the loss of the colonel and Doctor Weir –"
"Incoming wormhole," the tinny voice of a technician over the comm. interrupted their discussion.
"That'll be Cadman's team," Lorne supplied, grateful for the reprieve. He pivoted away from the doctor and crossed the gangway to the control room in long strides.
"Receiving IDC." The tech's eyes widened in shock before his head jerked up. "It's Colonel Sheppard, sir."
Lorne didn't try to fight the grin that pulled at his lips.
"It's a radio transmission."
Receiving a nod, the technician keyed the communications system.
"Colonel Sheppard, sir, it's good to hear from you."
"You too, Major," came Sheppard's reply. "Listen, I've got a bit of a situation here. Could we get Beckett to the echo site? And have him bring something sharp."
The doctor tensed beside Lorne, immediately concerned. "Are you all right, Colonel? Have you been wounded?"
"No, no," Sheppard assured them, "just picked up a pesky little accessory that needs to be removed."
"Sir," Lorne began, not sure how to broach the subject. If anyone was concerned with the safety and well being if their expedition leader, it was Sheppard. He didn't relish the possibility of explaining to his commanding officer that he hadn't yet located his most precious charge. Finally, he decided that protocol dictated he be blunt. "Is Doctor Weir with you?"
"Why do you think I want Beckett to come with a knife?"
Lorne was still trying to wrap his head around the fact that both their expedition leader and military commander had survived the Wraith attack and its grueling aftermath when a pair of medics appeared through the Stargate carrying an anesthetized and unconscious Dr. Weir. Beckett and Sheppard followed, hovering protectively close to their leader.
Lorne had always respected and admired Weir. He'd known that she was a fine leader and a strong woman, but it had been an abstract concept. Now, after what he had learned of her actions in the last few days, he'd seen her fortitude and resolve put to the test under what would be harrowing circumstances for even the most disciplined officer. The major had always imagined that persevering through something like that would take someone like… well, like Ronon. Elizabeth, though… Lorne smiled to himself. He supposed he shouldn't be so surprised. She was one hell of a woman.
As his CO and the CMO barked orders to the medical staff, Lorne watched the scene with a new level of understanding. As much as he had always thought that as a leader Dr. Weir was a product of those who advised her and put her orders into action, he had missed the extent to which those who followed her relied on Elizabeth for strength and guidance. She inspired them. Good grief, they'd follow her straight into hell... no, strike that; they'd go into hell for her – if it meant she'd be there when they got back. And it was because they knew she would do it – had done it – for them.
"Colonel," Lorne called after Sheppard before he had a chance to disappear down the corridor.
John changed directions and made his way toward Lorne. When he arrived he paused for a moment, shooting a longing look over his shoulder at the vanishing med unit before offering a distracted, "Major. We'll have a briefing in one hour."
The colonel looked at his hands, apparently realizing for the first time that he was holding a ZPM. He offered it to Lorne. "I suppose you can take this. I'll be with Eliz— ah, in the infirmary."
"Understood, sir." When Sheppard turned to leave Lorne intercepted him. "Sir," he paused, looking uncomfortable, "might I suggest on your way to see Dr. Weir that you detour a moment and take this ZPM to Doctor McKay personally?"
Sheppard frowned, confused. "Can't you?"
"I can, sir, but I think Dr. McKay would appreciate a personal visit. I don't believe he is aware of your return, as he's been confined to his room by orders from Dr. Beckett."
John grunted and then offered a bemused smile. "Gotcha." He turned on his heel. "Thanks, Lorne. You want to run this place for another hour?"
When the knock came, Rodney seriously considered ignoring it. Beckett had been annoyingly intrusive and would not stop with the constant check-ups. He admittedly felt like something that had been chewed up and spit out, but Rodney was finding the frequent pestering to be more of a hindrance than a help. He cracked one eye open and shifted. His neck was killing him.
But then, it could be Teyla with some Jell-O.
Reluctantly, Rodney pried himself from bed and, tissue box in hand, shuffled his way to the door. He was starting to get light-headed again, definitely not a good sign.
When the door opened Rodney had to blink several times to make sure that his eyes were functioning properly. In the hallway stood a weathered looking Colonel Sheppard, hands behind his back, bouncing anxiously on the balls of his feet.
Rodney's face contorted into a lopsided squint. "Colonel?"
"McKay," John drawled in the tone he reserved specifically for the astrophysicist's name.
"You're here." He still looked unconvinced.
"I see illness has not weakened your acute powers of observation."
Rodney let the comment slide, too distracted by his presence to formulate a witty retort. "You're…" he trailed off. "What have you got behind your back?" He attempted to peer around the colonel. "Did you bring me flowers?"
John shot him an exasperated glare. "Were you frequently dropped as a baby?"
Rodney poked him a few times in the chest, then once in the head. "If I'm hallucinating I would have conjured up Carter in a negligee," he said to himself. "I have had some practice at that after all," he continued, sounding indignant. Then as an afterthought, "And there would be more food."
John rolled his eyes. "As flattered as I am that you dream of me, McKay, this is real."
"It really is you!"
"Yes. That's what I've been saying."
Focused now, Rodney asked anxiously, "And Elizabeth?" God, if Elizabeth was –
"She's fine," John assured him. "I just came by to thank you for trying to rescue us. Rumor has it you were pretty persistent."
"Well, you do owe me laundry duty for a month. I couldn't let you get out of it that easily."
John sighed. "Briefing at 1900, if you're well enough. And in the mean time, you might want to see what you can do with this," he said, revealing his prize with a flourish.
"Either that or a really hideous nightlight."
Rodney greedily took the module from the colonel's outstretched hands, clutching it close to his chest. "We're saved."
"I wouldn't go that far. But at least we can have microwave popcorn again."
The balcony door slid open, but Elizabeth didn't turn around. She was fairly certain as to who was intruding on her solitude – and she wasn't about to complain.
"Doctor," John greeted, coming up beside her and placing his hands on the railing.
"Colonel," she acknowledged, her stare still fixed on the ocean.
"I thought you were ordered to get some rest after the debriefing."
"You know me. I'm a rebel."
"And I'm the Tooth Fairy."
Elizabeth quirked an amused eyebrow and John shrugged in response. "It was the best I could come up with. I'm running on very little sleep."
Her laugh sprinkled over them, and they settled into a comfortable silence.
Somehow, even though they hadn't really talked about it, there was an unspoken bond that had formed in the last few days. It was in his eyes; she could see it when he looked at her. She'd never seen him look at anyone like that before, not ever. She shook her head slightly to clear the images and feelings before she hazarded a glance in his direction, and there it was. That look. The hungry warmth it created in her belly was dangerous. She finally had to drop her eyes or she swore she would …well, she wasn't sure what she would have done, but it probably would have been inappropriate in full view of the control room.
The waves rolled in the distance and a cool breeze caressed her bare arms, sending a shiver up her spine. John noticed, stepping in between her body and the rail. He slid his fingers lightly up and down the length of her exposed skin. After a moment his hands found their way to the curve of her waist, lingering possessively.
Her breath caught at his touch, and she waited for her pulse to decelerate before speaking. "So, everything's back to normal?" she asked, suddenly aware that she'd moved closer to him without noticing.
In response, he leaned down and kissed her cheek softly. As he pulled back, he paused just long enough for her to read the look in his ever-changing eyes.
"Elizabeth," his voice was low and dangerous, "a lot has happened in the last few days, and I know that we both have things to think about. So," he hesitated, "I want you to know that this," he closed the space between them until their bodies almost touched, "is what I want."
Her gaze flickered up to meet his and she searched his face as he continued, "But I know that you may need some time to think it through. Just as long as you know that I want to address this… soon. Maybe not right now…I mean, it's late and everything…but soon." He was babbling now – the way you do when you have thought about something way too often, the way you do when the conclusions you reach are always changing. "And when we're both there – when we both have a fix on exactly what it is we want – we'll talk again." He trailed off, pausing to sweep a finger lightly across her collar bone. "Deal?"
Mindless, she nodded agreement. She could see only the texture of his lips, think only of how badly she wanted them. "Deal," she whispered unsteadily.
For a long minute he simply stood, watching her with the warmth and depth of feeling that had always been there, but was now finally unmasked.
"I suppose I should head to bed," she spoke softly. He nodded slightly and took a reluctant step away from her. She turned and made her way toward the door. When she reached it she paused.
"Walk me to my quarters?" she asked quietly over her shoulder.
John allowed himself a small grin. When he reached her he placed his hand gently on the small of her back. "It would be my pleasure, Doctor."