Well, here we are. :) My thanks to those of you that put up with my hectic schedule and are still reading the story :) The reviews, as always are flattering, thanks so much. I must admit that while I write for my personal enjoyment, it's always nice to know that other people enjoy reading my work as well. :)
Sorry for yet another delay, I sliced my finger pretty bad so typing was a little difficult for a while. ;)
I have three rather ambitious story ideas plus one more that is about half done that are consuming my muse at the moment. It may be a while before I write any more ongoing stories, as these ones are the type that I write completely before posting at all. But, I will post them, just might not see anything from me for a while as I write them, unless a particularly vicious plot bunny attacks me from out of the blue. I think they're pretty neat ideas, and judging by the squeeing coming from the general vicinity of my intrepid beta reader, I'm not alone ;)
John stood rock still, his gaze drifting out over the ocean surrounding the south pier. A light breeze blew across him and absently he noted its gentle caress over the back of his left hand. He'd had feeling in his hand for a couple weeks now, but he still relished the sensation. He tentatively flexed his wrist. It still was an effort, but one that grew easier by the day. In the four weeks since they'd returned to Atlantis, his time had been spent healing. Only recently he'd started physical therapy, but already he could feel the strength slowly returning to his arm. It'd be a long time before he'd be allowed to return to active duty, but that day would come; Carson had reassured him of that more than once. He drew in a deep breath of the fresh ocean air; a stark contrast to the stale, dirty air he and his team had been forced to breathe in the Pit. The more time that passed since their ordeal, the more perspective he'd managed to gain and once again, like he had so many times in the last couple weeks, his thoughts lingered on the Pit, the fights and the ordeal his team had endured. He closed his eyes, the Daedalus' report still fresh in his mind…
Elizabeth's expression spoke loudly and clearly before one word ever was spoken. John closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the pillow. There was only one reason why she'd look solemn and apologetic so soon after sending the Daedalus to investigate the Wraith planet. "There's nothing left," he said quietly but with certainty.
"No." She gently sat down on the edge of his bed. "After they were sure there wasn't a hive in the area, the Daedalus scanned the planet for life signs and found none. Colonel Caldwell sent a team of Marines down to investigate. The only humans left had been fed upon but it looks like most of the prisoners were just plain missing."
"So, it's likely the surviving queens picked up and went elsewhere, taking the prisoners with them either as fighters, or just as…" his voice trailed off.
"Yes." Elizabeth squeezed his forearm. "I'm sorry, John."
Silently, John nodded. The rational side of him knew this was the most likely outcome but a loud part of him wished it would've been different, wished they could've helped… wished they could've saved at least a few of them. "You know," he finally spoke, "this 'imperfect world' thing really sucks."
"Yes, it does," Elizabeth immediately agreed….
John turned away from the ocean view, its quiet majesty failing to bring him any peace. A strong breeze buffeted against his back, but he froze. Even from a distance, the tall, imposing form of Ronon was unmistakable.
For a moment, neither man moved. Then, Ronon slowly walked across the pier, the heavy tread of his boots lost to the sounds of the wind and ocean.
John turned back towards the ocean, one corner of his mouth turning up slowly as Ronon stopped next to him. "Howdya find me?"
"Followed my nose."
John glanced sideways at him and Ronon smiled slightly.
"McKay spotted one life sign out here. Thought it might be you." Amusement deepened the crinkles around his eyes as he met John's gaze. "Looks like I was right."
John nodded and let his gaze once again pass over the ocean. "Been cooped up in that infirmary too long, I needed some fresh air."
"Especially after the Pit," Ronon added quietly.
John's smile faded. "Yeah." With his good hand, he scratched the back of his head. "Not something I'd like to go through again."
"We made it out alive. That's what matters," Ronon stated with resolution.
John nodded slightly but said nothing.
"We couldn't help her, you know," Ronon added quietly.
John knew exactly who Ronon was talking about. "I know," he admitted, "but that doesn't mean I have to like it."
"Nope," Ronon answered, "not for a second." He stared hard at John. "But blame the Wraith, not yourself."
John silently nodded. Some antibiotics with Carson's thorough care, and Della would've survived. His gaze narrowed. Her death and the miserable life she led in the months leading up to it, were the Wraith's fault and theirs alone. His thoughts lingered on the queens. "They're probably not to happy we broke up their fun and games," he shrugged, "or killed two of their alliance for that matter."
"Nope." Ronon's mouth turned up slightly in what John could only call a maniacal smile. "Bet they're really pissed."
John shook his head in dark mirth at his friend's almost eager expression. His smile faded as he looked up at the sky. "They're still out there too. We'll have to be on our toes from now on."
"That's different then before?" Ronon quipped.
"True," John chuckled. He sighed. "T'eshii, Wraith, Replicators, Genii… Is there anyone left we haven't pissed off?"
Ronon chuckled. "Athosians." He looked sideways at John. "And Satedans."
John nodded. "Fair trade."
Ronon clapped him firmly on his good shoulder. "Come on. Weir said yes to going off world to see this Elena."
John smiled broadly. "Good." Elizabeth had been hesitant to authorize John's team to go off world with Halling, but John hadn't relented easily, once he'd been briefed on how, exactly, they'd managed find his team. When it had all sunk in, he realized just how much they owed this Elena person. In spite of his inactive status, John argued that he still needed to be there, the planet was safe, and if push came to shove, his right hand was fine and fully capable of gripping a nine mil.
He turned and headed back towards the city. "Come on. Let's do this before Elizabeth changes her mind."
The planet, John decided, was much like scores of others he'd visited; pleasant, but not remarkable. He slowly descended the grassy hill away from the Stargate, Halling next to him and his team behind. He tried to put aside the weird nakedness he felt being off world without a P-90 as his hand settled comfortably on his holstered side arm. He glanced sideways at the tall Athosian walking next to him. There wasn't much more to be said between them and from the time he'd spent living amongst the Athosians two years ago, he'd learned that they weren't a people that had use for superfluous chatter. The thanks he'd offered, it seemed, was enough…
John looked up from his magazine and smiled as Halling walked up to his bed.
"Colonel," Halling's voice was predictably deep, but light. "It is good to see you and your team safe."
John's smile faded slightly behind gratitude. He lifted his hand. "Thanks doesn't seem to cut it, my friend."
Halling gripped his forearm tightly. "I am just glad I was able to help. The thanks though, really go to Elena for without her, we would not have known where to look."
John nodded. "You were still instrumental, according to Lorne." He shook his head slightly. "We… I owe you one."
Halling pulled his hand away from John's. "Your people have proven themselves to be admirable friends, Colonel. In spite of a… difficult beginning."
John remembered back to the suspicions in the early days of the expedition and nodded…
John refocused his attention on the here and now as the team walked down a short path and into the village. He followed Halling as the big Athosian led them into Elena's dimly lit trading store.
John looked around, his eyes taking in brief glimpses of the scattered people that milled around, browsing through an assortment of goods and looking to trade. His eyes settled on Teyla as her mouth turned up in a warm smile. Following her gaze, John's eyes narrowed at an older woman who rounded a low counter and walked towards them.
"Quaint," Rodney muttered.
"Teyla Emmagan," she said quietly before touching foreheads with Teyla. "It warms my heart to see you safe. When Halling and Lorne told me what had happened, I doubted they'd ever find you."
"We were persistent," Halling nodded once at her in recognition.
"Lucky for us," John quipped lightly. He smiled warmly as the woman's eyes settled on him.
"Elena," Halling took a step closer to John, "This is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard." Halling turned gesturing at Rodney and Ronon. "Dr. Rodney McKay and Ronon Dex. They are Teyla's companions."
Elena's gaze passed over each of them, before settling on John. "Come with me," she turned and headed towards the back of the building.
"Um… ok," Rodney's brows furrowed as he exchanged confused looks with John.
"This room has many strange ears," Teyla muttered. "We are safer discussing things in private."
John nodded. "Good plan." He immediately followed behind Elena while the rest filed behind him.
Elena stood next to an open door and gestured them into a large room, before closing the door behind them. "Many traders come through my doors and with most I do not know if they can be trusted." She smiled at John. "You were captured with Teyla as well?"
"Yes," John responded.
Elena smiled. "It gladdens me to see all of you safe then, for friends of Teyla and Halling are friends to me and mine." She nodded once. "Especially those who inhabit the Ancestral City."
John did his best to feign confusion. "I don't…"
"She knows," Halling interrupted.
"She what?" Rodney took a large step up next to Halling. "You told her?"
"He did not tell me," Elena soothed. "It is something I realized on my own." She slowly eased down on to a stool and gestured at a plank bench and other stools nearby. "Please. Sit."
John bit his lower lip and glanced at Teyla who nodded subtly at him before sitting next to Halling on the bench.
"Please," Elena insisted quietly.
John took a deep breath and nodded at Rodney and Ronon before all three sat down.
"Many people come through my shop, Lieutenant Colonel. One of the many things I have heard was that the Athosians had allied themselves with humans inhabiting the Ancestral City when Athos was destroyed… and that those humans were doing battle with the Wraith. I also learned that the Wraith destroyed the city and the humans living there, but when Halling came to trade a half season ago, I realized that some must have survived." She smiled. "There have been many stories of the human Lanteans since you arrived in this galaxy. When I saw Lorne with Halling and spoke with both men, it was not hard to deduce that you had tricked the Wraith to ensure your survival." She shifted her weight and winced. "As I told Lorne and Halling, your secret is safe with me. I do not know whether the Ancestral City still exists although for the sake of all the humans in this galaxy, I hope so, but I do know that your people bring hope to all of us, that someday we may rid ourselves of the yoke of Wraith domination." She smiled. "For that reason, and for my fondness of Teyla, colored with memories that reach back to when she was born, I helped where I could."
John sat quietly for a moment, as he absorbed all she'd said. Where there should've been alarms going off all over in his head at the possibility of Atlantis' secret being compromised, there was only trust, driven by a gut instinct that he'd learned long ago never to dismiss.
"This is so not good," Rodney lamented quietly.
"Do you not trust me?" Elena questioned her smile fading. "It was Halling and Lorne's trust in me that led them to you."
"He does not mean it that way, Elena," Teyla smoothly interjected. "Surely you see how dangerous it is for anyone to know of our survival. Not just for us, but for you also."
Elena's gaze softened. "I do. But as I said, I will not betray this confidence."
John took a deep breath and let it out before his eyes narrowed in respect. "I believe you," he said, with as much sincerity as he could. "You helped Lorne and Halling… and at quite a bit of risk to yourself, I assume?"
Elena nodded. "There is much risk in associating with Wraith worshippers, especially when seeking information from them."
John smiled slightly. "We owe you our lives. In my book that's worth a hell of a lot of trust."
Elena's expression turned thoughtful, before she smiled in return. "Your people are welcome under my roof at any time, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard."
"Call me John," John stood. "Thanks is one thing, but I'm going to do one better on it." He reached in his coat pocket and pulled out a radio before handing it to her. "Keep this in a safe place and out of sight. Besides the Wraith, there are still a lot of unfriendly people looking for us. They'd know the technology on sight." From his other pocket, he pulled out a scrap of paper. "This is an address to a relay settlement of Athosians that know how to reach us." He handed the paper to her. "If you ever need anything, you contact us. We'll do our best to help you." He held Elena's gaze for a long moment… and then she smiled.
"Thank you, John," she said quietly and took a deep breath. "I hear many things from many people that come through my shop." She folded the slip of paper in half and placed it in her pocket. "I will contact you if I hear anything you might need to know." Elena placed her hands on his shoulders and bowed her head.
One corner of John's mouth turned up as he duplicated the gesture and gently tapped his forehead on hers.
"Go safely, John Sheppard." She lifted her head and looked past him to the others. "Go safely, all of you."
"And you, Elena," Teyla nodded back.
John pulled away from her, nodded once and led his team from the room.
John took a deep breath as he emerged from the wormhole into Atlantis' Gate room. He quietly looked around, realizing that he never got tired of the city.
John chuckled at Rodney's exclamation. He looked over his shoulder as Ronon followed Rodney towards the armory and presumably the mess hall afterwards. Not far behind, Teyla said final farewells to Halling and rushed to catch up.
"You comin'?" Ronon paused, his expression questioning.
"He can catch up!" Rodney never broke stride. "Food isn't going to wait on one, indecisive Colonel!"
John rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I'll find ya in the mess." He headed towards the gate room stairs as Ronon jogged to catch up with Rodney.
John took the stairs two at a time, inwardly satisfied at how quickly his energy was returning. He flexed his left hand and his smile lingered as his grip strengthened. Crossing Ops, he stopped just outside of Elizabeth's office and sighed at her bowed head and intent focus on work. "Hey."
Elizabeth looked up and returned his smile. "Hey back. How was the visit?"
John causally strolled to one of the chairs opposite her desk and nonchalantly flopped down in it. "Fine. Gave Elena a radio and the address for the Athosian settlement at the beta site."
Elizabeth nodded. "Good."
"Elena promised to send on any information she hears that we might find useful," John added. "Not a bad resource if you ask me."
"Not at all," Elizabeth agreed. "Halling and Teyla seem to trust her explicitly and she was key to finding you and your team." Her smile faded and Elizabeth looked away.
John stared at her for a moment before he spoke. "We made it out alive."
A grim shadow of a smile pressed Elizabeth's lips together. "Yes."
John cocked his head. "Elizabeth?"
She bowed her head before looking up at him, her expression grim. "I almost didn't let Lorne take a team to find you," she admitted quietly.
John's gaze narrowed as he studied her expression. There was guilt there, but that was to be expected. But, beyond that, her face was fortified by a hardened determination and he knew that she hadn't made any decision in this entire ordeal, lightly. But, then again, Elizabeth never did. "It was a tough call."
John leaned forward in her chair. "Elizabeth," he kept his voice quiet. "If rescuing us had meant sacrificing the security of this base, and Atlantis' cover, I would've been the first one to tell you not to do it." He held her gaze, and waited until she nodded back.
He stood up, walked a few steps to her desk and sat on the edge. "In fact, I'm going to take that choice out of your hands right now," he insisted. "As military commander, I'm ordering you to put the safety of this base before my team or anyone else. No exceptions."
Elizabeth arched a brow at him. "You really can't order me around, John."
"The hell I can't," he rebuked. "When it comes to the security of this base, I," he tapped his chest, "get the last word." A cynical half smile turned up one side of his mouth. "I know you hate that," he teased.
Her brow climbed higher. "Do not." She smiled.
John pushed himself off her desk and threw a lopsided smile over his shoulder as he walked out of her office. "Do to." As he crossed the walkway back to Ops, he heard her light laugh behind him.
John's smile faded. While the delivery had been darkly humorous, he knew she'd follow his direction without hesitation and if that day ever came, it'd be a hard choice, but one she'd find a way to make.
His thoughts lingered on the T'eshii, the Genii, the Wraith and anyone else that wanted to do harm to his city and the people he cared about and his eyes narrowed dangerously. Just let them try.
Shaking off his dark mood, John trotted down the back stairwell and headed for the mess. These days, he and his team didn't seem to have a lot of down time just to hang out and he was damn sure going to take advantage of the time they had now… and let tomorrow take care of itself.