"Don't know why I have to decorate it," Ronon grumbled.
"It is part of their tradition." Teyla folded the paper crisply and taped it closed. "We have this discussion every year."
Ronon frowned at the box then turned hopeful eyes toward her. "You want to do it for me?"
"I have been blaming John all this time for teaching Torren that look," she murmured, handing him the tape. "It does not work for him, and it will not work for you."
"I have seen the gift wrapping abilities of John and Rodney. Yours will blend."
He rolled the tape around the box three times and stuck on a bow then added a few more. "Where'd you get this stuff?"
"Sam sent it along with her gifts. After the…interesting paper you used last year…"
"I didn't know," Ronon protested.
Teyla launched a bow at his head. "You lie worse than Rodney."
"Rivers said it was fine."
"Lieutenant Rivers is a Marine," she said pointedly. "Have you finished? We will be late for the mission briefing."
He showed her the presents for McKay and Sheppard. "How's that?"
Her nose wrinkled, but she nodded. "At least there are no elves in compromising positions on these."
Ronon grinned wickedly. "Gonna put these in my room. Somewhere McKay can't find. See you at the briefing."
He hurried to his quarters and hid the gifts underneath the pile of recently tanned monliek hides and next to the package he'd already prepared for Teyla. He tossed a few Wraith bones on top, grabbed the tablet Woolsey insisted he bring, and headed to the conference room.
Woolsey was seated in his normal spot, frowning at a folder, while Rodney studied his tablet, absently sipping coffee and muttering about PhDs from eBay. Ronon slouched in his chair as Teyla and Sheppard walked in.
"…Lorne said they knew his team was from Atlantis before they opened their mouths."
"Your manner of dress has always been distinctive. With the coalition continuing to grow, more worlds than ever are aware of Atlantis. If you wish to remain anonymous, I am certain we can find adequate clothing."
"No, no. That's quite alright. If we are going to be active members of this coalition, we might as well own up to who we are. Atlantis' existence isn't a secret from the Wraith anymore." Sheppard slid into his seat, his eyes twinkling and his mouth twitching when spotted Ronon. "Been wrapping presents?"
Sheppard reached over and yanked his hair then dropped a shiny red bow in his lap. Ronon crushed it in his palm and shot a death glare at Teyla who smiled serenely while her eyes danced with mischief.
"Good morning, everyone," Woolsey greeted. "I have been reading your notes on…M8B-457, Dr. McKay, the few that there are. Do you have any additional information?"
"Hmmm? Oh, um, no. What little the database had on it is in the briefing memo."
"And you think this planet warrants further investigation?"
"Why else would I suggest it?"
"McKay," Sheppard warned.
"Fine. I think it warrants further investigation because of what's not in the database. This planet has a decent climate, no predatory animals of consequence, an abundance of natural resources, and something in its atmosphere that scatters sensors."
Sheppard's brows shot up. "Scatters sensors? Like making them bounce?"
"More like spreading them out. You aren't reading what you're aiming at; you're reading what's around it."
"So you think the Wraith-"
"They'd have to be looking out a window to even know the planet's there."
"Never seen a window in a hive ship," Ronon said.
"Darts have opaque canopies," Sheppard added.
McKay jabbed a finger at him. "Exactly!"
"And according to the database, there is nothing on this planet?" Teyla asked. "No outposts, no research stations?"
"What are you saying?" Woolsey asked. "That something important is there and the Ancients forgot to input it into their database?"
"Wouldn't be the first time," Sheppard muttered, turning to McKay. "Will the HUD and our scanners work on the ground?"
"But there's no guarantee they will." Woolsey closed his folder. "Do you think it's worth the risk, Colonel?"
Sheppard's gaze flicked around the table. McKay nodded vigorously. Teyla looked thoughtful then inclined her head. Ronon shrugged. He'd learned that when the Ancestors didn't leave much information about planets, they were either very important or very dangerous, usually both. Any world free of Wraith was worth checking out.
"Yes," Sheppard answered.
"Then you have a go. Good luck."
Ronon hated sitting in the back. He didn't have the gene to pilot, and most of the HUD data was gibberish so he understood why Sheppard and McKay sat in front. Didn't mean he liked it. After years of being on his own, he had willingly put himself under Sheppard's command and had never regretted it. But he still hated sitting in the back.
"Answers that question," McKay announced when the HUD flickered to life as they exited the Ring. "Sensors are working just fine."
Ronon squinted at the display. Still gibberish. Reading the Ancestral tongue had been part of his schooling on Sateda, but knowing the words and understanding their meaning were two very different things. He wasn't far enough along in the classes Zelenka taught to really comprehend what he was seeing.
"What's it say?" he asked.
"Atmosphere is breathable, the temperature is a perfect twenty-seven degrees, and there isn't the slightest hint of rain. Oh, and did I mention that the energy readings are off the chart?"
"Stop drooling, McKay." The display changed as Sheppard soared over the blindingly white sand and banked to follow the shore's edge. "There are at least ten thousand people in the vicinity."
"We can't take their ZPM."
"I never said there was a ZPM. I said the energy readings were incredible."
"Is there a ZPM?"
"I don't think so. I don't recognize the signature, but it's powerful. It's in," Rodney pointed to the right, "that direction."
"Are we cloaked?" Teyla asked.
"Yeah," Sheppard said as he angled toward the readings. "I cloaked coming out of the gate."
The beach stretched as far as they could see. Furry creatures too small for a decent meal scampered between gentle waves and a row of knobby trees with orange fruit that McKay pronounced as definitely citrus. The trees lined the base of foothills covered with thick vegetation that made for poor tracking but good hiding. Nestled in the valley was a city of gleaming white stone.
"Wow," Sheppard murmured, taking them in for a closer look.
A wall as high as some of Atlantis' smaller buildings circled a series of identical oblong structures. Slightly shorter than the wall, they were at least seven floors high with windows that were too skinny for a man to squeeze through.
"Look at the precision," McKay marveled. "Every one of those buildings has exactly the same measurements. Even the windows are the same."
"Where are the people?" Teyla asked.
The HUD popped up. "Inside," Sheppard answered.
Ronon leaned forward, but all he could see were empty white stone streets. "All ten thousand of them?"
"Guess so," Sheppard said with a shrug. "Though why you would close off that view is beyond me."
Ronon had to agree. His appreciation of beauty had been instilled by his mother and had grown in the past few years from seeing things through the eyes of his teammates. The foliage surrounding the city was a brilliant green, and the ocean had shades of blue he'd never seen before. He couldn't imagine being surrounded by colorless rock.
Teyla echoed his thoughts. "How can they live without seeing the trees?"
"I think we should go ask them." Sheppard scanned the area. "Anybody see a way through that wall?"
"Got it," McKay announced. "There's a small opening on the far right side."
Sheppard circled. "Yeah, I see it. Let me find a place to land."
A few minutes later, they were traipsing through knee-high tangles of vines while McKay provided a litany of all the diseases he was sure he was catching. Ronon wondered exactly when he had started thinking of the man's constant jabbering as comforting.
Nature sang around them. Somewhere nearby a stream gurgled. Insects chirped. Dozens of different birdcalls blended with the chatter of wildlife. Ronon's hand never left his blaster.
A copse was the last barrier before the giant wall. He inhaled deeply, his grip on his weapon tightening. A gentle breeze carried the fetid decay of a long dead animal, the pungent odor of dung, the light scent of flowers, the salt of the ocean. But no human smells. Ronon had lost count of the number of worlds he'd visited, worlds with vastly different food, clothing, cultures – but people always left a distinct aroma. Sweat, blood, fear, passion – combined, they shouted human. Even the air on Atlantis, with its extensive climate controls, was laced with it.
"What's wrong?" Sheppard asked.
Ronon scrutinized the woods, the sky, the ground, the wall. "Something's not right."
"Could you be any less specific?" McKay sniped.
"Rodney," Teyla murmured.
"What? I'm just saying he could give some details."
"I don't know," Ronon said. "It doesn't smell right."
"Smell right?" McKay gaped at him. "Seriously?"
"You asked. Usually, a place-" Ronon's head snapped around at the scrape of a boot on rock. "Sheppard." He nodded his head toward the small entrance. "Company."
The tension in Sheppard's shoulders contradicted the pleasant smile on his face as he stepped forward to greet the four men approaching the entrance. "Hi there. I'm John Sheppard. This is Rodney McKay, Ronon Dex, and Teyla Emmagan. We were in the neighborhood, wanted to say hi."
One man separated from the others. "I am Venth." He flashed a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Visitors are rare. What world are you from?"
The men were dressed in heavy tunics of pure white, but it was their carefully neutral expressions that sent all of Ronon's internal alarms on overdrive. These men were big and broad, similar in build to Carter's friend, Teal'c. No visible weapons, but they looked ready for a fight. The cold feeling in Ronon's gut crawled up his spine.
"Atlantis," Sheppard said evenly.
That got a reaction. Venth's eyes widened, and he shot a sidelong glance at the man next to him. The man nodded, almost imperceptibly.
"The city of the Ancestors?" Venth asked in disbelief. "We have long believed it a myth."
Sheppard rested his arms on the butt of his P-90. "Nope."
"We are explorers," Teyla added. "We travel to other worlds looking for trading partners and allies."
"Allies? For what?"
"For the fight against the Wraith," she answered.
The man's lips twitched. "Wraith. Legendary monsters that feed on humans."
"They aren't legends," McKay retorted. "They are very real and very scary."
"You've never seen a Wraith?" Ronon asked.
"No," Venth said slowly, eyes narrowing as his gaze swept over them. "They are beings in childhood tales. Were you expecting to find them here?"
Sheppard cocked his head to the side then smiled as he patted his weapon. "No, but we like to be prepared."
"I see. Are you the leader of your people?"
"I'm the leader of this team."
"Are there many teams?"
"The tales describe Atlantis as a city of grandeur and great power."
Sheppard shrugged noncommittally. "It's a nice place to live."
Ronon reacted a split second too late. His blaster hadn't quite cleared his holster when Venth and his men held up their right hands. Round silver objects sparkled in their palms, and Ronon's knees buckled when a shockwave slammed into him. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.
John awoke with a jerk. He rolled to his feet and immediately staggered sideways into the cold, stone wall. His equilibrium was completely gone, along with everything he owned. His P-90 and .45, his knife, shirt and BDUs, radio, boots, even his dog tags had been removed. He was dressed in a plain, white tunic similar to Venth and the rest of the welcoming committee, though he seemed to be missing the glossy shoes. His second attempt at walking was a bigger failure than the first. His legs were noodles, and the world tilted. Crashing gracelessly to the floor, John crawled to a corner of his very empty cell.
"McKay!" he bellowed. "Ronon! Teyla!"
The echo made him nauseous. There was no answering shout.
John traced a hand over the stone near him. Perfectly smooth, as if the room had been sculpted instead of built. The other two stone walls and the metal one appeared the same. No openings, no slits for food, no air vents, no hinges. Nothing he could use to defend himself. Or to clobber a guard.
He pushed unsteadily to his feet, both hands on the wall for balance, and inhaled through his nose until his stomach settled. Moving slowly, he examined every inch of his tiny cell. He was studying one of the stone walls when he heard a slight hiss behind him. Whirling, he stumbled and crashed to the floor as his balance deserted him again.
A bowl of brown mush sat near the metal wall. John ran his fingers over the area again but still couldn't find any trace of an opening. The food, a generous term for the slop, smelled worse than it looked. A small sample made him gag. He wasn't sure he'd ever be hungry enough to eat that. The bowl was made from a flimsy plastic-like substance that wouldn't even make a good fly-swatter.
John slumped in his corner, staring at the metal wall, his mind spinning. The cell had light and air, but no obvious means of delivering either. Either he was missing something or these people were more advanced than any other group he'd met in Pegasus.
"McKay, where are you when I need you?"
After a couple of mind-numbing hours – and several hundred sit-ups and pushups later – warm air carrying a hint of something bitter brushed over him. He stood, his vision swimming as he scrutinized the cell again. A wave of dizziness knocked him to the floor, and his limbs turned to lead. The metal wall slid up to reveal three hazy figures in white. John's body refused to obey him, lying limply as one of the men slung him over a shoulder and carried him down the hall. The man dumped him in a chair and held him upright as the other two bound his wrists and ankles then slid a strap around his chest.
Unable to lift his head, he took in as much of the room as he could. The table to his right held Ronon's blaster, McKay's tablet, their GDOs, a life signs detector, the jumper remote, and a digital camera along with several other objects he didn't recognize. The voices murmuring in front of him had to belong to the three white clad legs he could see.
"You guys should consider hiring another decorator because, seriously, the white and silver thing is a little overdone."
Two of the legs moved toward him and a hand jerked his chin up. "We have questions, John Sheppard," Venth said.
"Yeah, me too. Where is my team?"
"They are safe."
"I want to see them."
"They are important to you." Venth's expression flickered. "Why?"
John ignored the question. "Why are you doing this?" His head dropped as the man moved away. "What do you want?"
"How did you find us?"
"We do not leave this city, and visitors are extremely rare. In fact, you are the first in my lifetime. Why are you here? How did you find us?"
Prickles ran down John's neck. "We told you. We are explorers. We found your planet in our database and-"
"The Ancestral city has information on our planet?"
"There's information on lots of stuff." The prickles blossomed into stabbing needles. "Including most of the planets in this galaxy."
"I need access to this information."
"I need to know how exposed we are."
John slowly raised his head and stared into Venth's hard eyes. "And I need to see my people."
Venth sighed, reaching for a small rectangular device.
"What is that?"
"Something to convince you to tell me what I want to know."
Venth held it up and pressed a button. At first, nothing. Then an invisible vise wrapped itself around John's head and squeezed. He choked back a scream as his ears throbbed and blood dripped from his nose. Breathing was agony. Then the pressure doubled. Tears leaked from his eyes. His muscles were frozen. His head was imploding. Oh, God, please…
His chin hit his chest when he was released. Cruel fingers dug into his jaw as Venth wrenched his head up.
John sucked in a couple of ragged breaths. "You're making a mistake."
Venth pressed the button again. Pain spiked through John's skull. He gagged as blood ran down the back of his throat. God, his eyes, his ears. The eleven Gs he'd pulled in that F-16 hadn't hurt this bad.
John's vision blurred. "No," he whispered.
Ringing thundered in his ears then went silent as Venth shut the device off.
"You have a high pain tolerance."
John coughed and spat. "That's what they tell me."
"Why make this so difficult?"
"I'm just that kind of a guy."
Venth dropped the device on the table and took another. "You are the protector of your people?"
"That's one way of looking at it." John forced his head upright. "There's no need for this, you know. If you want to be left alone, that's fine. We'll leave, delete your planet from the database, never come back."
"I'd like to believe you, John, but I can't risk it. We have a carefully constructed society, and your presence here could be detrimental to it."
"What society? We haven't seen anybody but you. Where are all your people?"
"Doing as they have been instructed."
"Doing as they've been instructed," he repeated softly. John held the man's gaze. Flat, emotionless. "What if they don't like the instructions?"
"I can be very persuasive. We do not tolerate nonconformity. Or disruptions."
"I see." Sensation stabbed down John's spine, and his fingers tingled. "We haven't disrupted anything yet. Just let us go."
"Not until you give me what I want."
The device hissed when Venth jabbed it into John's neck. Heat flooded through his body, and a sour taste filled his mouth as the drug rushed through his veins. The color spectrum shifted. Suddenly white became bright orange, and the silver surfaces turned crimson.
"What…?" John's tongue was thick, uncooperative.
Venth crouched in front of him. "Allow it time."
Euphoria made John's heart stutter. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been this happy. Maybe that time he'd thrown McKay off the balcony… McKay…
"Tell me how to get to Atlantis, John."
"Rodney?" He squinted at the blurry figure in front of him. Couldn't be McKay. He refused to wear any citrus color. Too big to be Teyla. Not enough hair for Ronon.
"I need to get to Atlantis."
Atlantis. City on the ocean. Home.
"John, tell me how to get there."
White stone walls. Cell. Venth. "No."
Cold metal touched John's temple. He gasped as waves of pleasure crashed through him.
John's heart thrashed in his ribcage. He gulped in huge lungfuls of air but couldn't get enough. His body shuddered, throbbed then begged for more when the sensation suddenly stopped. His eyes snapped open.
Venth leaned in close. "Tell me how to get to Atlantis." The man tapped the pencil-thin mechanism against John's temple. Pleasure flashed for a second. "There are rewards greater than this."
John moaned as pleasure began to course through him again. Between the drug and that device, he was weakening. Pain he could take; it helped him focus. But this… He slammed his eyes shut and concentrated. Protect Atlantis. Protect Torren, Carson, Lorne, Zelenka, Keller, Woolsey, Earth, Dave, Nancy, Jeannie…
Oh, God, his heart was going to explode! John twisted under the onslaught, needing to get away, wanting to feel like this forever.
The sensation reached fever-pitch then, with the flip of a switch, morphed into mind-blowing agony, ripping a scream from John's throat. He convulsed, his nerve-endings on fire.
"I can make the pain stop, John. Just tell me what I want to know."
John gagged. His lungs were paralyzed. He flailed weakly and felt the soft cuffs on his wrists loosen. He clawed at the band around his chest then lunged at Venth. Something luminesced around the man as John's arm and shoulder hit. The device skittered across the room, and John crashed to the floor, his ankles still bound to the chair. He scrabbled to get free. Two guards pounced. One slammed a booted foot into John's ribs while the other grabbed for his arms. John squirmed and bucked, planting an elbow in one guard's groin and breaking the other's nose. A third man joined. A well-placed blow to John's skull left him stunned and gasping for air as the guards continued to kick and punch.
"Enough." Venth pronounced. "Get him up."
John slumped in the guards' grips then threw himself at Venth. Purple sparkled as John collided with an unseen force. He swung, yelling as his fist thumped against an immovable surface. Venth shook his head then nodded at a guard who grabbed John by the throat and shoved him into the chair, strapping the cuffs on tight enough that John's fingers grew numb.
Anger glittered in Venth's eyes, the first sign of real emotion John had seen. "You are wasting my time."
"Gee, sorry about that."
"I will find something to make you talk."
John sighed. "My people will come looking for us long before that happens."
"How many people?"
"All of them. You do not want to make an enemy of Atlantis. Let us go."
Venth selected another device from the table. "Tell me what I want to know, and I will."
"You are the one wasting time," John growled. "You don't have anything in your bag of parlor tricks there that can beat being mind-probed by a queen or fed on by a Wraith."
Venth studied him carefully. "I believe you." He dropped the device and leaned into John's face, staring intently. "I won't get what I want like this." He glanced at the guards. "Take him to the observation room."
Something hissed near John's ear. The room tilted sideways then slid away altogether.
Another cold, sterile room – all smooth, gleaming surfaces and harsh white light that seemed to emanate from everywhere. John shook the fog from his mind and climbed to his feet, one arm wrapped protectively around his tender ribs. He inspected the walls, looking for a crack, a crevasse, anything that would indicate an entryway or a panel. Nothing. Just like every other room in this damn place.
He whirled at a flash behind him. One wall had vanished, revealing his team kneeling, arms twisted behind their backs at impossible angles, heads down. He ran toward them, colliding with an invisible barrier where the wall had been.
"Let them go!" he barked at the guards who held them.
His team jerked at the sound of his voice but didn't look up. Venth, the rat bastard, appeared next to John, still pristine in his achingly white tunic. John charged, bounced off the personal shield, and landed hard, skidding to the far wall. He scrambled to his feet to try again and was hit with an electrical shock that made his teeth rattle.
"Come now, John. You can't overpower my shield. Stop wasting your time and energy."
John glowered as he staggered up. "Let them go."
"Give me what I want."
"I can't do that."
"Oh, you can. And you will." Venth withdrew a silver weapon that looked like a cross between a Derringer and a switchblade. "I have a lot of experience in extracting information." He looked tired, almost bored. "I've learned how to insist."
Venth depressed the trigger and a six inch ice pick shot out, popping like a cork from a bottle. "Tell me."
John turned away to face his team. "Go to hell."
"I see." Venth paced, hovering at the edge of John's vision. "Would you consider them your friends?"
Venth waved a hand toward John's team. "Are they your friends?"
John kept his eyes glued on Ronon, willing the big man to shake off the guards. "They are my team."
"Hmmm. I don't believe that's what I asked you."
Venth nodded to the far guard who wrenched Ronon's head back. Some type of muzzle was clamped firmly over his mouth, and his body, normally coiled like a cobra, was limp. But his eyes glittered with promised retribution. Not sedatives then. That damn paralyzing agent. Crap.
John's heart crashed against his ribs when Venth slithered through the barrier like it was water and slowly circled his team.
"Don't bother lying, John. I know they're your friends." Venth ran his fingers through Teyla's hair. "Would you die for them?" His eyes flicked to John as his hand tightened around Teyla's throat. "Would you?"
"Yes! Yes, damn it. Leave them alone."
Venth stepped behind Rodney, jerking his head up. McKay's eyes were wide with panic as they met John's. Venth squeezed the trigger on the weapon and jammed the pick to Rodney's throat.
"Would you let them die for you?"
"Don't do this," John warned.
McKay's head flopped forward with a bounce when Venth released him to squat before Ronon.
"Would he let you die for him?" Venth asked.
John scrambled until he could see Ronon's face. Ronon glared at Venth with such hatred the man's flesh should have sloughed from his bones.
Venth didn't appear impressed. "I think he might let you die." He glanced back at John then stood and walked behind Ronon, yanking his head back and pulling off the muzzle. "I will give you the chance to save yourself. Give me what I need to enter Atlantis, and I will spare your life."
Ronon locked his gaze with John's. John begged forgiveness. Ronon gave it. Venth's hand fluttered at his side then silver glinted in the bright light before burying beneath Ronon's dreads.
Ronon answered with silence. A loud pop. McKay and Teyla flinched. Ronon's body jerked then slumped to the floor with a dull thud.
"NO!" John screamed, throwing himself at the barrier. It flung him backward. He slammed into the far wall and slid to the ground, stunned. This had to be some kind of trick. No way in hell was Ronon dead. Not now. Not like that.
Venth was already behind Teyla, pulling her head back far enough to look in her eyes. "Tell me what I want to know."
John stumbled to his feet and raced to the barrier, smashing his palms against it. "Teyla!"
Her eyes sought his, filled with sadness and determination. John couldn't bear to watch, couldn't tear his gaze away. Venth had no idea what he was asking. Atlantis had always been her hope of defeating the Wraith, but now it was home to her son.
Teyla smiled. "I will not."
Another pop. Teyla crumpled.
John's vision grayed as another part of him died, the rage inside colliding with despair and swirling into a craving for vengeance. He gasped, gagged, pleaded for the nightmare to end.
Venth stripped off Rodney's muzzle and wrenched his head back. "What about you? Do you want to live?"
Rodney's eyes ping-ponged, and his chest heaved. "What the hell kind of question is that?"
"The kind that is waiting for an answer."
John pressed his forehead against the barrier. "Rodney," he whispered.
McKay's gaze landed on John. The terror drained away, replaced with a strange look of peace.
"Tell me what I wish to know," Venth demanded.
Rodney grinned crookedly.
Closed his eyes.
John's knees buckled. He slid down the barrier to the floor as the rest of his soul withered and crumbled to dust, leaving a cold lump where his heart had been. Venth couldn't hurt him anymore. John would endure the physical pain that he knew was coming, would live to avenge his team. Nothing else mattered.
John frowned in confusion. He was back in Venth's fun room. A knot had formed at the base of his skull, and a foul odor hovered around him. Had he been gassed? Where were…?
Horror filled him as memory returned. Tears pricked at his eyes, but John swallowed thickly and blinked them away, refusing to give Venth the satisfaction of seeing any more of his grief. The soft cuffs had been exchanged for stiff metal, and a bonus one had been added around his neck. John tugged experimentally at the bonds, but they were as unyielding as they looked. Bile washed the back of his throat when Venth appeared.
"Are you ready to begin again?"
"I am going to kill you," John snarled, meaning it with every ounce of his being.
Venth shook his head. "I do not doubt your sincerity, John. Many of my people have sat in that chair and sworn oaths of vengeance." He stepped forward to whisper in John's ear. "Yet here I am." He glanced over his shoulder at the wall then pressed something to John's neck. "We have found that enhancing the experience produces better results," Venth announced loudly.
The drug made John's skin tingle and burn. His breath caught as the metal cuffs scraped his wrists; even the scratch of his tunic made him wince. He grimaced as Venth clapped a hand on his shoulder.
"I have another matter to attend."
Venth motioned to the guard standing by the device table and disappeared. The guard stared at John for a couple of minutes then gave a slight nod. Selecting a rod covered in a dark, rigid material, he stepped to one side and backhanded John with it. Pain exploded behind John's eye, radiating through his skull and down his spine. The second blow landed squarely on his temple. His vision grew dark, but the drug kept him conscious.
He screamed as a rough hand wrenched his finger back. Tendons popped. Bones broke. John gritted his teeth. He would survive this. He had to. For them.
Rodney paced the cell again. It was exactly twelve strides long. Twelve of his steps, not Ronon's. The man had ridiculously long legs. How anyone expected Rodney to keep up with him was a mystery. Though, somehow Teyla…
He stumbled, his heart squeezing. They were dead. He'd heard the weapon discharge, had seen their bodies sprawled on the floor on either side of him. Carson's death had torn a hole in him that had barely begun to heal when Elizabeth died, turning the hole into a chasm. He'd used his work to painstakingly build a bridge across it in order to function, and with the press of a button, that bastard had ripped it away, leaving behind an abyss that he couldn't cross. How could they abandon him like this? Rodney huddled in a corner then slid to the floor, arms wrapped around his legs and forehead pressed to his knees, tears splotching his white trousers. Teyla and Ronon had to be dead. Sheppard had certainly thought they were. The naked grief on his face had said it all.
Of course, Rodney had thought himself dead until he'd woken up in this stupid cell a few hours ago with a massive headache and a large knot at the base of his skull. He sat up, his brain kicking into overdrive. If he was alive, did that mean they were, too? Had it all been a trick to make Sheppard talk? Was Sheppard dead, too? Maybe Crazy Man only wanted him. After all, his genius was well-known in this galaxy and-
Rodney gasped as a phantom pain rippled down his right side again. The first time it happened had been shortly after he'd woken up. He'd ignored it, having heard the term "hypochondriac" more times than he could count. The second time, he'd prodded his ribs gently but didn't feel anything unusual. The third time had hurt so bad, he'd sunk to his knees, black spots dancing before his eyes as he struggled to breathe. He'd ripped his shirt open that time but found nothing – no bruises or cuts, nothing to explain what he was feeling. Something was definitely wrong though. His chest was heavy, like an elephant was sitting on it. His headache was turning into a migraine, and sometimes his face throbbed as if he'd been punched repeatedly.
Then there was his left hand. It looked normal enough, but the ache deep in his bones hurt to the point he couldn't move his fingers. He massaged them gently, but the awful pain wouldn't stop. It didn't make any sense. Rodney rubbed the lump on the back of his head. He'd seen Dr. Mengele's weapon. No way he would still be alive if that pick had ripped through his brain stem. So, definitely a trick. But what had the guy done to him?
He'd learned the hard way that sitting around waiting was never a good idea. Maybe he could figure out a way to escape. Rodney rubbed his face on his sleeve then climbed to his feet and inspected the walls again. He'd also really like to know how this technology worked.
"You won't find anything."
Rodney spun with a manly yelp. Venth lurked behind him, looking smug. No guards, no door, no controls, no escape.
"What the hell do you think you're doing? Do you have any idea what's going to happen when our people come looking for us? Where is the rest of my team?"
"Answer my questions, and I'll answer yours."
Rodney crossed his arms and glared, hoping the man couldn't hear his heart racing. "I'm not telling you about Atlantis."
Venth nodded, stepping forward to circle around him, halting at the far wall. "You are different from the rest of your team. Your attitude, the way you carry yourself. They are enforcers. You are…not."
The moisture in his throat disappeared, and his heart pounded painfully. "Your point?"
Venth smiled thinly as the wall behind him became transparent.
"God," Rodney breathed, "Oh, my God."
He swallowed thickly, forcing the bile down. Sheppard was strapped to a chair, his head lolling to one side. Tremors ran the length of him. His right eye was swollen shut, and his chest hitched as he breathed. And his hand, his left hand… Rodney glanced down at his own, the ache still setting his teeth on edge. John's hand was mangled, the knuckles out of place, fingers going every which way but straight. A guard stood nearby, holding a rod flecked with blood.
Horrified and sickened, Rodney turned wide eyes to Venth. "Why are you doing this?"
"I need information," Venth said.
"And you think beating him to death will get it? Are you that stupid?" Rage like he'd never experienced before rushed through him. "You bastard!"
He lurched at Venth and collided with a glowing purple shield that tossed him to the floor. The man shook his head and poked at a small square device in his hand. Rodney's muscles contorted; his heart stuttered; his breaths came in small gasps. After a moment, the feeling eased. He stumbled to his feet, panting, and caught a glimpse of Sheppard convulsing before going still. Rodney's mind raced as he stared at the little box.
"What have you done to us?"
Venth arched an appreciative brow. "Very good, Rodney. Few ever make the connection on their own. I can't give you the technical details. In essence, when his pain receptors are stimulated, a device in his brain transmits it to a similar device in yours. You feel what he feels. To a degree, anyway. I have it on the lowest setting. To give you a full appreciation…"
When Venth touched the device again, every nerve in Rodney's body screamed. He staggered forward, bracing against a wall as his brain tried to leak out his ears, the agony in his ribs and hand making his vision white out. This was what Sheppard was feeling? How was he not dead? And suddenly, Rodney knew. The crazy son of a bitch was holding on out of spite. His eyes flicked up as the pain retreated back to a dull ache. Sheppard was still slumped in that chair, but Rodney recognized the set of his jaw, the hatred gleaming in his one open eye. These men were dead, and they didn't even know it.
"John," he whispered, "hold on. They'll come for us." Even as he said it, he knew John would never back down, would never give up. He just wasn't that kind of man.
"So that you understand completely, Rodney, that setting is equal to his pain level, but it's only half of what this device can produce. You do not want to experience the maximum."
"He's never going to talk, you know, especially since he thinks we're dead." Rodney's heart squeezed. He hoped he wasn't the only one still alive. "That's what that whole production was about earlier, right? Making him think you'd killed us."
Venth laughed lightly. "I'm not keeping you alive for him. I'm keeping him alive for you."
At some unseen command, the guard swung the rod into John's side. Rodney's chest exploded with pain, and the heavy feeling inside intensified. Sheppard jerked, gagged, the restraints holding him firmly in place. Rodney's knees buckled. He clutched at the wall, struggling to stay upright. He wouldn't be the weak one, not this time.
"Tell me what I want to know."
Rodney huffed a laugh. "You don't get it, do you? We are never going to tell you, no matter what you do."
"Everyone breaks eventually. Even your tough friend in there."
He stood straight, stabbing Venth with a look that had made professors quiver and lab assistants cry. "I'm sure you're right. He's human, like the rest of us. But before that happens, our people will have crushed your house of horrors into a little pile of white dust. We have a particularly vicious scientist there by the name of Zelenka who will enjoy seeing how big a crater he can make of this place. If you live through that, a doctor named Keller likes to dissect people to see what they're made of. Sometimes she lets them die first. But not always."
"I don't believe you."
Rodney shrugged. "Fine." He hated bluffing. He sucked at bluffing. "Just remember – when you watch her remove your heart from your chest, if you have one, that this could have all been avoided by letting us go."
Pain shot through him, the muscles in his chest spasming. Rodney clawed at the wall, trying to stay on his feet. The guard had a small device pressed right above Sheppard's heart. John's body shook and twitched as current surged through him.
"Tell me!" Venth hissed.
"No," Rodney choked out, never taking his eyes from John. Tears welled, going unchecked as Sheppard sagged unconscious then jerked upright when something was injected in his neck. "Stop this," he pleaded. "Please."
"You can stop this, Rodney. You hold his life in your hands. Tell me what I want to know."
"I can't." Rodney smiled to himself, finally understanding the full meaning of that statement, the kind of sacrifice behind it.
"I will kill him."
"I know. He'd rather be dead than surrender Atlantis."
"I will make it as slow and as painful as possible. And you will watch."
Rodney wheeled on him. "I've watched before as a Wraith sucked the life out of him, bit by bit. You have nothing that can compete with that," he snarled, advancing as Venth stepped back. "That man is the closest thing to a brother I have, and I will stand here and watch him die before I give you Atlantis." He rubbed at the scar on his arm. He'd done that once, seen the disappointment in Sheppard's eyes, vowed to never do it again. "Nothing you say or do-"
Venth's head whipped around as the building shuddered. "Report!" he shouted to thin air.
"Unknown explosion at the north wall." The voice came from nowhere, like the light.
Rodney grinned at Venth. "Told you. Lorne's going to be pissed when he sees what you did to Sheppard. There might not be enough of you left for Keller to dissect."
Agony ripped through Rodney's chest again, dancing along his nerves. His fingers tingled, and his breathing hitched. From the corner of his eye, he saw Sheppard convulsing. Rodney slid down the wall as the pain worsened. Blood roared in his ears. Venth stared coldly as he continued to dial up the settings.
Stars exploded behind his eyes. His heart lurched, stuttered. Rodney curled in a ball, tremors racking him, the amplified pain more than his mind could bear. He screamed as the device hit maximum. Then…nothing.
Hands touched him constantly. Some strong, some soft, all gentle and always touching. Rodney floated, hovering between consciousness and unconsciousness, not ready to reenter reality. Voices, soothing and familiar, surrounded him. He couldn't understand the words, didn't need to. If a voice silenced or a touch left, he reached for it, needing the comfort it provided. And it always returned.
One voice was persistent, continually demanding that he wake. Strong, feminine, filled with worry and affection. He was afraid to obey, afraid the pain would return, afraid of what he would find if he opened his eyes. But the images grew worse. Teyla and Ronon lying dead next to him. Sheppard convulsing. Pain ripping him apart until his mind shattered.
He twisted under its grip, squirming to break free. The pain held him, shouted at him to stop fighting. He fought harder, kicked, flailed.
Rodney bolted upright, screaming. Strong arms wrapped around him while small hands framed his face, gently brushing away his tears.
"It's us, McKay. We're home."
Rodney hunched forward, unable to choke back the sob. The arms tightened around him, and the hands wound around his neck. He relaxed into the embrace, never so glad to have his personal space invaded. He didn't realize he was hugging them back until he felt Teyla's breath hiccup under his palm. He pulled back, the blush scorching the tips of his ears.
Ronon's right shoulder was wrapped and in a sling, his face lined, dark smudges under his eyes. Teyla's left leg was in a cast, and the mottled green bruises around her eye must have been a hell of a shiner.
"You guys okay?"
"Yeah," Ronon said, ruffling Rodney's hair with a smile. "We're good."
"Major Lorne's team rescued us four days ago," Teyla answered.
"I don't remem-" Rodney's eyes widened in horror. "Where's Sheppard?"
"He is here. The doctors decided to keep us together."
Teyla scooted a little further down his bed. Sheppard lay in the bed to his right. At least he assumed it was Sheppard underneath the bruises and swelling and bandages and wires. A ventilator whooshed, and the heart monitor beeped a slow, steady rhythm.
"Oh, my God," Rodney murmured. "Is he going to live?"
"Dr. Keller has operated on him twice to repair internal damage. She says he is healing physically, but he has not yet regained consciousness." Teyla stood carefully then hopped to the wheelchair stationed between their beds. "I fear he may not want to."
"He thinks we're dead," Rodney said. "I thought we were."
"As did I." Teyla rolled close, gently caressing Sheppard's arm, carefully avoiding the IVs and broken fingers.
Rodney probed the base of his skull gingerly. The knot was still there. "When he shot those things in our heads…" No need to specify who he was.
"Yeah," Ronon agreed. "Didn't expect to wake up."
"What happened to your shoulder?"
"When I did wake up, he was already there with some guards. I took one of them out before they stopped me."
Teyla rubbed her knee. "I did as well. Unfortunately, I was not able to get past that shield."
Ronon's knuckles turned white as he clutched the railing. "I couldn't do anything. At the end. I could see Sheppard, but I couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't…"
"You mean he got away?" Rodney kicked at the sheet tangled around his legs. "There has to be something-"
"He didn't get away." Ronon gripped Rodney's shoulder, holding him firmly in place. "Lorne said he found Sheppard lying on top of some guy who had a skinny piece of metal jammed in his eye. Another guy had his neck broken."
"Lying on top of him?" Rodney gaped at him. "How the hell did Sheppard get out of that chair?"
"His other wrist is heavily bandaged," Teyla said. "I suspect he slid his hand free."
"That's just... God." His stomach turned at the thought. "What about that shield?"
Rodney shuddered as pain shot down his right side. Ronon sucked in a quick breath, and Teyla groaned.
"You guys felt that, too?"
Ronon rubbed the back of his head. "Happens sometimes."
"It is time for his pain medication." Teyla glanced up as Jennifer and a med tech entered. "I am sorry, Doctor. We should have notified someone when Rodney awoke, but-"
Jennifer waved away the explanation with a smile. "Marie called me. I've been monitoring his vitals from the other room to give you guys some time to talk."
Rodney took a deep breath as the stabbing sensation near his ribs began to ease when the tech injected something in Sheppard's IV. "How long is this going to continue?"
"This what?" Jennifer asked.
He twirled a hand. "This…connection with Sheppard's brain. Because one day, he's going to wake up and go back to his normal insane activities like running and surfing and skateboarding. The last thing I need is constant muscle twinges every time he stubs a toe."
"He is going to wake up. Just give him time."
"You're sure? Because, you know, he looks kind of bad."
"Talk to him. Let him hear your voice."
Rodney glanced at John. "He can hear us?"
"Yes. His brain activity increases when one of you speaks," Jennifer assured him. "As for the connection, we're working on it. Major Lorne brought back some of the devices in the room he found Sheppard in." Her eyes softened. "This was one of the worlds Elizabeth visited. From the technical specs she left, we've identified the device that will remove the implants. We're doing some final testing to be sure we know how to use it properly."
"I want to look at those specs before you do anything."
"Yes, we thought you might."
"Well, look who decided to finally wake up." Carson grinned at him from the doorway.
"Why are you here?"
Beckett sighed as he entered. "Always a pleasure to see you, Rodney."
"Right. Sorry. Good to see you, Carson. What brings you here from the wilds of Pegasus?"
"Oh, you know, I heard you found yourself in a spot of trouble, decided to come by and check on you."
Jennifer rolled her eyes. "He's here because I'm not supposed to be treating you since we're... Anyway, he knows you better than anyone else, and I didn't want to take any chances."
The dreaded penlight flashed in Rodney's eyes. "How are you feeling?" Carson asked.
Rodney felt like a leaky balloon. "Tired. How can I be tired? I slept for four days."
"You were unconscious," Carson corrected. "It isn't the same thing. You need rest after what you went through."
Memories flashed; fear and adrenaline spiked and his nerves tingled. Rodney's hands fisted in the blanket, his eyes flicking to John. The bits of skin he could see were either black and blue or unnaturally pale. Teyla stroked John's arm lightly, humming under her breath, while Ronon leaned against the wall next to her, one hand resting on Sheppard's shoulder.
"Sleep, Rodney," Carson murmured, pushing him down until he was flat on his back. "They aren't going anywhere. I promise."
Rodney held Carson's eyes then Jennifer's. He could trust them; he did trust them. He was home, safe, his team alive. Nodding, he closed his eyes and let the sounds of the infirmary and the whispers of his friends surround him, but he didn't relax until small, callused fingers pried his from the blanket, flattened his palm, stroked the back of his hand, intertwined with his. Rodney released a shuddering breath and drifted off to sleep.
From the frown Ronon wore and Rodney's concerned gaze, they must have called her name more than once. "My apologies. I was…thinking."
"We could tell that," Rodney replied between bites of salisbury steak. "What about?"
Teyla sighed as she glanced around the room again. "I have never felt so unsettled by the infirmary before. Admittedly, most of my time here has been for routine exams, but even the two weeks I spent recovering from my time as a Wraith queen did not affect me so."
"Is it the smell?" Ronon asked. "I hate that smell."
"It's the colors," Rodney said quietly. "The white sheets and silver instruments."
"Yes, I believe you are correct." Teyla rolled her chair from John's bedside to the center of the room. "Even though the floors and walls are different, the starkness makes it seem…"
"Cold," Ronon supplied. "Sterile."
"It's supposed to be sterile." Rodney pushed his tray table away. "It's an infirmary."
"We could decorate," Teyla suggested. "It is your Christmas season."
"Oh, come on," Rodney scoffed. "You want to hang garland from the IV poles?"
"We could put a small tree on that table." After four Christmases in Atlantis, Teyla had a fairly firm grasp on the basic traditions. "Perhaps string some colored lights along the walls." She studied Rodney carefully. The slump in his shoulders and the drawn look on his face worried her. "Do you not like this holiday?"
"It's not that. I just- I don't see- How is this going to help Sheppard wake up?"
"I did not say it would."
"It might, though," Ronon interjected. "If he hears the music and the people."
The corner of Rodney's mouth quirked upward. "The man does like a party."
"Very well," Teyla said. "I am scheduled for another scan of my leg soon. I shall ask Dr. Keller for permission."
Jennifer readily gave permission – her only condition being no live plants – and Teyla set to work. Mr. Woolsey offered the Christmas tree he had brought for his office. Chuck gave her the artificial boughs that usually adorned the control room. Jennifer offered a few strands of lights, and Marie brought in a cd player and a selection of music.
Teyla arranged the tree on the table by John's bed while Rodney and Ronon bickered as they strung the lights, Rodney insisting Ronon was deliberately hanging them too high. Carols drifted in from the office area, and the scented candles dotting the room added a touch of warmth and tranquility.
"I thought you might like this," Carson murmured.
She smiled as she took the small gold star from him. "Thank you." She laid it on the table next to the ornament she had brought. "It is perfect."
"Did Elizabeth give you that?" he asked.
Teyla picked up the crystal with her name etched in it. "Our first year here."
Carson chuckled. "That was the sorriest looking tree I'd ever seen. And the best one I've ever had." His eyes lost focus, and his smile faded. "That is to say-"
She squeezed his arm gently. "We are glad to have you here."
He ducked his head, smiling shyly. "Thanks." He cleared his throat. "Now then, I am here to collect Rodney."
"Me?" Rodney dropped the lights he was holding, earning a heated glare from Ronon. "What for?"
"We need you to look over the latest test results on the device before we begin removing those implants."
"Oh." Rodney shot an unrepentant grin at Ronon as he followed Carson out. "Sorry."
Ronon turned to Teyla. "I can't do this with one hand."
"Don't worry," Jennifer called from the doorway. "It's time for your physical therapy."
"Do I have to?"
Teyla rolled her eyes. Whining was not attractive in Satedans.
"Only if you want to use that arm again." Jennifer arched a brow at him and waited.
"Fine," he huffed. Then he grinned. "Guess McKay will have to finish without me."
After Ronon headed to the physical therapist and Jennifer returned to her office, Teyla turned her attention back to the tree. She centered it on the table, draped the gauzy red material around the base, hung her ornament, and placed the star on top. She hopped back to her chair and stared at it, unsatisfied. She intended to use her collection of baubles and scraps of cloth, normally reserved for jewelry, to fashion a few additional ornaments, but something was still missing.
"Oh, of course," she murmured, activating her earpiece. "Kanaan, this is Teyla."
She sighed at his anxious tone. The memory of his expression when she awoke in the infirmary, screaming, would stay with her for some time. "I did not mean to alarm you. Are you busy?"
"I'm at rehearsal, but I'm not needed at the moment. What do you need?"
"I forgot to bring the gifts to put under the tree, and I don't wish to leave John alone."
"It will take me a few minutes to retrieve them, but I will be there soon."
After the connection closed, she dug through her bag. The copper wire she had purchased on Linkrellosru would set off the fiery iridescence of the maqasa beads she wanted to string. She wrapped the first strand around the tree, singing along with the Christmas music playing in the background.
The first year on Atlantis had been an immersion into a culture vastly different from hers. She had absorbed what she could and tried to ask pertinent questions. When this holiday had approached, she had been shocked to discover so many songs about John's family. Mortified that she had misjudged his standing amongst his people, she went to Elizabeth for clarification. Elizabeth had blinked at her in confusion then burst out laughing, apologizing profusely after a minute then explaining the difference between Sheppards and shepherds. Still, Teyla's favorite carols were ones that dealt with shepherds watching over their flocks.
Teyla broke off, glancing around the room. She thought she'd heard a low-pitched sound, like a moan or a hum, but no one had entered and nothing was out of place. She checked John again. The ventilator had been removed the day before, replaced by a nasal cannula, the swelling had gone down, and the bruises were beginning to fade.
She smoothed the hair from his forehead and gathered his hand in hers. "John, can you hear me?"
Sighing at the lack of response, she returned to her chair and began stringing a second strand. She was tying off the end when Kanaan arrived with the gifts. She touched her forehead to his and asked, "How is Torren?"
Kanaan beamed with fatherly pride. "He is perfect. Captain…" He sighed. "I can never remember the chaplain's name."
"Yes, of course. Captain Joson says he is the best-behaved child he's ever had in a na- na-"
"Yes, that. He is showered with attention. I fear he may be spoiled by the time this is over."
Teyla laughed. "I believe he may have been spoiled before this began."
"Some have offered to sit with him when we'd like time alone."
"Then we shall not disappoint them."
Kanaan pressed a kiss to her temple. "I must go. The rehearsal will end soon. Will you be attending the play tomorrow night?"
"Dr. Keller has given me permission to leave the infirmary for a couple of hours."
"What did you threaten her with?"
Teyla swatted at him playfully. "It was not necessary to threaten her. I merely had to promise her a seat next to mine on the front row."
After they made arrangements for dinner and said their goodbyes, Teyla put the gifts under the tree and draped the second string of beads. A new carol began playing, a particular favorite about silent nights and heavenly peace. Singing along, she rearranged the strand, adjusting the blue bead then the green.
Teyla froze at the breathy whisper, her heart in her throat, her gaze drifting to John. His brows were drawn together as he stirred, licking his lips.
His name came out more as a sob, but he turned toward her voice, blinking slowly. She perched on the edge of his bed and took his hand.
"John, can you hear me?"
His eyes focused on hers, widening in recognition. Tears welled. He closed his eyes and turned away from her, his breath hitching.
"No, John, don't look away." She placed her hands on the sides of his face, his tears scalding her fingers as she turned his head toward her. "I am real. We are alive, all of us. Please, John. Look at me."
He opened his eyes, swallowing thickly, chest heaving. "Teyla?"
She pressed her forehead to his, her tears running down his face, mingling with his. "We are home."
"They will be back soon."
His shoulders shook, and he couldn't contain the low moan that rumbled deep in his throat. She pulled back, gently brushing the tears from his face. He stared at her like he'd never seen her before.
She managed a wobbly smile. "I will explain everything, I promise. But first, I need to tell Dr. Keller that you are awake."
He nodded, blinking languidly. By the time Jennifer arrived, John was beginning to doze. Teyla wheeled to a nearby wall to wait, unable to hold in the sobs of relief any longer.
"Oh, God." Rodney stared at the privacy curtain from the doorway, his face bone-white. "Please, no." He turned tortured eyes to her. "What happened?"
She beamed at him, hysterical laughter bubbling forth. "He's awake."
"You mean, he's not…" Rodney slumped against the wall. "Really? He's really awake?"
"Yes. Jennifer is examining him."
The curtain slid back, and Jennifer waved them over. "He's asleep."
"What? Teyla said-"
"Real sleep, Rodney. He'll be doing a lot of that, but don't worry. That's normal. You'll get a chance to talk to him."
"But he's going to be fine, right? I mean, now that he's woken up and knows we're okay, he'll bounce back."
Jennifer's gaze was steady. "Colonel Sheppard's recovery will take some time. The physical injuries are the least of his worries, to be honest. The mental and emotional ones will take a lot longer to heal. I'm going to schedule some sessions for all of you with Dr. Stockton, but Sheppard is more open with you three than anyone else. Listen, but don't push."
"And if he doesn't say anything?" Rodney asked. "Do we just act like it didn't happen?"
"Like what didn't happen?" Ronon strolled in. "What's going on?"
"Teyla says Sheppard woke up."
Relief shone in Ronon's eyes as he let out a shaky breath and a smile blossomed. "About time."
People dropped by the infirmary throughout the day as word spread. John slept through almost all of it, only waking long enough to grip Ronon's arm and shake Rodney's hand. Teyla strung a third strand of beads, blinking in surprise when she moved to put it on the tree. Somewhere between the well wishes and the pats on the back, each visitor had added an ornament to the tree. Some were ornate, gilded in gold, inscribed with a name or date. Some were gaudy – red beads with some type of creature on it, flashing lights, round balls with logos. Others denoted a hometown or a favorite place to visit. A small, carved Satedan insignia hung between her crystal and a red and white sled that happily pronounced "i lov Uncel Mer" in big orange letters. A few crosses, one nativity scene, several candy canes, and a selection of Santas rounded out the décor.
A few gifts had been added as well. She recognized the two hideous packages Ronon had done along with a third wrapped in the elf paper from last year. The other three had to be from Rodney based on the brown paper with equations in Radek's handwriting. She made a mental note to save the paper just in case.
Pain rippled through Teyla's left hand as Ronon hissed and Rodney dropped the lights they were stringing. John's face was lined, the muscles around his eyes twitching. She pressed the call button as she flexed her fingers. John moaned, his eyes fluttering open.
"I have called for a nurse, John," Teyla soothed. "They will bring your medication shortly."
He frowned at her. "What medication?"
"For your hand." Rodney plopped in a chair, massaging his palm.
John's gaze swept over them then focused on Rodney. "What's wrong with my hand?"
Rodney's eyes widened. "Um, well, nothing, besides, you know, your fingers are broken, and, uh-" He grimaced as another bolt of pain shot through.
"What's wrong with you?" John demanded.
"Nothing. I'm fine."
"Did I ever mention that you suck at lying?"
Rodney shifted under John's gaze. "Yes, well, you've said a lot of things I ignore."
Teyla was close enough to see the sweat bead on John's forehead. The heart monitor's beep began to race. "Rodney is telling the truth, John. There is nothing wrong with us other than my leg and Ronon's shoulder. That man," a bitter taste filled her mouth at the thought of him, "tricked you into thinking he'd killed us. What he actually did was insert a device in our heads."
"It's simple, really," Rodney said, the scientist mask falling neatly into place. "You have one, too. It's implanted in the part of your brain that senses pain – Carson told me the name, but, you know, voodoo and all that. Anyway, it transmits what your brain is sensing and sends it to the devices we have."
John's face filled with horror. "You mean you can feel…"
"Yeah, we can." Ronon shrugged his good shoulder.
"Major Lorne retrieved a piece of equipment that should remove the devices once Rodney and Carson have tested it thoroughly," Teyla added quickly. "This is not permanent."
John nodded, his eyes shadowed. "Remind me to give Lorne a raise."
A nurse hurried in, syringe in hand. "Good to see you awake, Colonel." She injected the medication into the IV port. "How are you feeling?"
"I've felt better."
Rodney snorted. "His hand hurts like a son of a bitch."
"His ribs hurt, too," Ronon said.
"He has a headache," Teyla added.
John glared at them then smiled sweetly. "Tell Carson that he's done testing that equipment. These things in our heads need to come out as soon as possible."
The nurse chuckled as she lowered the lights. "I'll relay that message, Colonel, but don't get your hopes up."
John's lids began to droop as the drugs dulled the pain. "I'd like to talk to him. I need a favor."
"I'll tell him." Her gaze flicked over the rest of them. "It's time for you three to get some sleep, too." She held up a hand. "No arguments."
Teyla put the beads away while Ronon and Rodney finished the strand of lights. Ronon helped her into bed then climbed into his own, tossing a pillow at Rodney whose face was completely hidden behind a laptop.
"Hey!" Rodney protested, throwing it back.
"Nurse said to sleep."
"Sleep is for mortals. This is important."
Teyla shook her head as the bickering continued, wondering if they knew how alike they sounded. Prepared to shush them, or knock them out herself, she refrained when John's frame relaxed and his breathing evened into sleep. The oddest things gave a sense of normalcy.
"What are you working on, Rodney?" she asked.
"Zelenka left this for me. It's schematics for a jumper manufacturing facility."
Ronon leaned forward. "Is that where they were going when they crashed?"
Rodney nodded absently, fixated on the screen.
"I heard that Major Lorne was moved out of critical care today," Teyla said.
When he didn't respond, Ronon rose with a sigh and pulled the laptop from his hands.
"Give that back!"
"Nope." Ronon set it on the tray table between them, rolling it just out of Rodney's reach. "I'll hear you if you get up."
"I'll tell Keller."
Rodney slumped in the bed, pulling the sheet to his chin. "That's cheating."
Ronon grinned wolfishly. "I know."
"There could be important information on there."
"It'll be there tomorrow."
Teyla laughed as they sniped, their words lacking venom. They had no real medical reason to still be in the infirmary; their injuries would heal just as well in their quarters, as would hers. But they stayed, for John, for themselves, unwilling to let go yet.
John cried out incoherently, thrashing weakly. Before she could move, Ronon was out of bed and across the room.
"Wake up, Sheppard. You're dreaming."
John moaned, the mournful sound piercing Teyla's heart. She caught snatches of words as he mumbled, pleaded, called their names.
"It's a good thing that guy's already dead," Rodney said quietly, his jaw clenched.
As he'd done with all of them at some point, Ronon lifted John's shoulders and slid behind him, pulling him to his chest. "We're safe, Sheppard. It's okay to sleep."
John's body shook, and his eyes flashed in the darkness. Teyla couldn't hear the words exchanged between them, but he didn't pull away. The shaking slowly subsided, and his lids drifted shut as he finally relaxed into sleep.
"This really is going to take a long time, isn't it?" Rodney twisted the sheet in his fingers.
"Yes, it is," she replied. "But we will get through it together."
Teyla observed them over the top of her tea cup. Rodney stood on a chair to hang the last string of lights, determined to outdo Ronon. John watched as he sipped hot broth from a bowl, his eyes only leaving them to glance at her. Mother hen syndrome, Dr. Stockton called it. John flushed when Teyla smiled at him, his gaze quickly shifting back to Ronon and Rodney.
"I am never doing this again. Ever," Rodney announced. "Especially not with the lovechild of Lurch and Cousin Itt."
John sputtered soup as Ronon whacked the back of Rodney's head.
"Aw, why didn't you tell me you'd shown him The Addams Family?"
"Don't blame me, McKay." A hint of a grin ghosted on John's face. "You should know better by now."
Rodney's pleased expression made Teyla suspect that he'd known exactly what he was saying. The sly look Ronon gave him confirmed it. Beneath the childish antics and the gruff exteriors beat the hearts of truly good men.
"I have something for you," she announced. "I know that tomorrow is Christmas Day, but I would like to give it to you now, before the party starts."
"Party? What party?" John asked.
"Dr. Keller has put together a small celebration this afternoon for those in the infirmary."
"No, in the main part…" she trailed off as his face fell. "Would you like to have it in here?"
He shrugged nonchalantly, not realizing how expressive his eyes were. "Doesn't matter."
"Well, I didn't hang all these lights for nothing," Rodney said. "We're definitely having it in here. Now, did someone say something about presents?"
"Yes, I-" She stopped, staring at three additional gifts wrapped in elf paper.
"Those are from me," John said. "I had Carson get them from my quarters."
Teyla arched a brow at him. "I wondered where Ronon got that paper."
John shrugged, looking innocent. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Here." Ronon handed out the gifts he'd brought.
Teyla chuckled at the atrocious paper, ripping it gleefully from the long, heavy box. She opened the lid and gasped, pulling out two intricately carved bantos rods, smoothing a thumb over the markings proclaiming them as property of Teyla, daughter of Tagan, ruler of Athos. "Did you make these?"
"Yeah. Kanaan said yours were destroyed by the Bolo Kai."
Most of their artisans had been killed by Michael. She had never hoped to have the ceremonial sticks replaced. "Thank you," she whispered. "They are beautiful."
Rodney pulled a stone pendant strung on a leather cord from his box. "Scholar," he read.
Ronon blinked in surprise. "You know Satedan?"
"Ah, well," Rodney's ears turned pink, "I've picked up a word or two recently."
"The meaning is a little different. Scholar is like Specialist; it's a rank amongst the academics. The highest rank."
Rodney's smile turned smug then faded back into simple delight as he tied it around his neck. "Thanks."
"Where did you get this?" John sounded awed, his eyes round as he stared into his box. "Is this yours?"
A huge grin creased Ronon's face. "Nope. Mine's in my room thanks to Lorne. That one's yours."
The blaster whined as John checked the energy cell. "It works?"
"Yeah. Tested it myself."
"Zelenka made friends with some Travelers kid when those, um…"
"Asgard," Rodney supplied.
"…Asgard took McKay. She had a couple of broken ones lying around, and he asked if he could have them. I help him repair it." Ronon looked extremely pleased with himself. "You always said you wanted one."
"Oh, hell, yes. Thank you." John pointed toward his packages. "Mine next."
Teyla's present was about the size of a laptop, rigid on top but cushy beneath. "Oh," she breathed as she tore the paper away to reveal a painting of her holding a sleeping Torren in her arms. "How…"
"I took a picture of you rocking him to sleep one day. I asked Lorne… He paints, you know."
"It is wonderful. Thank you." She pulled the rest of the paper off, giggling at the bright blue t-shirt with SUPERMOM emblazoned in red on the front. "I shall wear this to the next staff meeting."
Ronon snorted. "Woolsey will love it." His face drained of color as he opened his gift. "Where did this come from?"
"Tyre left behind a few things. I thought you might like to have it."
Ronon held the framed photo reverently. "Tyre had this?"
John nodded. "It was a little damaged. A couple of the tech guys helped me restore the image. Team photo?"
"Yes," Ronon said softly.
A very young, smiling Ronon stood proudly in his uniform, one arm slung around Rakai's neck. Ara and Tyre were laughing with two others Teyla assumed to be Morika and Hemi.
"It was a long time ago," Ronon added, tracing the image with his fingertips. "I had just made Specialist."
"It was a good day then," Rodney said.
Ronon smiled sadly. "Yeah." He glanced up, arching his brows.
"What? Oh!" Rodney ripped open his box, and his jaw dropped. "How did you find this?"
John shrugged innocently. "You just have to know where to look."
"This- this is a Detective Comics Number Twenty-seven. Batman's debut. There's only like a hundred of these in existence." Rodney gaped at him. "Do you know how much…" His teeth clicked shut as John shifted uncomfortably. "Thanks." He snatched his gifts from under the tree and handed them out. "These are for you."
John's forehead puckered as he turned the flat, oblong object over. "What is it?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Just open it."
Underneath the paper was a black glossy board that resembled a skateboard without wheels.
"Now, think 'on.'"
John grinned in delight as a ribbon of blue around the edge of the board lit, and it began to hum. "A hover board?"
"You and that movie." Rodney shook his head. "It's probably more like an Ancient serving tray. I haven't tried it out because I'm not, you know, crazy, but you should be able to make it work."
"Just don't go flying through the labs with it."
"You can't use it when we run, either," Ronon said. His brows quirked when he ripped the paper off his present. "Introductory Physics," he recited, his eyes widening in surprise. "It's in Satedan."
"Zelenka said you were doing pretty good in his class so I thought maybe," a flush crept up Rodney's neck, "reading it in your own language…" He cleared his throat. "That time when you found that painting on Sateda, I found a few science texts. Of course, they were littered with inaccuracies, but I used them to create a translation program. I added some stuff that isn't in Zelenka's materials and expanded on a few ideas that he glossed over because you can't start on-"
Teyla quickly opened her gift when Rodney turned to her. "An iPod. Thank you, Rodney."
"I put some recordings on there for you."
"Oh." At his expectant gaze, she inserted the earbuds and turned it on, tears springing to her eyes when Charin began to sing.
"What did you do, McKay?" Ronon hissed.
Rodney ignored him. "I found some recordings on Elizabeth's hard drive. I thought you might like them."
Teyla scrolled through, choosing recordings at random – Halling reciting his genealogy, Jinto and Wex singing a favorite harvest blessing, Marta telling the story of Anosek and his lost love. Voices and culture she had never hoped to enjoy again.
"I had forgotten that she had interviewed all of them." She hugged the player to her chest. "Thank you, Rodney." She wiped the tears from her face and collected her presents. "These are for you. They may appear the same, but each one is different. They are-"
"Athosian clan cuffs," Ronon said, pulling the stitched leather from the box and sliding it on his wrist.
"You know of them?"
"Sure. Kanaan explained it when I asked where his came from."
"Which one am I?" Rodney asked, shrugging at her questioning glance. "It was on one of the recordings."
Teyla took the cuff from him, spreading it flat so they all could see. "This," she pointed to an intricate swirl with an Athosian symbol in the center, "is me. These lines," she traced the downward arch, "represent my ancestors. These lines are for Kanaan and Torren. This cluster," three lines that intertwined, merged into one, blossomed separately, "are you."
Rodney's had an English "R" centered between a "J" and a Satedan "R". Little lines branched from his, representing Madison and Jeannie. Ronon's initial was in the center on his cuff, with a branch for Melena. John's had a branch for Dave.
"Isn't there a ceremony or something?" Rodney asked.
"Yes, one filled with food and drink and laughter. But it is at harvest time, and that isn't for a few months yet on New Athos."
"I don't need a ceremony," John said, fingering the stitching.
"Me either." Ronon adjusted the cuff on his arm. "But I'll take it. Especially the food part."
Rodney looked hopeful "Will what's-her-name make that cake I like?"
She laughed. "I am certain that Deslen can be convinced to do so."
John stared at his hands. "Maybe I'll be able to put it on by then."
Teyla gathered his broken fingers gently in hers. "It will not make any difference. The act of giving the cuff has been done. You are now a member of my clan."
"We're not going to have to change our names, are we?" Rodney asked. "Because it will be a hassle to have my degrees redone as Rodney Emmagan."
John's lips twitched. "You mean Meredith Emmagan, don't you?"
"Oh, ha. I see your sense of humor still needs work."
"At least I have one."
Teyla hid a smile as they baited each other. She collected the discarded paper, carefully setting aside the parts with Radek's handwriting, and cleared the dining trays while Ronon hauled the boxes of gifts to their quarters. Rodney chattered, not noticing that John fell asleep during his lengthy recitation on the damage a meteor shower could do to a jumper.
Jennifer agreed to move the party to their room, and Teyla helped her rearrange the beds to accommodate everyone. After a couple of hours, music was playing, spiced tea was brewing, and an assortment of Christmas cookies was being guarded by Rodney and Ronon.
Radek shuffled in, pushing Evan's wheelchair.
John arched a brow. "Major, what the hell happened to you?"
"My jumper picked a fight with a bunch of rocks. The jumper lost."
"You wrecked one of my jumpers?"
"Sorry, Sir. Zelenka says he can make you a new one."
"That's good. I was going to hate to have to take it out of your paycheck."
"Yes, Sir." Evan grinned at him. "It's good to see you awake."
"It's good to be awake. I owe you one."
"I seem to remember you pulling my ass out of the fire a few times. How about we call it even?"
"Done." John extended a hand. "Thank you, Evan."
Other people trickled in: two chemists injured in a lab accident, a handful of Marines trying to not scratch the green patches on their skin left from Anchugo syndrome, Dr. Cole who was recovering from having her appendix removed. Each one brought something to share – a tin of cookies, sticks of candy, or Teyla's favorite decadent dessert, fudge. John soaked in each face like a man dying of thirst, and she suddenly realized that he had never expected to come home. His eyes never stopped, flicking from person to person but always coming back to her, Ronon, and Rodney. She retreated to a quiet corner and willed her hands to stop shaking. They had survived. That was all that mattered.
Carson flowed in with the rest of the medical staff, handing out trinkets that he'd collected in his travels. Mr. Woolsey joined them, his fuzzy red hat with white trim not quite matching the stiff blue suit he wore. John actually laughed out loud when Chuck arrived in a cheap white beard and a red suit four sizes too big, carrying a bag filled with packages. Christmas gifts from home, someone said. Teyla looked up in astonishment as he handed one to her. The mark in the upper left corner read "The Millers".
Ronon sat by her, holding his own box. "Think it's those cookies she makes? I love those."
"Open it and find out."
Teyla watched John while paper ripped and flew beside her. John smiled his thanks at Chuck then frowned as Chuck gave him a second parcel. He smoothed a tremulous hand over it, swallowing thickly.
"Must be from his brother," Ronon mumbled around the cookie.
Laughter bubbled from everywhere, and the enticing scents of spiced drinks and homemade treats added to the party atmosphere. Teyla sighed deeply, a sense of peace stealing over her. John patted the boxes a final time then tucked them under the tree and settled back. Rodney's unguarded expression was childlike as he read the letter his sister had enclosed. Ronon hid his box of cookies under his bed and headed back to the dessert table.
Teyla rolled to John's bedside. "Are you having a good time?"
He smiled tiredly. "Yeah. Good party. Where are Kanaan and Torren?"
"Torren is participating in tonight's Christmas play. He is taking a nap in advance."
John grinned. "Star of the show, huh. I bet he'll be great. You're going to take pictures, right?"
"And video. Rodney is loaning me his camera."
"I can't wait to see it." His eyelids began to droop. "What's Santa bringing him?"
"He already has more toys than any child should." She grinned at John's chuckle. "But apparently he needs more. He is receiving a new set of counting rings, a stuffed estril, and a musical color wheel."
"Sounds nice," John mumbled.
Jennifer approached as John's eyes finally shut. "Perhaps we should move the party back to the main room."
John's eyes fluttered open. "No, Doc. Please. Stay here."
"You need rest, Colonel. Carson wants to remove the implants tomorrow."
"I am resting." His gaze sharpened. "Come on, Doc. Christmas only comes once a year. Just a little while longer."
Jennifer scrutinized him for a moment then studied the monitors around him. "Just a little while," she agreed.
Rodney perched on the foot of John's bed while Ronon dropped in a chair and propped his feet up.
"Did you try these?" Rodney asked, waving a sugary cookie at them. "Biro made them. Can you believe it? The woman can cook."
"Have you ever met a cookie you didn't like?" Ronon asked.
"Yeah, macaroons." Rodney grimaced. "I hate coconut."
"That stringy white stuff?" Ronon made a face. "Don't like it either."
"Write that down, Teyla," John said. "They actually agree on something."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "We agree on lots of things."
"Tater tots," Ronon answered.
"Mm hmm. Ice cream."
"Especially barbeque." Ronon grinned. "Steak."
"Ah, yes. Rare." Rodney thought for a moment. "Chocolate cake."
"I've created a monster," John moaned.
Teyla laughed as Ronon and Rodney continued to work their way through their favorite foods. John drifted to sleep somewhere between strawberry cheesecake and sweet potato casserole. New lines were permanently etched on his face, and he had a new collection of scars, but the haunted look that lingered in his eyes would fade over time. They would make sure of it. Someone started singing carols, and she softly joined in.
Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.
Written for the Secret Santa challenge on sheppardhc for friendshipper. Prompt: Christmas in the infirmary with John too hurt to leave and the others staying because of injuries/trama so they put together a party for those in the infirmary. Many thanks to kristen999 for the beta. All faults mine. I've been busy writing fics for holiday exchanges. Two more will be coming as soon as they've been released to post. I hope all of you had a Merry Christmas. Happy New Year in a few days!
Written for the Secret Santa challenge on sheppardhc for friendshipper. Prompt: Christmas in the infirmary with John too hurt to leave and the others staying because of injuries/trama so they put together a party for those in the infirmary. Many thanks to kristen999 for the beta. All faults mine.
I've been busy writing fics for holiday exchanges. Two more will be coming as soon as they've been released to post. I hope all of you had a Merry Christmas. Happy New Year in a few days!