Disclaimer for the entire story: We do not own Stargate: Atlantis, Stargate SG1 or any of the characters associated with the shows. They belong to the MGM and their respective creator. We only own a handful of OCs that may or may not show up from the first chapter. Catherine Spencer belongs to xyzmary2001 (going by Catherine_Spencer now) (aka the OCD slave-driving, grammar Nazi dominatrix) and KDHeart takes responsibility for all the bad puns.

Warnings: some OCs, no OOCness (drug-induced. We can't remember if the authors were drugged or the characters), lemons (later on), some whump, occasional crack, bad puns, erratic updates and random fangirls. It will cross over with Stargate SG1 at times and might cross over into other shows as we go.

Tales of Atlantis

Episode 1: Experiment

Carson Beckett had died in an exploding tumor incident five months before and left the Atlantis expedition one man short. It had been one of the most disturbing things the crew had ever encountered and it had understandably created an atmosphere of mistrust and worry. And whispers in certain corners that they should have just stayed home. Or should leave. Or something.

So when Dr. Catherine Spencer arrived nobody was in the mood to throw her a welcome party. Or to trust her. Or to generally give a damn. She'd been quickly dismissed and sent of to her new and endless administrativeduties.

Even after five months she still didn't really feel that she belonged. So she trudged on through her duties, reminding herself that she was there because Carson would have wanted her to be there. That being part of this team of pioneers was an honour. That Carson had held the post and if it was good enough for him she would simply have to try harder to fill in the shoes of her mentor. He had trusted her to perform her first surgery at the age of 17, she would prove worthy of that trust now.

"You can be brilliant, Catherine. The best surgeon I've ever seen," he had told her a few days after that surgery. They were in the small cafeteria of the hospital and she was so exhausted she could sleep on the table. "But your skills alone are not enough to get you there, luv." His honest, blue eyes pierced her and she remembered feeling she wasn't up to any pep talk right then. "By pretending not to feel for the patients you save, you're lying to yourself. Our emotions make us human and we cannot reach perfection by suppressing such feelings or, in your case, by simply denying they exist. Trust me, lass, you may act like one of the robot professors you studied under at University, but you're not one of them. They teach for a reason. The sooner you accept that, the better."

Almost thrown over the table in tiredness, she'd wanted to tell him he was wrong. She cared. She just couldn't make a show of it. But she was tired and she was proud, so she didn't say a word. Carson left the hospital soon after. She'd moved on, gotten a researcher's job in a fancy, government-funded lab and thought she was doing the best to help herself and humanity by trying to find the cure for cancer. For a while she fit in, joked, had coffee, cursed the military for having most of the resources money could offer and all that.

Carson knew all that. But somehow she had been the first person he'd suggested as a successor. At the time she'd accepted the job, pleased but confused that he'd thought of her.

After five months in Atlantis, Catherine was no longer sure why she had accepted the job. It could have been pride, or it could have been sense of duty. Whatever it had been, now she'd had enough time to regret it. How could she have said 'yes' when she was just as conscientious as Carson that her skills were best served in a lab? Her last few weeks in Atlantis only confirmed what he'd tried to tell her – she wasn't a people person. Now, there was nothing she wished for more than to be back in her lab on Earth, surrounded by all the familiar equipment that had never caused her trouble. After all, it was a lot harder to work with people than with test tubes and viral samples.

"Dr. Weir!" The leader of the expedition continued down the corridor as if she hadn't heard Catherine calling. Refusing to give up, Catherine rushed after the other woman. "Please, Dr. Weir…" It seemed no one had any time to listen to her. Ever. Story of my life. "Can you wait for a moment? I need to talk to you."

Dr. Elizabeth Weir stopped and turned slowly, letting out a long sigh. "Dr. Spencer, how can I help you?"

"I wanted to talk to you about my position." Catherine took a deep breath. "I need to be replaced, as soon as possible."

"Excuse me?" Dr. Weir looked vaguely amused, but mostly tired. "We've already discussed this, Dr. Spencer." Dr. Weir started walking again and Catherine had no choice but to follow. "You are Carson's choice. He requested you specifically, even before..." Dr. Weir swallowed visibly. "From what I understand, you were his best student and he considered you a genius."

"I know that." Catherine's voice seemed to soften a little bit, but her face remained calm and composed - almost expressionless.

"Besides, Dr. Jackson recommended you as well, and he's known you most of your life," Dr. Weir continued. "I trust his judgment implicitly."

"Still, I only said 'yes' because someone with clearance had to come here and do the job," Catherine insisted. "Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to be of assistance, but I really don't have enough experience to run a department of this size. You need someone... older. And I need to return to my cancer research."

Dr. Weir stopped in front of the transporter; the door swished open and she stepped on. "But everyone says you're doing a great job."

Of course, Catherine had no doubt she was. Dr. Weir would have sent her back to Earth with the kawoosh of a wormhole if things were otherwise. Sadly, she wasn't eager to leave due to lack of competence.

Elizabeth stepped inside the transporter and Catherine followed. "Thank you. I've actually had very few patients lately. Which I'm taking as a show of good fortune rather than-"

"Well, all I can tell you right now is that the IOA is reviewing candidates, but making quick decisions isn't exactly their strong suit."

"Even with my strict contract guidelines?" Catherine had hoped that would give her an edge toward a gate trip home.

Dr. Weir shook her head and smiled. "Not a problem for them."

Catherine took a deep breath. "How long will it take? A week? Two, maybe?" The transporter doors opened up to the corridor a few steps from the control room.

"Might be a week. Might be two months. Don't worry, you are doing fine and it's quite normal to feel anxious. We all felt the same way our first few months. Who knows, maybe you'll find something out here to help you with your research. Stay positive." With another reassuring smile, Dr. Weir entered the control room without a look back.

"Thank you, Dr. Weir," Catherine said to the empty space. Her usually straight shoulders drooped and, with a dejected sigh, Catherine turned around and nearly bounced off the chest of the last person she needed to see.

Lt. Col. John Sheppard.

o0o0o

"I'm just saying, Rodney, you didn't have to go into so much detail. It goes right over my head."

Dr. Rodney McKay, lead expedition scientist as well as a royal pain in the ass rolled his eyes at the city's commanding officer. "I was just making sure some of the information actually stays between your ears," McKay insisted. "You must have comprehended some of my explanations, no matter how distracting the company might have been," he finished with an annoyed huff.

"She wasn't-" John stopped as Dr. Catherine Spencer suddenly turned around and nearly plowed into him. He never got over how young this girl looked. What was she like 16 or something? With her stick thin figure and childlike face, it was hard enough to believe she was a medical doctor, let alone the owner of a couple of impressive PhD's. Her brain was probably bigger than McKay's, not that Rodney would have ever admitted such blasphemy.

John smiled. "Hi, Doc."

Her blue eyes widened, pupils dilating slightly, and her lips puffed open in a gasp of surprise. A second later, those innocent eyes narrowed into slits and her nose wrinkled as if she smelled something rotten. John supposed he could use a shower after scouting around the musty city most of the day, but he couldn't smell that bad.

"Colonel," she said coolly, brushing between him and McKay.

The chill in her voice wasn't new to him, but he still couldn't figure it out. "What did I say this time?" he whispered to McKay. If he didn't know better, he'd swear she was his ex-wife in disguise, welcoming him home after one of his secret missions in Afghanistan that she'd loved so much.

"Did I just see what I just saw?" McKay asked back. "John "Captain Kirk" Sheppard getting the brush off?"

John glared at McKay. "Oh, I don't mind her, she's just a teen. Who can understand teenagers anyway? Besides, I've heard she's like having a female you for a doctor."

Rodney patted him on the shoulder, an unnerving smile tilting his lips. "Normally, I would give you a proper retort to that, but you're becoming an expert at digging yourself in recently." He lifted his chin pointedly past John.

Already feeling the kick in the gut, John dutifully glanced over his shoulder at Dr. Spencer, standing not ten feet away and measuring him from head to toe with an icy smile on her lips. As their eyes met, her gaze shifted rapidly to McKay and she granted him the most brilliant and charming smile John had seen to date. She even had dimples and, as usual, he felt like a pedophile for finding her so attractive.

Completely oblivious to his moral distress, the young doctor casually strolled back over to them. "You might be right, Colonel. If what you meant to say is that, despite being a teenager, I am as brilliant a physician as Dr. McKay is a scientist."

Her smile widened into a beguiling, genuinely seductive expression. Something she was far too young to know how to use, let alone deploy on an inexperienced man like McKay. "And that my touch, while professional, leaves a lingering effect on the unsuspecting."

Now, she didn't look like a teenager anymore and for some reason, this "new Catherine" annoyed him even more than the teenage one. On the bright side, her sudden metamorphosis allowed him to run his eyes over her without feeling like a corruptor of minors.

"Dr. McKay, looks like we have a lot of things in common," she purred.

"Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay," Elizabeth called. "My office. Major Lorne is back." Her voice was as calm and composed as ever, but John felt a hint of anxiety hovering underneath.

"You should go see what's going on," Catherine continued, touching Rodney's hand. "They probably need that big brain of yours."

John raised his eyebrow, glancing from the young, devilish genius, to the much older, less mature one. Somehow, McKay had established himself as one of the very few people on Atlantis to whom the new doctor was not only civil, but... nice. The even stranger part was that McKay wasn't trying to compete with or outshine her. He certainly wasn't trying to flirt with her either. Not that McKay knew how to flirt. Catherine, on the other hand...

"You know where to find me," she added. "In case you need something, anything." The young woman gave McKay one last sultry, seductive smile and walked away.

O…K... So Catherine was definitely flirting. Either that or she was suddenly Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde but, in her case, Ms. Hyde was the sweet one, only coming out to play with the likes of… Rodney? John shook his head. None of this made any sense. It was worrying how this strange bond of the two had left him in the cold and made him a handy target of their combined taunts and jabs.

"Come on, Lover-boy." He pulled McKay down the corridor. "Duty calls," he added, tugging the scientist towards Elizabeth's office. "You can catch up with her later."

"Lover-boy?" McKay groaned indignantly. "Mr. Unoriginal, you just couldn't find anything better, could you?" The lack of originality seamed to insult him more than the uninspired nick-name.

McKay jerked his arm free of John's grasp as they entered the control room, ranting about him being raised by cavemen. Elizabeth glanced at them, the usually tolerant and even indulgent gleam, suggesting that she deals with two 12 year-old boys, missing from her eyes. John had noted tension in her voice the past few weeks and, as he followed her into the office, he didn't expect cake and party hats.

Completely oblivious to her dark mood, Rodney didn't even wait for Elizabeth to close the door to start justifying himself. "I was just... We met Dr. Spencer in the hallway and..."

"McKay!" John snapped quietly and for once Rodney shut up, his gaze locking onto Elizabeth as well.

The meeting had started without them, as John noted Teyla standing off to the side of the desk. Silently, Elizabeth sat behind it, templing her fingers in that scholarly way she did. One step behind her, Major Lorne tried his damndest to disappear into the wall. He seemed to avoid looking them in the eye and, as he finally raised his head, his gaze sent chills down John's spine. "Colonel."

"Major," John nodded.

Lorne's unease was palpable, sadness and anxiety radiating from him in waves. "I take it the visit to MH6 - 98U didn't go well?"

Lorne's gaze dropped. "No, sir."

Teyla sighed. "It was not a downed transmitter as we had hoped."

"It seems," Elizabeth started, "that the villagers are sick and something or someone has…attacked the planet."

"Wraith?" McKay asked.

"They weren't culled," Elizabeth stated. She licked her lips and shook her head. "That is the only thing we can be sure of. But the survivors have yet to explain what happened. The raids took place at night and they were meant to kill."

John felt his skin tighten, readying for a fight. "How many?"

Lorne bit his bottom lip. His eyes met his commander's again. "They were 1000 people strong, sir. Now…" he shook his head. "Maybe a few dozen. All sick with what looks like a bad case of flu."

Elizabeth got up and rounded her desk, joining John and Rodney at the window, over-looking the Gate Room.

"This isn't their modus operandi," Rodney finally broke the silence. "They attack humans because they feed on them, not because they-"

"I know." Elizabeth nodded. "That's why I want your team to go check this out, with all the medical staff we can spare. See if there is any trace of Wraith activity in the area. And Rodney, see what you can do about that disaffected shield mentioned in the report. Whatever hit them, it might prove to be a threat to us as well." She hesitated a moment, then turned to the colonel. "John, we can't know how contagious the disease is or if the attacks will happen again tonight so, please, be careful."

Rodney raised a hand tentatively, using the other one to nervously scratch the back of his head. "Are you sure you need me along? It's just that I have this terrible allergy to contagious diseases of the alien kind."

John nodded, completely ignoring Rodney's attempt to weasel out. It had been so quiet lately. It was bound something like this would come up. "Rodney, Teyla, radio Ronon and get him suited up. I'll meet you at the Gate."

"Colonel?" Teyla raised her brows.

John sighed. "I have to alert the medical personnel that they are going off-world."

"Can't you just radio…?" Rodney started, but John cocked his head and raised his right brow. McKay seemed to get it in one. "Ahhh…well… Good luck with that then."

John made a face as he headed out the door. He really would have preferred cake and party hats at least once.

o0o0o

John's legs forced him toward the infirmary, but his mind and heart really weren't keeping the pace due to the task at hand. Dr. Spencer's loathing for off world travel was known throughout Atlantis. As good as she was in her field, it was almost impossible to get her out of the infirmary and take her in the field. The princess preferred her sterile tower to grunt work.

She was also rumored to have a collection of allergies more diverse and abundant than McKay's and Daniel Jackson's put together. In fact, it was amazing she was still alive with so many allergies; she should be living in a plastic bubble. Though, John suspected she spread that rumor herself to have a better excuse to stay behind. She seemed stubborn enough to pull it off.

She also seemed to walk very slowly, since John managed to catch up with her before she made it back to the infirmary, although he hadn't exactly been running.

"Dr. Spencer, we need to go to MH6 - 98U. The villagers there were attacked and the survivors seem to have caught a very bad form of flu. Prepare a medical team ASAP and get ready for departure in 20 minutes," he informed her.

She stopped in her tracks, slowly turned on her toes and stared at him with rather large eyes. After a short, startled pause, she nodded professionally.

"I'll tell Dr. Johannes and Dr. Moore to prepare their medical kits immediately. They'll be in the Gate Room in fifteen." This being said, she turned back and entered the left corridor, continuing on her way.

John rushed forward, cutting her off. "Um, Doc. You too. You're on the team this time."

When she stopped again, her feet skidded on the floor as if breaking quickly, and looked at him. The grimace on her childish features would have been amusing if it wasn't for the complete adult disdain in her eyes.

"I don't recall saying anything about myself, Colonel Sheppard." Her gaze dropped as quickly as it had latched onto his. "As you undoubtedly know, I am here only because the IOA hasn't found a permanent replacement for Dr. Beckett." Her eyes darted around the corridor as her voice rose to an icy shrill level. "I have no intention of going off world anytime soon, and there is a special clause in my contract exonerating me from this type of duty."

As a matter of fact, Elizabeth had told him about the special clause that had raised all sorts of eyebrows, both military and civilian. The appointment of Dr. Spencer as leader of the medical team of the expedition, despite her absurd whims, spoke of either the intervention of her friends from the SGC or of her actual superior medical expertise. John didn't give a rat's ass which side of the fence the blame fell on. The fact remained - she was the doctor. He didn't care about her allergies or phobias. Doctors went where they were needed. Carson knew that, she was yet to find out.

"I'm ready to fulfill all my duties. Please, transport all the patients here and I will gladly do whatever is necessary…on Atlantis." The way she kept looking away from him was starting to get on his nerves. She didn't even have the decency to look him in the eyes as she turned her back on the injured and dying.

To hell with that!

"Doc, I'm gonna say this once. There are dozens of people in need of all the medical attention we can provide. Most might not even make it to the Gate. You will be joining us and you will be doing it without further comment." She wanted to say something and John raised his finger, pointedly. "I'll even toss you over my shoulder and carry you through the Gate if I have to. Is that clear?"

This time, it seemed that he'd managed to stun her speechless. Her wide blue eyes finally locked onto his and her face turned bright red. John flashed his patented half-smile that always got Elizabeth to agree with him. "See you in fifteen."

He was halfway down the corridor when Catherine found her voice again. "You have no right to give me orders, Colonel! I am still a member of the civilian personnel and I have no obligation to follow your commands. Please limit yourself to giving orders to your military subordinates."

"Dr. Spencer, if it's those pesky allergies you're worried about… grab an extra Epi-pen. You're going."

"You are losing time arguing, Colonel, and you should get going. I'll send the medical team and I will wait here for my patients. If the situation is as dire as you believe, I suggest you to take several puddle jumpers and transport them back here, where we have all the medical equipment we might need." She turned and strutted away.

John could only stand there watching her go. As much as he wanted to see her face when he'd threw her over his shoulder, his back wasn't really up for it. No doubts, she was the most infuriating person he had the misfortune to work with.

"Why exactly are you here?" he called when she was a few good steps away from the infirmary doors. "Did you misread the part about space travel? Another galaxy. Other planets. The adventure of a lifetime?" He took a few steps closer to her. "You weren't underage drinking and just skimmed that part, were you?"

Dr. Spencer had stopped when he spoke, but she kept her back to him. Any mention of her young age always seemed to get her goat. This time, however, she didn't rise to the bait. Perhaps it was the press for time as she pointed out, or the subject matter.

"Because Dr. Beckett recommended me."

Carson's loss was still a sore spot with most everyone on Atlantis. However, the softness in Spencer's voice when she mentioned Carson caught him of guard. "Why?"

She shrugged, looking down at her feet. "I have no idea why he did such a thing." She shook her head and her shoulders drooped ever so slightly. "I stopped asking myself. I'll never find out anyway." With a deep breath, she abruptly changed the subject. "Colonel, I suggest you read my contract again. I cannot be forced to leave Atlantis. I accepted the job only under this condition. You will not carry me anywhere." She took another deep breath and entered in the infirmary, her feet shuffling as if they wouldn't hold her up much longer.

John was sure that, if he had blinked, he would have missed that little fumble in her step. The chink in the princess's armor wasn't ego after all… it was fear, plain and simple. The little girl was scared. Fine. He didn't need to play babysitter when people were dying. "Whatever. Your team has ten minutes now. Make it snappy, Doc. Clearly, they'll be far more help without you holding them back."

John hit the nearest transporter and headed for the gear-up room. He'd wasted enough time, after all. There were more important things to take care of than a little doctor that couldn't accept the reality of her duties. Ronon, Teyla and McKay were probably already in the Gate Room, waiting for him.

And the people of MH6-98U had waited for help long enough.

o0o0o

John had been right; Teyla and Ronon were ready and waiting in the Gate Room as he came in strapping on his P-90. He looked up at the control tower where McKay was tinkering with God–knows what on his tablet and on one of the many consoles. John checked his watch: the med team had five minutes left.

McKay trotted down the main staircase, barely raising his gaze from the tablet's screen. "I see you're still alive, Colonel. Did you actually chat with the lovely doctor, or chickened out at the last minute, sure she'd attack you with the big needles?"

"Stuff it, Rodney."

"Dr. Spencer is not joining us?" Teyla wanted to know.

John shook his head. "She's sending her best medics and setting up the infirmary for the heavy wounded."

"Sounds best," Ronon said. At Teyla's side look he added, "I mean, she's not a team…player."

John chuckled lightly. "Look who's talking."

"Hey!" Ronon swiveled his gun several times. "You wanna play?"

"Focus, gentlemen," Elizabeth called from her post at the rail upstairs.

John glanced up at her, nodding apologetically. Elizabeth couldn't always stomach the banter that he, Ronon, McKay and even Teyla used to temper what they had to deal with on away missions. Elizabeth's civilian and civilized brain tended to strain with the emotion of any given situation.

"She does realize how serious the situation is, does she not?" Teyla asked.

"Yep," John said. "But she refuses to go. Can't force her. Can't carry her over my shoulder through the Gate either." Even though that was exactly what he had threatened. Maybe he could get Ronon to do it.

"Well, we could have used her," McKay said. "I've been going through the data again and it doesn't look too promising. The symptoms of that flu are rather strange."

"Aww, darn. I wish I could have told her that too. She would have slammed the door even harder in my face," John glowered at McKay.

"She slammed the door…"

"Verbally speaking. She has a "no off-world travel" clause in her contract."

"Seriously?" McKay's voice pitched up.

"Why?" Ronon asked.

John nodded to McKay and shrugged at Ronon.

McKay grumbled. "Wish I could have thought of that before coming here."

"Right, 'cause, at the time we came through the wormhole from Earth, that was really an option."

"Not after you woke up the Wraith, then forced me onto your team," McKay said with a smirk, knowing how much John hated to be reminded of that glitch on his first mission into enemy territory.

"If I shoot him now, will Dr. Weir get mad?" Ronon asked.

John glanced up at Elizabeth, still standing on her little deck, arms crossed, talking to Chuck the technician, probably about the upcoming mission. She didn't look remotely relaxed. She needed a massage and a good-night's sleep. "Wait until we get off-world. Then shoot away," John told Ronon.

"Fine by me."

"Wait…" McKay looked up from his tablet. "What?"

Teyla rolled her eyes at her team mates.

o0o0o

"I know that, John," Elizabeth Weir was saying. "I just wish you could have convinced her. Dr. Moore is an Emergency Medical Specialist and Dr. Johannes a strong surgeon, but Dr. Spencer is all that plus the best virologist we have. We needed her on this team, but I guess it can't be helped." The leader of the Atlantis expedition had joined them downstairs a few minutes ago, as they waited for the med team to arrive. It was taking longer than the promised fifteen minutes.

"Hey, I tried my best. Even gave the old smile a go." That at least got Elizabeth to smile a little. "You and the IOA are at fault with that whole "no off-world travel necessary" thing, not me, you know."

Elizabeth sighed and rolled her eyes guiltily. "I understand, but we didn't have much of a choice. She was the most qualified person for this position and she refused to join us otherwise. Not that I can blame her for that."

John eyed her questioningly, but Elizabeth didn't seem willing to enter into much detail, so he decided to save the subject for later. Besides, if there was any serious reason behind Dr. Spencer's refusal to travel off-world, he should find it by reading her file. Probably he should have done that a long time ago, but he had been just too busy to read the files of the civilian personnel.

It was late, so he gazed at his watch a third time, then clicked his earpiece. "Sheppard to the infirmary. Dr. Johannes, Dr. Moore, what's your ETA?"

"So sorry for the wait, Colonel Sheppard," Dr. Spencer said haughtily as she led the full medical team into the Gate Room. "We needed an extra minute to secure more equipment for the viral studies."

John glanced at McKay who was grinning at the young doctor, then at Elizabeth, whose brows arched in the same amazement that had his jaw dragging on the floor.

"We are ready to go," she nodded sheepishly at him, doing her best to avoid his eyes at all cost. She looked pale and a bit shaky, but he could definitely see something else in that steely spine of hers. Determination, maybe? Something had definitely pushed her into joining them. Something that had mightily pissed her off, but had gotten her ass in gear nonetheless.

Something he'd said. Hmm, if he could only figure out what it was and save it for later use. With a shrug, he wound his fist in the air at Chuck, indicating the tech to dial up the gate. Everyone stepped back as the chevrons started to click into place.

"He actually talked you into this?" McKay had a hard time hiding his surprise. "Not that I'm complaining, we can use all the help we can get, but-"

His comment was stopped by a sharp elbow to the ribs. "What Rodney here is trying to say is we are very glad you decided to join the mission." Teyla bowed her head respectfully.

"Actually, Col. Sheppard had nothing to do with my decision," Catherine said hurriedly, as if she did not want to leave any doubt. "I'm glad you're coming as well, Rodney. Makes me feel safer," she added with a smile. After a moment, she nodded to the others:

"Ronon, Teyla..."

The young doctor greeted Teyla with a similar bow of her head then looked at the Gate as the event horizon came rushing out at them.

"First time outside Atlantis, doctor?" Ronon asked.

"Yes. I'm more of a lab technician than an explorer."

"It's not as bad as you might have heard," Ronon said in his usual guttural tone.

That was the longest sentence John had heard the guy say all week. What was it about this woman and his male teammates?

"Besides…" Ronon continued. "Like you said…McKay will be there to protect you."

"What…I will?" McKay glanced around then nervously grinned at the young doctor. "I mean… I will."

"Try again with a little less hysteria, Rodney," John muttered. "She might buy it if you don't sound like a scared little girl."

The 'scared little girl' quip obvious ruffled Dr. Spencer's delicate feathers, given the fiery gaze she shot at him before quickly glancing down at the heavy-looking kit in her hand. Trying to soften it with a charming smile, John reached for her kit. "Do you need help with that?"

"No, thank you. Besides, you've got that big gun weighing you down, Colonel. Wouldn't want to put you out, would I," she snapped back, still avoiding his gaze.

John put up both hands and backed off, shrugging innocently. He wasn't going to start arguing again, once was more than enough for a day. This also applied to not making any more comments about the attention the young doctor showed toward McKay. That took a bit more self restraint. Still, Elizabeth's amusement reminded him he didn't have to worry about Rodney. He'd turn things against himself sooner or later.

In front of them, the event horizon shimmered, waiting for their departure.

"Since my job is, as you pointed out, to protect the civilians, it prevents me from being a gentleman and letting the ladies go first. Rodney, you too." He walked ahead, signaling his team to follow in formation.

"Hey! That was really uncalled for!" Rodney protested, though John was sure McKay was happy not to be the first through the Gate.

o0o0o

Catherine stepped through the Gate and entered a whole new world: a shining, green world, full of glossy, knee high grass and giant, leafy trees. The ancient kind of trees with enormous trunks rooted in moist ground tunneling for nutrients. Gnarly brown and gray bark with thick, twisted branches that grow in all directions, reaching like arms toward the sky in search of sunlight. Strangely shaped leaves drifted slowly on the gentle breeze, swishing in a deceivingly relaxed chant as if passing secrets between themselves. Yellow, red and purple flowers caressed the travelers pant legs, leaving tell-tale markings of their journey into the unknown. It wasn't a jungle exactly, but it was the closest thing Catherine could imagine an alien one being.

An unpleasant tingle tickled up from the base of her spine and settled at the back of her neck, lifting the short hairs and making her shiver with a disturbing dread. It was too colored, too peaceful, too beautiful, too... perfect. And it reminded her too much of her very first travel through the Gate – and its outcome. Especially the outcome.

Instinctively, Catherine took a few steps toward Dr. McKay and caught his arm. "It's so beautiful it scares me," she said. "How ridiculous is that?"

"Not at all, really," Dr. McKay stated as he checked over his scanner. "My worst luck usually happens to hit on the prettier planets, actually. Or those well-endowed with ancient technology. Or with an abundance of surplus food stores that we could trade for. Or… with beautiful princesses who need saving. Or…What I mean is… it's usually in places like this that we have to do a lot of running away. Mostly while being shot at." He looked at her, but Catherine, lost in her own thoughts, didn't seem to notice.

"Or… on peaceful, beautiful worlds, perfect for being visited by new-comers," she added bitterly. It was obvious she wasn't talking about MH6 - 98U, but it was unlikely Dr. McKay could even imagine what she was talking about. She shivered again, but clamped her mouth shut when she heard a bit of deep chuckling from behind and off to the side. Sheppard! Damn that man.

"But I'm sure that isn't going to happen this time, Dr. Spencer," Dr. McKay added quickly, obviously trying to ease her mind. "This looks safe enough. For now."

"If you're done bonding," Sheppard said, as he came between them. "There's a whole settlement waiting for our help. Let's move out!"

As they were leaving the safe surroundings of the Stargate and were getting deeper and deeper in the mist of the forest, the feeling of déjà-vu was getting stronger, bringing to the surface the memory of her first off-world trip with the SG-1. It had been Daniel Jackson's idea to have her on the team for an off-world non-risky mission and he didn't back down until he got General Hammond's approval. The periodical visit on Alcyon had seemed the perfect opportunity. Populated by a peaceful and friendly community, with its virgin forests, its mountains twice as high as the Everest, its exotic mix of animals and its two suns, Alcyon was probably one of the most beautiful planets ever visited by SG-1, perfect for a new-comer's inception into the world of space-travel.

And it had been so, at least before Ba'al attacked the planet from orbit, at short time after their arrival. In spite of the years that had past, Catherine could still hear the screams heard in the thundering explosions that had hit without mercy the amazing, white city built in the heart of the forest. She could still see the faces of the fallen and their empty, dead eyes. She could still feel in her bones the silence that followed the attack. The attack that shattered her peace of mind forever and filled her nights with nightmares.

Oh, yes. Catherine had seen such a planet before. She knew all too well that silence, just like beauty, could be extremely deceiving. Deadly, even.

o0o0o

They had managed to maintain a steady pace for a while, but John didn't expect it to last. McKay was with them after all. Sure, he wasn't as vocal about it as usual, but he still hated leaving the safety of Atlantis and everyone knew it. At least he'd stopped complaining about what the atmospheric radiation might do to his fair complexion.

It didn't take long for the sneezing to start. Dr. Spencer. So, at least that part of the allergies claim is real.

"Please, stop," she asked in a rather breathy voice, then sneezed again. "I need to rest at least for a few minutes." Another sneeze. "We've been walking like this for hours! How far did you say the village was?"

Without waiting for an answer, Dr. Spencer put down the medical kit with a rather heavy thump and sat on a fallen log next to it. She pulled out a travel pack of tissues from her inside pocket and blew her nose repeatedly.

John rolled his eyes. "It's been less than an hour, Dr. Exaggeration. And the more we drag our butts the longer it takes."

Rodney tentatively raised a hand. "I think it's the air here. This moon rotates around a large ringed planet… there's bound to be atmospheric differences that Dr. Spencer isn't used to, this being her first time off-world and all." He grinned at the young doctor, leaving John out of their easy camaraderie. "I'm feeling a bit tired myself." He sat down on the log next to her and patted her knee awkwardly.

"Color me surprised, McKay," John muttered. He sighed heavily. "Look, it's not too much farther. We're here to do a job, remember. You can rest once we get home."

Dr. Spencer opened her kit, pulled out a bottle, popped a couple of pills from it and dry swallowed them before sneezing into her tissue again.

"Seriously, though, Doc, I never would have expected you to tire out this quick." John reached down and closed the med kit. "I did offer to help you carry this, if it's too much for your lightweight self." From the heated teary-eyed glare she leveled at him, John knew he was pushing the right buttons.

"And I remember myself saying I didn't need help," she growled, her voice surprisingly breathy and deep. She turned that hard, suspicious gaze to the hand on the kit handle.

Her gaze lifted again to his a moment later and John could see blood vessels burning up the whites of her eyes. It looked like the doc really had bad allergies, but so did Dr. Jackson, and he survived. She would, too. The heat from her stare, though, seemed to burn right into him and the suddenly deep grumble of her voice as she enunciated each word raised the hairs on the back of his neck.

"I said I need a moment to rest. I'm not a marine or a flyboy. And contrary to popular belief-" She sneezed again, the force of it shaking her whole body and nearly knocking the leaves off the trees. "-I am human." She said this with a deadly look toward her own medical team. "And I want to be alive and functional when I get there, thank you."

With a slow, shuddering breath, she leaned into McKay, using his shoulder as a pillow, and closed her eyes. "Let me stay like this just for a few minutes."

McKay awkwardly supported her with his arm. He looked at John with surprise and confusion and maybe a little bit of distress. John was more surprised that Rodney didn't jump up and knocked the girl over. McKay wasn't exactly smooth when it came to women.

As much as he enjoyed seeing McKay flustered, John was tired of this game. They were here on a mission. "McKay, you've had enough fun. Help the good doc up and let's be on our way."

"But..."

"No 'buts', Rodney. We're here to work, not on vacation."

"Sheppard," McKay started, a little heat in his voice.

Dr. Spencer's eyes opened at the moment. She put a hand on McKay's and shook her head 'no' ever so slightly. McKay made the strangest face and did the one thing John had been trying to get the guy to do for three years now – shut up.

When she looked at John, he could see the fire as much as before, but also something else. Her face looked…swollen? No. Sleepy. She looked like she'd just taken a really long nap in under two minutes. "What the hell kind of pills did you take?"

She gave McKay a little shove and just ignored the question. "Thanks for the shoulder. I'll be fine." She waved off everyone. "Just go. I'll catch up."

"That is not wise," Teyla said. "This planet may not be safe."

Dr. Spencer offered Teyla a brief, tired smile. "It's okay." She glanced at McKay. "We're alone, right?"

He tapped the life-signs detector. "So far, nothing but us. But… that could be covered by the radiation from the ring planet…"

"Rodney," Dr. Spencer seemed to exhale his name. "Either it's safe for us or it's not."

John grunted. "Teyla's right. Ronon…" He motioned to the doctor.

"I can carry you, Doc," Ronon offered.

With a faint smile, she shook her head. "No thanks. I'll be fine... Go ahead and I'll join you after a short break." She caught Ronon's gaze. "Really. No one will be carried anywhere, Mr. Dex. I really need to sit and rest for a little while."

Man, could this child-woman be more useless? Seriously! This was their genius. Their savior on this mission. John was deeply regretting the choice of bringing the 'good' doctor along. This whole martyr routine was really getting on his nerves, making McKay all awkward and making everyone feel uncomfortable. She had officially earned the title of 'most obnoxious person in his life'. He almost smiled at the thought of McKay's reaction when he found out he'd finally been outshone for once.

"I'll stay," Teyla offered.

"That won't be necessary," Catherine said quickly. "This path leads straight to the settlement, isn't that correct?"

"Well…" Teyla shot a look to John. "Yes. That is true."

"Catherine…" McKay muttered, but a single searing look from her shut him down.

"I'm fine, Dr. McKay. I just need a few more minutes to rest… and I'd be best by myself." She looked directly at John. "You all need to get moving. Isn't that right, Colonel?"

Yeah, enough of this. She's already taken up too much time. "Yep. You're a big girl. You can take care of yourself and catch up with us." He snapped his fingers at one of the soldiers who handed him his sidearm. He passed it along to Miss Spencer. "Safety's on the side, flip it off before firing, if you need to."

She huffed at him. "I'm not shooting anyone."

John smirked at her. "Trust me, Doc. You want to keep this with you…just for the hell of it." When he placed the gun in her hand, he noticed it trembled. She abruptly dropped the gun onto her lap and locked eyes with him, as if to dare him to mention the apparent weakness in her hand.

This was a mistake, John could feel it. There was something off here. Yeah, she was pissing him off to no end, but this whole courageous act, sending them off so she could 'rest' alone… that just didn't ring with any truth to it. And McKay knew something too. John caught the guilty look in the guy's eyes, but the scientist made a decidedly un-McKay-like choice by keeping his mouth shut.

And Dr. Spencer was a closed book. Whatever was going on with her, she wasn't going to give it up anytime soon. Fine. If she wanted to be alone…

John took a look at his scanner for life signs. The area looked clear, with no one around except for them. "You should be okay enough on your own."

Rodney flinched. John hadn't even raised his voice. "What?"

"She said she'll be fine." John motioned for the team to start moving again. He made a grab for the medkit and this time Dr. Spencer let him take it. "A few minutes rest only."

Dr. Spencer nodded.

"Yeah, but…" Rodney looked pleadingly at her. "Catherine…"

She smiled at him. "See you soon, Rodney."

John turned to follow the team out. "McKay!" Rodney shot one last look at Dr. Spencer and so did John. Sitting on the log, elbows on her knees and head in her hands, she looked so young, so fragile, so... civilian.

"I'll be okay, just go!" she insisted.

"Fine!" John called back and trailed after the rest of the team.

He walked until they disappeared from her sight, then ordered Smith to go back and keep an eye on her from a safe distance. It was against all his principles to leave that stubborn woman behind, no matter how annoying she was and how much she insisted she was perfectly fine on her own.

The pain in the ass.

o0o0o

After leaving Dr. Spencer and her escort behind, it only took them a little over fifteen minutes to reach the village. Rodney had been unusually silent the rest of the way and there were no other inconveniences. What they found in the village was a whole different matter. There were barely three people standing and even those looked like they had been through hell and back. The place was filled with the smell of decay and you needed no medical expertise to tell that most of the bodies lying in the streets were already dead, while the other villagers were too sick to do anything about it.

While the medical team was checking life signs and moving the survivors to one of the larger houses where they could better tend to them, John and his men were trying to gather as much information from the conscious survivors as they could. They were all in shock to one degree or another, all of them having lost a dear one, but some were able to shed some light on the events without breaking down with grief. By all appearances, a few days before the Wraith attack, a strange plague had started spreading through town, killing people and leaving them defenseless. There didn't seem to be any particular symptoms to this disease – head aches, fever, your usual flu signs or nothing at all – until you were bed-ridden and dying and it didn't seem to affect just a certain segment of the population. Rich and poor, young and old, no one was spared. Within days, the population had dwindled to about a hundred. Sick and scared, they were mourning their dead and their own fate when the Wraith struck, cutting through them with what sounded like a new weapon. While none of the buildings were affected, anyone that had fallen in the path of the red beam had been struck dead.

Even on a cursory look, whatever weapon the Wraith had used, it was like nothing they had encountered so far. There were no visible marks on the bodies – no lacerations or scorch marks or anything – but they all seemed to have suffered massive internal hemorrhage, their blood gushing out of their eyes, noses and ears. It wasn't a pretty sight, as the weak stomachs of some of the medical and military staff made sure to attest to. John was secretly grateful to McKay for nagging him all morning and making him skip breakfast. On the other hand, Rodney had had a sandwich and was looking rather green around the gills, trying valiantly to keep it down.

"Colonel, I don't think it was wise to leave Dr Spencer and private Smith alone out there," Teyla said, stepping closer. Though she seemed shaken by the sight, she was faring better than most under the circumstances and John couldn't help feeling a bit envious for that.

"Don't worry, Teyla. They should be fine. Eventually, she'll decide to get off her ass and join us. And if Smith's in luck, she won't even notice he's there," John assured her.

"I really think it was a mistake," Teyla insisted.

"I did a complete scan of the area. There was nothing there. There was also nothing between there and here."

"Yes, but I've been getting an odd feeling ever since we arrived here."

John had learnt to trust the Athosian's instincts long ago and he wasn't going to chance ignoring her now. "You mean there's Wraith about?" he checked, taking out his scanner.

"I'm not sure... I can't put my finger on it, but something is definitely wrong."

He waited for the life-sign detector to do a complete scan of the area and as the screen started displaying the results the slightly annoyed look on his face turned dark. "That's not good."

"What is it, Colonel?"

"They're not there, for one thing. But they're not on their way here, either."

He frowned. "Rodney!" he called.

Rodney, who was verifying God knows what on his tablet, raised his head. "What is it?"

"Can you do another scan of the area?"

"Didn't you already do one?"

"Yes, but I need a second opinion," Sheppard said sheepishly.

Rodney pulled out his own scanner and started tinkering with it after dramatically scoffing in exasperation. As he did so, the look on his face turned from confusion to worry.

Sheppard was peering over his shoulder at the screen. "What are those things?" He was pointing at a group of three blue dots.

"I've managed to isolate human life-signs and programmed the scanner to show everything else in blue." The normal tone of superiority he usually reserved for such occasions was tinted with worry.

"So, you're saying this little red dot here," he pointed to a lonely, red dot, far from the path and further still from the village "is the only human out there?"

"Pretty much… I sure hope you're not thinking what I think you're thinking."

"Unfortunately, yes. Either they got separated and one of them is out of range, or…" The feeling of guilt was overwhelming. "Teyla, get Ronon and the others and prepare a defensive!" he ordered, already heading out of the village.

"Wait. What are you going to do?" Rodney called after him. "At least take Ronon with you!" he suggested, but John was already too far to hear him.

o0o0o

"Breathe in, breathe out! Again, and again… Fucking allergy!" Catherine muttered between sneezes. She wasn't sure how long it had been since they had left her there, but it couldn't have been too long since her pills hadn't kicked in yet. Out of all her allergies, it just had to be one of the worse – not only was it hard for her to breath, but she was sneezing like crazy and her hands had swollen enough to make holding her med kit almost impossible. That also made Colonel Sheppard's gun completely useless, not that she'd be able to fire it outside of a firing range, anyway. She was a healer, not a killer, regardless what some of the nurses might think. Apparently, at the moment, she was a healer who couldn't do her job – which was why she came along in the first place, facing her phobia of off-world travel.

We're here to work, not on vacation. That was all he said to her, after all those months of hard work reorganizing the whole department, obtaining more funds from the IOA and spending more hours in the operating theatre than she had in her entire career previous. That goes without mentioning the Everestine mountain of paperwork she had to fill out. Damn him, she wasn't going to just sit here and prove him right. Despite her fatigue and dizziness – she needed to find some antihistamines with less side-effects – she forced herself to stand and took a few unsteady steps down the path to the village.

"C'mon, c'mon, I can do this, I know I can!" she tried to encourage herself. It was still hard to breath, but she finally seemed to have the sneezing under control. She was almost grateful she didn't have to carry her med kit now, certain she wouldn't have been able to budge it, let alone carry it all the way to the village in her condition. She wasn't, however, that grateful for the gun – useless and quite heavy in her swollen hands. She felt tempted to just drop it, but thought better of it – if she ran into a thereat, she could at least use it for intimidation or, failing that, a club.

She managed to take a few more steps before the gun proved its usefulness – the leaves of the underbrush behind her rustled with the presence of something big and she instantly pointed it at the potential danger. "Who's there?" she asked, glad her voice didn't betray her nervousness.

"Don't shoot! It's just me," said a vaguely familiar voice and a short, bald man she recognized as private Smith came out of the bushes. "I wasn't spying on you, or anything," he assured her. "The Colonel asked me to keep an eye on you and make sure you reach the village in safety."

So he hadn't left her behind on her own. That didn't prove anything other than the fact that John Sheppard knew how to do his job, but it still didn't stop her from feeling a slight jolt of happiness – she was definitely stupid. She really had to stop doing this.

"Thank you, private," she said, putting the gun away.

"You didn't even remove the safety, did you?" he asked with a smile.

"Of course not. I was planning on bashing your head in with it. I'm much better with melee weapons, you know," she said by way of explanation.

"Sure you are," he approved, fighting to keep back a smile. She was so small, he wondered how she even managed to hold the thing up, let alone swing it at his head. "May I call you Catherine?"

"It's my name, isn't it?"

"Then, Catherine, allow me to walk you to the village," he offered, giving her his arm.

Before she could wonder if he was being a gentleman or just hitting on her, a red flash of light coming from behind hit him square in the back and passed right though him. Blood erupted from his ears, splashing onto her face and clothes and the man crumpled at her feet, dead.

She should be shocked, she told herself, but instead of panicking, she turned rapidly, gun aimed despite having no clue how to use it. The creature standing before her shouldn't have been there. The Colonel had scanned the area, hadn't he? But still, there it was – eight feet tall, white hair and blue-ish pale face sneering at her with razor-sharp teeth. She had seen pictures before. She knew very well what it was, but it was one thing to see a small image of a Wraith, posted on a screen in Atlantis, and a total different one to see the living creature sitting in front of you.

Run. Run. Damn it, RUN! she told herself, feeling her blood run cold in her veins. Her reason was telling her she had no chance to outrun it, but she couldn't stay and fight when she didn't know how.

For what seemed to be the longest minute of her life, the creature didn't seem inclined to attack, just staring down at her in what looked a lot like disbelief. Whatever had thrown it off, Catherine was aware it wasn't going to stay like that for ever, so she decided to use the chance to get the upper hand on it.

"Don't move!" she barked in a military fashion. It almost sounded believable, so she continued. "If you dare to blink, let alone move, I'll shoot you where you stand!"

A second Wraith appeared next to the first one and Catherine knew she was lost. Forcing her fingers to move, she frantically searched for the safety. It couldn't be that hard to figure out when so many people used guns on a regular basis. She had almost succeeded when a white light engulfed her and she lost consciousness.

o0o0o

When she came to, she found herself staring up at two nightmarish faces looming over her. It had to be a nightmare. She closed her eyes and opened them again. Now, the shorter of the two Wraith was looking at the other with a grimace that could be the equivalent to a "sarcastic smile", if their race would ever smile in the first place. OK, it was definitely a nightmare.

"Look what we have here! You aren't here alone, are you?" the tall one asked, looming closer. "Where are the others?"

…or maybe not. The memory of the last few minutes before losing consciousness came rushing back. Definitely not a nightmare, then. "Others? What... others?" she asked, digging her nails into her palms to keep focus. Whatever happened, she couldn't betray the others.

"Your companions. Do you expect me to believe you came alone, human?"

The voice was full of hate and disgust, making her heart race faster, until she knew she was about to die of a heart attack. Unless, of course, the creature decided not to wait those extra ten minutes she needed to die from natural causes and killed her on the spot.

"I am a doctor, a healer... I came here to take care of the wounded."

"Where did you come from?"

Now the creature was so close to her she could almost feel its breath on her forehead. She cringed in disgust. "Have you never heard of toothpaste?" she asked, wrinkling her nose. They were going to kill her anyway, why bother to be polite?

One quick look convinced her she had been disarmed and she doubted she was fast enough to steal a stunner from them. Cursing under her breath, she searched her pockets for anything she could use as a weapon. Though her instincts all told her it was over, she refused to give up just like that. She felt ridiculously relieved when her fingers finally found the familiar shape of her pocketknife.

"I asked you a question, human. Where did you come from?" the Wraith insisted.

"From M6G M77," she said, sliding the knife open and twisting it around so she would have a more comfortable grip on it when she swung it at the Wraith in a suicidal attempt to intimidate.

"Do no lie, human! Their weapons are not nearly as advanced as what you had on you. Are you going to tell the truth now, or do I have to feed on you to be more convincing?"

"You sound... pretty convincing to me, but I told you everything," she said, jumping to her feet and pulling her hand out of her pocket. The blade of the knife was nestled between her middle and her ring fingers as an extension of her fist and she was swinging her fist back, aiming for the Wraith's throat. Her planning had been almost flawless, under the current conditions, except she didn't count on the other Wraith carrying out the first one's threat.

With a howl, he threw himself at her and she just managed to scratch it before seeing the creature's hand coming straight to her chest. She closed her eyes and heard someone screaming. She didn't realize it was herself.

o0o0o

He shouldn't have just left them behind, John kept reproaching himself as he ran as fast as he could to where the scanner had last indicated a human life sign. That was what he got for paying attention to a child, he guessed, but it didn't excuse him. He should have at least left Ronon with her, someone he knew would be able to hold his own both against the girl and against any potential threat. Or he should have just gotten the big guy to sling her over his shoulder, end of argument. Hell, Rodney was keen enough to impress, he could have got the scientist to carry her, maybe it would have kept both of them quiet and it would have prevented so many dark scenarios.

The thought that he would have to go back and explain to Elizabeth how he lost their Golden Kid was sickening. Though he wouldn't admit it, he expected the red dot on the scanner to be Smith, more experienced and with better chances of survival in a direct confrontation.

A shriek pierced the air and he quickened his pace, weapon at the ready. He knew that voice and his heart began racing faster. Against all odds, Catherine seemed to be hanging on. Maybe Smith got separated from her, he hoped.

In seconds, he had crossed the distance to the source of the scream and he could see her lying on the ground, desperately struggling to hold the Wraith's hand away from her chest. There was no time to hesitate before he fired a burst of bullets straight into the head of the creature.

With a cry of agony, the Wraith toppled over on top of Catherine, its dark, sticky blood oozing onto her clothes. She was struggling to get out from under the crushing weight of the creature, but John wasn't in a position to give her a hand as the second Wraith was reaching for its stunner.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," John advised, holding his P90 pointedly.

The Wraith sneered. "Are you that impatient to join us for lunch? I was just asking where we could call on you."

Sheppard kept his riffle pointed at the unnerving thing. "We're not really in a position to receive house guests right now. The place is a mess. Maybe we could call on you." He flashed his best innocent smile.

"You humans and your taste for jokes. Such a shame they usually go to waste on my kind."

John raised an eyebrow. "Does that mean you're going to let us leave because we're funny? I know a few lawyer jokes that are simply a hoot!" The humor in his voice was shallow and his finger was tense around the trigger. He knew he couldn't let the Wraith escape and alert the others to their presence. "Let's say I let you live a little longer if you tell me just how many of you there are here," he tried. His eyes were open for that third damn blue dot the scanner had shown. Maybe the other Wraith had already ran off to report.

The Wraith laughed. Not a real laugh, at least not by human standards, but a sound that sent chills to your very bones. "For someone like you, I should be enough!" it boomed, drawing its stunner in one swift move. Before it could have the chance to fire, though, its advance was cut short by a burst of bullets to the chest.

The creature fell, another pile of lifeless Wraith next to the first one. For good measure, John fired a few more rounds into it, before turning to help Catherine. She had crawled out on her own and was kneeling over a human body. Smith. He squeezed his hands into fists by his side – another life on his conscience. Thank God, at least she was alive and, side from the splatter of Wraith and human blood on her face and clothes, she seemed to be alright. She didn't seem wounded, so it probably was Smith's blood – from the looks of things, they used the same kind of weapon on him as they had in the village.

Almost on instinct, he leaned over the fallen Wraith and searched them for any unusual weapon. It didn't take him long to find one – it looked like a flash light with a crystal at one end engravings all over it. He put it in his pocket to take a better look at it later.

He turned back to Catherine, who had been silent throughout. "Are you OK?" he asked in the softest tone he could muster, instantly regretting the stupid question.

"He's dead," she said plainly and he knew she was talking about the private. Though she looked shaken to her core, when she turned toward him, he noticed her eyes were clear and her voice was calm, almost as if she had gone through this on a regular basis. More surprising was that she wasn't trying to avoid his eyes anymore.

"Thank you," Catherine added, standing up. "What did you find in the village?"

"I'll tell you on the way. It's not a good idea to stick around here for long – there should be a third one around here and I don't see it anywhere. Nothing is scarier than a stealthy Wraith," he joked, motioning at her to follow him.

o0o0o

They were walking at a swift pace and Catherine didn't seem about to complain, though she didn't look very well. He had finished telling her about the village and the weapon she had witnessed first hand and she had given him all the details of Smith's death. "Are you sure you're OK?" he asked, eyeing her worriedly.

She nodded. "Weren't there any healthy villagers left?" she asked, changing the topic to something safer.

"Doesn't look like it." he shrugged. "And I'm almost sure there's even more Wraith around and they're going to launch another attack sooner or later." He watched her carefully for a few more steps, her feet looking more uncertain with each one. She was limping slightly and the tight look on her face told him she was in pain. He couldn't blame her, that was one big Wraith that fell on her, but they needed to get back as soon as possible. He offered her his hand for support. "We need to get to the village before they do."

"I am... fine. I can walk by myself, thank you."

But she wasn't. Although Catherine did her best to follow him, it took only a few minutes to see she wasn't fast enough.

Without waiting for more protests on her part, he grabbed her hand, expecting an indignant scoff or worse on her part. Surprisingly, her breath caught in her throat and her face grew hot with a blush, but she didn't try to take her hand back. At the same time, she grew quiet again and broke eye contact, allowing him to guide her. She was probably too exhausted and weak to protest, his brain supplied.

o0o0o

"I had no idea your allergies were really that bad," she heard Colonel Sheppard say, trying to break the silence.

"They're nothing, really," she waved it off. "As long as I have my pills, I'm fine."

"Those must be some pills!" he whistled. "You were swelling up like a potato," he said, tactfully sticking his foot in his mouth.

"Oh, really?" she huffed. "And that's why you assumed I wanted to skip on my duty as a doctor? In front of my team!" she hissed. She swiveled around and her eyes locked on his. He might have just saved her life, but she wasn't going to let him get away with humiliating her in front of her team and then poking some more fun at her. There was too much at stake to risk and lose the tiniest advantage by blinking. This also meant she was currently walking backwards.

"Watch it!" he snapped, grabbing her hand and pulling her forcefully away. Her arm hurt and she found herself hitting his chest at an unreasonable speed before she realized she would have been impacting a low hanging branch otherwise.

His arms felt warm and strong and she hurried to get back on her own feet before she got any fond of that feeling. She immediately regretted that move as her ankle instantly protested and she had to grab onto his arm for support. It hurt like hell and she could tell it was at least twisted without having to look at it.

"Goddammit, I think that Wraith really did a number on my ankle!" she mumbled, her breath picking up once she tried to place some weight back on the injured ankle. She looked up at him and, as their eyes met, she quickly turned away, her heart skipping a beat. Why hadn't he sent someone else after them? Ronon would have come in really handy right about now. It would definitely been easier to ask of him what she was about to ask now. She cleared her throat, drawing out the moment as much as she could. "Can I borrow your shoulder? As much as I'd love to, I doubt I can walk on my own all the way to the village."

He nodded, letting her lean on him. Fortunately, he didn't seem to notice her hesitation. "It's not that far, just a couple more miles," he encouraged her.

The sharp pain was literally taking her breath away as Catherine tried hard to continue walking, leaning on his shoulder.

"I think it might be disjointed," she grumbled. "It hurts like hell. Damn it! That Wraith must have weighed a tone! Ouch!"

Damn it! Damn it!

Breathing hard, she stopped for a moment and looked at him, tears of pain filling her eyes.

"I can't. I just can't believe I can't!" she hissed between curses.

"I can carry you, you know? You can't be that heavy and the village isn't that far," he offered.

She stared at him in disbelief. That would take the cake! Here she was, writhing in pain, still riding the adrenaline rush of her very first Wraith encounter, focused on how annoyed she was with this man, just to have something other than the pain in her ankle to think about, and he was offering to carry her. Should the circumstances been different, she would have laughed at the irony – hadn't she already spent most of her day in dangerous company? Even worse, a part of her really did want him to pick her up in his arms, hold her tight and keep her safe. She really wished it was the part that was writhing in pain and not the one that was constantly thinking about that annoying half-smile of his.

"You're the King of Timing, aren't you?" she accused, mocking him. "Is this how you've earned the admiration of your fan girls?"

"I respect your feelings, Dr Spencer. I really do. But I really have no clue what you're talking about and we don't have time for it. Now, I'd like to ask you not to hit me too hard."

Without further warning, he picked her up and slung her over his shoulder, carrying her like a sac of potatoes. The nerve of him! Who did he think he was?

"Hey, what do you think you're doing? Down!"

"I hope this is sufficiently un-romantic for your taste," he said, flinching slightly under her constant attacks to his back. Her small fists couldn't do much damage, but it was satisfying nonetheless to make sure he was aware of her full contempt with the situation. True, she was not much of a fighter, but any woman can punch a guy who tries to carry her like she'd be a bag or something. Emphasis on "thing", because in his rush Colonel John "Caveman" Sheppard seemed to consider that running was more important than her feelings.

"Didn't you hear me, Colonel? I want to walk by myself. I might be a little bit slower than you, but I don't like to be carried like this!" she hissed, continuing to hit him in the back.

"Damn you, let me down!"

o0o0o

Catherine's attempts at punching him felt more like a massage than anything else, making them rather tolerable. Along with her faint struggles, he also ignored her protests and complaints. He knew that if he ignored her, she would eventually give up – either through boredom or exhaustion. As they got closer to the village, he was proven right when she gave up on hitting him and became suddenly quiet, a sense that she was pouting filling the air around them.

It really had been a good idea. They were almost clear of the trees now, which left them a small stretch of clear land to cover before reaching the village. A few hundred feet at best.

"Do you think they are after us? The Wraith?" she asked, with a surprisingly calm voice. "How long can we hold them back? We'll need time to treat the sick and get them evacuated."

"I know that. We'll just have to wait for Rodney to fix the shield. This wasn't supposed to be a military mission."

They reached the edge of the forest. He could see the village, safe for now. He didn't want to be seen giving the good doctor a piggyback ride and he assumed she didn't want to be seen riding him like that, ether. He sat Catherine down, careful not to drop her on her injured foot.

"Well, I doubt you'd want to make your entrance on my back. Lean on me and try to keep up. It's only about 300 feet."

o0o0o

Catherine grimaced as she set the injured foot on the ground, but it was quickly replaced by an expression of gratitude. Being seen on John Sheppard's back was an even more humiliating thought than being carried by him in the first place. She walked beside him, limping in silence to the village, and headed straight to the first person in sight, Teyla Emmagan. The Athosian looked rather worried and sad while examining the body of a child and Catherine suddenly had a feeling of déjà-vu. As she approached, she could see the girl was dead and had bled out of her eyes and ears. Her heart sank at the sight, but she couldn't allow herself to lose focus. There was no time for the dead. There never was. She had to make sure the survivors were taken care of.

"Teyla, where is my team?"

"Dr. Spencer, what happened?" she asked, staring at the copious amounts of blood covering her and the impressive smudges of blood on Sheppard's uniform. "And where is private Smith?"

Sheppard said nothing, so Catherine filled in for him. "He's dead. Long story. Please, tell me where my team is."

Teyla pointed to the large house that looked like the most animated place in the village at the moment. "Over there. We've already taken everyone in."

Walking toward the house, she could still feel Teyla's heavy gaze on her and the unspoken question in her eyes – how did private Smith die? She wasn't clear on that herself, but he had died because of her and if she didn't manage to keep the few survivors alive, his sacrifice would have been in vain. She squeezed her fists tight and quickened her step toward the improvised infirmary.

o0o0o

Teyla watched Catherine until she disappeared into the house and then she turned to John, who looked more tired than the apparent situation suggested he should be. "Are you alright, Colonel?"

He didn't get to answer before a faint noise, like a wasp, drifted through the air.

"They're coming!" Ronon shouted.

The attack had come swiftly. Three darts emerged from behind the tree line, swooping over the settlement. The scream of their engines sowed panic into everyone's hearts, as they knew the Wraith were there to kill.

"GO! Everyone, positions! Take it down before it takes us out!" John ordered everyone. Without waiting for formal invitations, Teyla and Ronon settled into strategic positions, each one hiding behind a different building, their weapons pointed at the sky, and so did the others.

The darts seemed to be searching for something, scanning the grounds and flying in tighter circles above the village. The first ship turned for another pass, the other two joining it in, flying in a V-like formation, and raced across the ground before opening fire.

With his P-90 in hand, John watched in silence, waiting for them to come close enough to be in the range of their weapons.

"Fire on the first target!" he ordered, squeezing the trigger and pumping half a clip into the first dart, followed immediately by the rest of his team.

A few bullets hit the dart's engines and, with a deafening noise, it exploded and fell on the ground.

The remaining darts, for a moment, gave the impression they were going to retreat. Instead, they unloaded about a dozen Wraith, ready for combat, and the guns in their hands were no stunners. They were not there for culling, they were there to kill. The Wraith were definitely acting strange on this planet. 'Why' was the question here, but they would have to ask it later. Right now, they had to put up a fight.

"Rodney!" John called at his radio, taking down the first Wraith.

Without waiting another order, Teyla and Ronon opened fire, taking down as many Wraith as possible, perfectly aware of the danger their weapons posed.

o0o0o

Rodney had started working at the shield generator, but the panel was partially burnt and some of the crystals were missing. It had been particularly difficult to make it work the first time, right now it was quite impossible and the perspective of an imminent death didn't help either.

"The panel is a mess and the crystals-"

"Rodney!"

He knew that voice and didn't have to check to know John was not going to take no for an answer. As usual, they were all in deep shit and he was the only one who could save the day. He sighed, looking at the burnt buttons.

"I'm working on it!"

"How much longer?" John wanted to know.

Rodney rolled his eyes in sheer annoyance. "It will take a miracle to make this work again. I can't say... Ten minutes? Give me ten more minutes!"

"There are Wraith everywhere and they keep coming! We might not have ten minutes!" John snapped, at the end of his nerves. He knew Rodney could give him a miracle in ten minutes. He wasn't sure they'd be around to use it.

"Oh, thank you. And that helps me how?"

"Just... fix it!"

As if he were some sort of magician. With a long sigh, Rodney opened the panel again – maybe he could find a way to power the device using only the remaining crystals.

It wasn't until a Wraith beam blast above his head that his inspiration sparked and he felt able to improvise. Good thing he worked best under pressure.

o0o0o

With another burst of gunfire, John killed one of the remaining five Wraith, looking worriedly for the two darts. He was about to finish his ammo, but it wasn't the time to bring that problem up just yet.

"I got six!" John announced them at the radio.

"I got seven," Teyla answered.

"Ten."

He had never tried to compete with Ronon, but Teyla was, again, holding out against the Wraith better than him. He gave her a quick look and consoled himself with the thought that she only got more than himself because she had a better location. He was secretly pleased none of the marines – since everyone seemed to be joining the contest – had managed to outdo his score.

Thrilled, Rodney grabbed his radio. "I'm almost-"

The sound of steps coming from behind made him turn around and he froze, dropping the radio. Grinning his huge teeth and with his hand raised in the air, a Wraith jumped at the scientist. A desperate burst of gun fire and the creature fell to the ground, still trying to grab Rodney's leg. Finally able to move, he took his own gun and shot it a few times.

"Thanks," he muttered, looking at John who had left his defensive position only to save his friend.

"Save that for later. Did you..."

"Yes."

With this new encouragement, the scientist finally managed to turn on the ancient Ancient device, activating a shield around the village before the two darts could return for another assault.

He had never doubted he would get it working. Come to think of it, didn't he tell them not to waste their ammo? Well, no, he didn't. But he very well could.

Ronon and Teyla killed the last Wraith before joining them.

The place was littered with Wraith bodies, the two remaining darts leaving to wherever it was they had come from – it was unusual, but they weren't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Just in case it turned out to be a Trojan Horse, they were going to stand watch, though.

"What the hell just happened?" Rodney asked, still holding his gun. "I mean, they're usually sadistic and murderous and all, but they usually prefer to have us for dinner, if you know what I mean. Why are they so… terminally murderous all of a sudden?"

No one could give him a proper answer at that.

o0o0o

Catherine had entered the house without knowing what to expect. Sheppard had tried to explain the situation to her as best as he could, but he couldn't prepare her for the sight that was waiting for her inside. The sick were spread throughout the whole house, lying on old mattresses and whatever other bedding had been scavenged from the other houses, most of them delirious with fever or dying. She could tell just by looking that at least a couple of them weren't going to make it through the day.

A piercing buzzing sound set everyone into alert. There was no doubt what had caused it and Catherine couldn't blame the nurses for stopping in their work and listening tensely to the increasing noise. Unfortunately there was no time for panic there was no way for them to help those outside. All they could do was help the people in their care. "Stephanie," she called, catching the attention of a blonde nurse with thick-rimmed glasses, bringing her out of her paralyzing fear – it seemed they were right about herself being scarier than the Wraith, at least among her staff. "Bring me the disinfectant!" she ordered, not letting the woman sink back into her fear. "And snap out of it, for Christ's sake!"

"Yes, Dr. Spencer. Right away."

The nurse hurried to bring her the Betadine and help her clean off the mess on her hands, without saying a word about the thick layers of blood covering her.

There was a lot of coughing, screaming and murmured phrases floating about, as most of the patients were deep in their own hallucinations, while others cried and fought against the nurses trying to care for them. Another patient vomited, choking and coughing – it was one of the two she had no hope for. The air was thick and the smell almost unbearable, but she couldn't allow herself to feel sick. There was plenty of time for that... later. Or least she hoped so.

Since most of her life Catherine worked in private, fancy clinics, with expensive instruments and perfect conditions, she was not accustomed with the poor conditions of field surgery. She was even further out of her depths as she realized she had no idea what she had to deal with – she didn't have the conditions to properly isolate the pathogen and identify it and the symptoms were all over the place. Dr. Moore and Dr. Johannes had already tried most antibiotics and antivirals and the villagers were not responding to any. Biting her upper lip, Catherine tried to put a wall between her soul and the horrible images before her while limping from one patient to another and doing her best to keep them alive. She couldn't shake the feeling that she was completely in the dark here.

When she finished attending to the last one, the shooting had already died down. All she could hear was a deep silence and the beating of her own heart. Exhausted, she slumped in a chair and looked at the door.

"They're not shooting anymore. Who wants to go outside to see what happened?"

o0o0o

The dart they had brought down was lying in a pile of rubble which used to be an uninhabited house on the edge of the village. There was nothing left to salvage, but the danger it posed was gone. With the shield functional, they would at least have a night to get the people stable and ready to go through the Gate.

Having nothing else to take care of outside, Teyla went into the impromptu infirmary, nearly knocking into one of the medics on his way out. Everyone inside was jumpy and with good reason. "You've taken them out, didn't you?" a blonde nurse asked. "Is everyone alright?" she continued with marked interest. "Dr. McKay? Colonel Sheppard? Ronon?"

Teyla gave the woman a weary look, but nodded. "They are all unharmed," she confirmed. She did not notice the way the woman jumped with excitement at the news, but she did hear her muttering a victorious "I knew it!"

Noticing Catherine at a patient's bedside, she walked over and sat next to her, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"You were very brave."

The doctor stared through Teyla, her eyes going slightly out of focus with exhaustion. "Where are... the others?" she asked.

"They are unharmed," Teyla assured her.

"And... Rodney?" she asked, hesitant as if she wanted to ask something else, but thinking better of it.

"Dr McKay is fine, as are the others. He managed to get the defenses running just in time and we managed to take out the dart without having to resort to plan B. He was rather surprised about that."

"I see," was all she said before going back to tending to her patient.

Teyla put Dr. Spencer's reticence down to the shock of the new experience. The Athosian was doing her best to understand this strange Earth woman, but she just couldn't place her in any of the categories she had constructed for her fellow members of the expedition. She was frail but distant, with a stubbornness and ego to rival those of Dr. McKay, yet she was coping surprisingly well under pressure. Weighing her in another glance, as she leaned over the bed giving medicine to a reluctant patient, Teyla decided it was best to let her do her job. "If you need anything, I will be outside."

o0o0o

Dr. Zelenka was the one on hand to receive the expedition's call for backup. He found Dr. Weir in her office where she had been waiting for news from Colonel Sheppard's team. He awkwardly made his way in.

"Dr. Weir, it seems Colonel Sheppard's expedition has run into some Wraith trouble. It appears there are about thirty villagers left after the last Wraith attack today and they are all sick. Now, Sheppard's team has managed to take out a dart with what they had on hand, but the area is not safe yet. Rodney even managed to get the local defense system back online. The shield, however, barely has enough power for a few hours."

Elizabeth listened in silence, already thinking about what she should do. By the time he finished, she had already made a decision.

"All right. We'll send a jumper to pick them up. Come."

"Dr. Weir, you should know that Dr. Spencer insisted we take quarantine measures, in case the pathogen is airborne," Zelenka pointed out.

"All the more reason to work quickly, if we want them back safely." Elizabeth left the office in a hurry, keeping her brave face on, and didn't stop until she reached the control chamber. She was more than aware of the danger, but there was only one thing they could do.

"Major Lorne! Please hurry to the jumpers' bay! You will depart immediately to MH6 98U. It looks like Colonel Sheppard's team was attacked by Wraith. They need transport to evacuate the survivors. Dr. Spencer warns us that the pathogen might be airborne, please take care."

"I'm on my way, m'am!" came the answer.

With her lips pursed into a thin line Dr. Elizabeth Weir looked at the Gate. If she learned anything during all this time in Atlantis, it was to never give up hope.

o0o0o

The death of the two terminal patients a little after the end of the attack didn't take anyone by surprise. The fact that most of the stable cases had turned terminal in just as short a period of time, on the other hand, filled Catherine with an unbearable sense of uselessness and despair. This was not the time or place to show that, however. It never was. She always had had to look confident and in control, even when all she wanted to do was curl up and cry on someone's shoulder. No one should be surprised she ended up being unable to express her feeling, since so many things depended on how she managed to keep them under control. The current situation was no exception. It was enough for her to show the slightest hint of weakness and all of her nurses would lose heart and let chaos take over.

Calm and efficient, she went from one bedside to another, fighting for each life in turn, barely pulling one from the edge before another two were almost lost. If at the beginning she had planned on getting everyone through this, her hopes had dwindled to simply saving as many as she could. At the edge of her eye, she caught sight of a couple of soldiers carrying one of the now three dead bodies out. She barely had a chance to tell them to leave the door open before all hell broke loose. It started with an old man who started to breathe hard and choke, trails of blood flowing from his ears and nose before the doctors could react.

"Give me epinephrine, fast!" Catherine ordered, but at the time she injected the adregenic drug, he was already dead.

"Defibrillator! Damn it, we're losing him! Charge at 150!"

Nothing.

"Again! Charge at 250! C'mon, breathe!

Again at 300! "

No pulse.

"Dr. Spencer! We have another one!"

"This one is also in shock!"

"The girl here is..."

What happened next was pure nightmare.

When she would later think back on this day, all she would remember is how she ran from one patient to another, giving them whatever drug could alleviate their symptoms, without a chance to actually cure them and trying any imaginable resuscitation technique, all in vain. It took just fifteen minutes for the number of deaths to increase from three to ten, and spiral up from there.

The old died first, followed by the children, while a few of the adults seemed to cling to life with despair, but they didn't last long either. At the end of that long day, they were all dead.

"What the hell was that?" the blonde nurse – Stephanie, her brain supplied – asked, verging on hysteria. "Did we get it, too? Are we going to die?"

She could see the same question reflected in the eyes of all of her team members and she couldn't say anything to calm them down because she didn't know the answer either. Lacking a better alternative, Catherine simply decided to fall back onto her reputation as a slave driver, knowing this way she would distract them from their dark thoughts. She didn't have Dr. Weir's talent for speeches, but she could at least do what she knew best – play the mean bitch. "Get a hold of yourself!" she ordered, grabbing Stephanie by her shoulders and shaking her slightly. "We all knew the risks and we still signed up for this. If I catch anyone having second thoughts, I'll send them packing as soon as we know they're not contagious." Sure, that also meant they would survive whatever this was, and she gave them another sharp look, daring them to contradict her, then added, "Pack the tissue samples and pack the med kits. There's a jumper on the way and we shouldn't stick around longer than necessary."

o0o0o

The village looked unnervingly peaceful. Aside from the building the dart had crashed into, there were no visible signs of an attack. The shield shimmered faintly around it, making it look like an underwater settlement. Everything was quiet. A ghost town, Catherine thought. There was no smoke. There were no screams. There were no dismembered bodies littering the streets. The houses were standing as pristine as ever. Nothing was the same, yet everything was identical. The feeling of loss and uselessness, the wish to run, to cover her eyes and pretend it never happened. Could she do that again? Did she have the right to?

She looked around for Colonel Sheppard. At least the team she had come with was still alive, at least for the time being. No one showed any signs of flu yet, so maybe she still had a chance to come up with something in case it had already spread.

She spotted the Colonel beside one of the smaller houses at the edge of the village and, doing her best to refrain from limping, she headed his way. He looked about as discouraged and disappointed as she felt, so she decided she couldn't burden him with her personal problems. If only Daniel were there!

"Colonel," she started, leaning against the wall next to him.

"Dr. Spencer, how is everything going?" he asked.

She shook her head. There was no way to make the news sound better, so she decided to put it simply. "Everyone died."

"Oh."

"I've never seen anything like this," she confessed. "But that isn't what I wanted to talk to you about."

"What is it?"

"We can't leave the bodies like this. I have no idea what caused this or how it spreads. We need to burn the bodies, but I'm afraid even that wouldn't be enough. We might need to burn the whole village. With this kind of pathogen at large, the Wraith would be this galaxy's smallest concern. If it originated here, it would be the only way to make sure it won't strike again."

"And if it didn't?"

"We'd cut off one possible source of infection. But the threat would still be out there, so we'll have to find the point of origin."

"How likely is it that we're already infected?"

She sighed and looked up at him. It was the last thing she wanted to tell him, but she forced the words past her lips. "I think it would be a miracle if we aren't."

He nodded. "Don't we pose a threat to Atlantis, then?"

"I've already recommended quarantine. Besides, outside of Atlantis, I have no access to the necessary equipment to figure out what exactly this is and how to stop its spread. There's more at stake here than our lives or even Atlantis," she said gravely.

He drew in a breath. "I'm sorry," he said.

"What for?"

"Dragging you along on this mission. Maybe if you stayed back in Atlantis-"

Without a second thought, she placed her hand over his mouth, cutting him off. "Don't even think about that. You were right – I'm here to do my job and I'm a big girl, I don't need you looking after me. Or anyone else, for that matter."

He was frowning down at her and it finally hit her that she was still clasping her hand to his mouth. As if electrocuted, she pulled away.

"That was all I had to say. I've got to go, Colonel. Looks like Atlantis has sent a jumper for us." She walked away, feeling her cheeks burn. It really wasn't the time for this sort of things.

Queen of Timing, she thought to herself, heading for the jumper that had just landed in the village square.

Authors' Note: So here we are again, with another round of edits. Who'd've thunk it? This is what happens when you're writing with an OCD, grammar Nazi dominatrix :)

Thanks to Shayz for beta-ing and contributing to the first part of this chapter – she gave us the witty banter by the Gate, among other things. Thanks to starfire for the support and Sarshi for re-writing the first seven paragraphs and making it look more coherent.

This story is crossposted to Archive of Our Own.

Feedback makes writers happy. Don't forget to review ^_^

Authors' Note: This is a long story. I'm not just talking about the fan fic here. We've been writing this for ages now (two years) and now we went back and started editing/re-writing. It's planned for about 24 chapters and will crossover with a lot of other shows by the time we're done with it. Feedback is welcomed and encouraged (even if you only comment to tell us that we've missed a comma).

Enjoy.