John wasn’t exactly sure what he should expect when he reached the facility, but it was unlocked, just as Rodney had said it would be. He made his way through the facility with as much stealth as he could muster, stopping long enough to verify that the desiccated remains he found in one of the hallways had, indeed, been fed upon by a Wraith. It wasn’t McKay. The body was old beyond just the feeding and the clothes were all wrong. Besides, there was one little blip blinking back at him on the monitor, and that had to be McKay. It had to be.
End of story.
So, he continued down the corridor, on the look out for any potential traps that might be awaiting him. What sort of traps partially ascended children might leave behind, he had no idea. Nor did he have any idea what partially ascended children would look or act like. Something somewhere between Village of the Damned and Children of the Corn he was figuring. And what the hell could he expect to do against something like that? Offer up some moral support while he and Rodney were sacrificed to the scarecrow by the Pegasus version of Malachi?
But Malachi was nowhere in sight when John finally reached the room where he was reading the life sign. In fact, it looked more like Heidi and her brothers rummaging through Rodney’s stuff in a corner of the room while the scientist appeared to be accessing the outpost’s database from the controls. This is what he rushed all the way over here to save McKay from? Three small kids who looked like they should be members of an Oom-pah band? Sheppard was torn between his urge to order a beer and pretzel and whack Rodney upside the head when he could be helping Ronon track down Teyla.
The little one caught sight of him even before McKay did, the boy’s eyes widening in fright as he stood and backed away. “Hey, it’s okay. I’m not going to…”
He was cut off by the girl, whose eyes narrowed angrily as soon as she saw him. “You can’t take him!”
Before he could protest that he had no intention of doing anything with the boy, Sheppard found himself slammed against the wall and his head a few feet from the ceiling. Whatever invisible force was holding him up there was also squeezing the air from his lungs, so that he couldn’t even ask what the hell was going on.
“Farras, let him go!” Rodney ordered, his tone of voice more long-suffering than alarmed.
“He’s going to take you back to Atlantis,” the child countered stubbornly.
The fact that she was worried Sheppard intended to take Rodney and not her brother sunk in through the panic that was quickly taking hold of John from not being able to breathe.
“Not until I finish up here. I promise.”
John wanted to add his own assurances to McKay’s, but no breath meant no voice, and holy shit, she wasn’t letting up!
“He said he was going to take you back.”
“I won’t go. He can’t make me.” Rodney’s eyes flicked up to where Sheppard was suspended, and evidently John must have been turning slightly purple because the worry was definitely starting to show on the physicist’s face.
Farras, however, didn’t seem to believe McKay. “He’s in charge. He’s the oldest; you said so. You have to do what he says.”
“Mallen’s the oldest and how often to do you do what he says?” The girl seemed to be considering what Rodney was telling her, which was a good thing because spots were starting to form in front of Sheppard’s eyes. McKay, seeing he was making progress, tried again sincerely. “I’m not leaving until I fix the machine and get you three out. I promise. Now let him go.”
Apparently convinced by Rodney’s argument, John suddenly found himself released and dropping unceremoniously to the ground several feet below him. The fall itself wasn’t far enough to hurt too much, and he was too occupied with sucking in air to notice if it had anyway.
In fact, he was too occupied to even notice McKay had moved to squat beside him until the scientist’s hand landed on his shoulder and John looked up into his face to see blue eyes wavering between concern and pissiness. “Where the hell have you been?” he hissed.
John ignored the question, instead he pushed up to a sit and Rodney steadied him while he continued to gulp air. “What… the fuck… was that?”
“That was Farras. She’s a little bi…” Catching himself, Rodney amended, “…strong willed… and temperamental… and possibly a tad unstable. And I’ve been dealing with her and her brothers since you left me here with these Hogwarts wannabees.”
“It’s not like I knew they were here when I went to track down Teyla and Ronon.” Sheppard used McKay’s to pull himself to his feet, still breathing heavily.
“Well, they were,” Rodney snapped even as he grabbed John’s arm when he swayed. “They sure the hell were. And I’ve had to contend with them bickering with each other, and threatening me, not to mention introducing me to their papa!” The last word was practically spit at him, and even Rodney’s lowered voice couldn’t keep the children from hearing it.
John gave them an appeasing, everything-is-fine smile even as he murmured out of the corner of his mouth, “Their father is here?”
“His remains are, which I got to meet personally. He was fed on by a Wraith almost ten thousand years ago and the Wraith who killed him ended up trapped with the kids somewhere between ascension and mortality, which would explain their David Copperfield-like abilities in certain areas.”
“I think I’ve met him, too.”
“Papa or the Wraith?”
“Both.” At Rodney’s confused expression, Sheppard explained, “I ran across the dad in the hall and the Wraith has taken over Teyla’s consciousness.”
The irritation was instantly replaced by worry. “Is she all right?”
John sighed at the question. “Last time I saw her, he still had hold of her. He tried to use her to kill us. Ronon took a hit from Teyla’s M9, but you know him; he gave it about as much attention as a mosquito bite then took off on her heels and is trying to track her down now.”
“I think the Wraith may be the key to what happened here.”
Rodney tugged at Sheppard’s arm to get him moving over to where he was working. As they passed the children, John could see that they were actually levitating the various gear, turning it this way and that to get a better look. “You’re actually letting them play with your stuff?” John asked in amazement. Hell, he wasn’t even allowed to mill through the pack if he got bored on a mission.
“It keeps them quiet, and out of my hair, and less likely to reanimate the dead.” When Sheppard grimaced at that last reason, Rodney went on. “Plus, they can’t technically touch it, so chances are they can’t actually damage anything.”
Rubbing unconsciously at his chest, John mumbled, “I think you may be underestimating them, McKay.”
But Rodney was already back in the zone and pointing out what he’d found on the screen. “See here? This is a database of all the villagers.”
“What sort of database?”
“Everything. There’s medical data, psychological, physiological, you name it. The Ancients had been studying the population here for a couple of generations at least.”
“Why?” John asked warily.
“For that.” McKay pointed to an all too familiar device that made John’s stomach roll just to see it again.
“That’s the ascension machine,” he noted in dread.
“Yes, it is. But remember I told you it was somehow different than the one on Atlantis? That one was particularly geared toward Ancients… anyone with the ATA gene… which was why it didn’t exactly work quite right on me since I wasn’t exactly born with it. This one is calibrated for human physiology.”
“It’s to help humans ascend?”
“Yes. I’m not sure if the Ancients were doing it to help the human population escape the Wraith or to remove the Wraith’s main source of food in an attempt to defeat them. But from what I can gather, they were working to help this particular group of people ascend.”
“But they stopped working on it when they abandoned Atlantis,” John finished.
“Pretty much. They were evidently awfully damn close to succeeding, though, since most of the villagers who made it to the outpost managed to ascend.”
Sheppard glanced back at the kids, who were having a sort of mental tug of war over a computer cable. “But these three didn’t.”
“No, they didn’t, and like I said, I think the Wraith is the reason why.” Rodney pointed to a column in the database. “See this? That’s a catalog of the villager’s DNA. Similar to the machine on Atlantis, this one modifies the DNA of the person who is using it. But it is looking for specific DNA. It’s kind of like an approved list of people who would be allowed to ascend.”
“So the kids weren’t on the list?” John concluded. Ended up it was an erroneous conclusion on his part.
“No, they’re right here on the list. In fact, their mother did ascend with the first group of villagers.”
“Then why didn’t it work for them?”
McKay gave one of his smug, I-figured-out-the-puzzle grins. “The Wraith. It fed on their father and apparently got caught up in the beam with the children.”
“And the machine didn’t like that?”
“No, it most definitely did not. It must have started the process when it read the family’s approved DNA. . But when it read the Wraith’s DNA, a kind of safeguard must have come into play and stopped the process on anything associated with the Wraith. Since the Wraith had just fed on their father, the Wraith would have had some of his DNA in his system and the machine sent up a sort of red flag on it, as well. So, it not only blocked the Wraith from going any further, it also blocked the kids.”
“And trapped them in between,” John finished, using the same words Teyla had to describe the Wraith’s predicament.
Rodney followed Sheppard’s gaze to look at the three trapped kids. “For nearly ten thousand years. I don’t know about you, but I think I might be a little off balance as a result of that myself.”
“No kidding. It definitely explains why the Wraith is as pissed as he seems to be, although with Wraith it can be kind of hard to tell.”
“I think I’d take the Wraith over the kids,” Rodney added with a snort.
“So, can you fix it?” When McKay rolled his eyes that John would ask such a question, Sheppard gave an insincere apology. “Sorry. Forget I asked.”
“It should just be a matter of using the data the Ancients had collected as a baseline, screening out the Wraith DNA, and bringing them back. Then, hopefully, I can start it up again and let them ascend completely like they were supposed to do.”
“You’re going to finish the process?” John asked in surprise.
“What? Do you want to keep them?”
“Good point,” John conceded before asking with a bit of apprehension. “And what about the Wraith? Can you get it out of Teyla?”
“That might be a little trickier, but if Ronon can bring her back here and we can get some DNA data on Teyla from Atlantis, I might be able to do a similar filter and force him to split out. Of course, then we’ll have a real live Wraith to deal with.”
“That, I can handle, especially if we know what to expect.” John rested his hands lightly on his hips. “Can you get communications up and running again?”
“I could but they won’t let me,” Rodney told him as he lowered his voice once more. “You really have no idea how lucky you are that they’ve let you stay. Until I prove that I can help them, I don’t see them changing their minds.”
With a bit of reluctance, Sheppard instructed, “All right, you concentrate on the kids for now. Hopefully by then Ronon will have things under control with Teyla and we can call back to Atlantis for the DNA data. I’m going outside to see if I can reach Ronon and find out if he’s had any luck.”
But as soon as he started for the exit, the door slammed shut. “Where are you going?” the older boy demanded.
“I need to contact the rest of my team and let them know what’s going on,” John tried to reason. Rodney just snorted and shook his head at the futility of that argument.
“He’s going to call for help so they can take McKay away.” Farras crossed her arms defiantly.
“No,” John assured, “I’m leaving him here with you to keep working. He’s all yours.”
“Oh, thanks so much.”
Now Sheppard turned to McKay to reassure him. “I’ll be right back.” Swear to God, there were four kids in the damn outpost.
“Mallen, you can’t let him go.” Farras’ argument was accompanied by John finding himself pressed against the door, once again unable to move.
“Okay, look, let’s just talk about this,” John gritted out, seeing as the pressure was already starting again.
Mallen seemed to be considering it, and Sheppard wished he’d hurry the hell up, but when he shook his head slightly, John felt his feet leave the ground. Here we go again.
As soon as Rodney saw what Mallen had decided, his fingers ran over the controls. “Farras, I just locked the doors. No one is going anywhere until you three are taken care of… unless you hurt my friends. If you do that, you’ll be stuck like this forever.”
When Farras narrowed her eyes at McKay’s threat, he mimicked the expression. “Why are you so worried about your stupid friends?” she challenged.
“Would you want me to fix you and leave your brothers trapped?” When Farras shook her head, Rodney shrugged. “I feel the same way about my friends. Now, stop being a baby and let Sheppard go so I can get back to work.”
“I’m not being a baby,” the girl sulked, but she released her hold on John.
“Fine, you’re not a baby. Everyone who thinks Farras isn’t being a baby raise your hand.” Rodney pointedly locked his hands behind his back as he leaned forward to read through the translations on his electronic pad. Mallen crossed his arms with an amused grin and the littlest one did the same in imitation of his brother.
When her eyes flicked toward John, he busied himself by studying his P90 and not making eye contact. Farras may be acting like a baby, but she was able to do more than throw a temper tantrum when she was angry. Having already been on the receiving end of it twice, John had no desire to experience it again.
With a huff, the girl turned and stalked toward the far side of the room. Sheppard took the opportunity to close the newly opened space between him and McKay and mumble. “I never realized you liked to play with fire so much, Rodney.”
McKay didn’t even look up from his work. “You forget, Colonel, that I have experience in this arena that you don’t… I have a little sister.”
“And how often did Jeannie get the best of you?”
Raising his chin defensively, Rodney justified, “Not that often. Besides, it’s not like Farras can run and snitch to mom.”
“Well, then, I bow to your expertise.” Looking longingly toward the door, Sheppard sighed. “Especially since there really isn’t much else I can do until you fix the device.”
“If anyone can take care of himself around a Wraith, it’s Ronon.” Rodney’s reassurance fell a little flat when he asked in apprehension. “Right?”
“If it wasn’t for the fact that it’s taken up residence in Teyla, I’d agree with you.”
Rodney nodded in resigned understanding. “It shouldn’t take me much longer. Maybe fifteen, twenty minutes, tops.”
Now it was John’s turn to nod. A hell of a lot could happen in twenty minutes. But he would have to trust to the fact that Rodney was right in that Ronon could take care of himself, and hopefully he could find a way to take care of Teyla, too. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Yeah, try not to piss off the kids.”
“Hey, kids love me.” When McKay raised an eyebrow and looked up at the spot where John had been suspended, John shrugged. “Usually kids love me. Besides, they never really took the time to get to know me.”
“Here’s your chance.”
John took that as his cue to approach the two boys who were rotating a penlight between them. “Here, let me show you how to turn it on.”
Sheppard spent the next twenty minutes explaining the operation of various things in Rodney’s pack, completely making them up if he had no idea himself. Farras eventually came and joined them, hanging back slightly until John offered to show her how the Athosian fire starter he carried in his vest worked. He had just ignited a small piece of paper a few feet away when McKay told them he thought they were ready to try to reverse the process.
“Okay, I need the three of you to stand here, within the range of the beam. Colonel, you should probably stand clear, just in case… well, just in case.”
John frowned at the thought of just what the case might be. “This is going to reverse the process, right? So it won’t, you know, do what it did last time.” Wouldn’t try to kill Rodney again, is what he wanted to say.
“No, it won’t do that… shouldn’t do that.” Now, McKay was frowning as he waved a hand. “Just… stand back over there.”
John did as he was told, feeling uncomfortable about the whole thing. Sure, they promised to help the kids and this was the only way, but if it started the process on Rodney again… fuck, he just wanted this to be over and done with and for them to be far away from that stupid machine.
“Is this really going to get us out?” Mallen asked hopefully.
“This is the first stage, to reverse what was done. If that works, the second stage of ascension should start automatically. So once you’re back here, stay where you’re at so the final transformation can take place. Understand?”
The three nodded their heads, Rian moving a little closer to Mallen as he asked, “Will it hurt?”
“It just sort of tingles a little bit,” Rodney told them, once again reminding Sheppard that the man had first hand knowledge of the experience. “Okay, here we go.”
Sheppard held his breath when McKay activated the machine and the same spiraling light that had encompassed Rodney when he had been lying clinically dead on the floor of Atlantis circled around the children. Only this time, the light was brighter and lasted several seconds longer. John found himself blinking as if he’d just had a photo taken and was seeing spots as a result of a flash. When the room finally came back into focus, it took him a second to realize that the children weren’t alone in the field. Standing behind them, John could see a fourth form, much taller and much more dangerous than even an angry Farras.
It was the Wraith.
John was raising his P90, even as he yelled, “Get down!” to the kids so he could get off a clean shot. The boys scattered, but after ten thousand years of passing through the solid objects of this world, they forgot what it was like to be solid again themselves. Rian dove under the nearest console, but Mallen attempted to run right through it and ended up being thrown onto his back from the force of the impact with a loud, “oomph”.
The Wraith seized the opportunity, looming over the child with a vicious smile. “Finally, I will have my meal.”
But before he could reach down and grab the terrified boy and before John could squeeze the trigger, Rodney was standing in front of the Wraith. “Hey! Try picking on someone closer to your own size.” Rodney got off three shots into the Wraith’s chest before the creature batted the gun away with little more than a flick of his hand.
The scientist was trying to do just that, but the Wraith grabbed him by the vest, ripped it open and slammed his hand home, all with Rodney blocking John’s line of fire. Sheppard circled around, daring to take a shot that normally he wouldn’t, not with McKay so close to the target. But Rodney was being drained before his eyes, his mouth open in a strangled scream, and at that point, John really didn’t have anything to lose. He needed to take the Wraith down, but not kill him. If he killed him, he was practically killing Rodney at the same time. But if he kept the Wraith alive, there was a chance he could get him to reverse the process. He’d forced the issue before, he could do it again. He would do it again, by God, or this son of a bitch was going to wish he were dead before it was all over.
Firing a controlled burst of five rounds into the Wraith’s back, he finally got his attention. Rodney fell to the floor, severely aged, but alive. He had to still be alive, he had to be.
“John, do you copy?”
Teyla was calling him on the radio. That had to mean she was in the building, but he couldn’t spare the moment it would take to key his radio, because the Wraith had turned his attention on him. The bullet holes were already closing; the recent feeding would allow the healing to take place even faster than normal.
“Reverse the process,” he ordered, “and I might let you live.”
“The arrogance of the Lanteans was always such a source of amusement to me,” the Wraith taunted, practically ignoring the shot to his gut John fired before he grabbed Sheppard and threw him across the room to slam against the door. “And after ten thousand years, nothing has changed.”
John winced as he fought to push himself up, shaking his head to clear the stars exploding behind his eyelids as a result of the force of the impact. Yeah, that was to hurt in the morning. Hell, the sharp pain when he pulled in a breath hurt now. But busted ribs aside, he’d live. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as sure about McKay. Not unless he could subdue the Wraith who had drained the man. “You should get out more,” Sheppard grunted. “Maybe go to a comedy club or two. Expand your horizons.”
“John, open the door,” Teyla directed through the radio. A repetitive thump behind him told him his teammate was right outside the door. But Rodney had locked it down, so that only he could open it.
Reaching a hand up to trigger the opening, John smiled to himself. McKay had locked down the room to standard Ancient protocol, which meant it was locked to everyone who didn’t have the gene. That was confirmed when the door slid open the same moment the Wraith lunged for him again. This time a blast from Ronon’s gun hit the Wraith square in the chest, and the Satedan vaulted over John where he was slumped in the floor. The shot threw the Wraith back and Sheppard realized a little too late that Ronon was moving in for the kill.
But the fatal shot to the Wraith’s head came at the same time as his warning. The Satedan looked back to his team leader in confusion and John barely noticed the trail of dried blood caked to the side of Ronon’s face. He was also barely aware of Teyla squatting beside him, resting a hand on his shoulder and asking in worry, “John, are you all right?”
Because his attention was rapt on one sight, one person, lying on the opposite side of the room. “Oh, Jesus, Rodney.”
And as he crawled his way over to his best friend, all he could think was, what the fuck could they do now?
* * * *
Ronon still wasn’t thinking clearly. Not that anyone could blame him, given the fact he’d been shot and bashed in the head by a rock, but things were being awful slow to fall into place as he took in the scene around the room, and the picture was most definitely not a pleasant one. There was a dead Wraith at his feet, a small boy staring up at him in amazement from where he lay on the floor, another peeking warily out from under a console near the body that Sheppard was scrambling toward, a girl standing in a field of green lights, and McKay… where was McKay?
“Rodney, hold on, okay? We’re going to get you back to Atlantis, all right?”
Why was Sheppard calling the withered body on the ground Rodney? It wasn’t making any sense. Until the uniform, the voice, the realization of what had happened, sunk through the fuzz.
“The kids? Did it work?”
Sheppard blinked at the question, “I don’t… how can I tell?” before looking around the room with his hand still resting on the man’s shoulder… on McKay’s shoulder. He’d been fed on. Rodney had been fed on by the Wraith, the Wraith Ronon had killed.
Oh, fuck, what had he done?
“I didn’t know,” Ronon mumbled helplessly. “It was coming after you and I had to stop it… I didn’t know.”
Sheppard didn’t seem to hear him, but Teyla squeezed his arm, “It is not your fault,” she assured him quietly before she moved to kneel beside Rodney, taking a wrinkled hand from the floor and holding it.
“Oh, good, you’re okay,” McKay told her when he recognized who had his hand.
“Ronon and I will both be fine.” Her eyes met John’s for a split second, both of them desperate in their loss for what to do next.
“I didn’t know,” Ronon repeated, looking in confusion at his gun. The gun Teyla had found in the darkened barn and pushed anxiously into his hand when she had told him what had happened and how they had to get to the outpost to help their teammates. The gun he had planned to use to kill the Wraith threatening them. Somehow that had seemed a better plan when he first thought of it than it did now.
“Ronon?” He had awakened to the sound of Teyla’s fretful voice. “Ronon? Ronon, can you hear me? Please wake up. We must go help John and Rodney.”
There had been an awkward nudge to his side and Ronon had opened his eyes and had a momentary bout of panic when it was just as dark as it had been with them closed.
But Teyla had evidently seen the response. “Ronon,” she had breathed in relief. “Thank the Ancestors you are alive.”
“Teyla? What happened?” He tried to sit, but the action had his head throbbing and his stomach rolling, so he closed his eyes once more, willing the nausea to pass.
“The Wraith has released me, but he has gone back to the outpost. He knows Rodney has fixed the machine and will be looking to feed as soon as he is restored and is able to do so.”
Wraith? Outpost? Machine? It sounded familiar, but the pain in his head was making it difficult to think at all, much less piece together what Teyla was talking about. And what had happened to give him such a headache in the first place?
Seeing his confusion, Teyla told him, “You are injured. You should stay here and rest. I will go to the outpost, but first you must cut my hands free.”
Opening his eyes again, Ronon squinted and could just make out Teyla’s face in the dim moonlight. Above her head, he could see the jagged outline of the opening of the roof, the birds preening themselves and cooing softly. “Ronon, do you understand what I am asking of you?”
And then a few things started slipping back into his memory. He had been on that roof. He’d snuck up there to ambush Teyla… no, to ambush the Wraith that had taken hold of Teyla. He’d had her, bound her hands, then something had hit him and the world had gone black.
“You’re you again?” The question turned into a moan as he forced himself to sit up.
“Yes, the Wraith has left me but he has gone after John and Rodney and the children. So you must cut my binding so I can go assist them.”
“Help me stand and we’ll both go.”
“You are hurt,” she started to protest, but Ronon cut her off.
“We don’t have time to argue, just help me stand.” He winced again at the sharp pain brought about by raising his voice.
“Very well,” she relented, “cut me free.”
Pulling his knife, Ronon did just that, grinding his teeth against the renewed pain in his shoulder that came from Teyla’s help in gaining his feet. Oh, yeah, he’d been shot, too. This wasn’t turning out to be such a great mission, and it just got worse. He’d nearly gone down twice as they jogged across the field to the outpost, the jarring in his head causing the world to go soft around the edges and nearly turn upside down when his own feet tangled beneath him. Teyla had kept running and it hadn’t helped matters that he had been double-timing it to make up lost ground after he finally straightened and ran to catch up with her. The sound of gunfire, which had led them to the room where they found Sheppard and McKay, hadn’t improved the situation.
And now… now he’d just killed the only hope McKay had of surviving the feeding.
“How do I look?” Rodney asked, and Teyla’s brow crinkled as she fought to think of how to answer him.
“It doesn’t matter,” Sheppard told him firmly.
“Easy for you to say,” Rodney snapped, trying to lift his head against the effects of the paralysis.
“Rodney, lie still,” John insisted, “I said it doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, God, it’s that bad? I lost all my hair, didn’t I? Figures,” McKay snorted, descending into a coughing fit.
“Easy, take it easy,” Sheppard soothed as the scientist rode out the spasms.
“Is the Wraith… dead?”
At Rodney’s question, Ronon stepped forward, close enough so that he was in Rodney’s line of sight. “If I’d known what he’d done, I never would have…” With a glance back at the dead Wraith, he threw his good arm up in frustration. “I’m sorry, McKay,” he finished lamely.
“Oh. Well. That’s unfortunate.”
Ronon scrubbed at his face. Man, he’d blown this one. Teyla, seeing his distress, offered, “I am sure Rodney does not blame you for this, Ronon. No one does.”
“No, no, you did exactly what you were supposed to do,” McKay told him. “I was just slowing him down until you got here so he didn’t get Sheppard and the kids. Evidently my brilliant plan worked.” Pulling in a stuttering breath, Rodney admitted, “Although, it appears, I may not have thought things through as thoroughly as I should have.”
If that was supposed to make Ronon feel better, it sure the shit didn’t.
“We’ll find another Wraith to fix this,” John promised.
Cloudy blue eyes moved to lock onto Sheppard. “It doesn’t work that way.”
John shook his head defiantly, taking hold of McKay’s other hand and swallowing thickly, then easing up on his grip at the feel of delicate, papery skin against his own. “You don’t know that. I’m not giving up, McKay, and neither are you. You hear me? No one here is giving up.”
Rodney seemed almost amused by Sheppard’s persistence, thin lips angling up in a ghostly memory of a smile Ronon had seen numerous times. Only now the creases around McKay’s eyes were more pronounced, merging with the lines that cut deep into his cheeks. “Is that an order, Colonel?”
“You bet your ass it is.” John’s voice cracked and he cleared his throat to regain control.
“Do you have to listen to him now that you’re the oldest?”
All of them turned their attention to the small boy who crawled out from under the console.
“Rian, you’re still here.” Rodney’s voice was weakening, and he licked his lips before continuing on in disappointment. “It didn’t work? It should have worked.”
“Rodney, now is not the time to worry about the children,” Teyla chided.
“This may be my only chance,” McKay reminded her.
“It’s all right, Dr. McKay,” the older boy assured him as he moved to look over Teyla’s shoulder. “At least we’re back to the way we were before.”
“Mallen, I’ll make sure you’re taken care of.” Rodney turned his attention back to Sheppard. “Radek… get Radek to… to fix…” He stopped when his face contorted in pain.
“McKay, what’s wrong?”
Ignoring Sheppard’s worried inquiry, McKay finished up his instructions. “Radek knows more… more about the machine… anyway.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Christ… Don’t tell him… I said that.”
This time McKay gasped in pain and Teyla’s eyes widened in fear. “Rodney! You must fight. You must stay with us so that we can try to find another way.”
“I know, McKay.” Sheppard spoke from personal experience. “But it’ll pass, it gets better. You just have to hold on.”
“No… different… pain. Oh, God…”
Teyla looked to Sheppard, understanding dawning on her. “His heart. He is having a heart attack.”
“The hell he is,” John countered in denial. “You can just cut this shit out right now, McKay.”
Ronon stood and watched the whole scene unfolding before him, feeling as paralyzed as McKay was. He’d made mistakes in the past, big ones, but this one was ranking up there with his failure to convince Melina to leave Sateda. And it was going to end the same way, with someone he cared about dying in front of him. As punishments went, it didn’t get much worse than that. And if anyone deserved to be punished…
Teyla looked up at him, her voice pulling him from his daze as she started to stand. “Ronon, stay with them. I am going to go back to the gate to call for help.”
Rodney was gritting his teeth against the pain and John squeezed his hand harder. “McKay, goddammit, I gave you an order and I expect you to follow it. Rodney?”
A new voice spoke up for the first time then, causing Teyla to pause before she even made it to her feet.
“Just because you’re the oldest doesn’t mean he’s going to listen to you.” The girl who had been standing in the beam of light from the machine placed a hand on Sheppard’s shoulder. “Let me help.”
Her touch had Sheppard scooting aside to make room for her. She knelt beside Rodney, placing a hand on his chest and accusing, “You promised you’d fix all of us, McKay. So far, I’m the only one you did.”
A white light started where she touched Rodney, quickly spreading to surround his entire body and radiate outward from there. The rest of his team closed their eyes against the brightness, but Ronon could feel the warmth of it spreading through the room, through his own body. When he finally opened his eyes again, he found that he was on his knees and bracing himself with one hand flattened against the floor, but the pain in his head was down to a dull ache, and the one in his shoulder was almost nonexistent.
He looked instantly to where McKay lay on the floor, in time to see the man sit up so quickly that he nearly clunked heads with Sheppard and Teyla who were still kneeling beside him. “Holy shit, did she heal me?”
Teyla was turning the hand she still held in hers in amazement, the wrinkles had disappeared, just like they had on McKay’s face and he was squeezing back in response to her own pressure. She smiled brightly as she told him, “It would appear so.”
“It must have worked, she must have ascended. I knew if I got the filter subroutine working properly…” Rodney turned his attention to their team leader with a questioning, “Sheppard?” when John completely ignored McKay’s babbling explanation and instead pulled the scientist’s vest open and studied his chest closely.
“Fuck,” Sheppard exhaled in amazement. “She… you’re… ” He hung his head, threading long fingers through his hair, before letting out a sharp laugh of relief and repeating, “Fuck.”
“John,” Teyla chastised with a glance at the children gathered around them, “you should be mindful of your language.”
“Did my hair come back?”
At McKay’s worried question, Sheppard pushed good-naturedly into the chest he’d been examining just a few second before. “Only as much as you had before.”
“Oh, well,” Rodney relented in mild disappointment, “that’s something at least.”
John shoved at the scientist again before taking hold of the vest and shaking lightly, his laughter melding with Teyla’s, who still held tightly to Rodney’s hand even as she smiled down on the small boys by her side. The two quickly joined in with giggles of their own.
Ronon let out a laugh himself, grabbing the girl who had healed McKay and pulling her into a spontaneous embrace. “Thank you.”
The child stiffened in his arms, and for a second Ronon wondered if he’d done something to offend her, but then she was clinging to him, small arms wrapped around him as tight as she could, and he remembered how they had been trapped for so long and this was the first human contact she’d experienced in nearly ten thousand years. He looked over to the boys, who had stopped laughing and were staring longingly at the hug. Raising an eyebrow, Ronon grinned at them. “You want in on this, too?”
He didn’t have to ask twice. Whatever hesitancy the older boy might have had quickly disappeared when the younger one lunged for the large man, and Ronon found himself being piled on by three small children.
And after the day he’d had, he really didn’t mind at all.
* * * *
It was an outpost of the Ancestors like so many Teyla and her team had seen before, only instead of being empty, it had been home to three young children for ten thousand years.
But not after today.
Rodney stood at the controls, John on one side, while the girl, Farras, stood on the other. They had almost lost Rodney today… again. Given the frequency that it had been happening lately, Teyla herself felt the need to hover a little closer than she usually would. But there was only so much room at the control console and John, who took every close call with his team as a personal affront, had claimed the one spot while the child who had brought Rodney back from the brink of death had claimed the other. That left Teyla to hang back with Ronon and watch the others work.
“It has been an interesting day,” Teyla observed with a soft smile for her teammate.
“Interesting?” Eyebrows rose at the choice of words. “I’d hate to see what you considered exciting, or crappy for that matter.”
“It has been both of those, as well.” Her grin melted away as she turned her attention back to where Rodney was working and Farras was looking around his arm to see what he was doing. “It was also a most fortunate day for us all.”
The child leaned into the scientist, almost melting against him to soak up as much physical contact as she could. Rodney seemed a little distraught by the action, and Teyla almost laughed again at the thought of Rodney not only being faced with a child, but physical contact by a child. But Rodney lifted his arm hesitantly, wrapping it around the girl’s shoulder and squeezing awkwardly. If anything, that just made the child lean against him harder.
“Yeah, we’re lucky the kid was able to ascend and heal McKay.”
Unlike her brothers, Farras had actually done as Rodney had instructed and remained within the beam of ascension machine when the Wraith appeared. That had allowed her to complete the ascension process while her siblings had simply returned to their human state. Whether it had been fear that had locked her in place or the foresight to know her best chance of survival was to complete her ascension, Teyla wasn’t sure. But the results had saved Rodney’s life.
“That, too. Although I was speaking of you.” When Ronon furrowed his brow in confusion, Teyla explained. “You were shot, took a severe blow to the head, either of those could have easily killed you, and I am not sure I could have forgiven myself if they had.”
“You? But you didn’t do anything. It was the Wraith.”
“Then we shall blame the Wraith for your disorientation that led to his death at your hands.” Teyla had seen how Ronon was staying back from John and Rodney, and she knew it had little to do with the lack of room around the console.
“I should have had more control, surveyed the room before I went in guns blazing.”
“Ronon, you could barely stay on your feet with your injuries. It is a wonder you could see the Wraith at all, much less process what had happened in the room.”
Ronon shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m glad you think so.”
“We all believe that to be the case.”
As if to prove the point, Rodney snapped his fingers without looking back, “Ronon, bring me my backpack. It’s over in the corner.”
Teyla smiled and bumped her shoulder against Ronon’s arm. “See? Rodney is treating you no different than usual.”
Ronon snorted but headed for the bag in question. “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad one.”
But when he reached the corner McKay had indicated, he found more than the backpack. “Uh, McKay, I hope whatever it was you wanted from your pack wasn’t critical.”
Rodney turned to see what Ronon was talking about. Mallen and Rian were sitting with screwdrivers in hand and surrounded by the pieces of most of the items in Rodney’s pack. They also had chocolate smeared on their faces and fingers.
“What? Oh, no no no no no no. Who said you could touch my stuff, much less dismantle it down to the individual screws?”
Rian shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? You don’t know?” Rodney turned to Sheppard who still stood within arm’s reach and pointed a finger at the floor. “He doesn’t know.”
“So he said.” John frowned in mock sympathy at the distinctly Rodney reaction.
Squatting on the floor and snatching the pieces up, Rodney started shoving them back in the pack. “Well, I know who didn’t say he could do this. I didn’t, that’s who.”
Farras tilted her head. “You sure get upset about people touching your stuff without asking when you do the same thing.”
Rodney gave a long-suffering sigh. “Farras, for the last time, you do not own this facility.”
The girl crossed her arms stubbornly. “We’ve been here longer than anyone else.”
“Yes, but it’s an Ancient facility and since you’re not Ancient…”
“I’ve ascended,” Farras gloated. “Have you?”
“You only ascended because I helped you…”
Teyla moved to stand next to John, who was watching the argument with a slightly disbelieving expression. “The Force is strong in this one.”
With a grin, she added, “She could tilt the balance toward the Dark Side forever.”
John gave Teyla a slow, appreciative nod of his head, “Listen to your bad self getting down with the pithy pop culture references. I told you movie nights would eventually pay off.”
“I have always been a quick study,” Teyla gloated. “Besides, there is much of the Athosian character in Yoda.”
“And there’s a lot of Darth Vader in Farras,” John observed with a shake of his head when Rodney stopped gathering his belonging to throw himself fully into the fray with the girl.
Teyla could only concur with a nod. “Yes, she could even overthrow the Master.”
“Or save him,” John mumbled.
“Or save him,” she confirmed, just as grateful as John that, despite her obvious temper, Farras had done just that.
As usual, when he started to show a little too much of just how dependent he was on his team, how much he needed them in his life, John changed the subject. “So, are you doing okay? I mean, after your run in with the Wraith?”
“It was… disturbing, but I will be fine.” It had been terrifying, but if she had learned nothing else as an Athosian, it was that strength grew through hardship. After today, she had grown a little stronger, and so had her team. “I will be better as a result, we all will.”
“How very Yoda of you,” John smirked with a pat to her shoulder. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a brawl to break up between a couples of Sithies.”
Teyla watched in amusement as John took Rodney by the arm and pulled him away from where he was bent at the middle to go face to face with the child. The act had Rodney looking at his teammate with a surprised, “What? What are you doing?”
“You do realize you are yelling at a little girl, don’t you?”
Rodney seemed genuinely baffled by John’s response. “Is your problem with her size or gender?”
The colonel’s response had McKay rocking back on his heels with a disapproving shake of his head. “See? This is exactly why you get beat up by attractive space pirates. You don’t have enough sense to fight back when the time calls for it.”
This seemed to be a long running debate between the two, as Sheppard sighed and crossed his arms. “We are not getting into this again, besides this is not about me.”
“Please, somehow it’s always about you.”
“McKay…” John ground out in warning.
“Fine, I’ll drop it, even though I’m right and she’s wrong, not to mention she started it.”
With a roll of his eyes, John watched Rodney return to the console to finish his work. “Way to be the mature adult, Rodney.”
“Don’t press your luck, clown boy,” the scientist called over his shoulder.
As Sheppard passed Teyla on his way back over to where Rodney was working, he leaned in a murmured, “I take it back. No one can unseat the Master.”
It was not long before Rodney was ready for the boys to enter the beam of the machine once more to complete their transformation. Farras was taking full advantage of her position as fully ascended to tell them exactly where to stand and what to expect.
Rodney finally asked in exasperation, “Farras, do you want to do this yourself? Because I have much more important things to do back on Atlantis if you do.”
The girl raised her nose haughtily. “Mama always said it’s important to finish what you start. It builds character.”
“So, evidently you had a lot of half-finished projects sitting around your house, I take it.”
Seeing where this was leading, Teyla stepped in and suggested, “Perhaps we should start so that you can be reunited with your mother.”
“That’s a great idea!” Rodney agreed brightly. “Why don’t you just run on ahead, Farras, and let her know the boys are on their way?”
The girl crinkled her brow in confusion. “Without Mallen and Rian? Why would I do that?”
At the question, McKay blinked, then he took in each of his teammates. “You’re right,” he admitted, “It was a stupid idea. Forget I said anything.”
Teyla could not imagine spending ten thousand years with the same people day in and day out. Sometimes it amazed her that she could stand to be around the three men in the room with her as much as she was. And yet, just like Farras, she couldn’t imagine not having them, either. They were her family as much as Mallen and Rian were Farras’. They were her team, and, over the years, the meaning of the word had slowly transformed in her mind. It had almost become a creature unto itself, something larger than the individuals who made it up, and it had developed a series of strengths and weaknesses, quirks and foibles, rhythms and routines wholly its own. And it had been that entity she had been fighting to save this day as much as the individuals who made it up.
When everyone was situated to meet Rodney’s requirements, he started the device once again. The green lights spiraled around the boys and within a few seconds, Farras was grabbing Rodney’s arm, excitedly jumping in place.
“It’s working! It’s working!”
“Of course it is,” the scientist sniffed, but Teyla could see the pleased glimmer in his eyes and the way he didn’t pull away from the clinging child.
When the beam shut off, Farras ran the short distance to where he brothers stood. “Hey, can you do this?”
With little more than a thought, the girl transmuted from her human appearance to ball of pure light. The boys, not wanting to be showed up by their sister, quickly did the same. The masses of energy spiraled around each other in their own form of tag.
Rodney watched them, mesmerized by their play, until John moved up behind him and said, “You know, now matter how many times I see that change, it is just totally cool.”
“It could have been you, if you’d taken the villagers in the time dilation field up on their offer.”
“It could have been you, too, if you hadn’t mind-melded with Carson and told him how to bring you back with the machine.”
Rodney shrugged off the suggestion and asked, “Ever regret not going?”
“Are you kidding? And be stuck for eternity with those three?”
Sheppard gave a rough slap to Rodney’s back. “I’m touched, McKay. Picking us over three bickering kids.”
Keeping his eyes glued on the tendrils of light bobbing and weaving above him, Rodney shrugged again. “Eh. You know, lesser of two evils.”
The children took a final circuit around the room before circling Rodney several times… under his arms, between his legs, around his head… and then simply vanishing up through the ceiling.
Ronon stared up where they had disappeared like the rest of the team. “They didn’t even say thanks to you, McKay.”
But Rodney was standing with a contented smile on his face. “Yeah, they did.” After a few seconds more, he shook off the half stupor he’d entered and waved an arm at the door. “So, can we get out of here now?”
“What? Don’t want to stay and study every tiny detail of the outpost?” John asked with a teasing grin, but he was already resecuring his P90 for the trip back to the gate.
“That’s what secondary science teams are for. Once they sort through the minutia, then I’ll come back and deal with the important stuff.”
“I’d expect nothing less from you, McKay.”
When Rodney had gathered up the remainder of his dismantled equipment, grumbling about how fortunate the children were to have ascended and been out of his reach, they started for the exit. The sun was just starting to rise, casting a pink glow over the mist floating across the grassy field between them and woods. Teyla took a deep breath, savoring the smell of sweet grass and damp earth.
“This truly is a beautiful world. It is a shame it has been uninhabited for so long.”
“Yes, if you like the cold and damp,” Rodney observed as he turned up the collar on his jacket.
“Maybe you should request that nothing important comes up here until summer, McKay,” Ronon told him as he stepped out into the field.
“If only,” the physicist sighed. “I guarantee if anything happens here, it will be when there is two feet of snow on the ground.” The gloom quickly vanished when a thought occurred to him and he followed after Ronon. “Oh, well, that’s what Radek’s for.”
Teyla zipped her own jacket up under her chin and John stopped to wait for her. “So, no more sensing strange things? No other ‘ghosts’ we weren’t aware of hiding in the woods?”
“Every town has its ghosts, John. Some are just more vocal than others. But, no, I do not sense anything else.”
Ahead of them Rodney exclaimed, “Christ, my pants are going to be soaked from this wet grass by the time we get back. I’ll be shooting Nyquil by bedtime, I know it.”
“Well, it’s a good thing Rodney didn’t die back there or we never would have gotten any rest.”
Teyla grinned and fell into step beside John. “Yes, that is the reason you are grateful, I am sure.”
Although it did not take a death to create a ghost. The thoughts of what could have been could haunt a person almost as much as what had happened, and she doubted any one of them would return to Atlantis completely unscathed by the events of this day, regardless of the healing powers of Farras. Each would nurse their wounds, exorcise their spirits, in their own way. But the team would remain whole. It would be there, waiting to provide the creature comforts, offering solace and warmth when they each needed it most.
The team, Teyla knew well from personal experience, was a warm-blooded creature, after all.
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