The city of Atlantis is struck through with light.
Fearing nothing from the elements, the Ancients built their towers to the heavens and then opened up to them. Atlantis is threaded with glass and open space, designed to dazzle whether seen from within or without. Even the night is gilded there with the reflection of stars on metal.
To Michael, Atlantis seems great and fragile and hollow. When he stands at a railing and gazes out over the water that stretches gleaming as far as he can see, he can't decide whether the city reflects the water, or the water the city. Vertigo rushes over him and he has to retreat to his room, where the light is softened and redirected by gauzy curtains.
It's then that he most worries that this isn't going to work.
In some ways, Atlantis is actually a very easy place to be. He's issued a uniform from central storage and given a choice of at most two entrees and two sides at dinner. There's a hierarchy of command signified by titles and insignia, and social groups demarcated by colors on jackets. People live and work in shifts keyed to the movement of the sun in the sky. Everything is simplified and systematized and explicit, giving him lessons he can study and master.
After he's released from confinement to his quarters, he's assigned to the science department, presumably because of those schematics he'd recognized. They must think he needs something to do. They're not wrong.
"Just...try not to build anything evil," Rodney McKay says to him on his first day. He looks harried.
"How do you distinguish between a weapon and something evil?" Michael asks.
"Oh, you're not going to be one of those, are you?" Rodney sighs. "The humanities department is down the hall. No, wait! There isn't a humanities department here! Because they wouldn't be useful! Just see what you can remember, all right?"
"All right," Michael says.
What he can remember either isn't very much, or isn't very helpful. The Ancient machinery he's assigned sputters fitfully and shuts down when he examines it. The components they put in front of him seem dead and cold and wrong. He tries to imagine linking them together and he feels sick.
"Come on," Rodney says. "You can read schematics. You're at least an engineer."
"But this—this is all wrong."
"Ancient technology? Not likely."
"Wouldn't it be better for me to be working on Wraith technology?"
Rodney flushes. "Ah. Yes. That's not—we're not going to be doing that."
"But that doesn't make sense." Michael leans forward, encouraged by the faint embarrassment on Rodney's face. "You know that doesn't make sense."
Rodney's eyes dart to the side. "Look, just make something." He waves his hands. "An alarm clock."
"I don't think that's—"
"Gotta go," Rodney says, and dashes out of the lab.
Michael touches one of the tiny crystalline elements with his finger and watches it go dark.
The dreams are much less frightening now that he at least knows what they are, now that he knows that the face in the mirror actually is his. He still doesn't like them. In the dreams, he is always restless, hungry, angry. He wakes from them exhausted and aching with tension.
Usually, the Atlantis of the dreams is frustratingly deserted, fog-choked and devoid of prey. But sometimes, down a long corridor or across a vast room, he glimpses another figure, watching him: slender with long flowing white hair. Beautiful, he thinks, though he can never quite make out her face.
When he tries to reach her, she always slips away. He wakes then, with his hands fisted into his blanket and a thickness in his throat.
Three days after his release, he's walking through a deserted hallway back to his room when the world tilts and he finds himself pinned up against a wall by his throat.
Ronon growls, "You may have fooled the others, but not me. I know what you are, Michael."
Michael shuts his eyes for a second, unable not to imagine Ronon flying across the room, smashing into the wall opposite. He opens them again, feeling very tired. "Then you know more than I do."
Ronon shakes his head. "Take one step out of line, and it'll be over. You won't get any second chances."
"I didn't ask to be here in the first place, you know."
"Any time you want to go, I'll take care of it."
"Right," Michael says dryly. "You'd just let me escape, knowing where Atlantis is."
A nasty smile crosses Ronon's face. "I didn't say you'd make it out alive." He lets Michael go and cuffs him on the shoulder. "Don't wander around after hours. You shouldn't be out without a guard at all."
Michael stares after him as he stalks off. Hatred burns in him. He can feel all his capacity for it, the capacity of a heart meant to endure for thousands of years. He thinks Ronon may be right.
He's officially done with physical therapy, and he thinks, with a twinge that runs deep, that must mean with training with Teyla as well. But after the first time when they would otherwise have practiced, she finds him in the hallway, dressed for sparring.
"Where were you?" she asks. "I waited for half an hour."
"I thought...I thought we were done. Doctor Beckett said I had regained my muscle tone."
"Do you wish to stop?"
There's an hint of disapproval in her voice, and he colors, almost stammers. "No! Of course not! I just thought we were supposed to."
"Then I will see you Thursday."
He stands there like an idiot, smiling, long after she's out of sight. Sparring with Teyla is one of his few real pleasures. She hardly holds back at all now, and each pass is a flurry of strike and spin and throw that leaves him breathless and exhilarated. When he's fighting with Teyla, he can let himself go—no fear, none of the self-doubt that haunts the rest of his days. She can take care of herself. And him.
He knows she's not the only person she trains with. He comes down to the gym late one evening to put in a little practice and the door is closed. Behind it, he can hear the strike of stick on stick, Teyla's distinctive cries, and the rumble of a lower, masculine voice.
He pushes the door open to find Teyla and Sheppard with sticks locked, each straining against the other. Sheppard looks up and sees him. He doesn't break the lock.
"What do you want?"
"Sorry," Michael mumbles, "I just came down to use the room. It wasn't booked."
"It is now. That'll be all, Lieutenant," he adds when Michael doesn't move away.
"Let him stay," Teyla says. "He has not had an opportunity yet to study bantos-fighting."
He narrows his eyes at her. "Really?"
"Really." She breaks the deadlock and crosses the room, ready to begin a new round.
"Fine." Sheppard glowers, but readies himself for the attack. Michael doesn't wait for more invitation. He steps inside and closes the door.
Teyla's wearing different clothes than she does when she spars with him—a fuller top and a long split skirt whose strips alternately conceal and reveal the elegant stretch of her legs, all the way to her thighs. When she begins her pass, Michael marvels at the way that the sticks serve as effortless extensions of her reach, making the height and weight differences almost irrelevant. The smooth polished wood might as well be part of her. He can't take his eyes off her, and neither can Sheppard.
Sheppard's good, too, but it's only three passes before Teyla is standing over him, one foot on his chest, one of her sticks at his throat. "Do you yield?" she says, hair floating free, challenging smile on her face.
Sheppard responds by trying to sweep her foot out from under her. She falls, but only to straddle him, this time bringing the stick up into a chokehold.
"I said, do you yield?"
They're both breathing hard, focused completely on the grapple of their bodies. Michael suddenly feels something clench in his stomach, and he nearly doubles over against the pain. He gropes backward until he reaches the door and then finds his way blindly back to his room.
He reports diligently to the infirmary for his booster shot first thing every morning. Dr. Beckett always administers it himself, under the watchful eye of an MP. Michael can't really hold the precaution against them.
But one morning the next week, Dr. Beckett's not in the infirmary when he arrives. The sour-faced nurse, Mandy, who he's never been able to charm, tells him tersely that the doctor is in a meeting with the biological research staff.
Michael immediately starts to feel anxious, though he knows a few minutes, even a few hours, shouldn't make any difference. He looks around for a bed to wait on.
"You're not hanging around here," Mandy says firmly. "Go to the lab if you're so worried."
So Michael does. He's never been in the wing devoted to the biological sciences; Rodney and the rest of the physical scientists treat that work as if it were only slightly more respectable than the anthropologists'. It doesn't, however, look all that different from the physicists' area, with the same benches cluttered with machinery and half-eaten sandwiches, though it smells a little more overtly chemical. The meeting's happening in the main conference room. The biologists are gathered around a hexagonal table, Dr. Beckett at the head, arguing about something. Above them floats a projected model of two twined strands. Michael stops and stares at it, transfixed.
After a minute, one of the scientists notices him and nudges her neighbor. The room quickly falls silent, except for Beckett, whose voice carries for a few beats longer: "...and we still haven't been able to achieve stability in..."
He realizes that no one is listening to him and looks down the table. When he sees Michael, he smiles, broadly and uneasily.
"Oh, hello, Michael. I'm sorry—it's time for your injection, isn't it?" He comes around the table. "I got carried away here. Let's take care of you back at the infirmary."
He grasps Michael's arm and leads him unprotestingly through the door. When they're in the hallway, he says, "Such a lovely day. I always like getting up early on days like this. Everything's so crisp and clear. So I tend to schedule morning meetings, even though some of the younger staff hate them..."
"That was the retrovirus, wasn't it?" Michael asks. He's not really asking. It's like he's heard a few notes from a half-remembered piece of music, and now it's all threatening to come back.
Beckett stops and sighs. "Yes. I'm sorry you had to see that, Michael. I want you to know that we don't just see you as some sort of test subject."
Thinking of the look in that first biologist's eyes, Michael smiles painfully. "It's all right, Doctor. I'm sorry to have disturbed you at your work."
The next time he goes to practice with Teyla, she's dimmed the lights and set out candles around the gym. He approaches her cautiously where she sits, cross-legged in the center of the sparring circle. The candlelight gilds her skin, but she looks serious.
"What's all this?"
"Meditation is part of my discipline," she says. "It helps to clear away troubled feelings that would otherwise block the flow in combat."
"Troubled feelings? You have troubled feelings?"
Her smile is sad. "You would be surprised."
He starts to sit across from her, but he has another question. "Does Colonel Sheppard meditate with you, too?"
She can't quite get the irony out of her voice. "He prefers not to."
"That's hard to believe," he jokes, and his smile is from inexplicable relief.
She doesn't respond, but after a moment, begins to instruct him in the slow, measured breathing. "All the time, you are to remain still. Let whatever comes into your mind come; observe it, but do not dwell on it. Above all, do not fight it."
He hesitates. "What if...what if what comes is something from the Wraith?"
She doesn't flinch. "I believe that in the end you will be better off exploring rather than repressing your nature, Michael. There is only so much that science can do."
It had been Teyla who had told him in the first place (against orders, he had learned later). "There is something you must know," she had said, turning a CD over and over in her hands, "and no easy way of telling you."
Her voice was very gentle, but also strangely detached. He got the impression that she had delivered many harsh, irretrievable truths over the years. He had been so desperate for knowledge; he thought anything would be better than the constant uncertainty he was living in. So he had taken the CD from her.
He had looked at the ranting, writhing white-haired figure on the tape, and he listened to Teyla's voice, and he resolved that he would do anything not to become that again. Not to be the kind of creature which had done such things to everyone around him.
"What if I hurt you?" he asks now.
She reaches out and rests a hand on his wrist. "I am not afraid of you, Michael. Nor of anything inside you."
He shuts his eyes and begins counting.
The first thing he sees is the double helix.
Michael doesn't sleep very much. Beckett is willing to call insomnia a side effect of the medication. Heightmeyer thinks that he is trying to avoid the dreams, but she can't force him to take sleeping pills. Michael thinks neither of them have it right, but he doesn't disagree; he just works late in the labs at his futile tasks, later than anyone except Rodney.
He sits one night in the drowsy circle of light from his bench lamp, looking idly at yet another baffling bit of Ancient machinery and doodling on a pad. The circuitry is so alien that analyzing it is like sinking into white noise, disrupting all his conscious thoughts, but he keeps at it even after his vision blurs and doubles. There's nothing better to do.
He comes back to himself a half-hour later to find his pad scrawled over with sequences of glyphs. Glyphs gloriously comprehensible. Glyphs detailing a possible way to extend the effects of the retrovirus. The shock of recognition brings tears to his eyes.
Then Rodney bursts into the lab, still in field gear. "There you are," he says crossly.
"Here I am," Michael says, automatically turning the paper over.
"Come on, you're going to gear up, we need you."
"On MX-6821," Rodney snaps. "The Genii have taken over some kind of Wraith fortification. They've got civilian hostages. There's not much time."
"You think I can get in?"
"Teyla thinks you might be able to help." He looks disgustedly at Michael's bench. "You're certainly more use there than here."
Ronon gets one look at his hastily-borrowed offworld gear and bristles until he seems twice his original size. "No."
"No time to argue, Ronon," Sheppard says, though there's a frown around his eyes. "If Michael here can guide us in—"
He shoots Teyla an anxious glance. "But I don't know if I'll remember anything."
"Well, why don't we try it and see what happens?" Sheppard looks around at the rapidly-assembled group of Marines. "All right, people. We're moving out."
The fortification is low and tangled between two lines of hills, clearly built into the ground. The Genii have somehow activated the defense mechanisms—the single entrance refuses to open.
"What do you think?" Teyla asks.
"I don't..." Yes, he can picture himself—or someone like himself—approaching this kind of door and ducking within, but...
"Better to blow it open or pry it open?" Sheppard prompts. "Come on, what's your gut say?"
"Neither," Michael realizes. He grabs Rodney's energy-sign detector and waves it up and down the line of fortification until it squawks. It's pointing at what looks like a pile of scree at the foot of a hill. He walks up to the scree and puts out his hand. It passes right through and touches something that is cold and smooth and not at all stone.
"Emergency exit," he explains.
"Of course," Sheppard mutters. "All right, you're with me on point."
They end up saving every single hostage. In the course of the assault, Michael finds himself breaking a young Genii lieutenant's neck. He crouches over the fallen body, panting, waiting for someone to point at him accusingly. But no one does. Sheppard finally sees him, and gestures impatiently for him to get up: what is he waiting for?
The next night is "happy hour"—the one night a week when off-duty personnel can purchase the expedition's limited supply of Earth intoxicant. Michael has avoided drinking to this point, uncertain of the effect it would have on him. But tonight, after staring at the cool grey walls of his quarters for an hour after dinner, he gets up and heads down to the commissary.
They have the dim lights on and some loud music thumping. Michael can feel the beat go through his chest; it's uncomfortable. There are little knots of people out of uniform everywhere, talking and laughing. Tables have been moved out of the way so they can dance. He almost turns around and leaves, but grits his teeth and goes up to the makeshift bar.
Earth alcohol gleams like water and fizzes. He finds an empty table and sits down to try it. It burns down the back of his throat, and he coughs. He waits a minute. He doesn't feel any different, so he empties the glass. So much for that.
He's about to get up when a petite blonde—a Marine, he thinks—comes up to his table. "This seat taken?"
"I was just leaving—"
"Oh, don't go," she says, sliding into the chair next to him. Her eyes are very bright, her cheeks flushed. "Your name is Michael, right?"
Startled, he subsides back into his seat. Most people on Atlantis are still wary of him, though familiarity has worn down the open hostility he'd felt at the beginning. "Yes."
"Jill Hawkins. Sergeant, USMC."
"Nice to meet you, Jill."
"I was watching you from across the room, you know."
"Yes." She nods emphatically. "You're cute. All my girlfriends think so, but none of them had the nerve to come over here. Except me." She flashes a triumphant grin across the room at a table full of girls.
He's starting to feel a little dizzy. "Cute."
"Yeah. Wanna dance?"
She's already standing up. "Um...sure. Why not?"
It turns out that he's not very good at dancing. Jill doesn't seem to mind, though; she just laughs at him, so cheerfully he can't really feel offended. It's much too loud for real conversation. After about half an hour, she takes him by the hand and tugs him out into the hallway. She's had another couple of drinks and stumbles a little, but she seems to know what she's doing.
"Where are we going?"
"Outside," she says.
She takes them onto one of Atlantis's many balconies. "It's a nice night," he says.
"It's chilly," she says, and wraps her arms around him. "Don't you think it's chilly?"
He's giddy from the drink. His hands go automatically to her shoulders. Her body is...her breasts are..."Sort of?"
"You're really not so different from everybody else," she says.
"I guess not."
She stands on her toes and kisses him. Her breath is metallic with alcohol, but he finds himself kissing back, his hands sliding down her back to her waist. Then he freezes. So small. So vulnerable. So young. They're exposed under the sky and it's wrong. It's all wrong.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I can't do this. I..."
"This isn't serious," she says. "It's just...fun."
She tries to kiss him again, but he steps back. "I know. I—and you're very pretty, Jill. I just...I'm not..."
He hurries back to his quarters, throws himself on the bed, and waits for the spinning to stop.
After the rescue, Sheppard starts taking him along on certain missions. Never the peaceful ones, diplomacy, trading, exploration; the dangerous ones, the ones that the Marines clearly expect some of them might not be coming back from. Even more, Michael realizes, the ones where things might happen that would never make it into the reports sent to Earth.
"You're crazy," Michael hears Ronon rumble to Sheppard in the locker room.
"In case you hadn't noticed, Ronon, he's one of the best fighters I have."
"Because he's a Wraith, Sheppard. No conscience. No remorse."
"And if some day he doesn't come back from a mission, I'm not going to have to go notify his parents. I'll take that any day."
Michael doesn't raise the issue when Sheppard summons him. He just falls into step ahead of Ronon, who always takes their six when he comes along.
When they're offworld, he watches the team as closely as he can get away with. Their individual affections and resentments are complicated and entangled, sometimes too hard for him to read, but the team has its own rhythm, different from that of the physicists or the medical staff. They all seem to have an awareness of the others far deeper and more natural than they have of anyone else. He sees the way Ronon shoves Rodney extra rations without looking just as Rodney is opening his mouth to complain about being hungry, the way Sheppard blusters at Rodney to get him to work and then gets completely caught up in his crazy plans, the way Sheppard sometimes silently appropriates the warmest spot to sleep in or the most comfortable place to perch for Teyla without seeming to. At some point, he realizes that each of them was alone in their own way for a long time before coming to the team, and resigned to it. Now, having somehow fumbled their way into connection, they shelter each other instinctively, refusing to think about it too closely. Michael knows he would give almost anything to take that kind of shelter, even more than he's already given. It's a relief that it's not offered to him.
Sheppard treats him exactly as he treats the most junior Marine, the one he doesn't really expect to make it on Atlantis: with brusque care for his immediate needs and otherwise deliberate indifference. Only once does he vary from this script, after they have to clean out a nest of Wraith-worshippers who refuse to surrender, who keep coming even in the face of their gunfire. Afterwards, the worshippers prove to be shockingly young, probably none over twenty years old.
Michael kneels next to one to check for signs of life. It's pointless; she's as dead as the rest, with her red hair and porcelain skin splattered with blood and dirt. She's well-fed and well-dressed. She must have followed one of the wealthier hives, that took special care of its worshippers as an arrogant display of power. He stays kneeling there in the mud until he hears Sheppard's voice.
Sheppard squats down next to him. "You're not going to tell me you have a problem killing human beings now."
For once, Michael can't bear the gratuitous cruelty Sheppard likes to cloak in plain-speaking, even if he suspects that Sheppard is needling him to take his mind off his own horror. "Why? Would it inconvenience you if I developed a conscience?"
He laughs shortly. "Don't worry. We didn't kill these people." He fumbles at the catch on the woman's blouse, pulls it away just enough to expose the familiar round weals on her breastbone. The injection site on his own arm suddenly itches. "The Wraith did. Over and over."
Sheppard's expression goes sick. "Cover her back up."
"She's dead, it doesn't—"
"Cover her back up, you freak!" Sheppard springs to his feet, looking away.
Michael grimly complies.
When he's done, Sheppard says, "You remember doing that to a worshipper?"
"No," Michael says. "But I know I did."
After a minute, Sheppard says roughly, "We're all different than we used to be, Michael," and strides away.
In between missions, Michael sits at his bench before the useless heap of tangled Ancient technology and lets his mind run on the retrovirus. Rodney's long stopped checking on him, leaving him plenty of time to explore this strange dark archipelago of knowledge that's risen in his mind. He writes notes feverishly, in a fugue state that cuts him off from background noise and the passage of time. Facts link to facts in his mind and flower into life. He keeps looking up for the machines he knows he needs to build the models and run the tests on, and it's unbearably frustrating that they're not there.
One night, he sneaks into the converted hangar where, he's deduced, they store captured Wraith equipment. The sight of all that black, insectile machinery huddled on the floor stops his heart. The room seems to sigh with repressed life, just waiting for his hands to guide and nurture it in the proper directions. His feet lead him exactly where he needs to go, to collect starter cultures and breeding stock. The light in the lab won't be right, but he might be able to filter it. Nutrients will be another problem, but he thinks he'll be able to culture the proper solutions from some of the offworld flora in the greenhouses.
Getting the retrovirus itself for study is, of course, as simple as bleeding. He launches the project in a large supply closet and prepares himself to wait. Organic technology is easier on beings who live forever.
Two weeks later, he and Teyla are practicing, waiting for the Daedalus's arrival. They have finally begun training with the bantos sticks, but Michael's pleasure in the new form is somewhat diminished by Teyla's obvious worry about Colonel Caldwell.
"He can't be that bad," Michael says, crouching low, watching Teyla shift her weight.
"He is a good man," Teyla says. "But as a commander, he is rigid. It is best that we keep you out of his sight as much as possible."
"You were new here once. Did you have trouble adjusting? Getting them to accept you?"
"At times, I still do."
"Really?" It is hard to imagine, and then suddenly it isn't: a dozen of her pauses and strange expressions now make sense. And, he also realizes, Sheppard doesn't know. It's not something he understands how to see. "I'm sorry."
"You are handling it far more gracefully than I did," she says. "I once punched a master sergeant in the face in front of his commanding officer."
"Right in front of Sheppard?"
She makes a rueful face. "Yes."
He laughs. "I wish I could have seen that." He sobers. "If the SGC doesn't trust me, what's going to happen to me in the end? I can't stay here for the rest of my life, can I?"
Teyla hesitates. "In truth...I do not think anyone believed the experiment would last this long."
He's been confronted with this over and over again, but coming from her, it startles and wounds.
"The experiment." He straightens. "You still think of me as the experiment."
She's so beautiful when she flushes, a delicate pink undertone spilling across her tan skin. "No. But the SGC does not know you as I do."
He steps closer. "How do you think of me?"
She's forgotten to keep her guard up. "As a...valued member of the expedition. As a...friend."
"Is that all?"
"I..." The intercom suddenly crackles with the alert for an incoming starship, making them both jump. Teyla laughs. "As a student who is apparently trying to get out of practicing," she says quickly. "Come on."
He grimaces, but raises his stick. They work steadily for about twenty minutes. The sticks are harder than hand-to-hand ever was; he's pretty sure that he never trained with them before. After a particularly grueling set of passes, he leans over, trying to get his breath. Teyla turns to the window, away from him. He can see the sweat tracing the strong muscles of her back.
When she doesn't turn around, he realizes the Daedalus is visible in the distance, touching down on the landing pad. She's distracted. He smiles, raises his stick, and makes his move. Finally, he'll score a touch. There's no way she can—
But she does, spinning around and meeting his stick with hers mid-air, then launching a flurry of attacks that knock him backwards. Unprepared, he slips and loses his footing. She stops herself, staring down at him.
"Are you all right?"
There's a fear on her face he's never seen before. For him?
"I'm fine," he says quickly. "That is amazing peripheral vision you have. I thought you couldn't possibly—"
"I..." she says. "I am sorry, I...I must go."
"Teyla, wait!" He jumps to his feet, trying to catch at her arm, but she's already retreating.
He watches her go, baffled.
Caldwell has brought with him a series of new strategic directives, and the next couple of weeks are taken up with trying to implement them. These are definitely the sort of missions that call for Michael, though Caldwell doesn't bother to try to hide the scowl that crosses his face every time he sees him. Teyla goes on these missions too, and she's as polite to him in the field as ever, but he can't shake the feeling that she's avoiding being alone with him, and there's no time for sparring. He watches her stride on ahead of him and grinds his teeth. He doesn't know what he's done wrong. There's not even anyone he can ask.
Then they're ambushed on a mission to a supposedly friendly world. Michael sees the shift in the "friendly" local's stance just in time to knock Rodney down and cover him. Just in time to take the bullet meant for him.
The pain is startling. He's been banged up in sparring before, but it turns out that when a human is shot, it hurts a great deal.
"Fall back to the gate!" Sheppard is shouting.
Rodney squirms out from under him. "Come on!"
It also turns out that when a human's been shot in the leg, he can't stand. Michael nearly retches from the pain when he tries, and finds himself with his nose pressed against the dirt. He feels a strange panic, hot and desperate, something more even than the situation calls for. It's all so familiar. He's calling out for help, but not out loud, and no one is coming for him. The feeling of isolation swamps him, and he closes his eyes.
Then there's a lot of confused noise around him, he hears clearly something that must be a curse, and Ronon has slung him over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. Michael clutches dizzily at the back of his coat, but Ronon is racing for the gate and it's impossible to brace against the jostling.
Mercifully, he passes out even before they reach the ring.
He's held down, struggling, in the darkness. He doesn't even want to fight, but they keep hurting him, over and over, and he can't help but lash back at the pain. He doesn't even know where he is, and it doesn't matter. He's been left behind, left at their mercy, and the pain is tearing his body apart.
Michael. Someone takes his hand, and it's the first touch that hasn't wounded in hours. Michael. Be still. You've been very brave, and now you're safe. It will all be over soon.
It's the figure from his dreams. He holds her hand tight as the pain bears down again...and then passes, leaving a stunned silence echoing through him.
Before he can open his eyes, the figure is gone.
Michael wakes alone in the dim glow of the infirmary and feels a surge of disorientation so great he almost leaps from the bed. But when he moves, he realizes his calf is firmly bandaged and he's still in Atlantis field gear. The pain is actually welcome.
Beckett comes around the corner, smiling. "Oh! You're awake early."
"Did everyone get away?"
"Yes, thanks in good part to you, I'm told."
"I'm sure that's not the case."
"Oh, of course not." Beckett chuckles and consults his chart. "You were shot in the leg, as you can probably already guess, but you should recover fully. From the early results, probably a good bit faster than anyone else would."
He lets himself fall back on the pillows and looks up at the ceiling. "I feel strange."
"You're on a fairly significant dose of painkillers. And we gave you a bit of a sedative so you wouldn't carry on in your sleep. But you've got a visitor, if you're up to it."
Michael squints at him, suddenly hopeful. "I do?"
"Rodney," Beckett calls. "He's awake."
Rodney pokes his head around the machinery. "Oh. Good. You're up. Well, not up up, but conscious—"
"Don't stay too long, Rodney. He's had a nasty shock and he needs his rest. Call me if you start feeling more pain, Michael," Beckett says, and departs.
"So." Rodney's changed out of his field gear. He looks tired himself. "I don't want to keep you up, I just—"
He tosses something onto Michael's blanket. Michael peers at it blankly. "Is that..."
"A candy bar," Rodney says. "And not just any Earth candy bar. It's a Time Out bar, which takes quite a bit of string-pulling to get to Atlantis, I can tell you."
Michael picks it up. The package is bright red and blue. All the mysterious codes and symbols of Earth.
"Anyway," Rodney goes on uncomfortably, "that's the rule on the team. Someone saves your life, you owe them a candy bar. So...there's your candy bar."
He swallows. Is this what it looks like? Feels like? "Thanks."
"It's nothing. Ronon's got a hoard like you wouldn't believe. It's actually quite disgusting, how he can eat so many and not gain an ounce."
"Right." He starts to open the slick plastic and asks casually, "Is Teyla around?"
"No, she suddenly had to go off and do something with the Athosians. Probably harvest-related. You know," he says thoughtfully, "they have an awful lot of harvests on that planet. Maybe more than should be possible given the climate. But, anyway, she told me to tell you to get well soon."
Michael grimaces and the wrapper tears.
"I just..." He looks up. "I think she's mad at me," he confesses.
"Teyla? Mad at you? What makes you think that?" He reaches out and snags a chunk of the bar. "You weren't going to eat all of this, right? If it's the hitting with sticks, she mostly does that to people she likes."
"It's not that." Michael tells the story of the sparring.
"Huh." Rodney chews. "Well, it's probably just the Wraith thing."
"The Wraith thing."
"Yes. You're part-Wraith, she's part-Wraith, she felt you coming. That's got to be a little weird."
"She never told you? Huh, that's funny. Yes, the Wraith experimented on her ancestors—spliced some of their DNA in, not the other, disgusting, if fascinating, way—and so she can detect their presence. Read their thoughts sometimes. It's tricky, though. Sometimes it works the other way around, which isn't fun for anyone involved." He shrugs. "That's probably all it is. It reminded her of that."
Michael's shaking. He breaks off a piece of the bar and chews it deliberately. "Oh. I see."
"Yep. Teyla's not all that complicated, once you get to know her." Rodney glances at his watch. "Oh, hey, gotta run. Enjoy the candy bar."
Michael doesn't point out to him that he's actually eaten two-thirds of it himself.
The next day or so passes in a blur of painkillers and sedatives. Michael lets the medical staff do its work, clutching his knowledge to himself in the great cloud of numbness he inhabits. Sometimes he comes to himself and wonders if he dreamed the conversation with Rodney, but the wrapper is still there, next to his bed.
He wakes around dinner the next day to loud voices not far off.
"He's resting, Colonel Caldwell, and he shouldn't be disturbed. For pity's sake, he saved Rodney's life, he's earned a little—"
"I'll be the judge of that, Doctor," Caldwell says curtly, and pushes aside the privacy screen, trailed by Sheppard. Caldwell looks grim. Sheppard has that false smile that covers his worst unpleasantness. Michael sits up straight.
"Colonel Caldwell, Colonel Sheppard, what can I do for you?"
Caldwell goes straight to the point. "Why don't you start by telling me about the little science project you've got going in the storage closet of your lab?"
Michael hesitates, a little slow from the drugs. "You went through my lab?"
"Colonel Caldwell thought we should," Sheppard says. "I thought it was unnecessary, but," he tilts his head, grinning nastily, "as it turns out, I was wrong."
"Traditionally," he adds, "when we find that kind of thing, it's weed, but I kind of get the impression I wouldn't want to smoke that stuff."
"I was researching the retrovirus," Michael says. "Trying to find a way to extend its effects."
"Right. Nothing more...sinister. That's why you hid it from everyone. Why you used Wraith technology."
"I hid it because your people wouldn't let me experiment with Wraith technology, even though you might think that's what I'd be best at, and I used Wraith technology because yours isn't suitable." Michael scowls. He had felt a little guilty about it, but not anymore. "Show it to Doctor Beckett if you don't believe me."
"We're going to," Caldwell says, "but in the meantime, you've broken the conditions of your release."
"So what are you going to do? Shoot me?"
"Atlantis has facilities for the long-term confinement of prisoners, Michael. You enjoy an inexplicably large range of privileges right now, and we're within our rights to take away all of them."
"What the hell," Michael says, throwing up his hands. "You're both just waiting for me to get myself killed on a mission to save you the trouble anyway. Why don't you shoot me?"
Sheppard looks uncomfortable. Caldwell only growls, "Don't tempt me. If I had been consulted on this little project—"
"Meaning, my very existence."
"Am I supposed to flinch at that? Yes. You're one of Doctor Weir's worst ideas, and if I had been here when you were brought in, you would be dead. It would have been better for everyone."
"But here I am." Michael folds his arms, leans back on his pillows. "Ask Doctor Beckett about my tests. He'll recognize what I was working on."
"Regardless, I'm leaving a guard here."
"Well, that'll be familiar."
Caldwell's already leaving. Sheppard lingers a moment longer. "Is it really the retrovirus?" he asks.
"Of course it's the retrovirus," Michael snaps grimly. "What else do you think I have to care about?"
"You could have asked. I might have—"
"I like it better, Colonel, when you don't lie to me."
After he's recovered enough, he's transferred to confinement in his own quarters. For two weeks, his only visitors are guards and doctors. He runs through the katas Teyla's taught him; they're calming, soothing, make him feel like she's with him, guiding him. He reminds himself that Caldwell can't stay in Atlantis forever.
Then one afternoon, his door opens and a virtual mob troops in: Caldwell, Sheppard, Beckett, Rodney, Ronon. Michael's sitting cross-legged on his bed, trying to meditate. "Why don't you make yourself comfortable," he says with an ironic inflection.
"We're here about your retrovirus research," Caldwell says.
"You should have told me, laddie," Beckett begins, looking disappointed.
Rodney cuts him off. "Unauthorized experimentation—I didn't know you had it in you, Michael! Nice work!"
"What Rodney is trying to say," Sheppard says, "is that Beckett's analyzed your work and he thinks you may have just about gotten it into an effective form for use as a weapon."
"Weapon," Michael says, startled. "I wasn't researching a weapon. I was just trying to eliminate the need for the booster."
"Well, that's the same thing—conveniently for all of us. Rodney here has been working on a way to aerosolize it, and he's about cracked that problem, too."
Shiploads of people like him—it was too big a thought, he couldn't process it. How had he failed to anticipate this?
"The only problem is getting close enough to a cruiser to test it out on them."
"A cruiser would never let you close enough to get it on board," Michael says automatically. "Or lower its shields to let you beam it on."
"Normally, you're right. But it might...if it were trying to rescue one of its own. A fellow-Wraith calling for help."
"You mean me?" Michael shakes his head. "I'm sure I was able to communicate with the Wraith before, but now...I just don't have access to that connection."
He looks around at the circle of faces. No one says anything. Finally, Caldwell rumbles, "You would if you stopped taking the booster."
Michael stares. "But then I'd revert."
"Beckett tells me that there's some probability you could hold onto your humanity just long enough. But if you couldn't, I'm sure we could handle it."
It's all so clear now. "You mean, you'd kill me?" He focuses on Sheppard. "Is Doctor Weir on board with this plan?"
"No point in telling her until we knew whether you were available," Sheppard says smoothly.
"It's your decision, of course," Caldwell says. "But your willingness to cooperate will naturally be part of any evaluation of your future."
He can picture Caldwell writhing beneath his hand, screaming, crumpling, bleeding out life. It would almost be worth it, just for that. He closes his eyes. "I think you should go. All of you."
"Are you refusing?" There's a certain relish in Caldwell's tone.
"Don't take too long to decide. The offer may not be on the table forever."
Michael doesn't answer. He breathes in and out until he hears the door slide shut.
"Do you sit like that for fun?"
Michael's eyes fly open. Ronon, Ronon of all people, is still standing there, huge and flying-locked and still in his quarters, and it's too much. He lunges for him, and while he doesn't have the momentum to knock him over completely, Ronon staggers far enough off-balance that Michael's able to get in a knee-strike that takes him down.
He lands three deeply satisfying punches to the solar plexus before he realizes that Ronon isn't fighting back. He glances up at Ronon's face.
"Could you stop?" Ronon asks, breathless. "Because that really hurts."
Michael draws back a little, cautiously. "What's going on?"
"I just wanted to talk to you. Without anyone else around." Ronon sits up and winces. Michael savors the flinch.
"About what? How you're going to kill me extra dead anyway, so I might as well go ahead?"
Ronon frowns. "No. I wanted to tell you that you don't have to do this."
"What Caldwell wants. It's not right. Whatever they say, you don't have to."
He says it so simply, as if it's perfectly obvious, as if basic decency were a concept that applied to Michael. For a minute, Michael wonders if he's mocking him, but that's so beyond Ronon's character it's hard to fathom.
"You really think that?"
"Wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it. Sheppard does, too, only he can't say it, because..." He shrugs. "You know."
"But if I don't, I'm not sure what'll happen to me."
"First of all, Doctor Weir's not going to let them shoot you. Second...if it gets really bad, I can get you away. I know a lot of places people go in this galaxy when they don't want to be found."
Michael's relief is already fading. Of course it couldn't be enough.
"You don't understand. I don't think I can be on my own."
"If you've fixed the retrovirus so that it doesn't need a booster anymore, why not?"
"I just..." He remembers the feeling of despair that had spread over him after he'd been shot, the way everything had gone out from under him when he thought he'd been abandoned again. "I don't think I can."
"Sure you can. It's tough, but you get used to being on your own."
It's too hard to explain. Michael sighs, rests his cheekbone on his knee. "I wish Teyla was here."
Ronon gets up. "She's coming back tonight, actually." He prods his ribs experimentally and grimaces. "I'd better talk to her about her training techniques."
"Oh, I would've hit you that hard anyway," Michael says, and smiles cautiously.
"Probably." Ronon's answering grin is tiny and wolfish. He turns for the door.
Abruptly, the pieces of what Ronon's just said click into place. Michael gasps and blurts, "Wait—you used to be a..." He fumbles for a second for the human word. "A Runner, didn't you?"
Ronon stiffens all over, and Michael's afraid he's undone everything. But he just says, "Yes," without turning back.
"It's okay," Ronon says gruffly, "That wasn't you."
"But it—" He stops. Best to let Ronon make his peace with it the way he can.
The door clicks behind him, and Michael climbs back up onto his bed. For the first time in a couple of weeks, he feels less than entirely alone.
Getting out of his quarters at midnight is actually much easier than he'd thought it would be. He opens the door and thinks sleepy, slow, dazed at the guard until he slumps back against the wall. He laughs softly to himself, surprised that it worked. The guard won't be out for long, but it doesn't matter. He won't remember.
He's never been to Teyla's quarters, but he looked up their location long before. He just hopes she actually came back when she was supposed to. He touches the signal on the door with trembling fingers.
When she opens the door, she's in a loose sleeping gown, her hair down. He forgets what he wants to say.
"Michael," she says drowsily, and then blinks. "Are you supposed to be out of your quarters?"
"Oh. Then you had better return to them. I will see you tomorrow, if I can."
"I don't think I'll do that," he says. "Are you going to let me in?"
She makes one of her little head-movements. "It is very late," she says gently.
"Did they tell you about their new plan?"
She sighs. "This evening."
"It's practically a suicide mission."
It comes out in a rush. "So you people kidnap me, drug me, turn me into something I was never meant to be. You treat me like a test subject, an expendable super-soldier—"
"Even you, Teyla—you're my teacher and you—you know how I feel about you, you must know, and you lie to me—I mean, that's been you in my dreams all this time, hasn't it?"
She bites her lip and nods. He can see the glisten in her eyes, but it's not enough. He wants more: more than a piece of candy, more than a few good punches.
"Never once have you, any of you, really treated me as if I were one of you. And now you want me to maybe die for you." His voice has been shaky, but now it levels out. "So what I'm asking you, Teyla, is: are you going to let me in?"
She stands there for a moment, looking at him, really looking at him. At any other time, he might have faltered, embarrassed, under her scrutiny, but now he stands straight and gazes right back. This is familiar, too.
"You are welcome," she says finally, and stands aside so he can enter her room, hushed and dark.
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