It takes a lot longer to recover from gunshot wounds than you might think.
John Sheppard knew this, had learned it in other hospitals in other war zones, but somehow, like always, his brain had conveniently fogged over this fact until it was too late. Now he was lying there living with it in a bed that he was pretty sure was deep in McKay’s ridiculous complex in the desert, feeling like an idiot.
Another decent death, gotten away from him.
Keeeeeep dreaming. There must be some other reason for your existence.
McKay spent an awful lot of time sitting by his bed, talking over the other voice while John dozed. Lots of names John didn’t recognize, and a few he did. “I was thinking about Elizabeth today. She would have loved you. One of her strays. But Colonel Carter is a little more...goal-oriented. Makes things complicated. Not that Elizabeth was straightforward, sometimes she was incomprehensible, but she never could resist the one with the black mark. If it wasn’t for her, we never could have gotten Teyla on the team after...”
The fourth or fifth time McKay dropped by, John began to think that McKay didn’t have all that many people to talk to. Either that, or he just enjoyed talking so much that he didn’t really care if anyone listened to him, which made a guy nodded out on the good stuff like John his best buddy ever.
“Just so you know, we notified your brother. Told him you were in an accident. He wanted to make sure your costs were covered, but I don’t think he’s coming out. Convenient for us. Transferring you to another facility for a staged visit would have been one of the stupider things I’ve had to do all year, and believe me, my life is a carnival of stupid things only occasionally interrupted by meaningful work.”
John kept his eyes closed, his face turned away.
Time stretched out like taffy, but he thought it was on the third day that McKay paused unexpectedly mid-tirade to grab his injured arm and squeeze hard. “Come on. The nurse says you’re conscious. I had her cut back the morphine an hour ago.”
Like there’s anything you can do to hurt me, McKay, he thought, but he let his head drift slowly over towards him.
“I knew it. Do you know where you are?”
John had to clear his throat. “The Thunderdome?”
“Oh, please, the Thunderdome wasn’t anything like—never mind.” He shook his head. “Yes, you’re in a secure wing of Area 51. The only patient, actually. Do you remember what happened to you?”
“I remember getting shot by that alien. And then bombed by friendlies. And then lying there bleeding out in the desert because none of you apparently believe in doing post-attack recon.”
His shoulder throbbed with the memory. That had hurt more than he had thought it would. It had almost been funny, how indignant he had been, not even at the pain, just: c’mon, you guys, don’t you know how to do anything?
“Oh, yes, that.” McKay waved his hand irritably. “We did come get you eventually, so why are you complaining? The big question is what comes next.”
That was a question John had almost zero interest in.
McKay waited impatiently for him to respond, and when John didn’t, he leaned in and brought it out like he thought he was some mastermind in the Bourne films. “I want you to join the SGC. My team, in particular.”
John squinted at him, wishing he had his glasses. “Join your team?”
That clearly wasn't the response McKay had expected. He blinked, then rolled his eyes. “Yes, join my team. Look, what you did was really brave. Really stupid, but really brave. Perfect for the muscle on one of my missions.”
“There’s no question you have the combat experience, and Atlantis could definitely use a pilot. And we’re short one member since Cadman got her promotion, so you don’t even need to wait for a slot to open up.”
Pilot, he thought, and the word resonated so loudly in his head that he had to fumble for something to say. “You hunt Wraith.”
“And go out, see new worlds, new civilizations, new Ancient technologies that dimwitted peasants are using for Christmas lights. It’s good work. We do save lives, if that’s what you’re fixated on. Sometimes in bulk.” He smirked knowingly. “The local women are often very grateful.”
“How long do I have to decide?”
He knew he was kidding himself even as he asked. This kind of decision was made for him, before he’d even heard the details. For just a few hours, he had felt purpose, pulling him together, making everything around him real. He’d do anything to get that back.
“Well, it’s more like we decide. You’ve obviously got a few issues, there will be some paperwork, but I should be able to get the appointment through.”
Uh-oh. He’d heard that one before. “Uh-huh.”
The skepticism must have shown on his face, because McKay clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll get it through. Just...no rush getting well, all right? I know you’ll feel the need to leap heroically from your bed at least two days before you should. Suppress it.”
“I’ll try not to be bravely stupid,” John said, and turned his head back to the wall.
“Right, then,” McKay said. “That’s settled.”
His footsteps were quick to the door.
The next day, the nurse came in to his room to find him doing careful laps around the perimeter, clutching his IV stand in one hand. His legs were wobbling like a newborn colt’s and sweat stung his eyes, but he gave her his best smile.
“Look who’s up,” she said. “I thought Dr. McKay told you not to do anything brave.”
“I think I can handle the menace of walking. Shuffling, really. See?” He demonstrated.
She raised an eyebrow. “You couldn’t yesterday. Sit down, please.”
But he could tell she was pleased as she ran through her little battery of tests. When she was done, she said, “Dr. Keller will be in to see you later.”
“The coroner? It’s that bad?”
The nurse gave him another look. “Dr. Keller is the chief medical officer of Atlantis. Technically, she’s been your doctor since you were brought in.”
“Oh,” he said. Well, that made sense. He’d never yet gotten to go to an obscure posting without some doctor fussing at him first. Hopefully there wouldn’t be too many vaccinations. As he leaned back in bed, he began to get ambitious about taking a shower later.
It was impossible to tell time in the windowless room, but Keller didn’t show until long after his second round of green jello on a tray. She’d shed the weird blue eyeshadow and pulled her hair back. It made her look a lot younger.
“Busy night?” he said, trying for collegial but overshooting and ending up a little too close to sarcastic.
“You’re actually my only patient on Earth,” she said, flipping through his chart without making eye contact.
“Do a lot of gunshot wounds?” he said. He was already feeling like he was on a first date with a girl who was only there to please her mother.
She put down the chart and snapped into a pair of gloves. “Occasionally, but my practice is actually more lasers, stunners, exotic poisons, bioweapons, radiation exposure...”
“Oh,” he said. Right. Brave new world. All sorts of new ways to get hurt.
“Let’s take a look at you.”
As she probed a little too directly into his wounds, he tensed and did his best not to show the pain. When she hit a particularly tender spot, he asked casually, “So, when do you think I might be getting out of here?”
It wasn’t even that he was attached to that damn apartment—just one more place to lay his head that didn’t feel remotely like home. He hadn’t bothered to drop by before starting to get the hell out of Dodge. He just didn’t like the feeling this place gave him. There were too many machines in his room that he didn't recognize from any hospital he'd ever been in, whirring and chiming in barely-audible tones that weren't quite right. There was no noise whatsoever from the outside, no activity in the hallway. Not even a TV to watch. Whenever they walked out of his room, he might as well be the last human left after an apocalypse.
Or a guy in solitary.
She waved another mysterious device and studied the readout. “We’ll disconnect you from the IV soon. That will make you more mobile.”
“Glad to hear it,” he said, “but that’s not exactly what I asked.”
“Now that you’ve decided to recover, you could be discharged in a few days. When you get out of here...” She hesitated. “You’ll have to speak to McKay about that.”
John frowned. “He’s not a doctor, though.”
She snorted. “Try telling him that.”
“I mean, a real doctor. Someone who heals people.”
“I have to go,” she said. “Keep up the walking. Don’t flirt with the nurse, she’s not interested in men.”
Somehow she managed to shed her gloves and vanish, leaving John with his gown hanging open, before he could get the next question out of his mouth.
He’d had less ominous medical clearance exams before.
His muscles were telling him the shower was a little too ambitious, so there wasn’t much for him to do that evening but wait for McKay to show up again. That was already kind of odd. John was convinced he’d been a several-times-a-day visitor when John had been more out of it, and now it had been a full day since he’d seen him. The painkillers made waiting less painful than it might otherwise have been, but also weirder. He felt like he didn’t have a tight grip on where his thoughts went, especially after the facility hit some hour it obviously defined as “night” and the lights dimmed. He kept skimming in and out of dreams, surfacing with strange images. His mother, standing by the window that wasn’t there in a long white coat with an elaborate collar. The wind drawing patterns in the sand like letters from another alphabet as he lay still in one of so many deserts, waiting to die. A long hallway, and the lights going out abruptly, and then a single blue spotlight snapping on, picking out his dead Wraith on the floor.
Did he sing for you before he died, John Sheppard?
McKay’s heavy tread in the hall made him start up, blinking furiously.
“Ah, you’re awake,” McKay said at the door. He was wearing the exact same black suit-and-shirt combo as he’d been every single time John had seen him, like it was his uniform. “I thought you might have drifted off. I heard you had a busy day.”
“Not that busy. Come in.”
McKay did, but stayed on his feet. “You’re looking better.”
“So they tell me. They also tell me that for some reason you’re the man in charge of deciding when I get out of here.”
Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, he let hang in the air without saying it.
“Well...” McKay hesitated. “It’s really more of a committee decision whether you can join the team. Colonel Carter, Lorne, Teyla…It’s going to take a while.”
“What does that have to do with whether I can sleep in my own bed and eat something besides hard-boiled eggs and jello?”
McKay frowned. “I believe I mentioned this is a secured facility.”
This was starting to sound much too familiar. “Yes, and...?”
“Until we decide whether or not to accept you, we need to keep you here. You’ve seen way too much at this point.”
“Hey!” John sat up straight. “You let me go before!”
“Which was exceeding my authority,” McKay said, with a mixture of irritation and faint embarrassment, “as I’ve since been reminded.”
This was what he’d been afraid of, what he’d been fucking afraid of since they’d first brought him into that little interview room. He’d seen way too much of this out of the corner of his eye during his time in the Air Force, and he’d never liked it. “So I’m a prisoner?”
“No, no. I’m sure you’re going to get in. It’s just a matter of time.”
“And what do you expect me to do til you decide I’m good enough for you? Jerk off and cry?”
McKay didn’t look fazed by the crude remark, which surprised John. “First, get better. You’re not exactly fit for duty right now anyway. Second...” He sighed. “Look, I’ll get you a pass. You can wander around the place, see if you can wrap your mind around things. You’re a quick study, always have been. Just don’t touch anything, okay?”
John would have said something about McKay’s creepy habit of acting like he already knew him if a much more troublesome thought hadn’t taken priority. “But if I already know too much...”
McKay’s smile got dim and cold. “Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, Sheppard.”
The pass arrived the next day: a clear lucite card with no markings of any kind. He held it up to the light, which seemed to fracture in it, and got out of bed. He managed the shower and—after the resulting nap—took a triumphant totter through the hallway, dragging his stand. The place was just as eerie and deserted as he’d guessed it would be, cold white lighting on greenish-grey walls, with only a single silent nurse, different from yesterday, at the station at the far end of the ward from him. The station was equipped with closed-circuit TV showing all the rooms, including his, in grainy black-and-white. Some of the rooms, he noticed on the way back, had restraints on the beds and heavy bolts on the doors.
The day after that, they took out the IV. John celebrated by trying to do a wall pushup and nearly fainting from the pain in his shoulder.
Two days later, after who-knew-how-many laps of the hallway, he decided he was strong enough to start exploring the complex without serious risk of a humiliating return trip in a wheelchair. He’d paid enough for his ticket. He wanted to see the show.
He got lost a lot. There were no maps, and the few people he met hurried past him as if he weren’t even there. He didn’t want to ask any of the guards for directions; he guessed that McKay had probably “exceeded his authority” again in giving him the pass, and so he shouldn’t draw any more attention to the fact that he was wandering around than he had to.
The rest of the complex wasn’t significantly less creepy than the hospital wing. Most of the rooms he passed were labs, empty or not, filled with unrecognizable machinery in various states of disassembly. Even here, he couldn’t make himself take an interest in that kind of thing. Server farms, too, clicking and humming ominously. A couple of ranges devoted to weaponry, and while the guns shaped like little pythons certainly caught his eye, he knew they were more trouble than they were worth right now. Still, he carefully noted down the location in the little mental map he was creating.
The hangar was the first really interesting thing he stumbled across. Opening a door at random, he found himself on the first level, staring up at the “Dart.” McKay had only shown it to him from the perch of the catwalk. Now he could inspect it up close. It was long and slender but hardly aerodynamic-looking at all; it bristled with tubes and mysterious bulges. And something about the texture was all wrong. He was sure that if he touched it, it would be spongy rather than cold and smooth. Where it had taken weapons fire, the edges of the holes seemed to bubble and throb. The design put a chill down his spine—he could believe it was an alien race that had designed it. John had heard people call some helicopters insectile, but they were nothing compared to this.
McKay had said that Atlantis needed pilots. Did they expect him to fly one of these?
He backed out of the hangar carefully.
At least now he was back on familiar ground. He could probably even find the interrogation rooms if he wanted to be sentimental about what life had been like before he had found out how a man could jump eight stories to the ground and get up with just a nosebleed. Instead, he turned in a different direction.
The room with the chair was right where he remembered it. His breath hitched as he stepped through that door, just as it had when McKay had taken him in before. The lights were out, but he didn’t bother trying to find the switch. The chair glowed with its own cold blue light. Covered over with that weird circuitry, it should have seemed as alien to him as the Dart, but instead he found himself moving closer and closer to it. It seemed to glitter just for him, and he knew enough to know that nothing could be that beautiful that wasn’t also dangerous, but the longing he felt was almost obscene, like he was in some kind of sci-fi porn film. If he sat down in that chair, the whole galaxy might lock into place around him, a huge clock mechanism of which he’d be the linchpin—
He drew back his hand. It would probably set off all kinds of alarms, bring guards running. John didn’t want to fuck this up. More importantly, an urgent voice in his head told him that if he touched the chair, the SGC wouldn’t have to lock him up if it turned him down. He’d walk out into the desert and lie down in the dust again.
And that thought scared the hell out of him, and this time he did turn his back before half-sprinting out of the chamber.
He didn’t stop til he was safe back in his room.
Day five, and still no sign of McKay. He’d expected his little excursion to set off some smug visit where he’d tell John that he’d done exactly what he’d expected him to or given him a lecture on where he wasn’t supposed to go, but instead there was only silence, and lots of it. He let the nurse poke and prod him (Keller was a no-show too), worked on his upper body strength, and tried not to go nuts in between.
He was as good at hurry-up-and-wait as the next guy. He’d sat around playing cards and making stupid bets in lousy conditions all over the world. But this was pushing it. He’d picked Las Vegas for a reason, after all. Screw New York, Vegas was the real city that never slept. Lights, noise, action 24-7. Replica landmarks at weird scales that made you think you were dreaming or high (John had gotten to be a fan of the surreal in the last few years), fake volcanoes, come-ons every five feet. You were never in danger of being left alone with your thoughts. But here there was not only no casino, there was no TV, no phone, not even a random dogeared Russian paperback for him to read. No getting away from his own head. When day six rolled around with no visitors, it became way too easy to fill up the silence with a review of all the reasons that he’d never be cleared to join a top-secret military operation. From the cash they must’ve found in his car to his gambling debts to the Air Force record, it all added up to John Sheppard being the most useless, hopeless pilot who’d ever killed a dozen people trying to save one. He wouldn’t hire him, either. Especially not if they were comparing him to whatever heroic John Sheppard had supposedly been running around with McKay in other realities.
What had he been thinking, letting himself hope that this was some kind of way out? And what the hell was McKay thinking, making all sorts of grand promises and then just disappearing? Was this some kind of bizarre test? If so, McKay could stuff it.
That night he lay awake thinking about Amy—and thank you, McKay, for bringing that all up, like they were already friends, like he had any right to talk about it. When he finally drifted off, he dreamed of his dad’s funeral, and Dave clocking him for even showing up. You put him here, John. Why didn’t you at least have the decency to eat your gun before he could find out? Isn’t that what you military types do?
He woke at that, but the line between waking and sleeping seemed hard to cross, not so much firm as sticky, clinging at him and snapping him back. Maybe, he thought, rubbing his eyes, trying to clear the heaviness, maybe he had died out in the desert, and this was some weird version of hell, or an afterlife halfway house. It made a lot more sense than that he had fallen in with a bunch of people secretly fighting off an alien invasion who had then left him to rot in an abandoned hospital ward.
The idea had a freakish appeal. He could surrender to it, and then he could get back to really not giving much of a damn about anything. They’d let him go eventually, and when he walked out, it might really be into nothingness.
But…wait. He’d met an alien. Not just the one he’d killed. One that they were keeping on ice upstairs. One who had stared at him with eyes from another galaxy and told him he knew the future.
John was walking down that endless hallway before he knew it.
The Wraith’s cell was on a level even deeper than his. He should have been surprised that his pass worked, but he wasn't. He should have been more surprised that the guard who had been there during his day visit was gone that night, but the heaviness in his head made him accept everything quietly.
The steel door slid open and the single bright light flicked on. For a minute, it dazzled John’s eyes. When he could peer into the cell, the Wraith was standing much closer to the glass than he’d expected, studying him with a gleam in his eye. John recoiled a step involuntarily.
“John Sheppard,” he said. “You have returned. I knew you would. I dreamed it.”
He was reminded of the other one, sitting across from him in the suite. John had never seen anyone so unreadable at the table, so remote, even though he had been dressed like some idiot out of a goth music video.
“Oh, yeah?” He started a slow pace back and forth in front of the cell. “And what did you dream I’d say?”
The Wraith spread his hands out. “Do you like my cage, John Sheppard?”
“I like that you’re inside it.”
He made a slow arc with his fingers, following the glint on the glass. John’s eyes followed them unwillingly. “See how it shines. Phosphoresence and starlight, the glory of the queen, all blown out in the darkness, but still they leave me this.” He sighed, then suddenly put his palm flat against the glass, startling John. “It is very literal, John Sheppard. Very definite. Not like yours at all.”
“Mine? I’m not the one locked up.”
The Wraith laughed, deep and rusty. “Forgive me. Perhaps you are dimmer than I thought. Just another soldier, not fit for a face…” He turned away, mumbling to himself.
Of course, despite his immediate, instinctive protest, the guy was right. He was as much a prisoner of the SGC as the Wraith was. But how had he known?
It’s like you can read minds, the wiseguy had complained.
They can get into your head, McKay had said.
He shook off the mounting feeling that maybe he would be better off somewhere, anywhere but here. “Hey. You got a name?”
The Wraith looked up sharply. The jagged tattoo around his eye was really starting to bother John—a symbol he couldn’t decode and couldn’t look away from, like the glyphs in the deserts of his dreams. “Not for you.” He paused. “Not yet.”
“What are they going to do to you?”
“I am the last. A pathogen in a test tube. Soon, if I do not feed, I will sleep. Sleep and wait. The Wraith are relentless as rivers. One day I will be free again.” He dropped his voice, almost crooning. “But you, John Sheppard, you will never be free.”
“Look,” he said weakly, “they’re not going to keep me locked up here forever.”
“That is not what I meant. Haven’t they already begun? With their dreams and fairy tales?”
McKay. McKay and his pictures, his spearmint gum, his talk of other worlds where he’d been someone worth knowing. Pretending to let him go. Knowing he couldn’t walk away from a promise like that.
Headgames. This was all a headgame. He should’ve known from the beginning, but… “Why?”
“You have the key, the spark of life to give to the constructions of the Ancients. They will use you until you are as dried a husk as any human ever fed upon by Wraith, and then they will abandon you. Just like they always have.”
The words woke some reverberation in him he could not explain, like fragments of some beautiful story he knew only in his sleep and ached for in daylight. Like the ache he’d felt looking at the chair. John found himself leaning against the glass. “The key? The Ancients?”
The Wraith’s mouth was so close to the glass it misted over with each breath. His cat’s-eyes burned into John’s. “Oh, there is so much you do not know, John Sheppard. So many great and beautiful and terrible things you have seen only through their ignorant eyes. But I can show you,” he coaxed. “Come inside.”
John’s hand hadn’t actually moved towards the lock, he told himself later. He had only shifted his weight, which cast the light on the glass at a different angle. An angle which showed him, instead of the Wraith’s eager expression, a sliver of a reflection, dark eyes above bronze cheekbones. Behind him.
“You should not be here,” a low woman’s voice said.
John jumped backwards, away from those eyes but practically into the woman herself. He nearly lost his balance as he turned around to stare at her. She was tiny, hardly coming up to his chin. She wore jeans and a loose-fitting sweater that only partially hid how thin she was. Her tawny hair was close-cropped, emphasizing those high cheekbones and cool eyes. She held herself poised and light despite her heavy boots, like she expected to have to throw a punch or block one. There was a bandage on her left hand.
“Who are you?” he finally got out.
“You should not be here,” she repeated.
“Couldn’t sleep,” he said, still a little dazed. “I have a pass.”
“You are John Sheppard?”
“That’s me,” he said, trying for a winning smile. This woman didn’t seem up for being won, but he was already feeling like it was something he wanted to do.
“It is not safe to be alone with a Wraith, especially this one. McKay should have told you this.”
“Must’ve forgot to mention it. But you still have the advantage of me, Miss…?”
“Teyla. Teyla Emmagen,” the Wraith said from behind him, making him jump again. “Fish out of water. How can you breathe? This desert will be the end of you.”
John’s eyes narrowed. “He knows you?”
Teyla’s eyes flicked past him, to the Wraith, and then back. “Come. It is better not to be down here at all.”
John looked back. The Wraith smiled knowingly and turned away, muttering. “A queen in rags and tatters is a queen still…”
Suddenly, he simply looked strange again, tall and thin and long-haired, like some lost crazy hippie. Who ate people. John shook his head and hastened to follow Teyla.
As he fell in beside her, he asked the question again. “How does he know you?”
“He does not.”
Her tone was icy. Looking at the way she held her chin high, he realized she was furious, but he didn’t think it was at him. Well. Mostly not at him.
Maybe she hated having other people know her secrets as much as he did with his.
“What does that mean?”
She didn’t answer. At the end of the hallway was a guard station. There was a guard there now, stunned and rubbing his eyes, looking more like a kid than a marine. “Are you going to report this, Miss Emmagen?” he asked plaintively. “I really don’t know how I could have fallen—“
She glanced briefly at John. “No. But do not let it happen again.”
John waited until they were in the elevator before he said, hopefully, “Thanks for not reporting me, either.”
She looked at the numbers going by on the panel. “I do not care for the SGC’s approach to potential contamination,” she said.
“Well, thanks anyway.”
Again, she didn’t answer. There was something as remote about her as there had been about the Wraiths, only she was so fiercely beautiful that no one needed to make him want to get closer. John was starting to feel shellshocked. How many more landslides were going to hit him?
“So, what were you doing down there?” he blurted.
She pushed a hand through her hair. “I felt that something was wrong.”
“You felt it?”
“Yes,” she said shortly, and he remembered that she was one of the people McKay had said would have to sign off on him. Better not to push it.
Speaking of McKay…he took the chance. “You wouldn’t happen to have seen Dr. McKay around recently, would you?”
“I have been away,” she said. The elevator stopped. “I must go. If you start to dream again…” She stepped in unexpectedly close and tilted his chin down to look into his eyes. He caught a whiff of some gingery perfume. “Have them call me.”
“Okay. I guess this is my stop,” he said faintly.
She searched his face for a minute longer and then released him without a word. He didn’t think he’d be wanting to tell her about any dreams he might have that night. The thought distracted him enough that it wasn’t until the elevator doors had shut that he realized that he’d never told her he’d been having strange dreams in the first place.
The next day, a guard told him he was wanted upstairs. John was calmer as he followed him up than he’d thought he’d be. He wasn’t sure whether it was anger at being left so long, or the things the Wraith had told him, settling in deep, or just the sense, which had almost always been right, that at this point he’d better play it cool.
The guard took him to an area that was new to him, with a good-sized conference room whose walls were covered in LCDs. McKay, still in one of those suits, was standing in front of one of them, scowling at it. It was scrolling a script that he couldn't read but which seemed hauntingly familiar. There were two other people standing at one end of the table, which was littered haphazardly with office supplies, looking at a set of papers. He recognized the top page from his Air Force personnel file. One was a short blond man who had a gentle face and harried lines around his eyes but whose bearing gave him away instantly as a Marine, and the other was Teyla. She didn’t look up as he came in.
“Ah,” McKay said officiously, “glad you could join us, Sheppard. I wanted to introduce you to the rest of my team, now that they’re back.” He waved a hand. “This is Lieutenant Colonel Lorne, in charge of the military stuff.”
A lieutenant colonel? In charge of the military stuff? He was probably one of the highest-ranking officers on Atlantis. John came forward to shake his hand. Lorne’s grip was firm, and he didn’t try to disguise his appraising look. “Good to meet you, Colonel.”
“And this is Teyla Emmagan. She’s our first-contact specialist. Helps us deal with all the different cultures we meet in Pegasus.”
“We have already met,” she said, but she gave him her hand. Her gaze at him was steady, but detached. “I understand you have spared me some work, Sheppard.”
“You met him?” McKay looked oddly disconcerted. “When?”
“Last night, upon my return.”
“What? You didn’t come see me last night.”
“No, I did not. It was late.”
“I’m just saying, you might have. You know you wouldn’t have woken me—“
“Rodney,” Lorne said, softly but firmly. “Leave it.”
“Fine.” After a minute, McKay recovered. “Anyway, Sheppard, meet Atlantis’s first team, and maybe your own. We’ve been split up, chasing Wraith all over the planet, but we think we’ve got them all now. We’ll be going back to Atlantis soon.”
John’s attention had been arrested by the first sentence. “Maybe?”
“There have been a few difficulties with your appointment,” McKay said, obviously trying to sound breezy. “You know how the military bureaucracy is.”
“I remember,” John said.
“But you’re keeping busy, right?”
John hesitated, wondering if the question was some kind of reference to the night before, when Teyla’s voice broke in. “Have you downloaded the data from the desert site yet, Rodney?”
McKay blinked. “Oh, yes, yes.” He produced a DVD from his jacket pocket. “Here it is.”
“Good. I will go work on the translations.”
“Wait,” he said. “How was Baltimore?”
“The Wraith is dead,” she said. “There is little else to tell.”
“Still, why don’t you tell me about it over lunch?”
Teyla stiffened almost imperceptibly. “It will take me some time to work through the data.”
“The mission report will be ready tonight,” Lorne put in.
McKay frowned. Teyla nodded to them and left. Unbidden, John’s glance followed her out. After a minute, he realized that McKay was staring after her, too. Strange how McKay’s coldly competent air had vanished as soon as he’d spoken to her. An unrequited crush? John felt a faint and troubling stir of jealousy at the thought, but rejected it. It seemed more complicated than that.
“She was so different before, you know,” McKay said plaintively. “So nice…”
“Rodney,” Lorne said, with that tone again, this time glancing at John warningly.
“Yes. Right.” McKay drew himself up, and John finally realized what he had been reminding him of all this time, despite the know-it-all air and the Matrix suits. The young lieutenants he had seen with their first command, the ones desperately trying to be something they weren’t. The ones who didn’t grow into it. “Try not to take it personally, Sheppard,” he said loftily.
It was only decent to change the subject. “I saved her some work?”
“Hunting the Wraith here,” Lorne explained. “That’s one of her specialties.”
“Wait, there are ways to kill them besides bombing the hell out of them?”
“If you try hard enough.”
John was a little sick of the cryptic references.
“So,” Lorne said after a minute, “you actually are interested in the job. This isn’t just McKay railroading you.”
“Well, to the extent that I know what the job is.” John smiled slightly. “It’s all pretty new to me. Aliens and spaceships and other galaxies…”
“Why would a cop want to leave it all behind and go to a city in another galaxy?”
“I’m not a cop,” John said without even thinking about it. “I’m a pilot.”
Shit. Where had that come from, after all this time? And did it sound pathetic enough, coming from a broken-down bulk-grade detective who hadn’t touched aircraft controls in five years?
Lorne was looking at him hard. There was a glint of something in his eyes, but John couldn’t tell what it was.
“Told you,” McKay said. “Just like—“
“Okay. It was a pleasure meeting you, Sheppard,” Lorne said. “We’ll keep you posted.”
“You will?” John said. “Because there’s been nothing but radio silence for the past week. There’s only so long a man can entertain himself looking for the vending machines.”
Lorne shot McKay a look. “Rodney…”
“You gave him a pass?”
“Yes. Why not? He’s already seen Wraith, Darts…what harm could it do?”
“You weren’t by any chance hoping he’d do anything that would force the issue, were you?”
“Of course not!” McKay protested, not entirely convincingly.
“Force the issue?” Thinking back to what the Wraith had said, he thought he might have caught this particular cryptic reference, but he wanted to make them say it.
Lorne smiled tightly, the smile of a guy who had gotten used to keeping secrets. John couldn’t tell whether he was sorry for Lorne or resented the hell out of him. “We’ll be in touch, Sheppard.”
“Well,” John said out loud when he got back to his room, “that was anticlimatic.”
The pale green walls of his room seemed to agree with him.
Maybe it was all a test, and he’d only prove his worthiness by escaping.
Maybe he’d lost his mind, caring whether these guys even thought he was worthy. But it wasn’t so much the SGC itself, really, it was…
He had liberated a stress ball from the conference room supply stash almost without thinking about it. The rest of the day and on into the evening, he sat on the edge of his bed, bouncing it against the wall and catching it, over and over and over again. For a long time, he could let his mind go blank, fill it with the rhythm, but after the lights dimmed, images began to flash in his mind on the off-beats.
The chair, all gleaming blue mystery.
The Wraith, pale and just as full of secrets.
It was like flipping the light switch off and on, off and on, but what he was looking at stayed the same, desires that freaked him out with their intensity. The longer he wasted away in the room, the worse it got. He wanted to sit in the chair, let it do whatever it wanted to him, get it over with. And the Wraith…it wasn’t just that he wanted to talk to him again, get more out of him that the people around here weren’t telling. He needed to do it, needed to let that whisper get into his thoughts and show him things. Last night he had been so close, so close to understanding…
Waiting for him.
He threw himself back onto the bed, letting the ball drop to the floor.
Eyes that had shone purer and fiercer than the Wraith’s. A voice rich and distant with its own secret knowledge.
“Teyla,” he whispered desperately, and slid his hand downward.
He was already hard.
He was just dozing off when McKay burst into his room. “God, you’re not sleeping already, are you?” he demanded crossly. “How can you be tired when you’re not doing anything but lying around in hospital?”
John blinked at him, glad he was under a sheet. Now that McKay was actually there, the thought that John had wanted him to show up seemed a little misguided. “What do you want?”
“I want you to do me a favor. You owe me big-time for getting you on the team.”
“I’m not on the team, McKay,” he pointed out.
He waved a hand. “Not yet. Irrelevant detail. Come on.”
Damn, he was pompous. But he was also probably the only supporter of John’s candidacy for the SGC, so there was nothing to do but humor him. John remembered thinking when he left the Air Force that at least he’d left politics behind; when you gave up your career, you gave up giving a damn about how it went, too. He sat up, discreetly hitching up his scrubs. “Where are we going?”
“Just come on,” he said impatiently, and a minute later John was following him through yet another confusing set of corridors he hadn’t explored yet. The place was really not on a human scale. Abruptly, he imagined Bugs Bunny tunneling his way in and looking around in confusion: I knew I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque!
“You and me both, buddy,” he muttered.
After about ten minutes of walking, McKay slowed, and seemed to be listening. “It’s supposed to be around here somewhere…”
“Just a little something I want you to break up.”
“Break up? What are you—“
“Shhh!” McKay raised an imperious hand. “I hear something.”
John did too, a remote echo of shouts and the squeak of heavy boots against a metal floor. McKay hurried forward, and after a few more turns, they emerged into what looked like a unused storage area, lit by wavering and sparking fluorescents. John smelled the tang of sweat before he even saw the crowd of Marines in a loose circle near the center.
He recognized this all right—not really an Air Force thing, but he’d seen it at other bases. Just a little informal brawling for fun and profit, out of eyeshot of the officers. Work off some energy, establish who was the big dog. But these guys didn’t have the usual cheerful, rowdy air to them. They sounded like whoever was fighting, they really wouldn’t mind seeing them get hurt. John wondered who it was. He was startled when they got close enough that he could catch a glimpse.
It was Teyla. Teyla in a racerback that showed off her toned arms and loose flowing pants, barefoot, dripping sweat but not bloodied anywhere, eyes far away. She was matched against a Marine with almost a foot on her, and John felt sick. There was no way this could end well. But her reflexes were unbelievably quick. She made the Marine’s punches look like slow and clumsy swipes until she could duck inside his reach and deliver a ringing elbow to the solar plexus. He tottered, and she spun and grabbed his arm, got it into a submission lock. She shouldn’t have been strong enough to get the right leverage, but down he went to his knees.
“Do you give up?” she said, low, barely audible over the crowd’s mixed roars and boos.
“Fuck you, bitch,” he spat.
She tightened her grip. “I said, do you give up?”
Disgust twisting his face, he reached out with his other hand and slapped the rough concrete floor. She released him at once, turning away as though she had already forgotten him, hardly even breathing fast. As she scanned the crowd, John thought her eyes flashed over them, but if she saw them, she gave no sign. “Who is next?”
“Go on,” McKay nudged him. He’d joined Sheppard at the very edge of the crowd. “Break it up!”
“No,” John muttered, as his astonishment gave way to an awful weariness. “What we need to do is get out of here right now.”
“Get out of here? But she—“ He pointed. Another Marine had entered the ring to a chorus of cheers and laughter. This one ran more to weight than height. He was a kickboxer, John could see—maybe Muy Thai. He scored a blow that glanced off her jaw, but she shook it off and kept moving. “Look at her!”
“Come on, McKay.” John turned and walked off into the corridor. McKay hesitated, but followed him. When they were safely out of range, he exploded.
“What do you think you’re doing? I brought you down there to break that up, and you just leave?”
What a thought. Him, a shady half-stranger in hospital scrubs, and McKay, who had undoubtedly pissed off every member of the military he had ever come into contact with. “Believe me, McKay, we were not going to break that up. And I don’t think Teyla would have thanked us for trying, either.”
“But you’re one of those people! You’re supposed to be able to get it! Fix it!”
“Oh, I get it all right,” John said. Teyla had looked painfully familiar—someone fighting the biggest, nastiest demons she could find outside of her own head, and knowing exactly where to go to find the fight. But he’d never seen it on a woman before. “I just don’t know how to fix it.”
“They’re going to kill her one of these days!”
“Have to say, it doesn’t really look like it. She’s amazing.”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” McKay said, momentarily distracted. “You should have seen her with her bantos rods. It was so beautiful.” He shook his head sharply. “That doesn’t mean it’s safe for her to be down there doing the ultimate fighting championships with a bunch of Marines who think she’s a freak!”
“Does she do this a lot?”
“I don’t know,” he confessed unhappily. “There were rumors, but she’s been shutting me out ever since…”
He didn’t know why McKay had instinctively latched onto him to solve the problem. Some kind of weird membership test?
“Why didn’t you tell Lorne?”
“And give her an extra reason to hate me?” McKay eyed him. “Are you sure you didn’t get a concussion during the bombing?”
“Well, then, I don’t see what you expected me to do.”
McKay wasn’t upset for the right reasons—all he could see was the blood and the violence, which, from the way Teyla handled herself, was just as much a part of her ordinary life as it had been of John’s. Still, John could sympathize. Teyla clearly felt like she couldn’t leave that ring until she couldn’t stay on her feet anymore, and seeing it had made him want to drag her out if he had to. He would have been glad to let her hit him if she needed someone to hit. But McKay blaming him for what was going on was a little much.
“Show a little team spirit! Chivalry! Something! Don’t you even care?”
He was unbelievably lucky McKay was so terrible at reading people. “Care? Care about a bunch of people who’ve kidnapped me out of my life and left me to get old on a locked ward while they decide whether I’m good enough for them?”
“The other Sheppard would have cared,” McKay said coldly. “Why do you think I wanted you on the team?”
Wanted? Damn. But this wasn’t for McKay to see. “Psychosis?”
“That’s it.” McKay threw up his hands. “If I’d wanted to be insulted by someone useless, I’d have brought Zelenka along. Do you think you can find your way back to your room without a trail of breadcrumbs?”
“I bet I can manage,” John said casually.
Back in his room, he did as many pushups as he could until his arm gave out.
Lorne surprised him by showing up in his room the next day just as he was trying to manage a pull-up on an exposed pipe. “Hello, Sheppard.”
“Colonel.” John tried not to look like he was glad to have an excuse to lower himself slowly to the ground. His shoulder thanked him sarcastically as he touched down. “Welcome to my world.”
“Well, this is certainly…depressing,” he said, taking a look around at the room where John hadn’t managed to establish anything more of his personality than a certain messiness in the way towels and little plastic cups were strewn around. “Why don’t we take a walk?”
“Taking a walk” meant actually going outside, strolling on the pavement surrounding the grim industrial buildings that made up Area 51. John felt weird wandering around in public in the scrubs they’d given him, but there was no one around to see it.
It was early yet. The air was warm and dry, shocking after the semi-refrigeration of the ward. John knew that the sun wasn’t high enough yet to be relentless, but the glare in his eyes was enough to make him long for his glasses. Still, the desert had never looked so good to him. The sky swept all the way down to the horizon. He remembered hoping when he came to Vegas that it would make him feel free.
They walked in silence for a little while. John couldn’t hear anything but the whistle of the wind. If McKay had told Lorne anything about the previous night, it didn’t show.
“So, I’ve been reviewing your record,” he said finally, in a carefully neutral tone.
That was one of those sentences that never led into an enjoyable conversation. “I can completely explain that incident with the paste in art class.”
Lorne didn’t smile. “Atlantis can always use pilots, and the first team hasn’t had a real one since we lost Sgt. Markham. You have a lot of experience operating in extreme environments. There’s no question that you would bring real skills to the table.”
“Our teams tend to be small. The expedition itself is less than three hundred people, with limited Earthside leave. We care a lot more about chemistry than you might expect, and it’s my job to make sure it works.”
“And you don’t think I’ll fit in.”
He couldn’t help it—a subtle inflection of sarcasm had crept into his voice. Lorne stopped and looked at him. He didn’t look angry, but he obviously wasn’t inclined to apologize for doing his job.
“Your record suggests that you’re either an incorrigible loner or a rebel. I understand that you’ve been in some tough situations, but I’m not sure we need that on the first team, or Atlantis for that matter.”
John swallowed, feeling acid start to churn in his stomach. Where was he going to go next? Out into that horizon? “So you’re going to recommend against my appointment.”
Lorne started walking again. “I don’t want to judge you hastily. I think there’s some chance you’re a better man than your record makes you out to be. Rodney likes you, which is saying something. Rodney doesn’t like many people.”
So McKay hadn’t told him about the fight. John certainly wasn’t going to bring it up.
“Yeah, I’ve gotten that impression.”
“Look.” He sighed. “Rodney was thrust into the kind of command responsibility we generally try to avoid giving to the scientists. He’s done the best he could.”
Obviously Lorne was committed to defending his people. They weren’t going to bond by bitching about McKay. Okay. “I get it. But I also get the impression he thinks I’m somebody else.”
“He and the other Sheppard did get along well,” Lorne said. “But I think he knows you’re not going to be him.”
“What did the other Sheppard do, anyway? McKay said he was a hero.”
A slight pause. “He had my job. Saved the Earth at least three times more than I have, I might add.”
“Oh.” Whoops. “That’s…awkward.”
“I’ll try not to hold your superior alternate-universe self against you,” Lorne said, and gave him a wry smile. John was starting to feel like he couldn’t resent him, which made it worse. “Anyway, Rodney pulling for you is a plus, though whether you could stand each other long term is a different question. But there’s Teyla to consider, too.”
“Oh, yeah?” John tried to sound casual.
“You may have gathered that she’s not from around here.” Actually, he hadn’t, but it made sense. Scary sense. “She belonged to a people called the Athosians. They were very helpful to us when we first arrived. She went with us on about half our missions even though she wasn’t officially a member of the team.”
Belonged? He decided not to ask.
“I had to fight to get the SGC to take her on the team. I’ve had to fight to get her to stay. This is a good team, despite everything. I’ve worked too hard keeping it together to let it be disrupted by a dirty cop who got lucky.”
Lorne was looking straight at him again. John met his eye—he had to. “Look, despite what certain of my ex-girlfriends might tell you, I’m not a totally insensitive asshole. I can tell she’s had a rough time. I’m not going to mess with her. She doesn’t need it.”
They held eye contact. Lorne eventually looked away. “That’s not what your ex-girlfriends say, actually.”
It startled a half-chuckle out of him. “Do I even want to know?”
Lorne smiled again. “No one wants to know what their background check says, believe me.”
They walked on a little further. There was only so long John could take the great blustering silence. “So, what happens now?”
“I’m making contact with Colonel Carter tomorrow to give her my recommendation. She can push your appointment through, but she’ll only do it if I tell her to. I don’t want to string you along, Sheppard, but I don’t know what I’m going to tell her.”
Damn, John wished he could hate him. “And what if you recommend against me?”
“What? Oh, right, McKay threatened you because you haven’t signed the nondisclosures. He really likes to do that for some reason.” Lorne turned back towards the entrance. “Just hang in there for now.”
“You know, we do have temporary quarters that are a little nicer than the hospital wing. I could get you moved.”
“Nah,” John said, “I’m starting to feel like I belong down there.”
That night, John watched the lights dim with a dull dread that was all too familiar from fucked-up missions of years past. Waiting for rescue that probably wasn’t coming. Knowing that even if it came there’d be no fixing what had happened.
He’d come back from his trip outside with a wavering hope he tried not to examine too closely. Lorne hadn’t slammed the door shut, not all the way. And at least he’d know one way or the other tomorrow. But he’d dozed off without meaning to, and when he woke up the conversation had taken on a whole different cast in his mind.
Lorne was obviously a nice guy, a competent soldier, a leader who looked after his people. The kind of person John liked to work with, wouldn’t mind working for.
And he’d taken one look at John’s record and practically thrown himself between him and his team.
John couldn’t even blame him.
And now that even McKay was pissed at him…
He tried to imagine what would happen the next day and his imagination ran dead into a terrifying blankness. What would it be like, going through the motions in some dead-end PI job, knowing the whole time that there was this life he was supposed to have had, a life worth something, that he had blown his chance at without even realizing it? Knowing that he’d found the ruby slippers that could get him home, only he’d just fumbled and dropped them? Knowing that there were creatures and constructs out there that could light up his brain like they were made just for him, purer than the rush of flight, filthier than any orgasm he’d ever had, and he’d never even tasted it?
Why did he have to keep surviving, again and again and again, if all it was going to add up to was this?
Maybe it was time to put an end to it. Time to find his own personal blaze of glory and this time make sure he rode all the way down into the heart of it.
“Tell me about Atlantis,” he snarled, slapping his palms against the cell before the Wraith could even get up.
He didn't look surprised as he moved towards John like some old, infinitely cunning animal. “John Sheppard. Ghost in the machine. Restless, restless. No sleep for the wicked.”
His lips pulled back in a terrible grin. “My thoughts are my own. Will you pay my price?”
What could the Wraith ask for that he still cared about? “What do you want?”
“Let me in, John Sheppard,” he said, and now that he knew what it was, he could feel the Wraith’s mind creeping, swirling around his. “Let me in and I will show you everything.”
John swallowed recklessly and pressed his forehead to the glass, and the fog swallowed him at once.
After some timeless period of silence, it cleared. He was skimming over shining waters, an immensity of ocean. Silver spires rose suddenly from the waves, a perfection and arrogance of form that demanded worship or utter rejection. The delicate glassy towers spoke of thousands of years of uninterrupted study, of fearless possession, of haughty peace. Fireworks blossomed cool colors over the skyline as he approached.
This was the city. The city that would have been his.
He couldn’t get close enough, though he spread himself against the glass. He had to get closer. He barely heard the door click open, was hardly aware of his own feet stepping into the cell.
Those weren’t fireworks. They were explosions. Anti-aircraft fire. As he ducked beneath them, he realized he was in a Dart, and his mission was to destroy.
This was the city of the creators who turned on their own creations, who played favorites and cruel games with peoples through the millennia and never realized until too late that they had molded their own enemies, and molded them into something to fear.
A cold hand groped across his chest.
“Oh, John Sheppard, I am lucky to have met you,” the Wraith breathed, and John didn’t even have enough control over his own muscles to brace himself. Didn’t even have the will to be disgusted by how hard he was.
“Let him go,” a voice rang in his ears, but muffled, as if he were underwater, and suddenly he staggered, falling back against the glass. The wrong side of the glass. The cell was closed again. The Wraith still had hold of one arm, but he was staring past him. John didn’t have to look to know; he could feel the presence burning cold, the strong, steady pull of the force behind him.
“Why do you defend them, Teyla?” the Wraith said. “Their songs are not your songs. Set me free and I will make you a queen more glorious than any hive has ever dreamed.”
John twisted his head, expecting to see her rebuff him, but instead she shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. She was wearing a long floating cardigan over some kind of short sleeping-gown, and she was as pale as she could get.
“Just a taste,” the Wraith murmured. “If he has found favor in your eyes I will return the gift later. He will be your first worshipper, as broken open and willing as you could ever desire.”
His free hand moved slowly back towards John’s chest. Even though John didn’t understand them, his whispered words had made him harder, and it was all he could not to jerk into the touch.
“A year, Teyla. Give me just one year of John Sheppard’s life and I will give you my name.“
She drew herself up. “I already know your name,” she said, and spoke a word that blanked John's brain with confusion, as if he were only catching half the meaning carried by each syllable. “Now let him go!" The Wraith recoiled, hissing in agony. Released from his mental and physical grip, John was able to slide to the door. He nearly toppled through when Teyla opened it for him.
“Holy fuck,” he mumbled as she hauled him to his feet.
“We must get out of here,” she said, and urged him along into a run.
Teyla led him up an emergency stairwell four flights. She was quick and graceful, even in her sleeping clothes. John, still reeling from what had just happened, had trouble keeping up. He wasn’t even sure how he’d ended up down there in the first place. He couldn’t believe he’d been so stupid as to stand still for a Wraith to turn him into one of those poor bastards from the desert. Worst of all—in that moment, worst by a large margin—was that he was still incredibly turned on. The feeling wasn’t fading, not as he watched Teyla’s slim thighs move in front of him, not as he felt her still pulling him like gravity. And she was bound to notice sooner or later if he didn’t get away from her.
They came off the stairwell into another dim corridor. She stiff-armed a door open and nearly threw him into the room in front of her. It looked like an abandoned budget hotel room, complete with queen-size bed whose avocado-green comforter said seventies K-Mart special. The guest quarters Lorne had mentioned.
Teyla shut the door and turned up one of the ugly brass lamps, which cast a sickly glow. She turned back to him, breathing fast from all the stairs, and seized the hair on the back of his head with one hand. He had to stoop so as to not have it ripped out.
“What is your name?” she demanded, staring into his eyes.
“Who do you follow?”
“What? No one.”
She studied him for a minute longer. He tried to meet her eyes and not stare at, for instance, her parted lips. Just when he thought he’d have to give up, she let him go.
He took two hasty steps away, trying to clear his head, and laughed bitterly. “It’s just as well Lorne’s turning me down.”
“Is he? I had not heard that he had decided.”
“Doesn’t matter. This’ll do it. And it should. I don’t, I don’t have any idea what any of this even is yet and it’s tearing me apart! I just went down and deliberately tried to feed myself to an alien, and it felt better than half the sex I’ve ever had!”
Teyla frowned, and John winced. Probably shouldn’t have said that last part. He expected her just to turn and walk out. He didn’t know if he’d be able to let her go. If the Wraith’s mental influence had been a tickle in his mind, right now Teyla was a Roman candle.
“You still don’t understand, John,” she said, very softly. “They are Wraith. They can make you do things, want things, you never would otherwise.”
“Oh, yeah?” he said. “Like this?”
It was like he was moving through the blank moment in the vision before the fog rolled back as he stepped forward, grabbed Teyla’s arms, and kissed her.
He actually expected to be hit—this was a woman who could take on any five Marines who came at her, who could kill Wraith, whose arms were like whipcord with muscle. But she kissed him back, rough and biting, her fingers clawing into his shoulders. He could feel the press of her breasts against his chest as his hands slid down her arms, to her waist, to cup her small, firm ass. She spread her legs just enough as he half-hoisted her that she could rub herself against him, sucking hard on his collarbone.
If he has found favor in your eyes…
He didn’t normally take it this fast, especially not the first time, and somehow he managed to make his brain engage enough with his mouth to stammer out, “Do you—is this—?”
She slid one hand down into the back of John’s pants. “Take them off,” she growled.
He set her down to comply. She caught his hair again and held his gaze as he frantically hooked his thumbs into the waistband and hauled it all down, the little jerks of pain doing nothing but urging him on. She eyed his cock and made a small, guttural noise. Without breaking contact, she urged him backwards until he fell over onto the bed. He started to sit up, but she stopped him with an imperious palm to his chest that almost stopped his heart as well. After that, he could do nothing but lie and wait like an offering for her.
She paused to yank off her cardigan, impatiently whipping the sleeves around her. As she did, the clingy fabric of her gown climbed up her legs. John stared up at her helplessly, hypnotized by the glimpse of her thighs, burnished smooth and slender. He would have gone down on her gladly, eaten her out til she screamed, but she didn’t lie down. Instead, she moved to straddle him as he lay, and, God, she wasn’t even wearing anything underneath, did she always…
She rode him mercilessly, sheened over with sweat, eyes half-closed, lost in her own private world. Somehow, this didn’t throw him out of it—it only turned him on more. After some time, she caught one of his hands at her waist and guided it down to stroke her clit, and catching her rhythm was easier than it had ever been for him. Coming startled him; he had felt like he could keep up this athletic effort as long as she wanted him to. He kept caressing her through it, as though that was being handled by some deep portion of his brain that didn’t shut down with the pleasure. She leaned forward just a little, and he cupped her breast with his free hand, rubbing his thumb fiercely through the fabric across the nipple. For a couple of minutes there was no sound at all except her short panting breaths. Then she came in a great trembling burst, her eyes going shut completely.
As he watched her slide off him and curl up on the bed, it occurred to him that Lorne was going to kill him. But Teyla didn’t push him away when he lay behind her, settling a tentative arm over her, and so he didn’t really care.
They lay that way for a little while. John stared down over Teyla’s shoulder at her prominent collarbones. He felt empty and clean, purged of every anxiety and anger that had stalked his thoughts since he’d first followed the Wraith to the poker game. He was sure that if he fell asleep here, it would be restful and dreamless. But he wasn’t so sure about Teyla. He had given it all up to her, and she had taken it, and what had she gotten in return? She had obviously had things taken from her that he couldn’t hope to get back. And he was no great bargain anyway. The thought made him feel absurdly tender and grateful. He brought his hand up to stroke the little wisps of hair at her temple—
And found himself pinned on his back, her knee planted in his chest, her hand gripping his wrist hard enough to cut the circulation off. “Do not,” she commanded, and her eyes were as wild as his must have looked before. “Do not ever.”
“Okay,” he said quickly, spreading both his hands out in a gesture of surrender. “Okay.”
She blinked and let him go, then scrambled off him. She settled with her back against the wall, drawing her knees nearly to her chest, wrapping her arms around her legs, and putting her head down. He sat up, half-stretching a hand out to her and then letting it drop. He didn’t dare get closer.
He hadn’t been that out of his mind.
Just enough to walk down and let himself into the Wraith’s cell.
“God, Teyla, if you didn’t want—“
“I wanted it.” She didn’t lift her head. “Do not apologize.”
“Okay,” he said, trying not to sound baffled. It was the last thing in the world he wanted, to be useless to yet another woman he cared about, and yet that’s where he kept ending up. Only the conviction that no one but a complete jackass would walk out on her now, no matter how little good he could do, kept him on the bed.
After a while, Teyla said, “Not long ago, I was held captive by the Wraith.”
Her voice was quiet, dry, matter-of-fact. John tried to imagine what it would be like to be at the mercy of creatures like the one downstairs, no cages, no guards, no rescuers, and he couldn’t. He’d spent so much time thinking about whether he could get himself to Pegasus, whether he could cope with what Pegasus might throw at him, that he hadn’t stopped to think about what it was like to live there. It was a real place, where real people were going through hell, not just the source of spectacular weirdness in his own life.
“Oh,” he said, and for lack of anything better, “Captured on a mission?”
“No, afterwards. After I was...noticed. The Darts came to Athos. Looking for me, killing everyone else.” She took a deep breath. “All my people, gone. Because of me.”
Damn. The same story in every universe, the same torture for all of them. How could he not have seen it before?
“It was war,” he said. “I know it doesn’t feel like it, but it probably would have happened whether or not you allied with Atlantis.”
“No,” she said bleakly. “It happened because I have Wraith DNA.”
She shot him a wary look over her arms. He realized that she expected him to be repulsed. He supposed he might have been. But he was already coming to understand that Pegasus had a price, that it took a piece of you. Amongst so many strangenesses, it hardly seemed to matter. “Wraith DNA. How would that make it your fault?”
“My ancestors were experimented on long ago by a Wraith, but the experiment was shut down. That Wraith was very pleased when he discovered that a descendant of one of his subjects had survived. They were collecting me. It was a month before the Atlanteans even realized I was missing.”
No wonder McKay always looked at her like he was grieving. He’d lost her. He and Lorne must have been insane with guilt.
Her hands were clenching and unclenching against her legs. John ached to reach out and steady them with his own. “He couldn’t have cared that much, to wipe out your whole people to get to you...”
She put a hand over her eyes, and John knew she was seeing things no one should ever have seen. “He cared more than you can imagine. He wanted to know what abilities he could evoke in me, and he was willing to try anything. By the end, he was obsessed. I did not understand it at first, but he was trying to make me into a queen.” She paused. “My hair was long then, and grew longer, like theirs, and it pleased him so—“
She broke off, and now she was shaking all over. John couldn’t stay back any longer, but all he could think to do was put a hand gently on her knee. “Hey, hey. It’s okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
She seized his hand, and he started to pull it back, but she held on, meeting his eyes again. Her gaze burned clear. “So I know what the Wraith can make you need if they are determined enough, John. You are not some sort of freak to…respond to this one as you did. It does not mean you cannot work with us.”
It didn’t seem right to let her change the subject so fast. “You know it wasn’t your fault. Any of it.”
“As none of those deaths were yours?”
He winced. “That was different.”
“No. It was not. That is why," she persisted, "you are wrong when you think you are not good enough for us.”
He didn't want to let her make this about him again, but he couldn't make her talk about it. That much he knew. It had never worked on him. “So, are you going to tell the bosses?”
“I think not,” she said. “We can…compensate for your susceptibility.”
“Compensate?” he laughed. “That’s a funny way to describe it.”
She actually smiled, and moved her head a little impatiently, like she was embarrassed. There might even have been some color in her cheek. “Rodney used to say—“
She stopped. Poor McKay, chasing the ghosts of the people he was supposed to have known. He said, impulsively, “He misses you, you know.”
Her eyes softened further. “I know.”
An unwelcome thought distracted him. “I actually went into the cell. There have to be access records. They’ll find out.”
“Yes, they will.”
“They won’t be happy about that.”
“No, they will not,” she said, and he could see she had made a decision. “Come.”
“Where are we going?”
“To the chair room.” She raised her chin, determined, and he couldn’t help it, he saw the queen in her, too. After all these days of waiting, he’d surrendered himself for good. “But we will get Rodney first. There is something we should have told you a long time ago.”
He let her pull him up, despite the twinge in his shoulder. He was ready to go.