Walk Beside Me
"To lead people, walk beside them." – Lao Tzu
It felt good to be off-world again.
Samantha Carter breathed in the grassy air of M4X897, home of the Obdai, and grinned inwardly. It smelt fresher and earthier than Atlantis where the processed air of the City competed with the salty water of the ocean. Sam was happy to have her boots crunching into papery leaves and squelching into mud after weeks confined to the City.
After taking part in the first rescue mission post her arrival, she'd stopped herself from going off-world. She'd needed to stay on the City, to get used to its operations and to get used to being the one sending people through the 'Gate and not the one going. But the request for her to attend a diplomatic ceremony to celebrate an alliance between Atlantis and the Obdai that Teyla had brokered had been too tempting to pass up. Diplomacy was part of her new responsibilities and it was a valid excuse.
Sam focused on checking the surrounding area for threats – her training too ingrained to completely allow her to relax and let the Athosian woman and the team who had accompanied her do it for her. She gripped her P90 a little closer. She finished her brief check and met Evan Lorne's waiting gaze with a nod.
Lorne immediately ordered two of the men to stay with the 'Gate, another to take point with the evident intent that he would guard the rear. Ostensibly, Lorne had military command of the mission despite her more senior rank. She needed to focus on the diplomacy and representing Atlantis as its new leader, Sam reminded herself as she fell into step beside Teyla.
Sam felt a little embarrassed that she warranted the escort that Colonel Sheppard had insisted accompany her and Teyla, uncomfortable with the notion that she was that important. She knew it was the trappings of leadership. Jack O'Neill had warned her as much just before she left and Daniel Jackson had reminded her of it in his latest email, recounting Jack's recent complaint to him that his escort had tried to follow him into a bathroom. At least, she didn't have that to contend with and deep down she believed Sheppard had made the right call despite the peaceful nature of the mission; she would have done the same.
'Take the path to your right, Lieutenant Carey.' Teyla called out when the man in front of them hesitated at the fork in the trail, and Sam's attention was momentarily fixed on her female companion.
Teyla was dressed as Sam was in the black BDU favoured by the Atlantis team, a stark difference to Ronon who still retained his own clothing. She wondered if Teyla's choice was significant; a sign that she felt she was truly a member of the expedition. Sam really didn't know her that well although she had no doubts about Teyla's fighting ability having watched her put the Marines through their paces during training sessions. It wasn't that Teyla was unfriendly; she was unfailingly polite in every interaction but she was just simply distant. Sam was disappointed but understanding. Teyla had been a close friend of Elizabeth Weir's and Sam had taken her friend's place regardless of the awful circumstances that necessitated the change. It was natural that Teyla would be wary of her.
If only Teyla knew, Sam mused. She hadn't wanted Atlantis anymore than the expedition team had wanted to lose Elizabeth. It was a galaxy away from everyone she loved and everything familiar. Which had been the very reasons why Jack had pointed out it was a good command move for her. She would succeed or fail in her leadership without him or Hammond or SG1 as a safety net. And as much as it galled her to admit it, she knew he knew that she needed to find out if she could do it without them. Leading Atlantis was everything she had imagined it would be: thrilling, challenging and terrifyingly lonely.
She lifted her face to the Sun, blinking happily into the azure sky beyond the outstretched branches of the trees and felt a month of tension roll off her shoulders. It felt like she could breathe again. She returned her attention to the forest path in front of her and realised Teyla was regarding her with a questioning look in her dark eyes.
Sam gave an apologetic smile and lifted one hand from atop her weapon. 'It's been a while since I've been off-world.'
Teyla's face brightened with understanding. She inclined her head, the caramel locks of her pinned-back hair threatening to fall forward. 'I also appreciate the opportunity to ground myself.'
Sam's smile widened as she realised Teyla had immediately understood what she hadn't explained.
They walked in silence, following the twisting trail before it opened out into a vast clearing filled with wooden houses of all shapes and designs. Sam looked at the various architectural notes with interest; less wood cabin, she mused, more Amish in style. They walked past the edges of the community and Sam smiled as a group of children rushed up with flowers. She accepted them with a smile and carried them alongside her weapon as they made their way into the village square.
'Teyla!' A white-haired woman in red robes hurried over to greet the Athosian, placing her forehead briefly on Teyla's. 'And you have brought us the new leader of Atlantis.' Her eyes darted to Sam and away again as though shy.
A pleased smile flitted across Teyla's face. 'Colonel Carter, this is Gaynori, an Elder of the Obdai.'
Sam smiled politely, bowing her head, and swiftly reaching for the speech she had rehearsed that morning before they had departed. 'I'm pleased to meet with you. Our new alliance is very important to us and we welcome...'
The radio crackled into life.
'Ma'am, hostiles... coming through the 'Gate...' weapons fire resounded through the radio and Sam immediately turned in the direction of the Stargate.
The haunting buzz of the Wraith darts sounded ahead of their arrival. The village erupted into chaos. People ran from the square, scattering in all directions.
'Teyla! Get the Colonel to safety now!' Lorne ordered.
Sam opened her mouth to angrily respond and snapped it shut again. She had promised herself she wouldn't turn into one of those annoying VIPs who argued and tried to take control. She allowed Teyla to drag her into the safety of the narrow passages between the houses as Lorne and Carey dodged in the opposite direction. Teyla pushed her abruptly into a patch of bushes, swiftly following after to crouch beside her. Sam watched impotently as the panicking villagers ran by them.
'This way!' Gaynori hissed behind them. They turned and followed the older woman into the forest that bordered the village where the ground became steep and hilly. She pointed them breathlessly at a track. 'Keep North. You will find the caves where our ancestors hid from the Wraith! You will be safe there. Go! I must attend to my people!'
'We can help you fight them.' Sam said, unwilling to leave the battle without firing a shot. It wasn't in her nature to turn tail when innocent lives were threatened nor the lives of her men.
'Colonel. We must leave if we are to ensure your safety.' Teyla's hand landed on her shoulder and its weight reminded Sam that there was more than her own life at stake. Atlantis had already lost one leader; they couldn't afford to lose another. Teyla thanked Gaynori and Sam watched the Obdai Elder leave with a clenched jaw.
A Wraith dart breezed by overhead and both women dropped to the floor to avoid detection. Sam's face was inches from the dirt and debris of the forest floor; her hands curled into it. She heard her heart beating wildly; the buzz of adrenaline coursing through her veins. She tasted the bitter sourness of her own fear as they waited for the dart to disappear.
'We must leave, Colonel Carter.' Teyla said insistently. She immediately moved, climbing the steep terrain with gazelle-like grace.
Sam followed her, cursing her time out of the field when her lungs burned and her calves protested at the climb. She spared a thought for Lorne, Carey and the men at the 'Gate. Had they managed to find cover? Were they OK?
Teyla suddenly stopped; her clenched fist raised.
Sam tried to control her heavy breathing as they took cover behind a large rock. 'What?'
'Wraith.' Teyla's eyes darted ahead of them. 'I sense them.'
Right. Teyla's spidey-sense. Sheppard had told her about it or she'd read about it in some report. Sam frowned. 'How many?'
'I do not know.' Teyla admitted. Her eyes remained forward on the trees ahead. 'One; perhaps two.'
'Lost?' Sam inquired dryly. It seemed unusual that there were Wraith in the very direction they had been told to go towards.
Teyla met her eyes in understanding. 'We have been led into a trap.'
Sam glanced around them; there was a distinct lack of cover. 'We could head back to the village.'
'Or we could detour to the river.' Teyla pointed towards her left. 'There are places to hide along its banks.'
Sam nodded. Teyla moved off and Sam followed after her again, trusting the other woman's knowledge of the terrain. She wasn't sure whether to be flattered that the other woman wasn't slowing down for her or irritated at the idea that she might be being challenged to keep up. She firmed her lips and maintained the hard pace.
Teyla stopped again, some feet away from Sam, and raised a hand for Sam to remain where she was. They stood on the edge of a cliff. The river flowed below in front of Teyla. Sam could hear its rapids over her own gasping breathing. She maintained position though; her gun ready despite the slick grip of her hands. She could feel the slow trickle of sweat down her back as she waited for Teyla to determine a path down.
The Wraith attacked without warning.
It rushed Teyla, avoiding her counter-attack and batting her weapon away as though it was a child's toy. Its arm reached out and grabbed Teyla by the throat, its long fingernails scraped her delicate skin as it bent her backwards over the edge of the cliff and snarled into her wide-eyed and furious face.
Sam knew if she shot it, there was a danger Teyla would be tossed over the side of the cliff. She lowered her gun and placed it and her small back-pack aside, drawing her knife from its sheath, all in the space of a heartbeat. She ran towards the Wraith and launched herself onto its back, using her own weight to force it backwards. It took one step then another back from the edge.
Sam drove her knife into its neck.
The pale skinned alien howled and with a grunted effort threw Teyla into a nearby tree. The Athosian bounced off the solid bark with a loud thud. Sam barely spared her a glance as she focused on the Wraith who was intent on dislodging her off his back. She knew if she let him succeed, she was good as dead. She held on fiercely and drove her knife deeper, ignoring the gush of hot liquid as its blood spilled over her hands.
Eventually the Wraith floundered, falling to its knees; Sam anticipated it and rolled away. She watched as it fell forward, choking on its own blood. It finally lay still.
She wiped her hands and knife on the ground quickly before she headed over to Teyla. The Athosian was unconscious; a large raw scratch crossed her left temple along with a rising bump. There were surface scratches on her neck and bruising. She glanced back at the Wraith. They needed to move in case he had a friend who would come looking for him.
Sam quickly moved back and hid her back-pack and the P90s, deciding she would return for them. She couldn't carry them and Teyla, and she still had her handgun if she needed a weapon. She lifted Teyla in a fireman's hold, steadied her grip as her body staggered and protested, and sought the path down to the river. She needed to find somewhere safe and soon.
The sound of running water seeped through the fog in Teyla's head and brought her back to consciousness.
Pain flared above her left eye: sharp and fierce. She raised a trembling hand to gently probe at the wound, encountering gauze and tape over her injury. She let her eyes wander, assessing her position.
She was in a cave. There was water trickling down the right wall over the rocky crevices and into a small flow that meandered along the dusty floor and out of the small opening. She could make out the faint glimmer of light beyond the broad leaves that provided cover over the wide hole. A P90 rested by her left hand.
Teyla grasped it and slowly assessed her own condition. Her head was injured and she could feel the sting of long scratches along her tender neck. Her back ached with pulled muscles and bruises. She breathed in deeply and was pleased when her ribs expanded without pain.
She eased up into a sitting position, placed the weapon on her lap in easy reach, and rested against the back wall. Her eyes caught on a small back-pack that she recognised as the Colonel's and a water canteen by her side. She picked up the water, taking a long sip to ease the dry soreness in her throat. She screwed the top back on put it down again. She had no idea how long she would need to make it last.
She closed her eyes.
Breathe. Slowly in. Slowly out.
The pain receded.
Her eyes opened. The last thing she remembered was the Wraith; the brief touch of its mind against her own paralysing her; her throat closing and the need for air pressing in on her. She remembered seeing a blur of blonde hair as the Colonel barrelled into the Wraith, the strange sensation of flying through air and then: nothing.
She knew of no reason why the Wraith would have left her armed and with water; it would have simply killed her or fed upon her. All of which meant Colonel Carter must have been successful in handling the Wraith before carrying her to the cave for safety, Teyla surmised.
The thought stunned her. She wasn't unaware of that the new leader of Atlantis was a warrior, an officer in the same military unit as John Sheppard. Teyla had even seen her in action when the team had been rescued from the Wraith after being betrayed by Ronon's friends although she remained slightly sceptical of the stories told by John and Evan about the exploits of SG1. Yet during the last month or so since the Colonel had assumed control of Atlantis, Teyla realised she had allowed herself to lose sight of the Colonel's background, to only see that the other woman occupied Elizabeth's position. She had assumed more similarities between the women than differences.
She owed her life to the differences. She did not believe that Elizabeth could have killed the Wraith nor carried her to safety in the way the Colonel had evidently done. She felt her gut knot with guilt as though the thought was a betrayal of her friend but she equally could not shake the notion she had been unfair to the Colonel. She remembered regarding the Colonel's weapons at the beginning of the mission, and disapproving silently because Elizabeth would not have attended a diplomatic mission armed.
The loss of Elizabeth welled up again inside of her. She felt her friend's absence in the City like it was a physical ache. She had lost so many friends in recent months. Elizabeth had sacrificed her own life to save her team but Teyla was hopeful that she was still alive and would one day return to them. It jarred her to find her feet taking her towards Elizabeth's office only for her to remember she was no longer there. It jarred more to see the Colonel there occupying Elizabeth's space; an intruder no matter that Teyla knew it was an irrational thought.
Teyla let go of the useless emotions crowding in on her; making her headache worse. Comparisons were inevitable if unhelpful.
A rustle by the entrance had her eyes snapping open again. She grasped the gun and held it ready. A foot appeared in the doorway covered in a standard issue Atlantis boot. She lowered the weapon as the Colonel eased into the small cave.
Her eyes immediately lit up when she saw Teyla was awake and she hurried over to assess Teyla's condition, placing her gun on the floor beside her. 'How are you feeling?' She reached into her vest and pulled out an antiseptic wipe. She cleaned her fingers before she began examining Teyla.
'As though I have been throttled by a Wraith.' Teyla was unsurprised at the croaky sound of her voice and she deduced the Colonel was also used to throat injuries given her lack of surprise. Teyla suffered through the test of her mental alertness, confirming she could see three fingers, and tried not to flinch as those same fingers probed the scratches on her neck.
'I don't like the look of these.' Sam murmured. She pulled out a tube of ointment and smeared the thick white paste across Teyla's neck in methodical strokes. 'This is an antibiotic. It should stop them getting infected.'
'Wraith sometimes dip their nails into poison eventually ensuring the poison is embedded in them.' Teyla commented. 'It is not strong enough to kill their prey but it weakens them and makes it unlikely that they will escape.'
Sam grimaced. 'Nice.'
'There could be another Wraith.' Teyla murmured.
'I don't think so.' Sam said, sitting back and replacing the top on the ointment. 'I think if they'd been working in a pair, we both would have been attacked simultaneously.'
'Perhaps.' Teyla demurred. 'But there are still Wraith at the village who could come looking for us.'
'Especially as we were the target?' Sam nodded. 'I know.' She glanced around and settled beside Teyla, resting her back on the wall. 'I followed the river back towards the village. We're about ten minutes from the village and thirty minutes from the position where the Wraith attacked us. I estimate we're about an hour from the 'Gate.'
Teyla looked at her set jaw and considered the fact that the Colonel had headed back towards the danger instead of away from it. She was not surprised. After working with John for such a long time, she had come to expect such strange decisions. Tactically it seemed foolish.
'I muddied the trail when I went back for the guns,' Sam said as though she had read Teyla's thoughts, 'hopefully they'll take the bait and think we're still headed North.'
Not so foolish, Teyla realised. The Wraith would assume they would flee. They might eventually track their position regardless but they would not usually guess that their prey had travelled back towards them instead of away.
'I'm sensing these caves are filled with naquadah so they should confuse any technology they might use.' Sam continued when Teyla remained quiet.
'You do not have a sensor.' Teyla murmured confused.
Sam's smile flashed over at her for a short moment. 'You can sense the Wraith; I can sense naquadah.'
Teyla guessed from the Colonel's tone that there was more to it than her simple statement. She didn't probe. She knew from her own situation that some things were better left alone.
Sam rooted in the pack, sorting out food items. She glanced over at Teyla and handed a packet to her. Macaroni cheese: bland and soft enough not to upset her stomach or her throat yet nutritious enough to provide her with some sustenance. Teyla grimaced but she knew she needed to eat something. She began to spoon the mixture into her mouth as she watched the Colonel tuck into a similar looking MRE. It was evidently a chore to the Colonel: she ate methodically with no wasted motions, quickly and efficiently. Teyla wondered if she even tasted the food; perhaps that was a blessing.
Teyla swallowed more of her own meal. 'How long was I unconscious?'
'Over three hours.' Sam informed her briskly. 'I think you have a major concussion.' She finished her meal and rolled up the packet, disposing of it in a plastic wrapper that she returned to the back-pack. 'I'm afraid I had to leave you. I needed to do some recon on the village.'
Teyla's eyebrows lifted.
'Five hostiles.' Sam reported. 'They've gathered the villagers into the square and look like they're settling in to wait for something. Lorne is with them. I couldn't see Carey.'
'They await the arrival of a Hive.' Teyla stated.
Sam took a long gulp from the water canteen. 'I overheard some chatter. The village Elders made some kind of deal. They were supposed to deliver me; the village would be spared the culling.'
Teyla closed her eyes. It was insane to deal with the Wraith. They rarely kept their bargains. The Obdai must have been very desperate to agree to it.
'Why you?' Teyla questioned, stirring the macaroni listlessly.
'My Replicator knowledge.' Sam shrugged. 'I'm not sure how they know or what they know exactly but they seem to think I could help them stop the Replicators attacking them.'
Teyla looked at her inquisitively. 'Could you?'
Sam lifted a shoulder. 'McKay's more familiar with their base code and it might take me more time than him to pinpoint the changes required but, theoretically? Yes.'
The gleam of intelligence in Sam's eyes brought to mind Teyla's team-mate and she reminded herself that McKay envied the scientific achievements of the woman in front of her. Another difference she had allowed herself to ignore.
'Not that I would change the code.' Sam assured her suddenly.
There was enough finality in the Colonel's voice to convince Teyla the other woman would not comply under any circumstances. There was also something else that worried Teyla.
'You are not considering offering yourself for the lives of the villagers and Major Lorne.' She asked bluntly.
Sam glanced over at her. 'No.' She drew her knees up to her chest and shook her head. 'But doing nothing doesn't seem like a plan either.'
And for all their differences, the Colonel was as compassionate and generous as Elizabeth, Teyla mused. It would be easy to leave the villagers to their fate given their betrayal yet it was not an option the Colonel was considering.
Teyla regarded her companion evenly. 'What do you suggest?'
'I need to head to the 'Gate and scope out the situation there. I know it's likely that the Wraith are holding the 'Gate.' Sam's lips twisted. 'But it's possible Schimdt and Barlett evaded capture when the Wraith came through and could retake it. '
'Providing an escape route.' Teyla gave a slow nod, careful of her injury. 'How do you intend for us to free the villagers?'
Sam regarded her with a long stare. 'You're injured,' she began.
'I can fight.' Teyla said flatly. She had fought with worse injuries. 'And you will have need of back-up.'
Sam frowned but she didn't argue. She tapped her fingers lightly against her weapon. 'They've parked the Wraith darts on the far side of the village.'
'You intend to fly a dart?' It had worked successfully as a strategy for John before, Teyla considered.
'No, I was actually intending to blow them up.' Sam gestured at her, taking in her bemusement. 'I could fly one of them but it would take me time to learn the controls and I don't think the Wraith will give me that. Blowing them up would provide a distraction.'
'Some of the Wraith in the village would be sent to investigate,' Teyla immediately saw her plan, 'splitting their forces.'
Sam rubbed her forehead, leaving a smear of dirt across her temple. 'We should be able to eliminate the Wraith.'
'And convince the villagers to evacuate or let us go.' Teyla finished her meal and allowed the Colonel to divest her of the rubbish. 'It is a good plan.'
'It's a plan.' Sam muttered. She looked at her watch and began to organise her things to move out. She motioned at Teyla. 'I'm going to head for the 'Gate. You should rest.'
Teyla thought for a moment to argue but nodded instead. She needed to conserve her energy for the later rescue attempt and should the Colonel be captured it would be up to Teyla to execute their plan. 'Good luck, Colonel.'
Sam bit her lip and paused as though considering whether to say something more. She shook her head as though shaking away whatever thought had arrested her and left the cave.
Teyla shut her eyes, her hands tucking the P90 she held closer to her. She let the trickling water lull her into a light doze and refused to consider that the Colonel might not return or that the Hive would arrive before they could act.
Sam allowed her body to settle into a rhythm as she made her way from the cave to the 'Gate. She had taken a wide arc around the village to avoid being detected, weighing the extra delay with the knowledge that if she got caught it was game over completely, and knew it was worth it.
She kept low and fast. The trees and undergrowth helped provide her cover but she was careful where she placed her feet, ensuring soft landings that wouldn't snap a twig or crunch some leaves and give away her position. She silently thanked Jack and Teal'c for every lesson they'd taught her about stealth and speed. She needed both if she was going to get herself and her people safely home.
Her conscience twinged at leaving Teyla alone in the cave again but she couldn't afford the luxury of waiting until the other woman was recovered enough to move. Teyla was armed; the cave was well-covered. It was unlikely a Wraith would make her position.
She slowed as her body began to tingle. Naquadah. She was near to the 'Gate. She considered her options and changed direction, heading towards the back of the 'Gate and the thick cover of the trees there. She had barely gone three paces when she almost stumbled over a body.
Sam knelt by the corpse; her heart already squeezing tightly at the sight of the Atlantis BDU. She gently turned the body over and flinched at the sight of the aged shrunken flesh and papery skin; the wisps of white hair that clung to the back of Barlett's head. His face was a grotesque death mask of horror; his shirt and vest flapped open revealing the hand-print and raw lesion left from the Wraith's feeding. She reached out and closed the dull blue eyes. Her hand tugged on the dog-tags and she pocketed them before she picked up Barlett's discarded gun.
She swallowed the bile that rose in her throat and pushed her grief into the back of her mind. If there was an opportunity they would come back and retrieve the body, but there was nothing more she could do for him. She had to focus on the living.
Another hundred meters and she dropped to her stomach, crawling along the forest floor until she reached a good position to take a look at the 'Gate. She reached into the top pocket of her vest and brought out a monocular. She positioned it and peered through the lens.
The Stargate was dormant but two Wraith foot-soldiers stood guard by the DHD. Sam caught a movement to her right and repositioned the monocular. Schmidt. He had made it! She put the monocular away and moved silently around to his position.
She hovered a good six feet away from where he had concealed himself and tossed a stone at his boot. Schmidt's head snapped up and around at the contact, and she quickly raised a finger to her lips. She signalled for him to follow her. Schmidt nodded.
She led him some distance from the 'Gate, in the opposite direction of Barlett's body before she stopped and indicated a small burrow they could hide in.
Schmidt's dark eyes met hers hopefully. 'The others?' he whispered.
'Barlett's dead.' Sam broke the news to him bluntly in a low voice; there wasn't a way to sugar-coat it. 'Carey's missing. Lorne is a captive with the rest of the village and Teyla is safe but injured.' She quickly explained the situation and the plan.
'I can take care of the Wraith at the 'Gate.' Schmidt said immediately. 'They take a lot of bullets but they do go down eventually.' His jaw clenched; his eyes glittered.
Sam knew he was thinking of his fallen team-mate. 'No suicide moves, Sergeant. I need you to dial one of the potential Alpha sites as soon as the Wraith are eliminated.' She looked him straight in the eye and he nodded. 'Coordinate to make your move when we attack the village in,' she glanced at her watch, 'four hours.'
He checked his own watch. 'Four hours. Yes, ma'am.'
'Can you make your way back?' Sam asked. She needed to put the rest of the plan into action and get her ass back to the village. He nodded again and she patted his shoulder. 'Good luck, Sergeant.'
'You too, ma'am.'
Sam moved immediately. She headed back to the village. She could set the C4 on a timer; retrieve Teyla; rescue the village. Her lips twisted. It sounded so simple. She allowed herself to consider worst case scenarios; to plan contingencies. All it did was confirm their very limited options and the increasing sense that they were running out of time.
The darts were parked out in the open; their long sleek lines lending them an aura of beauty that hid their ugly purpose. Sam paused on the outskirts of the clearing. Her black undershirt was stuck to her with sweat but she paid it no regard. She hid in a thick bush and took a few moments to organise the C4 and the remote detonators. She carefully assessed the area to ensure there were no Wraith.
She aimed for the furthest away first; running flat out, half crouched, her head up and continuing to look for any threats as she covered the ground. She knelt by the side of the dart using it to hide her; gauged where the fuselage was from the various schematics she had seen and pressed the first C4 bomb to its underside.
A brief glance across the clearing again and Sam ran for the next dart. She had just finished attaching the C4 when her ears caught on a cracking branch. She froze. Another sound skittered across the open air. Someone was in the bushes beside the closest village house. She pressed closer to the dart and aimed her gun, peering down the scope.
A flash of red hair shifted into view. Carey. He popped back up and carefully used silent hand signals, knowing she would see him. He had seen her; he had her six.
Sam returned the signal, confirming simply message received. She lowered her weapon and ran for the final dart. She changed her exit plan; running full tilt for the same bush Carey was hiding in. She almost fell over him as she threw herself behind the foliage just in time as a Wraith foot soldier appeared.
They waited for ten anxious minutes as he patrolled the area and another ten minutes to ensure he had left.
'It's good to see you, Colonel.' The young Lieutenant whispered.
'You too, Carey.' Sam filled him in on the plan. He would remain by the darts; detonate the bombs and take care of the Wraith that would come to investigate.
'Two hours. Check.' Carey carefully marked the time. His freckled face seemed so devoid of the battle-fatigue that Sam saw in her own. Had she ever been that young, she wondered. His brow furrowed with doubt and worry.
'You can do this, Lieutenant.' Sam said confidently. She gave his arm a squeeze of reassurance before she left him.
Her own nerves jangled as she put distance between her and the young officer and Sam remembered another disadvantage of leadership: no-one was there to reassure her she could do it.
Teyla waited in the shadows of a large building; her head pounding along with her heart. She took a deep breath, pressing back against the rough wooden wall of the village meeting hall. It was where the elders conducted the business of law and order. No doubt it was where the decision to betray Atlantis had been debated and ultimately taken.
She caught sight of Gaynori, her white head bent in sorrow, holding a weeping child. Teyla hefted the gun. She could not deny the anger that bubbled up inside. The Obdai had betrayed the alliance with Atlantis but, on a personal level, they had betrayed her trust. She had been the one to recommend the alliance, to introduce them, to vouch for them.
How could they have made a deal with the Wraith?
Yet she could not wonder that if it was her people...if it was Athos...would she have been able to hold to her principles? Would she have stood and fought, risked all their lives, or would she have taken the deal? Leadership was never easy and never black and white. There were choices and decisions that had to be weighed.
Her gaze strayed across the huddled bodies of the Obdai to the other side of the square where Colonel Carter waited. She couldn't make out the Colonel's position but she knew the other woman was there, lurking in the shadows.
She felt a pang of empathy towards the Colonel. Teyla knew only too well the weight of responsibility that the Colonel bore. She had led her own people and she also remembered all too well the decisions that had tore at Elizabeth's conscience; the doubts and questions that sometimes Elizabeth had confided in her.
She wondered whether the Colonel confided in John or Rodney. Despite their own closeness with Elizabeth, both her team-mates had accepted the Colonel's presence on the City without the uncertainties that Teyla believed she shared with Ronon. It was natural, Teyla mused. Rodney and John had known the Colonel from Earth, admired and respected her. Colonel Carter was not an unknown to them as she was to Ronon and Teyla. Teyla shifted position, unwilling to acknowledge that she resented how quickly John and Rodney had seemed to move forward with the arrival of Colonel Carter; to forget Elizabeth.
Which was unfair.
One of the Wraith moved in the square and Teyla berated her lack of focus. She checked her timepiece. Another few minutes would pass before the explosions that would herald the start of their attack.
The Wraith advanced towards the crowd and suddenly grabbed Lorne, dragging him from the group of children he had been caring for. A babble of protest broke out; hands reaching out to stop the Wraith. It turned and snarled at the villagers who cowered back.
Lorne tried to resist; he placed a hand on the Wraith's arm and tried to yank his own free.
The Wraith resisted him easily. He threw the Major down on the straw-strewn ground and hit him hard across the face to daze him before a second swipe tore the Major's jacket and shirt open, and revealed his naked chest to the Wraith's hungry gaze.
Teyla tensed. She darted a look toward the Colonel's position. She saw her move; saw the subtle shake of her head. They could not risk taking on all five Wraith; they had to wait no matter what happened to Lorne.
Teyla's lips firmed.
The Wraith's hand descended towards the Major and connected with his skin. His harsh cry mingled with the Wraith's shout of triumph and echoed across the square. It hammered into Teyla with the force of a sucker-punch.
Explosions blasted the silence.
Loud and furious.
Smoke and fire bloomed into the air behind the houses across the square.
The Wraith yanked his hand away from Lorne and gestured for two of the foot soldiers to go and see as the villagers moved to stand, to try and get a better look at the smoke. The soldiers ran off and three Wraith were left.
The leader moved away from Lorne and the remaining two Wraith moved up beside him to assist in subduing the village again; their stun weapons raised to fire.
The Colonel moved and Teyla was a heartbeat behind her, the pain in her head and neck forgotten as adrenaline took over.
Teyla walked forward, firing her weapon steadily; the shots peppered into the Wraith closest to her. It changed direction towards her, jerking with each bullet in a violent parody of some dance as it took step after step. It fell to the floor in front of her feet. She shifted her weapon immediately to target the Wraith who had attacked Lorne and found the Colonel already there with her gun at the Wraith's throat.
'Give his life back to him!' Sam's command rang out across the square.
The Wraith stared at her and smiled nastily. 'It cannot be done.'
'Bullshit.' Sam replied coldly. 'We know it can. Give his life back to him and I will let you live.' She shoved her gun harder against his throat. 'Or I can kill you here.'
The Wraith growled but he bent down and pressed his palm against Lorne's chest. The Major arched up from the ground as his face and body regained the years the Wraith had taken.
The villagers gasped.
The Wraith disengaged and Teyla moved swiftly to help Lorne to his feet, away from the Wraith.
'Now what?' The Wraith snarled.
The sound of pounding footsteps broke the silence.
Teyla froze and aimed her weapon.
Carey burst into view; a Wraith at his heels.
Lorne immediately let go of Teyla and she fired. The running Wraith wobbled ferociously as the barrage of gunfire halted its progress and it dropped to the ground.
Lorne's shout had Teyla changing direction. She turned swiftly and saw the Colonel sprawled on the ground at the lead Wraith's feet – he must have hit her in the distraction of Carey's entrance. The Colonel kicked out but the Wraith evaded and swept his arm back for another blow.
Teyla went for her knife, drawing it from the sheath at her belt and throwing it in a smooth arc. It slammed into the Wraith's feeding aperture. His head snapped to her. She aimed and fired as the Colonel used the moment to scuttle back from harm. Her gunfire added to Teyla's and the Wraith finally fell to the floor.
They were safe.
Teyla breathed out slowly as the villagers began to stir.
The radio chirped. 'Schmidt to Colonel Carter.'
'Carter, here.' The Colonel got to her feet.
'Gate is secure.'
'Good work, Sergeant. We're on our way.' Sam glanced over to Teyla. They'd agreed she would take the lead with the Obdai.
Teyla turned to the astonished villagers. 'There is a Hive ship on its way here.' Her gaze flickered to the dead Wraith. 'You can go with them or you can come with us.'
Gaynori stepped forward. 'You would save us after...'
'Colonel Carter believes your people deserve to be saved.' Teyla said roughly; her eyes hard and cold as they met Gaynori's with a more personal underlying message of her own; they were no longer friends.
Gaynori flushed and looked towards the Colonel. Sam's face was a mask of impassivity; her blue eyes unyielding.
Gaynori nodded slowly. The villagers began to rise.
'Take only what you can carry.' Sam ordered. 'Head to the 'Gate.' She walked over to Teyla.
The Colonel's uniform was smeared with dirt and blood. The majority of her blonde hair had come free from her ponytail. It hung lankly around her smudged, sweaty face where a bruise was blooming on her left cheek. She looked far removed from the pristine and self-controlled officer who commanded Atlantis on a daily basis.
'You OK, Major?' Sam asked. Her eyes ran over Lorne briskly, checking for herself.
'I've had better days, Colonel.' Lorne replied dryly.
Sam smiled at him sympathetically. She nodded at Teyla. 'Get Lorne and yourself to the 'Gate. Carey and I will take care of the evacuation.'
Teyla nodded. She shifted to place her arm around Lorne's waist as he placed one over her shoulders.
'You're injured.' Lorne's eyes landed on her bandaged forehead.
'So are you, Major.' Teyla allowed a small smile to lift her lips. 'It is time to go home.'
Teyla spared a glance towards where the Colonel was competently organising the village evacuation, a proud Carey by her side, an expression of hero-worship on his young face.
'Now you know why she's a living legend back home.' Lorne commented.
Teyla turned them toward the Stargate. It seemed to her that the Colonel was a very human living legend and, perhaps, that made her even more admirable.
Sam made her way through the City corridors, nodding at the personnel who passed. She ignored the glances and whispers that followed her. She had endured the same at the SGC after some of SG1's more dramatic escapades. She knew the stories would circulate and get exaggerated before something else would happen and it would become yesterday's news.
She grimaced at the various aches and pains in her body; the way her leg muscles protested with every step, the tiny cuts and scratches that covered her hands, the continual pain in her lower spine, strained from carrying Teyla. With the battle over and the adrenaline gone, she was remembering only too well that she hadn't been off-world in weeks; wasn't entirely fit for stalking through forests or taking on Wraith. She made a mental note to up her gym time. Maybe she could ask Ronon or Teyla to help her spar, keep up her reflexes. As it was she had slept for eight hours straight once she'd returned to Atlantis from the planet that the Obdai now occupied.
They had managed to evacuate all of the villagers without the Hive showing up. Once away from the Obdai planet, Sam had sent Teyla, Lorne and an injured Schmidt through to Atlantis and requested back-up. Sheppard had organised the dispatch of medics, of survival equipment and other personnel – as much as they could spare. They would rebuild the relationship over the next few months as they helped the Obdai resettle but Sam knew she would never wholly trust them again.
She made her way to the infirmary. Jennifer Keller had released Carey but Schmidt, Lorne and Teyla had been kept for treatment and observation. Schmidt's knee ligaments had been torn in his efforts to retake the 'Gate; he would head back to Earth and recover there. Lorne had been beaten but his injuries were minor. The return of his life-force had seemingly been without side-effects. Teyla had been diagnosed with concussion and assigned a bed. She just wanted to check in on them, Sam told herself.
Sam met Lorne just outside the infirmary doors. 'Major.'
'Colonel.' Lorne straightened automatically.
'I was just coming to see you.' Sam admitted. 'How are you feeling?'
Lorne lifted a shoulder. 'Better than Barlett.'
Sam nodded understandingly. 'I wondered if you'd like to escort Schmidt back to Earth.' She left unspoken that it would mean he would have the opportunity to visit with Barlett's family; to deliver the young Captain's letters and personal effects to his loved ones personally.
'Thank you, Colonel. I'd like that.' Lorne said with simple sincerity.
'I'll clear it with Colonel Sheppard.' Sam promised. She wondered whether to apologise: it had been her decision not to attack early and save him from the experience of being Wraith food even if she had convinced the Wraith to give back what he had taken. She bit her lip and realised Lorne was looking at her just as intently as she was looking at him. Sam raised an eyebrow.
'Sorry, Colonel.' Lorne flushed as he realised he had been staring. 'I, uh, I was just wondering how you were?'
'I'm fine.' Sam replied automatically. She gave a self-deprecating smile. 'Kinda regretting enjoying the chocolate cake in the mess for the last six weeks.'
Lorne accepted her answer; both the one she'd given him and the silent one that she didn't want to answer him at all. 'Uh, Colonel? You do know it's not really chocolate...'
She held up a hand. She really didn't want to know what it was. 'It's chocolate cake to me, Major.'
'Understood, Colonel.' Lorne said with a genuine smile lighting his face for a second.
Sam nodded a dismissal and took a step toward the infirmary.
Sam looked back at him inquiringly.
'It was good to see you in action in the field again.' Lorne said.
I understand, his eyes said: I forgive you. Or maybe that was her wishful thinking. Sam attempted a smile and waved him away, her chest too tight for her to thank him verbally.
She entered the infirmary. The smell of antiseptic hit her and her nose wrinkled in response. It might be in another galaxy but the distinctive aroma of medicine smelled the same wherever. She made her way to Schmidt's bed. The Sergeant was fast asleep. She read the chart at the end of bed and replaced it softly to avoid waking him.
Another few steps took her into the next ward where Teyla had been placed. Sam hovered in the doorway.
Teyla was curled up in the bed but her team surrounded her. Ronon was sprawled on a chair opposite, his long legs stretched out across the floor. He opened his eyes, lazily appraised Sam with a frank look and closed his eyes again. Sheppard and McKay were dozing in chairs beside the bed; their heads resting together; they may have been drooling.
Sam's lips twitched. She should have brought a camera, she mused. She could blackmail the two of them for months with the picture they made.
Her look turned wistful.
That had been her and her team once; different galaxy and different war but the same sense of family. It would have been Jack and Daniel asleep on each other and Teal'c maintaining watch as they all rested. Or, in later years, it would have been Daniel and Cameron asleep on each other while Teal'c played 'go fish!' with Vala. God, she missed them all.
She stepped back out of view unaware of Teyla's sharp eyes watching her. On the other side of the double doors, she took a deep breath and wrestled her loneliness back into the privacy of her own mind, smoothed her features into the semblance of calm that she had once seen Hammond exude with apparent ease.
The earpiece beeped.
'Colonel Carter to Stargate Operations.' The technician's voice said crisply.
Sam tapped the button to respond. 'On my way.' She turned and headed for the bustle of the control room and her office, grateful for the distraction. One good thing about being leader: there was always something to keep her occupied, something to keep her busy and the loneliness at bay.
Teyla found the Colonel on the balcony outside of Operations. Night had fallen some time before and the City was lit up; lights beaming like beacons across the wide sprawl of its corridors and towers. The moons shone brightly overhead, the sky clear and sprinkled with stars.
Elizabeth had also sought this place, Teyla mused, although the view above had been a different planet. She wondered what drew them to stand there. Did the vastness of the City remind them of their responsibility? Or was the fresh breeze and salty air an escape from the burdens they carried inside the City walls? She had never thought to ask Elizabeth.
The Colonel looked vastly different from the woman who had liberated the Obdai. The blonde hair was stylishly pinned back into a neat chignon; her uniform smartly pressed; her expression filled with a coolness that made her seem as beautiful and as unapproachable as a statue.
Teyla ran her own hands over her brief tunic top and pants as though to check they were clean and decent. Her hair flowed around her shoulders; her bangs covering the still livid bruise on her head. It suddenly seemed foolish to worry about her appearance; the Colonel had seen her bloodied and bruised after all.
She cleared her throat to announce her presence. 'Colonel Carter.'
Sam turned toward her with a smile, her blue eyes lighting up with life and intelligence. There was a shadow of a bruise apparent on her left cheek. It all shifted the coolness into a very human warmth. 'Teyla.'
Teyla approached her with more confidence and rested her hands on the balcony railing. She looked out into the ocean, making out the rolling waves beyond the City. 'I wanted to apologise for the Obdai...' She began awkwardly.
'It wasn't your fault, Teyla.' Sam said firmly. 'You had no reason to suspect that they would hand us over to the Wraith.' She crossed her arms. 'I'm just sorry they used you that way.'
Teyla pursed her lips. 'I no longer consider them trustworthy.'
Sam nodded. 'We'll work through it with them. Maybe the trust will come again someday.'
'You sound like Elizabeth.' The words spilled out before Teyla could prevent them.
Sam smiled as though Teyla had complimented her. 'I hope so. I admire her very much.'
'Then you believe she is alive?' Teyla shot back, assimilating the tense the Colonel had used. Her hair caught the wind and went flying.
'I've learned never to give up on people.' Sam replied, leaning on the railing, memories drifting through her eyes like clouds through a summer sky.
'I have not thanked you yet for saving me.' Teyla admitted.
'I got lucky.' Sam said wryly, glancing at her.
'It was not luck that carried me to safety, Colonel, nor who tended my wounds.' Teyla pointed out dryly.
Sam shrugged and Teyla realised that she was uncomfortable with the praise. 'You saved me from the Wraith in the square.'
There was ringing note of confidence in her voice that had Teyla letting go of a fear that the Colonel would not value her that she hadn't even realised she'd carried.
'We couldn't have pulled off the rescue of the Obdai without you.' Sam continued, unaware of the revelation Teyla was experiencing. 'And believe me; I know how much getting knocked on the head the way you did hurts.'
'I believe you do.' Teyla said calmly. In the infirmary, she had shifted her gaze from the departing Colonel only to find Sheppard alert, his eyes on her, watchful and sympathetic, as though he knew the struggle in Teyla's head and in her heart. His simple words echoed in her head.
'She understands more than you think.'
Teyla's fingers tightened around the metal railing. 'You used to serve on a team such as ours.'
Sam nodded. 'SG1. I served with them for ten years.' She smiled pensively and Teyla caught the glimpse of longing that flittered through her shadowed expression.
'You miss them.' Teyla stated.
'Yes.' The single word required no further explanation. It carried the weight of Sam's current situation in its short note; the loneliness and isolation of her command position.
Teyla breathed in deeply. 'I miss Elizabeth.' She glanced across at the Colonel and found her looking back at her with nothing but compassion.
'She's your friend.' Sam said.
'Yes.' Teyla wondered that she had feared she and the Colonel would not understand each other. She took her courage in both hands and continued. 'I have never wished you were not here, Colonel, so much as I have wished for Elizabeth never to have left.'
Sam sighed softly. 'Would it surprise you if I replied me too?'
The honesty did surprise her and Teyla let the last of her own barriers drop; the need to reach out to the lonely woman in front of her taking over. Elizabeth would not have wanted or expected anything less. 'You should also know that I am glad you are here, Colonel.'
Sam smiled and lifted her face back to the watching moons above. 'Me too.'