Lorne glanced around his briefing room, wondering if he could stay on Atlantis after all that had happened over the past years. Learning that his nightmares were caused by the entity, and that he had played a terrible role in keeping Jennifer Keller locked away in a time dilation field for those years was a shock. A sequence of 'what if' thoughts passed through his mind. What if they hadn't discovered the entity for another six months - or ever? What if he had stayed back on Earth like Hayman, no longer here on Atlantis to connect his bad dreams to that terrible reality?
What if the entity had merely latched on to a hidden darker side of his character rather than been the cause it?
He had harbored some ill feelings for her as she attempted to fill Beckett's shoes, but then he'd harbored similar misgivings for McKay when they first met. Time had given him a chance to look beyond the arrogance and cowardly exterior to see the true mettle of the man. Perhaps if he had given Keller the same consideration then she would not have suffered so harshly.
He had spoken to Keller - Jennifer - at length earlier, wanting to know what had drawn her to that part of the city. The original entity had only interacted within dreams, and unlike him, Jennifer had no history of sleepwalking. She insisted that she'd never been asleep, that she'd received a call to meet them in that tower, on that floor.
Sheppard leaned in and unknowingly gave voice to Lorne's confusion. "I thought the entity jumped from person to person, but if Doctor Keller has been in a time dilation field for the past few years, then the entity should have been in there with her. Not inside Lorne."
Beckett shrugged. "Maybe the baby ones don't have that level of control, and can only send a small piece of themselves into each... host."
"No," McKay stated, and by the look in his eyes he had come to some terrifying revelation. "She wasn't asleep... or sleep walking. Jennifer... Jennifer said she heard voices. Or more specifically, my voice." He paused, face both fearful and serious. "We assumed that the entity needed a... a warm-blooded host. What if it was like the Replicator Elizabeth. A ghost in the machine. What if it had jumped into Atlantis."
"Yeah, now that's a little scary," Sheppard remarked, pointing a finger at McKay, but Lorne could tell by the tightness around his eyes that he was already mostly convinced.
It was the only explanation that made sense. The entity couldn't feed off of Atlantis as the A.I. had no dark emotions like fear or anger or resentment, but it could hide there and use Atlantis to its advantage. It explained why Atlantis had seemed to be a malevolent force, approving of his dark actions in his sleepwalking dreams, and why Jennifer had heard familiar voices.
"If that's true then we can't be sure it's gone." Sheppard looked from one person to the next, his gaze ending up on McKay, looking for answers but it was obvious from the look in his eyes that he had none to give.
"We could set a scan running-."
All eyes turned to Zelenka until the finger-snapping brought them back to McKay.
"No. A purge." His eyes were large and wide, and Lorne could almost see the ideas running through his head, seen through those clear, blue windows.
The chair room was a hive of activity, with scientists flitting to and fro at Rodney's and Zelenka's command.
John watched as Rodney verbally sparred with Zelenka, each throwing out ideas that were sometimes mocked but he knew they were both moving towards a solution. He could see it in their body language, and in their voices as scoffs turned to rapid fire words as each finished the other's sentence. Eventually they were ready to go ahead with their plan to force what remained of the entity out of Atlantis - if it existed at all.
A light touch on his arm startled him. He'd become so preoccupied with watching his partner work that he hadn't registered Keller's entrance.
"Doctor," he greeted solemnly.
Her eyes glanced towards Rodney. "I saw the reports. I know everyone searched for me. Even Major Lorne. It's just so... weird. Only three days ago I was waiting for Rodney's marriage proposal and now..."
John shifted, feeling awkward and guilty in the face of her sadness. "I'm sorry," he responded quietly but sincerely.
"No." Her hand alighted on his forearm for the briefest of touches. "When I was stuck in that room, I never stopped believing in you and Rodney, that you would find me." Her eyes bore into his. "And you did find me."
He winced because they'd had to scale back the search and, eventually, they had stopped looking altogether. Rodney had turned to him for solace while he grieved her loss. With the end of the rules that forbade John to be more than a friend, turning platonic friendship into more had come naturally as the sharpness of her loss dulled to bittersweet memories. John had no regrets though, and Rodney had assured him only last night in their bed that his only regret was for her suffering and not for the life he and John had forged together over the last few years.
He wanted to tell Keller that Rodney had loved her at the time, but as only days rather than years had passed in her eyes, he was afraid that she would try to rekindle that flame despite Rodney's assurances that he only burned for John these days. She looked back across the chair room at Rodney, smiling sadly before her eyes returned to John's.
"I know he loved me in his own way but..."
"But?" he prompted when she trailed off, and she blinked in surprise, as if she had forgotten he was there.
"But I had time to think about our relationship, and I realized I never loved him back unconditionally. I wanted him to be perfect in every way."
"He's not perfect," John shot back and Keller smiled.
"I know, but you love him anyway."
"I do," he replied quietly, and flinched a little when she patted his hand awkwardly.
He frowned in confusion as she walked away until it dawned on him that she had given them her blessing, making him feel guilty for all the times before her disappearance when he had silently wished she had not come between him and Rodney. If the entity had lain hidden inside of Atlantis, then perhaps his dark thoughts were equally to blame as Lorne's, infecting Atlantis with his desires to have Rodney for himself. He drew himself up mentally. He could not change the past, and nor would he if it meant giving up the man he loved.
"We're ready!" Rodney's shout brought his attention back to the situation at hand.
They had scanned every person on Atlantis and had found no sign of the entity. All but essential personnel had gated to the Alpha site after being cleared, leaving just the handful of people in this room. Keller must have insisted on taking Beckett's place, wanting to see this through to the end and John could hardly blame her. In her position he would want the same. He cut a glance towards her and watched as Ronon crossed the room to lean against the wall beside her. Of all of them, Ronon had kept on searching the longest despite Woolsey's insistence that they had to move on, often heading out into unexplored parts of the city alone, but he was no longer the same impulsive man. He no longer believed that every situation could be resolved by blasting it. On Sateda before the Wraith came, Ronon had specialized in engineering and he had returned to studying Ancient technology under Zelenka's instruction. Now he led his own gate team.
Rodney was looking to him, slightly bewildered by his inattention.
"Let's do it," he ordered, and watched as Rodney activated whatever program he and Zelenka had cobbled together.
The lights dimmed then began to flicker wildly, and John felt a strange crawling sensation inside his head as if something was trying to latch onto him. He pushed back on it, easily forcing away the weakened entity and saw Rodney, the only other ATA gene carrier present, doing the same judging by the concentration lines creasing his forehead. Beside Zelenka, the container they had constructed began to glow as the entity sought refuge in the only place left for it.
It was working.
Everything around them went dark, leaving only the glow of the entity within the container to bathe the chair room in a pale yellow glow. No one spoke, not even a whisper as they waited for Atlantis to reset, only seeming to breathe again as the activation sound echoed through the room a moment before the consoles lit back up.
Rodney held up a finger before continuing to tap on the console. When he finally looked back up, he was smiling excitedly.
Lorne watched as Ronon carefully set down the entity just beyond the splash zone of the Stargate on the creature's homeworld. They dialed home immediately and crossed back into Atlantis, and for the first time in years, he felt as if a sense of darkness had lifted from the city. The lights seemed brighter and Atlantis seemed to be reacting just a fraction faster now they had rid it of the entity. Of course he knew that could just all be in his own mind, feeling a lightening of the load of guilt he had carried since the realization that he had played an unknowing part in Keller's disappearance.
A few more days past and he was surprised when Jennifer asked to remain on Atlantis. He thought she would want to run as far away from the city as possible after what had happened but she surprised them all with a hidden strength coming to the fore. He knew adversity could make or break a person, having seen it a dozen times over since joining the military - and the Stargate program - and Jennifer's ordeal had changed her.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, he saw Ronon start to court her again. He had spent seven years as a runner so perhaps he had needed to take another seven years to stop. He had learned from some of his past mistakes, and Lorne could see that Jennifer - or thoughts of her - had driven those small but important changes. Ronon smiled at something she said, his hand reaching across the table they shared to touch her fingers gently.
They looked good together.
Looking across to the other side of the mess hall he saw Sheppard with McKay, Beckett and Teyla, and he smiled. McKay's hands were flying as usual, and Sheppard had that indulgent look as he answered back, leaving McKay spluttering. A roll of McKay's eyes settled into a fond expression as Sheppard grabbed one of the flailing hands and held on tight.
With a decisive sigh, Lorne pushed up from his table. Until an hour ago he had still harbored doubts over whether he could stay in the city after all that had happened but seeing Jennifer and Ronon smiling happily had loosened the tight grip of self-blame. Perhaps he needed to learn how to let go of the past too.
He was off duty, and Beckett's soft lilt seemed to follow him across the mess hall as he bused his breakfast tray. Lorne smiled as he recalled the magnificent view from the balcony on the floor just below the gate room. He hadn't painted in years, believing that desire forever lost to him, but today he felt the urge to finish the painting he had started on a tragic Sunday many years ago.
It was a beautiful day, and Atlantis was calling to him.