They locked her away. Elizabeth wasn't sure what she had expected when she was left on Asuras, but it wasn't this. There was no physical torture, no experimentation. For awhile, Oberoth would come to her cell and talk to her, doing his best to break her down. She endured through all of it, locking the most sacred parts of her deep inside her mind in a room that Oberoth didn't even know existed.
At first, she clung to the faith that John would come for her. He was someone who couldn't let go; leaving a teammate and a friend behind would cause him physical pain. Elizabeth told herself that he would come and he would take her home and she would get past this.
He didn't come.
As that first year pressed on, that one fact was almost enough to shatter her resolve. She had depended on John as she had no one else. She trusted him with the city, her life, and even her emotions. He was someone she didn't have to hide from, and more importantly, someone she knew would always be right beside her, gun drawn. The knowledge that she was now standing all alone was like a physical blow to the stomach.
Oberoth saw her weakness and pressed his advantage, his eyes glinting with something close to glee. One thing Elizabeth had come to learn about the Replicators was that they were showing more and more emotion. Though it was the Ancients they wanted to become like and replace, it was the baser emotions of humans that they were taking on. Anger and sadness were the ones she saw most often, but with Oberoth, there was a tendency towards the cruel and it made her shudder.
It was his enjoyment of her pain that eventually gave Elizabeth the strength she needed. It didn't matter that John hadn't come back. Whatever they were, he had his reasons and there was nothing she could do to change that. She wasn't going to let Oberoth win. It was the principle of the matter.
Eventually, he stopped coming down to see her. Between the war with the Wraith and his continued reach for more power, he had more pressing things to fill his time with. In a last ditch attempt to break her, he left her with something to mull over.
“We uploaded your consciousness into other bodies. Your Colonel Sheppard has encountered them and now believes the real you to be dead. There will be no rescue attempt, Dr. Weir. Not now. Not ever.”
And then he closed the door and left her in the dark.
With nothing else to focus on, and no one else to talk to, Elizabeth turned all of her attention to the nanites inside her. She honestly believed that there had to be some way to retain the advantages of being part-Replicator while making it so that she wouldn't be a danger to the people she cared about.
She was not a computer whiz, and she found herself missing the expertise of Rodney and Radek. There was nothing but time stretching in front of her, though, and she had always been a determined learner. She worked her way through her own base code, eventually figuring out a way to make changes to it without being at a central hub and making changes to the collective. After the euphoria of realizing that she had managed to do it, she waited with bated breath for the automatic upload that came every few days. Elizabeth knew that it was likely to wipe out her changes, but if she was ready for it, maybe she could work her way around that, as well.
The upload never came.
At first, she wondered if maybe she was just expecting it too early, but a few days later, it still hadn't gone through. Then she thought that maybe the upload had gone through and she simply hadn't noticed. As she ran a search through her code, though, she realized that that couldn't be right, either. Something was going on above her, but for the time being, she had no way to know what it was. When two months went by and still nothing happened, Elizabeth focused on making all the changes she wanted to her code. It was time-consuming and it was tiring, but she had no distractions. By the end of her second year on Asuras, she figured out how to do the one thing she had always wanted above anything else.
She turned the nanites off.
Most systems were built to avoid turning themselves off, as a matter of self-preservation. Not to mention the fact that Elizabeth knew there was a chance she could die if she deactivated the nanites. After the explosion on Atlantis, they were the only reason that she had survived. Rodney had told her that without them, there would be nothing left to keep her alive. As she mentally fingered the switch, she closed her eyes and sent up a silent prayer before shutting them all down.
She didn't die. The months she had spent repairing the inside of her body in the hopes that it would be able to sustain itself without the nanites had paid off. In a way, she had almost rebuilt her body. Now that the nanites were off, she felt more herself. The feel of the cot beneath her felt more real, her breathing more labored. She felt...human.
Taking another deep breath, she flicked the switch back on and the nanites came back to life. She played with the switch a few more times to make sure that it would continue to work properly and then she smiled.
It was time to get the hell out of here.
In this heightened state, the locks to her cell might as well not have been there. Elizabeth exited slowly, looking up and down the white hallway to make sure that she was alone. There were no guards, and as she moved down the hall, she realized that there were no other prisoners, either. She wondered if she had had the place to herself for her entire captivity, or if it was a recent development.
There were no guards on the stairs, either. She avoided the lifts, knowing that any unexpected movement near the cells would bring her unwanted attention.
By the time she reached the main floor of the building, Elizabeth knew that something was wrong. She hadn’t seen anyone - Replicator, Wraith, or human - and that just didn’t make sense. The city wasn’t only empty; it appeared to be off, as well. Machines were shut down all around her, not even with the familiar hum of stand-by. It was all just...off.
Had the war with the Wraith gone so horribly for the Replicators? Had they been forced from their home? Had the Wraith found some way to defeat their enemy so completely? For one horrible second, Elizabeth feared that this was all in her mind, that she was actually still back in her cell and Oberoth was simply playing games with her. The fear was all-encompassing and it weighed on her so heavily that she actually stopped walking, feet tripping over each other as she stumbled.
Intellectually, she knew that she would always have that fear. There were always going to be times when she second-guessed herself and worried that she had never rewritten her code, never switched off the nanites. There really wasn’t anything she could do about that. She had to make the decision, though, as to whether she was going to let those moments of doubt derail her. She had to choose her reality and put her faith behind it completely. Otherwise...well, otherwise she might as well have stayed in her cell.
Taking deep breaths to steady herself, Elizabeth forced herself to stand up straight and continue walking. She was no longer a prisoner, and therefore had no reason to stay in her prison. It was time to go home.
Everything was off in the city - and that included the controls that worked the Stargate. Elizabeth knew that she could turn them back on and use the Gate, but she was more than a little afraid to go that route. She didn’t know if her ability to rewrite her own code had come from the fact that the city was shut down, and if the machines were powered up again, there was a chance the uploads she had missed would go through anyway. Even with her nanites powered off, she didn’t want to risk the chance of losing the progress she had made.
Instead, she found herself a small ship that she could pilot with relative ease. The jumper was very similar to those on Atlantis, and John had insisted once that she at least learn the basics of flying, in case anything ever happened to him while they were off-world. The memory of that lesson caught her off-guard, and she found herself both anxious to see him again and apprehensive about what would happen.
That was why she didn’t set a direct course for Atlantis. Her sudden appearance would startle her friends, and they were already going to be on their guard with her. Oberoth had told them that she was dead. The fact that she wasn’t was going to take some time to get used to - and she knew that there would be tests they would insist on running to make sure everything was as she said it was. She couldn’t blame them for that; she would do the same if she were in their position.
All of that meant that she couldn’t just fly to Atlantis. Instead, Elizabeth put in the coordinates for a planet she had once visited with John and his team, hoping that she’d be able to send them a message from there.
John had no idea where in the hell they had come from - not the crazy ninjas with the red tattoos on their faces, nor the crazy commando with the little girl. The only thing he was sure of was that he had been separated from his team and the odds did not seem to be in his favor. Firing wildly into the knot of ninjas, he looked over his shoulder to make sure that the other two had reached the tree line safely and then he dove after them, taking temporary cover behind a fallen tree.
The concealment of the forest gave them a brief respite, and as John caught his breath, he took a moment to look over his new companions. The man was tall and lean, though well-built, and he obviously knew his way around a fight. The shots he had delivered while protecting the girl with him had been measured and precise, and his face was calm as he carefully considered their situation. John would have put large sums of money on the fact that he was military of some sort. The girl didn’t look older than ten, and though it was obvious that she was scared, she kept a lid on her tears and did her best to put a brave face on. Her dark hair was in pigtails and she wore what looked like a school uniform. The way she clung to the man made John wonder if it was her father.
“So,” John said, looking to break the silence more than anything else. “Any reason in particular the crazy ninjas are trying to kill you?”
The man gave him a look. “I thought they were trying to kill you.”
“Probably even odds on that one.” He paused. “Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. Air Force.”
The man nodded and John knew that his assumption had been right. “Lieutenant Commander Steve McGarrett. Navy SEAL.” He placed his free hand on the little girl’s head. “This is Grace.”
John gave her a tight smile. “Pleasure. Now, uh...my team is around here somewhere, but I’m pretty sure the red tattoos are between us and them. And I don’t think trying to go through them is a good option.”
Steve looked up with a grimace. “Especially not when they’re moving through the tree tops.”
“Dammit,” John hissed. “Time for us to get going then.”
“Any idea what’s on the other side of the forest?”
John shrugged. “Guess we’ll find out.”
Steve knew that something wasn’t right. Despite the fact that he and Sheppard were moving quickly, their pursuers should have caught up to them by now. They seemed to have a familiarity with the forest that he and Sheppard didn’t, and the fact that they were swinging through the trees meant that they should have been right on top of them.
But they weren’t.
They were still there, somewhere behind them. Whenever things had been silent for too long and Steve began to wonder if maybe they had outrun them, there would be a rustle of leaves or the snapping of a twig and he would know that they were still being followed.
“Just to make sure we’re on the same page here,” Sheppard said suddenly, “we both know that they’re herding us, right?”
Steve tightened his grip on Grace and nodded. “Yeah. This is definitely a trap.”
“Oh good. As long we’re aware of that.”
“It’s not like we have many choices here. They’re behind us, and I’m pretty sure they’re still above us. The only way we can move is forward.”
Neither mentioned that they might have had more options if it weren’t for Grace. Though she was brave and hadn’t once complained about the forced run, the fact was that she was a little girl. Her legs were already past the point of tired, and Steve had scooped her up after she started tripping over her own feet. If it had just been him and Sheppard, they might have considered turning around and looking for a way past the crazy ninjas so that they could reunite with John’s team. That scenario was out of reach, though, and the only thing they could was keep running and do their best to keep Grace safe.
When the trees finally began to taper off, they came to a stop and stared. There, in the middle of a clearing, stood a house. John had seen a lot of things in the Pegasus Galaxy, but there weren’t usually a ton of houses that looked like something he would see back on Earth. And the building in front of him was your basic farmhouse, though it looked as though it had seen better days. The wood was a muddy brown and rotting; the place looked like it had been deserted for years. Only half of the windows still had glass in the, and the front porch was sagging.
“Think that’s the trap?” John asked.
“Probably.” There was a loud crash in the trees behind them, and they knew that their pursuers were getting closer. “Dammit. I hate being led around by the nose.”
“We need to rest. We might have a chance at holding them off in there.”
“Unless there’s someone already in there.”
“Maybe they’ll underestimate just how much damage two pissed off guys can do.” John glanced around the clearing. “I’m not too keen on running across open ground, though. They could mow us down.”
“The ones behind us didn’t have guns.”
“No, but they seemed pretty proficient with the swords and hand-to-hand combat.” John stared at the clearing for another few seconds. “Okay, I’m gonna run across first. Cover me. If nothing happens, you and Grace follow, and I’ll cover you, okay?”
Steve nodded as the sounds behind them grew louder. They were out of options, and they were out of time. “Go.”
There was no doubt in Steve’s mind that this was a trap when Sheppard made it across the clearing without any opposition. He managed to keep from cursing out loud, but he wished that Danny and the rest of his team were there. As much as he joked about it, Danny really was his backup, and Steve didn’t feel right without him watching his back. His loud-mouthed friend wasn’t there, though, and Gracie needed his protection. Steve was going to do whatever he had to to make sure that she got home safely to her Danno.
Seeing Sheppard give the signal, Steve clutched Grace and ran for the house, trying to use his body to shield hers as much as possible. There were no bullets though, no knives or yells. They made it to the porch without incident.
“Look,” Sheppard murmured.
Steve turned around to see that the tattooed men who had been chasing him were positioned just inside the tree line. They didn’t look as though they planned to attack, but they did make one thing very clear. Going back through the trees was not an option for them.
“Door’s unlocked, too,” John said.
“Uncle Steve?” Grace asked, her voice quiet and tight.
“Are we gonna be okay?”
He kissed the top of her head. “I won’t let anything happen to you, sweetheart. I promise.” He turned to John. “We might as well go in.”
The other man nodded, backing towards the door. “I’m planning on shooting anything that moves in there. You okay with that?”
“That was pretty much my plan.”
“Glad we could agree on that.”
With one last look toward the trees, they moved inside.
Danny didn’t think he’d ever been in such a panic. Grace gone missing was enough to send him into a spiral, his stomach feeling as though it were knotted and dipped in acid, slowly burning a hole through him. His heart pounded in his chest and his mouth felt like a piece of sandpaper had replaced his tongue.
Things were so confused, and the enormity of it was making him dizzy. Someone grabbing Grace after school. Grace’s nanny calling him because she couldn’t find Rachel. Steve calling from the hospital to say that he had a lead on Grace and he and Malia were going to check it out. Intellectually, Danny understood why Malia would insist on going with Steve - if they found Grace and something had happened to her, having a doctor available right away could make every difference. But his heart lodged somewhere in his throat at the thought of his baby girl being hurt.
And now Steve wasn’t answering his phone, either.
Kono drove like a madwoman, following the GPS trace they had on their boss’s cell. The signal had cut out a little while ago, but it was the last lead they had and their only hope at the moment. Danny glanced into his side mirror to see Chin roaring behind them on his motorcycle. He knew that Grace was more than just a coworker’s daughter to them, and Steve was more than just their boss. This was ohana, and that meant they were locked and loaded. Nobody was going to get left behind.
The GPS led them to an abandoned warehouse, and for a fleeting second, Danny wished that they would just knock every warehouse on the island down. Shady things were always happening inside of them. That thought was quickly shoved away as Kono stopped the car and they both rushed out, guns at the ready. His best friend was probably in there, with his daughter and his ex-wife. Not to mention Chin’s wife. Danny was going to raise some serious hell if he didn’t get all of those people back to him in one piece.
“HPD backup is on the way,” Chin said as he joined them. “I don’t expect us to wait for them, though.” It wasn’t a question.
“We are going in and we are bringing our people out,” Danny said. “End of story.”
The cousins nodded and Danny took point. The sun was setting behind him, making the shadows long and strange. As he stepped quietly into the warehouse by a side door, he saw that none of the lights were on. The day’s fading sun gave them enough to see by, but what they saw defied anything they were expecting or could even really understand.
There was no Steve. No Grace. A strange device stood near the center of the room, emitting a stream of bright blue light that seemed to just stop as though there were an invisible barrier three feet away. The air around it shimmered, and Danny thought he could see tiny rainbow arcs of light around it. A groan tore his attention away, though, and he saw a man struggling to get back to his feet. Malia wasn’t far away, kneeling beside a body, her hands covered in blood.
Danny’s heart plummeted into his stomach. Rachel.
Yelling something to Chin and Kono about securing the guy who was trying to get up, he rushed to his ex-wife’s side, sliding to his knees beside Malia. He didn’t know what he was expecting, but he was too late. Malia was crying and Rachel wasn’t breathing, and Danny felt like his entire world was cracking piece by piece. If he didn’t find Grace and Steve soon, he knew that he was going to shatter.
“I’m so sorry, Danny,” Malia whispered. “I tried everything I could. But she was bleeding, and my cell phone got busted in the scuffle...”
He shook his head. Brushing a hand through Rachel’s hair, he closed her eyes and said a silent goodbye. There was nothing he could do for her now.
“Grace,” he said, turning to the woman next to him. “Where’s Grace?”
It was then that he realized how badly shaken Malia looked. She was a doctor and used to handling the stress of life and death situations. Whatever had happened before they got there had been something bigger, though, and he could see that her body wanted to go into shock. Her hands were starting to shake and he reached out for them, needing her to hold it together for just a little while longer.
“Grace,” he repeated. “Malia, I need to know what happened.”
She swallowed, nodding as she forced the panic down. “They had already shot Rachel by the time we got here. Steve shot the guy that did it.” Her eyes quickly glanced over to a body hidden in the shadows, unmoving. “But the other guy...he had Grace tied up in front of that machine and it was aimed at her, Danny. Steve didn’t have a clear shot, so he ran for her...That, that light. It hit them both and then...and then they were just gone. I ran to help Rachel and that guy tried to stop me. I hit him as hard as I could. But I was too late, Danny.”
“You said that they were gone,” he said, forcing his voice to stay low. “What do you mean? They couldn’t have blown up, there’s nothing here.”
She shook her head, but it was the man Kono had handcuffed that answered. “That’s because they didn’t blow up. I sent them somewhere else.”
He wasn’t making any sense.
“Sent them somewhere else?” Danny asked. “What the fuck does that even mean. Where the hell is my daughter?”
The guy shrugged. “Wo Fat told us to make McGarrett disappear so he couldn’t cause any more trouble for him. I needed to test the device first, and he said your daughter was a perfect subject.”
Danny was on his feet now, blood boiling as it coursed through him. “WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER?!?!” he roared.
“You’ll have to go through and find out,” he said, nodding at the blue light. “I suggest doing it soon, though.” He looked over at a gauge that was steadily moving towards the red. “I’d say this thing’s got about two minutes before it blows.”
“I’ll call HPD,” Chin said. “Let them know we’ve got potential explosives on the scene.”
Danny was staring at the blue light. “Kono, I want you to help Stan make the arrangements for Rachel’s funeral. Make sure it’s something nice, okay? And make sure my mom and pop are there. They really liked her.”
Kono frowned. “What? Why aren’t you doing it?”
“Because I’m going after Grace.” She looked at the light and then started shaking her head, but Danny cut her off. “Don’t try to talk me out of it.”
“Screw that,” Kono spat out. “You’re not going alone. Steve is there, too, which means I’m going. Besides, you need someone to watch your back.”
Chin had finished alerting HPD, and was now staring at his cousin, obviously torn. Grace and Steve were family to him, and Kono was blood. His eyes were wet as he turned towards Malia, words that he couldn’t even articulate sticking his throat. He didn’t need to say anything, though. Pushing herself to her feet, she wiped her bloody hands on her shirt and came to stand with him.
“You go through, I go through,” she said quietly. “I won’t ask you to stay, Chin. I know how cruel that would be. But I won’t let you go without me.”
He stared at her in wonder and disbelief. “Are you sure?”
“Ohana doesn’t only mean that nobody gets left behind. It also means that nobody has to face the future alone. Our people are lost wherever that thing sent them, and we have to go after them. I understand that.”
“Less than a minute, people,” the perp announced. “I think it’s lovely that you’ve all decided to stick together. Now can we just head towards the pretty blue light and get out of here?”
Kono sneered at him. “You’re not coming with.”
His eyes widened. “What? You can’t just leave me here! The explosion -”
Danny pointed his gun at him. “Shut up.” Turning to his friends, he took a deep breath. “You guys don’t have to come.”
Kono reached out and squeezed his free hand. “You’re stuck with us, brah. You should know that by now.”
Malia and Chin both nodded in agreement. With one last look at Rachel’s body, Danny turned and stepped in the path of the blue light, his friends only half a step behind him.
Twenty-three seconds later, the warehouse exploded.
John wondered when they had dropped into horror movie.
As soon as they were beyond the threshold, the door slammed shut behind them. They both spun around; Steve set Grace on the ground and reached for a knob that was no longer there. Exchanging a worried glance with John, he felt along the wood, looking for some way to open the door back up. But the door wasn’t there anymore. A solid wall presented itself to them, whole and unmovable.
“I always hated the horror house,” John muttered under his breath.
“At fairs,” he explained. “I was always more of a ferris wheel man.”
Steve let that pass, walking over to one of the windows. From the outside, it had looked as though half of them were missing their glass. Now that they were on the other side, the glass was unbroken.
“What do you think the chances are that we can break this?” he asked.
John grimaced. “Not good. Might as well try, though.”
Pulling at it did no good, despite the fact that Steve tried until he was red in the face. He tried kicking next, but the glass didn’t give at all. Though he was tempted to try punching it out, he had a feeling that he might very well break his hand. Instead, he pulled out his gun and pointed it at the glass.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Everyone spun again to see a shimmering man standing in the doorway that led to the kitchen. John frowned, taking an involuntary step forward.
Steve looked at him sharply. “What are you talking about? That’s Wo Fat.” He turned to the man, gun pointed at his chest. “I swear to God -”
The man held up his hands. “I am neither of those men.” He turned to John. “You, Colonel Sheppard, see your father. A man you did nothing but disappoint your entire life.” His gaze shifted to Steve. “And you, Commander McGarrett, see Wo Fat - the man you fear more than any other, because of what he’s already taken from you.” He looked down at Grace, a small smile tugging at his lips. “And who do you see, Grace?”
She clung to one of Steve’s hands, tense, but refusing to step back at all. “A bad man,” she said quietly.
She didn’t elaborate, and the man in front of them clapped his hands together. “See? I am different to each one of you.”
“Why?” Steve asked. “Who are you?”
“My name would mean nothing to you. Though I do find that you humans feel a bit better when something has a proper title, and since you’re not likely to get any other comfort for quite a long time, and I’m feeling a bit generous...You may call me Strohgen. And this,” he gestured around him, “is my home. Which you have let yourselves into without even asking. A bit rude, if you ask me.”
“And we’re real sorry about that,” John replied. “So if you’ll just show us a back way out of here, we’ll get out of your hair.”
Strohgen feigned sadness. “If only it were that simple. There are rules, though, and you have to play by them. You are an unwelcome guest in my house, which means now you are unwilling prisoners.”
Steve’s eyes glinted dangerously. “You really think you can keep us here against our will?”
“Your will means absolutely nothing here, Commander. As I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough.” He sighed, looking around him with pride. “This is a very special house. There might be a way out, but nobody has found it yet. Each piece of wood was taken from the forest you came barreling out of just a little while ago. And I’m not sure if you know this, but that forest has a bit of a reputation. Nobody who has spent the night in it has ever come out sane. And most of them don’t even make it out alive.
This house...your prison...will conform to you specifically. Every nightmare you’ve ever had, every deep-seated fear that you’ve never been able to put into words...they’re all here. And you will face them, one by one.”
“For how long?”
Strohgen shrugged. “However long it takes you to go insane and kill one another? Or kill yourselves. Both options are equally appealing to me.”
“Why?” John asked. “Why the hell would you do something like this?”
“Because it’s fun,” he replied simply. “And because everyone’s got to eat. I find fear especially tantalizing.”
John looked over at Steve, noting the tension in his arms and shoulders. The man was seriously contemplating jumping Strohgen and doing his best to kill him with his bare hands, but John didn’t think that would work. Whatever was going on here wasn’t natural. His eyes dropped down to Grace and his stomach knotted painfully.
“Not her,” he said suddenly. “Not Grace.”
Strohgen looked taken aback. “Excuse me?”
“You do whatever the hell you want to me and McGarrett, but you leave Grace out of it. No nightmarish visions for her. No boogeymen or homicidal clowns or showing her her loved ones dying. Don’t touch her.”
“But where’s the fun in that? I have three prisoners. I deserve three sets of fear.”
“You can double up on us.” Steve nodded in agreement. “But leave her alone.”
“Why should I?” Strohgen pressed. “I’m the one with the power here. You don’t actually have anything to bargain with.”
John inwardly cursed, but Steve seemed to have thought that through. Raising his gun, he placed it to his temple.
“We are the bargaining chips,” he said grimly. “If we’re dead from the outset, you don’t get to feed off any fear and you lose all the way around.”
It wasn’t a gamble he particularly liked, but John had to admit he saw the merit in it.
Strohgen’s eyes narrowed. “You wouldn’t hurt the girl.”
“You think I’d rather leave her in your hands?” Steve asked. His tone was downright dangerous. “You can see inside my head, Strohgen. I’m a soldier, through and through. I always make the tough decisions.”
Strohgen looked from one to the other, seemingly weighing them - or his options. Eventually, he gave a careless shrug and looked away. “Fine. The two of you have the guilt of five old men apiece. Besides, maybe I can get one of you to kill her anyway.”
“Not likely,” John muttered darkly.
Strohgen sighed. “Enough talking. There is one simple rule and that is that you cannot leave. You can try, of course, but it’s just not possible.” He gave them a vicious grin. “Do have a nice day.”
With that, he simply vanished. Grace let out a little gasp and Steve looked down at her. He was glad that Strohgen had agreed to their terms - and touched that Sheppard had tried to protect the girl when he didn’t even know her - but that didn’t mean that Grace was going to have it easy. Getting down on one knee in front of her, he placed his hands on her shoulders.
“I think things are about to get really difficult, sweetheart. And you’ve been really brave about everything, but I need you to keep it up, okay?”
“What did that boogeyman mean?” she asked. “About the stuff you’re afraid of?”
Steve took a deep breath. “I’m not really sure. But I think John and I are going to start seeing things. Some really unpleasant things. I don’t think you’ll be able to see them, but you’ll see us get upset.”
“What can I do to help?”
“Keep reminding us that it’s not real,” Sheppard said. “Remind us that it’s just the three of us in here.” He paused, and then lowered his voice. “Think these visions can hurt us?” he asked.
Steve thought for a moment and then shook his head. “I don’t think so. He seemed mostly concerned with us going crazy or turning on each other. And he let us keep our weapons.”
“Right. Because how I am supposed to go crazy and kill you if I don’t have my gun?”
“Exactly.” Steve turned back to Grace. “We might say things or do things that scare you, and I’m sorry about that. But you won’t see things, okay? John and I made sure of that.”
Grace looked like she wanted to cry, but she was still holding herself together. “Don’t worry, Uncle Steve,” she said, her voice trembling, “I’ll be brave. I won’t let you or Colonel John go.”
Emotion suddenly choking him, Steve nodded and pulled the little girl close, hugging her tightly. “We’ll get through this, Gracie,” he whispered. “I promise. Somehow, I’ll get you out of here and back to Danno, okay?”
She just nodded and hugged him tighter.
Danny landed with a thud in a green field. The ground was soft and warm beneath him, and he squinted against the sunlight. For a sickening moment, he thought that he had lost the others in the journey, but then there were three other thuds around him, and he turned to see that his friends had landed around him. Chin had actually landed on Malia, and he checked to see if she was okay before rolling off of her and sitting up. His wife at up as well, leaning against him as they took in their new surroundings.
“Where do you think we are?” Kono asked, looking around at the expanse of grass.
“It could almost be Hawaii,” Chin said quietly. “But I’m fairly certain that it’s not.”
“Are we going to talk about the fact that we just got zapped by a blue light and ended up somewhere else?” Malia asked. “Or the fact that it suggests some kind of cross-dimensional travel that I didn’t even believe existed before today?”
Kono shook her head. “I honestly think that’s just water under the bridge. Let’s focus on finding Steve and Grace. The other stuff...it can wait.”
“Agreed,” Chin said. Getting to his feet, he turned to help Malia up as well. When he saw that Danny still hadn’t moved or spoken, he frowned. “You okay, brah?”
Danny knew that he wasn’t. Rachel was dead. He had just dragged his friends through some kind of portal that had taken them God knows where, and there was no way to know if they’d ever be able to get back home. They had been told that Steve and Grace were here somewhere, but looking around, the enormity of the whole situation just hit Danny like a ton of bricks. His chest tightened as a small voice in the back of his head warned that he might never see his daughter or his best friend ever again.
Kono squatted down in front of him, taking his chin in her hand and forcing him to look at her. “We will find them,” she said firmly. “We have to, so we will. End of story.”
He could see it in her eyes - the worry, the fear. He could also hear the determination in her voice, though, and he knew that Kono would see this to the end, no matter what. Danny wondered if maybe he would fall apart if he had to handle this on his own, but that didn’t really matter. He wasn’t alone, and they were going to find the people they loved and make sure that they were okay. Pushing himself to his feet, he gave her a hand up before brushing the grass off of his pants.
“Right. So where do we start?”
Chin pointed off to his right. “I see some kicked up dirt over that way. Seems as a good a direction as any.”
Danny nodded. “Let’s go then.”
Things hadn’t gone according to plan for Elizabeth. The jumper she had taken from Asuras malfunctioned before she reached her destination, and she was forced to land on a planet she was unfamiliar with. She knew that she had seen the name in her time on Atlantis, but nothing else came to mind, no matter how hard she tried to remember.
She put the jumper down close to the forest’s edge, hoping the trees would provide her with adequate cover if she were attacked. There was no sign of movement though as she disembarked, and she found herself looking around her very quiet surroundings with a great deal of frustration. In order to get back to Atlantis, she was going to need a Stargate, and chances were that she needed to find locals in order to figure out where the Stargate was. She had no idea which way to go to find either of those.
Just as she was about to randomly pick a direction, her surroundings stopped being quiet. Voices became audible, and it wasn’t long before four people came to a sudden halt in front of her. Both parties were obviously surprised at the meeting, and for a minute, they did nothing but stare at each other. The group before her reminded her so much of Earth that Elizabeth was rendered speechless. Eventually, though, she regained her voice and took a tentative step forward.
“I’m not a threat,” she said, keeping her voice gentle. “But do you happen to know of the nearest Stargate?”
The blond man at the front of the party - the one wearing a tie, she realized - frowned at her. “A what now?”
“The Stargate...perhaps you call it an Ancestral Ring?”
“Lady, I have no freaking clue what you’re talking about. I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’ve seen a crazy SuperSEAL and a little girl running around here, have you?”
Elizabeth shook her head, trying to get a grasp on the conversation. “SEAL? As in Navy SEAL?” Her eyes widened. “You’re from Earth,” she whispered.
One of the women threw her hands up in the air. “I knew it! That’s a spaceship behind her, Danny. We are so not on Earth anymore.” She frowned. “I wonder if we just skipped planets, or if we changed dimensions, too. Because that could get really confusing...”
The second man held up a hand. “Cuz, no one needs your sci-fi theories right now.”
“You won’t be saying that when my sci-fi theories save our butts!”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Danny said, causing them both to fall silent. “Everybody just stop.” He pointed to the jumper behind Elizabeth. “Will you please confirm or deny that that thing is a spaceship?”
“It is,” Elizabeth assured him. “And you came here from Earth?”
He nodded. “Through this weird blue light.”
“It’s called a Stargate.”
Danny frowned again. “It didn’t look really gate-y to me. It was just a thin beam of light. We walked towards it and zap! We got sucked through to here.”
That didn’t make any sense to Elizabeth, but she figured they could work that out later. “So if you didn’t come through a Stargate...why are you here?”
“Because my daughter and my stupid best friend got sent over here by a couple of goons playing with their sci-fi toys and trying to cause trouble. So here we are.”
She honestly had no idea what to say to that. She had thought that Stargates were the only way to get from Earth to the Pegasus Galaxy. If there were other modes of transportation, and they weren’t in the hands of the government...Elizabeth shook her head. It pained her to admit it, but that wasn’t her problem. She could let Atlantis know once she got to the city.
“I’m Elizabeth Weir,” she introduced herself. “I came to this galaxy five years ago from Earth as a part of an exploratory expedition.”
Danny pointed to himself. “Danny.” His hand moved toward the woman who had identified the jumper as a spaceship. “Kono. This guy is her cousin, Chin. And this lovely woman is Malia - Chin’s wife.”
“And you’re looking for your daughter?”
“And my best friend. Grace and Steve.” He pointed behind her. “I don’t suppose you could lend us your ship and help us out?”
“I would if it were working,” she replied honestly. “I only landed on this planet because it malfunctioned and wouldn’t get me back to Atlantis.”
“I’m sorry - back to where?”
“It’s a long story. Which I’ll tell you on the way.”
“On the way where?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “I might not be able to lend you a ship, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help you find your daughter.” She pointed behind them. “I take it you didn’t see any large circular structures that way? That would have been a Stargate.”
Chin shook his head. “No. Just a big open field.”
“We try the trees then?”
“Might as well,” Danny replied. “I plan on ripping this entire planet apart until I find my Gracie.”
Elizabeth gave him a small smile. “We’d better get started then.”
“Does anyone else have a bad feeling about this?” Lorne asked as they continued to move through the trees.
“Major, you’re starting to sound like Rodney,” Gabby replied, her British accent thick even after five years on Atlantis.
“He is not wrong, though,” Teyla said. “There is something...not right here.”
“It’s the trees,” Ronon grunted.
“Yes,” she agreed. “It is almost as though they are...watching us. It is most unsettling.”
All of them moved slowly, their weapons at the ready. It had been more than an hour since they’d been separated from Sheppard, but they were moving in the direction from which they had last heard the sounds of a firefight. Each one worried that they were going to be too late to save their friend, but John Sheppard was a resourceful man with an impressive track record. If anyone could escape from a crazy band of tattooed warriors, it was him.
“Where I come from,” Lorne said, “trees can’t actually watch people. So that usually means that there’s someone in the trees doing the actual spying.”
“And yet with four pairs of highly trained eyes, we see no one,” Gabby replied. “What does that suggest?”
Evan shook his head. “I don’t know. But I don’t like it.”
“It looks as though there is a clearing up ahead,” Teyla said, nodding in that direction. “Perhaps we will feel more at ease once we are out of the trees.”
“You would think you’d know better, darling,” Gabby chastised gently. “Things almost never get better with this group. Especially not when we’re dealing with Sheppard.”
“That is a valid point.”
A sudden rustling in the trees made them all stop, weapons pointed in every direction. A strong wind was picking up, moving through the leaves, and they could see through the canopy above them that the sky was darkening. The little light that was left to them barely penetrated the foliage around them and a shiver ran through them collectively as the temperature seemed to drop suddenly. They could smell the storm riding the wind and it made them tighten their grips on their weapons.
That was when the attack came.
Danny made everyone stop as the sounds of fighting reached them. The acoustics of the forest were playing tricks on his senses, and it took him a moment to pinpoint which direction the noise was coming from. The sudden appearance of the wind and darkening of the clouds worried him, but there wasn’t anything that was going to stop him from finding his little girl. Hearing the sound of gunfire and shouting actually gave him some hope, though. McGarrett was always good at attracting random violence, and there was a good chance his friend was there.
“Come on,” he said quietly.
They moved quickly, weapons drawn. Chin had given his backup weapon to Malia, but when Danny had tried to pass his to Elizabeth, their new companion had simply shook her head and said that she didn’t need it. Danny wasn’t sure if that meant that she was uncomfortable with guns, or if she was secretly some kind of ninja, but he was just hoping that she could take care of herself. If they got into the middle of a firefight, it was going to be very difficult to keep an eye on all of the people he was responsible for.
The trees around them were dense, and they stumbled in surprised when they found themselves barging into the middle of the fight without any real warning. Danny saw that there were clearly two sides to the battle. Standing with their backs to each other, there were four people armed with guns. The wind whipped at them as they tried to fight off their adversaries, shooting into the trees. He couldn’t get a solid count on the others who fought against them. They were all wearing clothes that were a deep red, with hoods obscuring their faces. They moved through the trees as though they knew them intimately, and Danny hadn’t seen a single one of them get hit with a bullet yet. They were moving closer, though, and it didn’t look like it was going to be long before they made a full-on attack.
Steve wasn’t there. Neither was Grace. It took him a moment to swallow down his disappointment.
One of the women - short, with smooth dark skin and brown eyes - turned at their approach and stared in disbelief.
Danny glanced over his shoulder to see that Elizabeth was staring, as well. There was a strange play of emotions crossing her face, and he couldn’t quite get a read on her.
“Friends of yours?” he asked.
She nodded. “Yes,” she replied, her voice strained.
“We could use a little help!” the other woman called, her British accent catching Danny’s attention immediately.
They couldn’t have turned away even if they wanted to. Once the people in the trees realized that they were losing the advantage of numbers, they leapt down to the ground and attacked. Danny raised his gun reflexively and began to fire.
Elizabeth watched them all join the fray as though she were disconnected from it. Seeing her friends from Atlantis so soon had thrown her off-guard, and she found herself struggling to regain some sense of equilibrium. She still didn’t know what she was supposed to say to them, how she was supposed to explain her capture. She worried that they wouldn’t believe her, that the trust they once had in her was something that could never be regained. She thought that maybe that was a fate worse than death.
John wasn’t there. Elizabeth knew that something had gone horribly wrong from that fact alone. For one earth-shattering moment, she feared that he had been killed - either on this mission or an earlier one - and that she was too late. Rodney wasn’t there, either. Were they both gone? Had Ronon and Teyla joined Major Lorne’s team? And since when had Gabby started going out on missions?
She reactivated the nanites without even really thinking about it. The many different ways she had rewritten her own code gave her advantages that the others knew nothing about, and Elizabeth was determined to use them to help John - if she wasn’t already too late.
She cycled through her coding until she found what she wanted and then began to scan the surrounding woods as the fight raged on. She searched for any sign of life with her newfound abilities, seeking out heat registers and other biometrics. There was a lot of noise and distraction coming from the chaos around her, but as she turned her attention to the clearing that was a small distance away, her interior alarms began going off. There were three life signs in that direction, and something inside of her told her that John was one of them. Elizabeth didn’t know if that was something else the nanites were telling her, or if she just knew, but either way, she really didn’t care. John was over there and he was in trouble, and for once, she could actually do something to save him.
Narrowing her focus just a bit, trying to get a handle on the situation before she went barging in, Elizabeth realized that one of the life signs was just a bit different from the other two. She ran the information through the logical calculators in her coding and let out a small gasp. Two of the people in that direction were most definitely adults, but the third was a child. Elizabeth had never believed in coincidences, and she grabbed Danny’s arm tightly.
“Grace,” she said urgently.
His head spun around, and he momentarily forgot about the fight raging on around them. “What?”
“Don’t ask me how, but I know where she is,” Elizabeth said, her voice firm and assured. She pointed toward the clearing. “We have to go that way.”
“Steve?” Kono asked through gritted teeth.
“I’m not sure,” she answered honestly. “But Grace and John are that way.” She hadn’t told them about John yet, but she didn’t have time to explain about him.
“If Grace is that way, then so is Steve,” Danny replied. “But how do we get over there? These ninja bastards are keeping us from getting to your friends and blocking our path that way.”
“We’ll do our best to cover for you,” Chin said.
Danny shook his head. “You’ll be sitting ducks over here.”
Chin just ignored him. “Cuz, you go with Danny. Keep an eye on him, okay?”
Kono nodded. “You got it.”
“No!” Danny said more forcefully. “We have to find a way to get you over to the others, first. I’m not leaving you here - you and Malia would be completely cut off!”
“I might be able to help with that,” Elizabeth said quietly.
Danny looked over his shoulder at her. This was the woman that had refused to take a gun from him. “Oh yeah?”
She nodded. “I just need you to promise not to freak out too much on me.”
He thought about it for less than two seconds. “I will do my best to reserve my yelling for later, when we have our people safe and sound.”
“Good enough for me.”
Elizabeth couldn’t have described the technical aspects of everything going on inside of her body. Maybe if she had time to sit down and really work her way through it she could have, but she didn’t have that luxury at the moment. Someone she cared about was in trouble, her friends were pinned down in a firefight, and Danny was relying on her to get him to his daughter. For once in her life, Elizabeth didn’t think about it. She just did it.
The energy that welled up inside of her was terrifying, but she didn’t shy away from it. She let it flow through her and fill her entirely, until her skin seemed to actually crackle with the intensity of it.
Her plan of attack was two-fold, and she needed the small group around her to know what to do when she enacted it. Gritting her teeth against the pull of the energy, struggling to keep it inside of her, she forced out her instructions.
“When these guys are out of the way, I need Kono and Danny to run for that clearing. Then I’ll take care of the ones separating us from the others, and Chin and Malia can run to join them.”
It amazed her how easily the tone of authority came back to her, and how easily people responded to it. A pang of regret ached through her chest. The others were nodding though, and they were ready, and Elizabeth felt ready to explode.
She let the energy go and it roared out of her with enough force to make her stumble backwards a couple of steps. A wave of blue swept aside the attackers between them and the clearing, and after a sharing a shocked look, Danny and Kono made a run for it. Elizabeth turned her attention to another group of the ninjas and she knocked them aside as well, opening the way for Chin and Malia. She had just enough to see the looks of astonishment on her friends’ faces before she was turning and running, following Danny and Kono.
They weren’t sure what they could possibly find, but both John and Steve agreed that maybe it would be best if they searched the house. After all, they only had Strohgen’s word that they couldn’t get out, and listening to crazy guys who could disappear into thin air wasn’t something either of them inherently trusted.
When they walked into the next room, though - which turned out to be a kitchen - they were surprised to see an older woman standing at the sink. She was thin, her grey hair pinned up. Staring out the window, she looked like the wife of a farmer, perhaps getting ready to cook dinner for the family. At the sound of their footsteps, she turned around to face them, leaning back against the counter. Her eyes were tired and sad, and they seemed to only get worse as she looked at the three of them.
“Who’s that?” Grace asked, clutching Steve’s hand.
John frowned. “You can see her?”
She nodded. “Can’t you?”
“Well, yeah. But I didn’t think you’d be seeing anything.”
“You know her?” Steve asked.
John shook his head. “Nope. One of your nightmares?”
“I’ve never seen her before in my life.”
“I am not a nightmare,” the woman replied, her voice strong, but cracked. “And I am not one of Stroghen’s creations. My name is Mannara.” She paused. “This used to be my home.”
“I hate to break it to you, ma’am,” John said lightly, “but this Stroghen guy seems to be using it as his personal funhouse.”
“That’s exactly what he’s doing.” Her voice was angry and her eyes flashed, her hands balling into fists. She might have looked old, but there was a lot of fire in her.
“What happened?” Steve asked.
Mannara took a deep breath, looking back out the window for a moment before turning to them again. “I had just finished the dishes when there was a knock on the door. I went to see who it was, opened the door...” She shook her head. “The next thing I remember, I was here, and so was he. Stroghen likes to play games, and he was looking for something new to occupy his time. It took me a long time to figure it out, but this is actually a replica of my home. I was his first guinea pig as he did his very best to drive me insane.”
John’s eyes narrowed. “How long have you been here?”
Her shoulders sagged slightly. “I died a very long time ago,” she murmured. “But not the way Stroghen wanted. He’s only satisfied if he breaks you. But I withstood every nightmare he threw at me until I finally just didn’t wake up one day.” Tears came to her eyes and she clasped her hands tightly in front of her. “At first I was just so happy that I was finally free. There were no more nightmares, no more visions. There was no more noise in my head. And I could leave the house. I wasn’t his prisoner anymore.”
“But you’re still here.”
“As I was leaving, taking my time as I finally stepped outside and took a deep breath of fresh air...I saw him lure others inside. He wasn’t bored with his game yet, and I hadn’t given him a satisfactory ending. So he went out and got more pawns.”
“And you stayed,” Steve said, things falling into place for him. “You hoped that maybe you could help them.”
Mannara nodded. “I haven’t been able to, though. Stroghen is strong, and he seems to be very good at finding people weighed down with guilt and shackled by fear. In the end, they have nothing to tether them, and they lose the battle against themselves.” Her eyes fell on Grace and they softened. “You are different, though,” she said quietly. “I can feel it. I heard you bargain for the girl’s sanity. That will help you. She will be your anchor, won’t you, little one?”
Grace nodded. “I’m gonna take good care of Uncle Steve and Colonel John.”
The old woman smiled. “I can see that.” She straightened up a bit, the tears and sadness gone from her eyes. “I will do what I can to help you. I can’t take away the visions, but there is something very important that Stroghen didn’t share with you.”
“I get the feeling that guy wasn’t sharing a lot,” John pointed out.
“Yes, but this one is inherent to your survival.” She paused. “There is a way out of here.”
Steve’s breath caught. “Can you show us?”
Mannara shook her head. “I wish that I could. But you have to find it for yourself. You can’t just stay in one room and hope to weather the storm. You have to keep moving through the house. There are many rooms here, more than any house could naturally have. If you keep moving though, keep searching, you can eventually find the exit. You just have to keep looking.” She raised her eyes to the ceiling suddenly. “I have to go. If I stay too much longer, Stroghen will feel my presence.”
“He doesn’t know you’re here?”
The old woman’s eyes sparkled for just a second. “Not yet. When he does, though, I’ll make sure it’s the last thing he learns.”
And then she was gone.
The rooms all looked normal to Grace. After they left the kitchen, there seemed to be living room after living room, each one decorated differently than the last. There were couches with flowers on them, pianos, big fireplaces, wood floors, carpeted floors, big rooms, little rooms...none of them looked like home, but none of them looked dangerous, either. They were just rooms.
She knew that it was different for Uncle Steve and Colonel John, though. They both tried to act like nothing was wrong, but it wasn’t really working. She’d known Uncle Steve long enough that she could read most of his different faces, and lately the only thing she saw there was pain. She knew that he wasn’t physically hurt, but something inside of him was broken and he was struggling to make it through each day.
Colonel John handled things a little differently. Grace could see the hurt on his face, too, but he did his best to keep it at bay. Whenever he wasn’t going through one of his own nightmares, he would smile down at her and even tell her a funny story. Grace knew what he was doing, since her dad had a habit of doing the same thing. He wanted to distract her from what was wrong with him so that she wouldn’t worry.
She worried a lot, though.
There was almost never a time when at least one of them wasn’t seeing their nightmares. She would see Uncle Steve’s face go really tight, or see Colonel John’s body go very still, and she would know. Sometimes they did their best to ignore them, to make her think that everything was okay. The longer they went on, though, the harder that became.
There were a few times that one of them would actually cry out in pain, and the sound would drill a hole right through Grace. It made her hurt, and it made her cold, and it made her scared. Uncle Steve was the bravest and strongest man she knew aside from her father, and to see him unable to fight made it seem like the world was upside down.
She soon found out that there were worse things than that. Sometimes one of them would simply stop and fall down to his knees as though they’d had their legs kicked out from underneath them. Tears would fall down their face as they stared at the empty room - except that Grace knew it wasn’t empty for them. Though she had seen her father cry once or twice, she had never seen Uncle Steve cry, and the silence of it made her more scared than anything else.
Grace knew there wasn’t much she could do for them. She couldn’t make the nightmares go away and she couldn’t keep them from hurting the two men. They knew that the nightmares weren’t real, but Grace had had enough nightmares of her own to know that that didn’t always take away their power.
She did what she could, though. At first, she thought that leaving the room where the nightmare was would make it go away, but it just started all over again in the next room. It was just as easy - or hard - to sit down and let it run its course. She would sit them both down and hold the hand of whoever was seeing things, and try to take their mind off of it. Sometimes she would tell stories that she had made up. Other times, when she was talking to Uncle Steve, she would remind him of Danno and Auntie Kono and Uncle Chin. Eventually he would nod and slowly come back to her, but each time it took longer.
Sometimes she couldn’t get them to sit down. They would yell at people that weren’t there, or lunge forward suddenly. When that happened, whichever one of them wasn't affected would have to calm them down.
The worst was when they were both seeing things.
The first morning when Grace woke up to find them yelling at each other, she didn’t understand what was going on. Colonel John was calling Uncle Steve a name that she didn’t recognize - Colson? Kolya? - and Uncle Steve was yelling about someone killing his dad. Once the fog of sleep finally left her head, Grace realized that they were both having a nightmare, and that they couldn’t see who they were really arguing with. When Uncle Steve reached for his gun, she jumped to her feet and ran at Colonel John, hitting him as hard as she could and knocking him to the side. Uncle Steve’s bullet bit into the wall behind them and Grace held John down on the floor.
“UNCLE STEVE!” she screamed.
She screamed it over and over again, telling him that it was her, that it was Grace, and that he needed to stop. Slowly, he blinked and looked around, and she knew that the nightmare was fading away.
“Grace,” he breathed. His face crumbled. “Oh, God. Grace.”
Steve slid down onto his knees, eyes wide and chest heaving. He stared at her in disbelief, and she could tell that he felt horrible.
“Gracie, sweetie, I -”
Unable to stop her own tears from sliding down her face, Grace forced herself to get off of Colonel John and walk over to Steve.
“It’s okay,” she said quietly. “But we can’t shoot each other, Uncle Steve. Then the bad man will win. And Danno says you’ll never let the bad man win.”
John pushed himself up off the ground and ran a hand down his face. “Dammit,” he muttered.
“Sheppard, I’m sorry -”
He shook his head and waved him off. “If you hadn’t fired, I would have in a few seconds. I thought you were...” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. I suggest a new rule. Guns get unloaded.”
“Guns stay with me.”
They both turned in surprise at the firm tone from Grace. It was obvious that she wasn’t kidding, though, and she didn’t shy away from them. Steve squatted down in front of her and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I know guns are dangerous,” she said, cutting him off. “Danno likes to talk about that a lot. We’ll take the bullets out and we’ll put them in my bag.” She held up the backpack that Steve and John had fashioned for her early on. “That way you can’t have them because I won’t give them to you.”
Steve still looked unsure, but John tugged lightly on one of her pigtails to get her to look up at him.
“There’s one time you should give them to us, Grace. If we’re seeing the same thing, and you’re seeing it, too, that means it’s really there, okay?”
She nodded solemnly. “Deal.” She held open the bag. “Guns and bullets, please.”
It surprised her how much heavier the bag was.
To say that she was surprised to find a house in the middle of that clearing was an understatement. Kono was starting to get used to weird things happening, though, and she was able to rebound quickly. Even the crazy ninjas that were even now trying to chase them down didn’t affect her like they would have on a normal day.
The old woman standing on the porch of the house, though, did make Kono slow down a little bit.
The woman stepped down onto the second stair, hand gripping the railing. “You wish to save your friends, yes?”
Danny surged forward. “Is my daughter in there?” He raised his voice. “GRACE!”
“She cannot hear you.”
His face was mottled with anger as he really looked at the woman. “What have you done -”
“I have done nothing to her, or to the two men protecting her. I am doing what I can to help them survive.”
“Two?” Kono pressed, needing to know that Steve was still alive, too.
The woman nodded. “I heard the little girl call them Uncle Steve and Colonel John. I assume they belong to you?”
“They do,” Elizabeth said firmly.
“Then I suggest you hurry inside. The sooner you find them, the better it will be for all.”
“Who is she?” Grace asked.
John sat back, leaning against the wall for support. The force of the visions was getting worse, and this one had left him winded. He could feel sweat sliding down his back and pooling just below the waistband of his pants. There was a long list of things he wanted right then, and a shower was definitely one of them.
What he wanted most of all, though, was for them to be out of there and free from Stroghen’s house of horrors.
“Her name was Elizabeth,” he said, his voice rough and broken.
“Was she your wife?”
John shook his head. “No. She was my friend, though.” He looked down at his hands. “She was one of my best friends.”
“Did the bad men take her away?”
“Yeah.” He wanted to leave it at that, but his guilt wouldn’t let him. For some reason, lying to this little girl would make everything so much worse than it already was, and his mouth was moving again, forming words that he had never actually said aloud. “I should have saved her, though. She was right there. I could have run back. I could have made sure that she...” He shook his head again, frustrated with the fact that his words never seemed to come out right. “I let her down and I left her behind, and she’s dead because of me.”
He didn’t really expect a nine-year-old to have any answers or great words of wisdom for him, and John was okay with that. But it still surprised him when Grace reached over and took his hand in hers and squeezed it tightly. When she leaned her head on his arm, something caught in his throat and he was afraid that he would choke, but he forced it down, refusing to let her go or push her away.
He raised his eyes and found Steve staring at him. At first, he was afraid that the other man would be upset that Grace was comforting him - the two of them were obviously close, and he was very protective of her. Instead, he saw a look of understanding, and the other man just nodded at him.
John let out a long sigh and rested his head back against the wall.
I will shield you, the woman had said.
Elizabeth was thankful for that blanket of protection. While a prisoner of the Replicators, she’d had her fair share of nightmares. More than her fair share, really. Each one had been a stunning display of fabricated reality, the lines almost seamless. There was no one better in the galaxy than the Replicators when it came to messing with someone’s mind, and they had wanted to break Elizabeth into a million little pieces. Their ability to get right to the core of you, to force you to live out different scenarios - both full of tragedy and full of hope - was what wore away at you, little by little. It hadn’t taken her long to realize that it was the visions of hope that were the worst. Whenever she once again became aware of reality, the pain cut that much deeper, and her soul sank even lower. Hope was more powerful than fear, she had learned, both in its power to heal and its power to kill.
And now John was facing his own nightmares in a house controlled by a madman. Elizabeth knew some of the demons her military leader carried, and she also knew that there were many more she didn’t know about. He was a man that carried guilt like chains wrapped around his torso, slowly squeezing the life out of him.
He didn’t deserve that.
A colder, more detached part of her reminded her that she would be well within her rights to be angry at him. That voice also argued that he did deserve this kind of hell. He had fought so tirelessly to throw himself in front of the killing bullet for others, he had tortured himself over the people he had lost, and yet...
And yet he had left her.
For just a moment, Elizabeth let that anger wash over her. She let it fill every inch of her, making the blood run hot inside her veins. Her heartbeat raced and her chest began to ache. Her stomach knotted painfully and her steps faltered as she let herself face the fact that John Sheppard had never come for her.
It would have been easy to let it consume her. It would have been easy to tell herself that he had left her and it was only fitting that she leave him now when he needed her most. It would have been easy.
For anyone but her.
An image of John came to mind and Elizabeth felt the anger fade out of her with barely a whimper. She remembered the way his eyes looked when he told her stories about growing up. She remembered the way they looked when he came back from a mission that had gone badly. She remembered his laugh. She remembered the worry lines that would crease his forehead whenever he thought she wasn’t taking care of herself properly.
She and John Sheppard had been friends. She knew that, just as she knew her own name. She wasn’t going to let anger or nanites or Replicators take that away from her. John had left her because she had ordered him to, because it was the only way he could protect the rest of his team. If he had never looked for her, she knew that it was because he had to take care of the city. And if Oberoth had been telling her the truth, about John being told that she was dead, then there was nothing else for him to do except perhaps grieve and move on.
That small voice tried to tell her that she could still hold it against him.
She admitted to herself that she could. But she wouldn’t.
Instead, she was going to save John Sheppard.
“You, uh, you have a very determined look on your face and I hate to interrupt,” Danny said suddenly, “but do we have any idea how we’re supposed to find our people in this hellish house of horrors?”
Kono shrugged. “We could try yelling for them.”
Elizabeth began to lead them up another staircase - it was the eighth one they’d come across, but nobody even mentioned them anymore. “I can find them.”
Danny looked like he was waiting for more. When she remained silent, however, he waved a hand in the air. “You can find them? Does this have anything to do with the crazy thing you did in the forest?”
Elizabeth turned on the stairs to look down at him. “There are a lot of things in this galaxy you’re not ready for, Danny. I spent a long time as a prisoner, and I came out with certain...abilities. That’s how I helped us in the forest. It’s how I knew that John and your friend and your daughter were in here. You can tell me how much it freaks you out later. For now...let’s just focus on finding the people we care about, okay?”
He threw his hands up in surrender. “I am totally onboard with that plan. I just...I talk. It’s what I do.”
Kono smirked. “You bitch.”
Danny shrugged as they continued up the stairs. “You say tomato...”
Grace’s screams in his ear, John lunged forward, grabbing Steve from behind. Whatever the other man was seeing, it was enough fill him with rage and set him to attacking the wall in front of him. Remembering some of his own horrific visions, John could guess that Steve was facing down someone from his past, someone who had hurt people he cared about. He doubted that Steve had any idea that he was ripping his fists open against a wooden wall instead of the face he was seeing.
Gracie was screaming for her Uncle Steve to stop, but there was nothing else she could do. John tightened his hold on him, trying to pull him back away from the wall. He knew that if Steve kept this up, it wouldn’t take long for him to break one or both of his hands, and they didn’t need that on top of everything else. John had no idea how long they were going to be stuck in this hell, and his knowledge of first aid wasn’t good enough to handle broken bones without any supplies.
Steve was a strong man, though, and John was having trouble subduing him.
“LET ME GO!” he roared. “I’LL KILL HIM!”
“I’m sure you would, buddy,” John grunted, “if he were actually there. And honestly, you introduce me to this guy in the real world, and I might just help you.” The other man continued to struggle. “C’mon, Steve,” he urged. “You’re scaring the crap out of Gracie, man. Calm down. Whoever you think you’re seeing isn’t here. You know that. You know that, Steve.”
With one last kick at the wall, Steve sent them both flying backwards. John stumbled, trying to catch his balance, but all he managed to do was spin them so that Steve went down first, landing on one knee. Just barely keeping on his feet, John kept his hold on him, worried that he would charge back at the wall.
“Breathe, buddy,” he murmured. “Just breathe.”
Grace had stopped yelling, and she ran over to kneel in front of Steve. Pulling out the handkerchief that John had given to her near the beginning, she wiped at her surrogate uncle’s face.
“It’s okay, Uncle Steve,” she said, ignoring the tears that were streaming down her face. “It’s just me and Colonel John. There’s nobody else here but us.”
Still trying to catch his breath, Steve nodded and struggled to give her a smile. “I know, Gracie,” he finally said, his voice raw and rough. “I’m sorry I scared you.”
She shook her head. “I’m never scared of you.”
Swallowing a lump in his throat, Steve leaned forward and kissed her forehead.
“That was them,” Danny said, pacing down the hallway, unsure of which way to go. “That was most definitely them.”
Kono nodded at Elizabeth. “He’s right.”
“It sounded like it could have been coming from anywhere, though,” she huffed, frustration starting to build. There had been a lot of fear and pain in those screams, but she wasn’t sure if the hurt had been physical or emotional. Elizabeth took a deep breath. “Give me a few minutes, please.”
Danny opened his mouth to say something, but Kono just took a hold of his arm and walked a little ways down the hall to give Elizabeth some space. Giving him a reassuring squeeze, she lifted her hands to his face and forced him to look at her.
“We’ll find her,” she said quietly. “You know that.”
“Actually, no, I don’t know that. Look at us, Kono. We are in some fucked up universe with some really fucked up people and one of them has my little girl. What if we can’t find her? What if we can’t get her out of this damned house? What if Steve’s already -”
She tightened her grip on his face and tugged him a little closer. “Stop it. Steve is alive. Grace is alive. We heard them, Danny. And Elizabeth says she can find them.”
“You believe her?”
Kono thought about it for a moment and then nodded. “I think she’s just as desperate to find John as we are to find our people. I’m not sure what happened to her, but she saved us from those people outside and she got us here. Let’s trust her a little further, okay?”
Danny nodded, but Kono could see that he was barely holding on. His hands were shaking, and the tremors were traveling steadily up his arms.
“I will burn this fucking house down, Kono,” he said quietly, but firmly. “I swear to God. I will burn it to the fucking ground if I have to to get my baby girl back.”
She didn’t flinch at the language or the sentiment. Not for the first time, Kono felt her chest warm at the way Danny loved his daughter so fiercely. Every little girl deserved to have a father like that.
“I’ll help you light the matches, brah,” she said softly.
She meant it, too.
“You see your dad too, huh?” John asked, his voice low so that he didn’t wake Grace.
Steve didn’t look at him. Instead, he stared across the room at the window on the far side. It let some moonlight in, but the glass wouldn’t break. They tried in every room, just in case they had been lied to. But the panes had always held.
“Yeah,” he finally said, his voice still raw from the yelling he had done earlier. “He, uh...he died a couple of years ago.”
John nodded. “Mine too.” He paused, and Steve wondered if he was just going to let it go at that. He wasn’t sure if he was disappointed or relieved when he didn’t. “You two get along?”
Steve thought for a long minute. “I loved him,” he said finally. “I respected him. But there were a lot of things I didn’t understand until after he was gone. And we were never as close as I think we could have been.”
“You miss him?”
“Every damn day.” When John didn’t say anything in reply, Steve finally turned his head to look at him. “What about you? You get along with your old man?”
John shook his head and let out an empty chuckle. “Nope. Not even a little.”
“He still alive?”
“No,” he replied, and his voice was subdued. “Died about a year ago.”
“Was he military, too?”
“Nah. He was a little proud, though, when I told him I was joining the Air Force. Guess I didn’t quite live up to his expectations, though. I have what you could call a penchant for getting into trouble.”
“And he was expecting a general?”
John shrugged. “Something more than a Lieutenant Colonel, anyway.” His gaze drifted over to Grace, who was sleeping between them with a shirt rolled under her head for a pillow. “She’s a brave little girl,” he said quietly. “I know trained men that would have broken under this kind of pressure and she just keeps trucking.”
“Gets that from her dad,” Steve replied. “Luckily, she doesn’t bitch the way he does.”
John smirked. “Yeah, we got one of those, too. I take it you and her dad are close?”
He nodded. “Danny’s probably the best friend I’ve ever had. I only stayed in Hawaii to find the man that killed my father, but I ended up with a family.” He paused, staring at the little girl. “Danny’s strong. I think there’s only one thing in the world that could break him, and that would be losing Grace. Everything he does is for her; she’s his whole world. I have this nightmare over and over again, where I have to tell Gracie that her father is dead. She cries and she screams and she hits me and she doesn’t understand why. But the worst one is where I have to tell Danny that his little girl is dead. He doesn’t scream. He doesn’t cry. He’s quiet, and then I see it. His eyes die and he’s gone.” I have to get her out of here and back to Danno.”
“You will. I have no idea how yet, but we’ll get out of here. We’re not gonna let this place get her.”
Steve was quiet for a minute, eyes lost in thought. “I wanted to quit a long time ago.”
That didn’t surprise John. He got the feeling that he and Steve were a lot alike, and they were both being put through hell here. He’d been through difficult times before, but he’d always had his team, always had someone counting on him. That made it easier to keep fighting on. Not for the first time, John recognized the fact that Grace was the only reason he and Steve still had their sanity or their lives.
Steve was talking again. “If you and Grace weren’t here, I think I might have given up by now. I’ve been trained to stand up in the face of every imaginable enemy, but nobody back home ever imagined we’d come up against something like this. I’d rather face a fight outnumbered and unarmed than look my demons in the eye. Because they don’t look like demons. They look like Danny, and they look like Grace, and they look like Kono, and they look like Chin. They’re the people I know and they hate me. They blame me. And they should.”
John understood that, too. “Every time I think it can’t get worse, I see Elizabeth.”
The other man looked over at him, his expression sympathetic. “I’ve heard you say her name before.”
He swallowed roughly. “I was supposed to protect her, and I didn’t.”
“You loved her,” Steve said softly.
John nodded. It was the first time he had ever admitted it, and he suddenly wondered why he had waited so damn long. “Every time I see her...she’s hurting because of me. Sometimes she yells at me, tells me that it’s my fault. And others...well, others she just looks at me. Me and Elizabeth, we...we never really needed words. That was one of the things I liked about her.” He looked down at his hands. “I think it’s worse when she doesn’t say anything.”
Steve didn’t have anything to say to that. He could admit that he wanted to comfort him. He hadn’t known John Sheppard long - at least he didn’t think he had; time was really relative wherever they were - but he knew enough to have a great deal of respect for him. They had both lost people and they both blamed themselves. And John seemed just as intent on protecting Gracie as Steve did.
It was because he respected him so much that Steve couldn’t give him empty words of reassurance. He didn’t know if what had happened to Elizabeth was really John’s fault, but it was enough that John believed that it was. It was his burden to carry and there wasn’t much Steve could do about that. He could listen, though, and he could watch the man’s back.
“Let’s get some sleep while we can,” he said quietly.
John nodded, but he didn’t lie down. He stared out the window at the moon they couldn’t reach and waited for the next nightmare to appear.
Danny knew that he was supposed to be quiet. Kono was right. He needed to give Elizabeth space so that she could figure out where Steve, Grace, and John were. Danny wasn’t entirely sure how she was supposed to do that - there were a lot of things going on with her that he just didn’t understand - but since he didn’t have any better ways of finding their people, he was certainly willing to give her a chance.
But this was taking too damn long.
He was starting to itch. Not just his skin, but everything inside as well, and he couldn’t help but clench his fists as they rested at his sides. He was used to dealing with bad guys, but he was also used to chasing them down and either slapping handcuffs on them or shooting them. He liked to bitch at Steve for the crazy ninja stuff he liked to pull, but Danny had to admit that the physical part of the job had its perks. It was a healthy outlet for the tension that built inside of him, and at the moment, there was nothing to take his anger out on. He wanted to spin around and yell at the two women with him. He wanted to yell until his voice went hoarse and his throat ached. It wouldn’t do him any good, though. And it certainly wouldn’t do Grace any good.
Kono watched him with a worried expression. She understood the need to just get up and move. Sitting around was not her strong suit, and her stomach actually hurt from the nervousness eating a hole right through her. She had always known that Grace and Steve were important to her. They were ohana. They were as much family as Chin was. But the idea of them being trapped in a world where their worst fears played out right in front of them...it made her sick. Grace was a brave little girl, and Kono knew that Steve would do anything to keep her safe, but this was asking too much - of both of them.
And Steve...Kono hadn’t realized just how much she relied on him. Just his presence was enough to reassure her that they were going to get the job done and that they were going to walk out of it alive. It made her crazy to think about the asshole running this house crushing Steve under his heel, and she swore for the millionth time that she would make the man - thing - pay. Steve had enough to carry on his shoulders. He didn’t need this shit on top of everything else.
When she realized that her own fists were clenching painfully, she forced herself to focus on Danny again. She needed to keep him calm. Stepping forward, she rested her hand on his shoulder, squeezing the tight muscle there.
“I’ve got it.”
They both turned at Elizabeth’s voice. She stood facing an unadorned wall, her right hand pressed against the wood.
“It?” Danny asked, surging towards her. “You mean them?”
Elizabeth turned, nodding as she looked at them in wide-eyed wonder and hope. “They’re on the other side of this wall.”
Danny practically threw himself at it, pounding his fist against the wall and yelling for his daughter and Steve. Kono wanted to rush into the next room to see if there was a way in, but the words of the old woman came back to her.
Don’t split up, she had warned firmly. I can’t protect you if you split up, and then he can separate you. You’ll be lost.
That had definitely kept them together.
She forced herself to stay in the room, fists clenching with the effort. “If we leave to check for another way in, what are the chances we find this wall again?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Not good. If we lose this spot...we might lose them.”
Danny held up a hand. “Unacceptable. If my daughter is on the other side of this wall, then we find a way through the damn wall.”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “I think I have an idea.”
Grace woke up to three very distinct sounds.
The first was her father’s voice and a distant banging. She sat up right away, her head whipping around as she tried to figure out where it was coming from. If her dad was here, then she and Uncle Steve and Colonel John would be okay. Her Danno would save them and they could go home.
The second was a strange hum. At first she thought it was just like a song stuck in her head, but she soon realized that it was too loud for that. Something about it dug under her skin and made her itch. It didn’t matter how much she scratched at her arms and legs though. It wouldn’t go away.
The third was a loud yell from Uncle Steve as he lunged forward and tackled Colonel John.
“RUN, GRACE!” he bellowed. “RUN!”
She got to her feet with a scream, backing away from the two men as they attacked each other. Tears streamed down her face and she realized that she was yelling for them to stop. She screamed again when she saw Colonel John pull a knife out of his boot and slash at Uncle Steve’s chest. The blade caught the moonlight coming through the window, and Grace flinched when she saw that there was blood on it.
“I’ll kill you before I let you hurt her,” John growled.
“You’re not getting anywhere near her,” Steve replied.
They started fighting again and Grace nearly screamed herself hoarse. She knew that they didn’t realize what they were doing. John didn’t see Steve, and Steve didn’t see John. Grace didn’t know who exactly they did see, but whoever it was convinced them that she was in danger and that they had to protect her.
Grace had never been so scared in her life.
Steve yelled at her to run again, and she got all the way to the door before she made herself stop and turn around. The house was magic. Even if nobody ever said it out loud, she knew that it was. What if she left the room without them? Would she get lost? Would the nightmares be able to get her, too? And what would happen to Steve and John?
Danno always told her that Uncle Steve would take care of her, but Uncle Steve couldn’t do that with the nightmares. He couldn’t take care of himself, either. That meant that it was her job to take care of him - and Colonel John - until Danno found them. She had to hold down the fort - that was something else her father liked to say to her - and that meant that she couldn’t run away.
She heard the banging sound again and she ran for the far wall, past the two men who were yelling and hitting each other. Not knowing what else to do, Grace pounded her fists against the wood, her tears turning into sobs that made her chest hurt.
“Danno, I’m here! Danno, you have to come quick! Uncle Steve is sick! Danno, please!”
He punched the wall again. “Gracie, Monkey, I’m coming! Just hang on a little longer!” He turned to Elizabeth and Kono. “I need to get through this wall right fucking now!”
Elizabeth had been quiet since discovering that their friends were on the other side. Danny and Kono had been pounding against the wall and yelling for Grace, but she had just stared down at her hands, seemingly lost in thought. She wasn’t lost, though. All of that time spent on the Replicator planet working with her coding, trying to find a way to escape, had given her a good idea of the vast capabilities of her body with the nanites inside.
“Back away from the wall,” she said suddenly, her voice low.
“What?” Danny asked. His fists were bleeding, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Back away,” she repeated, looking him straight in the eye.
She didn’t know what he saw there - maybe she didn’t want to know - but he took a couple of hesitant steps back, pulling Kono with him.
“You can get through?” he asked.
Elizabeth nodded. “I think so.”
She clenched her fist and Danny and Kono both gasped as it began to glow. A blue aura built up around it, and when she looked back at them, her eyes looked like they were full of an azure fire.
“Tell Grace to step back,” she warned.
She knew that her father was on the other side of the wall. She knew that he and Kono - Grace had heard her voice as well - had come to rescue her. Knowing it only made her tears fall faster, though, and she wanted to keep banging on the wall until they came through and got her and she could actually see them. Her father had told her to back up, though, and she always tried to do what Danno told her to. So Grace took ten big steps back, her eyes darting between the wall and Uncle Steve and Colonel John still beating each other up in the center of the room.
Even though she was trying really hard to be brave, Grace couldn’t help but let out a scream when something came through the wall. It looked like a fist, except that it was glowing blue, and it punched right through the wood. Covering her mouth with her hands, she stepped back a little bit more as the fist came through again and again, making a hole in the wall. Soon there were other hands pulling at the wood, until the opening was wide enough for someone to fit through.
And then Danno was there.
Grace ran towards him and he caught her up in his arms, hugging her like he was never going to let her go again. She buried her face in his neck and started to cry, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably. Danny just hugged her tighter, his own voice cracking.
“I’ve got you, baby,” he said. “I promise I’ve got you.”
It wasn’t over yet, though, and the reunion was cut short as the other two men in the room continued to punch and kick each other. Kono and Elizabeth were through the wall now, and for a moment they just stared in disbelief at the brawl going on in front of them. Then John landed an uppercut that threw Steve backwards. The SEAL slid across the floor, landing in a heap, while John started to move forward with a murderous look on his face.
Kono didn’t pull her gun. Instead, she rushed forward and put herself between the two men, gathering Steve up in her arms and holding him to her. His face was bloodied and his breathing heavy, and she wondered how long they had been going at it before she and the others had managed to get to them.
John was still moving forward, though, a blade glinting in his hand. Elizabeth had never seen him like this and it chilled her to the bone. She could only imagine the nightmares he had had to endure to push him this far.
The sound of her voice against the silence made him stop. The anger seeping out of his face, his eyes went wide as he turned to look at her, and there was so much grief there that it almost made her stumble.
“‘Lizabeth,” he whispered.
Still clinging to her father, Grace asked, “Is that your Elizabeth, Colonel John?”
He whipped his head around to stare at the little girl. “You can see her?”
Grace nodded. “They’re not nightmares, because I can see them, too. That was the rule, right?”
Slowly, John lowered the knife, his eyes going back to Elizabeth. “Yeah,” he said quietly, “that was the rule.”
Steve looked around in disbelief, eyes resting on Danny for a long moment before settling more firmly on the woman in front of him.
“Kono too, Grace?” he asked, cautious hope in his voice.
“Kono too,” she confirmed, resting her head on Danny’s shoulders.
Something inside of Steve seemed to let go for just a moment. His shoulders sagged as he realized that they were finally safe, and that this wasn’t just another ghost trying to break him. Kono gave him a watery smile as she cradled his face in her hands, her thumbs brushing over his cheeks.
“You know, boss, you really need to stop getting into so much trouble. You know what it does to Danny’s blood pressure.”
He coughed out a broken laugh. “I’ll work on that.”
“I’m gonna hold you to that.”
Before he could say anything else, the house around them shook like it had been hit by a terrible earthquake. Danny stumbled into the wall behind him, holding Grace to him tightly; Kono pushed Steve down so that her body protected his. Elizabeth jumped as she felt someone touch her, and she looked up to see that John was holding on to her, the blade gripped tightly in his hand again as he angled himself in front of her.
“What’s happening, Daddy?” Grace asked.
A flickering image appeared in the center of the room as the house continued to shake. Somewhere below they heard glass shattering and wood breaking.
“Run!” Mannara ordered. She seemed to be having trouble staying solid, but they could see the triumph in her eyes warring with the worry. “RUN!”
The shaking wasn’t confined to the house, and as the tremors ran through the ground, Gabby looked over her shoulder at the building. It had been hell, but their group had managed to fight their way into the clearing. Elizabeth - how the hell had ELIZABETH shown up? Gabby asked herself - and the other two that had disappeared with her were nowhere to be found, and she figured that they had gone inside. Gabby and Lorne had managed to get up onto the porch, but there were too many crazy ninjas for them to leave everyone else to defend themselves.
“What the hell is going on?” Lorne demanded as he grabbed for the railing to stay on his feet. The tremors were growing worse.
“Don’t know,” Gabby replied. “But I’m hesitant to think that it could be anything in our favor.”
She was pleasantly surprised to see that she was at least partially wrong as the window just behind Lorne shattered into a thousand pieces and people she cared about began tumbling out of it. Elizabeth and John were there, along with the others she had yet to meet. She figured that since the ninjas were trying to kill them as well, she could count them as friends instead of foes.
One of their red-tattooed adversaries leapt up onto the porch then, weapon held high and aimed at the man holding a little girl. Gabby shouted a warning and then jumped over everyone else still trying to get to their feet from the jump through the window. She pushed the man out of the way just in time to catch the tail end of the swing, and her side burned in agony. Stamping the pain down as much as she could, she raised her right arm to catch the next attack, twisting it back and up.
Her opponent was good, but Gabby had been well-trained. She didn’t get many chances on Atlantis to use her skills, even with the amount of scrapes that John managed to get them into, and her mind and body relaxed into the old role with a sense of completeness and relief. She felt each movement instead of seeing it and her breathing was steady and calm. There was an order to fighting that set her at ease, and everything else fell away as she slowly beat back the man in front of her.
He knew that she was winning; Gabby could see it in his eyes as he lost more and more ground. With one final sweep, she managed to take his weapon from him. This close, she could see that it was something like a staff with blades on each end. Spinning it experimentally in her hands, she got a feel for the weight and then swung it so that one of the blades sliced across his throat. The ninja fell backwards, over the railing and out of sight, and Gabby turned back to the others.
The house was still shaking, the tremors getting stronger, and she knew that they needed to make their escape.
“Teyla!” she yelled. “Start leading them back to the jumper! Shoot your way through! Ronon, you’ve got the right! Lorne, the left! I’ll cover you!”
There was no hesitation, no argument. They began to move out, getting off the porch just as the rest of the windows in the house exploded outward. Using the weapon she had procured from her last adversary, Gabby engaged any of the ninjas who came close enough for her to reach. She silently marveled at the way each of them was trained. This was a prime fighting force, and she wondered who their allegiance belonged to.
It didn’t take them long to realize that she was a big threat, and that won her companions a little more breathing room as they ran for the jumper. Gabby risked a glance over her shoulder to see how close they were to the ship, not realizing her mistake until it was too late. The men following them grouped together and surged forward, cutting her off from the others. There were just too many of them for her to take down on her own, and even as she saw her friends run into the back bay of the jumper, she realized that there was no way she was going to be able to follow them.
“GO!” she yelled at Ronon, who was guarding the ramp. “GO!”
She wasn’t expecting the flash of blue light as Elizabeth came running out of the jumper, a dark-haired woman right behind them. Three of the ninjas got caught by the light and flew to the sides, opening the space just enough so that the two women could reach Gabby.
“What the hell are you doing?” Gabby asked.
“Kono and I thought that you could use some help.”
Kono nodded. “Besides, I’m not letting you have all the fun without me. I’ve wanted to punch something ever since Steve and Grace went missing.”
There wasn’t any time to argue and Gabby couldn’t deny that she was happy to have some company. Maybe there was a chance they could all come out of this alive.
“I realize we don’t have time to talk about the blue glowy-thing going on with you, darling,” she said to Elizabeth, “but we most definitely will later. For now, I think you should just blast these bastards and we should get back to the jumper.”
Elizabeth’s eyes were hard as she pulled her right arm back, the blue glow once again growing in the palm of her hand. “I was thinking the same thing.”
Somehow sensing that the tide was turning, the ninjas leapt forward as one and tried to overwhelm them. It wasn’t as successful as they were hoping. Gabby found that her new weapon quickly became comfortable in her hands and it soon felt like an extension of her arms rather than a separate object. Elizabeth seemed to still be finding her footing as far as the weapon she carried inside of her, but she threw it out at their opponents as best and hard as she could, keeping them at bay, sometimes throwing them into trees hard enough to knock them out.
They almost lost Kono once. Gabby caught just enough of the other woman’s fights to be impressed, but at one point she was simply overwhelmed. Seeing that Elizabeth had her opponents under control, Gabby rushed to her new companion’s aid, slicing through ninjas with a vicious ferocity. Kono managed to regain her feet, her left arm bleeding from a cut that ran the length of her bicep. In her right hand she held a weapon that matched Gabby’s, and she threw herself against the nearest ninja, nearly decapitating him in the process.
A sudden roar behind them made Gabby spin around. One of their foes had managed to get around them and was sneaking in from the side, unseen. Ronon, still standing guard at the jumper, had caught his movements, though, and he threw a large knife that impaled itself deep in the man’s neck. He crumpled to the ground with a wordless cry.
“Time to leave!” the Satedan roared.
Elizabeth threw one last blast of energy at the remaining ninjas and then the three women broke for the jumper. It started to lift in the air in anticipation of leaving, and Ronon reached down to catch Gabby’s hand and haul her inside as the last passenger. Kono was already slumped down on one of the benches, while Elizabeth stood in the center uncertainly.
“Sit down, darling,” Gabby said, reaching out to squeeze her friend’s arm. “We’ll figure everything out when we get back home.” She gave her a warm smile. “I’m just glad to see you alive and well.”
Elizabeth returned the smile gratefully and the two women sat down on one of the benches as Lorne guided the jumper back to Atlantis.
Danny held Grace’s hand tightly as they walked through the unfamiliar halls of Atlantis. They had been given a tour a couple of days ago, but Danny hadn’t quite wrapped his head around it yet. Sheppard had given him a data pad with a map in it, and he was currently using that to make his way through the city. He had already managed to get turned around a couple of times, but as they came up to the open third door on the left, he let out a sigh of relief. They had finally found their destination.
He raised his free hand to knock, but something made him hesitate. The woman sitting behind the desk was fully immersed in whatever she was working on on her laptop, a pair of black-rimmed reading glasses settled on her face.
Gabby Marcotte wasn’t exactly a leader on Atlantis, but she was the woman who kept the day-to-day affairs running as smoothly as possible. Danny hadn’t known anything about her at first, but eventually someone had mentioned her. Apparently she was the one responsible for 5-0 getting rooms so quickly and close together, and she had gotten them clothes and toothbrushes and had even found a stuffed animal for Grace to sleep with.
And she had done all of this after saving their lives and getting seventeen stitches in her side.
“Miss Gabby?” Grace asked, discontent to wait for her father to knock.
Gabby looked up sharply before a warm smile spread across her face. Slipping her glasses off and setting them on the desk, she pushed herself to her feet, almost managing to hide the wince of pain.
“Hello, there,” she said, her British accent somehow softening her voice. “What can I do for the two of you?”
Danny felt slightly off-kilter, and he didn’t know why. Regardless, he gave her a smile. “We, uh...we wanted to thank you.”
“You saved us,” Grace said.
Danny chuckled. “Major Lorne told us how you ended up with those stitches,” he explained. “In the midst of jumping out of the crazy house and trying to make sure that my daughter and my team were okay, I didn’t see that you leaped in front of us and took a hit.”
“You don’t have to thank me for that, Daniel. I wasn’t going to let any of you get hurt if I could help it.”
“And we greatly appreciate that. You, uh...you’ve also taken pretty good care of us since we got back to the city. The rooms, the clothes...”
“And the teddy bear,” Grace added. “Was he yours?”
Gabby’s smile widened. “Yes, he was. I always found him to be a good friend to cling to whenever I was afraid. He’ll take good care of you.”
“But what if you need him again? Even grown-ups get scared sometimes.”
“They do indeed. And I’ll make sure to come to you if that happens, alright? Then I can borrow him until I’m not afraid anymore.”
Grace nodded sagely. “Deal.”
Danny started gesturing with his free hand, drawing Gabby’s attention back to him. “We were hoping that maybe you would join us for dinner. If you’re not too busy, that is.”
Gabby glanced down at her watch, eyes widening when she saw what time it was. “Oh my. I didn’t realize how late it had gotten.”
“Even administrators of lost cities in far-off galaxies, who fight ninjas in their spare time, need to take a break and eat.”
“That is very true. And I would love to join you.” She reached out to tap a few keys on her laptop, and Danny frowned as he saw her left hand start to quiver. Gabby shook it a few times and then resumed typing for a moment before closing the lid and looking up at them again with a smile. “I’m ready when you are.”
Filing away his observations, he nodded. “Let’s go, then.”
Steve stormed out of Carter’s office, not sure where he planned to go. Her words were still ringing in his head, making it difficult to breathe. Maybe if it had been just him, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But the idea of telling Danny and the others made him sick to his stomach. They weren’t going to be happy. Hell, he wouldn’t have been surprised if they were devastated. And he had to be the one to break the news to them.
If there was anything he could have done to change the situation, he would have done it in a heartbeat. There were no options, though, nothing he could do. He hated that more than he ever could have described.
When he eventually became aware of his surroundings again, Steve realized that he was in one of the large ship bays - “jumpers,” they called them - and that he wasn’t alone. Elizabeth Weir stood close to the edge of the open bay, staring out at the rain pouring down outside. There was just enough of a breeze to push the rain in at them, and he saw that the floor around her feet was damp.
It definitely looked like she wanted to be alone.
“I’m sorry,” he said, when she turned to look at him. “I didn’t mean -”
Elizabeth shook her head, her eyes sad. “It’s okay, Commander. I wouldn’t mind the company.”
He walked towards her slowly until he was standing right next to her. The cool breeze and the spray coming off the water had a surprisingly calm effect on him, though maybe it shouldn’t have been that surprising. The water had always been a comfort to him. A sharp pang went through him at the thought of the beach behind his house.
“I take it you got the all-clear from Beckett and McKay?” he asked quietly.
Ever since they had gotten to Atlantis, Elizabeth had been locked away in the infirmary. Even after telling her story of manipulating the nanites inside of her body and finding an empty Replicator planet, her friends were skeptical. They had run every test imaginable until they exhausted their ideas and finally had to conclude that she was who she said she was. Carson had given her a relieved smile and hugged her tightly, though McKay muttered under his breath about missing something.
No one had mentioned the blue light that Elizabeth had thrown at their enemies.
“I did,” she replied, staring out at the water. “I’m not really sure it matters, though.”
“Give them time. From what I hear, you were gone a long time. It’ll take some getting used to.”
“They don’t trust me.”
“They’re cautious,” he argued. “Give them time,” he repeated.
Elizabeth opened her mouth again, and Steve thought that maybe she was going to mention Sheppard. Instead, she just scowled and shook her head before changing the subject.
“You look like you just got some bad news,” she said. “Did you talk to Sam about getting back home?”
Steve’s jaw clenched as he nodded and looked out over the water again. “We can’t get back.”
“Carson told me,” she said gently. “I’m sorry, Steve.”
He shook his head. “There has to be a way. I can’t just tell Danny that he’s never gonna see his parents again. I can’t tell Kono and Chin and Malia that they’re stuck here for the rest of their lives!”
“It could be worse -”
“How can you say that? How can you just stand there and accept that you’re stuck here? Don’t any of you want to go home again? Don’t you have people waiting for you?”
Elizabeth looked down. “We’ve all had to leave someone behind, Commander. The weight of it is crushing. But it doesn’t change the facts.”
He looked at her in disbelief. “And you’re content with that?”
“Content isn’t the right word. But I know for a fact that raging against something I cannot change won’t get me anywhere. For the foreseeable future…Atlantis is your home.”
He didn’t know what to say to that.
“It’s not all bad, Commander,” she said softly. “You’re not alone. You have your ohana with you. And really…isn’t home wherever they are?”
Her words rang true in an uncomfortable way. Aside from his sister, there wasn’t really anything or anyone else from Earth that he was going to have trouble getting by without. Steve knew that he would be okay as long as he had his team with him and could keep them safe. That was all he really needed. The others, though...they had families, loved ones. The news was going to break their hearts.
“I think maybe we’ll be okay, Steve,” she murmured, reverting back to the informality of his name instead of his title. “I promise to stick it out and give it a chance if you do.”
It wasn’t like he had a choice. He had the people he cared about, though, and they had a safe place to call home. He knew that telling them wouldn’t be easy, but they’d get through it. Nothing had beaten them down yet, and he wasn’t going to let this be the first.
Nodding to let Elizabeth know that he agreed to the deal, he turned his attention back out to the water. The two of them just stood there, facing the oncoming storm, and wondering what fate had in store for them.