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Against all odds

Chapter Text

Not a sound interrupted the silence of the battlefield, it was as if life itself had come to a halt. The stench of blood and death was heavy in the air, bodies upon bodies as far as the eye could see. It was a strange feeling, to be the only ones still standing, but John didn't have the time to dwell on that. Ariondu was off even worse than himself and he would need some time to rest – somewhere safe and warm. Both of them were exhausted to the bone, barely managing to put one foot in front of the other, but they needed to move, anyway. The carnage seemed to go on forever before their eyes as they walked towards the edge of the battlefield. It was ironic that the place that had once been one of the most beautiful parts of Shinari was now nothing more than a huge grave.

The planet would recover from what they'd done, the population in this area might not.

John didn't care what happened to the people who had hunted him and his mate like rabid dogs. He had no pity for the humans who had forced them to fight when all they had wanted to do was live in peace and quiet for a while.

"Alon," his companion said, the pet-name sounding breathless. John could see the bloody foam froth at the corner of his mouth. "I'm dying."

The words felt worse than a punch to the face. "No," John said. "No, you're not dying." Denial swept over John like a tidal wave. It wasn't supposed to happen like that, Ariondu should have been safe. It was John's job to keep him safe. It was his purpose to protect his mate. John wanted for them to die peacefully, of old age, in a couple of thousand years. That's how it should have happened. They'd made it, hadn't they? They'd survived the army the humans had sent for them. He and Ariondu were supposed to live happily ever after this time, they'd earned it, damn it. "You're not dying," John repeated as if saying it one more time would make it true.

"Don't be stupid, Aloneru," his mate snapped. "That last wave, too many got through our defenses. I've got more wounds than I can heal and there is nothing you can do about it."

John stubbornly kept walking, taking most of his mate's weight onto his own shoulders. By the end of it he practically carried him. Tentatively John reached out with all of his senses in the hopes to get hold of a strand of Essence. He had no luck, there was not much left of that energy that infused all living beings. They'd sucked most of it out of the surrounding area, using it in their defense. Now the air was dead and cold, the corpses all around them covered with a fine patina of frost.

Finally they reached some trees which blocked their view of the grisly battleground. "Here," Ari said. He let go of John's shoulder, falling onto the grass in an unceremonious heap. John erected an air bubble around them, keeping out the awful smell. If his mate had to die now, he should at least be able to do so in what little comfort could be found under the circumstances.

"Alon." It was just one word, but it carried such hopelessness, disappointment and sorrow that John's heart broke. It was the recognition of the loss of all their hopes and plans.

Kneeling down next to his mate, John felt his eyes sting. He swallowed heavily, fumbling to take Ari's hands. "Please don't die," he blurted, closing his eyes against the sick feeling in his stomach. This was so unfair. They'd only been together for a measly two thousand years. Not nearly as long as it could be, not nearly enough, considering their life-expectancy.

"Don't you dare guilt-trip over this," Ariondu said, and John's eyes flew open again. There was a knowing look on his mate's face and John had to admit that yes, he felt that is was all his fault. He was the shield, it was his duty and his privilege to protect Ariondu. If someone had to die, it should have been John.

"Ari, I - " John tried to say, but he was interrupted.

"No, that's something I won't argue over." Ariondu sounded his usual stubborn self and John had to swallow hard once more against the tears that were stinging in his eyes. "If anyone is to blame, it's them. If they'd left us alone, none of this would have happened. Now, stop looking at me like this. This isn't goodbye and you know it. We'll meet again. Find me." His blue eyes were glued to John's as he squeezed John's fingers weakly. For one precious moment John could feel Ari's mind brush against his own, wrapping around him in a loving embrace before slipping away. To John it felt like part of his soul had been ripped from him, leaving him empty and cold.

"I won't ever stop looking for you." The ritual words almost got stuck in John's throat. He bent down and brought their mouths together one last time, just a short brush of lips against lips. His mate sighed, breathed once more, a small puff against John's lips, then stilled.

John let go of the rapidly cooling hands, but stayed on his knees next to his mate's gently glowing body. He'd have stayed there forever, unable to leave – and perhaps that was why Ari's body turned into sparkling dust. It blew around John for a moment, twirling tightly as if to touch him one last time.

"I'll find you," John said. The dust rose into the sky until it vanished from John's sight, turning his world dark. He closed his eyes for a moment, then he got up, one hand already on the hilt of his sword. Reaching out as far as he was capable of on his own, John sent out a tendril of power searching for the people who were responsible for this. He found them easily, tucked away safely in their castles and mansions, far away from the death on the battlefield.

Purposefully, he strode off. Afraid of the power of the Reincarnates, were they? Afraid of the madness that was spreading through the ranks of the Reincarnates, were they? Well, then John would give them something else to be terrified of: the anger of a Reincarnate whose mate had been killed. The madness that some of their kin had been infected with was nothing compared to the fury of a broken bond.

Nothing could stop him now.

Ooo00O00ooO

John jerked upright, the knife he kept under his pillow in his hand before he fully awoke. "Fuck!" He let go of the knife to rub his damp face. It had been one of those dreams again. One of the ones about his past lives. They were crystal clear, HD and Dolby Surround Sound, while he was dreaming, but frustratingly hazy once he was awake. It made John want to howl with frustration and anger.

Ariondu.

If only John could finally find him, could put a face to the name and the voice pleading with him in his dreams.

"Find me."

With a sigh, John got up. It was 0500; four hours from now he was supposed to shuttle a General to the "secret" scientific outpost. There was more than enough time to go for a run beforehand. At least the weather was good – sunny of course, since the next sunset was in late February, and the temperature a pleasant 2 degrees Celsius.

Running usually calmed John, gave him perspective and made dealing with the longing for his mate easier. But the dreams came more frequently now and John found it ever harder to push those memories away.

Ari's voice kept echoing in his head like a siren song, filling him with such longing that his chest hurt.

Things were weird this time around, different. Never in the past five lives had he hurt so badly, not even after decades of searching and never finding Ariondu. John had only been looking for a little over twenty years now, but he already felt brittle as glass, as though the longing had put cracks all through his body.

It hurt.

He stopped running and rubbed a hand over his chest; the pressure there had been getting worse every day. Feeling physically sick, he leaned against the wall of one of the labs for a bit, catching his breath. Just more proof something had changed.

John suppressed the urge to hit the wall next to him. Well, that had been a bust: running hadn't worked at all. There was a headache building just behind his eyes, too. Slowly, as if a heavy weight was dragging him down, John made his way back to his quarters. He felt unreasonably sore and hollow in a way that was outright disturbing. Like there was an empty place in his soul that Ariondu needed to fill, or John would just collapse from the separation.

It was a ridiculous thought of course. John knew that he was perfectly capable of living his life without finding his mate. But this time it seemed to be so much harder. Every day that he had to spend apart from the person he was meant to be with seemed to amount in an unmanageable effort. It was maddening.

Calling himself a sentimental fool, John opened the door to his quarters and pulled off his sweaty clothes. His skin itched and burned, John felt as if he could make out every single hair on his body. Cursing under his breath, John stepped under the cool spray of the shower. It took some time, but finally the cold water soothed his irritated skin and helped along with getting rid of the headache. He began to feel better.

"Find me.

John leaned his head against the tiles. "I won't ever stop looking for you, Ariondu. I promise."

With that, he pushed all thoughts about Ari to the back of his mind. He couldn't dwell on it today. He had a job to do.

Ooo00O00ooO

 

John had to admit he was a bit surprised. Not that he wasn't used to being shot at or anything, but usually that happened in a war zone and didn't involve any Alteran drones. This was a first.

John had never been overly interested in whether or not the humans had discovered the existence of their ancestors already, thinking that if they had it would be all over the news. Looked like he had been wrong. Not only had they found out about the Alterans, but they'd kept the knowledge from the public eye long enough to actually figure out how to use the technology. They had no idea what to do when it came to Alteran tech, but ignorance had never stopped the humans from doing what they wanted before. It was something John had always admired and feared in them. At least they could admit to their lack of knowledge, if the Scottish-sounding guy who had almost killed him was anything to go by.

John just hoped that if they had found the Astria Porta as well and had learned to use it, that they treated the alien races they encountered with more tolerance than humankind had shown for the Reincarnated in the past.

He poked at the gel pads in the arm rests of the chair curiously, trying not to slip up and reveal how much he really knew about what the Scottish guy had just called the "Stargate". Then he walked around the control chair, inspecting it from all sides. He'd never seen one of these chairs up close, the last time he'd glanced at one like this had been a couple of thousand years ago.

Truth be told, John had never had much more than a passing interest in Alteran technology. Sure, it was shiny, sparkled, and did all sorts of interesting things, but finding Ariondu always took top priority in any lifetime and often that search didn't leave much room for something else. Now, however, John thought he might indulge a little, give in to his curiosity and the strange urge to sit down in the weird chair.

Listening with only half an ear, John started to sit down.

"…the Ancients having explored this galaxy for millions of years before ... Major, please don't…" The guy tried to stop him but John would have none of it.

"Come on, what are the odds of me having the same genes as these guys?" John asked then lowered himself into the control chair. The second John was properly seated, it lit up, reclined and started a warm, welcoming hum right in the back of John's skull.

Scottish guy said something, then ran off but John was too distracted by all the new sensations and the almost gleeful welcome the chair seemed to give him. This was so cool!

John had no idea how long it took for the guy to come back or whom he brought with him. He didn't really care either, because suddenly all of his senses were filled with Ariondu.

Surprise. Confusion. Recognition. Happiness. Bliss. Longing. Love. Anger. Lust. Frustration. Belonging. Joy.

John needed all of his self-control not to lose it then and there the moment Ariondu stepped into the room and the bond snapped into place.

The General was talking. John had to force himself to listen to what he was saying, to focus on anything else than the Want. Need. Claim. Mine. that was thrumming in his veins. He wanted to touch Ariondu so badly.

"…said don't touch anything."

"I … I just sat down," John said, the words nearly getting stuck in his throat. If he was sounding a little breathless and confused at the moment, John hoped people would blame it on the whole glowy chair experience.

"Major, think about where we are in the solar system," Ari decided to say just then. His voice all but made John come in his pants. God, how he had missed hearing that voice.

John was vaguely aware of the starmap that was now glittering prettily above him on the ceiling. While it was certainly nice and all, John really wanted to be alone with Ari now. Preferably somewhere private where no one would observe the Surge – or the sex he totally planned on having with Ari as soon as they had a few minutes to themselves.

"Did I do that?" John asked, frowning up at the ceiling. Of course it was a stupid question, who else could have done it? But seriously, John had an image to maintain, at least until he'd talked with Ari about what would happen next.

Ooo00O00ooO

"Sweet Jesus, those people are worse than a dog with a bone," John said twenty minutes later as he walked briskly beside Ariondu – no, "Rodney."

"What did you expect after you made their every wish come true with your obscenely pretty gene? You're practically a wet dream for every scientist in this base – and not just because you have ridiculously sexy hair," Ari snapped, very carefully not touching him.

"Aww, Rodney, you make me feel the love," John replied. He wished they would arrive at Rodney's quarters already because he really needed to touch his mate now, or he was going to burst.

"Hey," John said, lowering his voice and moving that bit closer to Rodney, "does that mean I'm a wet dream for you, too?"

"Stop that, it's not funny," Rodney said angrily. He sounded hurt now, as well. "I've been fucking dreaming of your voice for months on end. And I can tell you most of the time it was no fun at all."

John swallowed hard. So Ariondu had felt it, too.

"Yeah, I know, buddy. I'm sorry." The urge to touch his mate was near unbearable now, forcing John to take a deep breath to center himself. He couldn't risk slipping up and Surging in the middle of a corridor.

"Shut up, we're there." Rodney sounded to all the world as if he was about to rip off John's head any second now – only John knew how much willpower it must cost his mate not to touch him in public. The bond demanded they touch and unite completely. The denial of that need was like a sharp knife in John's gut, and he knew Rodney wasn't any better off.

Rodney opened one of the doors to their right and stepped in, switching on the lights. John walked in right behind him, not sparing his surroundings a single glace. His whole attention was on the man he had searched for for twenty years. His whole life, really, and six incarnations before that. Ariondu - his other half, created to be with him until the end of time.

"Mate," John whispered, his voice breaking.

"Mate," Rodney agreed just as brokenly.

They moved towards each other then. The moment they touched, fingers intertwining and mouths coming together in a bruising kiss, the world around them exploded in a shower of light. Their powers returned to them, crackling in the air like static electricity before wrapping around them tightly, thrumming in time with their heartbeats.

John was on fire. "I need," he gasped against Ariondu's skin. "Yes, yes, I know." Rodney was as desperate for contact as John was, tearing at their clothes.

The next minutes were a blur of frantic fumbling, heated kisses, fingers grappling over skin, mouths licking, biting, nipping. It was morecloserfasterharderfinally. It was being reunited after way too long.

John didn't know how long they lay panting, sticky and sweaty. Both of them were high on the Surge and the first sex with each other after a small eternity and it felt so damn good. Right then and there John didn't care much about how long they'd taken or who might have seen them enter Rodney's room. They'd think of an explanation if someone asked them about it.

"We should go back," Rodney finally said. He made no move to leave, which was totally alright with John. Lying there with Rodney's head on his shoulder while Rodney's hands stroked his side was the most relaxed John had been in this incarnation. It was where he belonged and John could have stayed a few more hours, or days like that. For the first time in a long time nothing was wrong with his universe. But of course reality had to intrude. Rodney shifted, suddenly tense, and John felt it all over.

"What's wrong, Ari?" John asked. The bond was still pulsing strongly between them from the Surge, but John didn't get any clear impressions from his mate. Surging had made them hyperaware of each other, both physically and mentally, it would take some time until they'd come down enough to use it as a means of judging each other's feelings.

Rodney sighed. "I should ask you that. Something's been bothering you. Don't deny it, you're not as good at hiding it as you think you are." He paused. "Just say it, Alon."

"You were going to go to Atlantis without me." There, he'd said it. It wasn't an accusation, merely a fact John had longed to understand. He was gonna leave me behind, was running through John's head ever since Doctor Weir had introduced Rodney as the 'Head of the Science and Research department for the Atlantis mission.'

Silence stretched until John thought Rodney wouldn't say anything to that, then Rodney sighed. The sound was tired, making John want to tuck Rodney in with an order to sleep for a week. Reality, however, wouldn't allow that, either.

"Yes," Rodney said, turning slightly to lock their gazes.

John's hand twitched before he could control his immediate urge to smooth the tufts of hair that stuck off Rodney's head at impossible angles. Instead, he waited for Rodney to continue.

"I was going to leave–" Rodney broke off. He visibly swallowed, his gaze dropping to the blanket as he hesitated for a moment. "You know that Alteran technology was always fascinating for me. Atlantis will be something new, something interesting."

Rodney stopped, but John could hear an unspoken 'I needed to get away from here.' He didn't need mind-reading abilities to interpret his mate's body language. Rodney had been about to flee from something. John just hadn't found out what that was, yet. "The chances of finding you on Earth within this lifetime were ridiculously small anyway."

"Ari," John said gently. He knew there was more to it, something his mate was holding back. John wasn't above prying, not when they were talking about something so important. "Don't do this. Tell me the truth."

Annoyance was clearly written on Rodney's face for a heartbeat, but then he smiled. "Mother hen."

John grinned at the teasing. "The one and only. Now give."

Rodney returned the grin, but immediately turned serious again. "I wasn't going to leave with the expedition at first. They didn't even have the right Stargate address until a few days ago. Although … in the past few weeks I've been tempted to help Jackson along. Since I got to the outpost I've dreamt of you every night. Headaches, migraines … I've been feeling like crap. I thought you'd died," he finally admitted in a small voice. "So I figured I might as well head to Atlantis and wait for the inevitable while helping the expedition survive." He gave a broken laugh. "With you dead, I wouldn't have made it more than five years at the most, anyway. I never last long."

Frowning, John gave in to the need to touch Rodney. He ran his hand over his mate's unruly hair a few times before he started to stroke Rodney's side. "I've been getting those headaches, too."

"Huh."

Something occurred to John. "They got worse on the days I shuttled stuff over here."

Rodney frowned, but his mind was already miles away taking their problem apart at light- speed. "Interesting."

John smiled, watching Rodney work his way through the problem. He'd missed this, the sharing, being together.

"What was your flight schedule?"

The question didn't come from nowhere; John had expected something along the lines. "Mondays and–"

"Thursdays," Rodney finished with John. "This is huge, Alon." He sat up, hands pushing through his hair, tousling it all over again. "Do you realize what this means for us?" he asked, excitement turning his cheeks pink. "We've started to adapt again! Finding each other on planets like Earth with their horrible overpopulation or in the vast Stargate network of Pegasus will get a bit easier. It's like our personal proximity alarm. From now on we'll know that our mate is near before we step into the same room with them. We'll be able to cover a bigger area a lot faster."

John laughed happily at the joy and excitement he could hear in Rodney's voice.

"Maybe we should try to pass the word, now that we have access to the Stargate and have a chance of reaching a few of the others. I mean, there has to be a way to organize some sort of searching pattern" It was something John had been longing for for a long time now. In every incarnation anew. He wanted something to make it easier to find his mate without having to spend decades searching for him. "Gotta say though, crippling migraines aren't the greatest thing I could imagine as a kind of compass."

Rodney snorted. "Remember that interim cycle when we lost the ability to use our powers unbounded?"

"Hard to forget." John shuddered.

Rodney sobered up with a wince. "Yeah."

Just having that time mentioned brought back the memories of the agony that had come with partially disrupted Essence flow. Power practically burning them up alive from the inside. It had been … excruciating. "I'm just glad that the population on Tuhurandi was so small back then. I don't know what I'd have done if I hadn't found you when I did."

"Yeah, believe me, I was very glad as well," Rodney said dryly, obviously as uncomfortable with the topic as John. "Still, it stands to reason that this is a transition cycle. Next time around it'll be completely different."

Laughing, John sat up, too. "Hopefully 'next time' is a long way off."

Throwing John a fond look, Rodney leaned towards him, brushing a kiss across his lips. "Agreed," Rodney said. "This time I'll try not to get stabbed quite so often."

"Good thinking."

Watching as Rodney got up, John was loath to even leave the bed. Sure, Doctor Weir had pulled out all the stops to talk John into coming to Atlantis, but there were still the proper channels to go through. All that really meant was that John would have to go back to McMurdo where he'd wait for his new orders.

He sighed when Rodney threw his BDUs at him. "Alright, alright." John started getting dressed, too.

"We should tell Elizabeth we're bonded," Rodney said while he zipped his sweater up at the neck.

John froze. "No," he snapped, immediately sorry when he saw Rodney's bewildered expression. He repeated his 'no' in a much calmer tone, continuing to get dressed.

"We've got to tell someone!" Rodney threw his hands in the air. "We can't just go and hope for the best. I won't hide this. I won't sneak around Sumner's back. I'm not going to pretend that we don't know each other either. Damn it, Alon, if I never wake up without you it'll be too soon."

"If we tell Weir now Sumner will find out. Do you think I'll be allowed to go? Strong gene or not, he'll look at me as a threat. That's how the military works here right now. They won't be happy. It'll all end in a witch hunt or with me in a holding cell. They'll see me as weapon they can control. The military thinks that they own me, anyway. You know how it is."

"But you're mine," Rodney said, pulling John into a fierce hug. "You know I won't let them–"

"I know," John whispered, hugging Rodney back just as fiercely. "They might try though, and I don't want to fight. If we have to let anyone know, then maybe we could tell someone who won't be coming with us."

For a moment, Rodney was silent. "O'Neill. He'll understand most of it from bits and pieces Jackson put together."

"Alright," John agreed, leaning against Rodney for another moment. Reluctantly, he pulled back to finish getting dressed while Rodney watched him with hunger written all over his face. It hadn't been anywhere near enough, John already felt uncomfortably far away from Rodney even though they were only a few feet apart. "Let's go," John said. There was no point in putting it off much longer.

Rodney gave him another intense look, then he led the way back to the lab. The place was as empty and undisturbed as it had been when they'd left.

"They're at lunch. With O'Neill here there'll be something nice," Rodney told him with a lopsided smile before he shoved something into John's hands. "Think 'on'."

Ooo00O00ooO

John was in the middle of pre-flight preparations when General O'Neill climbed into the chopper. "Sir," John greeted him, almost instantly deciding that he should forge right ahead. "I need to talk to you."

"No," O'Neill said immediately with a grimace, "you can't back out of going."

John laughed. "Yes, sir, I know. Doctor Weir is a pretty scary lady, I wouldn't do that to you." An expression of relief passed over O'Neill's face. John swallowed, but he couldn't back out of talking about this either. This was what Rodney wanted. "There is something you need to be aware of, though." John continued fiddling with the chopper's controls even though he'd already done everything he needed to. It was just one more procrastination strategy, one O'Neill was seeing through easily, judging from the small quirk of his lips.

"I know you're worried about the expedition, but … you don't need to be," John said. O'Neill's politely puzzled look – almost bored – wasn't surprising. From what John had seen the man was pretty laid back. With a sigh, John took off his left glove. Pulling energy from the area wasn't hard. Even on a glacier there was enough Essence to run warmly through John's body. He stopped when the intricate Reincarnate mark on the palm of his hand began to gently glow.

O'Neill's eyebrows appeared above his sunglasses. "What the hell?"

"I'm a Reincarnate," John said.

For a moment they were both silent. John was just trying to decide whether to retrieve Rodney from this place or take off with the chopper to do … something, anything really, when O'Neill asked, "So that Blade and Shield thing? Is that true or did Daniel just talk out of his ass?" He didn't sound alarmed at all. Mostly amused, maybe a bit curious, actually.

"It's true," John said with a small smile. "Rodney and I–"

"Rodney?" O'Neill asked. Apparently there were things other than Ancient drones heading towards their aircraft that could poke holes into O'Neill's calm. "Rodney McKay? That Rodney? Don't tell me he's … what do you call him?"

"My mate." John shrugged in a 'what can you do' sort of way.

O'Neill grimaced again. "I'm sure he looks, well, OK, if you squint just right, but his personality is a little …"

When O'Neill couldn't come up with a word on his own, John laughed. "Prickly? Sure of himself?"

"I was gonna say 'arrogant,' but sure, that works, too. So which are you? Shield or Blade?"

"That's almost on the same level as asking a lady her age," John said drily.

O'Neill grinned. "Come on, Sheppard, I'm just curious."

Wishing fervently Rodney was here to deflect all the questions, John grimaced. "I think I liked it better when people screamed and ran away when we told them who we were."

"What?"

"Nothing. Look, I'm not going to satisfy your curiosity. Rodney thinks you're the right guy to tell before we leave for Atlantis. This is a courtesy, nothing more. You can't tell anyone before the expedition leaves."

O'Neill cocked his head, looking at John like he was trying to figure him out. "I take it this wasn't your idea," he said after a lengthy silence.

Deciding to be honest, John shook his head. "No, if I had had my way then nobody would know until we were both through the Stargate. But Rodney thinks you're a decent guy and that you'll worry about the expedition for nothing if we keep it to ourselves."

"You're the Shield."

The statement took John off guard. He was reluctantly impressed: not many people came to that conclusion so easily. "That's right. You're quicker than you pretend to be."

"It's a survival mechanism," O'Neill said completely deadpan. "I've evaded a lot of very long and very boring explanations that way. What makes you think I won't call in a couple of MPs and have you arrested the moment we touch down at McMurdo?"

The expression on O'Neill's face was unreadable. John suspected even if O'Neill hadn't worn his aviator glasses, there would be nothing to help him read the man's eyes. "Because you you're too smart to threaten a bonded pair of Reincarnates. That, and the fact that you know the expedition might need us. It's dangerous out there."

Something in the way O'Neill held himself changed. It was subtle, but it told John that his message had been received: 'You're better off with a pair of Reincarnates on your side, than against you.' Still, O'Neill wouldn't admit to that too easily.

"It's a different galaxy. As far as we know there's no Goa'uld there."

Staring off into the clean, white expanse before him, John suppressed a shudder. "The Goa'uld aren't the only things out there that you should be afraid of," he said. O'Neill and the other humans on Earth didn't have the first clue what kinds of evil were just waiting to find them. They hadn't even seen a fraction of the worst yet. John forced himself to relax and aim for a tone that wouldn't sound lecturing. "Trust me on this one, O'Neill," he finally said, reaching for his helmet, "the universe is full of dangerous beings."

"And you're one of them?" O'Neill asked, his voice coming loud and clear over the radio.

John gave O'Neill a grin as he pulled the chopper upwards, pointing its nose towards McMurdo. "Oh yeah. Definitely."

The journey back to the base was smooth, boring, full of talk about planes and blissfully free of awkward questions. At least until O'Neill took off his headset and motioned for John to do the same.

"Your secret is safe with me. McKay's right, I was worried about my men. You'll take care of them?"

John nodded. "I'm a Shield," he said. Eons ago that would have been a pledge, but at O'Neill's frown, John added, "It's what we do."

"Right. You know I can't keep this to myself forever. Eventually, I'll have to inform the President."

"I know, sir." From O'Neill's expression John knew that he hadn't been entirely able to hide exactly how much that thought discomfited him. Just because a group of people elected a person to be president of something didn't necessarily make them suitable for the job.

O'Neill gave him a look. "For now, I won't though," he said, his expression blank. Then he undid his seatbelt and turned away to get out. Before he even opened the door, he suddenly looked back at John. "One more thing, Sheppard. Can I tell Daniel?"

That was something John wouldn't decide on his own. Concentrating, John sent a tiny tendril of energy through the bond until it flared up all bright and beautiful. John wished it could have been like that all the time, not just after they had bonded. It would make finding each other so much easier and headaches were just a shitty sort of 'radar' in his opinion. Unfortunately, this kind of contact only came with the re-awakened bond. John cherished the feeling all the more for that. Knock, knock, he sent.

'Knock, knock' jokes are the lowest form of wit, Rodney replied almost instantly, the tone of his voice betraying a certain amount of relief.

John suppressed a grin. The mental contact with Rodney was soothing the ache that was already beginning to build inside of him from the separation.

O'Neill wants to tell 'Daniel'. John had met Jackson briefly, coming away with the impression that he could be trusted, but Rodney knew him better. I think that'd be fine. Thoughts?

That'd be alright for you because I'm the one he'll pester with questions, Rodney said, the non-verbal component of his reply tinged with uneasiness.Jackson's okay.

Reluctant to cut off their connection, John sent a caress, just to have Rodney grumpily tell him that he had actual work to do before shutting it off with a wave of tenderness of his own.

John opened his eyes; he hadn't even been aware he'd closed them in the first place. "Yeah, you can tell him. But it'd be great if you could hold off on that until we're through the Stargate." The brief contact had been awesome. It wasn't anywhere near enough, but it would have to do for now.

"This is pretty hard on you, isn't it?" O'Neill was full of surprises, especially as he sat back down in the cockpit of the chopper, waving away the ground personnel.

"We're not made to be apart too much." Admitting to that wasn't easy. It was something John didn't want to talk about, or think about. Separation this soon after bonding hurt like a bitch. It was a weakness they didn't readily admit to, if they could help it. But if O'Neill knew, maybe he could speed some processes along. "There's a reason why we come in pairs."

O'Neill took off his sunglasses, looking him over critically. "I've got to talk to General Bleny and you're coming with me."

Ooo00O00ooO

 

Even with O'Neill pulling some strings, the result was crappy at best. Sure, Bleny hadn't tried to keep John there, in fact he all but pushed him at O'Neill. That didn't change the fact though, that John still had to accompany O'Neill back to Colorado. John knew it would look suspicious if he didn't follow protocol at all and disobeying orders now would cost him his place on the Atlantis mission – something John wouldn't risk. Not when Rodney was looking forward to going to the city of the Alterans that much.

Which left John with being whisked away by O'Neill. The General looked apologetic but had made it clear there was nothing more he could do for John, other than have Rodney and some other scientists transported out the very next day under some sort of flimsy excuse. It was at least something, and John knew he should be grateful for that, but each additional mile separating him and Rodney burned like fire along his skin.

Stepping off the General's plane and onto the hot tarmac at Peterson was pretty much the best thing John had done in the past few hours. It meant he got to be alone and curl up somewhere until Rodney came back to him. It was ridiculous how vulnerable and drained John felt just from the separation alone. Not even the luxuries of the Learjet had distracted him from the strain, each passing minute turning it more and more into a small metal prison.

"Wait up, Sheppard!"

John balled his hands into tight fists. It really was too soon after Surge to be this far apart from Rodney and having to be social wasn't something John wanted to deal with – not even for O'Neill.

His teeth were clenched so tightly that his jaw was starting to ache, but John didn't care. "I'm sorry, General, but since I'm off duty right now, I would prefer to be alone for a while." He kept walking.

"Just get into the damn car, Sheppard, I don't want to have to knock you out and carry you."

A growl escaped John, but he turned around and stalked to the car anyway. He wouldn't put it past O'Neill to try and make good on his threat. And John really didn't want to have to hurt the man. "Don't you have better things to do than play babysitter for me?" John asked as he curled himself into a corner, half leaning against the cold plastics.

Unperturbed, O'Neill regarded John with an amused grin. "I know you said that it wasn't gonna be fun, but it seems that was a bit of an understatement. Geez, Sheppard, is it normal that you're in that much pain?"

John growled, but forced himself to shrug. O'Neill stared at him. He'd done that a lot during the flight, too, pretty much whenever John hadn't answered one of his questions quickly enough. "Kinda," he said. "We only just Surged, the bond is still raw and supercharged. Separation is … difficult during the first time. There's this … intense urge to stay close. If we don't, it hurts. I've known Reincarnates who never separated a day in their lives after they bonded."

"Do they go to the head together, too?"

John snickered at the picture that produced. "I never asked. But no, that's not the standard. We don't generally have to stay that close together all the time. We're not helpless without each other. The thing is, right after the bond flares, staying together is usually what works best." He winced, realizing he'd scratched his wrist bloody without noticing. He itched all over, it was driving him insane.

"McKay and some others are flying out tomorrow," O'Neill said, his eyes glued to the red lines. "You gonna be okay until then? You look like shit."

John had the feeling this was O'Neill at his most caring. It was touching. "Thanks sir," John said dryly. "But yeah, I'll be fine. I've survived worse." What were a little pain and itching against lifetimes of feeling incomplete? Yeah, right. "It's just a day."

O'Neill studied him a bit longer. "If you say so."

Twitching, John looked away from O'Neill and turned to watch the sights instead.

"Daniel told me there are different classes of Shields," O'Neill suddenly said. "Do I have to guess which you are or are you gonna tell me?"

"Does Doctor Jackson know you actually remember everything he tells you, or do you have him fooled, too?"

O'Neill snickered. "Answering a question with a question, Sheppard, not fair. But to answer yours, Danny talks a lot on any given day, I don't even remember half of what he says."

Momentarily forgetting everything else, John cocked his head. "Liar."

"Hey!" O'Neill said, looking pained.

"And you know it, too. You pay more attention to him than you do to most of the other people, don't you? Oh, I see." He mentally went back a few long hours, rewinding what he'd seen, what he'd heard, until he came to the part that was now wiggling in his memory like a particularly big exclamation mark. "You like him a lot, don't you?"

"Now, look–"

"So you digging into my life is okay, but me figuring out that you have the hots for Doctor Jackson isn't?" John asked with a grin. "Remember who you're talking to."

O'Neill rubbed a hand over his face, then grimaced at John. "It's just a crush. Completely harmless – and unrequited. So don't you go matchmaking."

Reading people had always been one of John's specialties. Maybe it was to make up for Rodney's cluelessness, but whatever the reason, it came in handy now and then. "I think you're wrong about it being unrequited," he said.

O'Neill leaned forwards, his eyes intense. "Sheppard, drop it."

"Yes, sir. Just let me know when you change your mind." The car slowed down until it stopped in front of a five-storey apartment building. "That's my exit. Thanks, General. For everything." He grabbed his stuff and moved to open the door.

"Sheppard," O'Neill said, quietly, "who are you really?"

Maybe he owed O'Neill that much. John smiled. He clasped O'Neill's hand to shake it. "I'm Aloneru, Wind Shield of Ariondu. Good to meet you, sir."

He was still standing there, looking up at the grey building, when the car took off again. Sighing, he got the key out of his pocket and went to find the small corner apartment O'Neill had managed to get for him. It was on the second floor, tucked away in the back.

O'Neill's questions, his curiosity and easy acceptance, it all eased a hurt John hadn't been aware of. Maybe he'd just gotten too used to the people he had always tried to protect hating him. Dropping his bag in the middle of the living room, he walked straight into the bathroom. Clothes trailed behind him, lying where he pulled them off.

He ached so much even the soft cotton hurt. It was a relief when he was naked. Hoping that a shower would help, John stepped into the small cubicle. The cool water eased the pain somewhat, but John knew that until Rodney was back, nothing would work against the ache completely. For a while he just stood there, letting the water help with the awful sensation of Rodney not being there. After a while the water turned almost painful, too, so John ruefully got out of the shower. He didn't bother with the towel that some nice soul had put out for him; instead, he created a warm breeze. The soft caress of wind was much easier to handle right then. By the time he let himself drop onto the freshly made bed he was perfectly dry.

Ari, he called, submersing himself entirely into the bond between them, travelling along it until he was there with Rodney. So close paintoofar that John knew if he wanted he could touch notalonenotalonenotalone he would be able to. It was like he was sitting next to Rodney on the plane to Peterson, watching him type rapidly on the laptop perched on the fold down table in front of him. Ari.

Deeply immersed in his work, Rodney said, "Not now, Alon." The words had barely left his mouth before he looked around, blinking rapidly a few times. What the hell are you doing here? Get back into your body, stupid. I can't leave you alone for a few hours without you doing something rash! He hit a button, closed the lid of the laptop, and leaned back, his eyes closing. Then he was there, like a wisp of wind, next to John, pushing him away, back towards where alonesoalonehurts John could sense his body.

John clung to Rodney tightly, allowing him to do whatever he wanted. As long as Rodney was there, too, he didn't really care where he ended up. It itches.

Rodney sighed. Me, too. But do you see me pushing my way through the bond until I'm barely in touch with my body anymore? No, you don't. Do you know why? Because I have a strong sense of self-preservation that you're obviously lacking.

John felt a sudden rush of giddiness. You have my self-preservation, he agreed, happily, and I have your people skills.

Now they were hovering somewhere in the middle, floating towards John. I resent that. I have plenty of people skills, Rodney told him, his voice mild.

You make them cry, John pointed out, feeling drowsy now with the giddiness draining slowly out of him. A lot.

Rodney laughed. So I do. It was a nice sound. So nice that John didn't complain past a small sound of disagreement when Rodney pushed him firmly back towards Colorado Springs. Now off you go. Back to where you belong. We'll have a talk about your risk-seeking attitude once I'm sure you can stand on your own two feet again. O'Neill said he put you into my apartment, there ought to be plenty of chocolate in the cupboard to the upper left of the sink. Have some if you can make it there.

The last John heard was, At least that idiot doesn't do that kind of shit when we're in dangerous areas. I just found him, damn it, I don't want to lose him again, then he fell asleep.

Ooo00O00ooO

The repercussions of his stupid stunt were immediately clear when John came to. The sun was low in the sky, too low for it to be the morning. "Fuck," John moaned. He lay completely still while the wave of nausea passed over him. "I'm such an idiot." He'd lost a whole day – which was probably for the best, considering the emptiness he felt from Rodney's absence. "Fuck," John moaned. He lay completely still while the wave of nausea passed over him. "I'm an idiot."

John took a slow, deep breath, trying to decide what to do now. He'd messed up big time. Disconnecting from his body the way he'd done was dangerous enough when his mate was around, but with Rodney thousands of miles away, a speedy recovery was pretty much impossible.

Giving in to the unavoidable, John took stock of all the pains and aches of his body. Everything hurt. His head pounded, his skin felt like it was on fire, but the worst was the hollow feeling inside of him. It was setting his teeth on edge, driving him almost out of his mind. Everything in John screamed for his mate. It was a bit like the physical hunger John was feeling as well, only stronger. It was a hunger of a different kind, on a far more basic level. John ached so much with the separation that, had he been able to handle even the smallest amount of Essence without puking his guts out or collapsing, he'd reached out to Rodney again, consequences be damned.

"Quit stalling and get up already," John told himself firmly and determinately rolled onto his side. That alone exhausted him, but he stubbornly pushed himself into a sitting position until his feet touched the floor. Alright, not a good idea. Vertigo joined the nausea and the headache and John had to grip the edge of the bed to steady himself while the room spun around him madly. God damn it, this sucked. Sweat broke out all over John's skin but he grit his teeth and clung on until he felt less like keeling over.

Suddenly the kitchen seemed to be miles away. Getting there was going to be hell, but John knew that he needed to eat, needed to give his body at least that kind of energy, or Rodney would find him passed out on the floor when he came home. And wouldn't that be fun? Rodney would have his hide for pulling such a stunt for sure, then.

No, best would be to tough it out and go get that chocolate Rodney had mentioned. He could do that. "I can make it to the kitchen," John said aloud, not wanting to think about when he had picked up the habit of talking to himself like that.

Giving himself one more moment to gather his strength, John took in his surroundings for real, for the first time. This was Rodney's apartment. O'Neill had put him into Rodney's place. That explained the smug smile when the man had given him the keys. John would have loved to do some exploring, but he knew that was absolutely out of the question. No, getting to the kitchen alone would be a challenge all its own. Getting up on unsteady legs, John decided not to risk walking across the room. Instead he made his painfully slow way along the wall, leaning against it every few steps to catch his breath.

It was just starting to dawn on John that he probably should have stayed in bed a little longer, because he was pretty sure he wasn't going to make it all the way to the kitchen. At least not in one go. Looking over his shoulder, John decided that he wasn't going to make it back to the bed either He'd just have to collapse where he stood. Great, just great.

"Rodney is never gonna let me live this one down," he said to the empty apartment.

By the time he was leaning against the counter in the kitchen, John was drenched in sweat. He was shaking all over from the effort: the only thing that still kept him on his feet was his willpower, which he suspected was going to run out soon, too. John found the sweets exactly where Rodney had said they were and wiped them all to the floor, unceremoniously. Heaving a sigh of relief, John then slid down to join them. There was no way he would make it anywhere else now, not for a couple of hours at least. The first rush of energy from the chocolate made the nausea even worse, but thankfully his stomach settled after a moment.

Thirsty now, John gave the faucet a speculative look. Nope, he was not gonna make it there, not when his legs felt like overcooked pasta. "Think I'll just stay here." There was no way he could heave himself up just for a glass of water. Not yet anyway. Maybe in a couple of minutes he'd give it a try.

Sweat was itching on John's skin and the cold tiles of the kitchen floor were uncomfortable on his bare ass. If he'd known he'd end up naked on the kitchen floor he'd probably have put on a t-shirt and some shorts. Well, though luck. Nothing to do about that now.

When he was finally feeling slightly better, John reached out, letting Essence trickle into him on the smallest scale possible. It hurt, of course it did. He'd depleted his Essence resources almost completely after all and his body was telling him unmistakably that that had been a Bad Idea. John felt raw inside, as if he'd bruised something essential during his stint as an incorporeal being.

Alright, John needed more to eat. He grabbed something at random, frowning when he realized it was a PowerBar. That was so Rodney, going with that kind of barely-edible stuff. Giving a shaky laugh, John bit off a large piece of the candy, not caring about the taste. He needed food to gain back his strength; the Essence he was pulling out of the air slowly helped, but wouldn't be enough in the end. At least his hands were a little steadier now, even if he didn't think he could stand yet.

"If I thought you'd learn something from this, I'd leave you on the floor a little bit longer."

John closed his eyes in defeat at the voice coming from the living room. "Fuck," he cursed. He'd hoped he'd be a bit more steady on his feet until Rodney came home.

"Dizzy?" Rodney asked as he went down on one knee next to John.

"Maybe," John grunted, holding his roiling stomach with one hand while his other wobbled under the stress of keeping him upright. An arm slid around his shoulders, steadying him.

"You really did a number on yourself this time, John," Rodney told him. "Come on, I'll help you to the couch."

Once he was out on the living room couch, Rodney spread a blanket over him, tucking it in properly before he rushed back to the kitchen. "You know exactly how vulnerable this kind of out-of-body experience makes us. It served absolutely no purpose, but you did it anyway. Why?"

"Missed you." That didn't even begin to explain exactly how awful being so far away from Rodney had made him feel. He doubted Rodney could completely understand it either. No one but another Shield could. The impulse to get to Rodney, to be at his side, close to him, to guard him was overwhelming. Not something that was supposed to happen, but in the achy out-of-his-mind state he'd been in … his Shield-nature had taken over.

"That's all?"

He nodded tightly,watching as Rodney opened another PowerBar for him. "Pretty much."

Rodney sighed heavily, handing over the food. It wasn't until John felt like he couldn't possibly eat another bite, or have another glass of water, that Rodney sank down on the low coffee table, watching John with bright eyes.

"Can we agree on not doing this again? Next time, just give me a nudge. I know this kind of thing, separation, is worse for you than it is for me. But you really should have let me know how bad it got this time. I'm pretty sure that just opening the bond would have helped. Promise me you won't get yourself in danger like that again."

"Sure," John agreed readily, sighing when Rodney's expression fell.

"You're just humoring me," Rodney accused.

The whole thing was so frustrating. "I can promise that I won't ever do that on purpose or while I'm in my right mind. Can we just leave it at that?"

With a sigh, Rodney nodded. He was clearly not happy, but they both knew that sometimes a newly awakened bond did crazy things to the people it was supposed to connect. Rodney's eyes were roaming the room until they came to rest on his luggage, neatly stacked next to John's own discarded bag. He got up again, pacing the room.

"Okay, what is it," John asked, irritated by Rodney's sudden change in mood.

"I, uh, don't think you'll like what I want to do," Rodney told him. "See, I want to leave a document with O'Neill. Something he can show to people. Kind of like PR? We've been running and hiding and staying out of the eye of the public for so long, it's made our lives hell. Not just ours, John, think of all the others who have been looking for their mates in vain. This is greater than you and me."

John opened his mouth, but Rodney shot him such a beseeching look that he didn't say anything.

"The Terrans, they're in a unique position. They're powerful, they have friends, they have influence all over this galaxy. If we make them our friends, too, maybe in a cycle or two we won't have so many problems finding each other. Maybe the mortals will be our friends again. We need them, you know that. We're supposed to help mortals, to guide them, but how can we do that if we can't tell them who we are? I've agreed with the others before, but I'm not so sure anymore." The pleading tone of voice really got to John. Rodney shouldn't feel like he had to beg John just to listen to his ideas. "I know it's not what you meant when you suggested that we 'try to pass the word', but I really think we need to include the humans in our plans, if we want to succeed. At least think about it? Please?" Rodney said, insecurity written in the way he held himself.

"Ari," John said, steeling himself against Rodney's open expression, "this is a phenomenally bad idea. And you are right, it's not what I meant when I said that. I was talking about our kind, not the Terrans. We can't let the humans know. They've hunted us for centuries, have you forgotten hat?"

"They were afraid."

Growling, John fought his way into a sitting position. "Yeah, there are factions that have always been afraid of us. It stopped being about the madness a long time ago, though. You know that. We're too powerful in their eyes. It doesn't matter that we don't use our powers for gain, they don't see us like that. They look at us through their mortal eyes and only see what they'd do with our powers."

"Not everybody is like that, Alon. People have always been afraid of us, even before the madness. But we've gotten all caught up in the same thing, don't you see that? It's become them versus us. There has to be something we can do to change that. I'm not saying that we should go on TV and give interviews, damn it. I just want to start taking that one step towards healing."

"By giving the US military access to information about Reincarnates? That's insane, they're not to be trusted, not as long as we're just their secret. They'll try and use us as a weapon–"

"We wouldn't be just their secret," Rodney interrupted.

For a moment, John was stunned into silence. "What?"

"What I'm planning is to give Daniel Jackson access to some information, along with a taped message. I want to invite him to ask questions when we come back into contact ..." he hesitated for a moment, "...and I'd ask him to spread knowledge of us to every scientist who he believes could be trusted."

"Ari–"

"I'd like to ask O'Neill to do the same thing."

John abruptly leaned back. "Gee, Ari, you call this a first step? We might as well go on TV." He didn't doubt there would be something freeing about being in the public eye once more, but at what cost? They'd hidden for a reason.

"I won't do this without you," Rodney suddenly said. "If you can't see my point I'll get rid of it all and we'll keep hiding – but if you feel the same, even a little bit, then maybe it'd be worth the risk? O'Neill and Jackson can be trusted. These people deal with aliens, they've fought the Goa'uld. They are trying to do what's right. And … and I think they could make good allies."

He was too tired for this. "Alright, Rodney, alright. I'll think about it and then we'll decide what to do." At Rodney's nod, John sighed. "Now come here and give me a hug, I think I deserve that."

"What you deserve, Alon, is a severe spanking."

John waggled his eyebrows at Rodney, the only thing he could do, considering how terribly exhausted he felt. "Kinky."

Rodney snorted, but sat down next to John anyway. He pulled John towards him until John's head was pillowed on Rodney's shoulders, an arm holding him steady. Their bond pulsed with the touch. "Let me help," Rodney said, joining John completely, soothing the pains as more of the surrounding area's Essence ran into both of them. "I was going to tell you to stock up to capacity anyway. We don't know what shape Atlantis is in. Some preparation can never hurt."

His eyes closed, Rodney's touch like balm against his skin, John nodded sluggishly. He was just dozing a bit, wallowing in the warmth of it all while listening to Rodney's heartbeat.

"I'll wake you up for dinner," Rodney said while he was already twisting something in their bond, putting John to sleep.

Ooo00O00ooO

Chapter Text

Ooo00O00ooO

The moment John's boots touched the floor on Atlantis for the first time, he knew something was ... off. Sure, interacting with Alteran technology was pretty new to him and this was Atlantis after all, but the feeling he got from the city was, for all intents and purposes, distress. There was an unhappy, almost panicked hum in the back of his skull that told John things didn't look good for the expedition.

Ari, watch out for problems. Something's wrong here. The city feels pretty strained to me -- almost like that power-converter thingie you gave me, right before it blew. I don't like this. Let's just hope the whole city won't combust around us. John was only half joking. He tried to send an echo of what the city was projecting onto him through to Rodney, and Rodney instantly tensed.

You're right. We need to find out what's going on here, ASAP, Rodney replied and headed off up the central stairs. John followed him, the floor lighting up beneath his feet. It would have been an awe-inspiring sight, if it wasn't for the sense of impending doom that John just couldn't shake.

It only took seconds to find the command room and John couldn't help but admire the view. "Wow," John said quietly, looking around. He watched as Rodney pulled the protecting sheet from one of the consoles, initiating it when Rodney gave him a pointed look. They both studied the Ancient script on the monitors, but while John could read the language well enough, the data itself didn't make much sense to him. Rodney's frown didn't bode well though. It said, "we're so screwed" as clearly as if Rodney had said the words out loud.

As it was, it seemed that the time for pretence was already over. John suppressed a sigh. It wasn't as if they hadn't known that they might be forced to blow their cover early on, should the need arise. But if they'd had a choice they'd would have wanted to wait a couple of weeks, maybe a month or two, until the mortals knew them better. Maybe until they'd made friends with enough of them. Well, no use in thinking about that now; it wasn't as if they could change anything about the situation.

When Rodney suddenly burst into action John was right behind him, running onto the walk-way to stand next to him nervously. "Stop using power, all of you!" Rodney's shout made people freeze in the middle of whatever they were doing; they all looked at him, most of the Marines immediately leveled their weapons at some unseen threat. "We're at the bottom of the ocean and the shields holding back the water will fail if you don't stop wasting power immediately."

A wave of anger came through their shared bond. We need to tell them now, Rodney said, and then find a way to power the city's shields with the Essence we brought, or we're all going to drown before we find another ZPM.

"Rodney?" Weir asked. She was standing in the doorway to the command center, a puzzled look on her face. "We're under water?"

But Rodney was busy yelling at someone downstairs about how he wasn't joking, so John decided to take action. "Yes, ma'am," he said, flushing a bit when she raised an eyebrow at him. "Atlantis felt 'off' when I arrived and McKay figured out what was wrong. We need to talk. Could we have a meeting with you and Colonel Sumner in ten minutes?"

For a moment John thought Weir wasn't going to do anything, her gaze ping-ponging between him and Rodney a few times, as if looking for something more substantial than just a bad feeling. Then she tapped her radio once. "Colonel Sumner, Doctor Zelenka, please return to the Gateroom. I need you to come up the main staircase and then turn right."

John heard her voice in perfect stereo. He kept watching Weir while Rodney rushed past her to punch more buttons on the console John had activated for him. Sumner's short acknowledgement came a few heartbeats later and Zelenka was already trudging up the stairs.

"No-one leaves the gate room," Rodney said, his voice joining in on the open frequency, eliciting a few loud grumbles from downstairs. "No exploring whatsoever. It uses up too much power. Everybody double time it back here ASAP."

"Doctor McKay," Sumner said, but Weir didn't let him finish.

"That's an order, Colonel."

"Yes, ma'am. Everybody, pull back to the gate room."

Ooo00O00ooO

They'd only found the conference room a couple of minutes ago, but it already came in handy. John just wished Weir hadn't told Sumner straight away that John had asked for this meeting, things would have been much smoother that way.

"Major, I thought I had made myself clear when I told you to remember who's giving the orders. You're overstepping your competence," Sumner said as he sat down beside Weir at the conference table. He'd started glaring at John the moment he'd entered.

"Please Colonel," Weir said. Her tone of voice was even, as though this was just a diplomatic issue, instead of her military commander undermining her authority right in front of her. "I want to hear what Major Sheppard has to say. No-one can interact with Ancient technology the way he can and if he says that he has important information for us we should listen to him." She gave Sumner a tight smile, and then addressed John. "Major, what do you have for us?"

John took a deep breath. He wasn't happy about what he was about to do, but there was no other way if the expedition was to survive. "The shields are going to fail soon and we need to find an energy source or we're screwed," he said bluntly.

"We know that, Major. Could you come to the point where you tell us why we're here?" Sumner drummed his fingers on the table until Weir shot him an annoyed look.

John kept his eyes on Weir. Sumner's behaviour was exasperating and it annoyed John that the man refused to just sit and listen. Instead Sumner was wasting precious time with some petty games. Forcing himself to stay calm, John said, "Rodney and I are Reincarnates. We're a bonded pair – yes that means we're in full control of our powers. We didn't want to tell you like this, not unless the situation is dire, but – it is."

"I knew you were gonna be trouble!" Sumner's shout cut through the shocked silence like a whiplash. "You son of a bitch. What are you going to do now? Take over the expedition? Commit mutiny? What? You're gonna go crazy anyway, everyone knows that."

John wanted to reply something, but Rodney stopped him with a gesture. "Let me, John."

They both knew that Sumner's words expressed his fear for his men, but they still couldn't risk it that he would turn against them. John hoped Rodney could make that clear to Sumner.

"First of all, Colonel Sumner, Reincarnates have not been 'going crazy' as you put it, for a very long time now. We've evolved and that threat is, thankfully, behind us. Secondly, this? Isn't actually your decision." Rodney turned to Elizabeth Weir in a very pointed move. "It's your decision, Doctor Weir. Yes, we are Reincarnates. Yes, we are very powerful and I can see how that would come across as a threat to you. But you know me, we've worked together for months now."

"Do I really know you?" Weir asked. "You were lying to me all that time, I can't believe ... Reincarnates?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. There was a fond half-smile on his face that John had always loved to bits. "Elizabeth, just because John and I bonded doesn't make me a different person." He paused to frown. "Well ... technically, it does. My point is, I wasn't a power-hungry person then, and I'm not now. Arrogant, yes. Power-hungry, no. And you know that. We're protectors, Elizabeth. We're not out to harm anyone."

Sumner gave a harsh, painful sounding laugh. "You can't be serious. They're not what they pretended to be. How stupid do you think we are? I'm responsible for the security on this base and I say that we can't trust them."

Well, John hadn't expected anything else from Sumner. This was exactly why he hadn't wanted the man to know in the first place. But before John could say a word, Weir raised an eyebrow. She gave him a look that made John feel stupid just by sitting at the same table, then asked, "What do you suggest we do then, Colonel?"

"We should kick them through the gate, I'm sure there's plenty of planets in the Pegasus Galaxy that support life. Letting them run around the base is a damn bad idea."

Weir's second eyebrow joined the first. "I meant about the issue of the city's shield collapsing while we're under water, killing us all."

"We have enough scientists with us, they should be able to figure something out," Sumner said.

Rodney, who'd been surprisingly silent throughout the exchange, snorted. "Most of them can't find their own asses with a map. I wasn't made CSO because of my charming personality but because I'm a genius. But even if I'd just been that, a really brilliant scientist, I wouldn't be able to buy the expedition more time. And unless you can pull a ZPN out of your ass that can power the shields, John and I are your only option if you want to survive."

"And what do you think you could possibly do to give us more time?" Sumner asked aggressively.

"Well ..." Rodney cupped his hand and held it out in front of him. There was a distinctive pull in the fabric of everything around them as he formed an energy ball, infusing it with just enough Essence to make it visible, but not enough to make it dangerous. "What makes us powerful is our ability to pull Essence ... energy from the area surrounding us. We're going to put that energy to good use."

"You can use it to power Atlantis?" Weir asked. She was leaning forward slightly, a hopeful look on her face.

"We don't know that yet," Rodney said. "But if the city can somehow store the energy we give it, then, yes."

"So what exactly is your plan now, Rodney? You do have a real plan, ano?" Zelenka asked, sounding way more okay with the situation than any of the others.

"Yes, we actually do have a plan," Rodney said, sending Sumner a hard look. "John and I are going to the ZedPM room. We'll take out the remaining ZPM so it doesn't get damaged, then put some power directly into Atlantis' systems and shields. We don't know if the city is able to store any energy, but if it's possible this should give us another week, maybe more. While we work all personnel have to stay in the secured areas and not touch anything or they might get electrocuted. What we're going to do isn't an exact science and we don't want anyone to get in the way of a couple of thousand volts. When we're done, we should go look for allies."

"What if the city can't store the power?" Sumner asked while he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back. "What's gonna happen then? Will you two just stay down there as our living batteries if it doesn't work the way you want it to?"

Rodney took a moment to glare at Sumner. "Yes, yes of course we'll just stay down there and waste our precious Essence on keeping the city livable. While we're at it we'll also conjure food for you, any special wishes?" he asked. There was a heartbeat of silence around the table before Rodney threw up his hands. "No, we will not stay down there and power the shields indefinitely. We'll put the ZedPM back in so we can figure out something else.

Sumner glared back at Rodney, but kept his mouth shut.

Weir gave them a diplomatic smile before she leaned forward, her hands folded. "I think the fact that we need more resources is something we can all agree on," Elizabeth said. "Not only do we need more energy, we'll also need food and many other things if we don't want to start rationing soon."

"If you think that I'll let you just walk into the most vulnerable part of my base on your own, then you're already insane," Sumner said angrily. If looks could kill, John and Rodney would have dropped dead. "Who says that you're really planning on doing what you say you do? Who says you won't take the ZPM and try to run, leaving Atlantis even more defenseless? We could all die here before we even get a chance to evacuate the city. I'm not putting my men in danger for the word of a Reincarnate. I say let's get rid of them as soon as possible."

John suppressed a sigh. He could understand where Sumner came from. In fact, John was almost pleased that Sumner had reacted that way – it showed that he was genuinely worried about the safety of his men and the whole mission. But it also made John and Rodney's task all the harder. Looking at Sumner calmly John said, "With all due respect, sir, trying to send us onto a random planet or kill us will not solve any of your problems. We're here to help. I understand that trusting us seems a luxury you don't have, but I fear you don't have any other options." John looked over to Weir for a second, almost expecting her to intervene, but she seemed content enough to let John handle the situation on his own.

"Alright, then let's do this the traditional way," John said with a sigh, well aware of the fact that even the ritual words would most likely not mean a lot to either his CO or Doctor Weir. "Our protection we pledge in your hour of need. It is our honor and duty to guard the people of this mission, who have been entrusted to us. Let us be your Shield and your Blade, so that no harm may come upon you–"

"May the gods smile … yadda yadda… Happy now?" Rodney interrupted John's solemn vow waving his arms around dismissively. "This stuff is outdated anyway. We promise we'll protect you and we won't harm any of you, unless you try to hurt us first. Can we please get to the important part now, before we all drown?"

Weir looked back and forth between Rodney and John, blinking rapidly. John wasn't sure what had stunned her more, the oath or Rodney's "translation". She cleared her throat and carefully folded her hands in front of her. It was an obvious attempt at buying time. "Thank you, Major Sheppard," she finally said.

"You can't really mean that, Ma'am. With all due respect, they are too dangerous." Sumner was leaning on the desk. "There is no way you can give these," Sumner gave them a look, "these people free reign of this base."

John didn't like where this was going. Idly, he reached out with his right hand, snatching Rodney's tame energy ball out of the air.

The look in Elizabeth's eyes grew hard and the knuckles of her fingers turned white as she said tensely, "Your complaint, Colonel, is noted. But what I can and can not do with this base is my decision. I'm the leader of this expedition and I believe Major Sheppard and Doctor McKay's plan is our best chance at survival."

Sumner sat back with a stony expression, "Yes, Ma'am."

When Elizabeth turned her attention towards him and Rodney again, John knew nothing good could come of that. "Major, while I don't agree with Colonel Sumner's opinion on abandoning you I will admit, I don't trust you, either. You deceived us and it will take some time to get to know who you really are. Therefore, you will accept an escort of Marines, when you go down to the ZPM chamber. Colonel Sumner may send with you whomever he deems fitting." Her tone made it clear that she wouldn't tolerate any objections and John wondered who she thought she was fooling.

"Of course, Doctor Weir," John agreed in the name of diplomacy.

Sumner grinned smugly and John thought that maybe it was time to show the good Colonel that Reincarnates weren't pushovers. Looking down at his hand that still held Rodney's weak Energy ball, John deliberately infused it with Essence, until it was a brightly glowing, deadly weapon. There was no mistaking his message: We're not defenseless. Try to cross us and we'll make you pay.

John rolled the Energy ball on his palm once, until he dissolved it abruptly, making it look as if it had just vanished into his open palm. Sumner's frown told him the man had understood the display exactly in the way it had been given, but Weir looked like she was utterly fascinated by what John had done. Just as Sumner opened his mouth to most likely demand of Weir to lock them up right now this very second, Rodney made an impatient noise.

"Yes, yes," Rodney said, waving his hands around expansively, "we'll be fine with Colonel Mistrusting's babysitters. Now, can we just get this show on the road already? Every minute we're sitting here, twiddling our thumbs and doing nothing we're one minute closer to drowning. I'd really like to avoid that. It's not a good way to go at all."

Weir nodded. She gave them a diplomatic smile that didn't reach her eyes. "Yes, of course. Colonel Sumner, I suggest you pick your men now. I'll make sure everyone knows what to do during the process." She took a deep breath, her smile turning genuine as she said, "Good luck, gentlemen."

Ooo00O00ooO

Ten minutes later found John and Rodney in the ZPM room, Lieutenant Ford and Sergant Stackhouse with them. It was clear that Sumner hadn't been forthcoming with information, since both Marines looked somewhat confused but ready to shoot them if necessary.

"You can ask, you know." John grinned at the young Lieutenant while Rodney prepared to pull the ZPM out of its slot.

Ford shifted uneasily at John's comment while Stackhouse's face turned blank. John had a hunch that Ford was a curious kid and would take him up on the offer.

John didn't have to wait long. "Sir, why doesn't Colonel Sumner trust you?"

"Ford!" Stackhouse said.

"What? He said I could ask." Ford gave Stackhouse a look, accompanied by a shrug. "Don't tell me you're not curious why Colonel Sumner told us to aim at the CSO and XO of the Atlantis mission. It doesn't make sense."

"Just follow your orders, Marine," Stackhouse said, face grim. He was shifting from foot to foot, giving Ford urgent sideways looks.

"It's no secret that Colonel Sumner has a problem with my black mark and the fact that I disobeyed a direct order. This doesn't have anything to do with what I did, though, it's more about what Rodney and I are."

"And what are you, sir?" Ford asked, earning himself another glare from Stackhouse.

That was a question that wasn't really answered all that easily. John didn't know where to start, thankfully, he didn't need to.

Rodney was still concentrating on the ZPM, but he was obviously paying attention as well because his eyes went to their military escort. "You're about to find out." For Rodney the matter was closed now because he pressed the button for the citywide communications system. "Doctor Weir, this is McKay. We're ready to begin. Everyone stay in the secured areas and don't touch anything unless you want to get grilled."

"Understood, we're ready as well," Elizabeth replied.

"Alright, buddy, let's get this thing started," John said, letting the energy that was thrumming in his veins come to the surface. All of his Reincarnate marks were beginning to glow brightly, it couldn't really be stopped once he was handling Essence on this scale. From their mutters of "fuck me" and "holy shit" the marks seemed to startle their guards quite a bit. John couldn't bother with explanations though, because Rodney said "okay, go," at the same moment that he slipped the ZPM free.

That was the only cue John needed to place his palms flat on the nearest interface so he could slowly feed energy to the city. The hum of Atlantis in the back of his head changed instantly once John started pushing Essence into the city. Rodney joined in a few moments later. With every second that passed, the city seemed to "relax" more and more around them. It was an odd feeling for John.

"I think it's working," Rodney said beside him.

John had to agree. "Yeah, you're right." It didn't seem like Atlantis had any problems storing the energy Rodney and he were providing after all. "I'm gonna pull back now. I've given her most of my excess Essence, but I'd like to keep a bit. We don't know what'll come our way next." As open as their bond was at that moment John felt Rodney's reaction to that. A wash of apprehension, a fearful word – Wraith – that Rodney couldn't hold back. John felt the same way. If the Wraith were still around, if only half the stories they'd heard about them were true, then they'd have their hands full trying to keep the expedition safe.

"Good idea," Rodney said. "Could you see if you can pull up the energy level stats and the estimated time of how long the shields will hold now while I'll finish up here?"

John shook his hands; they were still tingling a little. Pushing around Essence like this generally wasn't hard, but this was a special case: forcing energy into specific pathways in the city's metallic structure was tricky. Atlantis was one big conduit, which helped a great deal -- Tbut it also made it harder, because John really didn't want to fry any of the people currently in the city.

"Sure, will do," John said, turning his head away from Rodney who was still glowing softly. "Excuse me, gentlemen." Ford and Stackhouse were doing their utmost to be in the way, pretty much exactly as Sumner had ordered. When both of them just kept staring and twitching, John sighed and walked around them. It was pretty irritating, but he had expected worse.
The two Marines were still looking at him dumbfounded as he studyed the data read-out.
Ford was the first one to find his voice, which wasn't surprising. "You're Elementals," he said, his wide eyes never leaving John's forehead where the most obvious of the marks was still visible. "My gran-gran used to tell me about how you're supposed to guide and teach us." He lowered his weapon, looking between John and Rodney with his mouth half open. "I thought they were just stories."

Stackhouse didn't merely lower his own weapon, he dropped it entirely so it was swinging off his tac vest. He bowed awkwardly at the waist, like he'd never done it before – which, all things considered, was probably exactly what it was. Then he snapped so quickly to attention that John's spine twinged in sympathy. "Sir, it is an honor–" he stopped, took a deep breath, his eyes focused on a point on the wall behind John. "I don't … know all the words, but … I'll be honored to fight by the side of a Reincarnate mated pair." He swallowed visibly, his hands shaking at his side. "May I – may I ask your name?"

Unsure of what to do John looked at Rodney in the hopes of getting an idea of how to react, but Rodney was still deep in concentration. He swallowed. Ford was staring at Stackhouse in surprise, his mouth working soundlessly.

"I'm Aloneru," John said, figuring it couldn't hurt. "My mate is Ariondu." Stackhouse finally looked at John with an expression of awe on his face. His eyes kept being drawn to the mark on John's forehead. "I'd really prefer it if you didn't do the bowing."

Clearly torn for a heartbeat, Stackhouse saluted. "Yes, sir."

Geez, Marines. But it was also a relief. Now there were two people who John knew could be trusted with Rodney's life. That was more than he'd had five minutes ago; it could easily have gone the other way. "This is privileged information," he said, "I expect you to keep your mouths shut."

Two yes-sirs put John's mind entirely at rest. He pushed the issue to the side for now in order to pull up the energy readings to see how much time they'd gained. He'd barely touched the console when a message started to flash on the screen. John frowned at it. "Rodney, are you about done there? You need to see this. Either my Ancient is rustier than I thought or the system is telling me that we should activate the failsafe."

"Failsafe? What? Let me see this," Rodney said, walking over to John. "Huh," he murmured, studying the message. "No, you're right it says to activate the failsafe to conserve energy. Well, we should probably do that, then." Before John could stop him, Rodney and hit the indicated button.

A second later the city began to shake around them violently.

"Major Sheppard, Doctor McKay, what's happening?" Elizabeth sounded terrified. John didn't blame her, it felt like a seven on the Richter scale.

"I'm not entirely sure. I activated the failsafe and I think we're rising. It would make sense. That way the city's shields aren't being strained by holding back the ocean and will last longer," Rodney said.

"Have you lost your mind?" Sumner asked angrily over the radio. We can't just rise to the surface. We'll be sitting ducks for everyone who wants to take pot shots at us. What the hell were you thinking?"

"I was thinking that gaining time is a damn good thing, Colonel, and that a properly working shield should take care of any enemies coming at us. Besides, it's not as if we'd put out an ad. No-one knows we're even here." The eye roll that accompanied Rodney's reply had John smirking.

"We're going to put the ZedPM back in and will meet you in the conference room in ten minutes. McKay out." Rodney turned to John as the shuddering ebbed away. "Sumner is an idiot. He'll get us in trouble sooner or later. Come on, let's go, we need to keep him from doing more damage than we can ever hope to repair. The expedition will be screwed if he manages to talk Elizabeth into turning against us."

"Yeah I know," John said before addressing the Marines. "Let's get back to Doctor Weir and the Colonel."

Ooo00O00ooO

"Your leader looks through me as if I were not there," Teyla, their new Athosian friend, said. The observation made John cringe. She was right: ever since they had set foot on the planet, Sumner had treated the natives like a lower life-form. It wasn't very conductive to a positive outcome to the whole situation.

"I know, and I'm sorry. But Rodney and I, we're different, right?" John asked her gently.

She cocked her head to the side and studied him intently. "In more way than just one, yes," she agreed. "You truly cannot return to your world?"

"No," John said.

"Then there is something you must see. Doctor McKay, you should come as well." Teyla's tone of voice made it very clear no-one else would be welcome, which seemed to be perfectly fine with the others. She stepped out of the tent, not looking back to see if he and Rodney followed.

"Something about her is different. Do you feel it too?" John asked Rodney as they trudged behind Teyla.

"Yeah, she feels different than the others. Something's … not quite right."

John hummed thoughtfully. He couldn't put his finger on why Teyla felt so different to them. Not wrong per se, but unusual. "How much further is this place?" John asked.

"Not far," Teyla said.

The ground underneath was uneven. Maybe John should have paid more attention to where he was putting his feet because he slipped on a tree root, almost ending with his ass in the dirt if Rodney hadn't managed to catch him at the last moment. Teyla didn't slow down, but stopped a few meters ahead at the mouth of a cave while John carefully picked his way over the uneven terrain.

Once inside, Teyla took a torch from a metal bracket set into the wall. "I used to play here as a child," she said. "I believe this is where the survivors hid from the Wraith during the last great attack." She lit the torch, illuminating the brick-lined cavern. There were pictures on the walls, telling of raids, of people stolen from their homes by the Wraith.

Rodney and John had never seen one of them in person. John was pretty sure he never wanted to. Other Reincarnates had told them of the terrible things happening in the Pegasus Galaxy, how they had been incapable of stopping it, how they'd died at the hands of the Wraith. John rubbed his chest. It hadn't sounded like a good way to go. He exchanged a look with Rodney.

The cave opened up into a big enough space for John to think that yes, a whole village could possibly hide in here. It had obviously been abandoned for some time with dust and sand covering the floor. John frowned as he took a step towards the far end. Something was glittering on the ground there, small and round. John felt himself drawn to it so much that he didn't think as he ducked to pick it up. He ran a finger over it, rubbing the dirt from what appeared to be a beautifully crafted pendant. There was the smallest of surges at his touch, startling John. He yelped, dropping it. "Damn," he said, fighting the urge to suck his thumb.

Teyla was by his side, picking the pendant back up immediately. She gave him a delighted smile."I lost this years ago."

John turned to Rodney, feeling sick to his stomach. The technology was similar to that of the Alterans, but weird. "We've got a problem." He hadn't even finished speaking before Rodney had grabbed his hand to turn it over, inspecting him for injuries. "Damn it, Rodney, stop that. I'm not hurt. Something weird is going on here, though," he said, pulling his hand out of Rodney's grip. "That thing just sent out an impulse, subspace I think, really hard to detect. If I hadn't been holding it I wouldn't have noticed either. It's almost Alteran."

"What do you mean 'almost'?" Rodney asked, hands still held out in front of him. "It either is or it isn't, it can't be 'almost Alteran'."

A frustrated growl escaped John. "I accidentally activated it when I touched it. It's transmitting something. I really can't tell you more, this thing feels completely strange to me. I'm not sure this is a good thing, Rodney. "

"What do you mean?" Teyla asked. She'd just stood there, her eyes going back and forth between them, the pendant forgotten in her hand. Now she lifted it up, dangling it in front of her while giving it a critical inspection. "This is an heirloom. My mother wore it before me."

"Teyla, do you know where she got this from? Who gave it to her?" John asked gently. He wasn't too keen on telling her that a treasured possession of hers would possibly lead to a shitload of problems.

She looked genuinely worried now as she turned the pendant over, careful not to touch it any more than she absolutely had to. "No, I do not know any more about it. My mother had it for as long as I can remember."

"Turn it off, John," Rodney said "I have a really bad feeling about this."

At Teyla's nod John reached out to touch the small metal disk with the tip of his index finger. Nothing happened, but when he thought "off" at it, it didn't react to the order. "Doesn't work."

Rodney appeared to be genuinely worried by then. "Teyla, I'd like to take the necklace back with us and see if we can't find something out about the technology. Can I borrow it for a while? I promise I will give it back to you."

"You really think that my necklace is dangerous?" Teyla asked incredulously. "But I've had it for a long time and so did my mother. Who would want to harm us? We all share the same fate, living with the threat of a culling." She seemed genuinely puzzled by the thought of someone other than the Wraith causing the people of the Pegasus galaxy harm. Maybe that was the whole point, John thought uneasily.

"I really don't know yet, Teyla, and maybe it's nothing. But I'd rather not take a chance. You'll get it back as soon as possible, I promise," Rodney said again and this time she held the necklace out for him to take carefully at the string.

John watched as Rodney poked the pendant with a finger. It was hard to stop himself from hovering – even though Rodney most probably wouldn't have noticed or minded. His attention was entirely on the necklace, which he was now examining with a small thread of Essence.

There was no way John could have sensed the signal stopping abruptly if he hadn't known it had been there in the first place. The change was so subtle it would have gone entirely unnoticed. "Alright, let's go back. I've got a really bad feeling about this," John said, unable to keep his tension from bleeding over to Rodney through their bond. Not that Rodney needed the bond to read him like an open book. John was reasonably sure the tense set of his shoulders gave him away to Rodney all on its own.

Teyla nodded, equally worried now. "I agree, we should better return to the others."

The way back through the woods seemed longer with all three of them deep in thought. The easy camaraderie from before had vanished with the rapidly darkening forest they were picking their way through. When the fires of the village finally came into view, still nothing more than little dots on the horizon, John was so relieved he nearly overlooked another tree root. Catching himself this time he froze. "Oh no." There was a shudder in the big strands of Essence connecting everything on the planet. The Stargate had activated. One, two, three objects came through, hitting John like ripples of stones hitting the calm surface of a pond.

Teyla froze now, too, looking around searchingly as her posture changed to one of alarm. In the distance an unfamiliar sound could be heard, a creepy whine that continued to grow louder. It made John's hair stand on end. "What is that?" John asked her as he came to a stumbling halt next to her. He reached out again, pulling some of the Essence to him in preparation to what he was now sure was going to be a fight. Rodney was doing the same thing, John noticed, going from relaxed to battle ready in a matter of seconds.

"Wraith," Teyla said.

Rodney grabbed her arm when she was about to sprint off. "How do you know that?"

"Some of us can sense the Wraith coming," Teyla said, her voice fearful even as she brushed Rodney's hand off. She started running towards the village with Rodney and John right behind her.

John linked his hand with Rodney's, not quite opening that part of the bond yet that would allow Rodney to use John's Essence as his own. It was awkward running like this, but John held on tightly as they skidded through the forest. The Stargate was still open, its vibrations echoing in the Essence surrounding them, but it was the three objects that worried John. They were moving faster than anything on foot could have managed – and they were heading this way. "Incoming," John said, gasping for air. They were never going to make it back to the village in time.

"I know." Rodney sounded distant, he stumbled. Wrapping an arm around Rodney, John held him up, lending him his strength. Now they fell into the bond easily standing there in the middle of the forest, still too far away from the collection of tents Teyla called home to see any people. "I have it," Rodney said. He reached out with his free hand to make a grabbing motion against the sky.

The earth shook beneath them when Rodney slammed the ship into the ground. John felt people stagger and fall in Teyla's village. The impact was impressive, lighting the forest for a moment before the fires spread, giving the night an eerie red glow.

John more felt than saw Rodney reaching out again, gathering all the Essence he could to him in a desperate attempt to destroy the Wraith before they could destroy them. A second explosion made the ground tremble violently. People were running around in panic, tugging at strands of Essence John was clutching tightly. At the moment he was Rodney's eyes and ears as his Blade couldn't spare the attention to watch over the people they were protecting. It was impossible to keep straight which of the brilliant dots of sheer life were Athosians and which were their people from Atlantis, but that didn't matter: they'd protect all of them.

By now Rodney was swaying on his feet, John was the only thing keeping him upright. "Just one more," Rodney said. He reached, held on to the third Wraith ship for a moment, then it slipped out of his grasp. "They're fast." The strain was audible in Rodney's voice. Pushing more Essence at him, John zeroed in on the fires, sucking heat out of them at the same rate as Rodney used the energy gained from them to pluck the Wraith ship from the sky one last time.

Again the pilot got free, slipping out of Rodney's net through sheer luck as the ship swept down closely over the village. A bright beam scanned the ground, plucking several humans up with the action. John could feel their presences vanish, but he had no idea where to. Then, as quickly as it had started, the whole thing ended with the Stargate deactivating only to immediately dial again. "Fuck!" He couldn't do anything apart from making sure Rodney's less than graceful fall to the ground didn't lead to a concussion.

Five people had been taken -- five too many. He started feeding Essence to Rodney in small doses, hoping to revive him enough to put him back on his feet.

It took much longer than John had anticipated before Rodney opened his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said. A wave of worry came from Rodney through their bond, almost crippling in its intensity.

John shook his head. "Not your fault." He climbed to his feet, then gave Rodney a hand up. "We'll find them."

"Before the Wraith eat them?" Rodney asked. "We don't even know where they went, there's no way we can follow them through the 'gate." There was no mention of how Rodney had overtaxed himself, but they both knew it. An immediate rescue attempt was totally out of the question. For now, Rodney needed rest; John wouldn't allow him to go straight after the Wraith ship in any case.

The last leg of their journey to the Athosian village went slowly, John helping Rodney keep his balance. They didn't talk -- Rodney needed all of his energy to keep on his feet. The only thing helping was the steady stream of Essence John kept up until the fires from the crash sites died down.

When they reached the village, it was in shambles. The Wraith hadn't only abducted people, they'd fired into the tents. "Sir," Stackhouse said, taking Rodney's other arm to help them along. "Colonel Sumner is gone."

"Gone as in?" John asked. He knew he wouldn't like the answer.

"He was swept up by the beam."

Great. That was part of the worst case scenario, just a step down from the Wraith killing Rodney. "Who else?"

"There are no news of Bates, Malcoms, and Stetter. We thought they caught you, too, sir, we've been trying to reach you for the last half hour." His tone of voice was as reproachful as his formality allowed. "Did you …" He halted, using his free arm to motion in the direction of the downed Wraith ships.

"Rodney almost got the third one too." He plucked the radio out of his ear - it had melted from the Essence John had been handling. "Give me yours," he said, throwing the useless thing carelessly to the side. Stackhouse handed his over without a comment.

"The Stargate is clear," Ford was saying when John adjusted the thing.

He opened the channel. "This is Sheppard. Has anyone seen what happened to Bates, Malcoms, or Stetter?" A chorus of "no, sir"s in varying degrees of relief was the depressing answer. For now he'd assume all three of them had been taken by the Wraith. John rubbed his forehead, he really hated situations like these. "Try and get people to calm down, have them gather in the free space in the middle of the village. Sheppard out." He closed the channel as they helped Rodney sit on the ground. He practically collapsed, but John ruthlessly suppressed his first impulse of reaching out to hold him. "Stackhouse, you're in charge of looking after Rodney. Just make sure he stays here."

People were already gathering with more small groups coming in from the edges of the village. "Have you seen Teyla?"

"No, wasn't she with you?" a man asked, making his way to the front of the group. He looked as shocked as the rest of the Athosians, but he seemed calm and collected enough to be of use. John thought he remembered the man had introduced himself as Halling earlier that day.

"When the Wraith ships came in she ran towards the village." Taking a look around, he now saw his own people walking around, exchanging a few words here and there. Children were still crying, but the crowd was quieting now, most of them looking at Halling and John. "Five people were taken, I need to know who!" John's shout shut the last of them up.

A kid pushed his way through the crowd until he stood next to Halling, who immediately put a hand on his shoulder. It was Jinto, who'd made such an impression on Rodney when they'd only just stepped onto Athos. "I saw Teyla vanish in the light," he said.

"The one calling himself Sergeant Bates as well, he stood close to your Colonel Sumner." More people agreed with that.

One of the women at the front stopped crying, she rubbed both hands over her face before she looked straight at John. "I saw Toran try to push Maris out of the way, but they both vanished."

That was the five people the Wraith had taken. Still people were shouting names. Mentally John moved Malcoms and Stetter to MIA.

"You can't stay here," John said, not really sure where that had come from. It was true though, the Athosians couldn't stay here. Chances were the Wraith would come back to retaliate for the loss of two of their own.

Halling looked around, helplessly shrugging his shoulders. "We can move our camp, we often do that to follow the Rianli, but there is no place the Wraith will not be able to find us in."

"Come with us," John said.

The murmuring of the crowd rose for a moment, but tapered off when Halling moved. "To the city of the Ancestors?"

John nodded. Elizabeth would probably try to throttle him when he came through the 'gate with an entire village, but that couldn't be helped. There was absolutely no way in hell he'd leave all those people here to die.

"Pack up what you can carry through the Stargate, we need to leave as quickly as possible," he said. He was in the process of turning around when Halling took hold of his arm to stop him.

"A group of our young has gone into the woods to hunt, even if they start back now they will still need several days to come home. We will also need time to bury the dead." Halling looked worried. The fires had stopped by now, with no little help from John, who'd been glad for the extra Essence.

"How many are in the hunting group?" John asked, already plucking at the fine lattice of Essence running over the planet.

"Five, one of our best and four young ones on their first hunt."

Closing his eyes for better concentration John went in a spiral, searching for five bright dots out there somewhere. He noticed when Rodney's hand slipped into his, accelerating the search at the same time as it boosted the area he could look in. "Would they have gone very far?" John asked.

It took just a bit too long for Halling to say, "No."

John's eyes snapped open. "I'm sorry, Halling, unless they are on the other half of the planet they must either have been caught by the Wraith or died in the fire." John noticed that the only people still standing were those from Atlantis. All the Athosians were kneeling in the dirt, their faces pressed into their cupped hands.

"Old Ones," Halling said, his voice muffled by the fabric of his sleeves. The honorific was taken up in a susurration amongst the whole village. Even the children were joining in. "Your words we cherish. Your rules we obey. Lead us so we may share in your wisdom and receive your protection."

John swallowed hard and tried not to look as horrified as he felt. Stackouse's pledge of alliance had been bad enough, but this was so much worse. John knew the ritual words well enough, knew of their meaning and the power they held. It was as much a desperate plea for help as it was a promise of loyal servitude. It was an oath that had not been asked of them in centuries. Now, John found himself reluctant to answer it, even though he knew the right words.

Beside him, Rodney shifted. John felt his bone deep tiredness through their still active bond. Go ahead. We've already sworn to protect them, Alon. Might as well make it official. Rodney sounded less horrified than John felt. Of course Rodney was right. They'd accepted responsibility for the lives of all of these people the moment they had stepped through the 'gate. If not then, they had taken it on when they had retaliated against the Wraith.

"We are honored by your offer and accept what is freely given. You have our guidance and our protection, from now on for as long as you seek it. May this bond be a strong one through the eons." The words almost got stuck in John's throat, especially the next part. "We will share your suffering, we will share your enemies. Let us be your shield in times of need." There was a difference between accepting responsibility and binding them together this closely. It wasn't just that he felt uncomfortable accepting a pledge from the Athosians – from anyone, really – he also knew that for these people Rodney and he were the only chance of security. Halling had probably thought this course of action was the only hope for his people. John couldn't blame him.

These people lived in fear of the Wraith every day of their lives, yet they were willing to put everything they had, everything they cherished, from their children to their way of life into John and Rodney's hands. It was such a humbling thought that John needed to take a moment to gather himself.

"We are one," Halling said, ending the ritual as the entire village climbed to its feet around them. There was no pushing or pulling as each of the people came forward, touching first John then Rodney on the shoulder, the arm, cupping their faces for the briefest of moments. Each of them murmured "we are one" before they floated away through the crowd. If it hadn't been for Rodney's reassuring presence next to him, John would have bolted. When the touchy-feely part of it was finally over, John sighed with relief.

Then Rodney cleared his throat. He was clinging to John like he'd topple over if he let go. "Now that we're done with that we need to get moving."

Where none of them had moved before, the entire village was now galvanized into action. Soon the first groups were leaving with the worldly possessions they could carry on their backs.

John tapped the radio once, watching the stretched out progression with a pang of regret. He wished he could let them stay where they belonged. Giving up Athos was probably terrifying for each and every one of them. Without the reassurances of Rodney and John's pledge with them, he wondered if they would have hidden in those caves Teyla had showed them – God, was it only hours before? "Ford, we've got people incoming towards the 'gate. Make sure they go through as they get there. We want that 'gate locked down."

"Yes, sir."

He'd meant to stay until the last group was ready, but soon found himself urged to leave immediately. Halling in particular seemed to want to get them away from the village as quickly as possible, but Stackhouse, Ford, and several other Athosians had also been making comments. John had forgotten how much power they gave to people they took responsibility for. Rodney, at least, was mostly walking under his own steam again, mainly because they'd both been taking Essence from the surrounding areas at they were making their way to the Stargate. When they got there they found every Athosian they'd sent ahead hovering in front of the event horizon.

"They're refusing to go through." Ford sounded like he was ready to start pulling out hair. "I told them that you ordered it, but they won't budge."

Rodney sighed beside John. "Of course they won't," he said, quietly. Once the two of them had gone through, the Athosians would come as well. John understood their fear as well as Rodney did, but walking through the path the Athosians had cleared for them, John felt the crushing heaviness of responsibility for a whole nation. It didn't matter that they were small, it didn't matter that anybody from Earth would look down on them as natives, John and Rodney were now part of the tribe.

Up until the Athosians started pouring through the Stargate behind them, John allowed himself to hope that Elizabeth would understand, but when she came running down the stairs, looking at John and Rodney with her face pale and drawn, John automatically straightened a little bit. From her body language alone it was clear that she was pretty angry at him. "What's going on, Major? Who are these people?" she asked, her eyes roaming over the Athosians, giving the children tight smiles, trying not to scare them. John almost laughed, these children had seen so much, Weir was harmless in comparison.

Rodney elbowed him in the ribs just in time before the laughter could spill out of him. "We brought some allies back, their village was attacked by the Wraith."

Weir looked back and forth between them a couple of times before she zeroed in on John again. "You can't just bring people back to the base. Just because you're a Reincarnate you can't think you can go around and make these decisions on your own. I'm the one who decides who gets to come to Atlantis." Her voice was sharp, while her face had paled even further. John hoped she wouldn't faint on them; that'd be awkward.

John moved past her, forcing her to follow him back up the stairs. "Thanks for outing me to the whole base, Doctor Weir. Really well done. What do you think I should have done? Leave them there to end up as dinner? I think not. The Wraith could have come back. Can't you see that I couldn't leave them there?"

"We," Rodney said, pushing himself into the conversation, "we couldn't leave them there. It was our decision."

"Oh well, that's rich, coming from the other Reincarnate. So you're making the decisions for the whole expedition now? Because this is what it comes down to. Maybe you can tell me what to do with them now, too?" Weir asked.

Exchanging a glance with Rodney, John shrugged. "Give them a place to stay, feed them, let the panic dissipate? I don't know, Doctor Weir, but they know this galaxy and you said it yourself: we need food. We need them as much as they need us, if not more."

"This is not acceptable, Major. You just worsened the situation for the whole expedition. Where is Colonel Sumner?"

"He got taken by the Wraith," Rodney said. "Bates and three of the Athosians as well."

"What?"

The 'gate behind them shut down and he turned around at the top of the stairs. "Stackhouse," he yelled, "make sure our friends get quarters. Ford, with me."

"Major!" Weir's voice was sharp again, but she'd kept her voice down at least. "What part of 'You can't just decide these things on your own' didn't you understand? I'm your superior, I get to make the decisions." If she'd been anyone else he'd expected some heavy cursing, but Weir had herself very well controlled.

John stopped walking. He counted to five in three languages before he turned to her. "I understood you perfectly well, Doctor Weir. But since Sumner isn't here and I'm the highest-ranking military officer, I'm in command of the military. The Athosians were going to die. Do you honestly suggest I should have let them there?" He unclipped his P-90 from his tac-vest and put it into her hands. "If you want to kill them, aim for their heads. It'd be kinder than leaving them there for the Wraith to feed on. Rodney, go get some sleep."

"John–"

"I said: go get some sleep."

Rodney rolled his eyes, but he did leave. It had been easier than John would have thought, Rodney was probably still exhausted.

Weir just stared at him, apparently not daring to move an inch with the weapon in her hands. John took it back but she didn't react beyond a stunned blink. He wondered if she honestly thought he'd let her shoot Teyla's people. "You've got to decide what you want to do, Doctor Weir. Out here, every one of your decisions is important and can cost lives. Yes, you are my superior, but you've read my records. Don't force me to choose between obeying one of your orders and saving people's lives."

People were staring now, pretty much everybody in the command center, which was where they'd somehow ended up walking into. John hadn't even noticed. This whole thing had upset him more than he'd wanted to admit to himself before.

"If you could excuse me now," John said, "I have a rescue mission to plan."

Weir opened her mouth to say something, but then she noticed Doctor Grodin looking at them with wide eyes. "Major, a word in private." She turned around stiffly, already walking towards the back of the control center.

For a moment John entertained the idea of just running off in the opposite direction. He could probably be by the stairs before Weir even noticed he hadn't followed. With a sigh, he went after her; she wouldn't leave this alone anyway. Not until she'd had her say. Best they had this talk now. John's approach must have triggered something, because where Weir was waiting for him the beautiful glass wall slid open to reveal a door. They both hesitated for a heartbeat, then went outside. The balcony appeared to wrap itself around the entirety of the spire; Rodney would have gotten such a kick out of the hidden door. John made a mental note to show him later.

Weir leaned onto the railing. She took a deep breath, her gaze wandering over the city lain out in front of them. "Wow," she said, breathlessly.

Taking in the view of the ocean, John had to agree, it certainly was amazing. But the breathtaking vista was the last thing on John's mind right then. He turned to Weir, crossing his arms in front of him. He didn't see why she shouldn't know exactly how much he disapproved. "Let me guess: you're not gonna let me rescue my people."

"Major, you don't even know if they're alive." Her eyes skittered over him. Every tense line of her body told him just how much she didn't want to have this conversation with him either.

John wasn't sure whether that was because she knew he was a Reincarnate or because she knew it was wrong. "You don't leave people in the hands of the enemy," John said, heatedly, "and you damn well know that. Letting Sumner of all people die there will totally undermine your leadership. How can any of us trust you if you won't come for us if we get captured?" Knowing he was getting upset way beyond what would help his argument, John took a deep breath. He leaned against the railing, too, just so he didn't have to look at Weir. "You don't ever leave a man behind. Not in the hands of an ordinary enemy, but definitely not in the hands of the Wraith. Do you know what they do to people?" he asked. When Weir didn't answer, John swallowed. "They suck them dry. The only thing they leave is a lifeless husk. That's how they kill."

All color drained from her face worryingly quickly. "How do you know that?" Weir asked, her demand snapped out quickly in a too shrill voice.

"We've heard stories from other Reincarnates."

"Why didn't you tell us all that before we came here?" She'd turned around now, giving him a wide eyed stare. "You should have told us!"

"Would you have listened?" John asked.

"Yes!"

He couldn't help it, a chuckle escaped him. God knew how many variations of exactly this conversation he'd held over the millennia. How many of the other ones had he led? The ones where he'd tried to warn people just to be disregarded. The one thing he'd learned was that the humans had to make their own decisions without a Reincarnate trying to pull any chords. Not all of them lived by that philosophy, but for John – and Rodney, too – it was an immutable law. "There is nothing Rodney or I could have said to change anybody's mind. You know that, even if you don't want to admit it."

"You could have told us everything about the Wraith," Weir said, "we'd have …"

When she didn't finish her sentence, John asked, gently, "What? You'd have what?"

She opened her mouth a few times, but no sound came out.

"Would you have stayed on Earth? Let all this," he waved his hand around, trying to encompass the city, the entire galaxy, "slip through your fingers?" Shaking his head, John sighed. "I highly doubt that. Atlantis is worth all of it. Why do you think we went with the expedition? We've been born into the Ancients as a nation once, but our time was a bit before the idea of a city like Atlantis had even been conceived. As I said, we never met the Wraith personally; we only heard stories from other Reincarnates."

There was a long silence, too long to be comfortable. Finally Weir seemed to find her balance again. "So we still don't know much about the Wraith."

Again, he shook his head. "We know they eat people," he said, starting to count the facts off on the fingers of his right hand. "We know they can regenerate, making them potentially immortal. We know they're ruled by a Queen. We know they aren't planet-bound, but move around in their ships from feeding ground to feeding ground. They're intelligent, they're dangerous, and they've never been defeated." John hesitated before lifting the middle finger of his left hand. "We know they have a limited telepathic ability."

"They defeated the Ancients," Weir added, tipping the ring finger of John's left hand. "That's not a lot, Major."

"John," he said.

She gave him tight little smile at that, but didn't let it derail her at all. "We still don't know enough for me to let you go on a rescue mission. You said yourself that they're dangerous."

"Doctor Weir," he said, but she gave him another tight smile accompanied with "Elizabeth". Maybe they were bonding here, over a stupid quarrel about the lives of their people. Some days humans were really confusing. "Elizabeth, they are telepaths. Let me tell you something I know for sure: the Pegasus Galaxy isn't teeming with humans as the Milky Way is. The native populations here are small in comparison. If they find out about the billions of people living on Earth, they won't stay here. They'll pack up their ships, take a couple of snacks with them, and go where the feeding is better."

Elizabeth was shaking her head adamantly. "We don't know that. Maybe we could negotiate a peaceful–"

"There is no negotiating with them," John said, talking over her and holding both hands up, fingers outstretched, waggling them to remind her of the gems of intelligence they had. "I've been told enough about the Wraith to know that negotiation will end with them eating whomever you send to talk with them. There can't be a ceasefire between them and us. We're food for them, nothing more. You don't negotiate with the pork chops you have for dinner either, do you?"

"I can't let you and Rodney go." Her voice was so low that John could barely hear her.

"Why not?"

"Because of what you are." Elizabeth looked scared as she said that, like she expected him to kill her for the words alone.

John blinked. He'd … expected a lot, but … not this. Actually, he didn't know what he'd expected. Probably some crap about how she wasn't going to send people to their deaths on the off-chance they could rescue only five, but really not this. He wondered which of the stories she'd heard, which of the prejudices so far-spread had made it into her thinking. Maybe it wasn't Sumner who would turn Elizabeth against them after all, maybe she didn't need turning.

"We're the only chance these people have," he finally said, his throat constricting painfully. "They are as much our responsibility as the expedition members are, Elizabeth. Rodney and I don't make distinctions. No life is more important than another." There was no way John could stay here and let Sumner, Bates, Teyla, Toran, and Maris there without at least trying to get them back. He swallowed hard, trying not to let her see how much her words had hurt him. "I know this is incredibly difficult for you. Being a leader means hard decisions, I appreciate that, you know? I've had to make a couple of those as well, but that's what you signed up for. There's no one else who's in a better position to get them out of there alive. You know that. This isn't about whether we're Reincarnates or pink elephants. It's about getting to Sumner and Bates before they can give the Wraith the location of Earth. Simple as that."

"It's not –" Elizabeth started to say, but John interrupted her. "You've got to listen to me on this one. With us here, Earth will be completely helpless. Even with Rodney and me taking steps there's no guarantee we could win. We don't even know how many Wraith there are, or how many ships they have. Rescuing Colonel Sumner will give us important intel, too."

They stared at each other for half a dozen heartbeats, Elizabeth with her mouth pressed together into a small line, John wishing he could simply will her to listen to his reasons.

"It's not just because I don't trust you," Elizabeth finally said, "in fact, I'm reasonably sure your motives are as noble as you claim." She took a deep breath as if to steel herself for what she was about to say. "You took an oath, John, remember? You're our protection as well. I just can't authorize a rescue mission unless I'm sure there's at least a remote chance of success. I'm not sending more good people, including you and Rodney, to their deaths."

Abruptly he turned away from her, his eyes searching the horizon, where the sun was almost kissing the water in a brilliant spectacle of color. "Yes, Rodney and I made an oath to protect the people on this base. That includes Sumner and Bates. Rescuing them will protect Atlantis and everyone within her way better than not doing anything. Rodney and I need to go on this mission. Whether you like it or not, once he's back on his feet we'll try all the possible combinations to find the right planet and we'll go through the 'gate. If we die, we die, but if we don't try, they will find us and they will attack us, they'll probably send all the ships they can. They'll know Rodney and I are here. Not going is … not an option, Elizabeth."

"John …"

"Even if it means we're no longer welcome here, that's okay. The Athosians will probably leave with us, if it comes down to that," John said. It made him sad to think of them leaving, he hadn't known the people of the expedition long, but he admired their courage already. He found he liked them, from a few weeks of getting to know each other, but maybe Rodney's enthusiasm had rubbed off on John. That his mate genuinely liked quite a few of the expedition members, even had befriended a couple of them made it hard for John not to like them as well. John would have loved to protect them the way he had vowed to, but if Elizabeth insisted on trying to keep them from doing what was right, he'd have no choice.

"You're serious?"

That question made him smile. "Yes, I'm serious. To us, the lives of the people we're sworn to protect are sacrosanct. All of their lives – that includes life on Earth. Rodney and I will die before we see the kidnapped people eaten by the Wraith, this city sunk, or Earth ransacked. You've heard the myths, Reincarnates guide, we teach, we lead, but our most important function is protection."

Elizabeth looked away from him, he could barely see her turn her eyes to the ocean in the corner of his eye. "I see," she finally said. "Go, plan your rescue mission, you've got my authorization."

Oh thank God. His relief ran so deep that in combination with what he'd done back on Athos his knees felt a little weak. "Thanks, Elizabeth." Then he left her on the balcony, following his dormant bond until he'd found their quarters. Rodney was sprawled over the bed, still fully clothed, John guessed he could count himself happy he'd taken off his boots. "What the hell," he said, not bothering to keep his voice quiet. For now, Rodney was out cold, he'd be sleeping for the rest of the day if John let him.

It only took one gentle nudge for Rodney to roll over until there was enough space for John to stretch out. An hour. He could spare that much. Not bothering with an alarm, knowing his inner clock would wake him exactly when he wanted to, John closed his eyes. He was asleep instantly.

Ooo00O00ooO

The briefing was important, John knew that, but it still wasn't any easier to sit through it. He'd gotten an hour of sleep, Rodney three, just barely enough to get them through a rescue mission even without a possible fight. Any extra Essence they'd pick up on the way would be needed.

"The Wraith," Halling was just saying, "allow our kind to grow in numbers, and when that number reaches a certain point they return to cull their human herd. Sometimes a few hundred years will pass before they awaken again. We've visited many, many worlds; I know of none untouched by the Wraith. The last great holocaust was five generations ago, but they still return, in smaller numbers, just like they did today. We believe it is to remind us of their power and to feed the few of them who are awake while the others sleep."

The soldiers gathered around the conference table were obviously trying to appear stoic, but the smell of fear was in the air. The thought of being considered food, as humans considered cows food, terrified them. John didn't blame them, he didn't feel comfortable with the thought either.

Up until now the Wraith had been other people's problems, not theirs. Several Reincarnates had painted a rather ugly picture for them, one John had refused to even think about. Now, though, he couldn't stop thinking about all the different ways this mission could go wrong
"Thank you for the information, Halling," Rodney said. He was as tense as John. He was also high on too little sleep, but not in a state that would have made John refuse to let him go on this mission. "We'll bring all our people back."

Halling smiled at them. It said "I trust you" and "our lives are in your hands and we are glad for it" in a way that made John feel heavy with the responsibility.

They were going to take a small strike team in what John lovingly called a Puddlejumper. Rodney wasn't entirely happy with the name, but he caved easily enough, maybe because he knew the Alteran name for the spaceships would never take anyway. They'd known it could cloak: the prototypes had been around for a long, long time, long enough for John to have been utterly fascinated by them when they'd lived amongst the Alterans. The Puddlejumpers were particularly crucial because they'd found the right address, and it was a space gate. Now they had a chance – more than a chance, because this was going to work. It had to.

" We'll go in and out as fast as we can. If there's a way to destroy the Wraith outpost we'll take it, but I don't want any heroics, got that?" John got a lot of yes-sirs and some nods from around the table. "Alright, let's get going," John said.

In the 'jumper, Lieutenant Ford and Sergeant Stackhouse joined Rodney and John in the cockpit, leaving the other four men in the back. They were going to fly right into the lion's den. Just being on the way made John feel calmer -- too much time had passed already.

Ooo00O00ooO

John pressed himself against the wall. He could hear Rodney breathing quietly next to him, the slight noise almost drowned out by the Wraith guard stomping down the corridor. Once the Wraith had gone, John stepped out, Rodney and Ford following closely.

"I thought getting in was going to be the hard part," John said, staring into the direction the Wraith had gone.

There was a beep behind him as Ford attached some C4 to the wall. "That's the first one we've seen," he said.

Getting the life signs detector out of his pocket, John studied it for a moment. "That little dot should be him." He walked ahead of the group, watching as the small huddle of dots separated into one big one and one small one. "Yeah, alright." This thing was cool.

Rodney had been way too silent through all this, but John could feel him bolster his reserves with every step they took. It was amazing, this living ship, brimming over with Essence. Tactically their surroundings couldn't have been better picked. John gave a small smile as he sucked some more Essence out of the wall right next to them. Dark dots appeared, spreading quickly, dying tissue. Rodney had been doing the same thing ever since they'd stepped into the huge Hive ship.

Some time to prepare could always tip the scales. Rodney was doing exactly that, bundling together strands of Essence, killing parts of the ship, reaching further and further out in his efforts. By the time they left, they'd both be brimming over with Essence again. If they'd known of the living technology the Wraith employed, they could have taken down the smaller Wraith fighters much easier. The thought had never occurred to them. Taking the life of a person was impossible, the Essence couldn't be taken out of any human being -- but the ship was more like a tree. It was easy to take what they wanted from it.

There were four bright dots on the life signs detector, right ahead. "There's people there," John said, already striding down the corridor. He heard Rodney's sharp intake of breath, but he didn't call out for John or try to hold him back. Instead, Rodney hurried up until they were side by side.

"Major?"

Thank God, John thought. It was Teyla's voice. "Shhh," he said, "are you alright?"

"How did you find us?"

"Less questions, more moving," Rodney said, touching the strands that made up the cell. They withered and died immediately. "We need to get out of here."

"Colonel Sumner was taken by the Wraith," Sergeant Bates said, stepping through the gap. He was looking at Rodney with wide eyes, fingers twitching like he longed for a gun. "We don't know where they took him to."

John's heart started racing. That couldn't be good. As far as he knew the Wraith had little use for humans unless it was as a food supply. But Sumner … Sumner knew where Earth was, and if one of the Wraith fed on him they were likely to figure that out. "How long ago?" he asked.

"Not long," Teyla said, following Bates.

Fuck. He shared a look with Rodney, but was distracted by the long line of dead tissue that had started to run along the walls. "I knew something had to go wrong," he said, mostly to himself. He activated the radio, clicking it once to see if the other party could get in contact or not.

"This is Stackhouse, go ahead, sir."

"You really need to make some noise out there," John said. "Any kind of diversion would be cool."

"Yes, sir."

Taking a deep breath, he considered his options. "Ford," he finally said, "get these people out of here. Rodney and I will go find the Colonel. If we're not back in twenty minutes I want all of you to get the hell out of here."

"Sir, you're the only one who can fly the ship," Ford said. His point was a good one, but of the lot of them, he and Rodney had the best chances to free Sumner without becoming Wraith food, too.

"I know, Lieutenant. Give us twenty minutes." Not waiting, he ran out into the corridor again, looking at the life signs detector for any clues.

Rodney was silent behind him, at least until he caught up with him. "Wait, John," he said.

"What?"

"Just wait a moment, will you?" The snappish answer wasn't unexpected. They were short on time, a fact that generally set Rodney on edgte. He leaned against the wall, closing his eyes in concentration.

John didn't know what he was doing, but he could feel him change the flow of Essence in the ship. This was more than just a taking or random acts of sabotage; this was Rodney having a plan. John loved it when Rodney had plans. The waiting bit was hard, though, especially since John just wanted to do something. Shifting from foot to foot, John stood guard over Rodney, who barely seemed to breathe. John had given up trying to figure out exactly what Rodney was doing, he just hoped it was something brilliant -- as usual.

"Okay," Rodney said. There was sweat pearling on his forehead from the effort. "Let's go find Colonel Sumner."

They didn't have to go far before they heard a scream. Rodney was running before John even had time to register what was going on, but he took off after his mate immediately, sticking as closely to Rodney as he could. When their corridor branched off, they stopped, trying to orient themselves. The life signs detector was half-useless on this living ship.

Another scream. They started running again -- until Rodney stopped abruptly, holding his arm out sideways to catch John around the middle.

They were above ground level, looking down into a hall almost as big as the gate room in Atlantis. There was a long table, laid out with food and drink, but there was also a tall, female Wraith, her hand on Sumner's chest. One more scream was ripped from Sumner's throat as they looked on.

Rodney took John's hand in his, initiating a deep link, while John was busy throwing an energy wall up around them, Rodney cupped his hand in front of him. Air bent to his will until a ball was hovering in front of Rodney, infused with Essence taken directly from the Hive. This was their one chance to surprise the Wraith; Rodney was probably going for the safest – and deadliest – method possible.

The attack, when it was ready, was devastating. Rodney barely moved: all it took wnas a flick of his fingers -- with his not inconsiderable will behind it. The tightly woven air hit the Wraith faster than a bullet. She was ripped near in half, with the ball continuing on, tearing a circular hole into the far wall. Sumner fell backwards, gasping for air, but thankfully still alive. John's energy shield pinged, ripples of something else running over it. Half-turning, but not letting go of Rodney, John saw a Wraith shooting at them with a kind of weapon he'd never seen before.

John didn't take as much care with his own ball of air before he flung it. Still, it hit the Wraith square in the chest, felling it immediately.

"Come," Rodney said, stepping off the ledge. John took his step at the same time as Rodney, so in synch with him they wouldn't need actual words any more. Rodney transported them down to where Sumner was struggling to get up again.
The Wraith was still alive. "You should be dead," John said, stupidly. No one should be able to survive with the amount of damage Rodney had done to her. "Why aren't you dead?"

"You don't know what you have done. We are merely the caretakers for those that sleep. When I die, the others will awake." She gasped for air. "All of them." Then she stilled, her eyes dulling in death.

"Oh no, no no no," Rodney said, clearly having one of his 'we're all going to die a gruesome death' moments.

"What's she talking about?" Sumner asked. He was barely standing upright, leaning against Rodney like he wouldn't be able to, otherwise. "How many are left?"

One look at the life signs detector showed John just what she'd meant. There were so many new dots appearing on the screen that John had to swallow. He looked up, hearing the gasps of the others as they followed his lead. The ceiling had cleared into what looked like a honeycomb. Hundreds of cells were visible now, with Wraith stirring in each of them.

"We need to leave," Rodney said.

John opened a radio channel. "Ford, we're on the go," he said. They took one arm each, practically dragging Sumner along.

"So are we. Colonel Sumner?"

"Right here," John said.

The way back to the Puddlejumper seemed longer than it had on the way in: The Wraith sent them visions, scaring them all the way, but Sumner was in no condition to respond to them, while Rodney and John saw right through the illusions. John's relief when they reached the small ship was profound.
John left Rodney to hand Sumner over to the others while he hurried to the controls. The Puddlejumper took off before the hatch had even closed properly, and they were over the tree-line before the cloak initialized.

"They sent out the fighters," Rodney said as he slid into the co-pilot's chair. He put a hand on John's shoulder, probably to ground himself. "The Hive is going to take off any moment."

Cursing loudly, John swerved right so he didn't hit a Wraith fighter that was coming their way. From the way the Hive had looked from the outside, John wouldn't have thought it was still spaceworthy. "Fuck. Do you think they can find us?"

"No, Alteran cloaking technology is too good. And," Rodney said, closing his eyes, "I am going to do this."

Not asking what "this" was, John headed toward the Stargate. There were quite a few Wraith fighters arranged around it. "There's no way we can get through the 'gate with those guys hanging around."

The huge Hive ship was slowly climbing out of the atmosphere below them. That one was going to put another dent into any plans John could possibly come up with. At least that's what he thought, because as the Hive ship turned, pointing towards the Stargate, it dissolved into several large pieces. They burned bright red as the planet's gravity pulled them back down. The hovering Wraith fighters took off towards the Hive, leaving the 'gate unprotected. John reacted instantly: he quickly dialed Atlantis. They hit the event horizon before the Wraith fighters could even turn around.

Ooo00O00ooO

John fidgeted nervously as he stood by Colonel Sumner's bedside. The man looked awful, paper thin skin pulled tightly over his skull. He'd aged about twenty years from the Wraith's feeding.

"Thanks for coming," Sumner said. The monitor he was hooked up to bleeped its annoyance when Sumner sat up, but other than being a bit breathless he didn't look the worse for wear.

John had been expecting to be called in for a 'talk' from the moment Rodney and he had told them they were Reincarnates. The only thing he'd been left to wonder was whether Sumner would at least let them help the expedition or if they'd end up in one of the recently-discovered holding cells. "You're welcome, sir," John said, still trying to figure out how he should react.

Despite every possibly scenario that had run through John's head thousands of times in the last few days, Sumner gave a gruff smile. "Thank you, son, you saved my life. I know you said you'd protect the expedition, but leaving me there would certainly have made things easier for you, here. I've given you a hard time because of what you are."

"Leaving you there never was an option, sir. Even if I wasn't a Reincarnate … you just don't leave men behind. Other than that, I know why you acted the way you did. I'm glad you care for your men that way. I'm just not sure what's gonna happen now."

For a heartbeat Sumner just looked at John, thoughtfully. When he unexpectedly held out his hand, John was surprised, but accepted it.

"You're the second highest ranking officer on the expedition," Sumner said. "The way it is, I won't be any good in the field. Beckett said he won't put me back on full duty either. I figured you and I, we could come to a sort of agreement." Sumner cocked his head at John, studying him, like he could read his thoughts.

"Sir," John started, but Sumner didn't let him get anything more in.

"I'll continue dealing with the paperwork city-side, you take over field-operations and anything that needs more muscle than I'll be able to give. I have a veto right to any of your decisions that I don't like, and you can tell me to fuck off when I'm being stubborn."

John knew he was gaping now, but he couldn't help it. "Sir, I –"

"I've seen Doctor McKay in the infirmary after we got home, he looked bad. Is it always like this for you guys?"

Swallowing, John shook his head. "No, it's … there wasn't enough time for him to rest up properly after Athos. We knew it was likely that he'd crash afterwards."

Sumner nodded. "But you still came for us."

"We could do nothing else." The knowing look Sumner gave him was almost reassuring. It actually seemed possible that the humans had listened to what they'd been saying. "The Atlantis expedition is … I promised General O'Neill that we would take good care of everybody."

"The General knows?"

John shrugged awkwardly with one shoulder. "Yeah, we told him after we bonded. It seemed … the prudent thing to do."

The heartbeat monitor beeped a handful of times before Sumner eventually said, "What I said before … I'm sorry."

That was … John swallowed again. "Thank you, sir," he said. "That means a lot to us."

"I'm sure you have a lot of experience with human stupidity," Sumner said. He looked like he was about to fall asleep, but when he started to snore lightly, John was still taken aback.

He kept standing there a little longer before he left quietly. Beckett had warned him that the feeding process had drained Colonel Sumner severely, but once he'd recovered from the exhaustion he should be a bit better – if not younger. Sadly, that would have to be enough.

Chapter Text

Every time John used one of the Stargates he liked them a little bit more. He wondered if he and Rodney could make their own wormhole. Traveling instantly from one place to the other without delay would be so cool, not even talking about how handy it could be in some situations. Maybe. They'd probably need massive amounts of Essence, to make sure they weren't dropped a good ways before they reached their goal. It wasn't that easy to survive the vacuum of space. All in all it was probably a highly inefficient dream, but not impossible.

Scanning the surroundings of the Stargate with all his senses, he more felt than saw it when the rest of the team joined him and Rodney on the planet. Already stretching out into all directions with his entire capacity, he boosted the area he could cover by linking with Rodney. There was nothing odd, apart from the – no, that couldn't be.

God, he hated it when things went FUBAR so quickly -- They'd barely been on the planet for a minute. "Teyla, I thought you said they are simple people?" he asked, wondering why Teyla hadn't warned them. By now she knew just how much John hated surprises.

"They are farmers, yes. Technology like yours would amaze them like it amazed us," Teyla said.

"Rodney?"

Rodney nodded, his eyes roaming the countryside restlessly. "I sense it, too."

"I don't understand," Teyla said, puzzled, but a smile replaced the frown when she spied two people walking towards them. "There they are."

John itched to reach out and take Rodney's hand, to initiate that deeper bond that would enable them to act as one. The only thing that stopped him was that the Genii hadn't lied to them yet. Maybe they were just shy of outsiders. That coupled with the fear of the Wraith could very well lead to a complicated ruse like this. Being a small, primitive people was more than likely plenty of protection against a Culling. That was something John could respect.

Faking a happy smile that he didn't feel at all, John lowered his voice. "Who are they?" This was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Rodney shuddered next to him, then he pushed a terrible energy against him that had John leaning away automatically. He retracted his feelers from the planet as well, shocked by the sickness he was feeling. What was that?

Rodney grunted unhappily. Radioactivity. Not the kind that just happens naturally. If these people are simple farmers I'll eat that guy's hat.

Obviously happy to see an old friend, Teyla kept smiling. The whole situation made John sorry that they'd have to destroy her image of these people she considered to be her allies. "The eldest one is called Tyrus," she said, "I have traded with him on many occasions."

John decided against telling her now. They were getting close enough to hear, too close to risk a quarrel anyway. Maybe they'd come clean once they knew that there were Reincarnates amongst them. He was just about to open his mouth to greet the Genii when Rodney plucked at the threads of Essence surrounding them.

Do your thing, Rodney said.

My 'thing'?

Rodney glared at him. Oh come on, you know what I mean. The lie-detecting thing.

Giving a soundless sigh, John immersed himself in their surroundings. Reluctantly he tapped into the Essence grid again, but this time he sought out the lines that tied Tyrus and Sora to this plane. Connecting them to himself with a fine strand of Essence, John focused on what was happening again.

"My daughter, Sora," Tyrus was just saying, according to Rodney in response to Teyla introducing the team. John didn't even need to feel the warm tinge through the strand to know this was undoubtedly a truth.

This was probably as good a time as any to insert himself into the conversation, he decided. He gave Sora a smile he generally used to charm strangers. "You must be very proud." The smile he got back was a little too flirty for his peace of mind, especially because Rodney moved restlessly at his side.

"She's betrothed," Tyrus said, a distinct threat in his voice. His strand was tingling coldly. Not that John blamed him. He was protecting his daughter from the strange people that had come through the Stargate. It was a perfectly acceptable lie.

Beside him, Rodney stirred, from the way he'd pressed his mouth into a straight line John knew he was deeply unhappy. For someone so good at reading people you're astonishingly hopeless at interacting with them, Mate.

John didn't bother extending the energy to reply to that. "That's great, congratulations," he said to Tyrus, giving him the exact same smile, making him lean away subtly.

Teyla was frowning, but then visibly shook herself before she took the reins of the conversation back. "They have come to trade for a share of your crops."

"Yet you bring weapons," Sora said. She didn't seem perturbed by that. Probably because she and her father were both carrying concealed weapons themselves. Wily, John had to give them that.

Ford, who'd been unnaturally quiet until now, took a step forwards from where he'd hovered behind his team. "Only to defend ourselves."

Tyrus ignored that, instead he looked at Teyla and asked, "Do you dress as they do of your own accord?" The animosity wasn't openly visible, but to John's trained eye it was obvious enough. In a way the Genii reminded him of the Reincarnates scattered around the universe. They hid what they were, treating anybody else with a politeness that concealed hostility. It was an odd view, seeing it from the outside like this.

"Of course," Teyla said, surprise clearly written on her face, "why?"

John gave Tyrus a beat to answer that himself, but when nothing was forthcoming, he said, "He wants to know if you work with us … or for us." A fine, but important distinction that John thought some of the humans should look up in the dictionary.

"Ah," Teyla said, smiling at Tyrus. "These are my friends. I would not have brought them if I did not think them worthy to become yours."

Tyrus seemed to think about that, but then he shrugged subtly. "We'll take you to see Cowen," he said to them before turning to his daughter and told her 'go.'

Sora nodded. "Follow me." She started back the way they'd come.

As they took their positions, Rodney waited until they were in travel formation, with John at his right before he said, "Maybe we should offer a sense of humor in trade."

"Sure. They can have yours," John said.

Giving a sarcastic laugh, Rodney looked at John, his eyes glowing with mirth. "Oh, please, my side. You slay me." It made John smile.

That smile slipped a bit as he heard Tyrus say, "I'm bringing them in, all operations to silent mode," behind them. Oh joy, they were going to play-act for them. Maybe we shouldn't tell them who we are at all, just play along, get those beans, then get the hell out of Dodge, he thought, a feeling of unease settling into the pit of his stomach.

This was going to be "interesting."

Ooo00O00ooO

"You ask for much of our harvest. New crops will have to be planted in sufficient quantities to replenish our stores, or it is the Genii who will starve. That amount of planting will require new land to be cleared. Clearing more land is slow, hard work, and it will lose us a great amount of growing time between now and the next harvest season," Cowen said, his arms crossed in front of him.

John felt like he'd been very patient, almost a saint, really, but enough was enough. His blood pressure had slowly been rising, now it felt like it was boiling and he couldn't take another second of this. "Don't lie to me, Cowen," he said, feeling Rodney tense in response next to him. Teyla gave a sigh, but Ford went for his P-90. The villagers, changed their stance to battle-ready as well.

"How dare you–"

"Come now!" John had had enough of the whole show after half an hour of haggling for the Tava beans. The thought of keeping it all up for the next hour – because it didn't look like they were any closer to finding a satisfying trade agreement anytime soon – was sickening. Just like the smell of plastics and metals clinging to Cowen like a perfume together with the foul taste of radioactivity almost made him puke. John shuddered. He drew himself to his full height, hesitatingly reaching out to draw some Essence from the area in preparation for what could very well become a firefight. "We know of your city, of the thousands of people underneath the surface," John said, ignoring the shocked gasps, but watching Cowen like a hawk. The man didn't even flinch, but his eyes hardened. He felt Rodney pour Essence into their bond. The knowledge that he wasn't alone in his worry that they'd come to blows had an incredibly calming effect. Allowing the Essence to flow through him, he knew exactly when the marks of the Reincarnates lit up by the subtle widening of Cowens eyes.

"Old Soul," someone whispered behind him. John didn't bother finding out who'd spoken. It wasn't important. They obviously knew what they were, that made things so much easier.

"The only reason you don't want to trade is because your medicines are good enough for what you need. They're not what you want from us. You've seen our weapons and you've decided those are what you want." The contempt in John's voice made Cowen turn red with anger, but there was still enough fear in his eyes to keep him from doing something rash.

"Who are you?" he asked instead.

"Cowen, they are Old Souls, can't you see–"

"They don't exist!" Cowen glared at the man who had spoken up. "Those are tales to frighten children into obedience, nothing more. Who are you?"

Rodney stepped slightly in front of John in the kind of protective behavior he didn't show often. "I'm aware of the expression 'Old Soul'. He is right, that's exactly what we are. In the past we've perpetuated those stories, just like you try to make people believe that you're nothing more than simple farmers. No worries, your secrets are safe with us," Rodney said, but at the same time he wove a close-meshed net around the team, telling John about what he was actually thinking than his calm and reasonable tone of voice suggested. "My Shield doesn't approve of lies, please forgive him."

The angry stare Cowen gave Rodney annoyed John, but before he could act Rodney's hand twitched twice. It looked completely random to outsiders, but John understood the message loud and clear. No, it said, don't act, leave this to me. John shut his mouth.

"I don't approve of lies, either," Rodney said, letting his gaze roam along the circle of Genii around them. He gave a good impression of boredome -- if John hadn't felt the tension through their bond, he'd have believed it, too. There was a cold in Rodney's voice, that almost calmed John down --it was good to know his mate didn't trust Cowen any more than he did. Now that he was starting to relax, John noticed how hard he'd been gripping the P-90 clipped to his tac-vest.

Rodney held his silence for another few heartbeats until most of the people around them – Teyla and Ford included – started to show definite signs of nervousness. "So I suggest you stop fucking around with us and just tell us the truth." He shifted a bit, sucking in Essence at a rate that was more than just battle-preparation. The air around them turned colder by a degree or maybe two, John could see people shivering. "Don't underestimate us, Cowen. Our people are highly developed, they're dangerous in their own right, but John and I?" He was glowing with power by the time he'd finished saying all that, at least to John's eyes. The only thing that the mortals could possibly see was the bright mark of the Reincarnate on Rodney's forehead and his palms, but they could feel the drop in temperature. Rodney's smile showed too many teeth to be friendly. "You don't want to double-cross us, Cowen."

At the same moment, Rodney let go of the Essence, but he didn't completely dissolve the barrier. The team was subjected to only a few seconds of cold rushing through the holes before warmth seeped back into the tavern. It had been enough to tell Teyla what had happened though. She was frowning deeply, but she didn't say anything either.

"We had no intention of double-crossing you," Cowen said.

John gritted his teeth, not allowing the "lie" to leave his throat. He nudged Rodney's mind instead.

Rodney gave a disbelieving sound. "Of course not."

"Maybe we can find something that will help both of our people find a way to …" Cowen said, then hesitated, looking Rodney up and down in a way that made John's hair bristle, "… gain respect for each other."

"Yes?" John jumped at the chance to insert himself into the conversation between Rodney and Cowen. "How exactly do you think that'd work?" He was about to add that there was no way he'd be gaining any respect for Cowen and his two-facedness when Rodney's hand settled heavily on John's arm.

Cowen gave John the same judging look. "We are building nuclear bombs that we wish to use on the Wraith. But as of yet we've been unable to work around a few … problems. Maybe you can be of assistance with your highly developed weapons?"

"What do you intend to do once we helped you with your bombs?" Rodney asked.

"We are going to destroy the Wraith. In their arrogance they are hibernating. If we can find out the locations of all their Hives we can destroy them while they are still sleeping."

Whooops. Apparently it hadn't quite made the rounds yet. Oh well. John really hated giving bad news, but here, he couldn't bring himself to care. "Rodney and I had to destroy a Hive," he said. "Apparently they're linked pretty closely, because they've been waking up one after another. Even if they were still sleeping, how would you have done that? The Hives are hard to find when they're hibernating."

Visibly upset Cowen yelled something at his men who all pulled their weapons. "Do you know what this means? We're going to have to immediately stop the reactors or the Wraith will find us. You put my entire people in jeopardy! We thought we still had years to perfect our weapon. Now we will have to wait until the next hibernation cycle – if we survive that long."

John didn't feel threatened, not with Rodney's energy barrier tightening around them again, but he couldn't stand it that someone thought pointing guns at a pair of Reincarnates was a good idea. Before he could tell Cowen where exactly he could stick his threats, Rodney squeezed his arm.

"Well, that gives you two choices, Cowen," Rodney said, taking a sideways step until John was slightly behind him again. "Either you let us help you, or we're out of here and you'll be on your own against the Wraith. Me? I don't care either way. You should think about this very carefully though."

Nothing happened for a moment, but Cowen blinked a few times. John didn't know if he was stunned because of what Rodney had said or whether it was because Rodney hadn't been backpedaling manically. He didn't understand that being surrounded didn't automatically mean you'd lost. Not for Reincarnates anyway.

"I don't understand," Cowen finally said.

Rodney waved his hand around in a way that could encompass the tavern, the city underneath them, or the whole planet. "The Wraith don't move too fast, they like taking their time. Chances are your intended target – I assume you have one, if not there's a Hive ship I can feel that isn't too far away – is still right where it's supposed to be. If you want a chance to kill Wraith, then we're all for it. We'd help you."

At that, Cowen gave a sign, making his men holster their weapons again. "How can you possibly think it will work? If they are awake then infiltrating a Hive is next to impossible. They will see us coming and the mission will end before it has even started."

"You want to infiltrate a Hive?" Rodney asked. "Why not just drop the bomb on it and be done with it?"

For the first time since the trade negotiations had started Tyrus moved. He looked pale, but that was the extent of it. "We recovered a data storage device from a downed Wraith Dart. It contains information about the Hive ship it was deployed from. We intended to enter the Hive undetected and access the Wraith data core in order to find out the exact location of all their ships."

"I … see," Rodney said. This kind of knowledge would be pretty helpful for them, too. "You'll need a way to approach the ship without being detected. No problem." Then he turned to Teyla and smiled at her. "Would you please go to the 'gate and dial home? We need to talk to Elizabeth."

Teyla nodded, but gave John a pointed look as she clicked her radio on. He followed her unvoiced order; keeping in contact could only be a good idea.

"I have men near the Stargate," Cowen said, already raising his wristband to his mouth, "they will be faster."

Shaking his head, Rodney picked one of the empty chairs. He sat down heavily, but pulled a second one over so John could sit down next to him. "Let's not go overboard. We just started trusting each other again."

"Doctor McKay," Cowen said, about to disagree with, but then he shrugged. "Maybe you're right."

The smug smile on Rodney's face must have been calculated to drive Cowen crazy, because John knew no other reason for it. "Maybe."

"At ease, Ford," John said, pointing towards another empty chair close by. "Pull one up, settle down, we'll be here for a while."

Atlantis, this is Teyla, Teyla said, her voice coming clearly across the radio. Major Sheppard needs to speak to Doctor Weir.

This is Atlantis. Elizabeth sounded somewhat wary. John almost felt sorry for her. Has anything happened?

"Yes, Doctor Weir, you could say so," John said, figuring Teyla would leave it all to him anyway. "We have a proposal, from the Genii."

I'm listening.

Ooo00O00ooO

John hadn't thought it would be a cake walk, but he'd hoped they'd at least return with all the people they'd set out with. They should never have split up that way, he thought, but hindsight was 20/20. Pushing the thoughts away, John concentrated on flying the jumper, but when he finally landed in the designated place, he was glad to have arrived somewhere. Bone-deep exhaustion was settling in now, what with having used up most of the Essence he'd stored before. Even with the open connection between Rodney and him allowing Rodney to push energy at John whenever he felt like it, he needed to replenish soon if he didn't want to sleep for a few days. Wordlessly, John opened the hatch, then moved to the back of the jumper.

Sora was the first one who approached. She must have been waiting nervously for their return. "Where is my father?" Sora asked.

Not stopping for anything, Cowen stalked down the ramp. "He did not survive." His voice was gruff with suppressed anger, it didn't bide well.

"How? What happened?" She was clearly using that to keep her going, hands clenched tightly against the pain as if she needed to hold on to something physically, too.

"I think we should find out," Cowen said. He was out in the open by now, tense enough so John could see it from his position on the ramp. "Take aim!" The woods rustled, spitting out Genii by the dozen. They surrounded the Puddle Jumper, their weapons pointed mostly at John and Rodney. Teyla and Ford snapped up their P-90s, but John just sighed. He didn't have the energy left to do this.

John opened himself, shuddering when Essence poured in too quickly. The uncomfortable feeling forced him to stop the flow when he started weaving a patchy energy barrier between them and the Genii, hoping it wouldn't be needed.

"Cowen," he said, "I thought we were just learning how to get along. Don't do this now, it's a big mistake."

"She killed Tyrus," Cowen snapped, "and you're both liars. I've seen nothing that makes me believe you're really Reincarnates rather than mortal men pretending to be what you're not. Don't make me angrier than I already am."

Teyla immediately defended them. "They did not lie."

But apprently Cowen was in no mood to listen. He pointed a finger at Teyla positively spitting with rage. "You killed Tryus by leaving him to die, you may just as well have killed him yourself!"

His words obviously stung, but Teyla hid that very well behind a façade of calm. "He shot the man we tried to save."

"It was a mistake to try and save anyone," Cowen told her angrily. "It jeopardized the mission. We will keep this intelligence information." He took the memory device out of his pocket, looking at it for a moment before putting it back. The intention behind that couldn't have been clearer if Cowen had tried.

"Cowen," John tried again to break through. The situation was devolving too quickly. One false step now could be disastrous. "This is not the way to go here. We're allies–"

"We'll also take your ship and whatever weapons you have in your possession."

Teyla pushed to the front of their group, getting right into Cowen's face. "That is all you ever intended: to use us," she said. John took hold of her arm and pulled her back, that last step had taken her outside of the energy barrier, something he wanted to avoid at all costs. She went less willingly than John would have liked, but retreated back to her place at Ford's side even if she was angry.

"And for your efforts, I will spare your lives." Cowen smiled at them. It was ugly. He hadn't answered Teyla's accusation, but John could read the truth of it in the man's face.

"How could I be so blind?" John asked wonderingly. There had been lies and half-truths in everything Cowen had said, but enough truth to make John hope they could work this out somehow. Now, though, John just closed his eyes for a moment. It almost took more effort than he was willing to give to get battle-ready. Shaking his head tiredly, John made preparations to connect himself to Rodney. "You think this is a game? You think that if you can say you got the upper hand over a pair of Reincarnates then your people will have a greater status in the galaxy?" Huffing with the effort, John started to take another step towards Cowen. He meant to intimidate him a little, but when pain bloomed in John's chest almost simultaneously to a shot that sounded way too close, he froze.

Surprised, he looked down to where he'd automatically pressed his hand. Blood was already soaking into his uniform, turning his palm red when he pulled away slightly. But it wasn't until his grasp on the Essence strands that made up the energy shield failed that he realized what had just happened.

"Alon!" Rodney was next to him already, helping him to lie down flat on his back, putting pressure on the wound.

John blinked. He wanted to reassure Ari. It was just one bullet, just one; they'd survived worse in the past. But when he opened his mouth, he couldn't get anything out. There was no pain, not like he supposed it should be. Instead he felt numb and cold. Shock, his sluggish mind supplied. "Ari," he said, brokenly, bloody foam frothing around his mouth. Breathing was harder. The bullet must have gone through one of his lungs. I'm dying. The thought was unwelcome, but seriously hard to ignore. A bit to the right and he'd probably be dead already.

"Alon."

Something in Rodney's voice went through the haze, freezing something awful in the pit of John's stomach. Now he could see Ariondu's eyes glowing as he channeled a whole river of Essence through himself. Fuck,he's going Primal John thought, trying to get up. Ari, however, had other ideas: he pressed John back down, holding him immobile in a web of energy. The marks of the Reincarnate on Rodney were now glowing just as hotly as his eyes. With the bond between them opened widely, John was drowning in the power Ariondu poured into him. It sustained his body while the tight weave of Essence held the wound closed.

"Ari!" But his desperate cry fell on deaf ears as Ariondu got up. His expression was cold as he faced Cowen, who'd watched with a smug smile on his face. All John could see was Ari's profile, but that was enough to understand exactly why Cowen started to back off rapidly. The Genii leader lost his smirk, shouting an order John couldn't hear over the droning of the winds gathering around them.

"How dare you hurt my mate?" Ariondu asked, his voice unnaturally loud and booming.

For a terrible moment, John cast his gaze around the clearing, spotting Teyla and Ford, who were staring at Rodney as though he'd grown a second head. "Run!" They looked at John but didn't react. "That's a fucking order, get back home. Now!" Finally they started moving. Not a moment too soon.

"How dare you."

Cowen was staring at Ariondu in apparent horror, but didn't move an inch. Maybe he was too stubborn to try and save his own life, or maybe he knew that there was nowhere to run for him now.

Stones and debris were beginning to swirl in the air all around Ariondu, forming small cyclones, moving restlessly in their spots. Already they were swelling with the constant flow of Essence, gathering momentum and strength every second. The sky was darkening, black clouds forming on the horizon. Ice crystals were starting to appear on the ground, John could feel them prodding him in the back, though the cold couldn't touch him through Ariondu's protective cocoon. The suddenly-freezing temperatures were probably what made most of the Genii finally drop everything and run.

Cowen leaned away as far as possible, cowering, really. "Please no, we didn't–"

'Too little, too late,' John thought. He knew nothing would make Ariondu stop now, not when he'd gone into Primal Warrior state. The only possible outcome was the total annihilation of every threat in the area. Ariondu would kill anybody who was carrying a weapon. He'd destroy the planet if he had to, just to protect John.

Cowen was covered in frost, still talking, but his voice wasn't audible in the unbelievable racket. The ground beneath John was properly frozen now: if he hadn't been protected by Rodney's energy cocoon, he would be, too. The wind picked up even more and lightning ripped the dark sky apart, illuminating the cyclones which had turned into deadly tornadoes reaching all the way up.

"No one hurts what's mine," Ariondu said, voice still loud, but calm. He clasped his hands together before he thrust them forward, his palms pushed outwards. A shockwave of air sent the fleeing Genii tumbling, apart from Cowen, who seemed to be as frozen to the spot as John himself was. John could feel Ariondu weaving Essence around the Genii, wrapping them into airtight containment fields; he couldn't do anything about it, only watch them as they desperately tried to breathe. Ariondu looked from one dying Genii to the other until he was staring at Cowen, who helplessly hung before him. The man was barely alive. If Ariondu just left him there he'd freeze to death soon enough.

Ariondu leaned forward. The effect was terrifying: the winds halted while the tornados spread out over the planet at an astonishing speed. "No one," Ariondu repeated, "hurts what is mine and gets away with it."

The only thing John could do was lie there, listening to Cowen's "please, please" as he begged for his life.

Ariondu only smiled coldly. He waved once at Cowen, a simple gesture but John felt the power behind it. The resulting breeze was as hard as a whip, snapping Cowen in half with enough force to blow his upper body out of John's field of vision.

The first impulse to punish quenched, Ariondu turned back to John. He knelt next to him again, dissolving the binding strands of the cocoon. "Alon," he murmured, his voice so otherworldly yet tender.

"Spare the innocent." John held his breath in expectation. Sometimes he could influence the outcome of events. Sometimes the Primal Warriors didn't listen, too far gone to even hear their Shields.

Ariondu frowned. "There are no innocents."

Swallowing heavily, John brushed his shaking hand against Ariondu's cheek. "There are bystanders, Ari," he said, stopping to gasp for some air. "Bystanders who don't want to hurt us, there are plenty down there who don't even know we're here."

The Primal Warrior thought that over for a moment, his head cocked to the side in an alien move. "I will spare them," Ariondu said gently. With an ease that belied John's weight Ariondu picked him up and carried him away.

John noticed that the hatch of the Puddlejumper was still open, but there was nothing he could do about it. Ariondu wasn't going to stop so they could shut the 'jumper up tightly. The way back to the Stargate was quiet apart from the faraway howling of Ariondu's dying wind. The funnels of the tornados were still high in the sky, freed of Ariondu's drive, they would be around for as long as the conditions were favorable. The surface of the planet wasn't going to be the same after this. At least the Genii would survive.

Ooo00O00ooO

"I didn't tell you that you could get up," Carson said from the doorway, but John didn't particularly care. The Essence Ariondu had passed on to him before he'd carried John through the Stargate helped more than Carson's drugs ever could; standing by Rodney's bed wasn't going to hurt him.

"It's okay, I'm fine."

Carson grumbled something that sounded suspiciously like "they're always 'fine'" as he crossed the room to stand next to John. Together, they watched Rodney for a moment. "He looks so peaceful."

The unspoken 'considering what he's done' was tacked on there in the silence. Carson hadn't been one of those who'd returned to the Genii planet: he'd been stuck in the OR, repairing the damage the bullet had done to John's lung. But he'd probably seen the pictures.

So much for baby steps, Ari, John thought. At least no-one had tried to kill them – yet. In John's experience it was only a matter of time, at this point.

"It's a defense mechanism," John said.

Carson made a derisive noise. "All those stories of how dangerous Reincarnates are, but it took me 'til now to actually believe them." He looked at some of the machines Rodney had been attached to, against John's protests.

The tension was starting to get to him. He hated being constantly on the lookout for danger like this among the people he'd thought were their friends, their allies.

"For fuck's sake!" John tried not to explode, much. "Cowen had me shot," he said, a lot calmer than he actually felt. "You saw how bad it was, it's ... we're very vulnerable sometimes, and I'd overextended myself already. Rodney was protecting me."

"Ach, lad, I know that. It's just … he looks so harmless."

Harmless wasn't what John would have used to describe Rodney as he lay motionlessly in the infirmary bed. Vulnerable, or half-dead maybe, not harmless. It made him laugh helplessly until he had to lean against the wall to support himself.

"Are you alright?" Carson asked, hovering.

Gasping for air, John waved him off. "I'm fine, really. Just, the thought of Rodney being harmless was kind of funny."

"It wasn't meant to be funny," Carson said, somewhat sharply.

John ignored Carson by stepping up to the bed. He placed his hand on top of Rodney's, stroking his fingers over worryingly cool skin. "I know," he said, "but he's more than the guy who won't eat lemon chicken."

"What is he then, John?"

He'd known someone was coming, so he didn't over-react to the interruption. "He's my Blade." He turned around slowly; Elizabeth's expression wasn't very welcoming. Sumner was slightly behind her, looking like he'd aged another ten years over the past few days.

Elizabeth crossed her arms. She'd yet to approach Rodney's bed or even set foot over the threshold into his room. Even Sumner had come by more often; now, he pushed past Elizabeth, coming to a stop by John's side.

"How's he doing, son?" Sumner asked, nodding towards Rodney.

John squeezed Rodney's hand. "He's fine."

"If by 'fine' you mean 'in a coma', then yes, he's fine." Carson apparently thought John was encroaching on his domain because he broke out the blood pressure cuff in a clear attempt to stake out his territory. He, at least, wasn't afraid to touch Rodney.

"This is a perfectly normal reaction," John said. "Going primal takes a lot of Essence, and while he took plenty of energy from the planet, he pushed most of it into me before he broke down."

Sumner frowned. "Why'd he do that?" He didn't budge when Carson glared at him. "S'far as I know, you guys need energy or you're pretty much sitting ducks."

"To keep me alive long enough for Carson to put me back together," John said. "And it's not like Rodney could control it. From the moment I was shot to when Rodney carried me through the 'gate he was on autopilot. That wasn't really "Rodney", or even "Ariondu", it was something ... someone ... we call the Primal Warrior. The one thing he wants in that state is to protect me."

Elizabeth took a step closer. "He didn't have to do all that," she said. "He could have just … knocked them out and left with you. There was no need to kill anyone. He could have just incapacitated them. We're not murderers."

"You don't get it," John said, rubbing his face with his free hand. "A Primal Warrior doesn't give a shit. Ari saw that they had hurt me badly, and that was enough for the Primal Warrior to take over. The only thing he wanted to do was to protect me, so he got rid of the threat. At that moment, all that was important was that I wouldn't die. Sure, Carson could put me back together, but you know as well as I do that I would have drowned in my own blood if it hadn't been for the operation. If I had died Rodney's last action would have been to wipe out that planet."

Elizabeth's eyes had gone wide. "So you're saying that this could happen again any moment? That he's capable of destroying entire planets?"

"No! Yes, no." John scrubbed a hand over his face. "No, he won't randomly go Primal and start killing. You need to push us pretty hard before we reach that state. But when Reincarnates go Primal we're capable of anything. If I'd died … Elizabeth, do you know what the death of a mate means for a Reincarnate?" His hands were so cold; Rodney's were hot in comparison.

"No, John. How could I know?" Elizabeth asked, shaking her head even as her eyes never left John's.

For the longest moment John didn't know how to answer that, even though it had been his question in the first place. How could he possibly explain what it felt like to have his soul ripped in two? "Losing a mate feels like –" John said, but he had to stop and take a deep breath. "It feels like losing both your arms and legs. Like someone's … hollowed you out. Like you're alone."

"I understand that, John, but –"

"Our power comes at a price, Elizabeth. We live and die together. If I die, he dies. If he dies, I die. That's the reason for all our defense mechanisms. So yeah, if someone hurts me, Rodney will protect me."

Elizabeth pressed her lips into a thin line. "It isn't right, John," she said, her brows pulled together in a frown. "I understand that he wants to protect you, but he killed people and devastated a huge area around the Genii Stargate. I don't even want to think about how bad this could have been if he hadn't stopped there."

"But he did stop there. There's a really important bit you keep forgetting."

Elizabeth stared at him. "What do you mean?"

Taking a ragged breath, John shrugged awkwardly with one shoulder. "I know you think I'm the dangerous one here, but that's just not true. Rodney's my Blade, he's the soldier in this equation. A Blade is way deadlier than any Shield could ever be. It's just that, in this lifetime, I happen to wear the uniform rather than him."

John just wanted everyone to leave so he could crawl into bed with Rodney. He swallowed heavily and forged on. "Never mind how out-of-control we get, we never forget our loyalties. I told Ford and Teyla to run because I wasn't sure I'd survive it. Rodney would never turn against someone we took responsibility for, but that wouldn't protect them from … collateral damage. Cowen wasn't gonna let us walk out of there. He would have killed us all." Absently he stroked Rodney's hand again. "Carson, could you get Rodney some food? Preferably something high in calories. Chocolate will do in a pinch."

Rodney blinked a couple of times before he focused on John. "Chocolate?" he asked.

John grinned goofily. "Hey there," he said, while he ran a hand through Rodney's hair, deliberately making it stick up. "I'm sure Carson will be able to get you something nice." The doctor took the hint and left.

"Now," Rodney said, "would someone explain to me exactly what is going on?"

Elizabeth looked like she'd bitten into a lemon. Or maybe like she wanted to feed a lemon to Rodney, John couldn't quite decide, but he figured it could be a bit of both. "You killed Cowen and the people with him when John was shot," she said.

"I did?" With his face scrunched up in confusion, Rodney looked at John for an explanation. "You were shot?" Horror was joining into the mix of emotions playing on Rodney's face a second later.

I'm fine, you saved me. You did well, Ari, John said, sending a wave of affection, love and gratefulness. He needed to be as convincing as possible, or Rodney would have a freak-out right here and now.

"The Genii, Rodney," Elizabeth said, cutting John off before he'd even managed to get a word out. "What were you thinking? Why didn't you just bring John here, there was no need to kill people and destroy half of their harvest." John wasn't sure if she was just too angry to notice Rodney's apparent confusion or if she honestly didn't care. Elizabeth just went on, "Part of the city collapsed due to the pressure put on it during the storm. It's a miracle that not more people died. They're never going to trade with us now."

That had been information John hadn't had. Not that it mattered much, trying to trade with the Genii was an abysmally bad idea anyway and John wondered why Elizabeth insisted on considering it. John really thought Elizabeth should shut up already, especially since Rodney's face went paler with every word she said.

"Elizabeth, stop it. You don't understand."

"What don't I understand, John?"

Pointing out the obvious, he said, "Rodney can't remember. So could you please stop doing that?"

"Son, she didn't really mean–"

"I know exactly what she meant, Sumner." He hadn't planned to snap, but when it came out like that he didn't feel sorry for it, either. Taking a deep breath, John managed to find his place of peace. "Look," he said," I understand that this is huge for you guys. You don't know enough about us to be able to deal with this situation reasonably. But all you really need to know is: we're not a threat to the Atlantis expedition."

Elizabeth started to say something. When John glared at her, though, she snapped her mouth shut again.

"Cowen was lying to us from the moment he started talking. There was no chance of trading with them on an even footing, even if I had kept pretending I believed their game," he said. He wished she could just take his fucking word for it.

Elizabeth finally stepped into the room. "How do you know that, John?"

"Doctor Weir, I too believe Cowen was not going to trade for the medicines," Teyla said. John hadn't even noticed her coming in, but there she was, standing in the doorway, a little pale, but upright at least. She'd been hit by a stray branch in the winds Rodney had conjured; Ford had carried her home before he'd returned with a team for the jumper. "As Major Sheppard very accurately noticed on the planet, Cowen wished for your weapons. He was not going to let us leave with the flash-drive or share the information, either." With an easy grace, she crossed the room until she was standing at the foot of Rodney's bed, smiling at him.

Elizabeth blinked. "He could have destroyed that planet," she said.

John finally got it. He really did. This wasn't about what Rodney had done. It wasn't about how Rodney had protected him above all else. It wasn't even about the destruction of half the harvest or that cave-in. It was Elizabeth finally realizing how much of the raw power they could access – and didn't use. Like powering the damn city shields for longer than a minute hadn't told her that already.

"He saved my life," Teyla said.

Elizabeth threw up her hands in a gesture vaguely reminiscent of Rodney when he was at his most frustrated. "I thought the Genii were your friends."

Even John knew that Elizabeth had just crossed an invisible line before Teyla's face became an unreadable mask. "Friends and allies do not pretend to be what they are not." She reached out, but stopped before she touched Rodney's foot. A look at John with a plain request in her eyes made John nod, only then did she gently pat Rodney's leg. "Thank you, Rodney," she said.

"Doesn't it worry you what Rodney could do? What he could have done?" Elizabeth asked. She sounded like she desperately wanted to think just like Teyla did, but wasn't quite ready yet.

"Elizabeth this is–"

"Ma'am, I think you should–"

"Could anyone tell me–"

"That's enough!" John's shout shut the cacophony of Teyla, Sumner and Rodney talking over each other up rapidly. Everybody was staring at him now, Rodney was even gently squeezing his hand.

"Elizabeth," he said, "you knew all along that we are powerful. We never pretended we aren't dangerous. I know this is scary. I'm not even blaming you!" He let go of Rodney for the first time since this whole crappy conversation. "Hell, we've been killed for these reasons before. I really don't want to go there again. If force us to defend ourselves, there'll be bloodshed."

"John," Elizabeth said. Color was high on her cheeks. "I didn't mean it that way. That's not … we're not." That was the first time since he'd met her that she was lost for words. "No one her will try to kill you. I'm just a bit confused. That's all."

John held out his hands in an effort to show just how damn helpless he felt. "I know. But let me say this: I know you only want the best for the expedition and believe me or not, Rodney wants that too. He's not going to sink the city or do any of the other twenty horror scenarios going through your head right now. I gave my word to General O'Neill. An oath, Elizabeth, that is binding for both Rodney and I."

At that Sumner perked up. He opened his mouth to say something–

Doctor Weir, this is Grodin. There is something you should see.

Elizabeth frowned, but tapped her radio once. "This is Weir, what is it?"

I believe it would be best if you'd come to the control room and took a look, Doctor Weir.

"I'll be there in five minutes," Elizabeth said, closing the channel right after. "I'm starting to seriously abhor surprises."

There were too few good surprises in the Pegasus Galaxy. John quickly picked up Rodney's hand to press a kiss to his knuckles, then shuffled after Elizabeth, who'd stopped at the door.

"Rodney," she said, "I'm sorry. We'll talk about this later, when you're better." She turned around sharply without waiting for a reply. Sumner stayed a little longer, John could hear him say something to Rodney, too, but he was too busy trying to keep up with Elizabeth. Essence or not, speedy Reincarnate healing or not, he'd been shot to the lung and his body was protesting. John tried to ignore the stinging in his side and the fact that Carson would most probably have a cow when he realized that John had been overdoing it. But something about this situation here gave John a really bad feeling. Maybe it was because Grodin had been working on the flash-drive Ford had brought back.

"You should get back to bed, John," Elizabeth said as he slid into the transporter. Damn, so she had noticed that he was having trouble keeping up. "You're in no condition to run around here. To be honest, I'm surprised you can even hold yourself upright. You've been shot."

"I think I should hear this, too." John said through clenched teeth, ignoring her comment about his condition.

Sumner just gave John a tight smile as he squeezed into the transporter. He was the one who pressed their target on the transporter map; the only sign of approval of John's presence Sumner was ever going to give. A moment later they were walking into the control room. Grodin greeted them with a nod, but his face was drawn. They spent another few seconds looking at the confusing images on Grodin's screen before Sumner cleared his throat.

The small irritated glare Grodin gave Sumner vanished quickly. He waved at the screen, which was pretty much a whole mass of dots in different colors. "A lot of the information we downloaded from the data storage device was encrypted, so we're still working on that. But we were able to ascertain the existence of twenty-one Wraith Hive ships just in our quadrant of the Pegasus Galaxy alone."

"Twenty-one?" Elizabeth asked.

The amount of Hive ships wasn't surprising, at least not to John. Actually he'd feared there would be double that, maybe more. Twenty-one wasn't too bad.

Grodin didn't look at any of them, he just kept staring at the screen. His hands were shaking on the keyboard. "And there are indications of far more elsewhere in Pegasus."

"How many more?" Sumner asked, clearly unhappy with the idea.

"Well, there's no way of knowing for sure. Perhaps sixty or more."

Sixty. John swallowed heavily. That was more than what he'd been hoping for. Taking out one had already been hard, but with sixty John and Rodney would be constantly busy for years, taking themselves to the edge of what was possible again and again. "That's a lot of ships." Fuck, this was going to be impossible. Destroying them all the way they had the very first would kill them before they were half-way done.

"Some of them already appear to be on the move," Grodin said.

This was just getting better and better all the time. Catastrophe didn't even properly cover the clusterfuck this was going to be.

"Toward us?" Sumner's voice sounded rough. He was probably thinking in the same line as John.

Grodin nodded. "That's the part we're still working on. But I think so, yes."

"So even if the Genii …." Elizabeth trailed off when John growled. She gave him a look.

"There's no way we could have nuked sixty Hives simultaneously," he simply said. It was a moot point anyway. The Genii weren't an option any more. What was the point of even going down that road now?

Sumner had listened to their exchange quietly, but now he gave John a sideways, calculating stare, making John supremely uncomfortable. "You and Rodney couldn't ... you know, explode them?"

"No, definitely not. What Rodney did to the last Hive was risky at best, and we were inside the hive and blew part of it up with C4. We can't take on every single Hive individually – they'll just alert the others." John wasn't happy to have to put it so bluntly but people needed top understand that even Reincarnates were no miracle-workers. "Handling the amount of energy needed to overcharge a Hive ship is hard and we would need to take the Essence we need at least partly directly from the Hive. It's tricky and nothing I think we can get away with more than two or three times, considering we were damn lucky to get away from the first one in time. Darts are much easier, but Hive ships need a damn big nudge to blow."

"Gentlemen," Elizabeth said, "please, we've been over that often enough. We need to concentrate on our current situation." She waved a hand, encompassing the whole problem in a simple gesture. "John and Rodney – as powerful as they may be – can't protect us from those Hive ships that may or may not be heading our way. We need to do something to give our people a chance of survival."

There was silence. Grodin was stubbornly looking at the screen, his hands shaking badly on the keyboard while Sumner was frowning, deep in thought. There was nothing they could do, not like this, not now. They had no intelligence at all, none of the reliable kind anyway. At the moment Atlantis was a pretty big sitting duck. They didn't even have shields. "ZPM," John said, the word leaving his mouth before he'd really thought about it. "We need a ZPM, that's the only way we can get the shield working."

"We've been looking for a ZPM for months now, Sheppard, what makes you think we'll find one with our friends there providing a deadline?" Sumner had a point. They'd been searching since they'd set foot on Atlantis, really.

Making a sweeping gesture, John ended up pointing at one of the dots that were moving. "We got sidetracked by looking for food. I think we all agree that we won't need food after the Wraith ate us all. We've got to make finding a ZPM our priority again."

"We'll need food if we still want to be here for the Wraith to find us," Elizabeth said.

It was reasonable, of course, but John would prefer to starve to death rather than be sucked dry by the one Wraith getting through his defenses. Or worse, having to watch one of them take Rodney. "We'll have to split our efforts then," he said.

Sumner's thoughtful look had been moving back and forth between the ugly screen and Grodin's shaking hands. "We'll have to create a few more teams, that way we could double our efforts. I want someone experienced in going through the 'gate on every team. Once you're able to stand without wobbling I'll want you in my office, Sheppard."

John nodded. "Yes, sir," he said, automatically tacking on a salute that made him feel like he'd torn something. He winced.

"John, you should go back to the infirmary and rest." He was just about to tell Elizabeth he was fine when she frowned. "When do you think Rodney will be able to go back on active duty?"

Surprised, John laughed. "Rodney will be right as rain once he had something to eat. It'll take him a few days until he can handle Essence again without feeling like he's burning up, but that's not going to slow him down. My gunshot wound will take longer."

Elizabeth's face became unreadable. It was probably her most diplomatic empty expression. At her nod, he shuffled after her towards the transporter. "I think we really need to have a talk, you, Rodney and I. Up to now I think I haven't been asking enough questions and I can't afford to just ignore this any longer. After we survived the Wraith, we'll talk. Until then, I won't mention it again."

"Okay," he said. He wondered how Rodney was doing now. Betting with himself that Rodney would be busy trying to make Carson let him go with the power of his brain before he knew if he could stand on his own two feet, John made his slow way back to the infirmary. The door slid open in welcome before he'd even properly reached it, letting Rodney's voice drift towards him.

"I'm fine, Carson. I'm sure that I will recover just as well in my quarters as I would here. Better, probably, because no one would disturb me. Now let go of me."

That figured.

"Rodney, you can barely stand, if I let go of you you're going to end up on your face."

This he had to see. Casually leaning into the doorframe, he managed not to look like he was about to keel over at the moment. Rodney would be likely to look straight through it, but Carson wouldn't. "I bet he can make it another two steps, actually," he said.

Rodney's head snapped up, his eyes travelling over John's body just once before he started glaring. "Shouldn't you be flat on your back?"

"Shouldn't you be in bed?" John asked right back.

Carson looked like he was about to have a fit. He still managed to say, "There you are, Major Sheppard." It didn't sound like Carson was going to let him go anywhere. "I was just about to send someone to look for you, actually. So glad you found your way back here. It's not like you just had a major operation or anything like that. Wandering off is completely acceptable, of course."

"Okay, I get it. I'm sorry I walked out," John said.

Rodney suddenly pushed Carson's hands away, clutching at the male nurse who'd been trying to hold him upright on his other arm. "Get him into bed, Carson, he's going to fall over any moment. Asking for help has never been his strong suit. Seriously, John, is it too much to ask of you to say 'Hey, I'm about to keel over, please walk me across the room to the nice and cozy and horizontal bed you have there', is it?"

"Rodney," John said, pulling the name as long as he could just to see the red splotches of color chase away the paleness on Rodney's face. They glared at each other for a heartbeat, then John gave in. "He's right, help, please? I think I tore some of the stitches."

He lost Rodney for a bit while he was being put back to bed. Carson checked the stitches, tutted a lot, did something spectacularly painful to him, but eventually cleaned him up. It wasn't until the painkillers finally did their job that Rodney's voice started intruding on the quiet in the private room. John's eyes were already drooping when Rodney's bed was rolled into the room, but he smiled, right before he fell asleep.

 

Ooo00O00ooO

"No, absolutely not. Not happening," John said. He knew he was being stubborn, possibly also an asshole, but he wouldn't let Sumner dismantle his team. They were … family. Teyla, Ford, Rodney, and himself, they were good together. John trusted Ford. "You can't take Ford." If the scar hadn't still been tender, John would have crossed his arms, too. "He's an integral part of my team and–"

Sumner interrupted John with a raised hand. "He's got 'gate experience. He's a good officer and he's ready for his own command."

Wincing, John looked away from his commanding officer. It wasn't that he thought Sumner was wrong. Not at all. Ford was a good kid, maybe a little too ready to use big explosions, but it was great having him at his back. John scrubbed a hand over his face.

"Unless you disagree?"

"No," John said immediately. "No, you're right. He's probably one of the better candidates to lead his own 'gate team. It's just …"

"I know, son, I know," Sumner said, surprisingly understanding. "Sometimes you've got to let them fly on their own, though, even if it means pushing them out of the nest."

The comparison forced a startled laugh out of John. When Sumner had said he wanted experienced personnel on the new teams, John had wholeheartedly agreed. What this could mean for his own team hadn't even crossed his mind. Ford would be a damn good team leader, though. "Alright." It wasn't like Ford would be gone, he'd still be around. Maybe not watching their sixes off-world, but he wasn't going away away. Snorting, John thought he'd never live it down if Rodney ever found out John had been in a ditz because Ford got promoted.

"I'll tell him," John said.

Sumner nodded and handed John his tablet PC with a list of names on it. "What do you think?"

Running his eyes down the list, John realized the names came in pairs: one of the Marines plus one of the scientists of already existing off-world teams. "You want to split the other teams?"

"It's necessary. Starting new teams with two experienced people will lower training time. It'll maximize a team's ability to survive in the field," Sumner said.

He handed the tablet back to Sumner, nodding in agreement. The crucial point was how it would give them more teams to cover more ground while not stretching their experienced people too thin. Thinking of all the other teams splitting up into pairs John thought it was pretty unfair that Ford would have to get three new people. John almost felt sorry for him until he realized that splitting AR-1 up would mean giving up Teyla. There was no way John would give up Teyla, Sumner probably knew this, because she hadn't been on the list. Ford was a bright kid, he'd be fine with a completely new team. "It'd double our capacity," John said, wondering why exactly he was there. Sumner seemed to have everything under control on the planning side of the operation. "So I'm supposed to …?"

"Straight to the point," Sumner said, giving John a smile that contained too much teeth to make John comfortable. "You're going to pick the second half of the teams from the pool of Marines and scientists on the base. Give them a number, schedule the training. I want simulations on the mainland to start ASAP and I'd like you and Doctor McKay to lead them."

"I'm not–"

But Sumner didn't let him talk. "You said Doctor McKay is more of a soldier than we give him credit for. Well, I'm giving him credit right now. You're still on light duty, but that won't prevent you from coordinating. They'll need the training."

Rodney would be so pleased about an opportunity like that. It'd certainly teach the people they lived with something about Reincarnates. Hopefully something valuable that would let those of them who knew what they were, move past the destruction on the Genii home world. Baby steps, Rodney had said. Well, John was perfectly sick of baby steps. It was possible that he'd have preferred going on TV rather than give out everything piecemeal -- like ripping off a band-aid in one go rather than feel every hair that was pulled out individually. Nothing he could do about it now.

"Yes, sir," John said.

Ooo00O00ooO

Chapter Text

"And then Levi rolled in the mud, trying to get his footing," Rodney said. "If Ford hadn't gone to retrieve the moron we'd have had a fatal training accident because he'd have drowned in the damn mud." Rodney hadn't believed John when he'd said he could dress himself, so Rodney was helping him with his tac vest, all the while telling stories about the training exercises. "Carson shouldn't have put you on full duty," he said as he clipped John's P-90 on.

John really wanted to shrug, but that was one of the few movements he still had to be careful with. "He said the shoulder is healing great."

"Huh," Rodney said, tugged on a few strategic places on John's clothes, then combed a hand through John's hair. He was so obviously getting carried away that John didn't have the heart to slap at his hands for fussing. "So he's not worried that you can't even shoot?"

With a little effort, John ignored that. Rodney had been overly careful with John lately. Some mornings, John even woke up to Rodney frowning down at the pink scar. John could shoot, he'd been to the shooting range every day in the last week.I First off, it was the other shoulder that was still a bit sore. Secondly, he felt fine most of the time. Unless he overdid it.

. Trying to convince Rodney of that was an exercise in pointlessness, though. There were some things his mate was completely deaf about, especially after John had been hurt so badly. By now John was used to it. "Elizabeth said in the mission briefing that she doesn't expect any problems on Dagan," he said. "The preliminary reports said it's a pretty peaceful place." By an unspoken agreement no one mentioned the other Elizabeth. John was surprised Rodney had taken notice of it, but he'd been rather kind to their own Elizabeth by pretending they hadn't watched her older self die. John himself was terribly thankful for the sacrifice of that other expedition, without their deaths, Rodney would have gone to Atlantis without him. He'd also have drowned, saving Elizabeth's life. It sounded exactly like something Rodney would do, too. Rodney's hand ran over John's hurt shoulder, the movement gentle and barely there, but John could read the worry in it easily enough. He wished there was something he could do or say to convince Rodney that he was fine already. Or at least that it hadn't been Rodney's fault John got shot in the first place.

Rodney was far unhappier about John coming on this mission than Carson had been. The doctor had put John back on the roster readily enough. He'd clearly been awed by the speed of recovery. The only thing was that he'd cautioned John to be careful with the shoulder for another week. So the only missions they'd be going on were milk runs, but at least John could leave the city again. He was really looking forward to that.

"We'll be fine," John said gently.

Rodney sighed deeply. His hands had stilled where he'd been triple checking John's equipment. "We'll see." He sounded unconvinced. When Rodney let go of John he took a deep breath and a step away, like he knew if he didn't they'd never leave. "They're probably waiting for us already."

"Yeah."

Rodney had been hovering the past weeks whenever he wasn't busy in the labs or with training. It wasn't something Rodney did with grace or anything approaching normal, but John had let him anyway. It was annoying sometimes, yeah, but it also felt good, to be cared for, even if Rodney had the tendency to do everything he put his mind to completely over the top. Work, protecting his mate, Rodney didn't do small. But the overprotectiveness would fade when Rodney finally got that John was fine, that he wasn't going to fall over and die any moment. It always stopped, eventually.

"I really hope we'll find a ZedPM on Dagan. It should be pretty easy," Rodney said as he led the way toward the gateroom. They quietly walked side by side before Rodney gave John a bright smile. "It'll be like a small super-nova," he said just as they entered the gateroom.

Miko gave them a wide-eyed stare, she looked terrified. "Super nova?"

Rodney nodded absentmindedly, he was too engrossed in double checking both their equipment. "A ZedPM contains enough energy to rival a small one."

It startled John every damn time someone asked them a question. It was even worse when the anthropologists sat down with them for dinner. The range of questions they asked still made John both uncomfortable even if the easy acceptance was a huge relief at the same time. John didn't know if it was the careful selection of personnel for the Atlantis mission or whether the humans of Earth were just different from the other places John had been born into recently, but most of them didn't seem fazed.

"Rodney was just explaining to me how easy it will be to find that ZPM," John said, enjoying how Miko's face lit up. Reactions like this reminded John of all they'd lost when the humans had started hunting them mercilessly. Having a group of people know what they were, but still trust them was … John didn't have the right words for it. Covering the way his vision went just that little bit fuzzy, he waved up to the control room in the universal sign of "dial it already, I want to get out of here yesterday." He'd been sitting around the city for too long, a brisk walk on Dagan, some research, and a quest would be just the thing to get back into the swing of things again.

"Okay!" He put a hand on his P-90, stopping it from swinging as he turned to his team. Rodney and Teyla both looked as eager to go as John felt while Miko appeared vaguely sick – it was her first trip through the Stargate. He both heard and felt the wormhole erupt into existence behind him, but ignored it in favor of giving their team-member-of-the-mission a look. "Miko, you're with Teyla." He'd told her at the mission briefing, but John was a devoted believer in "better safe than sorry."

"Yes, Major," Miko said, nodding twice.

John knew she was bright, but he wanted to make absolutely sure she did exactly what she was supposed to do: stay alive. Off world missions had a tendency to go pear shaped. At Teyla's nod, he relaxed. Teyla wouldn't let Miko get carried away or distracted. "Let's move out, then."

Rodney rushed to the event horizon so quickly John wanted to slap him upside the head. At least he stopped right there, bouncing on the balls of his feet while giving impatient "come on, come on" signals with his free hand.

"Geez," John said, and while he was sure he was the first through the Stargate to Dagan Rodney had only been half a step behind. Maybe it was time to have a repeat of their talk on travel protocols. "Ari," he said, frowning at Rodney.

Rodney waved him off. "I know, I know, you go first. And you did! I was right behind you," he said. With wide eyes, Rodney put a hand on John's chest with a haunted expression on his face. A second later Teyla and Miko stepped through. Like that had been a secret signal, Rodney started talking a mile a minute, gesturing wildly.

Their welcoming committee was a little late, but after about ten minutes a group of four came down the hill. "Welcome to Dagan, I am Allina." The woman in the lead bowed and smiled at them. Her eyes fixed on Rodney almost instantly. "You must be Doctor Rodney McKay. Lieutenant Ford has told us so much about you! He said if anyone could solve the puzzle it was you."

Rodney preened at the compliment. "I'll have to thank him then," he said, giving her a smile in return. Then his eyes dropped back to the Ancient scanner with the frown returning almost instantly; so much for finding the ZPM easily.

Reaching out just a little bit, John winced when he came in touch with a strand of Essence. Fuck. He still hadn't recovered completely from the overload he'd experienced during the mother of all storms. Rodney had said it was a bad idea, trying to get John to let him do it alone. But there was no way John would have allowed Rodney to attempt the tame one of those on his own.

Now he was paying the price for his insistence. Yes, Atlantis had survived. It had been almost too easy, really. They were a Wind Shield and a Celestial Blade, air was both their natural element. Creating those kind of storms was within their capability, taming them was nothing in comparison. Handling those energies on top of the gunshot wound had done a good one on John, though. For now touching Essence still grated a little along his nerves. It wasn't painful, just uncomfortable. At least he was getting better. He could already handle small amounts of Essence again if he was careful.

Next to him, Rodney winced in sympathy, but he reached out and swatted John anyway. "Stop doing that," he said. The short contact gave John an idea of what Rodney was doing. He could almost feel Rodney's presence, stretched out all around him as far as he could go. The area Rodney could cover wasn't nearly as big as it could have been if John had been helping him, but it was still a good deal of the surface of the planet. The search turned out nothing either. Rodney's frown grew deeper; he'd banked on being able to just feel the ZPM. That he couldn't put a wrench in his plan. But John didn't doubt for one second that if there was a ZPM on Dagan, they'd find it, whether they could feel it or not.

"Please," Allina said, looking back and forth between them with a puzzled expression, "follow me. We have much to do."

Ooo00O00ooO

Allina's "much to do" turned out to be the equivalent of "be bored out of your minds" while at the same time she tried pretty much everything but climbing on top of Rodney to get his attention. She hadn't left out an opportunity to touch Rodney, give him shy smiles, or push her assets into his line of sight over the past few hours. John wasn't hugely bothered, the whole thing was actually funny to watch. Especially as Rodney couldn't have been more oblivious to her advances if he'd actively tried. John was kind of proud of that in a stupid way. Also, it was a thing they had. Usually it was John on the receiving end, which had been a source of amusement to Rodney for … well, forever. It was great to have the tables turned this once.

They'd been doing a whole lot of reading in the library after Allina had given them the run-down on what her group of researchers had already found out. All they really had were myths, pieces of letters, nothing Rodney would usually see as hard evidence, until Allina showed them the picture. It depicted a ZPM on a level of detail that couldn't stem from handed down descriptions. From that point on it wasn't just a possibility that they'd find a ZPM. The only two questions that remained was how full it still was after all this time and how long the line of bread-crumbs left for them was.

With all the research they were doing now that they were sure there was anything to find on Dagan the only conclusion John came to was that the Brotherhood of the Fifteen was a bunch of wily old men, who – much to Allina's admiration and Rodney's disgust – knew how to hide stuff very, very well. For his first mission, John couldn't have wished for a better one, because who didn't want to play Indiana Jones for a few days? This had the potential to become a really cool quest. John kept mouthing the word to Rodney until he got poked in the ribs "by accident."

"The Brotherhood created nine stone markers," Allina said. "When united they are supposed to reveal the final resting place of the Brotherhood's treasure, the Potentia. So far we've only found three of them." She really did have a nice smile, John had to give her that. She leaned over to pass a stone tablet to Teyla, giving Rodney an excellent view in the process. A view – John noted with some satisfaction – that was totally wasted on Rodney. John wondered why she didn't just stop, considering by now it was probably frustrating as hell. "The etchings on the rocks involve many lines and dots. We think it's a map."

Rodney hummed, but didn't immediately snatch the marker from Teyla, instead he waited his turn with unusual patience while looking at it thoughtfully from afar.

John just inspected it as Rodney rotated it in his hands. He frowned. "This looks like an Ancient numbering system," he said. A newer one than John was familiar with, but still decipherable.

At that, Allina gave him an odd look, part surprise and part grudging respect. It wouldn't haver been quite so offensive if Allina hadn't also frowned right after before a forced smile appeared on her face. "That's what we thought. From what we can tell the three markers we found are inscribed with the numbers three, six, and seven." She handed the last two over to Teyla, who looked at them briefly before handing passing them on. "We managed to piece together some of the information we found here, in there monastery. There were clues that led us to number six and seven. We found the number three stone on an unrelated dig just last week."

"So if we find the rest of the stones we find the map to the Brotherhood's treasure?" John asked, thoughtfully. Until Rodney said differently John was prepared to just go with the map idea. Still, it was odd to use numbers in a map, unless there were multiple layers to this puzzle.

Allina nodded. "Yes exactly."

Next to him, Rodney froze for a moment before he exploded into action, grabbing the stones from Miko to line them up in front of him. "Do you see this?" he asked of no-one in particular. In his excitement he forgot to give them a hint for what "this" was. He just started to arrange the markers in different patterns.

"Part of the design?" Miko asked. She got up and walked around the table to look at the stones over Rodney's other shoulder. "No, no, these don't seem to be designed for aesthetics."

"Yeah, each of the stones has a different part of a grid pattern on it." Rodney traced it with a finger.

Allina leant over the table as well. "Signifying where its correct place should be in the final configuration," she said, continuing Rodney's thought easily. She gave John a triumphant smile. Apparently there was a competition going on in which Allina had just scored a point – and she considered John a contestant.

Too engrossed in his thoughts, Rodney didn't even look up. That was probably a good thing. Rodney found it funny when people flirted with John. He even found it mildly amusing to find a naked woman or man in their bed when they went to sleep off world. What didn't go over well at all was when someone gave John looks like Allina did. Flirting was a-okay in Rodney's book, glaring wasn't. "Exactly." He frowned. "Do you have a map?"

Ooo00O00ooO

Turned out that Allina did have a map. But after a whole day of watching the others dig at different sites, John wasn't sure he was thankful for that fact anymore. He still wanted the ZPM, but maybe not quite as much as before.

Sure, he'd gotten the quest he'd wanted, but in all that he'd forgotten that adventures were generally a lot less exciting when they actually happened to you than when they were shown on TV or told in a story. They had split up in two teams after Rodney had figured the pattern out easily enough. Four of them were exactly where they should have been according to Rodney. The last one was on the plan for tomorrow.

John hadn't exactly been allowed to do much. They'd let him dig, but both Teyla had made him take more breaks than John thought he'd need until he'd agreed that maybe he wasn't one hundred percent just yet. Not even three hours of half-hearted digging in the sun had made John feel so damn wiped out that he didn't even want to think of standing up. So instead of finding something heavy to hit Allina over the head with he was sitting at their table. The food barely tasted of anything, probably because he was watching avidly as Allina showed Rodney all sorts of things. Her attempt at seducing Rodney had stopped being funny a while ago, but it was still kind of amusing at times. It was like a particularly nasty train-wreck with Allina as the train and Rodney the unmovable object she was about to ram into; and John knew it was going to end nasty but still couldn't look away either.

"It's a layout of the village. The walls of this monastery have protected it for ten thousand years," Allina said.

Rodney had grown more bored by the minute but he wasn't communicating that very clearly. He probably wanted that ZPM so much he was putting up with things he'd normally never have allowed in the first place. The painting Allina was showing Rodney now he liked, John could tell from how Rodney perked up. With a little hum of approval, Rodney inspected the plans. He – well, both of them – liked things that endured the test of time. Generally it meant when they managed to visit again there was at least something still there to remind them of past lives. There was something very peaceful about knowing that some things did stick around. "It's … beautiful." John was sure Rodney had meant to say something else there, but he couldn't even start to guess at it.

"It is," Allina said. She wasn't looking at the plans, she was looking straight at Rodney. "And yet my eyes are drawn elsewhere." Now it started to get into the – more – obvious area, but there was no sign Rodney had noticed. John viciously ripped a piece off his bread and stuffed it into his mouth.. John wondered when exactly Rodney would figure it out. Maybe he should put a stop to it right now.

Before John could talk himself into getting up, Rodney gave Allina a tight smile. "Elsewhere?" he asked. The little flick of Rodney's gaze from Allina to John wasn't exactly subtle, but Allina didn't seem to recognize for what it was.

John frowned, had that been Rodney warning John off, or Allina? Well, if he was warning off Allina it certainly hadn't been obvious enough, because she just smiled brightly at Rodney. "I'd like to restore it one day, but I'm afraid of damaging it. Perhaps you could help me, Doctor McKay?"

"Really," Rodney said, shuffling away from her again from where she'd pushed into his personal space, "you have to start calling me Rodney." Rodney kept smiling until he'd turned his back at her on his way to the table.

Allina followed. "Very well, Rodney," She said, her use of the name tentative, but with a pleased smile. The fixed smile on Rodney's face didn't seem to register with her at all, nor did the desperation with which he grabbed one of the apple-like things from the bowl in the middle of the table. He yawned before he could bite into it. Allina gave Rodney a wide-eyed stare, then asked, "I don't bore you, do I?"

Rodney leveled a wide-eyed expression at her. John could never decide if this one was serious or acted. It worked, though, especially when he said, "No, of course not, it's just late." Then a muscle in Rodney's cheek twitched, a clear sign that he was lying through his teeth.

"Yes, it is. Maybe you should go to bed?" Allina asked

"Food first," Rodney said, biting into his fruit so he wouldn't have to talk anymore. He kept looking at John whenever Allina was preoccupied with something else. John wasn't sure what they meant. Maybe "help me", or "don't kill her", or maybe "you're such an asshole, why aren't you doing anything?" but John really couldn't be sure. Next time Rodney looked at him, John shrugged with his good shoulder as he stuffed another piece of his meal into his mouth.

Allina watched Rodney eat with a smile; John started shredding the rest of his bread into little pieces. Maybe he'd been letting this go ahead too long now, he should have put his foot down ages ago. Like when Allina had smiled at Rodney for the first time when she'd been late to pick them up from the 'gate. Rodney really should know Allina was drooling over him, so he could let her down gently.

"What was it like? Growing up in the city of the Ancestors, Rodney?" she asked.

John could see the change in Rodney's mood. It wasn't visible to anyone who didn't know Rodney very well, but John could see it easier. The tension along Rodney's back and the way his head tipped just that little bit to the right were the only tells John got, more than enough to make John tense up in response to it. "Amazing," Rodney said.

It was true, growing up amongst the Alterans had been exciting, exhilarating, wonderful, all that and so much more. It didn't matter that their one lifetime with the Alterans had not been in Atlantis. They had actually lived in a city of the Alterans, one hewn from living rock, but as majestic as Atlantis was. Its name had been lost to John for more than a dozen lives, but he still remembered the spires. In more than one way the city in his memory reminded him of Atlantis, so alike, yet so different. Beautiful in its own right, but not nearly on the same technological level. The city … L-something-or-other had existed millennia before Atlantis. By the time Atlantis had been constructed, the stone buildings of that particular city had already started to crumble.

Normally, it wouldn't have been a problem to reveal any of that, but something in Allina's tone cautioned John from speaking up. Rodney must have felt it, too. John definitely approved of Rodney's caution because running the question through his head it didn't sound harmless question any more.

Allina's eyes brightened. "Tell me about it." John didn't know what was off about her, but something wasn't right. If he'd been able to use Essence without setting back his healing for another couple of days he'd probably have risked it. It was lucky that Rodney was sitting right next to him, open to his surroundings. John didn't need to probe her, all he needed was to look at the increasing tension in Rodney's body.

At that moment Rodney shrugged. It didn't look forced, but he also pressed his tight against John's. A warning. "Nothing to tell," Rodney said, "it's … home. That's it, really."

Allina looked at her hands, then back at Rodney with a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "I'm sorry. Please, do not let me keep you from sleep, we are going to have a long day tomorrow." She gave a little nod of the head, mostly to Rodney, but John returned it anyway mainly out of spite. Then she left, probably to sleep. John didn't really care.

"I think Allina has a little crush on you," John said as soon as Allina was out of hearing range.

"What?"

"You heard me," John said, taking a bite from his bread. He deliberately nudged Rodney's shoulder, then grinned at him. "That's one point for me this time."

Rodney snorted. "Don't be ridiculous, she's just a bit annoying because she thinks we're actual Lanteans. Also, I told you, John, I'm not playing that … it's not even a real game, considering it depends entirely on the fact that the people out here are desperate for new genetic material and would have sex with anyone supplying that."

"You always make fun of me when someone is interested in me," John said. He was not pouting, no he wasn't.

"That's because you never notice." Yup, there was the amusement generally accompanied all of John's I-didn't-see-it-coming moments. John didn't know how Rodney did it, look at those situations like they were just a big joke when John could barely look at Allina without saying something cutting to her now.

Determined not to let any of that show, John pointed at Rodney with the rind of his bread. There was no way John would let Rodney get away with it. "Well, neither did you this time, so point for me."

"What? I so did notice, didn't you just see me noticing?" Rodney asked, giving John a cheeky grin. "I was just pretending it wasn't happening so you didn't have to be jealous."

"I'm not jealous," John said immediately.

Rodney looked at John, eyebrows going up. "Oh really?" he asked, throwing shredded bread at John's head. "Not even a little?"

"Maybe a little bit." It wasn't like the admission would kill him, especially as Rodney already knew that he was anyway. Had he been that obvious?

Apparently not because Rodney's expression brightened considerably As he asked, "Really?" He sounded pretty happy about it. He also looked pretty smug, what with the lopsided smile.

Sometimes it didn't matter how well John knew his mate, he still acted kind of weird. He was way too tired to figure out what exactly was going on in Rodney's head right now.. "I'm tired," John finally said, "I'm going to bed. Good night, everyone." Teyla and Miko waved at him, they were both trying to hide smiles, rather unsuccessfully. John gave a sigh. Using the table to hoist himself up onto his legs he was already by the door when Rodney hurriedly caught up.

"Are you really tired?" Rodney asked, easily keeping up with John's long strides while giving him hopeful sideways looks.

"Yeah, I'm beat. I thought you were tired, too," John said, slowing down a little bit for Rodney's sake.

"No, I just wanted to get rid of her. I hoped she'd leave me alone. You looked like you were about to explode if she didn't." Rodney kept giving him quick glances out of the corner of his eyes. Not quite fearful, more like he couldn't stop doing it.

Alarm bells started to ring in John's head. Something was going on, something Rodney was trying not to communicate. Like that ever worked. They were too much in sync for John to not notice when something was wrong with his mate, even if the bond was blocked to spare John a little bit of "discomfort."

John didn't agree with that at all, but that was something else Rodney was deaf about. It was more of an excuse, John would bet on that. He hadn't wanted to pressure Rodney to talk, assuming Rodney would say something when he was ready. So he'd let the not-talking go, he'd allowed Rodney to help him dress, had allowed Rodney to try and keep John away from everything that could hurt him. But they still hadn't talked. Maybe he should have pushed Rodney a bit more. Well, it was never too late for that. "Ari?" John asked. "What's wrong?" With Rodney it was always best to ask rather than try to figure out what exactly was going on in his head.

Rodney hesitated. For a moment John thought he'd just keep walking, but then Rodney stopped and turned to him. "I nearly lost you," he said. His hand hovered where the bullet had hit John for a moment before Rodney gently placed his fingers there. "I remember more now. You were dying. It's … I can't …" Two false starts and Rodney took a deep breath. "I can't lose you."

Maybe it was the nature of their bond, or because they'd spend all their lives looking for each other, hopelessly entwined and co-dependent in a way humans would shake their head at even if it was exactly what they needed – how they had been made. Maybe it was because Rodney never for a moment doubted how much John cared, or that they'd give their lives for each other. Maybe it was all that, but neither of them had been very good at talking about their feelings. "Ari," John said, his voice breaking slightly, "I'm fine, I'm not going anywhere." He pulled Rodney close, hugging him tightly. "I love you."

With a sense of relief he felt Rodney's hold on the bond relax. For the first time in fifteen days, five hours and twenty two minutes their bond opened to a more normal level. A mumbled "I love you, too" was accompanied by Rodney sagging a little in John's arms as the tension slowly seeped out of Rodney's body. Five lifetimes of looking were a long time apart. They almost hadn't found each other, too, which had taken its toll. They should have dealt with it somehow, but they hadn't

It's not your fault, Rodney said. I didn't want to talk about it.

I get it. Just … don't lock me out, Ari. You're not alone. A wave of gratefulness reached John via the bond, choking him in its intensity. John cleared his throat, then ran a hand over Rodney's hair and down his back. "So," he said, "since you're not tired and I'm tired but not enough to go to sleep straight away, how about we go and not-sleep for a while?"

Rodney laughed into John's neck, holding on tightly. "Alright," he said fondly. It took a few more minutes until they could let go of each other.

 

Ooo00O00ooO

"It doesn't look much like a map," Allina said. She was frowning at the eight pieces laid out in front of them. To her it was a setback that they hadn't found anything here. "I guess I was wrong."

Rodney wiped his forehead with his arm, only managing to get a few more smudges on his face in the process. He didn't seem to notice. "Yeah, looks like it." It was the first break in six hours of digging Rodney had allowed himself.

 

"Are you sure we are in the right place?" Teyla asked. She and Miko were sitting underneath some trees, taking their own well-deserved breaks. "We have almost doubled the size of the dig, Rodney, but there is nothing here."

The question, coming from anybody else but Teyla – or possibly John – would probably have led to a glare, some snapping, and lots of gesturing, but Rodney only nodded. "Yes," he said. Allina was seriously annoying him, John could tell by the way Rodney had been giving Allina sideways glances whenever she was busy frowning at John. "I'm sure. Something has to be here."

Today, Allina was far less touchy feely than she'd been for the entire time they'd been on Dagan. Most likely she'd realized her error when she'd knocked on Rodney's door in the middle of the night. It had been John answering it while Rodney had kept on snuffling into the pillow. There was nothing more awkward for John than to open the door to a naked woman standing there only wrapped in some kind of see-through blanket-like thing unless it was said woman trying to visit Rodney.

She'd turned around, but not before John could see the expression of shock on her face, then her bare feet slapped against the cold floor as she'd run away. It hadn't been awkward as much as funny. At least to John, Rodney hadn't shared the amusement the next morning. Ever since Allina had emerged to eat with them, she'd been giving John sideways glances. It was starting to be more annoying than her constant flirting with Rodney.

"We will widen the area more," Teyla said. She looked wary, but picked herself up from the ground gracefully as always. She trusted Rodney's words enough to take her shovel again, even if it was with a sigh. She and Miko climbed back down into the dig, starting up the work while Rodney took another sip of water.

John wished he could help, but Rodney had decided John had overdone it the day before. There had been no talking with him. The thing was, he was probably right, John's shoulder did ache a little bit. In the end, John didn't try to help, but just watched as Rodney climbed back down to join the rest of the team.

"You are being very selfish," Allina suddenly said after they'd watched the dig for several minutes silently.

"Excuse me?" John asked. He automatically turned toward her.

Allina was watching Rodney work, her arms crossed, and frowning. "Keeping him to yourself," she said primly, "is selfish. You can't give him any children, but his genes should not vanish. We value his brilliance, why not let him spread his seed here?"

The only immediate response John had was an incredulous stare because he was too busy gaping at her to say anything. His next impulse was to punch her lights out. There was a giant chasm between flirting with Rodney and telling John to … what exactly? Let Rodney go, like it was John, who kept Rodney from "spreading his seed" across the Pegasus Galaxy? Almost like Rodney belonged to him when – clearly – they belonged to each other.

"Rodney is not my possession," John said, the words pressed through gritted teeth.

Allina looked at him now, the same kind of look that had been driving Rodney crazy all day. "You hold him back. Here, as in most places, we have been culled many times. Pairings such as yours happen often, but these men and women still do their duty."

John was actually at a loss. Who the hell did she think she was, talking to him like this, like he'd just pimp out Rodney to the natives of the Pegasus Galaxy. So instead of answering her, he turned back to the dig. "Rodney!" His yell cut through the easy conversation below and Rodney looked up at him with an exasperated "yes", leaning onto his shovel. John ignored the way his stomach did a little flip at the half-smile Rodney gave him. Instead, he asked, "Do you want to sleep with Allina to make a baby?"

John saw an expression of wide-eyed shock sweep over Allina's face from the corner of his eye. It was priceless.

Just then, Rodney slipped from his perch, the shovel going down with a clank as he just barely kept his balance. Rodney yelped loudly, cursed briefly, then asked, "What?"

"I asked –"

Rodney yelped again then scrambled up the hill. "I heard you the first time. For God's sake, don't finish that sentence!"

"Rodney," Allina said, definitely trying to make her case, but Rodney didn't let her continue.

"Stop making him uncomfortable," Rodney said, rounding in on Allina. He pointed a finger at her. "When he's uncomfortable he says the weirdest things. That freaks me out."

"Doctor McKay!"

Miko's yell stopped Rodney from saying anything more. John, on the other hand, didn't feel the need to suppress his desire to smirk at Allina, who still had that shell-shocked look. "He's his own man," John said more kindly than he felt, but he could so be the better man. "If he wanted to sleep with you I wouldn't stop him." Then John followed Rodney. The loose earth moved underneath his boots, leading to a much more skidding descent than John liked.

John casually walked up to his people. "That looks familiar," he said. It was; they'd seen countless carvings like these already.

Allina chose that moment to come down as well. "It carries the mark of the brotherhood." For the moment, they'd apparently buried the hatchet. John was wondering if that was going to be a permanent truce or whether he should start sleeping with one eye open.

"The writing is in Ancient," Teyla said, frowning. Her cheeks were flushed with excitement. It was a good look for her. "Can you read it, Rodney?"

Rodney's eyes shone as he looked around for John, then his hand ghosted over the stone as he read the inscribed words. "It's a warning. It says only the Brotherhood of the Fifteen should enter the chamber of the Quindozum."

"What chamber?" Teyla asked.

Rodney went still. Through the bond John felt him scan the area below them carefully. There was an open space. "The stone covers the entrance." It felt really big, but it was hard for John to tell, second hand like that. By the time John could react Rodney was already crawling up the side of their dig, sending showers of loose earth down.
When Rodney got down, he pressed a few glow sticks into John's hands before he ordered everybody around. With the help of the tools he'd brought and the three people Allina had insisted come, they got the stone moving. It had been there for a long time, fit perfectly into a round opening in the ground, which was what they all ended up staring down into.

"John?," Rodney asked. It was impossible to tell how deep it was just from the small circle of light that made it to the stone floor.

John bent three of the glow sticks and dropped them down one after another. The drop looked far shorter now that they had enough light.

"I'll go first," Rodney said. John wasn't sure whether that was still because Rodney wanted to protect him or if he just wanted to be the first to put his hands on the ZPM. Either way John figured it didn't matter. There was nothing alive down there and if there were any traps Rodney could take care of them easier than John. Also, if it made Rodney happy, John was prepared to let him go down into the creepy place first.

While Rodney made his way down, Teyla took John to the side, her hand light on his elbow. "I will stay up here," she said quietly. Her eyes were roaming the area already. She looked uneasy.

Suppressing the urge to follow her gaze, John nodded. "You're worried?"

Teyla smiled, but he could see it didn't reach her eyes. "No, but caution has always served us well."

"Be careful." He'd have liked an entire team outside to keep their route clear, but as there wasn't a second team with them, Teyla was the next best thing.

Sanir, Allina's aide, had already started lighting the candles in the chamber when John finally got down there himself. He'd thought the chamber would be big, but it was deceptive when looking in from the top. Now that he was making a slow circle at the bottom John could see exactly how big this place was. It had the feeling of a tomb, quite a lot like what John had expected to see in an Indiana Jones movie, which, yeah, was incredibly cool in addition to the creepy.

Allina was already busy setting up the markers on the raised table that was located in the middle of the chamber when Rodney walked over to her.

"The eight stones must integrate into this center piece," he said, his eyes wandering restlessly over the table. "May I?" he asked. He didn't quite push Allina out of the way, but it was a near thing. There were two handprints on either side of the stone markers, clearly visible as John approached. Of course Rodney had to put his hands on them.

"I think we can rule out a map," Miko said by the time they were all standing huddled around Rodney, looking at the set-up.

"Yeah." To John it definitely didn't look like a map. He just wasn't sure what else it could be. "You're right. Any ideas?"

Rodney lifted his hands off the handprints to run them over the stone markers instead. "I'm getting there." He wasn't talking to any of them, John could tell. At this point Rodney probably didn't even remember that he wasn't alone. Intrigued, he opened the bond, watching Rodney's thought flit around at light speed.

Until Miko said, "This looks familiar." She pointed at one of the markers.

John pulled back, his last impression that of a bird swarm changing direction.

"It's a gate address," Rodney said. "A six symbol 'gate address. Only … not."

Cocking his head, John squinted at the markers. It didn't help, they did look like 'gate symbols, but if Rodney said they weren't, then he'd believe him. John didn't have all the addresses of the Pegasus Stargate System in his head, not like Rodney. "Only not?" he asked anyway. Sometimes prompts like that helped Rodney muddle his way through.

"It's –"

Gunfire sounded from above. John jerked around, his hand going to his side-arm automatically.

"John," Rodney said, reproachfully.

As much as he indulged Rodney's overprotective side sometimes, now was not the right time. "I'm fine." He was aiming at their only exit a good few seconds before the others managed to do the same, even Miko, though her hands were shaking quite badly.

He tapped his radio. "Teyla? What's going on?"

The man who bent over the hole was decidedly not Teyla. He was wearing a Genii uniform, pointing his own gun at John. "I'm sorry, Teyla is … indisposed right now, Major Sheppard."

More Genii peered down, pointing their guns at them. Crap. Maybe the chamber still had the potential to become a burial chamber. A shiver ran down John's spine; lowered his weapon. When he motioned for the others to do the same they followed suit. "Who are you?"

"I'm Commander Acastus Kolya of the Genii. I trust you remember us?"

He hadn't, John doubted he'd ever be able to forget the Genii. Not even when they'd ceased to exist in a couple of millennia. The choking sound from behind him told John that Rodney hadn't forgotten them, either. John took a step back, right on Rodney's foot, making the sign for "urgent", following it up by "shut the fuck up and let me talk" before Rodney could open his mouth to say something unforgiveable to the people who had Teyla.

"Of course," John said.

Kolya smiled. "Good. When we heard that your team was here, looking for something, I thought that this was a good time to ask some questions." The man lowered his gun, walking around the only exit to this damned place slowly. "I see Doctor McKay is with you, how very auspicious." He stopped walking. "Please, all of you, step forward. And let us be clear on one thing: If you try anything, anything at all, Miss Emmagan will be paying the price for your actions."

"Why are you doing this?" John asked, but he complied. With Teyla's life in the balance, he wasn't going to take any chances. Do you know where she is? John asked Rodney.

I can't tell, there's too many of them up there, Rodney replied. He ended up standing right next to John, their shoulders brushing. He was tense as he subtly got ready to blast the men away. Still, he held back right before putting preparation into action by the thought of Teyla being right there, possibly in the way.

There was an eloquent shrug at first, but then Kolya's smile vanished. "Chief Cowen, a whole strike unit and a large area of our arable land were laid to waste. You were the only ones to walk away from it. It makes me … curious."

That didn't sound good. "Curious?"

"Yes," Kolya said, "I believe that is as good a word for it as any. See, with Chief Cowen gone, we have an opening for a new leader. There have been disputes over who would be the best successor, but I am going to put those to rest soon enough. For now, though, I believe you should answer some questions."

Rodney nudged him, it was gentle, but definitely a warning. Not that John needed a warning, but he appreciated it anyway. "You won't hurt Teyla and you will let us go if we do?" he asked. There was no reason to give in too easily.

"You have my word."

Suppressing the hysterical laughter that bubbled up inside of him, John nodded his assent. After Cowen's betrayal Kolya's word was worth nothing. "Alright then, ask."

"There have been rumors," Kolya said, "about how you and your Doctor McKay are Old Souls."

"Really?" John asked. They had agreed to answer questions, not to supply Kolya with information.

Annoyance flashed over Kolya's face, quickly replaced by wary respect. "Are you Old Souls, Major Sheppard?"

"No," John said. They were Reincarnates, they didn't have to recognize anything else, not even the reverend title the people of the Pegasus galaxy had given them.

"What happened on the surface when you returned from the mission to the Hive ship?"

"I don't know, okay? One minute everything was calm and the next there was this freakish wind and the hurricanes. It was like the whole world went mad. I really don't know."

"How come you and your team are still all here, but Cowen and his men died?" Kolya asked.

"I don't know."

Kolya cocked his head to the side. "I believe I should remind you that Miss Emmagan's life is at stake here. She will die if you keep lying to me."

"I'm telling you the truth," John insisted. If there was one thing he'd learned it was to never change your story. It just opened up a can of worms he never was prepared to deal with. "I don't know what more you want!"

For one long moment Kolya stared down at them, thinking, probably deciding their fate. John clenched his hands. Come on, he thought, buy it already. Buy it and leave before we have to kill you.

Finally Kolya nodded. "Thank you for your time," he said. "Whether you're lying or not doesn't matter, you're just too dangerous to let run free."

Figured. Kolya would never have let them go. John watched as Kolya stepped back, feeling Rodney next to him tense even more, a hairs breadth away from doing something about the situation. Then Teyla was flung down to them, hitting John squarely. They both tumbled, Teyla ending up on top of him, her elbows and knees digging into him quite painfully.

"Goodbye, gentlemen," Kolya said. He stood there, dark against the blue sky, lifting something above his head, but he never got the opportunity to throw that down too: Rodney was too fast.

The energy ball hit Kolya in the shoulder, throwing him back and out of John's sight. The energy barrier Rodney had thrown up between them and the Genii sparked where the bullets hit it, bright and yellow. Some of them zinged right back up, ricocheting wildly, taking out two of their own. Another one went down from friendly fire because one didn't take his hand off the trigger as he fell.

John shivered, the air growing just a little bit colder around them as Rodney sucked up all the Essence he could. Opening himself, he could see Rodney weave the air into something strong enough to stand on. A moment later Rodney was up there, right on top of that damn hole, blocking their light and their view.

"I am sorry, John," Teyla said. She climbed to her feet unsteadily, giving him a hand up, too.

Getting his breath back took a bit, but he waved her off. It wasn't her fault, and he was going to be alright apart from a few bruises.

Men were shrieking up there, screaming, firing everything they had. But they didn't stand a chance against a Blade. It was over so quickly John was still gasping for air when Rodney stepped onto the ledge and dropped the energy shield that protected them.

"All clear!" Those were probably John's favorite words in any language.

Ooo00O00ooO

The rest of their adventure John spent ignoring how Allina and her people jerked away from Rodney whenever he came close. She'd started giving John looks, but now they weren't the I-want-your-mate kind of looks, more how-can-you-be-with-this-man looks. Maybe John was too picky, the flirting had been the least uncomfortable of the whole thing. There was no doubt that the people of Dagan wanted the Atlantis team off their planet as soon as possible – with no return invitation issued. John would have preferred it if they could have parted as friends, but it didn't look that way now.

The bodies littering the area around the chamber hadn't been conducive to friendship, though. Especially Sanir had major problems with it. John could make an educated guess as to why. The way she'd been staring at one particular man like she knew him was a dead giveaway. She'd probably been the one to talk to the Genii, how else would they have known where exactly to find them? It didn't matter, he wasn't going to pursue it this time. Most of the people involved were dead, none of them had more than bruises to show for their efforst, and they had a ZPM. A "wonderful, beautiful, amazingly full ZedPM" according to Rodney. All that put John into a forgiving mood. He wasn't going to forget it, but he wasn't going to put her in front of a judge either. John was fine just listening to Rodney babble excitedly next to him until Allina stopped ahead of them.

She turned around and suddenly there was a whole village pointing weapons at them.

"What?" Rodney asked, he sounded so damn disappointed.

Allina didn't even look at him, instead she fixed her eyes on John. "Ten generations ago, after a severe culling, the Brotherhood was destroyed. Many of us found their writings and decided to complete the task handed down to us by the Ancestors. I am the Master Handler of the new Brotherhood. We thank you for helping us find the Potentia, but it must go into hiding again."

"I thought you understood how important the ZPM is for us," John said. He hadn't expected Allina to turn on them. The suddenness of it all kind of threw him.

Allina looked genuinely sorry, which didn't really seem to make a whole lot of difference. "I know, but you are not Ancients, you are Old Souls, like the Genii Commander claimed. As such you have no more right to the Potentia than anyone else." She took a step forward. "If you are honest, you will admit this."

"Atlantis might fall if we don't take this back," Rodney said. "It's the only place a Potentia would serve a purpose. Do you really think the Ancestors would have wanted for the ZedPM to rot somewhere in a hide-out?"

Allina opened her arms in what came across as a shrug but wasn't quite. "None of us can know their plan."

"You are wrong," John suddenly said. "We've lived amongst the Ancestors."

Allina's eyes flashed with anger. "I don't believe you, you lied to Kolya when he asked you questions, you are lying now."

"Kolya's people didn't deserve the truth," Rodney said, his voice sharp. The edge to it made him sound utterly unforgiving; John didn't doubt that Rodney felt that way, too. "The Genii tried to kill John, they betrayed us."

For a moment John thought that Rodney had gone too far, that they wouldn't manage to get through to Allina. But then something in her posture changed.

He took a step forward, standing next to Rodney again. "We really did live amongst them, a long time ago. And we heard stories of Atlantis. I remember some of the Ancestors … they had just sunk their city to the bottom of the ocean to protect her. Every single one of them wanted just one thing: They wanted Atlantis to rise back up. Their city was supposed to stand the test of time, if you take the ZPM from us now, Atlantis will be destroyed."

Allina raised her chin in a manner she must have copied from Rodney. "You're so powerful, I'm sure you can protect Atlantis, even without a ZPM." Her eyes flicked to Rodney, but returned to John as if she couldn't stand the sight of him for too long.

"No, Allina," Rodney said, his voice still distant. "The city will sink to the bottom of the ocean again. And it'll probably be in pieces. The Wraith are awake, they know we're here, they're looking for us. If they find us, nothing will stop them, not even John and I. What protection we would be able to give the people of this galaxy will die with us. Are you willing to let that happen?"

"Protect us?" Allina asked, her people muttering disquietly behind her. "What do you mean?"

John exchanged a look with Rodney, who was still clinging to the ZPM in a way that gave John the impression Allina would have to pry it out of his cold, dead hands. When Rodney didn't seem inclined to continue talking, John said, "Reincarnates are protectors. Letting the Wraith continue unchecked is not in our intention. Eventually, we'll figure out how to get rid of them, but we can only do that if we're still alive."

For a long time Allina looked at them, her gaze travelling over the whole team, until it came back to rest on John. "You are willing to protect us? Everyone? Even though the Genii wanted to kill you and we are now trying to take the Potentia from you?"

"Yes," Rodney said immediately. John's own "yes" echoed slightly behind his.

"Allina," one of the people behind her said. John wasn't sure whether the man wanted her to kill them for the ZPM or if he wanted them to keep it, whatever it was, it startled Allina out of her frozen state.

"This is a promise?"

Rodney started glowing, he was pulling Essence out of the area, pouring a little bit into John, making them both radiant with it, the marks of the Reincarnate as much a promise as anything else could ever be. "We promise," Rodney said.

Allina frowned. "You speak for both of you now?"

"I am the Blade," Rodney said. "My pledge is our pledge."

Nothing happened, until Allina turned around, walking away without a word. Her people followed, even those who were still looking at them over their shoulders from time to time.

Rodney stared after them. He didn't move until the last one of them had vanished over the hilltop.

"Rodney?" Teyla asked, putting a hand on his elbow. The touch galvanized Rodney into action: he pushed the ZPM into John's arms with a grim expression then walked a bit further ahead. There he stayed, his back turned on them.

John grabbed Teyla's wrist when she made to go after Rodney. "No," he said, shaking his head empathically.

The look Teyla gave him was mostly disapproval. John didn't mind, she couldn't know that this was Rodney, needing the illusion of privacy until he could pull himself together again. He reached out through their bond, offering Rodney companionship that way, but wasn't surprised when Rodney didn't accept it. John was probably biased, but he was inclined to give Rodney all the time in the world. Allina hadn't hurt Rodney's feelings, but she'd shaken the foundation on which Rodney had been operating. John could feel his upset over their bond. The thing was, apart from their run in with the Genii, the Pegasus Galaxy had treated them really well. Rodney had thought they could regain the trust of the humans, go back to a time when they hadn't been mistrusted and hunted, but this … had made Rodney unsure. And sad. John wanted to wrap his arms around Rodney, but he didn't; Rodney needed his space.

You were right, Ari, John told him. Don't let this hurt you.

But Rodney didn't appear to be listening. Instead, he stared off for a few more minutes while Teyla and Miko got restless. Then, between one moment and the next Rodney's bent shoulders straightened. Thanks, he told John, still sad. He sighed loudly and then half-turned to them. "Let's get this little beauty home," he said, but John understood "let's get you home", which made John feel loved and annoyed with the overprotectiveness all at once..

The ZPM stayed right where Rodney had placed it in John's arms, he refused – rather sharply – to take it back. Instead, he put his hands on his P-90. John didn't know what that meant, exactly, but he hoped no one else got between them and the Stargate. Maybe it had been too soon, he should have told Elizabeth to send another team. Too late for that now, though.

Quietly, he walked next to Rodney, staying within easy reach. They were all quiet until the wormhole took them home. Once there, John was prepared to get the post-mission physical behind him, take a long shower, then pin Rodney to the bed for, oh, a few hours, but his plans changed the second he stepped out of the wormhole. The air was full of panic, with people running around heedlessly. But what tipped John off far more was the battle readiness of every single Marine they could see. "Rodney," John said, but he didn't need to go on because Rodney was already taking off, up the stairs and to the command room. John followed closely behind, carrying their treasure, wondering what the fuck had happened to put the whole base on edge.

"You got a ZPM," Elizabeth said first thing when they entered her office. She'd jumped to her feet, but leaned on her desk heavily. "Thank God!"

Zelenka was sitting there, a tablet in his hands. "" Radek followed up Elizabeth's heartfelt exclamation with a quiet "thank god" of his own.

"Yes, yes, point for your impeccable skills of observation, Elizabeth, but I'd rather you tell us what happened here than regale us with the painfully obvious." Rodney's words didn't faze Elizabeth at all, instead she just sank back onto her chair, rubbing her face tiredly.

"While you were off world a Wraith Dart flew over the city," she said.

If this was a practical joke, it really went too far. "I'm sorry?" John asked.

"We lost a jumper along with Markham and Smith," Sumner said from the door way, almost making John jump.

Half turning John gave Sumner a beseeching look, because really, there were pranks and then there was just plain torture. Sumner just looked back seriously. Damn. Not a practical joke after all. "We lost two men and a jumper," he said, the words tasted like ash in his mouth. "Why is this the first time I'm hearing about it?"

"I tried to reach you," Elizabeth said, "but you were out of radio contact. The Dart scanned us and we know it sent a message deep into space. It self-destructed before we could get to it."

Radek didn't seem to be even blinking as he stared at the ZPM. "We scanned the area with our deep space sensors and then –"

"We have deep space sensors?" Rodney asked, cutting Radek off, but also making him look up.

"Yes. Is a long story."

Sumner cleared his throat; suddenly John felt like he'd swallowed something big and icy that settled into the pit of his stomach to stay there.

"There's more," Sumner said. "Doctor Zelenka?"

Radek turned his tablet around so all of them could see it. There were three large dots visible on the screen, they were obviously moving.

"What are those?" Rodney asked, taking a step closer to study the data.

"Wraith Hive ships," Radek said, "three of them. The system analysis shows that –"

Again, Rodney interrupted Radek. "Wait. Where are they headed?" From the way his spine stiffened Rodney already had a suspicion

Elizabeth swallowed, she looked from one of them to the other repeatedly before folding her hands on the tabletop. "If they maintain direction and speed, they'll be over our planet within two weeks. So you see, your ZPM might actually save our lives."

For a heartbeat, no one said a word. John blinked, stunned, then he carefully put the ZPM onto Elizabeth's desk. "We should get checked out. It's been a long couple of days and –"

"We're dead," Rodney said.

John spun to face Rodney. "Don't say that, Ari, there's always hope."

"It's three Hive ships, Aloneru," Rodney said, his voice sharp from desperation. "Three!"

There was no way he'd let Rodney have his little freak out in Elizabeth's office, so he took hold of Rodney's elbow. "Excuse us, Elizabeth. Briefing for tomorrow morning?" She gave him a stunned nod he saw purely by accident because he was already pushing Rodney towards the door.

It wasn't until John had locked the door to their quarters behind them that he let go of Rodney. Then, he just dropped onto the bed to get out of the way, looked up at the ceiling and waited.

"Oh God," Rodney said, breathing too rapidly as he started walking. Step, step, step, turn. Step, step, step, step, turn. Their small quarters really weren't conductive to Rodney's need to move, but they were the only place John knew Rodney would feel comfortable with later. Step, step, step, turn. "Oh god, Alon, this is all my fault. I should never have dragged you to Atlantis with me. If we'd stayed on Earth we wouldn't be having these problems now. We could have grown old together there, with nothing worse to worry about than making sure they like us." Step, step, step, turn.

"One word to that: Ori," John said. He was sprawled over their bed, getting tired just watching Rodney spend his nervous energy with constant motion. "Actually, I have a second word for you. It's 'Replicator.' And oh, wait. Goa'uld." He struggled onto his elbows, following Rodney's frantic movement with his eyes. "I can go on if you want?"

Rodney whirled to face him, threw up both hands, then apparently abandoned that motion half way through to point at John. "You're mocking me! Why are you mocking me? This is not the time for mocking, Alon!"

"This is not your fault at all," John said, letting himself fall back onto the mattress. "If anybody's at fault it's me for waking them up before their time. Though I think that once they'd tortured the location of Earth out of Sumner the Keeper would have woken the rest of them up anyway. It doesn't matter. Remember? We can't live in the past."

For a moment Rodney looked like he was going to argue, but then he deflated. "What are we going to do now? We can't let them blow up the city. Atlantis is … she's too important." He rubbed his face. "What are we going to do now?"

That was a really good question. One John wished he knew the answer to. "I don't know," he said, "but I'm sure we'll think of something." He reached out to Rodney and pulled him down until he was more or less gracefully huddled up next to John. "We always do."

Rodney frowned and mouthed the words back at John like he couldn't believe John would say such a thing. "We always do? That's your strategy? Just sit here and do some navel gazing while we know they're coming to knock on the door in, oh, a week, seven days and thirty two minutes?" Struggling to get up, Rodney turned a crazed look on John that spoke of too much worry, not enough sleep, and a great deal of desperation. "You can't be serious."

"There's nothing we can do!" There it was. The little bubble of John's own panic he'd worked so hard to bury. "You said it yourself, three Hive Ships is two too many. All the preparation in the world won't let us win this one on our own. And even if we do, there's what? Sixty-four more ships out there? They'll just send more and then we're really fucked. Jesus, I wish the Lanteans had listened to their Reincarnates when they wanted to hunt down the ships one by one and explode them."

Choking back the other crazy things going through his head, like "can you build me a time machine?" and "I really want a turkey sandwich", John sat up, too. "We don't have that kind of time, not before they start attacking us." John snapped his mouth shut as he put his face into his hands. He hadn't meant to say any of that. Yes, Rodney worked best under pressure. Yes, it was generally John creating said pressure. But he hadn't really wanted to air all those thoughts. One of them had to be the positive one; it sure as hell wasn't going to be Rodney.

John expected Rodney to jump up, to start with the pacing again. To be more agitated than before, but Rodney just blinked. "What did you just say?"

"I said we don't have the time," John said, his hands muffling the words.

"No, no, before that," Rodney said.

"I want to have a time machine?"

Rodney turned to stare at him. "What? You didn't say anything about a time machine. I meant the thing about exploding the Hive ships."

"Yes?" It had been Erinalire's idea. They'd done that kind of thing, like a Shield Night Out, to put it in modern terms. They'd gone out tohave a couple of drinks more than they probably should have had. They'd complained about their Blades with their utter craziness before Erin had choked out that of all her regrets never wiping out the Wraith the way they'd wanted to was her biggest one in a couple of million years.

John scowled when Rodney snapped his fingers in John's face a couple of times. "Erin and Elear wanted to hunt the Wraith down. The plan was to use their own energy against them, like what we did when we rescued Teyla and Sumner. Just on a bigger scale. They reckoned it'd take them about ten years."

"That does sound like Elearonde." Rodney gave him a thoughtful look. "He never liked leaving a job unfinished."

John resisted the urge to add "just like you." Keeping his silence was definitely the way to go here.

"We really don't have the time to go and individually destroy every Hive," Rodney said, slowly, like he generally talked when he was in the middle of a problem with the solution already niggling at the back of his mind. "What we need is something that allows us to take them all out at once."

John nodded. There really was nothing to say to that.

"If we found a way to link all the Hives together, like pearls on a string, all we'd need is one single Hive to create a critical overload and kaboom! No more Wraith," Rodney said, his words coming rapidly now. He looked directly at John, catching his eyes, then he crawled over to John, settling himself comfortably on top of him. "We'd need one Hive, just one."

"And how are we going to link them together? It's not like they're us, they don't have a bond they can follow when they go a little crazy with loneliness and itching. The hive mind thing they've got going is nothing like that."

Rodney's didn't stop grinning, but he growled a little. "Are you starting with that again? I told you it was stupid last time, I'm not going to change my mind. You could have …" he trailed off, eyes going far away and face going slack. "Died. Huh. It'd take an incredible amount of energy to do all that remotely. We'd need a planet. Or a sun. In an uninhabited system. But it could work."

"What could work?"

But Rodney didn't answer; instead, he kissed John, messily and enthusiastic, his hands slipping between them to undo the buttons of John's shirt. John got lost in it for a while, at least until Rodney had established the deep bond, then they both stilled.

The pictures and calculations Rodney showed him were breathtaking. This could work, John said.

Yes.

The plan had the potential to go down incredibly well or kill both of them. John shivered. If you die because of this I'll never talk to you again..

Rodney kissed him again.I know.

That settled, John relaxed into their bond and helped Rodney take off his t-shirt.

Ooo00O00ooO

John watched his people line up at the Stargate as he waited for O'Neill to take his call. It was the best solution to evacuate; humans had never done very well against the Wraith. John didn't know why that was, but maybe it was hard for them because they weren't at the top of the food chain here.

Letting them go, even agreeing to the evacuation, had been one of the more painful things John had had to do in recent memory. He'd recalled the people at the alpha and beta sites, had insisted they pack up what they could, and had put Ford in charge of drawing up the plans.

"Sheppard," O'Neill said, his voice a little breathless.

"General," John said. Greetings out of the way, John dove right in. "Rodney and I want to stay behind."

There was a bit of a commotion on the other end, with O'Neill ordering everybody out, yelling for Carter and Daniel. "Turn off the recording," O'Neill said. John wondered whether that was directed at Carter or Daniel, not that it mattered. He started feeling like a bit of a third wheel on his own call.

"I really think we need a kind of code word, Sheppard," O'Neill said.

"Probably," John said.

"Let's go back to the issue at hand, right? Are you guys crazy?" There was a pause and agitated, but muted, noise on the other end. "No, Daniel, this isn't the wrong thing to say. There's three ships coming their way and I've read their classified record. There's no way they can actually blow up all three of them. So again, have you lost your mind, Sheppard?"

"No, sir, my mind is right were I left it," John said, deliberately drawing the 'no' out longer than was natural. Then he became serious again. "We've got a plan."

"A plan? What kind of plan? How to die young? Sheppard, don't be an idiot. Line up for the evacuation, put the city on self-destruct, and come back home."

"No," John said. That had been Elizabeth's argument, blunt instead of phrased diplomatically, but essentially the same. "Look, either you allow us to stay behind to at least try, or we'll do it without you. That's the choice you have. We won't just give up Atlantis like the Lanteans did ten thousand years ago. Not unless we have absolutely no other choice."

O'Neill's sigh was transmitted perfectly.

"Major Sheppard, this is Colonel Carter. We'd love to hear about your plan."

"Okay, short version: We're going to PX-5SG and link together all the Hive ships using the Reincarnate bond as a kind of template. Then we'll wait for them here. We'll be using all the energy we can take from one of the ships to feed it to another until it overloads. It'll be one hell of an explosion. The overload will move along the line of least resistance, which will be the bond between the ships. We've calculated how much initial input we'll need to get all the ships in one go. They should overload one after another until there's nothing left."

There was silence on the other end, then he could hear people talking again in the background, until they suddenly turned loud, filling the command center.

"Can that actually work?" O'Neill was asking – no, demanding, but before John could answer, Carter spoke up.

"If they can stop the energy from moving back the way it came and go through the right channel into the next Hive in the line … it's a possibility. It'll take a whole lot of energy to overload a Hive ship, though," Carter said.

"How much energy are we talking here? Like a nuke?"

"More like –"

"About ten ZPMs worth of energy, actually," John said, cutting Carter off before she had to try and calculate exact numbers. "We could get about half that from a Hive ship if we're willing to sacrifice everyone on it. Including the … food stashes." John swallowed. He pushed the thought away with a vicious efficiency he'd perfected a long time ago. "The rest we'd bring from Dune."

"Dune?" That sounded like Jackson.

"Hello, Doctor Jackson," John said warmly.

"Uhm. Hello Aloneru," Jackson said right before he repeated his question.

John grinned. "It's a desert planet, the name stuck when AR-6 went to check it out. The system is uninhabited; the planet itself only has plant life and some insects. It's the perfect battery for us."

"Are you sure you can do this?" O'Neill asked after a long spell of silence.

John thought back on the expression on Rodney's face as they'd calculated it for the fifth time. The way he'd not quite vibrated with excitement. "Yes," he said, "I think we can do this."

"Consider it an order then."

"Yes, sir," John said.

And Sheppard?

"Yes?"

"If it looks like it won't work? Get the fuck out of there and blow up the city. That's an order as well."

John smiled, but he didn't answer before he cut the transmission on his end.

Ooo00O00ooO

Sitting in a bubble of cool air that Rodney had erected for them, John stared out at the vast sea of sand. John, as a rule, didn't like sand as much as he used to. It reminded him too much of Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe those memories would fade with time, as they often did. He sighed and returned to watching Rodney.

If what John had done had been stupidly dangerous and dangerously stupid then this was definitely crazy. But they were doing it surrounded by a planet full of Essence but no life, within reach of a sun that looked like it could power them for days if needed but wasn't necessary to keep anything alive. The really bad part of the plan was that Rodney would be the one doing the heavy lifting while John sat there, feeding him energy through the bond. Rodney was putting his life on the line, doing the most dangerous part of what the preparation. There was more to John's job, like strengthening their bond to make sure Rodney could always find his way back, but it wasn't a task John needed a lot of concentration for. He was left worrying, wishing he had something – anything really – to occupy him.

Rodney frowned, his breathing ragged. Watching him do this was harder than doing it himself. John wished he could have been the one who was out there, playing connect the dots. Rodney's point had been really weak, what with it hinging all on John being the Shield and he should do some protecting. John huffed with irritation. Then he retrieved the cloth from their pack. He poured some water over it to run it over Rodney's face at the same time as he gave Rodney another helping of Essence.

The temperature in the hemisphere of the planet they were located in had dropped by three degrees already, it was only a matter of time until what they were doing would have planet-wide effects. He closed his eyes, going back into meditation. He couldn't actually go to watch Rodney working with the Hives, but he got his impressions of the situation if he opened himself up enough.

Almost there. Rodney's thoughts reverberated loudly along their bond. Come on, come on.

That could have meant anything from "I'm almost done with this one" to "I'm almost done." He couldn't even ask Rodney because any break in concentration could have horrible side-effects. So John just drifted there, pulling energy from Dune and feeding it to Rodney gradually, until the activation of the Stargate made waves in the lattice of Essence around them.

John came back to himself in a rush, reaching for his side-arm immediately.

"Weir to Sheppard, how is your progress?"

John put his gun away. Impatiently he tapped the radio. "Which part of 'this is complicated, don't call us, we'll call you' wasn't clear?" he asked.

"I'm sorry, John, there's something you need to know before we leave. The Athosians moved to the Alpha site, they said it's a good place to stay. All of them apart from Teyla, she … doesn't want to leave the two of you behind alone."

"God damn it!" John's hands ached from where he'd balled them into fists. "We told her not to do that. She said 'okay'. I should have known something was up when she wasn't there to say goodbye before we left." He should have. He'd been concerned for her at the time, but he didn't think she'd actually go back on her word … of course 'okay' wasn't exactly a vow of obedience. "I take it sedating her and carrying her through the 'gate isn't an option?"

He could almost see her raise her eyebrows. "No, it isn't."

Of course not. "Alright, if she really wants to keep us company, that's her decision," he finally said. It made him feel warm that Teyla believed in them enough to stake her life on it. She knew the consequences if they failed. "That all?"

"Yes. Good luck, John," Elizabeth said. She didn't say anything else, the Stargate just shut down. At least she hadn't tried to say goodbye again, John couldn't have taken it.

He sank back into the sand, reaching out to take Rodney's hands in his.

Come on, Rodney thought.

Ooo00O00ooO

He heard Rodney puking in the bathroom, but stayed put. Last time John had checked on him Rodney had thrown a toothbrush at him. It was safer to stay in bed and pretend he wasn't awake when Rodney slipped back in, spooning up behind John.

"I know you're awake."

John didn't say anything until Rodney poked him in the ribs. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

"Like I'm going to start taking off my skin if I scratch more," Rodney said, his breath warm on the skin of John's nape.

Having intimate knowledge of just how it felt to be so overly full with energy, John nodded. "It's only a couple more hours now."

There was a single chirp from the door, right before it opened. Teyla had a tray with her and the smell of food filled the room. "I have brought you something to eat," she said, lifting her tray a little up. Her hesitation to barge in was silly. They were team after all.

John smiled at her. "Thanks."

Rodney was already up, making gimme motions with his hands. Teyla handed over his sandwich before giving John his, then she settled on the chair, starting picking on hers. "It is almost time." Teyla sounded as apprehensive as John felt, but he knew just how big this was for her. If it worked her people would finally be rid of the Wraith. They'd finally have a chance at survival, at growing, at developing. They'd be free.

"Last chance to go to your people," Rodney said around a mouthful of food. It came out garbled, but Teyla just smiled.

"I have made my choice. What you are doing will give my people a chance at fighting back. In all of memory nothing like this has ever happened. Even if it does not work, I will be thankful. Spending the rest of my life on Earth with you will be an honor."

John exchanged a glance with Rodney, who only rolled his eyes. Taking that as encouragement John put down his sandwich. "We're not going back to Earth," he said.

"But I thought –"

"If worse comes to worst we'll go to the Alpha site with you. We don't know if there's another pair of Reincarnates in Pegasus, there might be, but if there are then they're not doing their job. Someone has to protect the people here. Rodney and I agree that it might as well be us." He shrugged a shoulder, uncomfortable with the sudden teary eyed look Teyla gave him. "When we left Earth, someone else was born there, filling the gap. If O'Neill and Jackson manage to spread our message those coming after us will have a better chance in the Milky Way than any of us have had in a pretty long time."

Teyla didn't say anything, what she did was put her sandwich down on the tray at her fee. Then she went to lay her hands on John's shoulders and touched her forehead to his. "Thank you, John, for everything you are doing for us. For what you are willing to sacrifice for the people of this galaxy. We will be forever in your debt." She repeated that with Rodney, who looked like he was about as horrified by the whole procedure as John felt.

"We're not doing it so people will –" John started, but Teyla laughed, cutting him off with a firm, "I know."

He caught himself rubbing the back of his neck and immediately dropped his hand when he felt the scratches burning. Damn it. He'd done it again. "We should finish eating and then Rodney and I will have to prepare."

Teyla nodded as she settled back down.

John forced himself to finish half his meal, then he wordlessly handed the rest to Rodney. His appetite was always bad before a battle, he couldn't help it. What little he'd eaten was lying like lead in his stomach, but at least he was reasonably sure it'd stay down. Teyla hadn't eaten much either, but at least Rodney seemed to have a good appetite. John wasn't sure whether that was from the Blade mentality, that tended to be somewhat aggressive, or if it was just Rodney being Rodney. He would need the energy, though how Rodney could get anything down, having just puked his guts out not even ten minutes ago was a mystery to John.

It didn't really matter, because soon they were on the way to the ZPM room. None of them said anything, but Teyla wished them a good fortune before she stood back to watch.

They sat down on the bare floor in lotus position, knees to knees, hands clasped between them. John watched as Rodney closed his eyes in meditation, deepening the bond considerably. He opened himself to their surroundings until he could see the finely knitted lattice keeping the world together. With his changed sight, John could see the glow of Essence around Rodney. John wondered if he looked like that, too, like he was glowing from an inner light, golden and warm rather than cold and silver like a Reincarnate gone primal.

Reality started wavering around them, the only thing grounding John were the places he and Rodney were touching each other at. Time ceased to matter as John very carefully anchored himself to Atlantis and Rodney by using a small amount of Essence. Rodney was just centering himself. The whole universe was open to them now, with the city as the center of their very being. It didn't feel like it had been hours, but when the first Wraith Hive fell out of hyperspace their presence felt like a slap to the face.

"They're here," Rodney said, his voice echoing slightly, because as the words formed in his mind he said them aloud, but just a tic too late. For Teyla's sake, John guessed, because she was now standing in the doorway..

Then they were … elsewhere, soaring over the spires of Atlantis, just inside the city's shields while the Wraith fired uselessly at them. You'll stay here, Rodney said.

John knew an order when he heard one, he acknowledged it with a wordless nudge.

The connection to the single Hive ship they'd left ouside of their chain wasn't gentle. It didn't matter how careful Rodney was as he established it, it still sort of slammed into John. Already brimming over with Essence, John felt like he was a dam at breaking point. John's job was simple: he was their connection to their bodies and served as conduit for Rodney to draw Essence from the Hive ship.

Rodney started the process slowly, taking only the energy they'd contained. It evened out their Essence levels to a point that John didn't feel like an overly full battery. Slowly, Rodney pulled Essence from the Hive until John could feel isolated parts of the organic structure fail. At the same time their other Hive started to become supercharged. They were – amazingly – both still firing, but that couldn't continue much longer.

The Hive Rodney had been been killing bit by little bit tilted to one side, it stopped firing and for a moment just hung there above the shield before it veered off into an uncontrolled dive. John reacted instantly, pulling all he could out of the dying ship, feeding it to Rodney at a steady rate. He barely managed to cut his connection before the ship fell into the ocean, but by then it was nothing but a dried out hulk.

Almost there, Rodney said.

John simply opened himself, offering Rodney everything he had left. The ghostly thump on the head was kind of expected.

I need you still functioning, stupid. Rodney came back down below the shields where John welcomed him by wrapping himself around him protectively. The descent into their own bodies was much harder than John had thought, especially because John immediately felt trapped in his own body. Just moments ago he'd been incorporeal, hovering above his city, the whole universe in the cusp of his hand. He'd been capable of going wherever he wanted doing whatever he wanted. The feeling persisted for a few heartbeats, but passed before he even opened his eyes. His first thought was of Rodney and how he was doing, but his mate looked alright considering what he'd just done.

According to John's inner clock he had exactly twenty seconds to bask in the glory of it all, then he became aware of Teyla's harsh breathing. His gaze panned over the ZPM room, taking in the blood and the blackened marks on the wall.

"Teyla?" he asked, his voice cracking. John tried to struggle to his feet on wobbly legs.

"I am here, John, do not worry."

He stopped before he could fall flat on his face, more tumbling down in a controlled way than sitting down on his own account. There was the Wraith.It was lying in the doorway, a pool of sticky blood underneath it.

"What –" he started, but his throat was too dry to get the rest of his sentence out.

Teyla looked awful, a bruise already blooming on the right side of her cheek. She was limping as she walked over to kneel next to them, too. "I believe it managed to get into the city before the Dart self-destructed," she said. "It did not manage to feed on me." Her reassurance saved him from asking.

"We have a problem," Rodney said. He sounded tired. "The crew of the Hive we used to create the backlash wasn't on full capacity." That … was bad. "We need to feed more energy into the process. As soon as possible, before the chain reaction loses momentum."

John couldn't even push himself into a standing position, he had no idea how he'd be able to get to the Stargate. Or how to get Rodney there. He was still wondering what to do when Teyla hauled Rodney to his feet and draped one of his arms over her shoulders.

"I will come back for you," she said.

They were carefully stepping over the dead Wraith before John could formulate a proper answer. He decided to just lie down until it was his turn, conserving his energy.

"John?"

He blinked his eyes open. "Woah, you were fast."

"You fell asleep."

Oh. That explained it. The way to the Stargate was slow, but he bet he managed it quicker than Rodney had. Blood was rushing in his ears by the time she helped him to sit down by Rodney's side, who was curled up next to the Stargate, one hand tucked under his cheek, deeply asleep.

The iris hissed and vanished at the same time as the 'gate dialed, breaking John's concentration. He shook Rodney's shoulder gently. "Come on, buddy, time to get up and finish this."

Rodney groaned, but he did open his eyes just as Teyla came running towards them.

"I will come with you," she said, but John shook his head immediately. Once they were on Dune they could top off their energy without problems, they'd be fine enough. They'd been prepared very well for this day and the exhaustion both of them felt just now was nothing more than a reaction to pretty much going from almost overcharged to close to depleted. Stocking up on Essence again would take care of that problem.

John shook his head. "Stay. Someone needs to look after our city."

She nodded, her face grim with determination.

John almost felt sorry for anyone brave – or stupid – enough to come through that Stargate. She pushed an IDC into John's hands, then helped him get through the 'gate. Moments later Rodney stumbled through beside John. He promptly sat down in the sand, pulling John with him into a clumsy heap. Beside them, the wormhole shut down.

"You think she'll come after us?" John asked.

Rodney sighed. "I hope not. We've given her a task. It's for the best. Dune will be extremely unfriendly by the time we're done here." He already looked better with color returning to his cheeks. He grabbed John's hand, impatience making his movements jerky, and pushed Essence at John.
Taking the hint, John breathed deeply. The air alone was charged enough to top him off to a point where he could move again freely. He pulled Rodney up, ignoring the wind whipping them with grains of sand, he just wanted them to be out of the splash zone. They ended up settling down next to the DHD.

Rodney took his hands and squeezed them. "Let's do this."

Establishing the connection to the planet again was easier than before, but letting go of Rodney enough so he could do his thing was so much harder. Even when brimming over with energy, this wouldn't be easy. A part of John was scared of all the things that could still go wrong.

It'll be okay, Rodney said. They left their bodies again, floating up and up until they were in orbit around the planet with John clinging to Rodney, afraid to let go of him. Rodney gently disengaged from the death grip John had on him speeding away towards the Hive. Alon, it'll be okay. Rodney saying that didn't make John feel any better at all. They'd started something, though, and now had to finish it, one way or the other.

It better be.

Still, it was hard remaining connected to the planet while Rodney was off handling the situation almost on his own. Distracting himself, John collected massive amounts of energy until he was ready to burst again, even as he fed it little by little to Rodney. The Hive Rodney was zeroing in on had moved a considerable distance from where it had been a week ago, finding it was still easy. From a distance, John watched the feedback move along the chain. They had a time window of maybe thirty minutes, forty minutes as an absolute maximum. That was cutting it damn short, but it was still doable.

We can't take one further down, I don't know if the energy we fed in will be enough to get there, Rodney said.

John agreed, but that didn't make him feel any better about the situation, as he started funneling energy through their link to keep Rodney well supplied. On afterthought, John formed a tight ball of air around them to keep the cold out as long as possible. The planet showed signs of stress, storms and earthquakes the most common ones, forcing John to reach into the heart of the sun for more energy while he kept a tight grip on their little place of the planet.

Rodney had reached his position now. Rather than let John pour energy into him he took control of he bond and started pulling. It was all John could do to keep up with the demand, taking more and more from both sun and planet without regard for the destruction they'd leave behind. If they didn't get it right this time, the opportunity would be lost. The bonds between the Hives would start to deteriorate in hours, they'd be gone by tomorrow.

Hurry up, more.

They were already operating at maximum capacity, John couldn't give Rodney what he wanted without risking them burning up. Rodney …

I said more.

John bit his lips and decided to go for it. They were about to run out of time now as well. Getting to the Hive had taken pretty long due to the distance, and Rodney still needed to get away from there.

Ari, our time's almost up, you need to disengage now, John said.

It was still day on Dune, summer, for all intends and purposes, but the sand had frozen all around them. The sun had dimmed significantly, too, and it was still turning darker as John kept pulling Essence from it.
Ari!

Not yet.

God damn it, Ari, get your ass back here! Rodney, though, just ignored him. John wanted to stop giving Rodney Essence right then, but he couldn't. They were committed to this course of action; from the moment they'd come back here to continue their – in retrospect – somewhat crazy plan John had given up the choice. What a damn idiotic thing to cling to when he knew that not closing the connection right now was going to backfire on them.
A wash of energy hit him, it was burning and hot. Too much. Ari! Not giving in to the heat, John forced it away from the planet, through his connection, and straight into the sun. At the same time he practically reeled Rodney in. He was half-way back to the planet, but from what John could tell not because he was consciously moving. No, the backlash had pushed Rodney along their bond. Now John carefully embraced Rodney, pulling him back down onto the planet, pushing him into his body before the overload could fray the connection.. Ari?

John's eyes snapped open to chaos. The sand had melted all around them, making the ground into a mirror surface. He himself was lying with his back pressed against the air bubble. It was amazing that he had managed to keep the energy barrier up, especially as he had no memory of doing that. John cautiously moved, but he felt fine apart from the burning sensation on his face and arms. He'd have sunburn for sure.

"Alon," Rodney whispered, his voice rough.

Scrambling to his feet, John carefully made his way across the slippery surface to Rodney. He was still next to the now completely destroyed DHD. Every bit of skin John could see was burnt in varying stages. Blackened bits of burnt fabric were sticking to his oozing skin. Oh, God. John let himself drop at Rodney's side, ignoring the stinging pain in his knees. Scared to touch Rodney, John balled his hands into fists.

"Alon," Rodney repeated, holding a hand out. John took it, careful not to put any pressure on it. "I … love you."

No, no, no no no. This couldn't be. They'd done it, they'd wiped out all the Hive ships in this galaxy and Rodney just couldn't do this to him. "Don't you dare," John said.

Rodney gave a brave little smile, his eyes brimming with tears. "Find me."

"No! Shut up, you're not dying!" John was shaking with grief and rage.

"Alon, please, don't make this any harder than it has to be," Rodney said. "Find me."

"No, no I won't!" This was so unreal. It was so much like a nightmare that it just had to be one. He'd wake up any moment in cold sweat, crying. He'd wake up and Rodney would be there, snuffling and maybe even talking in his sleep. He'd wake up and all this would just have been a new and exciting form of torture his brain had come up with just for him.

"Alon …"

"Shut up. Just, shut up, because you damn well better not die or I will kick you into the next century when I hunt your sorry ass down again." But Rodney was unconscious, he hadn't heard any of that. Desperate now, John reached out to the dying sun one last time. The Stargate sprang to life, even if he had to force it to accept every single one of the glyphs that made up the address to Atlantis. John didn't know where the IDC was, not that it mattered, they couldn't stay here, not if John wanted Rodney to have a chance.

Boosted by what energy he could take, John made it to his feet. He was glad Rodney was unconscious, because hoisting Rodney up over his shoulder would have been very painful otherwise.

John more staggered than walked through the 'gate, but he made it. On the other side was Teyla, her P-90 pointed at the puddle. And, bless her, next to her was one of the mobile stasis chambers. John didn't know what had made her get it, but maybe she had guessed that making it back home would be a close call. Whatever it had been didn't matter though, all that counted was that he would be able to stabilize Rodney right away. John couldn't remember ever having felt that relieved. Teyla reached out, helping him put Rodney down. Together they managed to manhandle Rodney into the stasis chamber. As soon as Rodney was in position, John activated it, watching the force field build up rapidly. It swallowed Rodney, bathing him in icy blue, protecting him.

"John?" Teyla's voice seemed to come from far away.

Try as he might, John couldn't react, his vision had gone all weird, fuzzy and dark.

"Are you well?"

John reached for the stasis chamber. He wanted to crawl into it so desperately, just to be close to Rodney. Then darkness swallowed him up to Teyla's desperate cry of his name. John's last thought was of how lifeless Rodney looked.

Ooo00O00ooO

Ari, was John's first thought when he came to. There was a gaping hole in his being where Rodney was supposed to be. "No," John said, shaking his head in denial.

Rodney was dead.

"It's okay, lad." Carson. That was Carson. "You're alright."

John refused to open his eyes, looking inwards instead, brushing invisible fingers over the dark link. He had no memory of what had happened. No memory of Rodney turning into dust and returning to the Source. But there was nothing there, nothing.

The only explanation was that Rodney was dead.

"Rodney's fine."

No, no, Rodney wasn't fine. Rodney was gone. He wasn't there anymore. Something cold was flowing into John's arm now. Terrified, John fought against it, he felt his fist connecting with something, but he couldn't understand the yells around him. Then there was someone on top of him, holding him down. People were shouting, but John didn't care enough to try and figure out what about.

Ari was dead.

John was thankful when he fell back into the darkness, hoping he'd never wake up again.

Ooo00O00ooO

"How are you feeling?"

John blinked a few times. He'd been staring off into the distance, all his attention entirely on his bond with Rodney. A part of him still couldn't believe that it was back, but it was. He brushed over it constantly just to make sure. Until he could put his hands on Rodney it was the only reassurance he had. God, it felt so damn good. Rodney wasn't dead. It had all just been the drugs they'd given them, after all.

"John?"

"Ari isn't dead," he told Elizabeth just like he'd told everybody else who'd stopped long enough near him to be talked to. He didn't know how long exactly he'd been awake now, he didn't really care. The bond was back. Rodney was there. That was all that really mattered. Earlier, he'd tried to go to Rodney, but Carson had caught him before John had made it out of the bed. There had been an addition to the IV, making John feel … mellow.

Elizabeth patted his hand. "I know."

He looked away again, to where he knew Rodney was. With little effort he sent a nudge down the bond. It was one of many, but Rodney had yet to answer him.

"Do you remember what happened?"

When he shrugged; the IV itched a bit and he carefully scratched around the band-aid. "Did we do it?" he asked, it was the first thing that popped into his head. Rodney would want to know whether it had worked or not once he woke up.

With a small smile that was a bit too watery for John's taste, Elizabeth nodded. "Yes, you did it."

A bit of the fog around him lifted as John frowned. He blinked and leaned back against his pillow. "Good, Rodney will be happy about that." Absently he rubbed his chest. The bond was still weak compared to what it should be. He didn't like it.

"John," Elizabeth said. There were real tears running down her cheeks now. "Rodney was hurt pretty badly. Carson isn't sure if he'll …"

But he stopped listening, because there it was, a weak nudge in their bond. "He'll be fine." His forcefulness made Elizabeth take a step back. He hadn't meant to snap at her, or raise her voice.

"I know that you want him to be, but he's been very badly hurt."

"He's Reincarnate," John insisted. Whatever Carson had given John – and he was eternally grateful for that he'd needed it – it was wearing off. Taking out the IV didn't hurt, but when he pushed to his feet the room was spinning dangerously around him.

"John!"

He ignored Elizabeth in favor of staggering through the infirmary. The only thing on his mind was to get to Rodney, everything else paled in comparison to that impulse.

"John, you can't go in there, it's a sterile room."

There was another nudge over the bond, beckoning him. The doors hissed open automatically in front of him as Atlantis reacted to John's need to get to his mate.

"What is going on here?"

Then John was at Rodney's bedside. Carefully he picked up a bandaged hand, the need to touch overwhelming. Ari, he said to Rodney, nudging him oh so softly. Mate. But Rodney didn't open his eyes, didn't even react apart from a weak answer over their bond.

Carson was there a moment later. "This is a clean room, John, you need to let go of him." He tried to lead John out of the room, but there was no way John was going to budge. Not for anything. "Lad, if you want him to get better you have to come with me," Carson said.

"He'll be fine." Two nurses came into the room, John sensed them more than saw them because he couldn't look away from Rodney. They didn't touch him though, just stood there.

"He's got extensive burns, especially on his arms. Thankfully he managed to protect his face, so his lungs are alright, but injuries like these need –"

John tuned him out as Carson started giving him statistics on the recovery – or lack thereof – of burn victims. Just content to hold Rodney's hand a little while longer, John started doing the only thing he could do to make his mate better: he took some of the energy he had hoarded on Dune, feeding it in small increments into Rodney. He wasn't entirely conscious yet, so John didn't blame Carson for not noticing, but he was aware enough to be soothed by John's presence.

"– and there's still a chance he could die!"

"Nah," John said, moving his hand up Rodney's arm in order to find some bare skin. It was red, like he'd been in the sun far too long. It was good to be able to touch at least for the second it took Carson to push John away from Rodney with the nurses holding both John's arms now. "He's going to be fine, Carson." His insistence didn't stop Carson from muttering vicious things that John chose to not hear. Rodney was obviously glowing now, warm and gold, the Marks showing quite prominently against his reddened skin.

"This isn't a joke, John, people with his percentage of burns often die of infection. I'm trying to keep your mate alive and you should be helping me rather than undermining my efforts." John let the nurses pull him outside, he didn't even resist when Carson shut the doors again. "What exactly did you do to him?"

He was let go, but now there were five people between him and the door to Rodney's room, all ready to intervene. If the situation hadn't been so damn serious, John would have laughed. It wasn't like any of that could stop John if he put his mind to getting in there. "I gave him some of my Essence to speed up his recovery. The better he's supplied, the faster he'll heal."

"That might be the case, but you shouldn't have just walked in. We need to protect him from infections, otherwise there's no guarantee he'll ever wake up."

Anger pushed itself to the front. "Get real, Carson, do you think I'd actually endanger Rodney? Did I mention that he's my fucking mate and our lives are tied together? You may be a doctor, but you can believe me when I tell you that I know the physiology of my mate better than you do." He took a step towards Carson, wanting to plead with him, but suppressing that at the last moment. There was only one place he belonged at right now, which was – unsurprisingly – by Rodney's side.

From the way Carson flushed an alarming shade of pink John's words hadn't made a difference. He didn't give way to John, just crossed his arms and glared. "You have to know that he might never regain his eyesight. There's going to be extensive scarring as well, we're not sure he'll be able to use his hands again. You need to prepare yourself for that reality –"

"Reincarnates heal differently. The only reason I put Rodney into the stasis chamber was because I didn't like his chances without medical care. I needed you to tip the odds in our favor. It's really everything or nothing. His eyesight will recover and he's not going to have any scarring."

Carson sighed. "John, I know you want to believe what you're telling me and maybe that was true for you in another incarnation. But not today. Not in this body. Or have you forgotten that I saw the scar you have from where Kolya shot you? So don't you tell me you don't scar."

"For fuck's sake." Normally John was way more patient, but it was rapidly running out. John's hands were on the neckline of his flimsy hospital gown before he'd even though about what exactly he was doing. He pulled on it until Carson could inspect the site of the injury himself. There wasn't even a white line left there. "I healed slowly because I was drained from the mission with the Genii, but Rodney was full to capacity because I kept him topped up. It didn't kill him, he's healing, so he'll be fine." He swallowed down the "should I repeat that in smaller words" that wanted to escape him. Rubbing his hands over his face, John sighed. "Look, I'm sorry we didn't sit you down and tell you about our healing abilities before –"

"Or you could just have put it into the manifest." Carson crossed his arms and glared at John.

"Manifest?" What manifest?

Carson looked angry. A lot. "Aye, the two hundred page dossier circulating at the SGC explaining what Reincarnates are. How come we never got anything like that out here?"

Feeling a little stunned, John really didn't know what to say. "Two hundred pages?" he asked weakly. John had read the booklet Rodney had left for O'Neill and Jackson. It had been a twenty page dossier John liked to call "Reincarnates For Dummies" in his head.

"You didn't know about it?" Carson asked. He sounded so relieved, like he'd hoped he'd been wrong about something or other. "I got a copy to keep me occupied on the way back."

"Carson, I have no idea how the short booklet that was barely covering the minimum we thought people need to know mutated into a two hundred page dossier, but I'm sure we'll find out eventually. In the meantime, I'd be grateful if you would just let me sit with my mate for a while. I kinda need to know he's really not gone." John smiled at Carson sheepishly, who walked away muttering something John didn't even try to understand.

Ooo00O00ooO

Just take him with you," Carson said sharply to John as soon as he'd taken a step into the infirmary. "Before I throttle him.

John suppressed a smile, deliberately giving Carson a blank expression. It didn't really matter anyway, because Carson ignored him in favor of vanishing into the depth of the infirmary. Well, looked like Rodney was feeling better. Grinning now, John made his way into the not-so-sterile-anymore clean room.

"Carson keeps glaring at me, "Rodney said, his voice not quite a whine but his glare had a bit of an accusation to it. "What did you do to make him angry with me?"

"Good morning, Rodney. I'm great, my hands only itch a little bit now, how nice of you to ask." There was a flash of something that crossed Rodney's face so quickly John couldn't make it out. "How about I break you out of here?"

Rodney visibly perked up. He immediately swung his feet over the edge of the bed. At least he didn't immediately get up. Instead, he made impatient gestures with the hand he wasn't using to keep himself upright. "Clothes?"

All John had to do was follow Rodney's gaze. Someone had put a set of clothes on one of the visitor's chairs. It spoke a lot of how bad Rodney felt or he would have snuck out much sooner.

Not giving Rodney a choice, John knelt in front of him. Healing had taken a lot of Essence. Something they'd both – thankfully – had in abundance at the time of the explosion. Otherwise … John swallowed heavily and helped Rodney to find the right legs of his sweat pants. It was very much like dressing a rather grumpy, overgrown child, an observation John wisely kept to himself.

"Carson is angry because General O'Neill gave him a copy of what they started calling 'The Manifesto.' Did you know Daniel would add to your 'Reincarnates For Dummies' booklet?"

Rodney waved his free hand; he suddenly looked shifty. "No?"

"Right." John grinned at Rodney.

"Anyway, I think we really need to give Carson some medical information about us, or he'll never stop pouting. Not that it matters much now, since there is a two hundred page dossier out there and I'm not yet sure who besides Carson has read it. Is that what you call baby steps, Ari?"

"Look, John, I'm sorry, I-"

"Nah, it's okay. Don't worry about it. It'll make things much easier, not only for us, but also for the next Reincarnate pair born on Earth. Now come on, let's get you out of here." John grinned at Rodney and led him out of the infirmary. Some nice alone-time was in order.

Ooo00O00ooO

Walking down the stairs to the 'gate, John checked his P-90 for the last time. Parrish, the botanist they were accompanying, was already there, fairly bouncing on his feet. Teyla was next to him, patiently listening to the patter of his voice.

"This is so exciting," Parrish said. "I can't believe the planet has actual plant life. Nothing should be able to withstand the sunlight, but somehow these plants do. We're hoping studying this planet'll help us understanding the possible long-term effect of severe ozone depletion on plant life."

Teyla gave him a patient smile, accompanied by a nod. John was sure she had no clue what Parrish was talking about, but that didn't matter.

"Where's Rodney?" John asked, interrupting Parrish's explanation of how fascinating it was to see plants thrive under conditions of "extreme destructive ionizing radiation."

"Las I saw him he was on his way," Teyla said.

As if her words had summoned him, Rodney walked through the door. "Time, Rodney," John said, bumping his shoulder into Rodney's. "You almost missed the entire thing."

"It's a planet," Rodney said. "With lots of plants. I can't possibly contain my excitement about that, except I can. It's a waste of my time and I don't understand why Elizabeth insists we have to go. Ford would do just as well, and you know it."

"Yeah well, Ford's team is full. And Parrish needs the 'gate experience. So buckle up and let's get a move on," John said. He, for one, was happy to go on this mission. It was going to be a walk in the forest, plenty calm, nothing overly exciting. They needed those kind of walks in the park now or then.

"I still don't think this is the right team for the mission," Rodney said.

John grinned at him. "We're a good team for this, Rodney." He decided to try a distraction. Telling him now would probably be best anyway, after all, there'd be a whole forest to rant and scream in before they'd come back home, nice and calm. "Did Elizabeth tell you that she had a very long talk with General O'Neill and Daniel Jackson?"

"No. Possibly because she knows at least some things are just not important enough to bother me with. Though she's remarkably obtuse about other areas that fall under the same header. I wonder if she does it on purpose or if it's purely accidental."

"Oh, this one definitely is something you should know about," John said, taking Rodney's elbow and guiding him away from Parrish, who'd started talking at Teyla again. "They not only sent her your manifesto, they also initiated her into the Cult of Reincarnates."

Rodney stopped so abruptly, John was nearly pulled off his feet. "You're joking."

"I think that last bit was a joke, if that makes any difference," John said.

"No, it doesn't make a difference! Do you know how many jokes started these kind of ridiculous things? I have to go have a talk with them right now. They can't go around saying things like that. It could backfire spectacularly."

John grinned. "I've been told they're very selective about whom they talk to."

"Very selective," Rodney repeated. "They told Elizabeth! Who lives with us!" He lowered his voice until he was basically whispering. "Who'll think we're assholes for not telling her some of that stuff personally."

"They also told Teal'c, Cameron Mitchell, several dozen scientists and military on base, including General Hammond, General Landry, and about three hundred people outside of the mountain. They'd even debated giving every member of the expedition a copy – in case they get bored on their way back to Atlantis."

Rodney stared at him. "You're telling me this before we walk through the 'gate why, exactly? Because dumping things like this on me is not very fair, if you ask me. Why haven't I been told? I should have been told, too!"

"I asked you if you wanted to come to take O'Neill's call. You said, I'm quoting here, 'No, leave me alone, can't you see I'm busy.' So I left you alone and you're only now finding out because for the past five hours you've been in the labs and glared at me whenever I came by."

Rodney was glaring at him again, but it really meant "you're such an asshole sometimes" rather than "you're in trouble, Alon."

"So Elizabeth –"

"Read the whole thing."

"And the manifest –"

"Has been sent around. Radek has a copy, too, I believe."

"I should never have written that damn thing," Rodney said.

"Well, it was your plan."

"Yeah," Rodney said. He didn't sound too happy about being reminded of it.

"And I already told you: it's a good plan, Rodney."

"It is?"

"Yeah, it really is. It just took me a while to get used to the thought. Being able to tell people who we are, that's worth a bit of a hassle." Behind them, the wormhole erupted.

"Really?"

"Yeah. Even if your 'baby steps', got a bit out of hand."

Rodney grinned goofily at John, the warmth in his eyes taking John's breath away for a second. "Yeah," he said, "I know. But we're gonna be alright."

"Hey, it's about time we get our happily ever after," John said teasingly and Rodney just laughed.

Together, they stepped through the Stargate, Teyla on John's left and Parrish trailing after them like a lost puppy.

The End.