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Gauntlet

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By late morning everything in the clearing near the pole had been packed and Markham's team had carried the last of the supplies back to the jumper. Halling, Jinto, and a few other Athosians were still there, helping with the last of the packing and talking to Teyla.

Ford watched as Doctor Beckett finished slowly packing the last of his medical supplies as he spoke to one of the Athosian children, showing her his stethoscope and letting her hear her heartbeat. He'd gone along with Beckett's plan as far as he could, but Doctor Weir had already radioed twice wanting to know what was taking so long; he couldn't stall any longer. Beckett said one last thing to the child and gave her a piece of chocolate before she ran to join her mother for the trek back to the Athosian village.

Teyla waved a final goodbye to the Athosians and touched foreheads with Halling before walking across the clearing to Ford. "Halling will radio Atlantis if he or any of the others find any sign of Major Sheppard or Doctor McKay," she said, and Ford heard the resignation in her voice.

He wasn't happy, either, but they had orders to return to the city. "Do you really think they're still out there somewhere?" he asked.

Teyla sighed. "I do not know what to think."

Beckett heaved the medical pack onto his back and stood just outside the ring of stones marking the edge of the no-go zone, his face somber as he looked around the clearing.

Ford traded a look with Teyla, then walked over to Beckett. "Come on, Doc. We gotta go. I'm pretty sure Doctor Weir is on to us. We're going to have some explaining to do when we get back."

Beckett sighed and dropped his chin to his chest. "Aye, I suppose you're right." He glanced around the clearing again. "It was a bit of a daft idea thinking they would just reappear, I suppose."

Ford didn't mention he'd had the very same idea the previous day. He gave Beckett a bit of a nudge to get him moving toward the jumper and nodded at Teyla to take point. Ford was sure Beckett was dragging his feet the first few minutes of the walk; he didn't blame him at all and just slowed down himself to make sure he didn't get left too far behind.

The hike to the jumper didn't take very long and Teyla and Beckett were both aboard and stowing their packs when Ford heard a crashing noise in the woods behind them.

He swung around, his P-90 up and ready, when Jinto ran out of the woods and nearly into Ford. Ford quickly dropped his weapon and glanced back at Teyla as she hurried out of the jumper.

"Jinto?" she asked as the boy stopped next to her only long enough to tug at her hand. "They're back!" he cried. "Father sent me to find you before you left."

Beckett poked his head out of the jumper. "Did you say Major Sheppard and Doctor McKay turned up, lad?"

Jinto nodded and pulled Teyla's hand again. "Father said to hurry. They're hurt."

"Oh, bloody hell," Beckett muttered and grabbed the medical backpack. "You two," he pointed at Corporal Sanchez and Sergeant Jeffries, "grab those portable stretchers." Beckett was out of the jumper like a shot and following Teyla and Jinto before Ford had a chance to speak.

"Markham, you and Doctor Zelenka stay here and radio Atlantis. Tell Doctor Weir we found the Major and McKay and let her know we're delayed for a medical emergency. Davis, come with me."

"Yes, sir," Markham replied even as Ford and Davis took off after the others.

The twenty-minute hike from the clearing to the jumper was only a fifteen minute run back and Ford pushed his way into the clearing in time to see Teyla and Jinto standing next to Halling staring at the pole in the clearing and Beckett about to cross the line of stones.

"Doc, wait!" Ford yelled, and grabbed Beckett's arm even as he stopped at the edge of the stone ring and got his first look at the area around the pole.

Sheppard and McKay were both lying unconscious inside the ring of stones not far from the pole. Ford could see dried blood on their arms and legs. He growled low in his throat when he saw Sheppard's arm and McKay's hands were bandaged. As Ford stared at the two men, Sheppard started to move and Ford thought he heard a groan from one of them as well.

Beckett turned on Ford and the Lieutenant could see the fury on his face. "I will not bloody wait, Lieutenant. They're hurt, god only knows how badly, and they need help. Now, get out of the way."

"No, sir," Ford said forcefully. "We know you getting too close to that pole will set it off. I can't let you go in there, sir."

"So, we what? Stand around and wait for them to help themselves? I don't think so," Beckett retorted as he shrugged out of Ford's hold and glared at him.

Ford reminded himself he was ranking military officer and he needed to stay calm. "Sanchez and Jefferies will go into the ring and carry them out," Ford said. "Neither of them has the gene, so they should be safe." He matched Beckett glare for glare. "The last thing we need is for all three of you to disappear this time."

Beckett faced him for a moment longer then dropped his gaze with a nod. "Fine," he said and turned to Sanchez and Jeffries. "Be careful, we have no idea what sort of internal injuries they may have."

"Yes, sir," Sanchez said, and nodded to Jeffries. They stepped into the ring and stopped next to Sheppard. Ford watched as they did a quick check, then picked him up, carried him out of the ring, and laid him on the ground next to Beckett who started checking him over even as the two Marines went back for McKay.

"Major, be still," Beckett admonished when Sheppard started moving and trying to sit up. "I'm trying to see what you did to your arm."

"I'm fine," Sheppard mumbled and turned his head as McKay was brought out of the ring.

Ford thought he looked a bit dazed as he stared at each of them in turn as if unsure they were really there.

Sheppard gave his head a quick shake and looked at Beckett. "Carson, his hands," he said and tried to sit up again. "Electrical burns."

Beckett looked over at McKay who, unlike Sheppard, wasn't moving. "All right, Major," Beckett said as he moved over to McKay's side. "Just let me check you both over and we'll get you back to Atlantis and sorted out in no time."

Beckett bent over McKay and after a quick check of his vitals and a peek under the bandage on one of his hands, he shook his head and quickly got an IV started before turning back to the Major with a second IV bag.

"How is he?" Sheppard asked. "The transporter or whatever it was knocked him for a loop the first time, too."

"He's been better," Beckett admitted. "And you're both dehydrated, when was the last time either of you had anything to drink?"

Sheppard shrugged. "Hard to say, it wasn't easy to keep track of time. What about his hands? He said they were really hurting him."

"Aye, I can imagine," Beckett replied. "You did a good job with the wrappings, Major. It's just as well to leave them be until we get back to Atlantis where there's less risk of infection." He pointed to Sheppard's arm and asked, "What happened to your arm?"

Sheppard glanced down at the dressing on his arm and shrugged. "Had a run-in with a sword," he answered cryptically.

Beckett stared at him for a moment, then must have decided it wasn't worth asking for clarification as he quicking inserted the IV needle in Sheppard's other arm.

He looked up at Ford and said, "I think we're ready, Lieutenant. I think it's past time we got these two home."

Ford motioned for Davis and Sanchez to take McKay while he and Jeffries bent next to Sheppard. "I can walk," he said and tried to get up again.

"Sorry, sir," Ford replied as they got him situated on one of the stretchers before Beckett could jump in. "Doctor's orders. Just lie back and enjoy the ride."

Doctor Beckett quickly repacked the medical kit and waited for Ford and Jeffries to pick up the stretcher before he fell into step with Teyla at the head of the procession.

Ford glanced down at Sheppard when they were about half-way back to the jumper and noticed his eyes were closed. "Hey, Doc?" he called softly and signaled for Jeffries to stop.

"What is it, Lieutenant?" Beckett replied, and came back toward him.

Ford nodded at the Major and Beckett smiled. "He's just asleep, son," Beckett said with a smile after checking Sheppard's pulse. "The man is more tired than he will admit. No need to worry, he'll be fine."

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

"He said sword?" a voice asked and John slowly opened his eyes.

"Aye. And from the looks of both of them, there was more than one. They both have several lacerations along their arms and legs. It's just as well I had to take Rodney's cast off to check the burns on his hands as the cast had a deep slice in it as well."

"I don't understand, Carson." John recognised the voice as Elizabeth's. "We scanned the mainland before the Athosians left Atlantis. Where could they have found men with swords?"

"Not on the mainland," John croaked, and sat up as the two came over to his bed.

"Major," Beckett said by way of greeting. "How are you feeling?" He filled a cup with water and handed it to John.

John sipped the water gratefully. Once he was done, he looked down at himself and saw that the bandage Rodney had wrapped around the cut on his arm had been changed, several other cuts were taped or bandaged. "Umm, okay I guess." He looked around the room. "Where's Rodney?" he asked, his voice still a little rough. "How bad are his hands?"

"He's right here, John," Elizabeth said and John turned his head enough to see Rodney asleep in the next bed.

His hands were rebandaged, and there was a new cast, acid green this time, on his right hand. John idly wondered who kept picking the colors.

"Second degree burns on his fingers and his left palm," Beckett said. "His right hand isn't as bad, mostly first degree, but there are blisters on his first two fingers. You mentioned electricity?" Beckett left the question hanging.

John ignored the hint. "But he'll be all right? No permanent damage?"

"It will take a few weeks, but he'll be fine," Beckett said with a slight smile. "You both will."

John let out the breath he'd been holding. He wasn't sure what he would have done or how Rodney would have handled no longer being able to type or tinker. Thankfully, they'd dodged that bullet.

"How long have we been back?" John asked.

"Only a few hours," Beckett replied. "But you both will be here a few days at least. Not only do I want to keep an eye on those burns," he nodded at Rodney, "since we don't know exactly what happened to you, I'll want to run some tests."

"John, what did you mean, you weren't on the mainland?" Elizabeth asked.

"The totem pole was some sort of transporter," John said. "No idea where we were, really."

"That's enough for now," Beckett said. "You need to rest. I'm sure there will be plenty of discussion about what happened later."

"You're right, Carson," Elizabeth said with a nod and took a step back. "This can wait until after you and Rodney have had a chance to recover," she said to John.

John was awake again a few hours later when Rodney started shifting on his bed. He glanced around, and not seeing anyone, climbed out of his bed and stood next to Rodney's.

"Rodney?" John called.

Rodney groaned, slowly opened his eyes, and looked around.

John tapped his arm to get his attention and frowned slightly when Rodney jumped.

"Atlantis?" Rodney whispered as he focused on him.

John nodded and poured a cup of water. "Yep, back safe and mostly sound."

Rodney tried to take the cup, but between the puffy bandage on his left palm and fingers and the cast on his right hand, he had no grip and resigned himself to John holding the cup for him.

He nodded his thanks and looked at the bandage wrapped around John's arm. "You okay?" he asked and tried to point to the injury.

John smiled and sat on the edge of the bed near Rodney's hip. "Yeah, Carson stitched that one and a couple of others. They should heal in a week or two."

Rodney looked at his hands and sighed.

"How badly are they hurting?" John asked, and reached for the call button.

"How did you know my hands hurt?"

"Not that hard to figure out. You've got burns, they've got to be hurting." John didn't mention the vague sense of … something … itching at the back of his skull.

Rodney shrugged as John pushed the call button

"Carson says it looks worse than it is," John reassured him. "Couple of weeks and you'll be good as new."

"Couple of weeks? How am I going to get anything done?"

"You will let Zelenka and the rest of your staff do the work," Beckett said as he stopped at the end of the bed. "Major, don't you have a bed of your own?" he added pointedly.

John went back to his own bed as Beckett started to check Rodney's vitals.

"How are your hands?" Beckett asked as he picked up one hand and then the other and looked at the bandages.

"They hurt," Rodney grumbled.

"I can give you something for the pain, but you need to eat something first," Carson replied.

Rodney made a face. "How am I supposed to do that with three fingers?" He held up his right hand with the ring and pinky fingers along with his thumb the only digits not wrapped in fresh bandages.

"We'll start with something you can pick up easily," Beckett said, turned to Sharon, and asked her to have a tray brought from the mess hall.

Once Rodney had struggled through a meal of scrambled egg and toast, Beckett gave him the pain medication to swallow.

"Now then," Beckett said as Rodney tried to settle on the bed without using his hands. "You both need to rest," he told them.

Rodney sighed and stared at the ceiling once Carson had gone back to his office.

"What's the matter?" John finally asked, though he thought he knew the answer.

Rodney hesitated, then rolled his head until John could see his face. "What are we supposed to tell Elizabeth when she asks what happened?"

"We tell her just enough to explain what happened," John said seriously. "The rest stays just between us."

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

Rodney sat on the balcony watching the sunlight play across the water, thinking yet again about what had happened the week before. There had been a few odd coincidences since their return which made him feel more than a little uncomfortable and wonder exactly what The Overseer meant by his last comment that Atlantis would know they'd completed his warped obstacle course.

He heard the door open behind him and wasn't at all surprised to see John coming toward him, two cups in his hands.

"Beckett's looking for you," John said as he handed Rodney one of the cups, waited until Rodney had a sure hold in his awkward three-fingered grip, and sat down next to him. "You were supposed to be in the infirmary fifteen minutes ago so he could check your hands. Thought you would have been down there early since he promised to take the bandages off your right hand today."

Rodney shrugged. "Meant to be, got caught up in thinking about something."

John swallowed some of his coffee and Rodney could feel John watching him.

"Have you noticed anything … odd since we got back?" Rodney finally asked.

"Odd how?"

"Just … odd." He looked over at John and hesitated. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear Atlantis feels different somehow."

Now it was John's turn to study the water.

"You have, haven't you?" Rodney exclaimed and waved his bandaged hand around. "Why didn't you say anything?"

John sighed. "I wasn't really sure," he admitted. "It sounds weird to say a city seems happy to see you."

"Exactly!" Rodney replied as he scooted forward in his chair. "Things seem to work better, faster, I don't know. It just feels different." Rodney paused. "And it doesn't make sense."

John looked at him. "That Overseer said something about the Atlantis knowing --"

"Yes, yes, but that's ridiculous," Rodney interrupted. "It's a city, it's not sentient. It can't know anything we don't tell it."

"So maybe we're telling it something somehow," John countered. "There's a mental component to getting Ancient stuff to work, right?"

Rodney made a face, but nodded.

"So, maybe whatever happened in that gauntlet changed some mental wavelength once we got back. We're sending out some sort of signal that we've earned the next level of access or something."

Rodney thought about that and decided it was possible. "Maybe," he grudgingly admitted.

"The part I don't get is why two people?" John mused. "Where are these symbiotic systems that take two mentally linked people to access?"

"If they still exist, systems like that would require a massive amount of energy. Maybe even more than one fully charged Zed-PM," Rodney replied. "Until we can fully power Atlantis, we may never find them or get them to work."

John watched the water and finished his coffee.

Rodney glanced over at him and did a double-take when he noticed the strange expression on John's face. "Was there something else?" Rodney asked. "You look like something's wrong."

Another fleeting expression crossed John's face before he settled on an easy smile and deflection as he stood. "We should probably get to the infirmary before Carson sends out a search party."

Rodney snorted. "That's not you?"

John grinned. "Nah, I'm just the advance scout," he replied, and waited for Rodney to stand as well.

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

John stood at the end of the infirmary bed and watched as Beckett carefully removed the bandages from Rodney's fingers and right hand. Carson seemed happy with how the burns had healed and Rodney was happy he had at least one hand he could use again, even with the cast.

He hadn't mentioned the odd itch he felt in the infirmary whenever he knew Rodney was in pain to either Beckett or McKay. That was a discussion that could wait for another day when the wounds were healed and the gauntlet only a memory in a box or a shadowed corner of a mind.

FIN