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John stood in his quarters, looking over the items he still needed to pack for the team's excursion to the mainland. While they all seemed to be dealing with the after-effects of the bacteria they'd been exposed to, John knew better. Ford had spent far too much time at the shooting range over the past few days, Rodney snapped at his minions more than usual, and Teyla spent far too much time in her room 'meditating'. They needed a break. They needed a chance to find their footing again.

He pulled out his stash of chocolate bars and the marshmallows he'd 'borrowed' from the mess hall and added that to the pile along with a football he'd found in the rec room. He picked up the football and tossed it from hand to hand as he thought about the other thing he'd found in the rec room two nights ago, namely Rodney playing, and playing well, a keyboard someone had managed to smuggle across two galaxies.

John had stood in the doorway for several long minutes before he'd announced his presence and just listened to the quiet music coming from his friend. He'd have never guessed Rodney had such a talent, and John could tell it was something he truly loved. He'd taken the plunge and had let Rodney know he was there, unsure how Rodney would react when he discovered he was no longer alone. Any remaining fears he had about the strength of their friendship disappeared once Rodney chose to share his secret and let him stay.

A knock at the door brought him back to the present and he dropped the football back on the bed, and since he'd been expecting Rodney to show up so they could go eat, he just hollered "Come in" and nudged the door open on his way across the room to the dresser.

"Major Sheppard, sir?" a voice said from the doorway and John turned to see Sergeant Thompson standing in the hall outside the open door.

"Sergeant," John greeted and tried to keep the mild surprise out of his voice. "Something you need?" To John, Thompson looked more than a little nervous as he hovered in the doorway holding a small box.

"I found this, sir," Thompson said and held up the box. "I wasn't sure what to do with it, though."

"And you thought bringing it here instead of to one of the labs was the answer?" John asked, a little impatiently as he walked back to the bed with the few casual clothes he had brought to the Pegasus galaxy.

"I wasn't sure the lab would be a good idea, sir," Thompson said then hesitated. "I found it near where Doctor McKay fell, sir. I think it was something he made while …"

John dropped the clothes and waved Thompson into the room. "Yeah, I can see why you might want to talk to someone about that, Sergeant," John said and smiled an apology at Thompson as he set the box on John's desk.

John opened the box and pulled out the handheld screen he remembered seeing on the gantry along with the power bar wrappers.

"I think it's a scanner of some sort," Thompson said. "But it doesn't seem to work. I wasn't sure if Doctor McKay would want it back or not."

John picked up the odd device and studied it for a moment before he found something that looked like a power switch and flicked it on. The screen blinked a few times before it steadied, but it didn't do anything else. He fiddled with a few of the dials and saw one little flicker before the screen went blank again.

"I wasn't sure how Doctor McKay would react if he saw it after everything that happened," Thompson said, his tone slightly defensive. "I didn't want to get him upset or anything."

John looked up at Thompson and smiled. He wondered if Rodney even realised the impression he'd made on Thompson. He knew Rodney had been shocked and more than a little surprised when the Sergeant had apologised for what had happened during their 'training session' a month ago, but John doubted he knew the sense of loyalty the Marine now had for him.

"Thank you, Sergeant," John said sincerely. "I'll take care of it."

"Yes, sir," Thompson replied and backed up the few steps to the door. He gave Sheppard a brief nod as the door slid open, then turned and disappeared up the hallway.

John shook his head with another smile as he repacked the scanner in the box and left his quarters for Rodney's lab.

"Where exactly did your Ph.D. come from?" he heard Rodney say snidely as he stopped outside the lab. "Zelenka told you in no uncertain terms what would happen if you put it under that much pressure and not to go ahead with the experiment."

"Oh, please, Zelenka is an engineer, not a chemist. Why should I listen to him on things within my own field?" Kavanagh yelled back.

"Like it or not, Zelenka, is in charge when I'm not around," Rodney growled. "If you had bothered to take five minutes and work out the math for yourself, you would have known what would happen and we wouldn't be out even more equipment we can't replace."

"I can't complete my work without those items that were in my lab," Kavanagh pointed out. "I know Tsao, at least, has a spare centrifuge he's not using. Since you want to be in charge, tell him I need it."

"No."

"No?" Kavanagh's voice cracked slightly in disbelief. "What do you mean, no?"

"I thought I was perfectly clear," Rodney snapped, and John heard the rare, genuine anger in his tone instead of the normal impatience. "It's a simple word, you do understand English don't you? No. Figure out some way to fix the one you broke. It's not like we can call the SGC for spares any time someone decides to blow up his lab."

"I'll go to Weir," Kavanagh threatened.

"Get out," Rodney replied, his voice low and hard, and John wondered if he should pull Kavanagh out of the lab or just help Rodney hide the body.

John heard stomping footsteps and leant against the wall as Kavanagh stormed out of Rodney's lab. He waited a moment then casually entered the lab himself and found Rodney standing at his work table, his hands clenched at his sides and his face red.

"Problems?" he asked as he shifted the box from one hand to the other.

Rodney took a deep breath and shook his head. "Just Kavanagh being his usual idiot self," he mumbled and pulled the stool wedged near his desk back around to the work table and sat down heavily. "Did you want something?" he asked tiredly and glanced at the box with only mild interest.

John wasn't sure now was the time to bring up Rodney's recent sojourn to the lower levels of the city. "I thought we were getting lunch before I met Teyla for a workout."

"Oh," Rodney said and looked back at the device sitting in several pieces on his work table. "I guess I lost track of time."

"Anything interesting?" John asked, and came over to the work table and stared at the object Rodney was working on.

"Maybe," Rodney said. "I think this might be some sort of portable interface for the Ancient database."

He picked up part of the small object and gave it to John. John set the box on Rodney's desk and took the small interface device. He looked at it from all sides, then handed it back.

"If I can get it to work, it could help the teams repairing various part of the city as they could call up schematics, or further information on a system without having to go through me or Grodin first."

"Think you can fix it?"

"Of course I can fix it," Rodney snapped as he put the piece back with the rest. "It just might take awhile," he admitted with a wry smile. He glanced over at the box. "What's in that?" he asked and reached out for the box on his desk. Before John could stop him, he opened it.

"Sergeant Thompson found it," John explained as Rodney took the scanner out of the box and set it on the work table. "He wasn't sure what to do with it and brought it to me."

Rodney nodded and John could see he was lost in thought. "It was supposed to be a Wraith detector," Rodney said softly. "I needed a way to track …" He rubbed a hand across his cast. "Stupid idea, really," he said and pushed the scanner to the back of the table. "Never could get it to work."

"There weren't any Wraith," John tried to explain but Rodney glared up at him.

"Yes, thank you," he snapped. "I'm well aware I made a first class fool of myself. Thanks for the reminder."

"That's not what I meant," John retorted. "You can't know if it worked or not if there weren't any Wraith around to test it."

Rodney opened his mouth to argue, then closed it with a snap. "Oh. You make a good point." He rubbed at the back of his neck. "Sorry," he said with a tiny smile. "Maybe I could use a break."

John wasn't sure if he meant lunch or their planned field trip to the mainland. "Come on, then," he said and pulled Rodney to his feet. "We'll start with lunch. You get grumpy when you don't eat."

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

Teyla watched John as they circled each other; one of her fighting sticks twirling lazily in her grip as she waited for an opening. A week of rest and shots every six hours from Doctor Beckett had slowed her reactions slightly, true, but she could admit to herself she was also concerned about Laren and his people. Doctor Beckett had been back to the village several times since they'd found the bacteria in their grain, and he'd assured her everyone had responded to the antibiotics and would be fine.

"They were lucky you were there when you were to trade," he'd told her. "While they had a bit more of an immunity, they were still sick. You saved all of those people."

Teyla had smiled at the time, she knew Doctor Beckett was right, but she also realised he'd told her that to assuage some of her earlier guilt for the countless people culled due to her necklace acting as a transmitter for the Wraith.

She gave herself a mental shake. This was not the time to dwell, she told herself as she watched Sheppard circle around her.

John moved in quickly and she blocked one feint, tried her own attack which he also blocked, then she attacked his flank and knee in quick succession, dropping him to the mat.

"You are doing much better, Major," she congratulated him as he got back to his feet.

"Yeah, it now takes you a whole three minutes to drop me on my backside," he replied as he paced a few steps then came back to his ready position.

She smiled genially and readied herself again.

This time Sheppard didn't wait, he instantly attacked. She was hard-pressed to stop him and he managed a couple of solid hits to her arms before she caught his sticks in a cross hold and kicked his feet out from under him.

He lay on his back for a moment, then got back to his feet, headed for the bench against the wall, and dug for his water bottle.

He took several swallows of water before saying, "You wanna tell me what's buggin' you?"

She raised her eyebrows and gave him a questioning glance.

"I may be getting better, but you seem distracted," he explained.

She was startled for a moment at how perceptive he'd been. "Do I not have a reason to be?" she asked as she found her own water bottle and sat on the bench next to him.

"Sure you do," he said nonchalantly. "That's part of why we're going to the mainland tomorrow." His expression turned serious. "We all need some downtime and a chance to regroup."

"Yes." She packed away her sticks, not looking at him, and took a deep breath. "Before we go, however, there is someplace else I think I need to visit first."

"Oh?"

She turned to face him, her expression resolute. "I need to go back to Laren's village. I want to make sure his people are recovered."

John didn't say anything and she hurried on.

"I know Doctor Beckett said the treatment worked and they will be fine, but … they are friends. I wish to make sure."

"I can understand that," John replied and quirked a smile.

"I will understand if you, Lieutenant Ford, and Doctor McKay wish to stay here. I'm willing to make the trip myself and return before the rest of you leave for our trip to the mainland."

"Hang on a second," he told her, holding up a hand. "There's no need to go alone. Carson said he needed to make one last trip to check on a few folks. I don't see why we can't tag along."

"We?"

John looked at her and she saw she had hurt him. "Yes, we," he replied with a slight frown. "You, me, and I'm sure Ford and Rodney will come as well."

"I … thank you, Major," Teyla said.

"Let me talk to Elizabeth and the others. Carson is leaving in an hour or so, go get ready and we'll meet you in the gateroom."

An hour later Teyla watched as the last of the medical equipment was loaded on a cart and Doctor Grodin started to dial the 'gate.

Doctor Beckett smiled at her as he rechecked the cart one last time, his two assistants waiting to one side. Major Sheppard and Lieutenant Ford waited beside her while two Marines stood at the head of the cart ready to be the first through the 'gate once it opened. The only person missing was Doctor McKay. She tried to ignore the slight hurt she felt that he'd chosen not to come with them, but she understood. He had not had a good experience the last time he was on the planet, why would he want to go back?

The wormhole formed with its customary whoosh, and she looked up as Elizabeth came out of her office and stood at the balcony.

"Carson, we'll see you back here in a few hours," she called down to them.

Doctor Beckett gave her a sickly smile and a little wave as the two Marines started toward the 'gate pulling the cart behind them.

"Wait! Wait! I'm coming!" Teyla heard from down the corridor and she turned in time to see Doctor McKay come into the gateroom slightly out-of-breath as he awkwardly tried to snap his backpack to his tac-vest, the cast on his hand making the task difficult.

The Marines were already through the 'gate and the medical assistants were heading out, but Doctor Beckett took long enough to frown at Doctor McKay, panting with his hands on his knees, before he followed the medical team. Teyla watched Beckett hesitate for a moment at the edge of the event horizon before he took a deep breath and finally stepped through. She thought he might have had his eyes closed.

Teyla turned back to her teammates and noticed neither Major Sheppard nor Lieutenant Ford seemed surprised to see Doctor McKay appear as they watched him settle the backpack on his shoulders, and she chastised herself for doubting him. She should have known he would come with the rest of them. While he may be new to the concepts of team and friendship, he was learning, and took those responsibilities seriously.

"Get a move on, McKay," Sheppard said as he and Ford stepped toward the 'gate. "Don't want to get left behind."

She saw Sheppard wince at the comment and she glanced over at Doctor McKay to see how he would react. They were all, what was the term Doctor Beckett had used? Oh, yes, walking on eggshells. They were still walking on eggshells somewhat around each other.

Doctor McKay flinched slightly, but as Major Sheppard started to apologise, McKay waved it off and rolled his eyes as he stopped beside the Major. They both looked over at her and she realised they were waiting for her to join them. The four of them stopped at the edge of the event horizon, Sheppard turned and gave Doctor Weir a jaunty wave, and they stepped through the 'gate together.

The season had moved along in the time since they'd been there to negotiate the trade with Laren for grain and seed. Where a few weeks ago the air had been crisp with a hint of cold, it was now plain cold. The trees had lost their remaining leaves and the ground cover was brown and dormant. Teyla watched as Rodney shuddered and zipped his tan jacket up to his neck.

"Why didn't someone suggest we wear heavier coats?" he grumbled as he fell into step with Major Sheppard as they stepped down from the 'gate.

"You'll warm up as you walk," Sheppard said with a grin, but Teyla noticed he zipped his jacket as well.

"Laren's people make an excellent cider," Teyla said as they followed the Marines, Doctor Beckett's team, and the slow-moving cart. "It will help warm you up once we reach the village."

McKay blanched. "No offence to your friend," he snapped and crossed his arms across his chest. "I don't plan to eat or drink anything while we're here. Once was more than enough."

Teyla looked away from him. She couldn't blame him for his hesitance. He was here to support her, she knew, but that support apparently only went so far.

Sheppard frowned and elbowed him in the side. "Beckett cleared almost all of the grain," he told Doctor McKay with a frown. "The bacteria was only in a few of the last barrels from their previous harvest. The rest of the food and all of the grain from their recent harvest was fine."

Doctor McKay glared at him and shook his head. "You take the risk if you like. I'll stick with MREs."

"The seed was deemed safe as well?" Teyla asked, and glanced at Sheppard.

Sheppard smiled. "Yep. The seed is already in Atlantis. I told Elizabeth we would take it out to Halling with us tomorrow. Save someone else the trip."

"That is good news," she replied. "Halling and the others should have more than enough time to plant and reap a first crop before the season changes. Hopefully, with what Laren gave us that will be enough to see a steady source of grain in Atlantis."

They entered the village an hour later to a much more subdued greeting than on their last visit. The Marines parked the cart in the center of the village and Beckett's assistants unloaded a few of the crates they'd brought and set up a makeshift clinic in one of the newly finished buildings.

"Teyla," Laren greeted, and while he hugged her, he refrained from embracing the rest of the team. "I am so glad you came. I wasn't sure after what happened after your last visit if we would see you again."

"Laren," she replied and smiled up at him. "What happened was not your fault. I am just glad Doctor Beckett was able to treat your people before the sickness became more serious."

"Your Doctor Beckett has been most generous with his time and medicines," Laren agreed with a nod. "It is not something we will easily repay."

"And as I've told you several times already, son," Beckett interrupted on his way past, a box of supplies in his hands. "You don't need to. Your people were sick. They needed help. That'll be the end of it."

Sheppard grinned as Beckett walked on and turned back to Laren. "I wouldn't cross him if I were you," he said with a nod as Beckett crouched down on the ground talking to a boy and girl waiting outside the building.

Teyla watched as Beckett pulled a foil-wrapped object from his pocket and opened it. He gave each child a square of the chocolate and laughed as they tried the sweet treat for the first time. They stared at him wide-eyed as they gobbled the rest and pled for more. He gave them each another square, then stood and went into the building. It never ceased to amaze her the level of compassion the doctor had for near strangers. Many of the Athosian children trailed after him as often as they followed Rodney, though she suspected Beckett gave them more chocolate.

Laren smiled slightly as the two children ate their treat, then clapped his hands. "Come, and see what progress we've made," he said, and gestured to the new buildings and the finished village square. "There is also cider and food waiting."

Teyla saw Doctor McKay shoot Sheppard a startled glance. "I was, umm, just going to take another look at those ruins I found the last time we were here," Doctor McKay said and pointed vaguely toward the far end of the village near the mountains. "So, I'll just … go do that."

He took a few steps before Sheppard reached out a hand and stopped him.

"Rodney, wait," Sheppard said and looked over at Teyla. "You and Ford go with Laren. I'll stick with McKay. Carson said his checkups would take a couple of hours," he glanced at his watch, "we'll meet you back here by 1700."

"Maybe we should all go," Teyla suggested.

"Nah," Sheppard replied with a smile. "Go on, enjoy the afternoon with your friends."

Teyla nodded and followed Laren into the center of the village. She listened as Laren pointed out the pub as well as the new mill.

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

John followed Rodney around the edge of the buildings and down a dirt path near the mountains. They were soon out of sight of the rest of the village and John looked around at the rocky cliffs as they walked. He glimpsed the entrances to the caves where Laren's people presumably stored their grain and, fortunately, hid from the Wraith, down a side path. They'd only been walking ten minutes or so when the path opened up onto a little shelf of land. The cliff overhead nearly hid the shelf from view and there were several stone buildings built up under the lip of rock. Most were crumbling, but a few were still standing, including one slightly below the level of their path, its doorway and walls painted with numerous symbols; John thought it looked like the Ancient writings found around Atlantis but he couldn't be sure.

Rodney took out the Ancient scanner and pushed several buttons before he pointed the device in the direction of the building with the symbols and shook his head. He fiddled with the scanner again and took a few steps toward the path leading down to the doorway.

"So this is where you were last time?" John asked as he looked around.

Rodney glanced back at him as he made his way down the path. He slipped on some loose gravel and reached out with his right hand to stop falling, banging his cast on a rock in the process. He made a face as he stared at his hand and flexed his fingers.

"Yes," he answered absently and stretched up on tiptoe to look at the writing along the outside of the doorway before he went inside. "I was in here trying to figure out what exactly it was I was looking at when I heard shooting."

John nodded as he entered the building and moved around the room. There was only the one door and no windows. The room itself was rather dim with the only light coming in through the doorway. There was some sort of altar at one end holding a couple of crumbling candles and some dusty, dead flowers. The rest of the room was fairly sparse, several benches lined one wall while the familiar Ancient blocky script covered the wall opposite the benches. As he took a closer look, he realised the writing wasn't quite the same, there was a sort of roundness or artistic flair to this writing that he didn't remember seeing in the city.

Rodney stood in front of the writing, carefully videotaping it and mumbling to himself.

John told himself he was just curious as he moved around the room, but he found he was doing an unconscious standard sweep of the space, checking the far corners, behind the altar, and glancing up at the roof, as Rodney stopped taping and stood in one place watching him.

"Satisfied?" Rodney asked with a smile, and Sheppard stopped next to him.

"What?"

"Oh, please. You just cleared the room and you didn't even realise it."

"Force of habit, sue me," John replied with a wry smile at being caught.

Rodney shook his head with a smirk as he put away the video camera and headed for the altar, taking the Ancient scanner from his pocket again as he walked.

"What are you looking for?" John asked as he followed.

Rodney stopped in the center of the room and waved the scanner back and forth. "Not really sure. There are some odd mineral readings coming from this building and they seem to be concentrated here." He pointed at the altar, knelt down, and picked at the stone with a fingernail. "The structures outside were made of the same stone as the mountains around here. Laren could raid them if he needs more building material for the village." He looked up at John. "This building was made of something different. It's not like anything from Earth. I'm hoping the Ancient database will be able to tell us what it is."

He balanced the scanner in the fingers of his right hand as he reached back and unclipped the backpack and dug around until he came up with a sample vial. John handed him his knife to take the scraping.

John studied the walls again and noticed the stone was a different color from the rest of the structures built under the cliff. The stone was lighter, almost a beige color, while the rest of the buildings, both outside and back at Laren's village, and the nearby mountains were a darker color, almost brown. He thought about the implications of unknown minerals and was reminded of what happened during their last visit and Rodney seemingly ignoring his radio calls.

As Rodney continued to pick at the altar, John moved across to the benches and keyed his radio. "Teyla, this is Sheppard, come in." He waited a few seconds and getting nothing but static, tried again, "Ford, this is Sheppard, you reading me?" He ducked his head as the radio remained silent. It seemed he owed Rodney an apology. He turned back to the altar to see McKay standing with his arms crossed, watching him.

"I'm going to try really hard not to say I told you so," he said with a smirk as he stuffed the scanner and sample vial in his pack and handed John his knife.

Sheppard pursed his lips and nodded. "Okay, I deserved that," he said, and followed Rodney back out of the building.

"Yeah, you did," Rodney replied, without any heat. He looked around the area a bit longer with the scanner, then gestured toward the village. "There's really nothing else here if you want to head back."

"You think we've been gone long enough to avoid offending Laren?" John asked with a wry smile.

Rodney opened his mouth then shut it with a snap and gave John a guilty look. "I didn't want Teyla mad at me again, okay?" he replied with a huff. He tried to stuff his hands in his trouser pockets as the wind picked up, but the hand with the cast wouldn't fit, so he settled for blowing on them instead. "I wasn't kidding about avoiding the food in this planet. I don't care how much Carson says it's safe."

"You do know a couple of hundred pounds of that grain is already in Atlantis, don't you? You can't avoid it forever." He pushed lightly at Rodney's arm to get him moving back up the slope.

"Maybe not, but I can watch what happens to the rest of you first before I try anything," he retorted and led the way up the path and back to the village.

John snorted a laugh. "Gee, thanks."

They walked back through the village and found Teyla, Carson, Ford and most of the villagers in one of the newly constructed buildings.

"Figures the first building finished was the pub," Rodney said quietly as they entered and he went to warm himself by the fire.

Ford, Teyla, Carson, and Laren sat a nearby table with a jug of cider and some sort of fruit bread laid out on the table along with several plates.

"Major," Teyla greeted and made room for him on the bench seat next to her, "Laren was just telling us about the ruins you and Doctor McKay were exploring."

"They were made by the 'Old Ones'," Laren said. "There is evidence of their writings in the building nearest the mountain. Several of my people over the years have studied the writings trying to decipher their meanings, but the language is sadly lost to us now."

"Anyone know where the stone that building is made of came from?" Rodney asked, and John noticed he'd inched closer to the table.

"No," Laren replied. "The stone is not from the mountains, or from any of the other villages nearby."

Rodney made what John thought sounded suspiciously like a "humph" noise and turned back to the fire.

"You have everything done here, Doc?" John asked Carson as Teyla passed him a cup of the cider. She started to pour another one, but John caught her eye and shook his head as he took a sip of the cider. She glanced at Rodney now vigorously rubbing his fingers in front of the fire and set the jug back on the table with a nod.

"I think so," Carson replied and turned to Laren. "All of your people have been cleared of the bacteria so there shouldn't be any more problems like what you were having before."

Laren nodded. "Thank you, Doctor Beckett. I don't --"

Beckett held up a hand and Laren stopped. "Thank you, Doctor Beckett," Laren said with a smile.

"You're welcome, lad," Carson replied and stood. "Now, I think we should be heading back before Rodney sets his cast on fire," he finished with a smile and a glance at Rodney still trying to get warm.

"Oh ha-ha," he retorted but followed John and Teyla out of the pub.

The sun was starting to set as they stepped outside, which made the air even cooler. The cart standing outside and loaded down with a few extra gifts from the villagers as well as the remaining medical supplies, had a thin coating of white on it and John saw large, white flakes falling as they walked back to the stargate.

"Everyone packed for tomorrow?" John asked casually once they reached the 'gate. "I won't be turning the car around once we leave, you know."

Rodney rolled his eyes and said nothing. Teyla looked confused as Ford dialed the 'gate and sent his IDC through.

"Never mind, lass," Carson said, coming to her rescue. "The Major thinks he's funny." He looked at each of them in turn. "I want to make one last quick check of you all before you go," he told them. "Stop by the infirmary tonight. And Rodney? That includes you."

"Yes, yes, yes. Fine. Can we get back to somewhere warm now?" Rodney groused and followed the Marines and Beckett's assistants through the 'gate.

Chapter Text

John sat back once the jumper cleared the sunroof and the tower the next morning as he pointed the little craft toward the mainland. Rodney sat in the co-pilot seat next to him fiddling with a computer while Teyla and Ford sat in the seats behind them.

"Didn't I say we were taking a vacation?" John asked as he glanced at the computer.

Rodney stared at him. "Is that why my computer conveniently had to be upgraded by Zelenka?" he asked suspiciously. "He refused to give it back so I took his instead." He held up the computer in his hand and John could see it wasn't the combo-computer he usually used.

"Does that mean all of the programs are in Czech?" Ford asked innocently with a grin.

Rodney turned around and gave Ford a dirty look as well. "Not all of them," he mumbled as he faced forward again, and Ford laughed.

"You didn't need to bring it at all," John said as he glanced over the HUD and adjusted their course.

"What exactly am I supposed to do on this so-called vacation, then?" Rodney asked.

John looked over at Rodney and saw the beginnings of frustration in his expression. "Camping, hiking, fishing, swimming. Take your pick," he said calmly. "This is supposed to be a chance to have some fun, relax. We've certainly earned it."

"This is what I find relaxing," Rodney rebutted, and poked at the computer again.

John sighed. "This can be fun, too, you know. Didn't you ever go to summer camp when you were a kid?"

Rodney looked out the windscreen. "Once," he finally admitted, but didn't elaborate.

"I went to the same camp every summer," Ford chimed in after a few moments of silence. "It was great! Me and a bunch of my friends would get together, have swim competitions, played football, one year they even had horses."

John smiled. "Sounds like the camp I went to." He glanced over at Rodney who was still silently staring out the window. "The horses were there every year," he said and turned slightly to face Ford and Teyla, "the last couple of summers we went they had started an archery club, too. David and I loved it."

"David?" Teyla asked.

"My brother," John replied. "I've told you about him."

"Oh, yes, you went camping with your father as children." She nodded.

"Yep. We used to go to this summer camp in Oregon, too. We had a blast. Two weeks away from home, just us and a bunch of other kids; the lake was big enough we spent one year learning to sail with this little dinghy."

"Doctor McKay?" Teyla asked gently. "Was your camp experience similar?"

John glanced over at Rodney as he twitched in his chair and went back to the computer. "There was swimming and the like, yes."

John noticed he hadn't really answered the question and changed the subject before the others pushed him for more information. "Halling is expecting us?" he asked Teyla.

Teyla looked from him to Rodney for a moment then said. "Yes. He has several of the boys waiting to help unload the seed. He also found a suitable spot for our campsite. Jinto and some of the other boys set up a tent and cleared the area for us."

"Great!" John said with a smile. "And it's on the beach?"

"Yes, Major, just as you asked."

"Perfect. Once we get the seed unloaded, we'll get settled and see about catching some fish for lunch."

He landed the jumper in an area specifically cleared for the purpose behind the Athosian village ten minutes later. He opened the back hatch to find Halling and a group of boys led by Jinto waiting for them.

"Teyla," Halling greeted as she stepped out of the jumper and they touched foreheads. "It is good to see you."

"And you, Halling. How is everyone?"

"We are well," he replied and gestured for the boys to start unloading the jumper. "The seed is safe?" he asked. "You were concerned when we talked last."

"Yes," she said with a nod. "Doctor Beckett has tested it and found no evidence of the bacteria that affected Laren's people."

John watched as Halling glanced at each of them in turn. "And you are all recovered?"

John gave him an easy smile. "All better," he assured. "Teyla says you found a good camping spot for us?" he asked as they followed the boys carrying the barrels of seed toward the village.

"Yes, Jinto will show you the way," Halling replied. "You are all welcome to stay with us, Major. After the hospitality your people showed us in Atlantis, it is the least we can offer."

"Thanks." John declined. "Maybe next time."

Halling shrugged. "As you wish." He turned to Teyla. "Charon knew you were coming today. She is hoping you will stop to see her." He gave Teyla a knowing smile. "I hear she has made tuttle-root soup."

"Tuttle-root soup?" John asked.

"I believe it is what Doctor Weir refers to as comfort food," Teyla said, and John noticed she seemed content for the first time in days.

John nodded and smiled. "In that case, we'll leave you to the soup and head over to the beach."

Jinto!" Halling called, and his son came running. "Show the Major to the camp along the beach," Halling said.

"Yes, Father," Jinto replied with a smile and a wave of his hand. "It is this way, Major."

"Take your time," John whispered to Teyla as he walked past her. "We'll wait to have the s'mores once you get to camp."

Teyla smiled. "Thank you, Major. I will see you all later."

Jinto led them through the woods for a couple of miles pointing out anything he thought might be interesting and talking a mile a minute. John looked around, making sure he knew the way back to the village and glanced back to see Ford and Rodney following. Ford had a smile on his face as he walked; every now and then he'd close his eyes and let the sun warm his face. Rodney, for his part, clumped along in the rear, pushing aside errant branches and looking resigned to his fate. John was curious about Rodney's obviously bad experience at summer camp but knew better than to come out and ask. Maybe he could get him to talk about it later.

Jinto led them out of the trees and onto the beach and John's face broke into a wide grin. He loved the water, always had. Swimming, surfing, sailing, it didn't matter. The only thing he loved more than a beach and an ocean was flying. He saw the large tent set up just at the edge of the trees a few feet away and led the way inside.

There were four beds, cots really, two on each side of the round tent with a small woven chest at the foot of each bed. A short, stove-like apparatus sat in the middle of the room. There was a small screen partitioning off part of the back of the tent John assumed was meant to be a changing area. A large barrel near the door held drinking water and several baskets of fruit, dried meat, and loaves of bread sat on a table on the other side of the door.

"One of us boys will bring fresh water in the mornings," Jinto said as he followed the others into the tent. "Father was not sure what food you had with you, so we can bring more fruit and meat, too."

John saw Rodney look at the fruit with suspicion.

"We made sure there was no ... citrus?" Jinto glanced at John for a moment and when John nodded, he finished, "There is no citrus, Doctor McKay. The fruit is safe for you to eat."

John heard Rodney make a noncommittal noise as he set his pack and the 'borrowed' computer on one of the beds. "Thanks, Jinto," John said, and clapped the boy on the shoulder. "It all looks good. Tell your father we appreciate everything he did to set this up for us."

"Sure thing, Major!" Jinto said, and with a last wave, ducked under the flap of the tent and was gone.

John set his pack on the bed next to Rodney's and sat down. "Well, gentlemen," he said, "I say we unpack, get changed into something more beach-like, and see how the water is."

"Yes, sir!" Ford said enthusiastically and dumped the contents of his pack on one of the other cots, pulled out a pair of swim trunks, and went behind the screen.

"You actually brought swim trunks to the Pegasus galaxy?" Rodney asked once Ford returned wearing a pair of long, black and orange board shorts.

"Part of the Marine motto, Doc. Be prepared for anything."

"I thought that was the Boy Scouts."

"Them, too," Ford agreed easily as he ducked under the tent flap and John heard splashing a few minutes later.

"Come on, Rodney," John cajoled as he pulled out a pair of shorts and a t-shirt from his pack and placed the rest of the items in the chest at the foot of his bed. "Time to relax."

"Right, relax," Rodney muttered as John went behind the screen to change. "How am I supposed to relax on a beach. Has no one ever noticed my skin tone? I'll burn inside five minutes."

John smiled at the constant stream of complaint. He could tell Rodney meant none of it and sure enough, he came out from behind the screen a few minutes later to see Rodney wearing his 'I'm with Genius' t-shirt and a pair of khaki trousers. His feet were bare and he was digging through his pack for something.

"What are you looking for now?" he asked as he dropped the uniform he'd been wearing on the bed and stuck his boots underneath the low cot.

"Sunscreen ... aha!" Rodney replied as he pulled out a small jar and started smearing the white concoction on his nose.

John grabbed a couple of towels out of the chest at the end of his bed and nudged Rodney toward the tent flap.

Rodney glared back, but picked up a thick book and followed.

They found Ford floating in the water a little way offshore. "About time!" he called and ducked under the water.

John grinned and headed for the water. He glanced back when he realised Rodney wasn't following and remembered Carson's admonishment not to get his cast wet as he watched him spread one of the towels under what little shade he could find, sat down, and started to read.

He spent a good part of the afternoon lazily swimming in the ocean with occasional glances on shore to make sure Rodney was still all right. As the afternoon progressed the easy laps back and forth changed to a competition of speed as well as endurance with Ford as they raced to various points and back. An hour later they were both grinning and exhausted as they flopped on the sand near a sleeping Rodney and let the sun dry them.

Once he was dry, John glanced over with a frown at Rodney still curled on one side. "We're going to need to either wake him up or figure out some way to block the sun," John said softly as he closed the book lying against Rodney's chest and set it aside. The sun had moved enough that his bare arms and face were no longer under the shade. "I'd really rather not wake him if we don't have to."

"We could probably rig something up with the towels and a couple of sticks, sir," Ford said and stood. He wandered to the edge of the woods and came back with several long, thin branches and started tying the corner of one of the towels to one.

"Good idea," John agreed and stood to help. "By the way, this is a vacation, Aiden, lose the 'sir', okay."

"Yes, s --"

John held up his hand.

"Sure thing," Ford said. They positioned the branch-and-towel contraption where it would give Rodney some protection and sat down again.

"Kalani was right," Ford said a few minutes later. "You really do always know where Doctor McKay is, don't you."

John shrugged and watched the water ebb and flow along the beach. "Part of my job."

Ford snorted. "Right," he said with a drawl and a grin. "Your job as team leader or big brother?"

John gave Ford a hard look. "Problem?" he asked, his tone wary.

Ford stopped grinning and quickly shook his head. "No, sir," he replied and held up his hands. "Teyla and I were talking a while back, is all. She mentioned something about family not being just about blood."

"Ahh," John said noncommittally as he turned back to the water, felt Ford watching him, and just waited.

"Anyway," Ford said, and John could almost hear him tip-toeing around his point. "I think it's good, sir. He's changed these last couple of months. He seems happier than when we first got here."

John smiled slightly.

"So do you, sir," Ford finished.

John glanced over at him. "When did you get so perceptive? And I thought I told you to drop the 'sir'?"

It was Ford's turn to shrug and then jump as John heard something in the woods behind them and swung around into a crouch, his eyes focused on where he'd heard the noise.

"It's just over here, Teyla," John heard Jinto say just before the boy shot out of the woods and hurtled to a stop.

John relaxed, and a few seconds later Teyla came out of the woods, a covered bowl balanced carefully in her hands.

"Major. Lieutenant," Teyla greeted and held out the bowl. "Charon wanted me to bring this for you. It is her tuttle-root soup, I think you will all like it."

"Hey, trying to sleep here," Rodney's sleepy voice groused. "Why am I surrounded by towels?" he asked and John saw his head poke above the makeshift sun barrier as he sat up.

"The sun moved," John explained. "Didn't want to listen to you complain for the rest of our time off about being sunburned."

"Oh," Rodney said as he got to his feet and stepped around the branches and towels. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," John replied and turned to Ford. "Let's see about setting up something for food. I could eat."

John and Ford hauled the table out of the tent and set out the fruit and bread as well as the bowl of soup. Jinto showed them where plates and other dishes were stored, then headed back to the village with a last wave.

The soup went well with the bread and the fruit was saved for dessert. As the sun started to set, Ford gathered up some wood and they made a fire on the beach. John brought out the stash of marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate he'd been hoarding for such an occasion and they taught Teyla the finer points of roasting marshmallows and making s'mores.

"These are very good," she said as she finished her second sandwich and looked at her hands. "And very messy."

"That's what makes them good," Ford said as he speared another marshmallow on a thin stick and set it over the fire.

"This is something you did at summer camp, Major?" she asked as she scrubbed sand on her hands to get the sticky bits of marshmallow off of her fingers.

"I've already had this discussion with Ford. We're on vacation, Teyla, no need to be so formal. You can call me John. And yes, s'mores are a kind of summer camp rite-of-passage."

"At the camp I went to, the s'mores were saved for the last night," Ford said and he pulled the now blackened marshmallow off his stick and squashed it between two crackers and a piece of chocolate. "So do your people have anything like summer camp, Teyla? Maybe we should introduce s'mores to Jinto and the others."

She shook her head. "Not as you describe it, no. Once a year, the older men would take the children, boys and girls, into the woods for several weeks and teach them how to hunt, snare game, showed them what the edible plants looked like. It was a much more practical sort of endeavor."

"Maybe you could do that for us while we're out here," Ford said with a bright smile. "It could be useful knowing that sort of stuff."

"I would be glad to teach you; many plants are common to several different planets. John?"

"I think it's a great idea," John said. "Tomorrow work?"

"That would be fine," Teyla agreed.

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

Next morning, after a breakfast of dried meat and fruit Rodney sat on the beach with the Ancient scanner in his hands. He'd taken it out on a whim to see what the life signs readings looked like. The scanner was still set to look for energy readings and he was about to re-calibrate the device when he saw a blip on the map just as it switched to another screen.

"Hey, Rodney, let's go," John called from the woods behind the tent. "Teyla's going to teach you how to find poison ivy."

Rodney pushed himself to his feet and meandered over to the rest of the team still focused on the scanner. "I thought I just saw an energy spike," he said, and looked up at John.

"You thought?"

Rodney stared back down at the small screen. "It's intermittent, I think. It's not there now."

"Maybe it was just a bit of left over data or something," Ford suggested as he walked past to catch up with Teyla.

"You're kidding, right?" Rodney asked acerbically. "Have you learned nothing from being around me? The scanner doesn't work like that."

Ford shrugged and looked off into the woods.

"Is it there now," John asked patiently.

"No. There's nothing there now."

"Well then, worry about it later," John suggested. "Put that away and let's get on with the nature lesson."

They were all wearing their tac-vests and short sleeved shirts, though none had any weapons other than knives. The mainland around the Athosian village was considered safe so John had told them sidearms weren't necessary. John wore a backpack clipped to his vest, packed with water bottles and the food they planned to have for lunch. Rodney stuffed the scanner in his vest pocket and trailed after Teyla as she started into the woods.

They spent most of the morning traipsing through the woods, and while Rodney would never admit it out loud, he did enjoy himself. He was a perpetual student after all and any chance to learn something new was always appreciated. It didn't hurt that Teyla was a good teacher. She showed them not only the plants that were safe to eat, but also the mimickers, plants that look similar but would make them sick.

After a break for lunch in a sunny clearing, they broke into teams, Teyla and Ford, John and Rodney, with orders to hike the woods and bring back what they'd found for dinner.

"Whoever brings back the most that's edible doesn't have to clean camp tonight," Ford challenged with a smile.

"That's hardly fair considering you've got the resident expert on your team," Rodney pointed out.

Ford grinned as he led Teyla out of the clearing with a wave.

Rodney just glared for a moment, then pulled the Ancient scanner out of his vest pocket and readjusted it. He slowly turned in a circle then nodded to himself and stuffed the scanner back in his pocket.

"Where to?" John asked, and looked around the clearing after Teyla and Ford had left.

"That way," Rodney replied instantly, and pointed to the area in front of him. "I think that energy reading I told you about is coming from somewhere over there."

"You know we're supposed to be looking for edible plants," John said, but followed as Rodney led the way.

Rodney waved at the greenery. "Lots of plants, and an energy reading. Two birds and all that."

John laughed. "All right, let's go. Just know we need to bring back something or we'll never hear the end of it from Ford."

The forest closed in the further they walked. The trees were clearly older than the ones closer to the village, and the undergrowth was thick. Other than the occasional animal track, there were no paths and their progress was slowed as they fought their way through the brush. They found a few things that looked like the plants Teyla had shown them and carefully picked the berries or stripped leaves off branches and stored them in John's pack.

"Are you sure we're going the right way?" John asked after an hour. "I'm not seeing anything that would produce an energy reading out here."

Rodney stopped and fiddled with the scanner again as he slowly moved it back and forth. He made a face and tried again as the scanner refused to show him where the energy spike was coming from.

"What's the problem?" John asked, stopping beside him.

Rodney shook his head. "It doesn't make sense. I start to get a reading and then it stops, only to start up again a few minutes later." He looked up and glared in the direction they'd been walking. "It's almost as if some kid is playing with a light switch," he added, mimicking someone flipping a switch on and off.

"And you're sure it's not some glitch with the scanner?"

"Yes, I'm sure. When the readings are there, they are consistent. Whatever is out there is stationary and the power source is significant." He looked at John. "Zed-PM significant."

John looked at the screen in Rodney's hand just as the scanner recorded another spike. "That's not too much farther away," he said and tapped his earpiece.

"Teyla, Ford, come in," John said.

"Yes, John?" Teyla replied. "We are both here."

"Rodney's found something out here, looks like a strong energy reading of some kind." He looked up at the sky then behind them. "We're about five miles from our camp to the southeast. We'll let you know if we find anything."

"Do you want us to come meet you?" Ford asked.

"No need. This hopefully won't take long, we're almost on top of it now."

"We will see you soon," Teyla added and they signed off.

They hiked for another fifteen minutes until they broke through the brush into another clearing. This one was smaller than where they'd had lunch but it had what looked like a totem pole standing in the middle of it.

"Okay, that's not what I was expecting," John said as they moved closer. "How did this get out here in the middle of nowhere?"

Like the totem poles Rodney had seen at Brockton Point, the pole was tall, the top was at least a meter over his head, and it appeared to be carved from some kind of dark wood with several inlaid stones of different colors. Unlike the Earth poles, it was small in circumference and the carvings weren't of animals, rather they seemed to be similar to the geometric shapes found in the stained glass windows in Atlantis. He changed the scanner input and read the readings on the tiny screen.

"This is Ancient," he said with a tinge of awe in his voice. "It made of the same sort of material as the city."

John had been prowling around the edges of the clearing and came to stand next to him. "That still doesn't explain what it's doing out here in the middle of a forest."

Before Rodney could reply, a stone about midway up the pole lit up and a soft yellow light played over both of them.

"This is bad," Rodney muttered as he studied the scanner and tried to step out of the light but it merely followed him as he moved. "The energy readings just spiked higher than before."

"Time to get out of here," John said, and grabbed Rodney's arm.

The yellow light shut off and before they could even register the change, a blinding white light replaced it.

Rodney let out a yelp of fear and he thought he felt John's hold on his arm tighten. He had the briefest impression of white walls instead of the green of the forest, but then his mind shut down and he forgot all about forests, and poles, and blinding white lights.

Chapter Text

John woke to a pounding headache and opened his eyes to see he was lying on his side looking at a glowy white wall. He raised his hands to his head and scrubbed at his face before opening his eyes again and carefully sat up, the weight of the pack still on his back not helping with his tenuous balance. He looked around and noted the high, white ceiling matched the walls and spotted Rodney, also lying on his side, unconscious beside him.

"Rodney," he called softly and gave him a shake, but Rodney didn't stir. He did a quick check for a pulse and patted Rodney's shoulder when he found it strong and steady. "McKay! Time to wake up," he said a little louder, but still didn't get any response.

He left one hand on Rodney's shoulder for the moment and looked around the room again. He didn't see any windows and concluded the glow from the walls and ceiling provided light for the room. He took a closer look at the walls themselves and finally found a door; at least there was a door-shaped indentation in one of the walls with several stones similar to the ones in the totem pole embedded in the wall above it.

He gave Rodney's shoulder another light shake then stood and walked over to the door. He looked for a handle, access panel, or any other way to get it open but didn't find anything and decided Rodney would have to figure it out once he was awake.

He felt his earpiece still in place, and thankful for that bit of good luck, tapped the radio. "Teyla, Ford, come in," he said and studied the walls again as he waited for a response.

The radio was silent, no response to his hail, not even static. "Lieutenant Ford, respond," John tried again. There was still no answer from the radio, but Rodney moaned and tried to curl into a tight ball on the floor.

John went back over and knelt beside him. He laid a hand on Rodney's arm and shook him again. "Come on, Rodney. Rise and shine."

Rodney groaned and slit his eyes open. "What happened?" he groaned and held his head as John helped him sit up.

"I think we were transported somewhere," John answered and stood. "We're in a room of some kind." He watched as Rodney dropped his hands and slowly looked around.

Rodney climbed to his feet and turned in a slow circle until he found the indentation in the wall and wandered over to it. "Did you try anything to get this open?" he asked as he ran his hands over the edge of the indentation.

John shook his head. "I didn't see anything like a handle or an access panel. Thought you would have better luck."

Rodney glanced warily at the stones along the top of the 'door' and pointed up at them. "Those look familiar," he said. "Maybe I can reverse what ever happened and get us out of here."

John took another look around the small room as Rodney worked. There was nothing to explain what the room was or why they'd been transported out of the forest.

"Aha! I think I've got something," Rodney said and John turned back to see him pulling at a section of the wall over his head. He tugged at the section of the wall, and before John could move, the section came off with a pop and Rodney stumbled back, a chunk of the wall about a foot long and eight inches across in his hands.

"Who puts the access panel up that high," he groused as he stood on tiptoe to try and see inside.

"People who are a lot taller than you," John offered with a grin and Rodney glared. "Can you get the door open?"

"Of course I can get it open," Rodney snapped. "Just give me a few minutes. It's a little hard to work when I can barely see inside what I'm supposed to be fixing." He pulled a small flashlight from one of his vest pockets and shined the light into the hole in the wall.

John stayed out of the way and watched as Rodney pulled various crystals from the hole in the wall, studied each one before carefully putting it on the floor. He peered back into the access panel and fiddled with the wires inside before picking up the crystals and replacing them in a slightly different order. John could tell he was having an issue with fitting his casted hand in the hole, but wasn't sure how he could really help.

"Damn cast," Rodney muttered to himself. "Can't get a good grip on anything in here." He glanced down at the remaining crystals on the floor and picked up two that John thought looked identical. He kept the one in his right hand and stuffed the other in one of his vest pockets.

Rodney stood on tip-toes and stuck his hand back in the access panel, banging the cast against the sides of the opening as he tried to wedge the last crystal in place. With a last shove, John heard something snap into place and a moment later the door rose up into the ceiling and he could see another room.

At least he thought it was a room. He walked through the door, and it took him a moment to realise the landscape looked eerily familiar. The nearby hills were rocky and barren, where they stood near the door, the ground was mostly sand, almost gravel, in texture. There was no vegetation to speak of and the air smelt of dry dust and sand. The landscape screamed harsh and unforgiving as all he could see was different shades of brown. It was a place he'd hoped to never see again.

How did they end up in Afghanistan? he wondered. And more importantly, how were they supposed to get back to Atlantis?

Rodney stood beside him and stared out at the landscape. John could tell he was trying to process what he was seeing and that he had no idea where they were. Rodney took one last look around and turned, presumably to go back through the door.

"Umm, Sheppard?" he said, and John heard the slight panic in his voice as he scanned the area for threats. "We lost the door."

"What?" John cried and spun around. Instead of a door and the white room, he just saw more brown. "What the hell is going on around here?"

"Are we even still on the mainland?" Rodney asked. "Maybe this is some other planet and that's why the transporter knocked us out."

"That would explain why I can't get Teyla or Ford to answer the comms," John agreed, not sure how to tell McKay where he thought they were.

Rodney glared at the blazing sunlight and then down at his bare arms, he was only wearing a button down shirt with short sleeves. "I can feel the skin cancer starting as we speak," he groused.

"We have bigger problems," John said as he took a few more steps away from Rodney and the now missing door. "I don't see a 'gate anywhere, how are we supposed to get home?"

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

Teyla watched the sun start to set over the water and looked at Aiden. They'd been back at the campsite on the beach for more than an hour and still no word from John or Doctor McKay.

She heard a crashing through the woods behind the camp and a few seconds later Jinto came into the camp at a run, Halling not far behind.

"Teyla," Halling greeted. "Jinto says Major Sheppard and Doctor McKay may be missing?"

Teyla nodded. "We have not been able to reach them on the radio for several hours."

"Is the jumper still parked behind the village?" Ford asked as he stepped over to their huddle.

"Yes, it is," Halling replied. "And no one in the village has seen either of them since your arrival yesterday."

"Halling, have any of the exploration groups found any evidence of large predators here on the mainland?" Teyla asked and she heard Ford suck in a breath.

Halling looked out at the water for a moment before he turned back to Teyla and nodded. "There is a kind of large cat as well as a few scavengers," he said. "We have seen several indications of tracks in the deeper parts of the forest, but nothing this close to the water or our village. You suspect they encountered some sort of animal?"

"It is the only explanation I can think of," Teyla said. "If they had returned to Atlantis, the jumper would be gone and we would still be able to reach them with the radio or Doctor Weir would have informed us. The fact they are not responding can only mean they cannot answer."

"What about the energy reading?" Ford asked suddenly.

"Energy reading?" Halling asked in return. "We have not found any sort of ruins or other signs of the Ancestors on the mainland."

"Doctor McKay claimed the scanner was showing a powerful energy signature to the southeast," Teyla replied. "But the signal was not constant."

"Maybe it was the pole, Father," Jinto piped up and all three adults turned to him.

"What pole is that?" Halling asked. "You have never mentioned such a thing before."

Jinto shrugged. "Wex and I found it. It is this really cool pole in the middle of a clearing. It has designs on it, kinda like the windows in Atlantis. It didn't seem to do anything, but it is in the right direction."

"Lieutenant?" Teyla asked.

"Sounds like it's worth a look," Ford agreed. "I need to contact Atlantis and let them know what's happened, then we can go check it out."

"Halling, can some of the villagers meet us there and help search?"

"Certainly. I will see to it myself," Halling said, and started to leave. "Jinto, you show Teyla and Lieutenant Ford where your pole is located. I will find Wex and have him show the rest of us the way."

"Ford to Doctor Weir," Ford said and Teyla tapped her radio as well.

"This is Weir," Elizabeth replied.

"Ma'am, we've run into a … snag," Ford said and closed his eyes.

"What sort of snag, Lieutenant, and where is Major Sheppard?"

Ford made a face and Teyla watched him stiffen to attention. "That would be the snag, ma'am. We can't find him or Doctor McKay."

"All right, Lieutenant, tell me exactly what's been happening over there," Weir said and Teyla heard her voice change from curious to concerned.

Teyla listened as Ford described their actions for the last two days, ending with the lesson on plant life and breaking into teams to bring back samples.

"Jinto can help you find this pole?" Doctor Weir asked.

"Yes, Doctor Weir," Teyla replied. "He and another boy found it a few days ago. Halling will bring several of my people to the clearing and we can begin a search."

"Then it sounds like you have a plan. Lieutenant, keep me informed."

"Yes, ma'am. Ford out."

"We will find them, Lieutenant," Teyla said.

"Yes, we will," Ford answered and started for the edge of their campsite. "Come on, Jinto. Show us this pole of yours."

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

Rodney gazed out at the brutal landscape in front of them and wondered how anything could live in such an environment. He glanced over at John and watched as he carefully scouted the area where they stood. Something was off with John, however, he was acting odd, warier and suspicious like he was expecting a specific response to their arrival in the area. Yes, they'd just stepped through a door into an unknown desert, but Sheppard's reactions were more than his usual precautions from being in a new place. Rodney watched as Sheppard scanned the nearby hills and reached for a weapon that wasn't there.

"Is there something you know that I don't?" he finally asked. "I know in reality there isn't much that you know and I don't, but you're acting like you know something I don't."

"We have a problem," Sheppard said in a way Rodney found completely unhelpful. He knew they had a problem, by his count, they actually had several problems.

"I think I know where we are," John said with another wary look around.

"Great," Rodney replied. "Then you know the way back, too." He looked around again. "I have to say, though, I don't remember visiting a planet that looked like this."

John barked out a harsh laugh. He moved past Rodney in the direction of the nearby hills, pausing only long enough to make sure Rodney followed him.

"Care to share the joke, because I'm not seeing the humor at the moment," Rodney said as he fell into step.

"If I'm right, you've lived most of your life on this planet," Sheppard replied with another glance behind him.

Rodney looked around again. "You think this is Earth?"

John nodded. "Not only that, I think we're in Afghanistan." He kept his eyes on the surrounding terrain even as he reached back to grab Rodney's casted arm. "Trust me, we do not want to get separated out here."

"How did we even get here and what are we supposed to do?" Rodney asked as he tugged his arm free.

Before Sheppard could answer, something shimmered into view beside them. Rodney only had the briefest impression of an old man wearing some sort of quilted white robe before Sheppard was in front of him, blocking his view.

"Who are you?" Sheppard growled.

"I am The Overseer," the man explained, seemingly unfazed by Sheppard's defensive posture. "It has been many years since a waypost has sent acolytes for the testing." He looked them up and down slowly. "A warrior and a logician, an interesting combination, indeed. But you are of The People, so you are worthy to stand the trials. I must say, however, you are not like the usual candidates, you seem to lack most of the training required."

"Trials?" Rodney asked as he took a step to the side to see around Sheppard.

"I think there's been some sort of misunderstanding," John added. "We weren't sent here. We sort of ended up here. We didn't ask to come here."

The Overseer smiled and looked them up and down again. "You sought the waypost, it is the same thing."

"The waypost?" Rodney asked.

The Overseer looked at him oddly. "How do you not know of the wayposts? It was what brought you here."

"I think he means the totem pole," Sheppard said, never taking his eyes off The Overseer.

Rodney took a step forward but stopped when Sheppard blocked him with an arm. He glanced over at John, and seeing the combination of anger and suspicion in his expression, stopped where he was. He had a bad feeling about what they'd walked into and hoped he was wrong.

"When was the last time someone was sent here for the trials?" he asked.

"It has been a very long time," The Overseer replied. "So long, in fact, some of my scenarios are no longer accessible."

"And The People?" Rodney pushed. "You said we are both of The People. Would that be the people from Atlantis?" Rodney heard Sheppard whistle softly beside him and knew he'd caught up with Rodney's train of thought.

"Atlantis, yes. The city of The People."

"So The People would come here as part of what? Training to fight the Wraith?"

The Overseer frowned. "In a manner of speaking. The Wraith are a scourge of the galaxy. These trials are to test those who wish to attain the final phase."

"Final phase?" John asked. "Final phase of what, exactly?"

The Overseer's frown deepened. "You sought the waypost, correct?"

Rodney gave John a guilty look. "Umm, yes?"

The Overseer's expression brightened. "Then the waypost was correct to bring you here for testing."

"So these trials test what exactly?" Rodney asked.

The Overseer frowned again. "This should have been made clear before you sought the waypost."

Rodney crossed his arms and glared back. "Well, it wasn't. So could you please enlighten me as to exactly what these trials are?"

The Overseer took a step back and pulled himself up to his full height. "Certain areas and systems of The City can only be accessed by those who have completed the trials and are thus mentally linked. It is a symbiotic relationship; individuals must be tested to ensure their compatibility with each other."

His gaze drifted off as if he were reading something. "According to your scans, you are both seemingly well matched, but a recent event has triggered concerns of fear and trust." The Overseer studied Rodney, then John. "This is will be the focus of the tests."

Rodney stared back for a moment. "What happens if we decide we don't want to do these tests? What if we want to opt out?"

The Overseer shook his head. "You cannot. By seeking and finding the waypost, you have committed to the trials."

Rodney exchanged a stunned look with John. They were so screwed, he realised. He should never have suggested they look for the energy signature.

The Overseer's gaze hardened slightly. "You did not, however, need to damage the entryway to this facility. The portal would have opened automatically once you were recovered from the transportation."

Sheppard seemed to recover from the shock first and said to Rodney, "The faster we do this, the faster we get back to the mainland. Teyla and Ford have got to be looking for us by now. Who knows how long we've been gone." He turned back to The Overseer, "All right, where do we start?"

"The first test is a simple one. You need only find the waypost that is in this land within the time limit."

"Okay, how exactly do we do that?"

The Overseer shook his head. "That is the point of the trial. You must find it and successfully reach it. I will be waiting, you have from now to the next sunrise." Before John could stop him or Rodney could ask any other questions, The Overseer vanished.

"Well, this sucks," John said and kicked a rock near his foot. He glanced over at Rodney. "I don't think he likes you very much."

Rodney shrugged. "I'll try not to be upset about that," he said. "I don't like it when people can't answer a simple question with a simple answer."

John smiled slightly, and Rodney watched as he did another wary scan of the area; he could see Sheppard was uncomfortable with more than just their current situation, the backdrop for this trail had obviously been chosen on purpose to unsettle John.

Rodney wasn't the most sensitive of men, but he knew he needed to tread carefully. John never talked about Afghanistan. Antarctica, yes. A few other places, occasionally, but never Afghanistan. All he knew about John's time in country was a cryptic statement from Ford that John had lost more than just possible promotions and nearly his life.

"I don't suppose you remember any weird totem poles when you were here before?" Rodney asked, trying to sound normal.

"This isn't funny, Rodney," John replied with a glare.

"I know it's not. I'm painfully aware of just how screwed we are here," he snapped back and took a deep breath. "We need a plan," he said as patiently as he could.

Sheppard surveyed the landscape again and started walking toward the nearby hills. "We need to find cover," he said shortly. "Let's go."

They started walking toward the hills before Rodney remembered the Ancient scanner in his vest pocket.

"Wait, hang on a second." Rodney stopped and pulled out the device. "That Overseer person said we needed to find the waypost, right?"

He waited for John to turn around and stiffly nod.

"All right, on the mainland, we found it using the scanner." He turned on the scanner and started adjusting the parameters he wanted to look for. He felt John's growing impatience as he slowly turned in a circle hoping the scanner found something they could track.

He'd almost completed his circle when he caught a faint spike on the scanner off to their left near the edge of the hills. "That way," he said and looked up. "I'm getting something off in that direction."

John looked where Rodney indicated then nodded and silently led the way. He seemed to watch every direction as they walked and Rodney just hoped they found this waypost soon, he wasn't sure John's nerves would survive a prolonged stay in the desert.

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

"The clearing is just up here," Jinto said and was about to run into the open area before Teyla took his arm and stopped him at the edge of the woods.

"We are not sure what has happened. Stay here and wait for your father and the others," she told him as Ford circled around the clearing.

She started around the clearing in the opposite direction, watching for any signs of danger in the area.

The clearing itself was like dozens of others she'd seen in forests. The ground cover was low, probably continuously eaten down by herbivores, the trees grew such that the clearing was roughly circular, the only odd thing was a pole, several feet high standing in the center.

She heard three clicks over the radio as Ford signalled her to move forward. She slowly moved out into the clearing and closer to the odd pole. Teyla could see why Jinto was reminded of the windows in Atlantis, the pole was carved from base to top with the same geometric patterns seen throughout the city. The only difference was the colorful stones set in the pole at regular intervals. She and Ford slowly circled the pole and still, nothing happened.

"Teyla!" Halling called as he entered the clearing with a dozen Athosians at his heels and Jinto beside him. "I have brought people to help with the search. Where would you like us to start?"

The Athosians stayed at the edge of the clearing as Halling moved to stand next to her.

"Halling, have you ever seen something like this before?" she asked and gestured to the pole.

Halling studied the pole for a moment and reached out to touch it but was stopped by Ford grabbing his wrist.

"We have no idea what that could do to you," he said as he let go. "Best not to tempt fate."

Halling studied Ford for a moment then stepped back from the pole with a nod. "You may be correct, Lieutenant." He turned to Teyla. "There are stories of wayposts in the old writings." He studied the pole carefully. "The texts describe the wayposts as lone testaments to The Way of The Ancestors. There is little known of how the Ancestors used them."

"The designs look like a lot of the walls and windows in Atlantis," Ford agreed. "I can believe it was made by the Ancients."

"It is possible Major Sheppard or Doctor McKay were not as cautious, touched the pole, and were injured in some way," Teyla said. "Perhaps we should start with a search of the woods near the clearing. We may find their trail or some indication of where they went after leaving this area."

"Good idea," Ford replied. "I'll get in touch with Atlantis and let Doctor Weir know our status."

"We will start a search of the surrounding woods and report back to you what we find," Halling said.

"Thank you, Halling," Teyla said and watched as the Athosians spread out and started searching the woods before turning back to study the strange pole.

"We will find your friends, Teyla. Have no fear," Halling said before he started for an edge of the clearing. She heard several voices calling the Major's name as well as Doctor McKay's.

She stepped closer to the pole, ignoring Ford's conversation with Atlantis. Halling's information about wayposts gave her an idea and she slowing reached out to the pole and brushed her hand along one of the geometric patterns. As she suspected, nothing happened.

"Teyla! What are you doing!" Ford exclaimed.

"I am in no danger, Lieutenant," she reassured him as she let her fingers trace another pattern. "I suspect one would need to have the Ancestor's gene in order for this device to activate."

Ford glanced from her to the pole and nodded. "And both Major Sheppard and Doctor McKay have the ATA gene," he agreed. "So one of them touched the pole and they were, what, disintegrated?"

Teyla shook her head. "I do not believe so, that would be counter to the purpose of the gene."

"Sure, I guess that's true."

"What did Doctor Weir say?" she asked as she continued to circle the pole.

"She's sending Markham's team here along with Doctor Zelenka. Hopefully, he can figure out what the pole does and lead us to Major Sheppard and Doctor McKay."

Teyla nodded and reached out to touch the pole again. "What is a waypost, Lieutenant?" she asked as she finished another circuit of the pole and stopped beside him.

Ford shrugged. "A sort of mile marker, I guess. A signpost to tell you the way to go to get somewhere."

"Exactly," she said and turned to him. "What if this," she patted the pole, "is more than just a signpost. What if it really does show you the way."

Ford looked up at the pole. "You think it transported them somewhere?" he asked, and she could easily read the disbelief on his face. "How?"

"I have no idea," she replied. "Hopefully Doctor Zelenka will be able to tell us." She looked out into the surrounding forest. "However, I fear we will not find Major Sheppard or Doctor McKay anywhere in the woods."

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

John kept his head on a swivel as they hiked up into the hills. He'd hoped never to be back in this part of the world again, and the last thing he wanted was for Rodney to see how ugly the war truly could be. McKay was first and foremost a scientist, John had no interest in making him into a soldier. Sure, he'd had to defend himself against the Wraith, but that was far different from possibly killing another human being. John ignored the cold chill that ran down his back. He'd done any number of things when he was stationed here, some of those things he wasn't proud of; that was a side of himself he never wanted Rodney to see.

"I don't think this is really Afghanistan," Rodney announced, slightly out of breath, as they crested another hill. He stood with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath and John shook his head before pulling Rodney down into the cover of the hillside.

"It doesn't really matter," John said. "The bad guys will still shoot at you if you make yourself a target by standing at the top of a ridgeline."

Rodney glared at him for a moment and let his breathing even out before he responded. "Of course it matters," he argued. "It's all part of a sadistic mind game. This Overseer is trying to psych you out by creating this …" he waved a hand around, " … whatever this is."

John sat down beside Rodney and handed him one of the bottles of water and an energy bar from his backpack. "Why would The Overseer do that?"

"This is supposed to be a test, right?" Rodney said as he ate the power bar.

John shrugged and nodded as he continued to watch their surroundings for threats.

"Okay, the Ancients really wanted to make sure the people who passed their little gauntlet really earned it. So they stacked the deck." Rodney looked over at him. "You really don't like this place. The Overseer somehow found that out and is using it to get in your head. You're so busy remembering what happened to you when you were in the real Afghanistan, you're allowing it to distract you."

"Thanks for the armchair psychology, there, McKay," John said sarcastically.

Rodney scowled and took out the scanner. "Just don't let what you think you're seeing get to you." He pulled his knees up and rested the scanner on them as he fiddled with the settings, presumably looking for the energy signature that would lead them to the waypost.

John glared over at him for a moment, then took a deep breath and tried to let the memories go. Rodney was right, he couldn't afford the distraction. He squeezed Rodney's arm in apology.

Rodney looked over at him, and while John could see a fair amount of fear, there was also a good amount of concern for him in Rodney's eyes. John smiled in acknowledgement and Rodney relaxed slightly and went back to studying the scanner.

"We're getting close," he said a few minutes later. "The energy reading seems to be coming from somewhere in the next valley."

John crept to the top of the ridge and carefully eased himself into a prone position and took a set of small field glasses from his vest pocket. He felt more than saw Rodney join him as he scanned the valley looking for the telltale pole that would signal the completion of their first trial.

The valley was really more like a small canyon bordered on both sides by the surrounding hills. He could see the opening of the valley in the hazy distance. The valley floor wasn't too far down which would thankfully save them the time and trouble of a hike out to the valley mouth and then back. There were no trees or rock outcrops they could use for cover, however. If the waypost was in the valley, they'd be completely exposed while they looked for it.

He looked in the other direction and found the other end of the valley already in partial shadow. He couldn't make out much, but he thought he caught more than a few hints of movement. If the waypost was in the valley, it had to be in the far end; it was the most defensible spot.

As if reading his mind, Rodney pointed at the place where the valley walls joined to form the back of the canyon. "The energy reading is coming from there," he said and John saw him squint as if trying to see through the shadows.

He nodded and dropped back down to where they'd left the backpack. He needed to scout the area, which meant he needed to find a safe place for Rodney to wait for him. He used the field glasses to study the ridgeline until he found a likely spot, pulled on the backpack, and motioned Rodney to follow him.

Another twenty minutes of hiking and he found a cave he was satisfied with; the entrance was slightly hidden and both he and Rodney could fit inside it if they had to use it for shelter.

Rodney stood outside the cave, panting and eyeing the hole with distaste. "I really don't want to do this," he said quietly once John explained his plan.

John stepped in front of him. "I know you don't. And I'm sorry to have to make you, but you need to get in there and you need to stay there until I come back."

"I think we should stick together," Rodney tried one more time and inched away from the cave.

John knew what he was asking, he knew exactly how much it was costing Rodney to even consider waiting in a cave, but he also knew he could scout faster if Rodney wasn't with him. They needed a plan and for that they needed intel. This was the fastest, and hopefully safest, way to get it.

"I'll be back as fast as I can," John said as he unclipped the backpack and handed it to Rodney.

Rodney's shoulders slumped as he eyed the cave opening one more time before he bent over and shoved the pack inside. "I really hate this idea," he groused as he followed the pack. "This is a really, really bad idea."

"You need to be quiet," John reminded. "Like you said, we don't know what's out here." He heard a few more mutters and then silence.

"I'll be back," he said and headed along the ridge looking for the best place to scout the valley.

He was a quarter of a mile from the cave when there was a slight shimmer in front of him and The Overseer appeared. "Is it wise to leave the logician alone?" he asked conversationally. "There are many dangers in an environment such as this."

John eyed him suspiciously and continued to hike just under the lip of the slope. "Rodney is one of the bravest people I know," he replied tersely.

The Overseer gave him a patronizing smile. "He fears to be alone. He fears to be in the cave. Interestingly, he also fears for your safety and wellbeing as much as his own. He has great faith in your abilities. You think your fears are of an equal multitude, but they can be summed up by simply stating you fear to lose him."

John tried his best to ignore The Overseer and kept walking.

The Overseer had no difficulty in keeping pace. "He is your opposite in nearly every way and yet he trusts you more than any other in his life."

John couldn't help what he knew would be a surprised expression on his face.

"You did not know this?" The Overseer asked. "It is not his level of trust being tested."

John stopped, and against his better judgment, replied, "Do you mind? I have a job to do and apparently not much time to do it." He glared at The Overseer, then turned and scrambled to the top of the hill.

John crested the edge of the ridgeline near the canyon end of the valley as the sun started to set behind him. He glanced at the sun's position and figured he had roughly three hours to check the valley, get back to the cave and Rodney, and reach the waypost before the sun set completely. Hopefully, they could finish this test and get out of the desert before full night.

"I see how much he trusts you, it will be interesting to see how much you trust him," The Overseer said thoughtfully.

Before John could force him to explain his cryptic comment, The Overseer vanished.

"I thought you'd never leave," John muttered to himself and continued along the ridgeline until he found a likely spot to scout the area. He belly-crawled to the edge, and with the field glasses, peered down into the valley below.

He made an effort to forget about The Overseer as he concentrated on reconnoitering their likely destination. He didn't like what he saw.

The valley was crawling with roughly sixty men, or at least something that had two arms, two legs, and one head. John couldn't be sure of anything really as each one wore a head-to-foot robe that concealed their faces and most of their bodies. The only thing clearly visible were their hands and feet. Each warrior was armed with a long, thin sword held at his side in what he recognised as a ready position. They certainly looked the part of impenetrable and threatening as they marched around below him. John thought they sort of resembled the warriors in an old kung fu movie.

His first instinct was to relieve several of the warriors nearest his position of their weapons and cut a swath through them to get to the waypost, but then he sat and analysed what he was seeing. While at first glance the warriors looked to be randomly scattered across the valley, they were actually fairly evenly spaced apart. There were no clusters or large gaps anywhere in the group.

Once he realised that, he simply watched how they moved. There was a pattern to it, he could tell. The warriors slowly progressed through a series of steps that, when seen as a whole, looked chaotic, but if he focused on one person, he found the pattern, the gaps, the places where every back was turned. It was chaos theory writ large.

He sat and watched the warriors move through their pattern, making sure it really was a pattern and that it didn't change, and considered their options.

Option one was brute force. In order to succeed they would somehow need to get their hands on those swords and kill as many of the warriors below as necessary, making a hole to the waypost. While it might seem satisfying, he knew that was something Rodney would never survive, and he wasn't that confident in his own chances, either.

Then he thought about mind games and considered who these trials were really meant to test. Would the Ancients have allowed wholesale slaughter of a seemingly non-threatening force as an appropriate response? He didn't think so, which left option two.

Rodney was going to absolutely hate option two, he thought with a grim smile as he edged his way back behind the ridgeline and headed for the cave.

Chapter Text

Rodney huddled in the cave and tried to breathe quietly. He wasn't sure which part of this plan he hated more, the staying in a cave, or the staying in a cave alone. In Afghanistan. Or at least what was supposed to look like Afghanistan. The cave itself was only a few meters deep, more of an enclosed overhang than an actual cave, really. It didn't really matter, though, all his brain heard was 'enclosed' and that was enough to make his heart start to beat faster and his palms start to sweat.

In the name of distraction, he considered ways to streamline the power consumption in the kitchen back in Atlantis so there would always be hot coffee, wrote an algorithm in his head to data mine the Ancient database for planets that might have coffee beans, and wondered if Teyla and Ford had missed them yet.

He figured he'd been waiting at least an hour for John to come back when he noticed the light in the cave start to change as the sun began to set. Great, he thought to himself, the sun was going down and Sheppard was still out there. Was he all right? Were there predators in this desert they should have been watching for? He didn't trust The Overseer any further than he could proverbially throw him and wondered if he had led John into some sort of trap.

He told himself John was well able to take care of himself, but he'd countered all of his arguments with cold logic and was just about ready to leave the cave and look for Sheppard when he heard movement outside and froze. Whatever it was, it was trying very hard not to be heard and Rodney scrambled around with his hands until he found a good-sized rock. Figures, he thought, the one time he actually wanted to have a gun and it was safely back in the armoury in Atlantis.

The footsteps stopped just short of the cave entrance and Rodney held his breath and readied his rock.

"Rodney?" Sheppard called in a low voice. "I need you to put down whatever it is you're about to bean me with, all right?"

Rodney sagged against the back of the cave for a moment, dropped the rock, and peered out into the gloom. "Sheppard?"

"Yeah, it's me. You gonna let me come in?"

"Yes, yes."

John entered the cave and Rodney saw the smile on his face when he noticed the rock at Rodney's feet. Sheppard sagged against the back wall of the cave and dug through the backpack for one of the bottles of water.

"Good thing you packed enough food to last four people all day," Rodney said as John finished with the water and found another energy bar. "There's a chance we won't starve to death before we get out of here."

"Speaking of getting out of here, I found the waypost," John said and recapped the water bottle. "Good news it's it's not that far from here, just like you thought."

"And the bad news?"

"There are a lot of men watching it."

"But you have a plan, right? Some way to disarm all of them and we can just walk right past them?"

"Something like that."

Rodney frowned. There was something Sheppard wasn't saying. "Out with it," he said and crossed his arms. "What's the part you aren't telling me?"

John grimaced and grabbed the backpack as he crawled to the cave opening. "It would be easier for you to see for yourself."

Rodney followed John just under the lip of the hillside to a spot where they could lie down and see without being seen.

"Oh, you have got to be kidding," Rodney said when he got his first look at the warriors circling their end of the canyon. "How are we supposed to get around all of those people."

"Just watch them. I want to know if you see what I saw," John said. "If you do, then I think I have a plan. But we need to be quick, the sun's going to set in less than an hour. I don't know about you, but I'd rather not spend the night out here."

Rodney looked back at the setting sun, then down at the men weaving around in the valley below. Wait. Weaving … He bent forward slightly and watched the movements more closely and saw the pattern in the chaos. He glanced over at John and tried to stay calm. Was John really thinking what he thought John was thinking?

"No. No, no, no. There has to be another way," he said and didn't realise how loud he was getting until John shushed him.

"If you've got a better idea, I'm all ears," John replied.

Rodney sighed and looked over the edge again.

"This is insane, you know that, right? There is no way this is going to work."

"Still waiting to hear that better idea," John said, his tone getting more impatient.

"Fine, but if we get killed, I want it on the record that I hated this idea."

"I'll be sure to haunt Elizabeth and let her know."

"Let's get this over with, I guess," Rodney said with a sigh, and waited for John to lead the way.

Rodney slid more than once on the way down the hillside. The cast on his hand may have protected him from some of the larger rocks, but he could feel grit sliding down inside the padding of the cast and rubbing at the skin of his arm.

They finally reached the valley floor roughly fifteen meters from the front line of warriors. Rodney watched them as they closed the distance and tried to convince himself the plan would work and wasn't going to get them both killed in the next two minutes.

The plan was a simple one really. There were gaps among the warriors as they moved and even though they looked like they were moving randomly, in reality, they were following a pattern, that once Rodney and John saw it, was easy to anticipate. If they timed their movements correctly, they could step through those gaps where no one was looking and make their way across to the waypost.

The gaps weren't large enough for them to step together, so the puzzle was made even more difficult as they had to time not one set of gaps, but two. Rodney found it was easier to time his steps to music and matched his pace to one of Chopin's Nocturnes and tried not to think about what the swords would do to him if he were seen.

They were roughly a third of the way across, and Rodney was starting to think their crazy plan would actually work, when the warriors surrounding them suddenly froze. Rodney and John froze as well, and exchanged puzzled looks, not sure what exactly was happening. Each warrior stomped a heavy one-two beat then started pacing again at a faster tempo and a slightly different series of steps. Rodney stood frozen for another moment as he tried to sort out where to step next and felt a feather-light touch across the back of his leg.

The pattern was harder to spot since they were now in the midst of it instead of watching from above and they had to keep moving with the group, too. Rodney felt another odd brush, this time against the cast on his hand and almost missed his next move when he saw a warrior's sword return to its ready position in front of him. He looked at his hand and saw the cast had been scored by the blade. He remembered the light brush against his leg and glanced down to see a thin stripe of red blood where his trouser leg had been sliced.

He quickly stepped into his next gap and tried to see John in amongst the robed bodies surrounding them. He caught a quick glimpse and saw a few red marks on Sheppard's arms as well. The swords had to be incredibly sharp to slice such fine lines that he didn't even really feel the injuries. As he figured out the new pattern and tempo, the music in his head changed to Mozart and he managed to avoid any more encounters with the swords.

He wasn't as surprised the next time the warriors stopped, made their one-two cadence stomp, and started off again, this time even faster. He had to shift and squirm a few times and received a few more cuts, he was sure, as his mental music shifted to a Schubert piano sonata and the warrior's step pattern changed a third time.

He'd been concentrating so hard on not getting sliced by the swords, he hadn't noticed the sun setting behind them until it became even more difficult to see where he was going. Luckily, they were nearly through the mass of warriors, and after a few last hops and skips, Sheppard grabbed his hand and pulled him to the open area in front of the waypost.

"How badly did they get you?" John asked, slightly out of breath.

Rodney glanced down at his arms and legs and found several cuts, thankfully none of them bled too badly, although they were starting to sting. "Nothing that needs stitches," he replied. "You?"

"They got me a few times, a couple might be worse than the others, but, yeah, nothing too bad."

Rodney pulled the tiny flashlight from his pocket and pointed it low to the ground but still high enough to see Sheppard. "The backpack took a beating," he said and stuck his finger in one of the slashes. "Better it than you."

John took off the backpack and examined where it had been sliced multiple times. "Lucky for us, the expedition requisitioned slash-proof packs or most of our supplies would be scattered across the valley floor." He pulled the pack back on, nodded at the flashlight, and then back at the warriors. "They must not care once you're across their dance floor."

It was now dark enough it was hard to see any of the warriors, though Rodney could still hear their stamping gait as their pattern and cadence changed. "Okay, we got past the horde, now what?" he asked and flashed the light up at the waypost.

"I am impressed," The Overseer said as he appeared from behind the pole. "Not only with how quickly you found the waypost, but I had expected a, let us say, more straightforward and bloody approach to the Trial of the Blades. You have done well. Not many can complete the trial with no bloodshed"

Rodney glanced down at his bloody arms and pointed to the cuts on Sheppard. "Really?" he asked sarcastically.

"You did not injure any of the warriors," The Overseer replied serenely. "Injuries to the acolytes themselves are to be expected during the trials," he continued, seemingly unperturbed at the cuts on their arms and legs. "One or the other of you must be proficient in the healing arts, certainly."

Rodney stared at him for a moment as pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

You seem to lack most of the training required.

You are not like the usual candidates.

He turned to John and pulled him a few steps away. "We have a problem," he said in a low hiss.

"Only one?" John replied.

"I'm serious," Rodney said a little louder. "That thing," he pointed at The Overseer still standing near the waypost, "thinks we really are Ancients. Not their descendants, but actual Ancients. Do you have any idea how screwed we are?"

John looked back out in the valley and the warriors still moving back and forth. "I have a good idea," he said.

"Not good enough," Rodney argued in a low hiss. "The Overseer thinks we can do all sorts of fun things … like, heal ourselves if needed." Rodney swallowed. If John hadn't figured out a way to minimise their contact with those swords, they would have been cut to ribbons. "These trials could well kill us both before they're over."

"You have completed this trial within the time limit," the Overseer said. "The second trial awaits."

Before Rodney could think of anything to say, a white light shot out of the waypost and the desert disappeared.

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

"Lieutenant Ford?" Markham called over the radio. "I think I see the clearing you're in, sir."

Ford looked up to see a jumper skim the tops of the trees and make a slow circle of the clearing. He waved up at the jumper and tapped his radio. "Anywhere close by you can land, Sergeant?"

"Yes, sir. It looks like there's a large open area only a half mile or so away from you."

"We'll be waiting."

"Any sign of them, yet, sir?" Markham asked as the jumper made a smooth turn and disappeared behind the tree line.

Ford looked at the last of the Athosians coming back into the clearing, and then at the sun almost at the horizon "Nothing, yet," he said and tried to keep the worry out of his voice. He was the ranking officer now, he had to remain calm and direct the search and what he hoped was still a rescue.

"Understood, sir," Markham replied somberly. "We'll be there shortly. Markham out."

Thirty minutes later Ford heard a crashing of bodies through the woods and Corporal Davis, and Sergeant Markham entered the clearing with Doctor Zelenka a few steps behind.

"Where's the rest of your team, Sergeant?" Ford asked and watched as Doctor Zelenka made his way to the waypost and gave Teyla a small wave as he set down his case.

"They'll be here shortly, sir," Markham said and Ford thought he looked guilty.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

"Someone tell me why Elizabeth even lets the pair of them leave the city," Ford heard coming from the forest and glanced at Markham for an explanation.

"He insisted, sir," Markham said in response to the look. "Needless to say, Doctor Beckett is not pleased with Major Sheppard or Doctor McKay at the moment."

Doctor Beckett entered the clearing, a large backpack strapped to his shoulders, and glared at Ford.

"And you, laddie, why in the world did you think it would be a good idea to let those two go off on their own?"

Ford was taken completely off guard by Beckett's outburst and stood in stunned silence for a moment as Markham and the rest of his team made a hasty retreat over to Halling and the gathered Athosians. He was still trying to figure out how to respond to Beckett's question when Teyla came to his rescue.

"Doctor Beckett," she said in greeting. "We were not expecting you to come as well."

Beckett huffed out a breath and Ford saw he was trying to get his temper under control. "Yes, well, knowing those two it's a reasonable assumption that when we do find them, they won't be in the best of health. Better to be here where I can start treating them right away."

Teyla reached out a hand and placed it on Beckett's arm. "We are worried about them as well."

Beckett ducked his head. "Sorry, lad," he said to Ford. "I didn't mean to take your head off."

"No problem, Doc," Ford said with an easy smile.

"Lieutenant?" Zelenka called from near the waypost.

Ford walked over to where Zelenka studied a computer screen with a frown. "You said Rodney was following an energy signature, yes?" he asked, and squinted up at the pole.

"That's what he said," Ford replied. "But it wasn't a normal reading. He said it was intermittent."

"Yes, yes, I would agree," Zelenka said. "There is a slight reading certainly, and I can see why Rodney would find it so interesting." He looked back up at the pole. "But there is nothing here that would explain why they have disappeared. The energy reading is barely registering."

Ford looked at the computer in Zelenka's hands as he talked and realised the device was familiar. "Hey, isn't that McKay's special computer?" he asked, and smiled as Zelenka gave him a guilty look.

"Yes, it is. Major Sheppard convinced me it needed several updates to be done today and I had it in my lab. Maybe a good thing as I could not find my computer when Elizabeth called me to come on this mission. Rodney's hybrid machine is much better suited for this kind of work anyway."

Ford grinned in spite of the seriousness of the situation. "About your computer, Doc," he said, and waited for Zelenka to look at him. "I think it's back at our camp. Doctor McKay said something about borrowing it."

Ford laughed as Zelenka started muttering to himself and went back to studying the information on the computer screen as he slowly walked around the pole.

"So is this what's causing all the fuss, then?" Beckett said, and stopped next to Ford.

"Matka Boží," Zelenka exclaimed just as a yellow beam of light surrounded Beckett.

Ford raised his P-90 intent on shooting at the stone sending out the beam, when Teyla cried, "Wait! We do not know what that will do to Doctor Beckett."

Ford held his aim and glanced over at Beckett frozen in the beam. He had his eyes squeezed shut and stood ramrod straight with his arms held stiff at his sides. "We need to do something before that thing does to him what it did to the Major and Doctor McKay."

The light left Beckett and quickly moved over Teyla, Zelenka, and himself, before returning to Beckett once again.

Ford tightened his finger on the trigger and was ready to fire, damn the consequences, when the yellow beam shut off as quickly as it appeared. Beckett bent over with his hands on his knees and took several deep breaths.

"Doctor Beckett, are you all right?" Teyla asked as she stood beside him.

Beckett straightened up and took several careful steps back from the pole. "Aye, lass. I'm fine," he replied and gave her a shaky smile.

"The energy readings were off the scale," Zelenka said, still standing near the pole. "If the object threw out readings like this when Rodney was scanning, I can see why he was excited. This much power could only come from a fully charged ZPM."

"What did the beam do to us, Doc?" Ford asked with his P-90 still aimed roughly at the pole.

"I don't think it did much of anything," Beckett said. "If I didn't know better, I'd say it was some sort of scanning beam. The diagnostic hood in the infirmary is roughly similar."

"So is that what happened to Sheppard and McKay?" Ford asked. "This," he waved at the pole, "thing scanned them? Then what?" He looked from Beckett to Zelenka expecting one of them to give him an answer the same way Doctor McKay always seemed to know what was going on when Sheppard asked a question.

"I cannot say, Lieutenant," Zelenka replied slowly. "There is a tremendous amount of power contained near this device." He walked around the pole again.

"Teyla thought they might have been transported somewhere," Ford suggested.

Zelenka touched the computer screen a few times and Ford watched as his gaze raced back-and-forth over the screen. "It is possible," he finally said. "The energy spike the diagnostics recorded when Doctor Beckett was … scanned? first would be enough to power one of the transporters in Atlantis several times over."

"So why didn't it do the same thing to me as it did to them?" Beckett asked. "Not that I'm complaining, mind."

Zelenka shook his head. "I am not sure," he admitted. "Your ATA gene is almost as strong as Major Sheppard's. There must be a secondary component required for transport, if that is what it truly is, to function."

Ford had heard enough. "Doc, you and Markham stay well clear of this area from now on," he said and waited for Markham to nod his acknowledgment of the order. "We got lucky once, let's not take any more chances."

"Agreed," Beckett said and moved back to the edge of the clearing and started unpacking medical supplies from his pack.

"Doctor Beckett never touched the waypost," Teyla said in a low voice to Ford.

"Yeah, I noticed that, too," Ford replied and glared at the pole as if he could intimidate it into giving up their missing people. "They never stood a chance."

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

The white light dissipated and John found himself in yet another white room. There were two big differences, however. One, he and Rodney were both conscious and upright, unlike the last time, and two, this room had a console near one wall and a sort of mosaic design of concentric circles about six feet in diameter, set in the floor in the center of the room.

"This can't be good," Rodney said as he looked around. "I assume you've noticed there's no way out of this room?"

"Yeah, I caught that," John said as they started a careful circuit of the room.

"You'd think whoever set up these trials would be smart enough to invent a chair," Rodney said as he sank to the floor near the console and went through his vest pockets until he found a couple of large antiseptic wipes and handed one to John.

John unclipped the backpack, set it on the floor, sat next to Rodney, and started to clean the cuts on his arms and legs. He'd been right, most weren't very deep, but they did sting and burn as he cleaned them out and he heard Rodney hiss a few times as his own clean-up efforts found a particularly nasty cut.

"This is the last time we plan one of your so-called field trips," Rodney groused as he wiped at a cut on his arm just above the cast. "They're worse than missions for trying to get me killed. First a cave-in and now the obstacle course from hell."

John smiled. He couldn't really disagree and pressed the wipe against a deep cut on his arm to try and stop the bleeding.

"You need to put something on that," Rodney said and pointed to the cut. "Here," he said and held up a roll of gauze. "Gimme your arm."

"I can do it myself," John stated, and tried to take the roll.

"Oh, just give me your arm," Rodney groused. "It'll be easier for someone with two hands."

John sighed and held out his arm. "More like a hand and a half."

"Ha-ha," Rodney retorted as he found a sterile pad for the cut in a vest pocket and started winding the gauze around John's forearm.

"I did take a first aid course, but no, Mr Stoic, can't let anyone help," Rodney muttered to himself as he worked. "Thinks he can't accept anything from anyone."

"Rodney, I can hear you, you know," John said, and smiled in spite of himself.

"There," Rodney replied as he tied off the gauze and looked at John with a silly smirk. "I won't tell anyone you had to have help."

"Thanks for …" John said and nodded at his arm.

"You're welcome." Rodney went back to cleaning out the last of the cuts on his legs.

Rodney put away the remaining gauze and found in another pocket the spare crystal from the first room and examined it. John watched as he turned the crystal over and over in his fingers, savoring their moment of calm.

"Any particular reason you're pilfering parts from this place?" John asked after a few minutes.

Rodney shrugged. "Call it a habit," he said. "Some people have a jar of screws in case they ever need just the right one." He held up the crystal. "I'm getting in the habit of saving any spare parts I come across. Never know when something might come in handy."

John had to laugh. "I can understand that, I guess," he said. "So what does that one do?"

"Not sure," Rodney replied and looked up hopefully. "I'd know a lot more if I had my computer with me. I don't suppose …" He glanced over at the backpack.

"Sorry. We were supposed to be on a nature hike. Didn't see the point in lugging your computer along, too."

Rodney flipped the crystal over a few more times then put it back in his pocket. "It's hard to say what it's for," he said and stood up. "It looks like one of the small crystals used in the relay systems in Atlantis, but without a computer to run the diagnostics, I can't be sure." He wandered over to the console and studied the various tiles. John noticed he was careful not to actually touch anything.

John wandered the rest of the room looking for a hidden door or a note saying what they were supposed to do in the room. Maybe it was just a room, he thought, a place where they could catch their breath for a moment. He shook his head as he felt along the wall for any bumps or ridges that might hide an access panel. No, he remembered, The Overseer had said this was supposed to be the next test.

He shook his head and backed into the center of the room and took another look at the walls. At this rate, the only challenge they would have is staving off the boredom, he thought wryly just as he stepped into the circle in the center of the room.

As soon as he was in the middle of the space, a beam of blue light came down from the ceiling and stopped at the edge of the largest circle.

"Sheppard!" Rodney exclaimed and rounded the console and rushed to the edge of the beam. "Are you all right?" he asked and John could see the panic in his eyes.

"Yeah, Rodney, I'm fine. What did you touch?" he asked with a glare at McKay.

"I didn't touch anything," Rodney snapped. "I'm not a complete idiot."

John nodded. He knew that. "In that case, go touch something now and turn this beam off," he said and reached out a finger to see if he could maybe just push his way out of the beam.

"Don't!" Rodney cried. "We don't know if this is anything other than a containment field. Don't touch it." He patted himself down until he found a pad of paper and the stub of a pencil in one of his vest pockets. He stuffed the pad back in the pocket and held up the pencil. "Stand back a little, just in case," he said.

John took a couple of steps back and signaled Rodney he was ready.

Rodney held the pencil gingerly between two fingers and carefully held the tip to the blue beam of light. As soon as the pencil touched the beam, it disintegrated and Rodney let out a yelp and stuffed his fingers under his arm.

"Don't." Rodney looked at him and John noted the panic had been replaced with fear. "Don't touch the beam," he whispered, and looked at the tips of his now reddened fingers.

"Good advice," John replied. "How about you see what you can do about getting it shut off."

"Yes, yes," Rodney muttered, and made his way back to the console.

Rodney bent over the tiles again and John tried to stay patient. Rodney would figure it out, he always did. If he had enough time, John was sure Rodney could figure out just about anything. No sooner had he finished the thought than the blue beam shrank, and not just a little.

John looked at the floor and saw the containment beam had moved into the next ring in the pattern, he guessed about ten inches from where it started. He did some quick math in his head and came to a very bad answer.

"Rodney," John called, and forced his voice to remain calm. "You might want to hurry up."

"I'm going as fast as I can," Rodney snapped and looked up from the console. "What's the matter, are you bored already?"

John grimaced. He needed Rodney working, not panicking, but he needed to know about the apparent time limit. "Not bored, but my room just got smaller."

"What?" Rodney exclaimed and hurried back around to the circle. "Oh, this is not good. Really, really not good." He looked up at John. "Stay as close to the middle as you can," he ordered and ran back to the console. "I'll get you out. I will," he promised, and reached out for one of the tiles. As soon as he touched it, John saw a small burst of electricity run from the tile to Rodney's hand.

"Ow! That hurt!" Rodney yelped. He looked at his fingers for a moment, then reached out for the tile again. Once again as soon as he touched it, the tile gave him a shock.

The console was booby-trapped, John realised and with one look at Rodney, he knew McKay had reached the same conclusion.

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

After the two shocks, Rodney was careful to keep his hands away from the console as he watched John turn in a slow circle within the confines of the beam. The console obviously controlled the field somehow, otherwise, there was no point to it being in the room. Now the cryptic comment from The Overseer about this being their next test made sense; in order to free John, he would need to electrocute himself. Great. The more he learned about the Ancients, the more he wondered why they were trying so hard to find them.

He leant forward and took a closer look at the tiles, trying to decipher their function. There were twelve tiles in the center of the console, in two rows of six tiles each above and below a small screen. Two smaller tiles sat off to each side of the bottom row. Strangely, none of the markings on the tiles resembled the marks on the consoles in the gate room in Atlantis, and he was convinced it was some sort of overly large combination lock. Maybe it was something like Area 51, he thought, but instead of revealing an access panel or secret switch, the right combination turned off the beam. Which meant he was going to have to touch the tiles to see what they did.

He clenched his hands and grimaced at the idea of getting another shock, but it was the only way to find out what the tiles did. He slowly reached out and hesitantly touched the tile at the top left and grit his teeth at the shock. He let go of the tile and a line of Ancient text appeared on the console screen.

"Rodney!" John yelled from the middle of the room. "What the hell are you doing?"

"What?" he snapped back. "I have to know what the tiles do in order to figure out how to turn off the beam."

John glared at him from behind the containment field and Rodney stared back. "You're going to get hurt if you keep touching the console," John pointed out.

Rodney huffed out a sigh. "And you're going to get dead if I don't," he replied. He remembered John's words from the hillside as they watched the warriors pace below them. "I'm all ears if you have a better idea."

"You could --"

"You turning into a pile of ash is not a better idea," Rodney said with a glare. "So don't even say it."

"And you electrocuting yourself is somehow better?" John replied angrily.

Rodney heard the underlying worry in John's tone. "The voltage isn't that strong," he said and hoped he sounded convincing. "It doesn't hurt that much."

"Liar. Besides, it is strong enough to cause burns," John said and pointed at Rodney's hand.

Rodney glanced at the tips of his fingers poking out of the cast. He noticed the redness hadn't gone away and the skin was tender to the touch. Nothing he could do about it, though. He didn't have any gloves and John was running out of time. He'd just switch back and forth on which hand he used to test the tiles. Hopefully, that would lessen the damage from the electrical burns.

"Burns heal a lot better than disintegration," he said, and went back to studying the console. "Now shut up so I can get on with saving your life."

He looked up just as the beam shrank again and Rodney stopped the mental clock he'd had running in his head. Two meter diameter, twenty-five centimeters every three minutes. Rodney finished the calculations and swallowed. He had about nine minutes before the space left for John to stand in reduced to something too small for him to avoid touching the beam any longer.

The line of Ancient code was still on the screen and Rodney squinted at it as he tried to read the small symbols. He'd been right, the console was some sort of combination lock. The lines of text weren't in a code but were part of a puzzle.

"Isn't that always the way?" The Overseer said sagely as he appeared at Rodney's side. "You turn your back for just a moment and he ends up in trouble."

"Working," Rodney muttered not looking up from the screen. "Shut up."

From the corner of his eye, Rodney saw The Overseer shake his head. He knew the goal was to distract him, make him waste time, and he wasn't going to fall for it. He steeled himself and touched the lower left tile with his left hand. He winced as he felt the electricity burn his skin and he heard John hiss in sympathy from the center of the room, but he ignored both the pain in his fingers and the worry coming from the middle of the room as he focused on the next line of text that appeared on the screen.

He had expected the tile to give him the next piece of the puzzle, but the line of text was too short. It seemed to be a non-sequitur statement more than anything. His mouth fell open as he realised it was an answer to a question, similar to the answers given on Jeopardy. Had The Overseer pulled the fact that he liked a television quiz show from his head the same way he'd found Afghanistan in Sheppard's memories?

He looked over the tiles again. Since he knew the substance of the puzzle came from his own mind, how did that help him solve it? Maybe the top row selected a question and the bottom row selected the answer. But how was he supposed to know which answer tile went with which question? Maybe it wasn't Jeopardy, after all, he thought, but instead the Memory game he used to play with Jeannie when she was small. All he had to do was match each question to the correct answer and once he had all of them matched up, the beam should shut down and John would be free.

Which meant he had to know all of the questions and all of the answers.

Which meant this was really going to hurt.

He decided the fastest way was to try one question followed by one answer. If he got lucky, he'd get at least one match fairly quickly, which would make the odds of finding the rest of the right pairs even better.

The first line of text had disappeared, so he took a deep breath and touched the upper left tile again with his right hand. This time the shock was stronger, but he tried to hide how much it hurt as he read the screen and translated the Ancient text in his head. What he wouldn't give for his computer right now. Of course, the electricity would probably fry it the first time he tried to use it, so maybe it was just as well he didn't have it.

He read through the text again, but the answer he remembered didn't match the question. He touched the second tile on the bottom row left-handed and couldn't contain the hiss of pain as another wrong answer flashed on the screen.

"You are persistent," The Overseer said. "Is he really worth all of this effort and pain?"

"Go away," he growled as he read the screen.

"Ahh, I see now," The Overseer said, and Rodney spared a glance up to see he was being studied. "I have not seen such loyalty for a very long time. You are willing to risk such pain for him. He is willing to risk death to save you." The Overseer took a step back.

Rodney had no time to parse out cryptic comments about sacrifice at the moment. "Didn't I tell you to go away?" he snapped.

"As you wish," The Overseer replied. "I'd work faster if I were you. Your companion doesn't have much time left," he added just as he disappeared and Rodney saw the blue beam of light shrink again.

He had one, maybe two more cycles before the space left by the beam grew too small for John to avoid touching the beam. He analysed the twelve tiles again. It wasn't inconceivable that the two combinations he'd tried didn't match and logic dictated he try the third question tile as it had a good chance of matching one of the two answers he already knew.

"Rodney, don't!" John pleaded from his prison in the middle of the room.

Rodney closed his eyes and touched the third tile right-handed. The resulting shock was too much and he let out a whimpered cry as he released the tile and looked at his hand. His fingers were red from the tips to at least the edge of the cast and the tips were starting to blister. He cradled his arm close to his chest and tried to read the screen through the tears in his eyes. He nearly slammed a fist into the console when the question didn't match either of the known answers.

"Damn it, Rodney, stop," John yelled.

Rodney shook his head and touched the third answer tile. The pain wasn't as bad this time and he stared dumbly as the burns on his left hand trying to understand why. He could see his fingers and part of his palm were red, he even saw a few more blisters, but it took several long seconds for him to realise the lack of pain was probably bad.

Even before he read the new text on the screen, he knew the answer wouldn't match any of the three questions. Something was wrong, he was missing something. He tried to concentrate on the tiles again and see anything he'd missed the first time, but he found it harder to focus.

"Rodney," John said in a low voice. "You have to stop. It's not going to matter much longer anyway."

Rodney heard the tone much more than the words and looked up. It took a few seconds for him to process that the beam was only a few centimeters from John's shoulders, the next time it shrank he'd be vaporised just like the pencil.

He shook his head and studied the console again. The answer was right in front of him, he knew it, he just had to focus a little harder. Find the answer. Save John. Simple.

Simple.

The solution to getting past the warriors had been deceptively simple; all they'd had to do was ignore the obvious solution of attacking the warriors and walk around them instead.

He stared down at the tiles, all of the tiles this time. Two rows of six tiles surrounding a screen. Two other tiles an arms width apart on each side of the stacked tiles. Could it really be that simple? he wondered. He had one chance left, try another question and answer or try the less obvious.

He stretched out a hand over each tile and looked John in the eye.

"I think I've got it," he said and pushed the two small tiles at the same time.

Chapter Text

"Doctor Zelenka, what is the minimum safe distance for that scanning beam," Ford asked, eyeing the pole carefully.

Zelenka looked at the height of the pole and checked something on the computer before answering, "It is hard to say, Lieutenant," Zelenka finally replied and pushed up his glasses. "We were standing roughly two meters from the pole when Doctor Beckett triggered it before."

Ford glanced over to where two Athosians were setting up a tent for Doctor Beckett to use as a temporary field clinic once they found the Major and Doctor McKay. "And the pole isn't doing anything now, right?"

Zelenka glanced down at the computer again. "That is correct. There is slight reading, like a computer in sleep mode," he said, and held up the computer in his hand as an example.

"Okay, thanks." Ford turned to Teyla. "We need to mark out a safe distance for the clearing, say a twelve-foot circle around that pole. We're only assuming it won't come on again. I don't want anyone getting too close."

"Agreed," Teyla said. "I will speak with Halling. There is a stream not far from here, my people can gather stones from the shore and we will make a ring. I do not think any of us will trigger the pole."

"Thanks," he said with a smile.

He watched as Teyla went to Halling and spoke to him. What had started as a simple statement from Teyla, Ford assumed she just wanted to let Halling know where she and several other Athosians were going, quickly changed to an argument.

As Ford hurried over to try and settle things, he could hear the gist of the argument.

"They should leave this place, Teyla. It is clear the Ancestors do not want these people here."

"How can you say that?" Teyla asked, and Ford saw the sadness in her eyes. "Major Sheppard and Doctor McKay are missing. We need to find them."

"You and I both know they will not be found here. The waypost has done something to them, Teyla. I do not believe they will return. The Ancestors have made their wishes clear. You must tell them to leave."

"I thought you liked Major Sheppard," Teyla said. "Why are you so quick to dismiss the possibility of their survival?"

"Is there a problem?" Ford asked, his tone as innocent as he could make it.

"There is no problem, Lieutenant," Teyla said before Halling could speak. "Halling was expressing his concerns for the Ancestor's waypost."

Ford looked up at Halling with a genial smile. "That's what I want the stones for," he explained calmly. "I think we can agree, that no one should step too close to the waypost."

"That is true," Halling said hesitantly.

"All right, then," Ford said and continued to smile. "Teyla, let's get a few people together to go get those stones, I'll send a couple of the Marines with you," he waved a hand at Markham and Corporals Davis and Sanchez hurried over, "to help out. The sooner we have an area marked out, the happier I think we'll all be. Am I right?" He looked from Teyla to Halling.

"I agree, Lieutenant," Teyla said as Halling reluctantly nodded.

"Great! Teyla why don't you take Davis, Sanchez, and some of the Athosians, and find enough stones to mark out that circle."

"Certainly," she said, and with a nod to the two Corporals and a wave at several of her own people, she led the way into the woods.

"Sergeant Markham," Ford called once they'd gone and Halling had rejoined the remaining Athosians on the other side of the clearing.

"Sir?"

"Teyla and some of the Athosians are going to mark out an area around that pole. No one is to cross it, Sergeant. We don't need any more missing people."

"Understood."

"We also need to set up some sort of camp. I get the feeling Doctor Beckett isn't going to leave, so we may as well stick around, too. What supplies do we have in the jumper?"

"Basic survival gear," Markham said. "A couple of small two-man tents, medical supplies, MREs."

"All right, take Jeffries and bring it all back here. We'll set up camp over by Doctor Beckett's tent before it gets dark."

"Yes, sir," Markham said. "Umm, sir?"

Ford turned back to him.

"How are we going to find Major Sheppard and Doctor McKay, sir? If that pole thing really did transport them, they could be anywhere on the planet."

Ford grimaced. That was the one question he had no answer for. "Doctor Zelenka will figure out what happened, Sergeant. Once we know that, we'll know how to find them."

Ford knew he had to sound confident and in control. Sheppard had told him once the biggest secret to command was act like you had a perfect plan even if you were still making it up in your head. Ford hoped his acting skills were up to par since he didn't have any idea how they were going to find the Major and McKay. His plan right now was hoping they'd be able to get themselves back to the clearing and Ford and the others could help from there.

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

"I think I've got it," he heard Rodney say but John saw the look on his face as he spoke. He knew that look, it was the same look Rodney had just before he walked into the middle of an energy creature with nothing more than a weird shield and no idea if he would survive or not.

"Rodney!" he yelled just as McKay's hands hit something on the console and the blue beam surrounding him winked out.

His body was moving even before his brain had caught up with the fact he was no longer trapped, and he rounded the console to see Rodney on his knees, his head down, and his hands curled against his chest. He stood in shock for a moment as he got his first look at Rodney's hands. As he started to list to one side, John grabbed the backpack, knelt beside him, and caught him before he hit the floor.

"My god, Rodney," he whispered as he braced Rodney against his chest, and dug through the pack one handed trying to find the bottled water.

"John?" Rodney asked, but tried to pull away at the same time.

"Hey, it's me," John said, and shifted until Rodney leant against him again. It took him another second to realise Rodney had called him by his first name and he held him a little tighter for a moment. "Let me see your hands, buddy."

Finding the water bottles by touch, John pulled out two of them and unscrewed the caps. He knew enough basic first aid to know the burns needed to be washed and then wrapped, but Rodney wasn't cooperating, he kept his hands tight against his chest and refused to look at him.

"John?" he asked again. "Real? It worked?"

Then John understood. "Yeah, buddy, I'm real. Your idea worked, you turned off the beam."

Rodney sagged against him. "Hands hurt," he muttered.

"I'll bet," he replied. "Let me see them, okay? We need to clean up those burns and get your hands wrapped. Once we're back home, Beckett will get you fixed up in no time."

He scooted Rodney back until he was braced against the wall behind the console and moved until he was in front of him with the bottles of water. He waited until Rodney unclenched his hands and John could see the skin from his fingertips to mid-palm were red, with blisters forming. He carefully touched one of the red fingertips and frowned when the skin turned white. Both hands were also swollen and he knew from experience just how much burns could hurt. He just hoped Rodney hadn't done any permanent damage.

"So, I'm John now?" he asked as a distraction from what he was about to do. "I was beginning to wonder if you thought my first name was 'Major'." He gave Rodney a small smile as he took Rodney's left wrist and slowly poured the entire bottle of water over his hand.

Rodney whimpered and tried to jerk his hand back, but John held on to his arm until he was done.

He rested Rodney's arm so his hand wasn't touching anything as he found a fresh roll of gauze and carefully wrapped each finger and then Rodney's hand to just behind his wrist. "Okay," he said with a smile. "One down, one to go. Let's give it a sec and then I'll wash out the other one."

Rodney nodded absently. "No one here," he whispered after a few seconds.

John glanced around the room, confused by the statement.

"Umm, no. There's no one here but us," he replied with a frown.

Rodney sighed and looked him in the eye for the first time since the beam released him and John thought he saw a hint of the usual Rodney frustration in his eyes.

"No one here to hear," he tried again. "Just us."

"You can call me John when there are other people around, you know," John said gently. "I call you Rodney all the time."

Rodney gave him an odd look that John wasn't sure how to interpret. "Etiquette," he mumbled and looked down at his bandaged hand.

"What?" John asked.

Rodney glanced up at him and then away. "Sergeant Bates said months ago the scientists were getting too familiar, calling people by names instead of ranks." He paused, then added, "Didn't want to embarrass you."

John shook his head, tapped Rodney's knee, and waited for him to look at him. "You don't embarrass me, got it? You can call me John any time you want."

Rodney nodded and gave him a tiny smile.

John held up the other bottle of water. "Ready?" he asked, and waited for Rodney to nod and give him his other hand.

John poured the other bottle of water over the fingertips and as much of Rodney's right hand as he could. He wasn't sure how much the cast had protected the hand and tried to get some water down in the cast as well.

"Carson'll be mad," Rodney said quietly as he stared at the cast. "He said not to get it wet."

"I think he'll forgive us," John replied, and patted at his vest looking for more gauze. The right hand wasn't as bad, but it still needed wrapping as well. Not finding any more supplies of his own, he went through Rodney's vest until he found what was left of his roll of gauze after patching up John's arm.

"You look like a reject from a mummy movie," John said, and tried to smile once he was done. "How are you doing?"

Rodney tried to flex his fingers and winced in pain. "Still really hurts."

John dug through the backpack and came up with one last bottle of water and passed over the ibuprofen from his vest. "Best I can do right now."

Rodney grimaced as he looked at the sealed packet then tried to hold the bottle between his hands. "I don't suppose there's a straw in the pack?"

John shook his head and quirked an eyebrow in question.

"Fine," he said resignedly and opened his mouth for John to pop in the pills and then held the bottle so Rodney could drink. Once he had the pills down, he leant his head against the wall and closed his eyes. "Wanna go home now," he said softly.

John repacked the empty bottles, zipped up the pack, and settled against the wall next to him, close enough for their shoulders to touch.

"So how did you figure it out?" John asked a few minutes later. When Rodney gave him a questioning look, he added, "The beam. How did you figure out how to turn it off?"

Rodney glared at the console and pulled his knees up until his hands were cradled between his chest and his legs. "I'm an idiot," he said. "The solution was right in front of my face and I nearly missed it."

"How so?"

Rodney jerked his chin at the console. "It was so obvious, but I wasn't paying attention."

John stood and looked at the console. He saw the screen and the two rows of six tiles and figured that's what Rodney had been trying to figure out that he kept getting shocked. It took him a few seconds to see the two smaller tiles off to each side of the bottom row of tiles.

"Pushing the two smaller tiles turned off the beam?" he asked, and glanced behind him.

"Yeah," Rodney replied, his voice flat. "I don't remember if I got a shock touching those or not. It gets a little fuzzy."

"Inattentional blindness," John said. "Pilots have to fight that all the time. You get so focused on the thing in front of you, you miss other stuff."

Rodney looked up at him. "Like I said, idiot."

John shook his head and smiled as he bent down and grabbed Rodney by the arm and helped him to his feet. He waited until Rodney found his balance, then let go, grabbed the backpack and said, "Nope, just human like the rest of us."

He clipped the pack back to his vest and looked around the room again. There was still no indication of a door anywhere. He walked around the room, careful to skirt around the mosaic on the floor. "Okay, so now what?" he said to the room at large. "We'd kinda like to go home, now."

The Overseer appeared near Rodney.

"You did survive," The Overseer said to John with a patronising smile.

Rodney gave The Overseer a sour look and edged away from him at the same John moved and stood between them. "Disappointed?" he asked sarcastically and gave Rodney a careful glance to make sure he was all right.

The Overseer ignored him. "You have both demonstrated your ability to overcome your fear and trust in your companion with external problems. Now you must do the same with the internal."

John and Rodney exchanged a puzzled look.

"Internal?" Rodney muttered. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Are you ready?" The Overseer asked at the same time.

Before John could formulate an answer for either of them, the white light flared again.

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

Rodney found himself in a dimly lit long hallway with doors every dozen meters or so along it. Over each doorway was a word, and opening a door, he found a room stacked with boxes, some large, some tiny, but all of the boxes were closed and all of them had an intricate lock fitted in the hasp.

He wandered down the hall looking around for anyone to tell him what was going on.

"John!" he called, and looked in another room. "This really isn't funny you know," he tried again.

No one answered and he kept walking, figuring he would eventually find someone or something to explain what was going on.

Was John hurt? he asked himself as he walked and picked up his pace. Was that why he didn't answer?

"Sheppard?" he called again, this time his tone was laced with worry instead of impatience.

He stopped at the next door and read 'Camping' over the door frame. He entered and looked around. A sturdy shelf held more closed and locked boxes. He picked up the nearest one and read Camping Trip 1978 on the brass plate.

He put the box back, only then noticing that not only were his hands not bandaged, they weren't even burnt. He looked at his hands for a long moment trying to figure out what it could mean before he gave up and went back to looking at the odd boxes.

He picked up the next box, this one much larger, with Camping Trip 1980 written on it. He put the box back and stepped back out of the room.

"Who has a whole room for camp mementos?" he asked himself out loud as he continued down the hall.

"John!" he yelled. "Where are you?" There wasn't even an echo.

"This is just nuts," he muttered to himself. "Next time you get a weird energy reading, Rodney, just ignore it. Run in the other direction."

He looked around the hallway again. "Where am I? Where's John?" he called out, but received no answer.

He found a small room with 'Relations' written over the door and crept inside. He found boxes marked 'Mom', 'Dad', and 'David' each on their own shelf. While the boxes were larger than some he'd found, all of them were still carefully locked. He found other boxes with other names that Rodney assumed were other family members lined along one wall.

Another shelf held a box marked 'Nancy'. Interestingly, next to Nancy's box were two others, one marked 'Wedding' and the other, much smaller box said simply 'Divorce'.

David. The name rang in his head, he knew that name. That's was John's brother's name. The more he looked at the boxes, the more things started to make sense and he stumbled back out of the room and stared at other rooms along the hall. 'High School', 'Air Force', and 'Sports' labeled other doors.

"No. No, no, no. This is not happening!" he yelled and started running down the hallway, reading the door labels as he went.

He stopped when he found a large room crammed with boxes. Unlike the other rooms he'd found, this room was disorganised, boxes tossed hither and yon, no order, just chaos. He looked up and saw 'Afghanistan' over the door and swallowed.

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

John's first impression of where he ended up was cacophonous noise. He squeezed his eyes shut and covered his ears in a vain attempt to deaden the sound but it did little to help. He dropped to his knees and tried to make sense of what he was hearing. He heard voices, lots of voices, some yelling, others making demands. He thought he heard his own voice a few times which didn't make any sense at all.

He slit his eyes open and squinted at his surroundings, the visual feedback was almost as bad as the audio. Everything was very bright and kinetic. There was no sky he noticed, instead an almost steady stream of numbers interspersed with what looked like Ancient script ran across the space above his head. There were several work tables littered with objects in various states of disassembly and John thought he recognised a few of them from Rodney's lab.

Rodney.

Where was McKay?

"Rodney!" he yelled into the whirlwind of sound. "Rodney, answer me!"

No answering call, but John wasn't sure if that was because Rodney couldn't answer or because he couldn't hear the reply.

"Could you turn it down a bit!" John hollered in frustration. The noise was making it impossible for him to think.

Surprisingly, the noise level dropped noticeably and John took his hands away from his ears.

"Thank you," he said to himself and took a better look around.

The work tables were immediately in front of him, but there were other things as well the more he looked around.

There were shelves of books to one side. He looked at the titles and found an array of technical manuals, science papers, and ratty paperback novels. More shelves held huge binders labeled 'Physics', 'Mathematics', 'Engineering'.

"Where the hell am I?" he wondered aloud and wandered further.

He glanced up at the 'sky' again and watched the numbers flow past. As he watched, he started to recognise various equations and formulae; the Ancient text was still as mysterious as ever.

He walked past a beautiful grand piano, in perfect tune, playing by itself.

Some sort of device sat on another table carefully putting itself together, then taking itself apart again. As he watched, he noticed every time the device put itself together, it was in a slightly different configuration than the previous one. It looked like the strange Ancient box Rodney had found months ago and still didn't know what it did or how it worked. He watched the device take itself apart again as a very scary idea began to form in his head.

He looked around and found not everything was brightly lit, there were many dark spaces as well. He stepped cautiously into one of the darker areas and saw what looked like a television sales floor, dozens of screens showing short bursts of video on a loop.

An enormous whale swallowing a boy.

Then an older version of the boy being pummeled by a much larger child.

Another version of the boy was trapped, in a hole, or cave, he couldn't be sure, pounding on something, and crying.

Several screens showed the Wraith. Attacking the city, feeding on faceless people, feeding on John.

John, lying on the floor of a jumper, seemingly dead.

Atlantis, sinking, or burning, or otherwise being destroyed, took over a few more of the screens.

John backed away from the dark corner and into the light as his suspicion was confirmed. He didn't really understand the whale, or know who the bully was, but he knew who the boy had to be. He looked back at the chaotic activity around him and knew he was somehow inside Rodney's head.

Chapter Text

Rodney carefully stepped into the 'Afghanistan' room and looked around. Most of the boxes were labeled with what looked like dates and report numbers. "Missions?" he asked himself as he moved around the precariously balanced pile.

He wandered over to a large box shoved in a corner and found 'Court Martial' on its label. Rodney reached out a hand to touch the lock before pulling it back. "You were court-martialed?" he asked the room. "Why?" But he left the box alone and kept moving.

In a back corner, he found boxes with names and dates. 'Holland', 'Collins', 'Dex', 'Mitch'. He looked around and found several more and realised these were people John had lost while stationed in Afghanistan.

He could admit to himself that he'd been curious about what John had done before coming to Atlantis. John would occasionally tell a story about something innocuous when they were off-world, wild parties in the barracks, descriptions of places he'd seen on leave, but never anything of what he actually did. If Ford or Teyla asked about his experiences, he would pass it off as nothing very important and change the subject. Rodney had taken his cue from John's reactions and never bothered to ask. He knew there were several commendations and awards in John's file, but the reasons for them were usually classified.

He gazed at the boxes and was sorely tempted to open one to see what sort of memories were inside, but he carefully stepped back out of the room instead. If and when John wanted to tell him about what was in the boxes, he would listen; until then he could live with the not knowing.

He turned back into the corridor and kept moving. He knew where he was, he just had no idea what he was supposed to do next. How was being stuck in John's head a trial? The only thing he'd had to fight so far was his own overwhelming sense of curiosity to open boxes, which he was determined to win by the way. He had no idea what The Overseer expected from him now.

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

John wasn't sure where to step. Everywhere he turned he found more of Rodney's memories playing out in front of him. He tried to avoid the dark places as he figured those were the most private; things Rodney probably didn't want anyone to know. However, since most of the dark places also involved the loudest voices, he couldn't always help it if he heard snippets of things as he skirted around them.

"You're the one who wanted kids," he heard a male voice shout from one of the shadows and stopped. "He's your problem, you deal with him."

"I have more important things to do, " a woman yelled back. "I don't have the time to drive him halfway across town, too."

"And, what, you think I do? I'm supposed to drop everything a haul him to some special high school every day?"

"He's your kid, too!" the woman sarcastically replied, John was sure she had a sneer on her face as well.

"And who's fault was that?" the man yelled back. "He's fourteen, he can take the bus."

"He graduates in a few months, then he'll go to university and be out of our hair," the woman said and John heard a door slam.

He felt guilty for stopping, but the more he heard from the dark corners of Rodney's mind, the more he wanted a way to go back in time and give all of those people, especially Rodney's parents, a piece of his mind. His childhood hadn't been an endless stream of sunshine and ice cream, but it was apparently better than what Rodney had had to endure.

He thought he was on safer ground in the brighter areas of Rodney's mind until he found one area full of images of a woman, always the same, with blonde hair, usually cut short. Oddly she usually wore BDUs, but there were some, obviously fanciful, images of her wearing far, far less. John surprised himself by blushing as he quickly backed out of the area. He had a suspicion of who the woman was and didn't need to see anything else of Rodney's fantasies.

In the near distance, he saw what looked like a truncated version of the central tower of Atlantis and headed in that direction. Along the way he watched chess pieces move themselves through game after game, a whiteboard drew and erased several different plans for a system John assumed was part of the city, and another whiteboard carefully drew out a circuit schematic in precise detail.

He also heard snippets of conversations whisper past on the breeze and smiled when he was able to separate out the voice from the other background noise and realised it was his own.

She said we were chaguo ndugu, brothers by choice. I guess she was right.

You get yourself in trouble and we will be there to get you out.

Elizabeth asked me to put together an off-world reconnaissance team and I want you on it.

The mark of a warrior Kalani called it.

He arrived at the base of the tower and found the door but hesitated before trying the controls. What sort of memories would Rodney store in Atlantis? John hoped they were good memories, but why keep them separate from everything else he'd seen. How would he feel if the tower was locked?

He took a deep breath and waved his hand over the control.

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

Rodney roamed the corridor aimlessly. Sometimes he'd peek into a room to see what sort of boxes John kept there but for the most part, he just walked. The hallway and rooms were still only dimly lit, but he thought there was a brighter area ahead of him and sped up to see what was there.

The dim corridor ended on a well-lit atrium and Rodney stared open-mouthed at what he found. It was Atlantis; he easily recognised the clean design, the geometric patterns in the stained glass, even the same water features, though it wasn't any particular area of the city he was aware of.

The atrium held huge boxes, and he hurried to the closest one to see what it contained. He saw 'Puddle Jumpers' written across the top of one box. Another read 'Gate Travel' a third said 'New People'. None of them had the locks he'd seen on all of the other boxes he'd found, but they were still closed and Rodney didn't open any of them.

In a darkened corner to one side of the atrium was another box, one Rodney actually expected to find. The lock was even more intricate and it was marked 'Wraith'. Another, smaller box, next to the Wraith box, was also locked and the label on it read 'Sumner'.

Several rooms branched off from the atrium. He poked his head into the closest one and found what looked like the armoury in Atlantis. The room surprised him for two reasons, one, there was a box labeled 'Ford' and two, the box was open. Rodney looked in the box and found what looked like snapshots of the Lieutenant, in some he was smiling, in others, he was demonstrating something, a couple of the pictures were from a movie night they'd had a few weeks ago and Ford was laughing while in the process of throwing popcorn at someone.

The next room he entered looked like the infirmary. He stepped inside and found a box labeled 'Beckett' on one of the beds. Once again the box was open and the pictures showed Carson smiling, or talking, in a few he looked serious as he explained something.

He glanced around the rest of the room and found a locked box labeled 'Bug' under one of the beds in a dim corner. He found another labeled 'Cave' and a third marked 'P2J-496' under another bed, they were locked as well. It took him a second to realise the last two boxes weren't from injuries to John but bad memories from Rodney's own stays in the infirmary.

He wandered out of the mock infirmary and found Teyla's box in what looked like one of Atlantis' workout rooms. Her pictures were of her in different fighting stances, there were several of her smiling, several others were obviously from missions.

He left the workout room and went into the last room and found his lab. He stood in the doorway for a moment, stunned. There wasn't a box, instead, the room itself was covered in images. John standing with his arm carelessly draped over Rodney's shoulders, both of them grinning. In another, the two of them laughing over some joke. John shooting him in the leg to test the shield. The two of them around a campfire on a planet. Rodney working on something in the lab. Rodney explaining something in Elizabeth's office. Rodney playing the keyboard in the rec room. His gaze caught writing above the door and he expected to see his name. Instead, what he found was the word 'Brother'.

He swallowed hard and looked around the room again. He only had a few moments to take in what he'd found before the lab melted away and he was in a pure white room. He groaned in pain and looked down at his hands, once again bandaged and burnt, and staggered over to the nearest wall where he slouched down until he was on the floor and curled his hands into his chest.

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

John let out the tiniest sigh when the door opened to his touch and he walked into the tower. Unlike the outside, the thoughts in the tower were organised, the rooms well lit but not eye-watering bright. There was a near constant buzzing of conversation in his ears, however, and he resisted the urge to cover them again.

He wandered halls filled with Rodney's chicken scratch handwriting. Wiring diagrams, piping schematics, and translations of Ancient were carefully laid out on the walls in place of the geometric patterns and water features the halls were normally decorated with.

He found the equivalent of the control room and shelves holding large binders, each one appeared to be about a different system in the room and how it worked. Instead of the usual stream of Ancient text, the large screen behind the main console was divided into several squares, each one running videos: Grodin checking systems, Zelenka studying something, Elizabeth talking to someone. He looked over the balcony and saw the gate room below was a spider web of system diagrams covering not only the walls but also the floor.

He wandered up to the jumper bay and wasn't surprised to see Jumper One covered in detailed notes of every system, switch, and circuit the ship had. There were screens in this room as well: Rodney staring up at the newly opened sunroof, John giving Rodney a flying lesson, a small screen off to one side played an endless loop of John being wheeled out of the bay on a gurney.

Curiosity led him down to the lab spaces and he stopped outside Rodney's domain. What would he find inside? he wondered as he stepped through the door. The room was lit in a peaceful glow. Everything in the room was neatly laid out where Rodney could easily find it, much like his actual lab. It took him a moment to notice the sound he was hearing was actually the lack of sound; the buzzing conversations had stopped as soon as he entered the room.

There was only one screen in the room, almost as large as the main screen in the control room and the videos that played, while all different, were all the same: John and Rodney talking about something which shifted to the two of them sharing a meal that John had brought to the lab. That changed to the pair of them laughing about something, and then just the two of them sitting together, Rodney working on some gadget and John watching and saying something every now and then that made Rodney smile and reply.

John noticed the peace in the room. There was no frenetic movement, no loud noises. He'd known for quite some time Rodney's sanctuary was his lab, what he didn't realise was how much Rodney equated John being there with him to that sense of calm.

He was still digesting that revelation when the lab started to shift and melt and he found himself in a pure white room. He heard a groan behind him and turned just in time to see Rodney sag against the wall, his hands held against his chest and his eyes closed.

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

"Elizabeth, I can't leave. Not yet," Carson said into his radio. Ford had radioed a progress report to Atlantis once it was morning and he had given Carson the news they were to pack up and return to the city.

"Carson, I'm already down my senior military head as well as my chief scientist. I need my Head of Medicine back in Atlantis," Elizabeth replied.

"Would you be giving up on them, then?" Carson demanded. "It's not even been a full day yet, Elizabeth. We need to keep looking for them."

"According to Lieutenant Ford's report, you've already searched the forest surrounding the area where you think they disappeared and found nothing. I'm not giving up, Carson, but I need you and the rest of the Atlantis personnel back in the city. Halling and his people have agreed to continue looking for them."

"Elizabeth --" Carson started to argue.

"I've made my decision, Doctor Beckett," Elizabeth said, and Carson winced at the formal title and last name. There was no shifting Elizabeth once she stopped using your first name.

"Fine," he ground out with a sigh.

"I'll expect you back by later this morning. Weir out."

"Doc?" Ford asked and stopped at Carson's side.

"No luck," he replied. "We're to pack up and head back. The Athosians have apparently agreed to keep looking."

"Yes, sir," Ford said and turned to start giving orders to pack up the campsite.

"Hang on a moment," Carson said, and waited for Ford to face him. "Just because we've been ordered back, doesn't mean we need to be in a terrible rush, does it?"

Ford just looked at him and Carson wondered how he'd survived in the military. "We do just as she says, lad," Carson said in a conspiratorial whisper. "We just take our time in the doing of it. I figure we can drag out this repacking for at least a few hours, don't you?"

Ford's face lit up as he caught on to the plan. "I see what you mean, Doctor Beckett," he said, and Carson watched as he tried to keep the grin off his face. "Your equipment, especially, needs careful packing and handling doesn't it?"

"Now you've got it, son," Carson said with a smile of his own. "We'll give them a wee bit longer to find their way home."

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

"Rodney?" John asked, suddenly out of sorts to be in a white room as opposed to Rodney's mind. "Hey." He knelt beside Rodney and reached out to touch his arm.

Rodney jumped slightly and opened his eyes. "Really you?" he asked and looked around with a confused expression.

John sat next to him with a thump. "Yeah, really me."

"Of course, this could all be in my head and you're just saying what I want to hear." Rodney glanced over at him.

John smiled. "That's true. I guess you'll just have to trust me."

Rodney shrugged and scooted over until their shoulders touched. "I can do that."

John sat for a moment thinking about everything he'd experienced and seen in Rodney's mind, all of the different ideas, the energy, the noise. He'd known Rodney was a genius, he'd just never thought about what that actually meant. Rodney was always thinking, always working on solutions, his mind rarely at rest. Now he understood the impatience and frustration Rodney felt when others couldn't keep up with him.

He assumed Rodney had had a similar trip through his own subconscious and wondered what he'd seen and what that meant for their friendship. There were a lot of things John kept hidden, things he didn't want to talk about, things he didn't want anyone to know. Rodney lived to take things apart and see how they worked. Could he accept not knowing everything about John?

He felt Rodney shifting against him and looked over to see him pull his knees up and hold his hands stiffly between his legs and his chest. "How are you doing?" John asked and nodded at Rodney's hands.

"I think they hurt worse than before." Rodney looked down at his bandaged hands. "I really want to go home now," he muttered softly and glanced over at John.

"Yeah, I hear ya," John replied with a sigh.

They sat in silence for a moment before John poked the elephant in the room. "So … that was … different."

Rodney snorted softly. "I'm impressed you survived the trip." He looked over at John, hesitated for a moment, then asked, "What did you see?"

John turned slightly to face Rodney and gave him a serious look. "Nothing I didn't already know or at least suspect," he reassured. "I did my best to stay away from the shadows, but I did see and hear a few things. I'm sorry," he added and hoped Rodney knew he meant the apology as more than just for stumbling into his bad memories.

Rodney stared back at him for a moment then twisted his lip in an awkward smile. His actions said a lot more when he uncurled from his defensive position enough to lean against John instead of the wall and John knew he'd been forgiven.

John shifted so they were both a bit more comfortable and rolled his head to stare at Rodney. "What about you? What did you see?"

"Boxes," Rodney replied. "Lots of boxes. How do you do that, by the way? I could never do that."

John's lips twitched at the admission.

Rodney stared at the wall in front of them for a moment. "There were a few surprises," he admitted finally. "And some of your boxes were open. There were … pictures, I'd guess you'd say, of Teyla and Ford, some of the others. Me. I saw those." He looked up at John. "But I didn't look in any of the boxes that were locked."

"I know," John said easily. And he did. He realised he trusted Rodney not to go snooping as much as Rodney knew he would stay away from the dark places in Rodney's subconscious as best he could.

"You okay with …" Rodney asked after another silence and waved a bandaged hand at John's head.

And that was the real question, wasn't it? John realised. For whatever reason, The Overseer had decided to dump them into each other's subconscious. Was that the test? he wondered, to see if not only seeing Rodney's inner mind, but having Rodney see into his would pull them apart?

As John thought about it, he concluded he wasn't bothered by what Rodney had seen. "Yeah," he replied and glanced over at Rodney, "I'm fine. How about you?"

Rodney sat for a moment before he nodded. "As long as you still respect me in the morning," he added and John saw the spark of humor in his eyes.

John couldn't help it, he laughed. They'd braved swords, electric shock, and certain death. He'd seen Rodney's mind up close and personal while Rodney had seen his, and wonder of wonders, they could still laugh about it.

He wrapped an arm around Rodney's shoulders and pulled him a bit closer. "I don't know, McKay, I saw how you'd dressed Carter."

Rodney pulled away slightly, a mix of horror and embarrassment on his face. "Oh, you didn't!"

"Hey, it wasn't in one of the dark places," John replied. "Don't worry though, your secret is safe with me."

Rodney settled back against him again. "Yeah," he said quietly, "I know it is."

"Fascinating," The Overseer said as he blipped into existence.

"You again," Rodney groused, and tried to get up without using his hands.

John stood and pulled Rodney up with him. He took a step closer to The Overseer, keeping Rodney behind him. "So did we pass your test?" he asked harshly.

The Overseer studied both of them for a long moment before he nodded. "It has been a long time since I have seen such a strong bond between two such disparate individuals."

"Meaning what exactly?" Rodney asked.

The Overseer gave him a haughty look. "Meaning you will be returned to your waypost. Once you've returned to The City, the final phase will be completed."

The Overseer gave John a measured look. "You, in particular, seem to have an especially strong mental capability," he continued conversationally. "The final phase will serve you well, I think."

John was still trying to figure out what to do with that statement when he heard a thump behind him and turned to see Rodney sitting on the floor again, knees drawn up and his face hidden in his arms. John glanced at The Overseer then knelt at Rodney's side.

"You okay?"

Rodney gave him a pathetic sounding laugh and turned his head slightly. "You do realise everything we just went through was for nothing, right? We triggered some ten-thousand-year-old obstacle course, you nearly got vaporised, and for what? Unless there's some super-secret, automated, subroutine I haven't found yet, there is no 'final phase' to complete." He ducked his head back down. "Can we just go now. Please?"

"As you wish," The Overseer replied. "The City will know what to do."

John looked up as The Overseer held up his hand and the white light flashed over them.

Chapter Text

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