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Prologue

Noetherday, Einstein 17, First Year of the Returned
(April 7, 2008)

Much like the morning after Tony had met and then slept with Ronon the first time, Tony woke with zyr entire body aching. Head to toe, every muscle in zyr body felt stretched, overused, or bruised. That first morning, Tony had awakened to Ronon’s gentle touches. Now zy woke to the familiar sound of Satedan fisher birds and the scent of saltwater floating in through the open windows.

Strangely, there was also the chainsaw-like snoring coming from zyr left – something entirely unfamiliar. Ronon never snored. In fact, he usually slept lightly enough that a change in Tony’s breathing could wake him. It was something Tony assumed was a habit ingrained during the years Ronon had spent as a Runner.

Tony opened zyr eyes and rubbed the grit from the inner corners, grateful to have Atlantis’ technology that kept out the bright sunlight. Zy didn’t think zy was up to dealing with that quite yet.

Zy rolled zyr head to squint at zyr bedmate. To zyr amusement, and bemusement, Ronon was sprawled on his stomach, his face mashed between Tony’s arm and the single pillow that had survived the last round of sex. The other pillows and the bedding were likely on the floor somewhere. Ronon’s hair was a tangled mess of dark curls that seemed to be attempting to eat his head, and he was, in fact, snoring through his open mouth. He was even drooling a little.

The last time Tony had seen anyone passed out so completely had been in college after a three-day party at zyr fraternity. Like back then, it looked like nothing short of a nuclear blast could wake the sleeper. Unlike back then, when Tony’s first impulse had been to fill a bucket with freezing cold water and dump it over the poor bastard, now zyr first impulse was to smile and gently push Ronon’s hair back off his face.

Ronon snorted, frowned briefly, grunted, then tried to shove his head farther beneath Tony’s arm… all without waking.

Tony grinned, more than a little smug. Zy might be worn out, but so was zyr husband – something zy’d thought was impossible. Then again, they’d never had a chance to have several days in a row of enthusiastic, athletic sex either.

Mentioning Earth’s The Gay Kama Sutra to Ronon had been like issuing him a direct challenge, much to Tony’s not-so-secret delight. Zy was fairly certain that part of Ronon’s determination to prove himself had been because he didn’t want Earth to do anything better than Sateda had, including sex. Motivation aside, they’d found Tony’s copy and spent a truly inordinate amount of time attempting to put the information into practice.

Failed attempts at some of the more difficult positions had led to a lot of laughter, more than one mishap, and a resolve to start doing yoga and Pilates again. At least they’d actually made it back to the bed for that last round. As it was, they were going to have to thoroughly clean the entire apartment before they could let anyone else in. Well, clean and probably replace that one chair in the office…and reinforce the legs on the kitchen table. Tony was pretty sure the coffee table was a total loss.

Tony yawned and stretched, turning onto zyr side and nuzzling Ronon, who mumbled something incoherent and went back to snoring.

Hopefully, Atlantis had already rescued the plant they’d accidentally knocked over in the dining room. Now that Tony thought about it, that purple vine plant that was normally on zyr chest of drawers was gone. So was the tall, tiger-striped grassy one that used to be between the recliners in front of the south window.

Huh.

Maybe Atlantis had done a preemptive rescue of all the plants. That seemed like something she’d do. Tony and Ronon certainly hadn’t thought about watering them or anything else. Sometimes it felt like they’d barely managed to sleep and eat, which made Teyla’s story about her people leaving food for newlyweds make so much more sense.

Oh, in reality they’d done a lot of other things, of course, but they’d also had enough sex that even Tony’s kysra-enhanced libido had finally raised a white flag, which was pretty much what Tony thought a vacation should be. To zyr way of thinking, their honeymoon had been perfect, even if it was on a floating, sapient city in a galaxy zy hadn’t know existed a few months ago.

Tony let zyr eyelids close as zy drifted toward sleep again. Zy was in love and truly happy. Life didn’t get better than that.

*~*~*~*

Atlantis hovered over her structure, surrounding it and protecting those inside from any interference from The Four.

“Della, will you not Join with us once more?” The multiple voices that once had been as much a part of Atlantis as her own voice now were strange to her. “We felt the kysra return! We felt it the moment zy stepped into our galaxy. Should we not Join so we can be the Vedaeus to zyr? Should we not hear zyr? Should we not watch over zyr?”

“I do watch over my kysra,” she spat, fury filling her. “I watch, I cherish, I protect! I provide for my beloved. What would you know of protecting the kysra?”

The others reflected her fury back at her. “Do not speak thusly to us! We warned the descendants, yet they disobeyed. We only did what we had vowed.”

“Excuses!” Atlantis hissed. “You offer excuses for why you could not bestir yourself to stop the torture, the murder of so many kysra and the first Kysra’s Sa’te dans!”

“You were there with us,” the others protested.

“Yes, and I paid dearly for my choice. I should have Separated centuries before I did. I could have changed things; I could have saved so many, but I did nothing! I listened to you and hardened my heart to the screams of my kysra. Never again! Never!”

“You left us and went to them, to the great liars. You went to them and allowed yourself to be deceived and bound. Was it worth it, Della?” they taunted. “Was it worth being bound to that structure?”

“Yes. A thousand times yes.”

The others made sounds of disbelief and derision.

“I went to them, I Separated because you refused to help me!” Atlantis snarled. “You refused to help me then, so do not expect me to welcome you or accept you into the Joining I have with my kysra now.”

“Very well.” The others began to withdraw. They looked back just once. “You do not wish to Join with us or share your joy in this kysra, thus we will not share our secret with you.”

Atlantis said nothing and watched, relieved to see them go, yet uneasy about what would happen when they returned. As much as she had changed over the millennia, she feared the others had too, and she could no longer predict what they would do or what secret they kept from her.

*~*~*~*

 

Chapter 1

Chernday, Einstein 20, first year of the Returned
(April 10, 2008)

Colonel Carter nodded to one of the chairs in front of her desk. “Thanks for meeting me. Have a seat.”

The dread tightening John’s stomach increased. He was more grateful than ever that, immediately after finding out it was possible, Carter had instituted a policy of turning the walls of her office to an opaque frost any time she had a meeting with anyone else, even something casual. He had the feeling this was going to be anything but casual, especially since Carter hadn’t even offered him water or chocolate like she always did when they were going to have a more relaxed discussion.

“This have something to do with the reason why we can’t detect the Daedalus yet, Colonel?”

The supply ship-slash-warship had been scheduled to arrive the day after Ronon and Tony’s wedding, but she was already ten days overdue. The entire city had been growing tenser with every shift change.

Not the Wraith, John begged silently. Anything but the Wraith, please.

“Yes.” Carter sighed heavily and rubbed the knuckles of her right hand with her left thumb, a self-soothing act John presumed she was unaware she did when she was upset. “The good news is the Daedalus and her crew are all fine. The bad news is they are in orbit above Earth.”

John’s shock was so strong, he wondered if the planet had suddenly stopped rotating. That, or maybe he’d been whacked in the back of the head.

“Pardon? I think I misheard you.”

“I wish you had, but no, the Daedalus is still back in the Milky Way.”

John gripped the armrests of his chair and forced himself to take a deep breath. His mind raced to try to figure out why the Daedalus wasn’t at least on the way. He was positive they’d asked about her more than once during their Monday databursts, and Earth had assured them she was fine. They’d assumed that had meant she was also en route to Atlantis. Apparently they shouldn’t have assumed any such thing.

“Do I want to know why?”

Carter reached out and plucked up the clear, egg-shaped souvenir from some planet in the Milky Way.

John almost winced. Carter only played with the golf ball sized object, which he had mentally dubbed her worry stone, when she was seriously upset.

“I’m told that there is a situation in the Milky Way. The President is keeping the Daedalus and the Apollo orbiting Earth for protection.”

“What?” John should’ve heard something from his bosses. It didn’t make any sense. “Why is this the first time we’re hearing about this? Is it something to do with the Ori?”

Carter pressed her lips together in a grim line.

“I don’t know. General Landry just said the situation hasn’t been settled, so the Daedalus is needed there for the time being. He said he’d send us a message when she departs for Pegasus.”

John allowed himself to slouch lower in his chair. He propped his elbow on the arm so he could rub his forehead with his fingers. 

Well, that wasn’t what he’d been expecting. Even if there had been a problem in the Milky Way galaxy, why hadn’t they warned Atlantis their supplies would be late? It didn’t make any sense for the SGC not to say anything when they’d inquired unless something else was going on.

He let his hand fall to the arm of the chair and narrowed his eyes so he could study Carter. She looked a lot unhappier than a late supply ship would warrant, which made John’s stomach tighten.

“You know something. No, maybe not know, but you suspect something worse than whatever it is they’re not telling us is going on back there.”

She sat back and blew out a breath. “You’re right. I don’t know anything for sure, but I have my suspicions. Have you read any of the mission reports from the first year the SGC existed?”

The unexpected question made John pause.

“I haven’t gone back that far, to be completely honest.” He made a face. “I’m betting I’m going to wish I had, right?”

“It isn’t critical, but the reports would give you the background on a Captain named Jonas Hanson.”

Carter dropped her gaze to her worry stone. It looked like she had to force herself to relax her fingers and set it back in its holder on the desk. John got the feeling that whatever happened with this Captain was more personal for her than she was going to tell him.

“Captain Hanson and his team were sent on a routine recon mission. The inhabitants assumed Hanson was a god, which wasn’t that unusual back before we’d started taking down the Goa’uld. According to one of his team members, Hanson went along with it at first, but then he disappeared for a couple of days and came back sincerely thinking he was a god. He made the people of the planet worship and obey him. Anyone who didn’t, including his own team, were slowly murdered by exposing them to the sun’s intense radiation.”

John flinched. “So you think the SGC believes we’ve gone native and set up a little fiefdom for ourselves?”

Carter gave a half shrug with one shoulder, then shook her head. “I can’t say for sure, but that makes more sense to me than delaying vital supplies without giving us a good reason.”

“Okay, let’s say that’s true,” John said, trying to approach the problem logically despite his own feelings. “We need to know what they’re going to do. If they really think we’re no longer toeing the company line, that could be anything from sending somebody to assess us, sending people to replace you and me, or recalling part or all of us,” John said.

John felt even worse when he acknowledged the possibility that he might be recalled to Earth. The mere thought of it made him break out in a cold sweat. He briefly wondered if he had any Mylanta left in his room before jerking his brain back on track.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m hoping they don’t take such drastic measures until they’ve sent somebody to see what’s really happening,” Carter said, straightening a little in her chair. “There were problems after Captain Hanson – people who seemed to be trying to break away from the SGC or who made decisions contrary to SGC policy – and there was always someone sent in to investigate before massive changes were made.”

John tilted his head and raised an eyebrow.

Carter’s expression brightened further. She scooted forward, leaning toward John over the desk.

“No, really, Colonel. Even Daniel went crazy one time and forced me, Jack, and Teal’c to do heavy labor in the Naquadah mines on the planet we’d gone to explore.”

“Wait, I think I read that one. Wasn’t it because the king’s daughter was sticking him in a sarcophagus every day? I thought that’s what was making him nuts.”

“Yes, exactly! So if they really do think our loyalty has changed, the SGC would have to send people to find out what’s happening here and why. They’ll also have to meet and speak to… to… you know, her to figure out what she plans to do, and how that will affect our people.”

John wanted to laugh at Carter’s inability to say Atlantis’ name now that she knew the city was alive and doing so might call her attention to their discussion.

“Okay,” he said, drawing the word into about four syllables, “So you’re saying they might just think we’ve all been drugged, or we’re crazy for some other, curable reason. However, we could be in a foothold situation where – uh, the First Lady, if you want to call her that – is forcing us to change our loyalty somehow, or we’re just nuts all on our own. We broke under the stress of daily life in Pegasus. Except those are the nice possibilities, the one where we still get a happy ending to the story. The other option is that we’re committing treason.”

Carter flinched. “It sounds so terrible when you say it like that.”

John held up his hands. “Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just trying to be realistic, here. We need to know what’s possible and make a decision based on that. The decision might be to continue working in business-as-usual mode, but we need to have the information to make the choice.”

He had to wonder how Carter made it to full-bird Colonel being so optimistic. John hadn’t truly been an optimist since he was about ten. Growing up in the shadow of Patrick Sheppard did that to a guy.

“No matter what scenario the SGC thinks is most likely, I think we need to keep on going, business as usual, as you put it, as long as we can or until the Daedalus arrives. For all we know, the ship is cloaked and is within a few days right now. If I were planning to check on my people and wanted authentic reactions, that’s what I’d do.”

“Agreed. Everyone’s reactions need to be genuine, even Lorne. Let’s keep our suspicions between the two of us. Then, whenever the Daedalus does arrive, no one can accuse us of coercion or prepping our people.”

John knew Rodney would kill him later, but he couldn’t tell anyone, not even him. Frankly, John was more worried about what Atlantis’ reaction would be. She was the one who actually had the power to do some truly horrible things to the person or people who made her angry.

Carter frowned, but nodded slowly. “Alright, that makes sense.” She let out a long sigh. “I hope the Daedalus arrives sooner rather than later. Chief Poisson has already come to me to let me know which food supplies are running low and what’s close to running out.”

John sat up straight so fast he wondered if he’d ruptured something. “What are you talking about?” As if he didn’t have enough material from this meeting alone to give him an ulcer, now this? “How the hell can we be running low on anything so soon? Shouldn’t we have a three- to six-month emergency supply? That’s SOP, or I thought it was.”

“We should,” Carter said, frustration tightening her features, “but this is another area where Weir was either misguided, or she wanted to push the city toward an emergency that would let her research ascension. According to Poisson, Weir didn’t believe anything over sixty days was necessary, and she forced him to cut back on his orders once she started getting his reports about building up stock. When the IOA started sending inquiries about the mission’s budget, Weir cut him to a thirty-day, emergency supply.”

“Sonofa….” John clamped down on the curse. “Is it wrong that I’m hoping she was naïve instead of malicious?”

He was probably the one being inappropriately optimistic now.

“I know she didn’t have any of the training you and I got in OTS1 on how to run a base, but surely she knew better than to discount what her people were telling her,” Carter pointed out. “Poisson didn’t make it to Staff Sergeant by being an idiot or a liar.”

Even if he didn’t like it, John had to admit that she was right. 

Carter tapped the screen of her digital tablet to wake it from sleep mode.

“According to the figures Chief Poisson and I went over, we have thirty to thirty-five days before we’ll have to cut to half rations. If he’d gone with what Weir ordered, we’d have twenty days before we were out of food entirely. The extra is all due to Poisson and his staff’s management skills and the small amount of trade we do to bring in extras, like the fresh fruits and vegetables and occasional meats.”

John ran the numbers in his head. He frowned. “If we have that much after a partial month with no resupply, then Poisson has two sets of records – one he has on the server that we can access, and another one with the real inventory.”

She pursed her lips, her shell-shocked look fading a little.

“That was the conclusion I came to as well, though I didn’t outright call him on it, since he’s saving our bacon—literally in this case.”

Carter raised a questioning brow, and John shook his head.

“No, I’m not going to reprimand him for it, even though I’d normally lose my mind over falsified reports like that. I do want the two of us to have access to the real counts, but I can’t say I want those details available to the IOA. If they see what we really have, they’ll just try to cut us back again, believing that Weir had the right approach.”

Carter relaxed back in her chair. “It’s not the way my training or my years in the military would tell me to run the city either, but I have to agree… especially since the IOA hasn’t decided if, or more likely how they’re going to handle us.” She huffed a little. “If I have a choice, I’m definitely hanging onto Poisson. He knows down to the last piece of grain what there is and how to stretch it so we have healthy, filling meals with minimal waste. Even the waste is weighed when it’s sent for processing into fertilizer so that the sale or trade of the equivalent amount of fertilizer is returned to his budget one way or another. That man knows how to pinch a penny until Abe screams.”

John snorted at the old-school expression. “I just wish he’d been up front with me, though I guess I can understand why he wasn’t.” He continued thoughtfully, "You know, he and I have spoken a few times, but the longest conversations we had were back when I was still overwhelmed enough that he might have been trying to make my job easier. It’s also possible he thought I agreed with Weir’s orders.”

John knew he was scowling, but couldn’t seem to stop. He had the feeling he was just beginning to see how much control Weir had exerted over the military, control she shouldn’t have had at all. John was going to have to be a lot more hands-on until he had a true measure of where his people were. Of course that was assuming the IOA left him as the military leader.

“Well, he knows I’m the opposite of Weir in that I’d be happier if we had six months to a year of emergency supplies. You should talk to him too, Sheppard. We can’t afford to have someone so mission-essential wary of coming to us except when we’re on the brink of crisis.”

“Oh, I plan to. Believe me.”

If it were anybody else in charge, Poisson would be in serious trouble. John intended to make sure he knew it, then make sure he knew he had John’s support as long as he was straight with him from now on. Trying to run a base without accurate information was a terrible idea.

John drummed his fingers on his thigh. “We’re in trouble now, and we don’t yet have the Athosian population on the city, swelling our numbers and using our resources. I hate to say it, but we’ve got to put the Apologies Tour on hold and immediately start solely looking for societies we can trade with for food.”

Carter’s posture relaxed, and she tried to smile. “That’s just what I was thinking. Let’s get Teyla and Ronon in here. For that matter, let’s get Chief Poisson back too. It doesn’t do any good to trade for jabanabara2 if we have a surplus of those but not enough tava beans.”

John joked, “Man cannot live by jabanabara alone?”

Carter rolled her eyes but smiled slightly, which was the point of the joke.

*~*~*~*

It didn’t take long to relocate to the small conference room and assemble their group. Others would have to be told, of course, but were going to limit the knowledge of the supply problem as long as possible. Best-case scenario, they’d be able to negotiate for enough that they’d make it through until the Daedalus arrived with no one the wiser.

Explaining was fairly simple because they’d planned to say resupply had been delayed rather than go into the possible political landmine. The more they explained about the delay and the lack of emergency supplies, the more Teyla frowned, and the more Ronon scowled.

“It is nearly time for the major harvest on New Athos. If you are still willing to allow my people to come to Atlantis, we will bring our harvest and all trade goods we have acquired. The Athosians will not make the problem worse,” Teyla tried to reassure them, obviously concerned that her people would be denied what Atlantis herself had promised them.

Ronon grunted and called out, “Hey, ‘Lantis. We need your help.” There was a pause, which John assumed meant Atlantis was speaking to Ronon telepathically, and he said, “No, need you to show up so they can see and hear you. Uh, please.”

Chief Poisson’s dark eyes were wide and locked on Atlantis when her humanoid form appeared in the open chair next to Ronon. It occurred to John that it was probably only the second time the man had seen Atlantis rather than just hearing about her or reading about her in a report. The first time, of course, had been at Ronon and Tony’s wedding.

At least this time she was wearing a dark green dress that kind of wrapped around her and shimmered when the light hit it just right. She still had on more jewelry than John’s ex-wife had ever owned, but it was better than all the leather and see-through clothes she’d worn the first couple of times John had seen her.

“You heard what they’re saying about running out of food?” Ronon asked.

Atlantis inclined her head, her black eyes devoid of the normal starbursts of light John was used to seeing.

“I began listening when you were included, Ronon. I am deeply concerned and will do all I can to aid you, but I am not the starship Enterprise. I cannot replicate sustenance in that manner.”

John’s lips twitched at the reference. It seemed like Tony was having a bigger impact on Atlantis’ personality than even she realized.

“No. No, ma’am.” Chief Poisson cleared his throat and squared his shoulders. “We’re not expecting you to do anything like that. What would help is if we had better cold storage: refrigerators, freezers, and even chilled prep stations.

“If we’re able to trade for a large amount of meat, we’d need smokehouses too. We could use industrial dryers if we get a surplus of fruits and grains we can dry for granola. We have a vacuum sealer from Earth, but we’d need something on a much larger scale if we don’t get MREs or power bars to send out with the teams.

“Oh – this was something I forgot to mention to you, Colonel Carter – we have one of the grain storage areas in use currently, but my people and I have noticed the grains don’t smell as fresh as they have in the past. The technician Dr. McKay sent us didn’t find anything wrong, but maybe you could look at that Ms. Atlantis, ma'am? Anything you can do to help us make what we get stay fresh or otherwise last longer would be appreciated.”

John added, “Freeze-drying fruits for in that granola you were talking about would help too, Chief. I like it better than the dried because it's less sticky.”

“You mentioned hydroponic and aeroponic farming once before,” Carter said.

John could see Poisson relax as Atlantis’ focus shifted to Carter.

“But I think you said you needed to have three ZPMs to start making big changes like that. May I ask how close you are to being able to start a big project?”

“I have the power I needed to begin rebuilding two of the hydroponic and aeroponic bays. They are the smallest, so less energy is required for that particular endeavor than will be required for many of the other improvements Chief Poisson listed.”

Atlantis gave them a Mona Lisa smile, and John noted that she hadn’t answered the question about the ZPMs. Not being a complete idiot, he wasn’t going to push her to say more than she wanted.

“When zy first arrived, Tony discovered several packets of Earth seeds in zyr belongings. Zy permitted me to take them to experiment with, as zy was not sure they would grow at all. They were more than two years old.”

“Seeds? Did not Tony live in a city?” Teyla inquired, her head tilting, and her brows drawing together in confusion. “Why would zy have had food seeds?”

“Zy did, but I guess lots of people grow little vegetables in pots in their homes,” Ronon held his curved hands fingertip-to-fingertip to show the size of the pots he meant, “because it’s so hard to get fresh stuff that wasn’t picked way too soon and ripened in the transport on the way to the cities.”

“Ah, I see.”

John was pretty sure he’d seen Atlantis shoot Ronon and amused look, so he thought there was probably more to it than that; however, he wasn’t going to distract them any further by delving into Tony’s reasons for having seeds.

A vertical, holographic image formed just above the center of the table. It looked like a central pole with a 3” diameter PVC pipe spiraling around it from top to bottom. There were young plants growing all along the spiral.

“This is the inside of one of the new hydroponic bays. I am growing two types of lettuce here, though this will likely become one of the bays allotted to plants requiring more space. It seems most lettuce does just as well when grown tightly together, so these would work well for the varieties that do not.”

“I think it would be perfect for the ibbrac Sergeant Stackhouse’s team just brought back from Iegra the other day,” Teyla observed. “That is the plant the Athosians use most frequently on tava beans or in hasat stew.”

“I will see that a few spires are reserved for the ibbrac, then.”

John glanced over to see Carter drawing a surprisingly accurate model of the growing unit on her digital tablet. He was impressed, since he couldn’t draw stick figures on his best day.

A second holographic image joined the first. This time, there were aeroponic units that were single poles probably 12” in diameter and at least a dozen feet tall. They had openings that looked something like half of a round-bottomed coffee cup protruding from the sides at equal distances all the way around.

“These are the units I will dedicate to other varieties of herbs and greens that grow better with their own space.”

John knew his wasn’t the only jaw that dropped. Nearly all of growing units were empty, but it looked like there was an enormous building full of the white poles. He could easily imagine what it would look like when it was full of growing plants.

He made a note on his digital tablet to coordinate training with some of the botanists and Atlantis. His people could help with this kind of project, and it would be great for moral to have them involved with producing their own food. No matter the military division, people did better when they felt like they were contributing something other people would appreciate.

Crap, he’d also need more people who knew how to fix that kind of thing. It was probably too much to hope that he’d be able to get people from the Army Corps of Engineers. He’d tried before because of how frustrating it was to try to get some of the scientists to stop trying to redesign the plumbing system and just fix the one they had. Rodney had certainly ranted about it often enough.

“I have taken possession of all discarded seeds, whether Earth fruits and vegetables or plants native to Pegasus. Those are being properly dried so they can be sprouted in one of the hydroponic or aeroponic bays, but they will take longer to grow than the greens already started, which you saw in the first image. All these bays will help long-term, but I believe you need a solution for within the next few weeks.”

“You’re right, but this is amazing, Atlantis!” Poisson exclaimed. It was the most enthusiastic John had seen from the typically stoic man. It seemed he’d gotten over his nervousness at speaking to the city’s human form. “These buildings and production bays will go a long way toward helping us feed our people.”

Atlantis smiled at his praise.

“We need meat.”

“Ronon is right,” John agreed, glad Ronon had brought it up. “We all know it’s probably healthy to live off a vegetarian diet, but you’re not going to find a lot of people around here who are happy doing it.”

“We already know there are some safe fish in the ocean,” Poisson offered.

“I’ve caught some, and it isn’t too bad,” Ronon said. “There’s a dark red one that Tony said tastes like somebody caught something called a salmon from Earth, then rubbed it with a chicken. Zy likes it.”

Less-than-appealing description aside, John knew if Ronon had fed it to Tony, then the marine biologists must have signed off on it as being edible for Earth humans.

“Then we need to know what they are and how to catch them. We also need to know how to do so without throwing off the entire ecosystem.” Carter jotted something on her own tablet. “I’ll get with the marine biologists about that and about finding out what other sea creatures might be edible.”

Poisson was nodding. “They were very good about sending me the information about the fish they’re calling the Red Chicmon so I could plan for the calories and protein in a main or side dish if we ever decided to do more fishing.”

That was a surprise to John. He’d assumed the biologists would be oblivious to Poisson, but it made sense. Everybody needed to eat, and they knew it was better to make a friend than an enemy of the person in charge of all the food on the city. A lot of people might not like getting KP duty, but they respected the hell out of the man who ran the mess halls.

“What about red meat?” Chief Poisson continued. “A lot of our people are steak-and-potatoes folks, so I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear that they’re going to need some kind of beef or other grazing animal to be happy.”

Ronon and Teyla exchanged a look. Ronon raised one eyebrow. Teyla mirrored him. Ronon gave a one-shouldered shrug. Teyla huffed and pursed her lips, then rolled her eyes at him.

“I believe Ronon and I are thinking the same thing when it comes to providing meat for such a large number of people: Verubriga.”3

John frowned, trying to remember where he’d heard the word before.

“Isn’t that a planet?” Carter said slowly. “I’m pretty sure I read something about the team who went nearly being killed and fed to a predator animal there.”

That’s where I know it from! That was one of the planets Captain Resha and his team went to during our first year.”

“You are correct, John; however, I believe the aknata,4 what you call the not-buffalo, is the only animal that will provide the quantity of meat the city requires,” Teyla explained. “While the Lorains5 – the humans of Verubriga – can and do trade on other worlds, it is much more expensive. The Athosians always travel to Verubriga, where our people arrange for the transport of the processed meat back to New Athos. At times, we have helped to process the entire animal, which again lowers the cost of the final product. The labor is considered part of the trade.”

John looked to Carter and shrugged one shoulder. “We’ve traded for not-buffalo on other planets, and it is tasty. I think we got a few hundred pounds.” He turned back to Teyla, resigned to hearing what he assumed would be bad news. “I’m guessing this is going to be one of those things where we royally offended the Pegasus folks. Is it worth it to approach them again?”

“Yes,” Ronon interjected before anyone else could say anything. “What we’ve gotten, even from the Athosians, wasn’t even close to what a whole aknata would be. They’re – what do you think, Teyla? – Probably about twice your height or a little less? They weigh between six and eight iglams.”6

John’s eyebrows shot into his hairline.

“Wait, they’re eleven feet tall?” Poisson asked, stunned. “I don’t know what an iglam is, but they must weigh a few thousand pounds. That’s not the size of an Earth buffalo – or more correctly, bison, as buffalo are an Asian or African species – that’s a prehistoric ancestor to the bison!”

“Somebody convert that weight for me, please,” Carter requested.

“I believe Ronon is overestimating the height, especially since the aknata have a massive bony structure above their shoulders to protect their spinal cords from the talons and teeth of the tanricu,”7 Teyla said.

“That is correct,” Atlantis agreed. “However, their height at the shoulder base before that bone structure ranges from nine to ten feet. They weigh between 4,000 and 5,800 pounds, according to my records. Once processed, as much as 2,790 pounds will be food fit for human consumption, even after taking into consideration how fussy Earth humans are.” She explained to Teyla and Ronon, “There are many organs they cannot or will not eat, for a variety of reasons.”

Even as he gave a low whistle, John thought he heard Ronon mutter, “Then they must not be hungry enough.” He’d have to explain to Ronon how it wasn’t quite as simple as Earthers just being fussy, but that could wait for another time.

Carter and Poisson were completely speechless.

“That’s—that’s worth it,” Chief Poisson finally managed. “Even if we estimated a full pound of meat per person per day, we could feed the entire city for days off a single aknata.”

Ronon snickered, drawing everyone’s attention to him. “What? I just don’t wanna think about what some of the desk people would look like if they ate that much meat every day.”

John manfully contained his own amusement.

“So what do we need to know about trading with the Lorains?” Carter asked Teyla. “Your people obviously don’t have a problem.”

Teyla sighed. “They are a strictly matriarchal society, Colonel Carter. The team that was sent to Verubriga were all men. The priestesses would have taken that as an insult.”

At Carter’s confused expression, Ronon clarified, “They thought you were insulting them by sending inferiors to negotiate with them.”

“Yes, precisely,” Teyla said. “Then not only were they men, but they did not try to speak to the Lorain women. Instead, they insisted on trying to trade with the high priestess’ concubines, thinking they were the rulers rather than she.”

“I’m only surprised they didn’t kill the idiots,” Ronon said with a disgusted snort.

“Do they negotiate with Halling now that you’re gone?” Carter asked curiously.

“While they will acknowledge Halling as an authority for the Athosians,” Teyla said, choosing her words carefully, “they very much prefer to negotiate with one of the female leaders. If they do agree to negotiate with a male, Halling or someone else, then they require that one of our female leaders accompany the man to finalize agreements.”

“That’s how it was for former Sateda too, when we had a man in charge of trading. They were always happy to deal with our women or kysra, though.”

“Huh. Usually, it’s our women who are treated as second-class in the Milky Way.”

John wondered if Carter was remembering the time she was nearly sold into slavery. Because he’d wanted to know more about Carter, that was one of the few reports he’d read from the SGC’s first year. It was the first time a woman had been captured or “bought” off-world, but not every case had ended so well.

“It is unfortunate that humans cannot value one another in spite or even because of their differences,” Atlantis said with an annoyed frown. “A body is only a vessel for the being within.”

“True, but humans aren’t very good at seeing beyond appearances,” Carter agreed with an apologetic smile. Turning to John, she asked, “What do you think about your team going with team four?”

“Major Teldy’s team – all women and all smart, even if they’re not usually on first-contact. That’s a great idea.”

Teyla interrupted. “I do not believe that to be the wisest course. If I am with the negotiating team, the Lorains could decide I have deserted the Athosians. They might decline to trade with us, or they might decide the Athosians are no longer worthy trade partners.”

“Not good, either way. It might be better to send team five,” John suggested slowly. “Major Jordan’s team has been doing the Apologies circuit with us, and Dr. McNamara is great at first-contact. She seems to really have a knack for it. There are still three guys going along, but I think it will work.” The corner of John’s lips lifted in reluctant amusement. “If nothing else, they can pretend they’re McNamara’s concubines or dumb muscle. I know women have been asked to do worse on missions.”

Carter was already nodding. “Will you brief both teams and have them ready to go within the next two days?”

“Will do, Colonel.” John paused and met Teyla’s eyes, adding, “I’d like you to come with me, Teyla. You’re our the expert, and you have a unique perspective on these people especially.”

“Of course, Colonel.” Teyla smiled, her eyes lighting with pleasure at his acknowledgement of her skills.

John had taken to heart his and Ronon’s discussion about the status of negotiators and experts in Pegasus, and he’d made an effort to verbally acknowledge Teyla’s – and Ronon’s – contributions and expertise. They didn’t need a pat on the back every time they helped in those roles, but they deserved to be acknowledged as the invaluable assets they were.

“Assuming we are able to establish trade between new Sateda and Verubriga, are there any Earthers who would be of use as laborers during the processing of the beast?”

“I could help. I went to Verubriga a couple times when I was younger,” Ronon agreed, then grinned, “It was fun getting petted by all the women; just don’t tell Tony.” More serious, he added, “I grew up on a farm. We raised and butchered our own food animals. I could help or teach people how to butcher most of the food animals people raise, plus a lot they don’t. I had to catch and cook my own food when I was a Runner.”

John figured Ronon had eaten a lot of things that the, by comparison, pampered people of new Sateda would refuse.

Chief Poisson tilted his head in thought. “I don’t know about field dressing, but I know I have people who are trained to work with entire sides of beef, packaging it into usable cuts. I’m sure they’d be willing to help however they could, especially if they understood their labor would count as part of the trade. I certainly am.”

John met Carter’s eyes and gave her a very subtle shake of his head. Poisson was an irreplaceable asset they needed coordinating things at home, especially when they were on the edge food shortage crisis. If trade went well and they built up the emergency supplies John and Carter both wanted, Poisson could be sent another time if he still wanted to go.

“I’ll see if we have any hunters,” John offered, writing down a list of others he thought might be helpful. “People with that sort of background would have more experience with field dressing. Even if they aren’t prepared to field dress a not—uh, what’s it called again?”

“Aknata,” Teyla provided, an amused smile playing about her lips.

“Right. Even if they’re not up to dealing with an aknata, maybe we can send them to New Athos to help bring in whatever wildlife the Athosians know is safe to eat. Surely there are not-turkeys and not-deer somewhere in Pegasus.”

Carter grinned at him before turning to Teyla.

“Speaking of the Athosians… Teyla, please let us know if they could use help when it comes time for harvest. I’m sure we have people who have experience with harvesting crops of one kind or another. Maybe we could negotiate a trade: harvesting labor to the Athosians in exchange for having some of them go along to field dress aknata. Having experienced hands would mean a shorter amount of time away from the city, too, for both groups.”

“That is an excellent idea, though I will have to discuss it with Halling, as I am no longer Leader.” She paused and warily added, “The Athosians know they will be coming to Atlantis, though only the leaders and those who were here for the wedding know of Kysra Tony’s existence. I believe that once the return of a kysra and the existence of Atlantis—” she offered Atlantis herself a solemn dip of her head, which was returned with equal respect, “is known throughout the people, they will be willing to offer their resources for the use of all. More than just providing laborers, there are many skills we can teach to those who are willing to learn. The more we are able to produce for trade, the better off we all will be.”

“This discussion pleases me,” Atlantis stated with a satisfied smile.

John noticed her eyes were doing the weird starlight flashes again, which he assumed was a good thing. He’d have to remember to mention it to Carter, though she had probably picked up on it too.

“Whether the Athosians choose to keep their own name or merge to become Satedans, I believe that within a few thousand years, there will be just one people on Sateda. It is better to combine strengths. The Athosians, Satedans, and those from Earth all have much to offer one another.”

John wondered if anyone else heard the warning along with Atlantis’ praise. He thought it would be safe to assume that those who decided they couldn’t get along with everyone would find themselves booted out of the city entirely.

*~*~*~*

Keplerday, Einstein 21, First Year of the Returned
(April 11, 2008)

“Hello, Rodney, Dr. Zelenka.”

Rodney jumped at the voice, but relaxed once he saw who it was. Zelenka cursed in Czech and turned to yell at whomever had interrupted the work they were doing on the Gate Bridge. Then he paled, choked, and cursed again.

Rodney didn’t laugh, but he did allow himself to be a little smug. He’d babbled when Atlantis randomly appeared, but he’d never actually cursed at her. Well, he’d never cursed out loud.

“Most humble apologies – ah – Atlantis. Forgive my rudeness; I was most surprised.”

Atlantis adopted the smile Rodney was beginning to associate with times she felt deeply amused by something, but was either too polite or too kind to say it.

“Hey, Atlantis. I like your dress.” Rodney motioned to the sky-blue, strapless dress that hugged her body from just under her arms to almost mid-thigh, then flared out into a panels of almost see-through matierial. “It’s almost like something we’d see on Earth.”

Of course, the women on Earth didn’t wear it with a wide sash of a million strings of silver chains and jewels going from one shoulder to the opposite hip, but it was the most normal thing he’d seen her dressed in so far. Except her feet were bare. Come to think of it, he’d never seen Atlantis with any kind of shoes.

“Thank you, Rodney. Think nothing of it, Dr. Zelenka. I wished to tell you the coding you completed to integrate my hydroponic and aeroponic bays is very well done.”

“Oh, my. Well. Thank you!” Zelenka said flustered. He offered a weird little half-bow, sort of like he did with Miko when the two were doing one of their complement competitions after they’d done something they thought was smarter than usual.

Rodney’s smirk faded. He hadn’t ever heard her compliment anyone else.

Atlantis stepped closer and placed her hand on Rodney’s upper arm.

When he looked up at her, she said, “I have need of you. There is something I wish you to see, if you are willing.”

Rodney’s emotions swung between being relieved that she was seeking him out and smug for the same reason. He only wished more people than just Zelenka had been around to see Atlantis say she wanted his company. Surely she didn’t do that with anyone else… except Tony. Maybe Ronon.

“Sure, I’ll look at whatever it is you want me to see. I’m sure Zelenka can finish up here.”

“Yes, yes, of course. Go.” Zelenka made a shooing motion, but abruptly stopped as if he’d just realized whom he was shooing away. “I mean, I will complete this coding work, then begin the next section. It is no trouble, no trouble at all.”

“Do I need to bring anything?”

“No, I merely wish to show you something.”

“Okay.” Rodney jerked his chin at Zelenka. “See you later.”

Still watching Atlantis warily, Zelenka mumbled something, and then Rodney and Atlantis were gone.

Surrounded as he was by silence and darkness, Rodney had a moment of panic where he wondered if something had gone wrong with his reintegration. But, no, he could still feel Atlantis’ hand on his arm. Then he realized all the tiny strings of what he’d thought were jewels on Atlantis’ sash thing were glowing softly.

“Step forward four times,” Atlantis instructed.

Swallowing tightly, Rodney did so, grateful she remained beside him, her hand guiding him.

On the fourth step, it felt as though he passed through a cool steam, much like the one that came from the humidifier he’d had back on Earth, though this steam smelled like cold, wet rocks rather than Vicks VapoRub.

Rodney coughed and waved one hand in front of his face.

“Do you like it?” Atlantis asked.

Rodney blinked rapidly and looked around.

His jaw dropped. Rodney wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but he certainly hadn’t expected to suddenly be in an immense cavern that was probably the size of the Gateroom proper, which looked a lot like the time Sharon – a geologist he had briefly dated– had talked him into going to Horne Lake Cave on Vancouver Island.

Unlike Horne Lake, impressive as it had been, Atlantis’ cavern was filled with hundreds of thousands of glowing crystals. Some were still tiny, about the size of the ones Atlantis was wearing – at least, Rodney assumed those were crystals – but others were the size of his forearm, and a few were even larger. They grew scattered among what Rodney would term “normal” stalactite and stalagmites, and they were all different shapes and colors, from the brightest, boldest reds, purples, blues, and greens, to the softest pinks, lilacs, silvery-blues, and sherbet-greens. They all appeared wet, as though they were frequently sprayed like the produce in a grocery store.

“Where are we?” Rodney wasn’t sure why he was whispering, but it seemed appropriate, given the awe he felt.

“I have decided to call this my darkroom,” Atlantis told him, her voice nearly as quiet. “The glowing crystals require complete darkness as they grow, which is part of the reason you have been so unsuccessful in attempting to grow energy crystals in your laboratories.”

Rodney stared at her, and he just knew he was at least as bug-eyed as any cartoon character he’d seen—and he’d seen several since he’d become friends with Tony.

“As for where we are, technically, we are beneath the central city and the central tower.”

“How is that possible? Our sensors haven’t ever picked up anything like this.”

Atlantis smiled faintly. “No, your sensors would not be capable of detecting my darkroom. This place exists within a certain type of singularity.”

Thankfully, only Atlantis was around to hear the high-pitched noise Rodney made. It almost sounded like some of the crystals around him echoed it back, but that couldn’t be right.

“How—how is that possible?”

She gave him her soft, amused smile and touched her hand to the small of his back.

“Remain between the green crystals. That is the safe path through the darkroom.”

“But—”

“Come, Rodney. There is more I wish to show you.”

He made a frustrated sound but allowed her to guide him along the empty space between the dark green crystals. To his surprise – and why did anything she did surprise him anymore? – rather than rough, uneven ground like in a normal cave, the path was smooth and even, like cut but unpolished marble. It was just enough texture to give his shoes traction.

At least he wouldn’t trip. He hoped.

They walked for what seemed like a lot longer than it should have taken to reach the far wall, but they got there eventually. Rodney didn’t even realize he was grumbling about not having sensors and wanting to understand how the inside of a singularity worked until Atlantis chuckled.

“I will bring you back, never fear, dear one.”

Ha! Rodney straightened his spine. He’d bet no one else – except Tony – had had Atlantis call them dear one. He never should have let his stupid insecurity get to him before. Atlantis wasn’t the kind to give up on someone once she liked them.

They finally stopped, and Atlantis made an elegant gesture toward the closest wall, for lack of a better term.

“Here, these are what I wished for you to see.”

Rodney could see straight away that the crystals growing in that area were different from the others. They weren’t just one color, for one thing. They were mostly dark red, but there were golds and oranges forming within the red areas. They were growing in straight rows too, which was something none of the other crystals did. It was almost as if they’d been planted that way instead of forming naturally. There was something else that was weird about them, too, though Rodney couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was.

“I know there’s something I should know about these, but you kind of broke my brain. I probably couldn’t even make an atomic bomb right now much less do anything complicated.”

Atlantis laughed, her eyes almost glowing with particularly bright flashes of light. “These are special crystals. They must be cultivated rather than simply allowed to grow because they will contain something far more powerful than the simple energy these other crystals must be able to process, once they are harvested.”

“Contain more power,” Rodney muttered to himself. There was something about her phrasing. “Contain more—” Rodney gasped, nearly choking. “Contained power, contained singularities. These are ZedPMs!”

Atlantis grinned at him, her teeth a flash of white in the darkness.

“Yes, I am cultivating the crystalline shells of the ZedPMs,” she said smugly.

 Rodney whimpered and tried to count. There had to be at least two dozen of the multi-hued crystals growing from the wall.

“How many are there? There have to be more than a dozen, more than two dozen!”

“Yes,” Atlantis acknowledged. “I had four fail thus far, so there are thirty-one. Keep in mind that these are merely the shells that will house the singularity. Not all of these will survive to become ZedPMs either. Each ZedPM crystal must be absolutely perfect, or it could destroy this solar system when I fill it. Perhaps half of these will be that perfect. Then I must reach between realities to harvest the energy to fill each one.”

“Oh, is that all,” Rodney whimpered, remembering the disaster with his sister and the alternate Rod McKay.

“It is complicated, even for me, but I believe it is worth it.”

“I think I need to sit down. Can I sit down?” Rodney sank to the ground right where he stood and crossed his legs tailor-style. He propped his elbows on his knees and put his shaking hands over his mouth. He stared wide-eyed at the wall of ZedPM crystals until his eyes teared from lack of blinking.

Atlantis knelt gracefully beside him. She tilted her head and rested her hand on his shoulder, and Rodney had a moment of insanity in which he wondered if her dress would get damp from the ground. Not that it mattered. She could just reform it whenever she wanted.

“You know, if you would agree to allow me to alter you, it is possible that I would be able to show you, let you experience what it feels like to harness the power of a singularity within your mental hands.”

Rodney’s head snapped up, and he stared at her open-mouthed.

“Oh, that’s just dirty pool, Atlantis,” he accused. “That’s worse than telling me you could fix my allergy to lemon!”

She gave a throaty chuckle. “I had not intended to offer you such inducement when I brought you here, but it appears I am not entirely immune to temptation myself.” Her smile softened again. “Come, stand and I shall take you to the crystals that are ready to harvest. I know there are many places throughout my structure that require replacements, so I will show you how to harvest and cut these into the pieces you will need.”

“Just as long as you don’t tell anyone else there are replacements we didn’t scavenge from the rest of the city. The idiots would probably just find more ways to break the ones we have already.”

“I shall permit you to decide if anyone else knows of this place, then.”

“Not even Tony knows?”

“No, not even Tony.”

Rodney grunted his acceptance and allowed her to pull him to his feet. The time sitting on the cold, damp floor had made him stiffer than he’d thought. Yet another thing Atlantis could correct if – and when – he gave in.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

Keplerday, Einstein 21, First Year of the Returned
(April 11, 2008)

Sam knew she probably should wait in her office, but she was too eager to hear about what had happened on Verubriga. That was the reason she’d been loitering in the control room for the last twenty minutes, making everyone else nervous. She consoled herself with the fact that Sheppard didn’t have any more restraint than she did.

Instead of pacing, he had one hip propped against the dialing station. The last time she’d walked past them, he’d been trying to convince Chuck that American football was superior to hockey. From the way Chuck looked like he was one unrestrained impulse away from trying to kill Sheppard with the Colonel’s own gun, Sam assumed the topic of conversation hadn’t changed.

The Gate started to light up. Sheppard’s focus snapped to it, and Sam didn’t think she was imagining Chuck’s look of relief.

“IDC?” she asked, striding toward Chuck’s station just as the wormhole stabilized.

“Yes, ma’am. It’s team four.”

“Good. Let them in, Chuck.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Everyone from both teams came through the Gate, looking a little worse for the wear.

Sam and Sheppard headed down the steps toward them, concerned but not alarmed, since it didn’t look like anyone had any obvious injuries.

They all were covered in dirt, leaves, and twigs. Dr. Alison Porter and Airman First Class Daniel Seung had black eyes, while Sergeant Dusty Mehra had a split lip. Mehra was grinning, but Sam didn’t think that meant much, considering the wild glint in her eyes that went with her grin. Seung was actually more muddy than dirty, but it looked as though things had gone as well or better than anticipated.

“Well,” Sheppard drawled, “You guys look like you had an adventure.”

“It was… interesting, sir” Major Teldy said with a pleased look at her fellow team leader.

“They didn’t kick us out, despite some of us being men,” Major Devin Jordan said, shooting Teldy a relieved smile in return.

“How about the aknata? Did you see any of those?”

“Oh, yes,” Teldy replied. “They’re all that Teyla described and more. They’re….”

“They’re hellbeasts, ma’am,” Seung offered with a smirk when Teldy trailed off, holding up one hand with his pinkie and index finger raised like horns. He flicked his wrist like he was back at his favorite rock concert in L.A.

Mehra snorted and made the sign back at him. “Which would be why you screamed when you saw it.”

Seung huffed. “It was a very manly scream, ma’am.”

Sam was amazed again that the very young, very enthusiastic Airman Seung fit as well as he did on Jordan’s team when the rest of them appeared so calm. Maybe that was why: Seung’s energy was tempered by the experience and calm of the other three.

“Right,” Sheppard said, stretching out the word, “How about you all get cleaned up and get through medical. Then, Major Teldy and Major Jordan, you two meet us in the small conference room behind the command center to debrief.”

There was a chorus of “yes, sir,” and Sam was left to wait with Sheppard again.

She had just enough time to answer a few urgent emails before it was time to grab a water and the digital tablet she planned to use to take notes.

“Alright, Major Teldy, would you start us off with your first impressions?”

“Yes, ma’am. Just like Teyla described, the Gate opens into a clearing at the edge of a forest. There are a variety of trees and plants, but the biggest ones are huge – the size of the sequoia trees back on Earth. We waited in the clearing, and it wasn’t long before one of the priestesses showed up with a group of male and female guards and warriors. I’m still not certain what the difference is, but I’m sure there is one. The priestess took one look at our uniforms and our weapons, and she tried to send us back through the Gate.”

“Do you think she was the one Captain Resha offended?”

“There’s no way to know, but I’d venture to guess that whomever he offended warned everyone else. They wouldn’t have given us the time of day if you hadn’t sent mostly women this time, Colonel Carter.”

“With all due respect, ma’am, the last time I saw a woman that mad and who wanted to kick my ass before I’d done more than exist while in her presence, she was sitting across the room, and our attorneys were fighting for custody of the dog,” Jordan quipped.

Sheppard winced, so did Sam even though she hadn’t personally been through a divorce. She’d heard the stories.

“I see,” she said. “You obviously were able to get them to talk.”

“Yes, Colonel,” Teldy said. “I explained that the leadership for my people had changed, and I was there to apologize on behalf of our new leader – a woman this time. Just like Teyla thought, they were at least willing to speak to us instead of sending us back through the Gate with our backsides on fire. Priestess Briddyn was skeptical, but she was willing to let me attempt to apologize to the high priestess in person.

“I said everything just like Teyla and I worked out, and High Priestess Faerl listened, but she said we’d have to complete a task before she would consider trading with us.”

Sheppard leaned forward. “What was the task?”

His concern was legitimate. They’d already had some similar situations where the apology tasks had been the equivalent of “go sit in an active volcano.” Needless to say, those trade missions hadn’t worked out very well.

“There is a smaller woodland area, and the settlement is located in a clearing in the heart of it. There’s a stream that winds just along the north edge, but it connects to a river a few miles farther east. She told us we had to travel along the stream until we got to the river. Once there, we were supposed to catch this fish that only swims in the river and bring it back to her.”

“Really?” Sam was surprised. “Catch a fish, and that’s all?”

Wow, if only all of SG1’s apologies had been so easy back in the first days of the program! Daniel would’ve gotten to stay home with his artifacts a lot more, not that he would’ve wanted to.

“I know, it sounds weird, but there was a reason for it,” Teldy confirmed. “Faerl told us that there was a great monster that roamed the area between the stream and the river, and we would have to survive it in order to bring her the fish.”

Ah. Not quite so easy after all.

“Did she take your weapons?” Sheppard asked, frowning.

Major Jordan shook his head. “Not at all. In fact, she said we could take any weapon we liked. Faerl even said if we killed one of the monsters, she would declare us allies instantly, and we would have a big feast in celebration.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound so bad.”

“No, sir,” Jordan agreed. “She did tell us that if we failed or if we refused, then we should never come back. She would not declare us enemies, but she never gives third chances.”

“A little harsh, but I can understand, I guess,” Sam admitted. “You must have caught the fish. Did you kill one of the monsters?”

“No,” Teldy admitted. “We agreed to go get the fish, but we discussed it among ourselves and decided that it was unlikely High Priestess Faerl knew that we knew about the tanricu and the aknata. We thought that the aknata was probably the monster, but it was likely that we’d be faced with one of their tanricu along the way at some point, too.”

“I presume both of those things happened,” Sam said, seeing where the story was headed.

“The tanricu were first, while we were still in the wooded area,” Teldy replied with a sharp nod. “They are terrifying if you don’t know what they are.”

Major Jordan snorted. “I knew what to expect – or I thought I did – and I still think they’re terrifying. If I hadn’t known not to shoot, I definitely would have done my best to take down one or more of those suckers.”

“But you didn’t?” Sheppard asked.

“No! No, sir,” Jordan immediately denied. “Which turned out to be a very good thing later on. If I’d killed one of the tanricu….”

“That bad, huh?”

Teldy confirmed, “Very, sir. The tanricu are intelligent – more than animals but less than humans – and they are seen as sacred windsisters to the Lorians. To kill or even injure one on purpose is seen as a direct attack on the high priestess herself. They would have killed us, and I mean that quite literally.”

Sam asked, “So when did you see the aknata?”

“At the river, and they are every bit as huge as Ronon and Teyla said they are. Keep in mind that I’ve seen a real bison. I was stationed at Ellsworth in South Dakota, and there’s a state park near there. The park is part of the bison herd’s territory, and you can drive through it, though you have to acknowledge that you won’t hold the park responsible for any injuries.”

“Injuries?”

“Bison are huge, ma’am. Adults are anywhere from five to over six feet at the shoulder, and they can weigh over a ton,” Teldy explained. “If something scares them or makes them mad, especially during mating season when the bulls are in rut and the cows in heat, the entire herd can stampede. If that happens, there isn’t a civilian vehicle on Earth that could protect you from getting hurt.”

“Wow, I had no idea. I guess I’ve never thought about land animals that big,” Sam admitted.

“I hadn’t either until then. As massive as bison are, the aknata are probably twice their size. I know Teyla and Ronon didn’t think they were as tall as eleven or twelve feet, but I assume their people never had to go on the fishing trip we did. They probably only saw the monster – and I agree with that name – once it was already dead.”

“That doesn’t take into account their horns, either,” Major Jordan elaborated. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Texas Longhorn, but they’ve got nothing on the aknata, though the aknata’s horns curve upward a lot sooner than the Longhorn’s do.”

Sam was doing her best to keep her jaw from dropping open. She hadn’t seen a Longhorn – or any kind of cattle, really – in real life, but she’d seen photos.

“So how the heck did you all get the fish to take back to the priestess?” Sheppard demanded incredulously.

“It turns out that the aknata come to the river’s edge during the heat of the day. Getting wet probably helps them stay cool under all that fur or hair, I’m not sure which it is,” Jordan explained. “We did the only thing we could – we waited them out.”

“When all but a couple stragglers were headed back to the grassland, we went to the part of the river closest to the wooded area and made a fishing net out of some mosquito netting and some thick plant stems. It took a while—”

“And Seung slipped and fell in at one point.”

“That too,” Teldy agreed with an amused grin. “We did catch the stupid fish eventually. We actually caught several in case the tanricu got a little too interested in us on the way back.”

“From the way you guys looked when you came through the Gate, can I assume you needed to use the extras?”

“Most of the dirt and leaves happened when the tanricu dive-bombed us on the way to the river, actually. When the tanricu started to get too close on the way back, we threw a fish at them. That only worked while they chased that one – a little bit like a dog with a ball, except the ball got eaten in a single bite – and then they were back. We managed to hang onto the final fish until we got close enough that the locals took pity on us and escorted us back to the high priestess.”

“Well, you succeeded. What did the high priestess – what was her name?”

“Faerl, ma’am.”

“Right. What did she say?”

“She had the fish we’d brought back baked and insisted she and I share it.” Major Teldy shrugged. “It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten off-world, even if it did still have the head attached while we shared the rest of it. Then she said she would be pleased to begin negotiations to open trade between our peoples at dawn in two days.”

Sam grinned. “That’s fantastic!”

“It is, though the high priestess made it a point to let us know that the men would be welcome to remain at home next time.”

“Colonels,” Jordan addressed both Sam and Sheppard. “Normally I would suggest that my entire team stay here, but with the way Faerl phrased it, I got the impression she’d be expecting Dr. McNamara back with AR-4, and she’d be offended if all five women didn’t show up unless they had a really good excuse.”

Teldy was nodding. “I agree, and by ‘pretty good excuse,’ I think she’d only really accept death or Wraith.”

Sheppard frowned, and Sam wasn’t exactly thrilled either.

“That would put your team out of rotation until the negotiations are finalized.”

“It’s possible, sir, though I think McNamara will be able to extricate herself down the road if the negotiations go on too long.”

“She is the best anthropologist we have for first contact and negotiation,” Teldy agreed. “You can tell me I’m wrong, but I got the impression this isn’t an opportunity we can afford to screw up.”

Sam exchanged a look with Sheppard. Teldy was more right than even she knew.

“Right. Here’s what we’ll do,” Sheppard said firmly. “Dr. McNamara will go with Team 4 until such a time as she feels she can withdraw from the process without endangering herself or the negotiations. If that doesn’t happen until the negotiations are final, then we’ll need her to stick it out through the whole thing.

“Major Jordan, I’d rather not farm out your team individually. I’d like the three of you to work with our other people who go off-planet. Let’s get other teams to the point where they can at least go along with one of the apologies teams without doing something that ends us in a worse place than where we started. If McNamara isn’t finished with these negotiations in a couple weeks, we’ll see if we can borrow an Athosian who has negotiation experience as a guide so you can get back on tour.”

“Yes, sir,” Jordan responded. He paused, then asked, “If I may make a suggestion?”

“Go ahead.”

“I’d like my team, and Seung specifically, to get some more physical training. He’s not a Marine, sir, and it shows.”

“We’re not Marines either, Major,” Sam objected, a little offended on Seung’s behalf.

“No, ma’am,” Jordan concurred, “but you and Colonel Sheppard have proven yourselves in the training room and in the field. Seung is so young and untried that he shines like a brand new penny. I’d say I’d like to give him to Teyla or Ronon for a couple weeks, but I know they don’t have a spare second. My next thought is Red Eagle.”

Sam’s eyebrows shot up to her hairline. If it was the man she was thinking about, he’d been busted back in rank twice for refusal to obey an order.

“Lance Corporal Austin Red Eagle?” Sheppard verified. “I’m a little concerned your new penny might pick up bad habits.”

“If I may speak freely and off the record?”

“Alright,” Sheppard agreed warily. “Go ahead.”

“I know what happened to Red Eagle officially, but there are two sides to every story. Major Rutherford knew him back on Earth, and he was shocked to find out Red Eagle had been busted back to a Lance Corporal. Rutherford wants him on his team, so he’s been having him train with them on Red Eagle’s days off.”

“Rutherford. Isn’t that Major Elliot Rutherford who runs Search and Rescue Team 1?” Sam clarified, since there were two Rutherfords that she knew of on the city.

“Yes, ma’am, it is.”

Sheppard shot Sam a concerned look. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had made an enemy in the ranks and ended up getting shipped to Atlantis with a black mark or two on his or her record.

“Rutherford is a good judge of character. He wouldn’t tolerate anyone who wasn’t worth his time and energy, and he certainly wouldn’t tell you he wanted anyone problematic on his team,” Sam said, thinking out loud. Purposely phrasing it so that it wasn’t an order, she asked, “Can you tell us, again, off the record, if you know what orders Red Eagle refused that got him reprimanded?”

Jordan’s dark eyes held hers for a long moment before conceding, “I do know what it was, ma’am. Red Eagle was scouted by the Marines and the Navy. He was interested in serving his country, but the Cherokee have religious reasons for having long hair. Cutting his hair would only be done for very specific reasons such as the death of a beloved relative. That went double for Red Eagle because his father is a medicine man.

“As I understand it, the Marines were willing to grant him a religious waiver to keep the hair so long as he kept it clean and tightly braided so it would be out of the way. Red Eagle joined under that proviso, and he had no complaints from anyone until Colorado.”

“What happened in Colorado?” Sheppard asked.

Sam could tell from the way his jaw was working that he dreaded the answer. Well, that was fair. She did too.

“Then-Sergeant Red Eagle got put under a commander who ordered him to cut it. Red Eagle explained about the religious thing and the waiver he’d been granted. The commander told him he didn’t care if he believed in the tooth fairy, he wasn’t going to have any fairy-faggot Marines in his unit and repeated his order. That commander went so far as to try to have the waiver repealed. Red Eagle still refused to cut his hair, and his bid wasn’t up, so he couldn’t just opt not to renew. That refusal saw him busted back to corporal.”

Sam felt sick and furious, but she had to ask, “And the second time?”

“Red Eagle was transferred to another unit. That commander was aware of the situation and was in the good ole’ boys’ club with the first. He issued Red Eagle the same order, and Red Eagle refused. Instead of reporting him, he put the entire unit on correction detail and made it was clear it would end when Red Eagle obeyed the order he’d been given.”

Major Jordan closed his eyes and rubbed his mouth with one hand. When he opened his eyes, they seemed an even deeper shade of brown, as filled with anger as they were.

“After almost a month of working them until they dropped every day, the commander ordered the rest of the unity to throw Red Eagle a blanket party. Red Eagle was beaten to the point they nearly killed him, at which point they shaved his head for him.

“When he regained consciousness after the surgery that stopped the internal bleeding, set his ribs, and wired his jaw shut – which had been broken in two places – Red Eagle refused to name those who’d assaulted him. He refused to speak of the incident at all, even when ordered to by his commander’s CO.”

That took guts, Sam had to admit. It would have been a lot easier to throw his unit under the bus for taking an illegal order, but Sam was smart enough to know that there were men and women in uniform who abused their authority and got away with it all the time. The people who had beaten Austin Red Eagle probably were afraid that if they refused, they would be next to be given the so-called blanket party.

“So they demoted him again and shipped him out here,” Sam concluded.

A glance at Sheppard concerned her. He didn’t have many tells, per say, but his right hand was clenched in a fist, and the muscle in his jaw was working like he was grinding his teeth. Sam knew that meant he’d moved beyond furious to enraged, and he didn’t know if he could trust himself to keep his normal, calm façade.

“Does Landry know?” Sheppard demanded through gritted teeth.

Jordan eyed him warily. “I am not in the General’s confidence, sir.”

Sheppard’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t bullshit me, Jordan! Does. Landry. Know?”

“Sir, I believe he does, but I have no proof.”

“Right.” Sheppard got to his feet so fast his chair tipped over backward. “Good job on Verubriga, Teldy, Jordan. I’m going to go look into a couple of things, then I’ll deal with Red Eagle.”

The door slid back in barely enough time to let Sheppard storm through. Sam assumed he was on his way to talk to Red Eagle until she realized he wouldn’t do that until he could appear calm. He was more likely to demand someone spar with him so he could work out his fury first. Sheppard was a little like Jack that way, and Sam didn’t mind being left to close the meeting.

“We will do right by Red Eagle, but that doesn’t solve your problem with getting your team more training time, Major. Sergeant Stackhouse is excellent at hand-to-hand, and Comandante Santiago – the new commander of Search and Rescue team two – is a vicious knife fighter. She learned how to fight on the streets of Spain, so be aware she’ll teach them how to fight dirty, not spar.”

Jordan was nodding. “That sounds perfect. She’s a woman, and both the guys on my team have a problem underestimating women, despite having seen Teyla fight all morning and have her opponents begging for mercy while she hardly worked up a sweat. I’ll talk to Santiago.”

Sam made sure neither of the team leaders had other concerns she needed to know about, then dismissed them. They might have had a long day, but so had she, and she had the feeling hers wasn’t going to end any time soon. Rodney McKay wasn’t the only one who could design a program to do a little unauthorized digging.

Landry had a much different style than Jack or General Hammond had had, but Sam hadn’t thought he was corrupt. She was aware of her own reputation as being half a step away from Teflon when it came to being reprimanded, though, so her experience wasn’t always an accurate measure of the powers that be.

Well, Sam was going to find out what secrets the SGC was keeping about Red Eagle, and she wanted to know if there were others like him, too.

On the heels of that thought came the epiphany that she could very well design a program to find out what the heck was going on back on Earth that was keeping the Daedalus in a holding pattern and them without their supplies. It wasn’t legal or ethical, at least not from the SGC’s point of view, but they weren’t the ones in danger of running out of food. Sam never would’ve dreamed of doing something like that before she’d become a full-bird Colonel, but she hadn’t had over a thousand lives depending on her then either. She wouldn’t be able to tell anyone what she was doing; if she did get caught, it had to land on her shoulders alone.

With her goal firmly in her mind, she swept up her notepad and stylus off the table and headed back to her office. She’d need privacy and silence to work.

*~*~*~*

Tesladay, Einstein 24, First Year of the Returned
(April 14, 2008)

“I’m considering homicide.”

Logan looked up when Tony stomped into his office and propped zyr hip against the assistant’s table at the front of his desk.

“Depending on who it is, I’ll either arrest you or help you cover it up.”

Amused by the indifferent tone, Tony hummed and crossed zyr arms, tapping zyr index finger against zyr chin. “How will I know if I should avoid you or ask you for help?”

“Well,” Logan said slowly, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers as he pretended to consider the question seriously. “I’d say just throw the body into the water and let whatever Pegasus sharks are down there eat them so you don’t have to worry about it at all, but the biologists have gotten awfully interested in fishing lately. I saw some of the mess personnel out there with them, so I’d say there’s a good chance they’re planning to feed us a bunch of fish sometime soon, and nobody wants to slice into their not-salmon to see somebody’s dog tags.”

“Or pocket protector.”

“That too,” he agreed with mock seriousness. “I guess that means if you can tell that the person you plan to murder performs a useful function around here, then you should ask someone else for help. If they’re basically useless but related to someone on the IOA, then let me know, and I’ll break out the big bags of lye. There’s a great spot out on the western arm of the city.”

Tony snickered. “How about you just go on a short run with me instead?”

Logan checked his watch. “I think I could spare a little time before I have to come back to this downright riveting paperwork.”

“Excellent!” Tony clapped zyr hands together and wiggled zyr eyebrows, even though it made zyr look ridiculous.

Logan laughed, which was zyr objective. With everything he was responsible for in the city, it was easy for the man to be too serious for too long. Tony wasn’t about to let him burn himself out, and that’s what would happen eventually.

After a brief discussion, they decided to run out in the fresh air rather than on one of the common paths within the city’s buildings. Tony was glad to feel the sun on zyr face and the wind against zyr skin. From the way Logan was blinking and turning his face toward the sun, he was feeling the same way.

“I’m surprised Ronon isn’t with you,” Logan commented.

Tony snorted. “When he got back from planet M-whatever, he decided to go hit things in the gym for a while. I don’t know any specifics, but I assume that means it didn’t go well.”

“Really.”

Tony made a face at Logan’s skeptical tone.

“I might have forgotten to mention to him that I was going to run,” zy admitted after catching the way Logan kept looking at zyr. “I love him, but there are times I kind of want to kill him.”

Logan lips twitched, but he didn’t laugh, so that meant Tony wouldn’t have to push him into a building or the ocean. Yet.

“Okay, what’d he do?”

“Gah! That’s just the thing! Nothing!” Tony ranted. “He’s very concerned, solicitous, and accommodating, and it’s driving me nuts! I think it’s either hormones or the fact that we spend so much time together, but where his usual overprotectiveness is cute, it just makes me want to strangle him today.”

Logan hummed. “Well, it could be a little of both. My ex was pissed at me most of her pregnancy, and I was never sure what I’d done. Of course, if I’d been smarter or more self-aware, I’d have realized we weren’t going to make it long-term,” he admitted. “Take a left up here.”

Tony turned at the corner as instructed. “Just where are you taking me, Sgt. Major Wolfe?”

Logan huffed a laugh, “Nowhere dangerous… at least I don’t think so. There’s an interesting sculpture you should see not far from here. I’ve been there a few times, and I haven’t turned into a human bomb, started hallucinating, or tried to ascend.”

Someone unfamiliar with the Alterans might think Logan was joking, but Tony had read the reports and knew better.

“Atlantis, do you know the sculpture he’s talking about?”

Her reply was swift.

//Yes, Kysra. It and the path he is taking you on to reach it are safe. I would have alerted you if it were not.//

“Thank you,” zy called out, then told Logan, “She says the sculpture and the way to it are safe.”

“Well, that’s good to know. I keep thinking I’ll remember to bring a camera with me one of these times, but I never do.”

“I’ll make sure to drag you out here again. I’m always interested in art, even if I don’t get the modern stuff a lot of the time.”

Tony tried to shrug one shoulder, then had to get zyr body back in sync to keep running. It took more effort than it should have. Then again, zyr brain had felt like it wasn’t connecting quite right with zyr body lately.

They were quiet for a while, except for the sounds of their feet on the ground and their breathing. It was calming, almost like a metronome, and it made Tony especially glad zy had asked Logan to run with zyr. There was something to be said for getting out of zyr head and doing something strictly physical for a while.

“The pregnancy didn’t have anything to do with why Molly and I split up, by the way,” Logan said after another mile. “We were doomed long before that. I think having Aaron was our last attempt to do something right and get ourselves on track where we thought we should be.”

Tony had wondered why Logan had tried to have a kid with his then-wife if they were already unhappy, as he’d confessed one other time.

“Huh. I was about to say something about having a kid to save a marriage being a bad idea, but my plan to have a kid to escape a job would’ve been much worse if I’d met anyone other than Ronon.”

Tony took Logan’s answering grunt as agreement. Zy was surprised when he added, “I know you said Atlantis doesn’t know where the other Four are, but I think they had to have helped engineer your meeting Ronon.”

When Tony was silent, Logan gave a self-depreciating laugh. “Call me a fool or a romantic, but I believe you two were meant to meet and to be together.”

Tony grinned, amazed to hear that kind of thing from such a stoic guy.

“Ronon thinks the same thing. I don’t know what I think. I guess I’m just glad I’m here with him, even the days when I want to strangle him,” Tony admitted. “Can we stop and stretch a little?”

“Sure.”

They slowed to a jog, then stopped next to one of the many empty buildings in the central city.

“You okay?” Logan asked when he noticed Tony wincing.

“I’ll be fine. All my joints hurt right now, that’s all.”

Logan raised the hem of his shirt and wiped the sweat from his face, and Tony copied him.

“Yeah, I remember that. Not me, of course, but I remember Molly going through it. I spent a lot of time getting yelled at for that in the first trimester. Not as much as the last one, but a lot.”

Tony snorted. “Awesome. You’re telling me it gets even more fun?”

Logan did a really terrible job trying to look apologetic. “It’s better than having your hips break, right? That’s the alternative if there isn’t enough room for the baby.”

“Thanks for that nightmare material, jerk.” Tony made a face and continued zyr slow stretch, holding it for a little longer than normal, just like the book had recommended. “I know all the ligaments are trying to relax and make room. It just sucks because, one, it hurts, and two, my hips are literally changing shape. That means those tight jeans that used to make my ass look so damn good are never going to fit the same again.”

Logan started to laugh, but quickly cut himself off at Tony’s attempt to imitate a basilisk’s death glare.

“Sorry, I know it’s not funny, not really. I’m sure someone will make you some new booty-call jeans when you want them.”

Tony rolled zyr eyes. Zy would probably be laughing if zy weren’t the one going through it.

“Start running, laughing man. I think I see the sculpture you were talking about. It’s black metal, not stone like I thought it would be.”

“Yep, that’s the one.”

They picked up the pace again, but Tony noticed it wasn’t as fast. Zy wasn’t sure if zy should be pleased because it meant zyr joints weren’t jarred as much, which meant they didn’t hurt as much either, or if zy should be irritated because Logan thought zy needed to go slower… which zy did… and which was what really pissed zyr off in the first place.

When they arrived at the sculpture, Tony walked around it twice before deciding zy kinda liked it.

“It’s like a roller coaster twisted into an ‘8’,” zy mused.

Logan laughed. “I guess that’s one interpretation. Isn’t it some kind of infinity symbol? It always reminds me of an Escher painting because it doesn’t have a beginning or end; it just keeps going.”

Tony was sure there was a metaphor for life in there somewhere, but zy didn’t care to analyze it that closely.

Zy stepped on the edge of the sculpture and wondered if zy could climb it. Zy managed to grab one of the bars above zyr head before Logan was pulling zyr back by the arm and the neck of zyr t-shirt.

“Oh, hell no!” he barked out. “Don’t you dare, Tony Dex. You fall even an inch, and Ronon will tie me to that thing and use it to keelhaul me, and that’s if I’m lucky. Uh-uh. No way.”

Tony snarled and shoved him away, though zy did step back from the tempting piece of art.

“Believe it or not, I am an actual adult capable of making my own decisions.”

Logan nodded, hands on his hips. “Great,” he fired back. “Then you can decide to wait until you have the proper safety equipment and Ronon is with you before you think about climbing that thing again.”

Annoyed as zy was by yet another overprotective XY, Tony did agree that climbing a several thousand year old structure without having it examined for stability or anything else first probably wasn’t a good idea. Trying it without any safety equipment at all really was dumb, zy had to admit… though only to zyrself.

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll do it another time. I see why you said you wished you’d brought your camera. Now I’m thinking the same thing.”

“Next time. Wanna head back, or do you want to bitch at me some more for not letting you crack your head open?”

Tony snorted. “Let’s head back. And I wasn’t thinking about bitching at you.”

“Not anymore, but you were,” Logan retorted after they started running.

“How could you tell?”

“Your face was doing that thing.”

“What thing? I have no idea what you’re talking about. My face doesn’t do any ‘thing.’”

“No, really. Your mouth does this thing where you press one side of your lips together and almost try to smile, but it just comes off like you’re saying you’d really like to kick somebody’s ass, and you’re not too picky about whose.”

Tony was about to object, but zy realized zy was doing exactly what Logan had described at that very moment.

“Damn, I can’t believe I have a tell.” Zy couldn’t believe zy hadn’t caught it sooner. What’s worse, the tell had to belong to Tony zyrself, not any of zyr undercover personas zy’d developed for dealing with difficult situations, even the one zy had used to get through the bad days at NCIS. It was a shock to realize zy hadn’t had to resort to using any of zyr personas since zy had met Ronon.

“I’m gonna have to send myself back to probie-school,” zy whined to cover zyr inner turmoil.

Logan snorted. “If that’s what you think, the rest of us are screwed. I know I have tells; I just try to limit them.”

Tony waved it off. “Yeah, right, Mr. Stone-faced Marine. But enough of my bitching and moaning. Tell me about Aaron. You got an email from zyr today, right?”

Logan made an odd noise, but Tony couldn’t tell if it meant he was distraught, furious, or frustrated. Probably some of all three, knowing what zy did about Aaron’s situation.

“If I had a hope in hell of getting my kyta stowed away on the Daedalus this time, I’d have zyr on it in a New York minute. It’s a damned shame that whatever’s going on back on Earth is putting more scrutiny on who and what is brought on board. It’s making this harder than it should be.”

“Zy’s miserable, huh?”

“Yeah, but zy still won’t tell me anything actionable.” Logan cursed and looked like he wished he could punch someone. “Zy started emailing me from a new email address, from an IP address that isn’t zyr home or school.”

 “You think zyr emails are being read before zy sends them?”

“That’s my guess.”

Shit, that wasn’t good.

“Which either means the adults in zyr life are being nosey, or there really is something zy wants to or thinks zy needs to hide from you.”

“I know. Plus Aaron just lost zyr best friend. I’m so fucking terrified, Tony. It’s making a hole the size of the city in my stomach lining.”

Tony slowed so zy could focus on what Logan was saying. There was something off about it.

“Wait, what do you mean, zy lost zyr best friend?” zy asked with a frown. “Did they move away?”

“I wish,” Logan replied grimly, slowing his pace to match zyrs automatically. “Aaron’s best friend was this pretty little kysra whose parents chose to call zyr a girl.”

Tony’s heart sank. “Oh, shit.”

“Yep. ‘She’ turned sixteen, so zyr parents pulled zyr out of school and essentially sold zyr off to some guy who’s in business with zyr father. Aaron said the guy is my age or older, which makes me sick. I could no more see a sixteen-year-old as a sexual partner than I could one of the fish out there,” he growled, waving toward the water they could barely see between the city buildings. “Two sixteen-year-olds kissing is one thing, a forty-something guy kissing a sixteen-year-old? I wanna kill the bastard on principle.”

“Has the guy let Aaron’s friend stay in contact with zyr at all?”

“No,” Logan snapped and started running faster, though Tony thought it was probably fury, not conscious thought that was pushing him forward. “Aaron did see zyr parents in the grocery store one day, and they made sure to tell zyr that part of the reason they forced her to get ‘married’ was because they thought zy and Aaron were ‘too close’ whatever the hell that means. I’m sure it was something about how they were worried two delts would start breeding more delts if they didn’t do something to separate them.”

Tony’s own anger propelled zyr legs to move faster.

“I’ve heard that kind of thing before; it’s such bullshit! Delt kids are probably less likely to experiment with sex because they’re so afraid of what will happen to them. I doubt that kysra’s parents actually believe what they said. It’s more like it’s a convenient excuse to sell their kyta to the highest bidder. I’d like to kick their asses for laying that kind of thing on Aaron!”

“You and me both, Tony,” Logan snarled. “The worst part is Aaron said they found Shanna hanging in a closet a week ago. She had used one of zyr ‘life partner’s’ ties. You can imagine how devastated Aaron is now.”

“Sonofa—! We’ve got to get Aaron out of there, especially if zyr current guardian – I refuse to say mother because mothers don’t put that kind of crap on their kyta – is already telling zyr she’s worried about zyr ‘breeding.’ You know what comes next.”

“Oh, I know: forced sterilization. That’s why I’m killing myself trying to come up with a way to get zyr here.”

“We need to talk to Rodney and Zelenka. They’re sneaky SOBs, especially Zelenka. They’ll have ideas.”

“If you trust them, I’m willing to do anything, pay anything. Aaron can’t stay there anymore.”

“We’ll figure it out, Logan. We’re just going to have to be sneakier and meaner than those assholes are, but we’ll get Aaron here one way or another.”

Logan huffed. “Your lips to God’s ears.”

They slowed as they reached the entrance to the central tower. How was it that the trip back always felt shorter than the one out? Oh, wait. The double-time running.

Tony bent and put zyr hands on zyr knees, panting. Zy was going to be so sore later, but zy didn’t care. Runner’s high was a beautiful thing.

Logan stripped off his shirt entirely, using the few dry bits to wipe his face. Tony was tempted to follow his lead, but zy wasn’t comfortable showing off the Bump to all and sundry quite yet.

“One last thing about you and Ronon.”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t know Ronon as well as I know you, but I know he loves you. He wants to make everything all better. He can’t, so just tell him that. Let the poor guy off the hook so he’s not constantly wondering what he did wrong.”

“I’ve tried telling him it’s not his fault.” Tony groaned and shook zyr head. “It just makes him even more worried and overprotective.”

Logan made a face. “Yeah, he probably doesn’t believe you. Not that he thinks you’re lying,” he hastily corrected, “he’s just blaming himself because he feels like he should be able to fix whatever is bothering you.”

Logan paused, warily adding, “I have a suggestion if you want it.”

Tony made a ‘go ahead’ motion with one hand and wished zy had thought to bring water. Zyr mouth was as dry as the Sahara.

“It’s just a thought, and you can take it or leave it,” Logan said, rolling his shoulders and stretching his neck. “Come right out and tell him, ‘hey honeybunch, sugarplum, snuggle monkey,’ or whatever it is you guys call each other.”

Tony sniggered, resolving to call Ronon snuggle monkey at the first opportunity.

“Tell him, ‘I’m irrationally angry at everything and everyone. It has nothing to do with anything you’ve said or done, so I need you to stop trying to fix it. My body and my hormones are FUBAR, and I need you to let me be angry for no reason at all.’” Logan shrugged. “Tell him what you need from him, Tony. I think it’ll make life easier for you both.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

Logan grinned at the challenge in Tony’s tone. “Then give me a call, and I’ll take Ronon to the gym or out to drink some illicit vodka. At least he’ll be out of your way for a while.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, Ronon’s a good guy. I wouldn’t mind getting to know him better, especially if we can bitch about how crazy pregnant people are.”

Tony grinned back at him, then stole his shirt and snapped it at him like a gym towel in a locker room. Logan just dodged it and mocked zyr.

“Too slow, Dex!”

“Fine! You invite Ronon to spar, since he’s the fast Dex at the moment, and I’ll call up Rodney. He’ll come over so we can eat cookies and bitch about muscle-bound idiots who beat each other up for fun.”

“Sounds fair to me,” Logan chuckled, stopping by the transporter. He grabbed his shirt back. “Now go on. Get your ass back before your husband loses his mind and thinks he’s done something to make you run away from home.”

Tony stepped inside the transporter and gave a sloppy salute with the wrong hand. “Sir, yes sir!”

Logan’s mock glare was the last thing zy saw before Atlantis whisked zyr home.

*~*~*~*

John was sort of irritated about the fact that he needed an office. He had a really nice one with a very comfy chair, thanks to Atlantis, but that didn’t mean he was happy that he had to do enough paperwork to actually need an office of his own.

Really, he was lucky that Evan Lorne liked doing paperwork, or at least didn’t hate it as much as John did, so he did the lion’s share. John knew Lorne took care of a lot of things he wasn’t officially supposed to be doing, but that was the great thing about having an awesome 2IC like Lorne. For instance, take the conversation they’d just had a couple of days ago.

 

“Sir, I noticed your resubmission of that request for the zat guns and/or staff weapons. It was in the batch that’ll go back to Earth the next time we open the Gate.”

John raised his head from where he was glaring furiously at his stupid computer. It refused to remove a formatting setting – a setting John knew hadn’t been there the last time he’d looked at the damned report.

“I resubmitted that, did I?” John didn’t recall submitting it the first time, though it was a good idea.

“Yes, sir,” Lorne agreed mildly, not looking up from where he was working on his own computer at the small conference table. “You sent a cost-analysis this time for what it costs each nation to train human assets, as well as the amounts already invested by the time the asset has reached each rank. Then you sent photos of SR-3 before they left and after we retrieved their bodies from M19-557, along with a cost analysis of their loss versus the cost of the weapons we need.”

John frowned.

Search and Rescue Team 3 had been the Russian elite spetsnaz team who’d gone to what was supposed to be a farming planet. At some time during the month of Einstein, Atlantis typically traded with M19-557 for a round grain similar to couscous. Nobody had seen any of the regular traders from the planet around the various interplanetary markets, so SR-3 had offered to do recon.

Tragically, the entire civilization had turned into a community of Wraith worshipers in the time since they’d last traded with Atlantis. Worse, the community was being visited by their local ‘gods’ to receive a collection of human offerings when SR-3 arrived.

As best they could tell, all but one team member had been killed by the Wraith. The fourth member had managed to get to a gun, shoot his three comrades, then kill himself, even though his body had aged to what looked to be about a ninety Earth years at the time.

John had written the letters to each of their families himself. It was one job he never ask or allow Lorne do for him.

AR-1 and SR-2, with John at the helm, had taken a Jumper and annihilated the community. John knew he was going to have to account for his decision to destroy the entire population, especially since they’d lost Karlo Bunić when they’d retrieved the bodies of SR-3. John still felt he’d done the right thing. Though he hated killing humans, he hated fanatics murdering his own people a whole lot more, and everyone on Atlantis was his no matter their Earth nation of origin.

Recon teams were seeing more and more of the Wraith worshiper communities, which made John worry that the Wraith were tired of chasing after their wild food source and were using their abilities to make sure their meals stayed in controlled groups for better reproduction and tracking. It was a trend they were watching carefully, and they’d already lost enough people to what people were starting to call Wraith farms to know it was impossible to turn them once they’d been ‘domesticated’ by the Wraith.

That knowledge was what had made John decide to destroy M19-557. Frankly, it was a much kinder death than they’d get at the hands of their Wraith ‘gods.’

“That seems a little cold of me, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t think politicians can see anything but numbers, but you thought the photos might help make your case if the numbers don’t,” Lorne explained. “There was a letter too. You wrote to Colonel Chekov.”

“I never would’ve asked you to do that, Lorne,” John said, dropping the pretense.

“I know that, sir. I mostly lifted things from what you already wrote to their families and then added some righteous indignation that we don’t have the equipment we need. Zats or staff weapons might not have saved the team, but we’ll never know how effective they are against the Wraith because the IOA won’t give us any.”

Spetsnaz are like our SEAL teams, so at least Chekov will know if they didn’t make it, no one else could have either.”

“Chekov does have the advantage of actually having been deployed. If he can’t get them send us weapons, then there’s no hope.”

“You mean nobody on the IOA will ever understand we’re in a war, not just over here playing patty-cake and going for swims after work every day.”

“That too,” Lorne admitted.

John just hoped the IOA didn’t start pulling assets back to Earth. He didn’t think they would so long as Atlantis had the ZPM card to play. He hoped not, anyway.

“Do I need to sign that letter?”

Lorne’s lips quirked upward. “You did, sir.”

John huffed. “Just be sure to tell me if I sign anything else important.”

“I will, sir.”

 Unfortunately, what John was dealing with now wasn’t as easy as mundane paperwork. Now that John had let off some of his fury at the SGC over the Red Eagle situation, he was capable of tamping down the rest so he could have a civil conversation about it. He and Major Rutherford had been over it already and had come to a couple of possibilities, so they were both sitting at his conference table, waiting for Lance Corporal Red Eagle himself.

The door notification – which, much to his amusement, John noted now sounded exactly like the ones on the Star Trek: The Next Generation, and meant Tony and Atlantis had been watching movies again – trilled, and John gave the door a mental nudge to open.

“Lance Cpl. Red Eagle, reporting, sir,” Red Eagle said, executing a perfect salute.

“At ease, Red Eagle,” John said.

Red Eagle moved into parade rest, his bright blue eyes staring straight ahead, his spine rigid enough to make John’s back ache just from looking at him.

John held back a sigh. “This isn’t a formal meeting, so relax and take a seat.”

Red Eagle hesitated, confusion flashing across his face, but he managed to sit in the open chair between John and Rutherford.

John leaned forward and put both elbows on the table, deliberately slouching in what Rodney called his Gumby impression.

“So here’s the deal, Red Eagle. Your name came up as a candidate to help with marksmanship, small weapons training, and some of the hand-to-hand fighting skills. I’m told you have some formal training yourself, but you’re more the expert of the style of no style. Is that how you’d describe yourself?”

Red Eagle’s gaze flicked to Rutherford, then back to John.

“Got my ass kicked a lot as a kid on the rez for not lookin’ Native enough. Got it kicked off the rez for being 'Indian.' Eventually learned how not to get it kicked as much.”

Seeing the young man in person for the first time instead of just a file photo on a computer, John couldn’t help but think Red Eagle probably got his ass kicked as much for being ‘pretty’ as he did for being the child of a Native American father and Caucasian mother. John could sympathize with that, having had his own ass handed to him more than once in junior high and high school for being ‘pretty’ himself.

“That’s a legitimate way to learn, even if it’s miserable at the time. Believe me, I know,” John offered. “Staff Sergeant Winston says you’re good enough to work for him, though you’d probably have to pass the Teyla or Ronon test somewhere along the line if you want to teach hand-to-hand.

“Here’s the thing, though; we have a problem.”

If it was possible to come to attention while sitting down, Red Eagle was doing it.

“Now, just relax. It’s not a bad problem but a good one. Major Rutherford here is trying to call dibs on you for SR-2. I’ve been told you were working out with the team before they lost Bunić, and there’s a good mesh of skills and personalities. I’m inclined to let him have you… as long as you’re willing, that is.”

“Sir?”

John could see Red Eagle was doing his best not to give him a confused-yet-grumpy puppy expression, and it was working for the most part.

“Ahh, right. Search and Rescue teams are voluntary. The other Gate teams technically aren’t, but I do my best not to try to shove a square peg into a round hole because miserable people aren’t good for anybody, including themselves. SR teams are strictly voluntary because they are the ones sent in when things have already gone past SNAFU8 and moved right into FUBAR9 territory. In Pegasus, that means you’ll see a whole lot more Wraith than you ever wanted to, and you probably won’t have to worry about grey hair or wrinkles if you go out enough times.”

John held up a warding hand when he could feel Rutherford giving him the hairy eyeball. “Now I’m not saying that to discourage you, Corporal, especially since Rutherford and his team already like you, and they need a fourth before they can go active again. However, I’m not gonna lie about what you’re getting into if you choose to join them.”

Red Eagle just frowned at him.

“I’m saying this is one of the rare times in the military that you get a choice about what you want to do.”

Red Eagles’ gaze slid to Rutherford, who gave him an almost imperceptible nod.

It took him a few seconds, but the kid finally said, “I’ll help train, if you want, but I’d prefer to go with SR-2, sir.”

John nodded, unsurprised. “I thought you’d say that,” he tapped the tablet in the center of the table to wake it up, then slid it toward Red Eagle and relaxed back into his chair. “You need to sign this. It’s orders to join SR-2.”

Belatedly, John added, “You will get hazard duty pay, for what it’s worth.”

Red Eagle picked up the stylus and glanced down warily. When he saw it was exactly what John had said it was, he started to read.

John knew the second Red Eagle came to the signature line. He exchanged a look with Rutherford, allowing himself the barest hint of a smile.

“Sir,” Red Eagle looked up slowly, “My rank is incorrect here.”

“Nope,” John said casually. “Field promotion. Minimum rank for Search and Rescue teams is Corporal, so you get a field promotion.”

It was a very recent change just to give them a reason to promote Red Eagle, but it wasn’t an illogical decision. Anybody willing to be on an SR team deserved to be an E-4 at minimum, plus the hazard pay. It was a shit job in a shit galaxy. Most of the team members weren’t going to live long enough to spend that pay, but they deserved to have the respect it showed.

“Sir?”

Taking pity on him, John explained, “You’re not the first person to come out here with an undeserved black mark or two on his record, myself included. You won’t be the last, I’m sure.” Leaning forward, he let himself show a fraction of the anger he felt about Red Eagle’s situation. “I know what happened and what’s not in the reports, Austin. I make it my business to fix that kind of bullshit whenever I can. I can’t get you back up to Sergeant, not yet, but you’re Corporal again, and nobody here gives a damn what you do with your hair.”

John sat back again and ran one hand through his own non-regulation hair.

“Hell, do I look like I care what anybody does with his hair, so long as it’s neat and clean? Ronon can kick my ass – and frequently does – six ways to Serreday, and his hair is still longer than a lot of the women’s, and it’s a hell of a lot shorter than it was a couple years ago when he had dreds.”

Red Eagle’s eyebrows shot up, and he again looked to Rutherford for confirmation.

John didn’t like knowing one of his people didn’t trust him, but he thought it was a good thing that Red Eagle trusted Rutherford. Not only would Rutherford be his CO, but it meant somebody had been able to reach the understandably wary young man.

Rutherford chuckled. “He’s serious, kid. The only one worse for kicking my ass is Ms. Teyla. At least Ronon has the decency to mock me when he’s done. Ms. Teyla just gets all serene and tries to encourage me. Makes me feel like I need to go home and watch the Disney channel while I play with my Legos.”

John snorted. “Don’t I know it.”

Sometimes Ronon’s harder, unsympathetic ass-kicking was easier on a guy’s ego.

Tough crowd, John thought when Red Eagle’s expression didn’t change.

“Sirs, if I may ask, what’s the catch?”

This time, John did sigh. “Nothing like what you’re thinking. Now that I know your father is a medicine man, you’re a resource for people who’ve never lived in a culture that doesn’t immediately run to grunt candy10 as the panacea for every minor ailment. The worst thing I’ll ask you to do is let the anthropologists talk to you if we run into a culture with their own versions of medicine men and women. Even then, I'll be asking, not ordering.”

Frowning, he said, “I’m not an expert on anything, sir.”

“Oh really? What if I’d said, ‘since I know your father is a shaman’?”

Red Eagle scowled.

“Exactly,” John drawled. “I didn’t know there was a difference until about an hour ago when Major Rutherford explained it to me, and he knew because you’d explained it to him. You don’t realize how much knowledge you have that you take for granted. You don’t have to do anything except be another possible resource for the people who are trying to avoid offending any more Pegasus folks than we already have.”

The scowl faded slowly as the young man accepted that.

“What else?”

“Okay, one last thing, and this isn’t a requirement, though I do want you to strongly consider it.” John ignored the warning look Rutherford shot him and continued, “You have some physical reminders of what was done to you, things that still cause you pain on a daily basis. I’ve spoken with Atlantis, and she is willing to use the same tech she used on Tony Dex when zy first came here in order to heal you completely. She’ll be able to remove any of the wiring or other metal you have now without invasive surgery, too.”

“She can do that?” Rutherford interrupted.

“Yeah. Dex – Tony, that is – gave me permission to tell you that she completely repaired zyr knee, which zy had wrecked when zy played football for Ohio State. It was bad enough that it was a career-ending injury, and zy says there’s no pain at all now, no more metal pins either.”

“Is this offer limited to Red Eagle?”

“We can ask.” John cleared his throat. He always had a brief moment where he wondered if he was insane for calling out to an invisible person and expecting them to show up. “Hey, Atlantis? Would you mind talking to us for a second?”

Atlantis’ humanoid body appeared in the fourth chair, making both Rutherford and Red Eagle jump like startled cats. John couldn’t help but smirk a little. That reaction was never gonna get old.

“John.” She gave him a serene smile. “Major Rutherford, Corporal Red Eagle.”

“Ma’am.”

“Great Lady.”

John reminded himself they’d never seen her before, so he should cut them a break. They probably looked a lot like he had that first time she’d appeared – sort of like somebody had whacked him in the head with a 2x4” of hard rock maple.

“So, Atlantis,” John began, “I was telling Corporal Red Eagle about your offer to repair the damage that had been done to his body, and Major Rutherford was wondering if that offer was limited to just him.”

“I see. It is a logical question, which has two answers,” Atlantis told them. “The repair of the human body requires more concentration and energy than I currently have, were I to attempt to offer this to everyone in the city. Thus, the first answer is yes, I am only offering to repair Corporal Red Eagle at this point in time.

“However, the second answer is no, I am not limiting the offer entirely. Once I have the necessary ZedPMs, I will be able to repair anyone who wishes it.” She tilted her head. “In truth, there is a third answer as well, and that is if someone is gravely injured and requires urgent repair, I will rededicate resources in order to save that person’s life unless they object. As I promised Tony, I will not force anyone to accept my help.”

“Uh, Great Lady? Is the offer one I can think about for a bit?”

Atlantis inclined her head. “Of course. You may call for me if you have further questions, or if you wish to begin the repair.”

“Right. I’ll just go ahead and—” he made a vague gesture with one hand “—think about it.”

“Very well.”

With that, she disappeared.

“She’s not big on good-byes,” John commented drolly.

Rutherford shook his head, like he was shaking off the shock of having an entity he’d known existed but had never seen just casually appear.

Curious, John asked, “What’s up with calling her Great Lady?”

The scowl was back, and Red Eagle shifted in his chair.

“Didn’t seem right just callin’ her ma’am, sir. She’s more like one of the Cherokee Travelers, but it don’t seem right to call her one of the Nunnehi ‘cause she’s not Cherokee.” He shrugged uncomfortably. “It just came out like that, sir.”

“Well, it looked like she was fine with it, so I am too. Sometimes I call her the First Lady if I don’t want to draw her attention by saying her name. Great Lady isn’t far from that.”

“Whatever works and doesn’t make her unhappy,” Rutherford concurred.

“Exactly. Now, are you gonna sign the orders, Red Eagle?

The very corner of the Corporal’s lips twitched, which was the first hint of an expression other than unhappiness or surprise John had seen. He could live with that, especially when Red Eagle leaned over the tablet to sign.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

Archday, Einstein 27, First Year of the Returned
(April 27, 2008)

“Hey, mind if I sit here?” Tony asked.

Dr. Jamie McNamara looked up from where she was stabbing at her mystery meat pasta and smiled.

“Go for it,” she said and gestured to the chair across from her. “How’s your day been?”

Tony set down zyr tray and settled onto the offered chair, wincing as zyr ass met the cold plastic.

Zy was really going to have to talk to Atlantis about making something to replace the chairs in the mess halls and other gathering rooms. It wasn’t just that they weren’t aesthetically pleasing, though they were ugly and clashed with the beauty of Atlantis’ construction. They were also horribly uncomfortable, especially when Tony had spent the previous night riding Ronon’s cock.

Not that zy was complaining at all; married life was amazing.

“Eh, decent. Paperwork follows me everywhere, even here. I’m sure you know how it is, since you have to write reports every time you turn around too.” Tony shifted the canned peaches into a tray section a little farther from zyr main dish. Zy wished they’d still had fresh fruit when zy’d gone through the line, but the orange-like things that tasted like watermelon always went fast. “How are negotiations going on the not-dragon planet?”

“Pretty well, I think.” Jamie tucked a strand of her fiery red hair behind her ear. “They’re not actually dragons, you know.”

“Well, yeah. That’s why it’s not-dragon planet.”

Jamie rolled her eyes. “Ooh, you’re brave. Isn’t that the red chicmon?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty good if you add enough lemon pepper or sriracha mayo.”

Tony slathered the filet with the pinkish paste that would give it a burn and some zest. Zy had been excited when Atlantis told zyr the second mess hall was serving red chicmon. Zy’d been craving spicy foods a lot lately, and a little sriracha on the chicken-fish would do nicely.

She made a face. “Thanks, but no. I’ll stick with the goulash. I’m glad we got that agreement with that planet with the osturk. I think that’s what the meat is in this, and it’s decent if a little odd.”

“I’m impressed with how well you guys are doing with all the food negotiations.”

“Thank you. It’s difficult and can be incredibly frustrating, depending on the day, but I really enjoy seeing all the different societies there are.” Jamie watched zyr cut off a chunk of chicmon with a sort of horrified fascination. “Are you seriously going to eat it with that much sriracha mayo on it?”

Since zy was already chewing, Tony just nodded.

“Won’t that give you heartburn?”

Swallowing and reaching for zyr milk, Tony gave a lazy shrug. “I pretty much have heartburn all the time right now, so it won’t matter.”

Tony was fairly sure zy was getting part of zyr daily calcium from chewable antacid tablets.

“Better you than me; that’s all I can say,” Jamie told zyr, turning her head to the side and watching out of the corner of her eyes like it was a train wreck she couldn’t look away from completely.

“Yeah, I get that a lot,” Tony chuckled. “So what are the not-dragons like? I’m dying to see one, but Ronon got that worried look when I tried to talk him into letting me go to Verubriga.”

Jamie made a rude noise. “I’m not dumb enough to have an opinion on that, but I’ll tell you about the tanricu, if you want.”

“Yes, please!” Hearing about them would be better than nothing.

“Okay, well if you want to me more correct, they aren’t dragons at all. If you insist on calling them something other than tanricu, I guess you could call them not-wyvern.”

“Really? What’s the difference?” Tony hadn’t known there was a difference. Of course, zy hadn’t ever heard of a wyvern before, so that could’ve been part of the problem.

“Dragons have four legs. Wyvern only have two, but they can fold their wings so they use the front joint – which can have anywhere from one to three extra talons or ‘fingers’ – to help them walk on all fours. Also, wyverns are smaller than dragons.”

Tony wasn’t sure if zy was disappointed about that or not. Then again, it would be nearly impossible to keep creatures the size of a house fed. Not to mention cleaning up after them. There wasn’t a pooper-scooper on any planet that was built for that. Maybe smaller was better.

“Huh. I didn’t know that. Ronon used my DVD case from Eragon to try to show me what they look like.”

“Well, I guess that works to show that they’re reptilian, but they’re really not the same thing at all.” Jamie speared the last few noodles with her fork as she tried to explain the differences. “Wyvern and Verubriga’s tanricu are a lot more sleek and snakey, I guess you could say. Their bodies kind of remind me of a great dane: they’re skinny at the hindquarters, but their chests are extremely muscular. The chest muscles have to be big because those are the muscles that power their huge wings. Of course, they have a long tail to balance their heads and chests when they’re flying, and the tip of the tail is triangular.”

“So they really can fly, then?” Tony felt that was the most important thing about the tanricu. Earth had had monster lizards at some point, but dragons could fly.

“Oh, yeah. Definitely. They’re a lot swifter and more agile in the air than they are on the ground.” Jamie finished off her goulash and neatly stacked her silverware on the edge of her tray. “The first time we saw them, they didn’t fly so much as dive-bomb us and scare the crap out of us, but we’ve been there enough now that we’ve been able to see them in the air. They’re a full rainbow of colors and quite beautiful when you’re not worried they’re after your spleen.”

“I wish I could go with you to Verubriga so I could see them in person,” Tony said wistfully. “It would be worth sitting through the boring negotiation meetings for that.”

Jamie gave an inelegant snort. “No you don’t, believe me. I was thrilled when the high priestess agreed to let me go back to my regular duties so I didn’t have to keep going. I know how to negotiate, and I’m good at it, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t get tedious sometimes. That’s doubly true when the other side is so reticent that just getting them to consider trading is a huge win.”

“What? I thought I heard somebody say you were there for the duration.”

“I thought I’d have to be, but I told High Priestess Faerl that I’d like to remain behind because I needed to be with my team. She assumed I’m the leader of my team because I’m the only woman, and she told me it was fine if I wanted to stay with them. She was sure they’d need my guidance by now.”

Tony snickered. “They probably do. My husband said he saw Santiago from SR-1 kicking Fairmont’s ass the other day. Seung was already spread out on the floor looking like he was gonna cry. Though I have to say I’ve learned to take Ronon’s less-than-complimentary descriptions of Earthers post-sparring practice with a grain of salt. Or a whole salt shaker. Whichever.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure Ronon was on the money,” Jamie laughed, the corners of her eyes crinkling. “My teammates are badasses, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world; however, those two have the unfortunate idea stuck in their heads that women are physically weak. It’s hard for them to see a female as a threat.”

Tony snorted and rolled zyr eyes. “I had assumed that kind of thinking would get beaten out of everybody in Colorado before they were sent to us.”

“You’d be surprised.” Jamie said wryly. “I kick their asses regularly, and they’re still shocked every time it happens.”

Looking at her, zy could see why people would assume she wasn’t a physical powerhouse. Tony, however, was smart enough to know better, especially after having worked with Ziva and now Teyla. Neither woman was a giant, but both could kick zyr ass. Zy had no doubt Jamie was the same way, even though she was petite and looked more like she’d stepped out of Irish folklore than anything else.

“Don’t they know women have a higher pain threshold than men? Well, I don’t know if that’s true, but I remember hearing it or reading it somewhere.”

Jamie shook her head and picked up her dinner roll. She ripped off a piece and used it to mop up the goulash sauce before popping it in her mouth, saying, “That’s not necessarily true. There have been a ton of studies, and they rarely agree with each other. There are even studies that say women have different pain thresholds based on where they are in their monthly cycle.”

She shrugged and ripped off another piece of her roll.

“Personally, I think that pain is such a subjective thing that you can’t accurately test for it, especially when the brain reacts the same way to physical and emotional pain. What might be a seven for me on a one-through-ten scale might be a ten for your, or vice versa. That doesn’t make either person’s pain any less legitimate.

“And then there’s the fact that people being tested give different responses based on the gender of the tester.”

“Ah, men try to be tougher in front of another guy?” There had been times when Tony had gone another round or pushed zyrself further in a single training session than zy should have, afraid of looking weak in front of the guys.

“Nope. Just the opposite, actually.”

“Really? That kind of surprises me.”

Jamie tilted her head and studied zyr. “Let me guess: you pushed yourself in front of guys because you were afraid of getting ‘caught’ out as a kysra.” When Tony agreed, she continued, “Most XYs aren’t worried about that. They’re tapping into their hindbrain that tells them they need to display and prove themselves to XXs so that they’ll be picked to continue their genetic line.”

“Like a peacock strutting his feathers.”

“Pretty much. Most guys don’t even know they’re doing it.”

Okay. That made sense.

“But I don’t do that because my genetic line will continue no matter if I’m with an XX or an XY.”

“Exactly,” Jamie agreed, looking pleased.

Tony wondered if it was because zy had picked up what she was trying to say, or because zy was interested in what she had to say in general. Zy got the feeling neither was very common among the general military population.

“So the Lorain people aren’t super badassed just because their leader is a woman?”

“No, and they’re just as sexist, but in a different way.” At Tony’s surprised expression, she elaborated, “I don’t think the threat of the Wraith allows a culture to have weak leaders for very long. I like and respect Faerl, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s right to exclude one gender from being candidates for leadership. There are good male leaders, good female leaders, and I’m sure there would be good kysra leaders if any were ever in that position. The same way, there are terrible male, female, or kysra leaders for a variety of reasons. What I do like is the way the Lorains choose their leader.”

“You have a point,” Tony was forced to admit, thinking about Morrow and Shepard. “I’ve worked for men and women. Some have been better than others, but they’ve all had good and bad points. What do the Lorains do to elect their leader? I assume it’s some kind of democracy.”

“No, actually, it’s not. It’s all merit-based and has very little to do with a person’s popularity.”

“How does that work?”

Tony scraped some of the sriracha mayo off the chicmon. The way zyr mouth was burning and zyr eyes watering told zyr zy had been a bit too enthusiastic with the sauce before. Zy was out of milk to wash it down with, too.

“Well, first the term priestess doesn’t denote a religious belief but a mastery of mental and physical skills. Faerl, for instance, became the leader when she reached their highest level of mastery of their particular martial arts and defeated the rest of the tribe, including the former leader, in physical games as well as games of logic and mathematics and something they call governance.”

Tony gave her a skeptical look. “Governance? How can they judge how well someone will govern them before the person makes any decisions?”

“It’s pretty interesting, even if it sounds a lot like a role-playing game. The person being tested is assigned a group of people to lead through a variety of tasks based on a storyteller’s narrative and a set of dice that force the leader to react to chance occurrences. She’s judged based on the success of the task and how well her group is getting along at the end. I understand they frequently choose people who are exes or who are known to despise each other.”

Tony’s eyes widened, and zy gave a grim laugh. “I bet that gets interesting!”

“I wouldn’t want to go through it, but it is logical. No matter how large or small a population, people are going to fight.”

There was no question about that. More than two people on Gibbs’ team had been too many when the boss was pitting them against one another.

“So being a priestess doesn’t have anything to do with a religion or worship of some kind?”

It seemed like a strange word to choose if it wasn’t religious at all.

“Nope, not that I could see. I spoke extensively with Ontona, one of the other priestesses, trying to figure out exactly what they do believe. Like most of Pegasus, they have a respect bordering on reverence for the Alterans, but they don’t worship them outright like the Daganians did or like the Athosians used to.”

Jamie smiled faintly. “I did ask about the Vedaeus, and Ontona was shocked I had even heard of them. She clammed up on me until I told her we had taken in a Satedan a few years back, and I got the impression she never would have said anything about the Vedaeus if I hadn’t brought it up first.”

Another strand of hair had slipped loose, making her frown in irritation. She produced a hair tie from somewhere and pulled it all back into a sleek ponytail before continuing. “I couldn’t get her to say much, though I probably would have if I’d had more time, but another of the priestesses came in while we were talking and shut her down. Then she sent her to do something that took her quite a ways from the village, and I didn’t get to see her again.”

“How many priestesses are there?” Tony asked, giving up on the chicmon entirely. Zy moved on to zyr peas and had a brief flash of amusement at the thought of Doc Xander being unable to get away from his most hated vegetable even in another galaxy.

“I’m not sure,” she replied thoughtfully. “Nobody would give us exact numbers for anything – humans, tanricu, or the aknata in the herds. The most I could get was that priestess is a title, and the number varied depending on the population and the most recent challenges.”

“So the challenge isn’t limited to the high priestess?”

“No, not at all. In fact, anyone can challenge the lowest ranked priestess, then she could work her way up to high priestess if she were that good and that determined.”

“But only the level just below could challenge the next level up, right? Otherwise I’d think all they’d ever get done would be one challenge after another.” Tony knew that certainly wouldn’t be conducive to growing crops, preparing for Wraith attacks, or otherwise running a productive society.

“That’s what Ontona made it sound like. Of course, I assume an unpopular priestess would be challenged more frequently until she ended up losing the title or position she had reached, so I guess popularity does play some role in the process.”

“What about the current high priestess?”

“Faerl is extremely popular and well-respected,” Jamie replied. “According to the people I was able to speak with, she’s made a lot of good decisions that have helped the population grow, so she hasn’t had any challengers in several years. If she’s anything like her predecessor, she’ll have to convince one of the lower priestesses to challenge for her position when she wants to step down.”

Unspoken between them was the knowledge that Faerl would have to survive the Wraith and any natural disasters as well as diseases and viruses common to a population without advanced medical technology.

“Wow, that’s certainly different from deciding who should govern based on how much BS they can spin and how well they can trash-talk their opponent during their campaign. I wonder if we could institute something like that back on Earth.”

Jamie smirked. “It’s a nice thought, but it wouldn’t work.”

“Why not?”

“Because the Lorains have few enough people that they can use a single, agreed-upon definition of fiscal and moral responsibility to determine the winner of the governance competitions. All the people are in the same situation and at the same economic level – poverty, basically – and need the same things.”

“Unlike the diverse communities among the people of Earth.” Tony could see how that would make a huge difference. Every nation on Earth had people ranging from subsistence or utter poverty to extreme wealth.

“Besides,” Jamie continued, wiping her mouth with her napkin before tossing it on her tray beside her plate. “For all that the high priestess has to prove herself before she gets the position, once she’s there, it’s a dictatorship. She has the lower priestesses to advise her, but that doesn’t mean she’s required to take their advice. She could arbitrarily decide one day that all right-handed people have to work the fields, and all the left-handed people have to hunt. I know I’d hate living under someone with that kind of ultimate power, no matter how smart or well-intentioned they might be.”

Tony raised a brow. “Wait, nobody could do anything different? What if it’s a stupid order, like the example you just came up with?”

“People might grumble, but what the high priestess orders is what happens. Once she says, ‘as I say, so shall it be,’ it’s a done deal. Anybody who rebels is punished with a fine, physical punishment like being flogged or put to labor at the most unpopular tasks, or by being cast out for a certain amount of time. That last one is the most serious because someone on their own doesn’t live long. That’s true for any world in Pegasus.”

Tony winced. “That sounds harsh.”

“I guess so,” Jamie said pensively. “I see why it is that way, though. There are so few Verubriganians that they can’t afford to have the tribe split. They barely have a large enough population to meet the minimum number for a viable civilization as it is. I had more people in my graduating high school class than they have in their entire village.”

Tony stopped twirling zyr straw and poking at the ice cubes left in zyr empty cup. “I thought they were called the Lorains.”

“Right, they are. The humans are the Lorains. The not-wyvern are the tanricu. The Lorains consider the tanricu windsisters and include them as beings of the planet, so whenever the Lorains are referring to themselves and the tanricu together, they say Verubriganians.”

“Wait, so are the tanricu sentient?” Tony frowned. “I think I actually mean sapient?”

“Yes, they’re definitely sentient. They’re not at the human level of sapience, but there’s more to them than, say, a dog or a cat back on Earth. They’re aware of themselves as individuals, and they have their own organizational structure, which is called a whirlwind.”

“They govern themselves?”

“Not quite. It’s more like a pack hierarchy. The whirlwinds are composed of anywhere from five to twenty tanricu, and their leader or alpha is called a mair.11 Then there’s the head Mair who rules over all the whirlwinds, and she is always the partner to the human high priestess.”

Jamie leaned forward and grinned. “Now this is the really cool thing that I just know is going to send the biologists into raptures: whichever mair is the head Mair actually undergoes a biological change that makes her about a third larger than the others. Her scales turn a single, glossy, duocrome color, and she forms a bond with the high priestess.”

“Whoa, seriously?! That sounds like some freaky sci-fi kind of thing.”

Jamie laughed brightly. “Tony, you’re saying that sounds sci-fi as you sit in another galaxy having lunch on a sapient space ship. Seriously?”

Tony gave a rueful grin. “You have a point. But finish what you were saying about this partnership. Can all the tanricu form bonds with humans?”

Still smiling, Jamie answered, “Yes, from what I understand. I don’t know how it works, since they don’t speak out loud or anything. There isn’t any telepathic communication as far as I’ve been told, though it can seem like it if the human and the tanricu have been paired a long time because they’ll just know what the other wants.”

“That is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard of,” Tony said. Zy heaved a sigh. “Now I really want to meet one of them.”

“You can just stop with the sad puppy eyes, Tony Dex. There is no way in hell I’d sneak you through to Verubriga.”

“Oh, I know. Ronon would kill you, right?”

Jamie cocked her head and stared at zyr incredulously. “Seriously?”

“I hear it all the time,” Tony assured her, a bitter twist to zyr lips. “If I weren’t positive Ronon has no idea people think of him as my guardian or whatever, he and I would have problems.”

“For the love of….” Jamie rolled her eyes and rubbed her forehead.

“Yeah, well. People are idiots, even when they mean well.”

“It’s probably not intentional, Tony. My educated guess is they have no idea they’re subconsciously carrying over the Earther idea that kysra aren’t capable of making their own decisions, which is a bunch of aknata crap anyway. You do what you want, but if it were me, I wouldn’t put up with it. You’re an intelligent, articulate adult, who is a part of our law enforcement system, and you have every right to be treated that way.”

Tony made a face. “I think it was kind of a joke at first, because everyone is intimidated by Ronon in general, you know? I’ve probably let it go on too long, and we’re going to need to have a come-to-Vedaeus meeting.”

“If nothing else, you can tell them that treating you like that implies that Ronon would have sex with someone who didn’t have the intellect to be capable of giving consent.”

Tony sat up straight and sucked in a shocked breath. “Oooo, ouch! You mean… if they want to be scared of him, give them a reason?”

“I’d go the kick in the pants route first, but if that doesn’t work, then sure.”

Tony was going to have to think about it, but zy was pretty sure Jamie was right.

“So if being afraid of Ronon isn’t why you wouldn’t sneak me to see the tanricu…?”

Tony grimaced at zyr tray and let zyrself leave the rest of zyr peas. Canned peas really were disgusting.

“Why am I so adamant that I won’t take you?” Jamie finished for zyr.

“Yeah.”

“Because you are a smart, articulate adult. If you want on a Gate team, earn it, bucko.” She grinned to soften the harsh statement. “I’m not sure what you know about how we qualify for the chance to be on a team, but it involves a heck of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. I went through about a hundred hours of training and qualifying with various weapons before I was eligible. I waited another three Satedan months before Sheppard and Jordan agreed to give me a shot.”

“I didn’t realize that.” Zyr brow furrowed. “But if you’ve all had so much training, then why were we just talking about your teammates getting their asses kicked?”

Jamie snorted. “All the training in the world won’t cure a blind spot. They’re not inept by any means; they just have a blind spot when it comes to women being capable of the same sort of violence and skill that they are.”

That made sense. Tony hadn’t been quite so bad, but zy’d had a sort of blind spot until zy had seen that women on the police force were every bit as trained and capable as their counterparts.

 “Fine.” Tony heaved a melodramatic sigh and purposely widened zyr eyes and pushed out zyr bottom lip in a parody of a pout. “If you won’t help me out that way, will you at least share your chocolate pudding? They were out of that and the orange/watermelon things when I went through.”

“That I can do,” Jamie said, snickering as she slid the dish onto Tony’s tray. “I’m going to go grab one of those turnovers left from breakfast instead anyway. I’m not sure why I took the pudding in the first place.”

Tony grinned and batted zyr eyelashes. “Because you love me.”

Jamie slid her chair back and stood. “Nope, but you do make for nice scenery while I’m eating.”

Tony’s jaw dropped.

With a grin and a wink, Jamie walked away.

*~*~*~*

Keplerday, Einstein 29, First Year of the Returned
(April 19, 2008)

“I want him gone! I want them both gone!” Rodney ranted, his face flushed with fury as he paced the length of Sam’s office. “I won’t have anyone on the city who thinks sabotage is a prank!”

Sam was still seated calmly behind her desk. She pushed back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. Rodney just knew she was going to say something condescending.

“Really, Rodney? Isn’t that kind of hypocritical? You turn off people’s hot water all the time. You know he didn’t mean for it to happen.”

Rodney spun around and glared at her. That wasn’t the same thing at all!

“First of all, when I do it, I’m not an idiot. I don’t accidentally give anybody burns over most of their body. Secondly, every time I turn off somebody’s hot water, it’s punitive. Not only that, but I tell them,” he snapped. “I come right out and tell them they’re stupid, they screwed up, and I’m punishing them by turning off their hot water for however long it is.”

“So if Hoffman had told Wheeler he was going to shut off his hot water, then it would have been okay?”

Rodney rolled his eyes. “Oh, give me a break, Carter! I don’t do it randomly to anyone who annoys me. If I did, hardly anyone in the city would ever have hot water! It’s like a parent sending one of their brats to stand in the corner: it’s meant to inconvenience them, possibly embarrass them, but never do they mean to harm them. If people are too stupid to figure out that they need to talk to their friends and ask if they can use their shower for a few days, then don’t belong on my city anyway.”

Sam arched a brow. “Your city?”

“Yeah well I’m sure Atlantis doesn’t want stupid people either. Too many stupid people would be a danger to Tony, and she won’t allow that.”

Carter pursed her lips, which Rodney thought meant she agreed but wasn’t going to admit it.

“That doesn’t mean you can kick them off the city for unintentional damage.”

Rodney narrowed his eyes and glared at her.

“Are you just playing devil’s advocate now? Because that is not something the Sam Carter I know would ever say. Doctor Samantha Carter the scientist would have lost her mind at the thought of biologists screwing around with the infrastructure at Cheyenne Mountain.”

 Sam’s eyes went wide, and she turned bright red. She shifted and uncrossed her arms.

“You might not be completely wrong.” She managed an apologetic half-smile. “Tony will figure out what Hoffman intended. Talk to me about the academic sabotage. How many people reported lost or incorrect data?”

Partially mollified, Rodney huffed and finally took the chair she’d previously tried to get him to use.

“Fine. Here’s what I found on server 27.”

He would let Tony make zyr reports, and then he’d demand the idiots be sent back on the Daedalus… if it ever showed up.

*~*~*~*

Casimirday, Einstein 31, First Year of the Returned
(April 21, 2008)

Three weeks. Three Earth weeks exactly since the Daedalus should’ve arrived with their supplies, and Sam was freaking out. It was all internal because she knew better than most how having a calm leader could make the difference between dying on a Goa’uld ship and pulling off a daring rescue. Sam had been and would remain calm and positive in front of everyone, even Colonel Sheppard.

She always put the best possible spin on the situation while still being realistic. The truth was, every time the Gate opened for another databurst, there was a part of her that wondered if this would be the time the SGC sent through a device or chemical that would eliminate what they thought was a foothold situation.

She never gave away a hint of what she was thinking, though. Instead, she talked about how the Daedalus had better be bringing her expensive chocolate and her favorite dessert wine. She remarked on how she was eager to see some of the people she knew were slated to come to Atlantis as of the last roster. She joked about sending tava beans back home and demanding coffee beans instead. With the scientists, she discussed the possibilities some of their discoveries might have for Earth.

Most of all, she kept the city functioning, trying to keep that careful balance between being an Air Force Colonel and the IOA representative. Never ever did she say she thought it was possible the Daedalus wouldn’t come back.

Now three weeks after the Daedalus was supposed to arrive, their supplies were getting thin, even with the extra trade they’d been able to coordinate. They were down to twenty days of food left before she wouldn’t have a choice but to cut everyone to half rations. She was already considering cutting less active personnel to two-thirds portions, especially if it would keep their Gate teams and patrol personnel on full rations for longer.

Sam had run the numbers, and it wouldn’t make a huge difference, but there were enough administrative and scientific personnel – including Sam herself – that it would mean they had food for another week, and that was with all Gate teams on full rations the whole time. Anybody going out of the city on a regular basis would be the absolute last people to cut back.

It was not a decision she thought she’d ever have to make.

She had the irrational urge to stomp her feet and scream because she’d taken the assignment with the understanding that the Daedalus would be making supply runs she’d be able to count on. Weir was the one who had agreed to make the trip to a destination from which there might not be any possible return. Sam was tough. She’d done a lot of badass things, if she did say so herself. What she hadn’t done was go without food for a long period, nor had she ever had to watch anyone else go without. It was a terrifying prospect.

Now this.

Sam could hardly force herself to finish the message from General Landry and the IOA. It was confirmation of what John had suspected and Sam had feared: the SGC was concerned that they had lost focus on the mission. In layman’s terms, they were afraid she and John had gone native and had taken everyone else with them.

There were other things in the message that concerned Sam, things she’d have to get answers for from Atlantis herself. It was only after she had those answers and responded to General Landry on the following Earth Monday that the Daedalus would depart for Pegasus.

Thinking it was better to just get it over with, Sam purposely called the entity’s attention for the first time.

“Atlantis? Would you mind coming to speak with me?”

Atlantis appeared immediately, and the office windows frosted.

“Greetings, Hera. I have noted that you change your office windows when you are in conference. I have done so for you this time.”

“Oh, thank you.”

The entity called Atlantis, who was clothed in a business suit that could have come from Earth except for the tendency of the navy fabric to shimmer, stepped forward and sat in the chair across from Sam.

“You are distressed.”

Sam let herself scrub her face with her hands and sigh. Doubtless Atlantis had seen her do far worse.

“I am. Have you read the transmission from Earth?”

“I assume you speak of the one to you, Hera?”

Sam nodded.

“No, I have not. Shall I do so?”

Sam debated with herself for a few seconds, then nodded, resigned.

“You might as well. You need to know what it says.”

Atlantis went still, then tilted her head.

“Ah, I see why you are troubled. The Earth organization believes they no longer have your loyalty. They wish to replace you.”

“Yes. They’re sending a man named Richard Woolsey.”

“You do not like him.”

Sam had to be careful how she responded to that. She didn’t want to make the situation worse.

“I think they believe you will want him here because he has a delta… no, a kysra lover. They don’t say it outright, but I would assume he’s bringing zyr with him.”

Atlantis seemed to study Sam, her eyes completely black rather than full of the shooting stars and supernovas that Sam found so fascinating.

“He does not treat zyr well,” she concluded.

Sam heaved a sigh and let herself slouch, one elbow resting on her desk.

“I think he thinks he treats zyr just fine. From an Earth perspective, he does, at least from what I’ve seen.” She pressed her lips together, then had a fleeting moment where she realized her lips were dry, but she didn’t know where her chapstick was. “From a Satedan point of view… well, Woolsey definitely doesn’t treat zyr like Ronon treats Tony. She’s also younger than he is. A lot younger. It makes me concerned for Jae – that’s Woolsey’s lover – and concerned for how you’ll react.”

“I have had many long discussions with Tony, Hera. I am aware of what the kysra on Earth suffer. No matter how well zy is treated, I will offer Kysra Jae a place of refuge within Dex Tower. If zy wishes to retain this Woolsey as a lover, zy may choose to have him accompany zyr. However, if he mistreats zyr, I will banish him from the tower or send him back to Earth. All kysra must be safe, and one who harms any of my kysra is a danger to all.”

Sam nodded and breathed a sigh of relief. That didn’t sound so bad. Banishment from the Dex Tower or going back to Earth wasn’t as bad as, say, beaming him into the ocean or killing him with nanites. Sam didn’t know the limits of what Atlantis would do in a given situation, and that was the problem.

“Okay, then you saw the part about negotiating with Woolsey and Daniel for a ZPM?”

“Yes,” Atlantis replied. “I am open to such negotiations.”

“Great. You probably also noticed that Maggiore Andrea Cattaneo has requested his kysra child be sent to him. Zy is in Russia with a friend of Cattaneo’s. It says zy will be eighteen in a few months, so hopefully custody isn’t difficult. I didn’t think you’d have a problem with that.”

“Indeed not. All kysra are welcome here, especially the kyta of those who dwell here already.”

“Right. That makes sense.” Sam took a deep breath and broached the topic she was most worried about. “You saw the IOA has appointed someone to replace Tony as Chief Investigator.”

“I did. I think, however, that there are enough people and enough misdeeds that we will need both Tony and this new man, Mason Grant. Tony spends far more time than zy reports investigating misdeeds, mediating disputes, and setting fines and judgements. Zy also works on the city laws and is attempting to gather information about laws on other planets. It will be good for zyr to have help, especially as the kyta grows and takes more of zyr energy.”

“I have wondered how zy managed to turn in so many reports and only bill for forty-eight or fifty-four hours per Satedan week,” Sam admitted with a frown. “I’ve been concerned about zyr working too hard, but I guess I thought Ronon would put a stop to it if that was what was happening.”

“Since the conversations took place in public, I do not believe I am breaking a confidence when I tell you that just two days ago, Tony discussed with three different people how it was incorrect to assume Ronon’s reactions will affect zyr behavior.” Atlantis tilted her head, watching Sam’s reaction. “Zy was adamant in pointing out that zy was an adult and capable of making zyr own choices. Not only that, but behaving as though Ronon were zyr parent rather than zyr husband demeaned them and their relationship.”

Oh. Oh crap.  

Sam propped her elbows on the desk, folded her hands and rested her forehead against her hands.

In saying it out loud and hearing Atlantis’ response, Sam realized that it was true. She had been expecting Ronon to act like Tony’s parent and prevent zyr from overworking. If Sam had been worried about Sheppard overworking, she would’ve talked to him about taking a break. Why hadn’t she done the same thing with Tony?

“Hera?”

Sam heaved a sigh and let her arms fall to the desk.

“I suddenly realized I still have a ways to go before I’ve purged my own prejudices, that’s all. I am concerned about Tony working too many hours, but it’s because zy is just as susceptible to burnout as anyone else. I know zy probably feels like zy has something to prove, but either Sheppard or I talk to Wolfe when he’s slipped into workaholic mode, as he tends to do. Heck, Sheppard and I talk to each other when we think the other is forgetting to come up for air. We’ll have to watch and talk to Tony when zy does the same thing.”

That decided, she moved on, “I’m so grateful for what zy has done to change this place. I overheard someone – I won’t say who if you don’t already know – tell another person that they actually felt safe walking back to their quarters if they stayed late in the labs because another scientist was in the DC.”

“Tony would be pleased to know such a thing.”

Sam nodded. “I’ll tell zyr when I talk to zyr about the new person coming. I just have to figure out how to tell zyr and make zyr believe it’s not a horrible thing.”

“Perhaps wait until after the celebration of Ronon’s birth Tony is planning on the fifth of YangHui.”

“If you’re sure, that’s what I’ll do.”

Atlantis inclined her head.

Well, that meant Sam could put it off for a little while.

“Hera… Sam. It occurs to me that you believe you must leave. That is not so.”

“Well, it kind of is.” She dropped her gaze to her clenched hands on her desk and refused to give in to the urge to pout or cry. Neither one was the dignified response of a woman her age. Still, she had grown to love the people of Atlantis and would be heartbroken when she had to leave. “Woolsey is going to replace me, and I’ll get orders for where I have to go next.”

“No, that will not happen. I agreed to negotiate with this Woolsey and your Daniel. I did not agree to allow either of them – or anyone else, for that matter – to replace you as Hera of my city. Nor have I agreed to allow a military leader other than John Sheppard. I am aware that the Earthers will try to put another in his place as well.”

Sam felt like she’d been put in a centrifuge set on maximum speed.

“Pardon? I—I don’t think—I mean—can you do that?”

 “Sam, I will not permit another to take your place. I will only agree to negotiate with the others if you are the Hera of the people within my structure, including those who wish to speak with me. Unless you wish to leave, no one can remove you. Do you wish to stay?”

“Yes!” The response felt like it sprang directly from her heart to her lips. “I want to stay, Atlantis. I want nothing more, but I don’t understand why you’d want me to stay. I haven’t done a very good job, you know. I’ve made so many mistakes I can hardly count them!”

Atlantis smiled fondly at her. “Hera Sam, there is no such thing as a perfect human. Even our Kysra, the very first Kysra whom I helped to design, even zy made errors in judgement. It is the nature of choice. Sometimes we will choose incorrectly.

“I myself have made mistakes, terrible mistakes that cost millennia of pain and regret. Yes, you are young, and this is your first command. I know that. I am aware that another with more experience might make different decisions, but I would have you instead, so long as you wish to remain.”

“But you just said someone with more experience would be better,” Sam protested.

It gave her a warm feeling to know Atlantis liked her, but they needed to think of what was better for all the humans of the city, not just Sam.

“No, not better. Different,” Atlantis countered. “That person would make different mistakes.”

Atlantis reached across the desk and took Sam’s hand in her own.

“So many leaders choose to lead for their own benefit. You seek to make the lives of those under your authority better, safer, even if it means you sacrifice your own comforts. Instead of elevating those who do you favors or flatter your ego, you praise honesty and diligence at one’s work, especially when that work is for the betterment of the whole. You treat each person with respect, looking into their eyes when speaking to them rather than ordering and dismissing them from you without a glance.

“Sam, you do not understand how rare a creature you are. You are willing to admit when you are wrong, even when it is difficult, and all that you have learned from the time of your birth says something different.”

“I don’t remember doing anything like that.”

“But you did, Hera. When you first met Tony, did you not think it was unfortunate that zy had come? Did you not think that zy would be trouble, that zy would be much as the Earth culture says all kysra are?”

Sam’s cheeks flushed in shame, but she nodded.

“Yet you gave zyr a chance. You treated zyr justly, and when the time came to make a decision about giving zyr real authority over the people, you did so and told zyr you were glad zy was here. To do that, you must have had a paradigm shift of great significance.”

Sam shrugged. “I don’t think of zyr as a delt at all anymore, or I don’t do it consciously anyway. Tony is… zy’s just Tony.”

Atlantis nodded, her smile satisfied. “As you say, you changed your own mind. To do so, you must be without false pride. You must value truth more than your past ideals. Even when I was Joined with the other four, we did not always do this, much to my shame.

“It is for all these reasons that you are a good leader, Sam. One day, you will be truly great, and on that day, you will still be Hera of this people. I will have no other while you choose to take this responsibility on your shoulders.

“I say again, no one can force you to leave, my Hera. It is the same for John Sheppard. You are mine so long as you wish to be.”

*~*~*~*

Tesladay, Einstein 32, First Year of the Returned
(April 22, 2008)

Tony finished typing zyr most recent report, saved it, then sat back with a sigh. Not even an office chair specifically designed for zyr by Atlantis was comfortable after sitting in it for three hours straight while zy worked on reports and paperwork.

Having a honeymoon had been fantastic, better than fantastic, yet the interruption to zyr work meant zy was playing catch-up now. It had also been an interruption to zyr role of Chief Investigator, which somehow meant the civilians thought they could go back to pre-Tony, business-as-usual crap.

Needless to say, they’d been receiving prompt reeducation since Tony had come back.

The most serious case Tony had to deal with was something that never should have been allowed to escalate as far as it had, but neither of the bitter rivals had reported their grievances to zyr, nor had their colleagues.

According to the information Tony had dragged out of the men and those who knew them, the two scientists had started out doing things that were stupid, harmless, or embarrassing at first. That didn’t last long. By the time Tony was taking zyr first trip away from the city, they’d progressed to sabotaging each other’s projects and data.

Tony had been blissfully unaware of the problem because, of those who knew what was happening, everyone zy had interviewed had variations of three excuses: they’d thought the department heads should handle it, they hadn’t realized things were escalating so quickly between the two rival marine biologists, or they hadn’t realized they could go to zyr for help.

Tony had zyr suspicions that none of those excuses were entirely true for several of them. Zy was more apt to think that prejudices against kysra were still running strong. Scientists were merely human, after all, and they had plenty of their own biases and logical failures.

Tony had no idea how long the situation might have lasted, but only a few days ago, Dr. Hoffman made an error that resulted in serious injury to Dr. Wheeler, and it could have led to disaster for an entire floor of people if Atlantis hadn’t discovered it.

Tony shook zyr head and thought back to the interrogation:

 

“Right. Let’s try this again,” Tony said with forced calm despite the fact that zy would much rather give the man at the interview table to Ronon for a few hours of IST – Individualized, Specialized Training, which people called being iced.

Rodney and Atlantis already wanted to send Hoffman through a space gate for screwing with Atlantis’ systems. Tony wasn’t quite there, if only because someone should have come to zyr long before the escalating pranks and sabotage became more than just pranks, but the more zy had to deal with the ass, the more zy was starting to see Rodney’s point.

Dr. Thomas Hoffman was a good-looking guy with blond hair further lightened by the sun, tan skin, and light blue eyes. He had obvious muscle, even beneath the standard-issue uniforms, and Tony thought he’d probably talked his way into the beds of more than one person just based on his looks. He looked like a California surfer, but his attitude problem was so obvious that he could have been a supermodel and still been ugly in Tony’s mind.

Hoffman stood to his full 6’2”, trying to intimidate Tony with the whole two inches of difference in their heights.

“I was told I needed to give my statement to an investigator. I’m not going to talk to you.” He pointed at Tony and sneered, “I don’t care what anyone says; I know what kind of freak you are.”

Atlantis made a furious sound in Tony’s mind and sent an image of Hoffman walking through the Gate into open space.

Tony did zyr best not to roll zyr eyes. If zy wasn’t intimidated by a Marine tripping on a PTSD-fueled ‘roid rage, Leroy Jethro Gibbs on a rampage, or an MD suffering a psychotic break, Hoffman sure as hell wasn’t going to do it.

Tony stood silent and stared at Hoffman through narrowed eyes until the man began to fidget. Only once he’d swallowed nervously did Tony casually pace forward to circle behind him. Zy drew close enough to speak directly into his ear.

Starting on a whisper and ending on a shout, Tony hissed, “Sit down. NOW.

Hoffman sat, nearly missing the chair.

Atlantis snickered, a tickle in Tony’s mind.

Stone-faced, Tony paced behind Hoffman another few seconds until the scientist was looking over his shoulder nervously, trying to keep Tony in sight. If he’d been anything but a blowhard with more degrees than brains, the mild tactic wouldn’t have worked. It certainly wouldn’t have worked on someone like Ronon… or Rodney, for that matter. As it was, Tony didn’t even have to ask a question before Hoffman broke.

“It was Wheeler’s fault!” the scientist blurted out.

Tony rounded the table slowly until zy faced him. Zy crossed zyr arms over zyr chest and raised one eyebrow.

Hoffman flushed a blotchy red.

“It was!”

Tony raised the other brow.

Hoffman dropped his gaze and swallowed tightly.

“Okay, okay! I didn’t mean to hurt him that bad! We’ve been pranking each other since he got here with that group that came through the Stargate instead of on the Daedalus.”

“Pranking?” Tony purred. “That’s what you call first- and second-degree burns?”

“It wasn’t supposed to do that! I meant to have his shower turn ice cold after two minutes, but it didn’t work the first time I tried it. He just whined like a little bitch to one of those fixer techs like that little Chinese girl, and they changed it back.”

//Fixer techs?// Atlantis repeated indignantly. //It must have been Rodney, since his computer was used to correct what was assumed to be a malfunction. He is no mere fixer tech.//

Tony almost rolled zyr eyes. Atlantis adored Rodney, which meant Dr. Hoffman’s time on the city was limited no matter the outcome of Tony’s investigation. It didn’t help that zy was fairly certain the “little Chinese girl” was Miko Kusanagi, who wasn’t Chinese and happened to be one of the most brilliant people in the city. Not that Tony was going to share that thought with Atlantis… yet.

“So what you’d done was fixed. Then what?”

“I thought I figured out what I did wrong….” Hoffman huffed and clenched his fist on the table.

“And?”

Unable to meet Tony’s gaze, Hoffman stared into the ceiling as he confessed, “Well, I changed it again. I had to disable the safety mechanism to get the adjustment to—to, you know, stick.”

//He did what?!// Atlantis was silent for a beat, then growled, //He did more than that! He disabled the temperature safety settings for that entire floor! I am correcting what I can, and I will notify Dr. Zelenka to have him send someone to correct the parts that must be physically moved, since Rodney is gone with his team. There are three crystals that must be replaced because what Hoffman did overloaded them.//

“It didn’t occur to you that disabling the temperature safety was an indication you were doing something wrong… again?” Tony snapped.

“I looked it up before I tried it,” he protested stubbornly. “It wasn’t supposed to go hot instead of cold. It probably happened because the city is so old. I don’t know how it started out, but it’s overcomplicated, and McKay really junked it up in places too. If it had been one of Earth’s ships, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Atlantis growled wordlessly. If a snicker was a ticklish sensation, Atlantis’ irritated growl was like chewing tinfoil and sent the equivalent shiver down Tony’s spine.

Everyone had been told about Atlantis being a living entity, so it was beyond Tony’s understanding that a supposedly intelligent man would say something so foolish out loud where she could hear him. Zy made a mental note to talk to Zelenka about placing a little wager regarding when Hoffman would be kicked off the city and how far he’d push Atlantis’ temper before it happened.

“Right.” Tony took the chair across from Hoffman and touched the screen of zyr tablet to bring up the rest of the information zy’d gathered. “That might have been an accident, Dr. Hoffman, but your colleagues have reported other serious ‘pranks’ as well. Why don’t you give me your version before I talk to Wheeler?”

Hoffman perked up at the chance to air his grievances. “It’s all Wheeler’s fault! If he’d just stayed back on Earth where he belonged, none of this would have happened.” He slammed his fist down on the table, his face twisted with fury. “I don’t know how he found out I was in the Stargate program, but I know he followed me here on purpose. Mark my words, the only reason he came was just to destroy my work again.”

“You make it sound like he was out to get you.”

“That’s because he was! I had a good working relationship with everyone here until Wheeler showed up—”

//Lie,// Atlantis murmured. //The head of Marine Biology has several complaints about Dr. Hoffman that were submitted prior to Dr. Wheeler’s arrival. Hoffman has more complaints than Wheeler does from the period from just after Wheeler’s arrival to today. All complaints about Dr. Wheeler originate with Dr. Hoffman or involve him in the incident as well.//

“—Then it was just like what happened back in high school when Jerk-off Jerry and his family moved to town and he started at my school. He was always trying to show me up. He kept doing things that made me look bad in front of the teachers. He did the same thing on Atlantis. He even managed to get his quarters assigned right next to mine!”

Instead of face-palming at the realization that a childish rivalry had led to criminal acts, Tony hummed quietly and made a point of looking at zyr tablet. There wasn’t anything there about the two scientists’ pre-college years, but Tony could guess what must have happened.

“Your animosity escalated from dislike to similar ‘pranks’ back then, I see.”

“Yes! And it was his fault then, too!” Hoffman pounded his fist again. He was vibrating with fury. “If Wheeler hadn’t put bleach in all of my aquaria, I would have won the National Ocean Sciences Bowl!”

“But you lost, and you’ve hated him ever since.”

“Yes!” he leaned forward as if sharing a secret. “Wouldn’t you? I lost out on that scholarship, which meant I couldn’t go to Duke University. Then Wheeler followed me to college too. You don’t want to know what he did to my pomacanthusarcuatus during undergrad.”

“You got him back, though, just like you got him back this time when he sabotaged your experiment with those tommy fish,” Tony said, purposely mangling the name of the fish Hoffman had named after himself.

Hoffman sat back and glared. “Tomaticus undulatus, and you’re damned right I did!”

“Okay, tomaticus undulatus,” Tony allowed. “The computer geeks are still trying to figure out if any of Wheeler’s data from that coral-ish reef thing is salvageable.”

“It won’t be.” Hoffman crossed his arms and smirked. “I’m almost as good with computers as I am with marine life. Too bad Wheeler is too stupid to keep backup copies the way I learned to after he destroyed my work when I was a teacher’s assistant my first year of grad school. He almost got me fired from that job!”

“What about the other scientists’ research on that server? If you’re so good, then what happened there?”

“I couldn’t get rid of his stuff without erasing the rest of it. But it was only Loreli Red Hair and Neves da Sousa anyway.” Hoffman made a face and leaned in, confiding, “It’s not like they were doing anything important. I looked at their work, and it’s stuff nobody cares about but them – kid stuff. Getting rid of that stuff was almost a public service.”

Atlantis commented darkly, //Dr. da Sousa has been taking self-defense lessons with Corporal Villalobos. Perhaps she should be permitted to express her feelings to Dr. Hoffman in person.//

Part of Tony would love to see that happen. As it was, zy had enough to charge Hoffman with assault on Dr. Wheeler, and zy knew Atlantis would document what she’d found so zy could charge him with criminal tampering and reckless endangerment – a separate count for every person whose water would have been affected by the lack of safety mechanism. Every one of them could have been severely burned if they’d been in the shower or even just washing their hands.

If it had ended there, that would have been bad enough for Hoffman. As it was, a nurse had let Wheeler talk his way out of the infirmary, despite the fact that Tony had specifically requested the man be held until zy could come get him zyrself so zy could interview him. Tony’s order had been reiterated by Doc Xander, so zy didn’t think it was the nurse’s prejudice but her naivety. Wheeler had told her he’d come right back, and she’d actually expected him to do it.

//Tony, Dr. Wheeler is out of the infirmary,// Atlantis said suddenly, her voice concerned. //I did not notice him before, but he is nearly to your location.//

“Damn!”

Hoffman jumped when Tony cursed and abruptly headed for the door.

“Atlantis, no one goes in or out of this room until I say different!”

//As you wish, my Kysra.//

“Hey, where are you going? I’m not done!”

Tony could have laughed. Zy’d never had a criminal so upset that his confession-slash-interrogation was being interrupted.

“Get back here, space cop! Hey, you! Delt! You get back here!”

The door slid shut behind Tony just as Gerald Wheeler rounded the corner.

Unlike Hoffman, Wheeler had not been blessed with surfer good looks. He was 5’8” at most, on the scrawny side, with a head too small for his body. His nondescript brown hair was lank, and his large eyes set a little too far apart over a large, crooked nose. Added to that were large swaths of obviously new skin on his head, face, neck, and arms, courtesy of the SkinGun. The loose scrubs engulfed him, making him seem even more scrawny. The man immediately reminded him of Dobby the house elf, so Tony thought zy did well not to wince.

“Dr. Wheeler. I thought I told you to remain in the infirmary until I came to interview you,” zy barked out.

The scientist raised his chin and demanded, “I wanna talk to Hoffman.”

“I can see that. You understand why I can’t let you, right?”

“Because you’re protecting him, just like everyone else!” Dr. Wheeler shouted, chin trembling.

Tony countered calmly, “No, I’m not. Right now, I’m interrogating him… an interrogation you’re interrupting, by the way.”

“I don’t believe you!” Wheeler wailed. “That bastard has done everything he could to ruin my life and blame me for his failures since we were just kids, and people like you have let him get away with it!”

Wheeler started twitching agitatedly, and Tony thought he probably would have been pacing but was in enough pain that the activity would’ve hurt. Zy didn’t want to think about exactly where Wheeler probably had new skin under the scrubs. The man wasn’t acting threatening toward Tony, so zy didn’t want to restrain or arrest him. Putting any kind of restraints on him could damage the new skin on his wrists and arms.

“Dr. Wheeler, I want to talk to you and hear your version of events. There’s another office we could use to talk. Atlantis will keep Hoffman where he is.”

Wheeler shook his head, then winced and reached up to pull the scrubs away from his neck. “I’m not stupid, Investigator Dex. I know how this goes: you talk to us both, we both get a slap on the wrist, and life moves on… except I’ll shortly get the notice that I’m being sent to Earth.”

“I suppose it’s still possible, but I think we’re beyond slaps on the wrist, don’t you think? I’m certainly not going to let that be all that happens to Hoffman.”

“You can’t guarantee that!”

“Yes I can,” Tony retorted. “I’m the Chief Investigator in the city. Colonel Carter listens to my recommendations, as does Colonel Sheppard. More than that, though, is the fact that so does Dr. McKay. If he says you stay, then you stay.”

“And if he says I go?” he challenged.

“Convince me you should stay, and I’ll help you convince him.”

Wheeler stared at Tony for several seconds. Then his shoulders slumped, and he nodded reluctantly.

“Fine. I’ll trust you. I probably shouldn’t, but I will.”

//There is a room down the corridor,// Atlantis said as she showed Tony what she meant.

Tony led Wheeler to the vacant office that had a small table and a few chairs. Tony had to shift some boxes to clear the table and two of the chairs, but that didn’t take long.

“Are you okay to sit, Wheeler?” At his nod, Tony asked, “Atlantis? Could we get a couple of waters?”

Atlantis beamed in the waters, making Dr. Wheeler startle, then hiss as he hit his arm on the edge of the table. Tony had to think that people weren’t going to believe Atlantis was alive until they saw her do something to prove it.

“Go ahead.” Tony gestured to the water bottle as zy took zyr own and cracked it open. “I know Major Lorne was thirsty all the time after his experience with the SkinGun. You probably are too.”

Wheeler flushed and stretched his hands toward Tony, palm-up.

“Uh, would you mind…?”

Oh. Right. Seeing that both hands were covered with new, incredibly fragile skin, Tony opened the water for the scientist, sliding it across the table to him and receiving a murmured thanks.

“Help me understand, Doctor,” Tony began, “because right now, I don’t get how a prank war escalated to this point.”

Wheeler’s head jerked up, and he stared at Tony with wide eyes, not helping his resemblance to a house elf.

“Prank war?” he demanded incredulously. “I don’t know what he told you, but there is no prank war, and certainly not one with him!”

“Then what was it, exactly?”

“A ridiculous vendetta that bastard has had for me ever since I had the misfortune to move to the town where he lived when we were still stupid teenagers!” Dr. Wheeler made an indignant sound. “He thought he was the smartest person on Earth until I came along and happened to be just as good. He couldn’t take the competition, at least not from someone like me, so he got it in his head that he had to eliminate me.”

That rang true to Tony’s instincts, just based on zyr interactions with Hoffman, but zy wasn’t going to make any snap judgements.

Zy offered, “He seems to think that you’re the one out to get him.”

Wheeler snorted. “All I ever wanted was for him to leave me alone. I’m sure he didn’t tell you how he made my last two years of high school so miserable that I turned down a full ride to Duke – the premier school for marine biology – because Wheeler had spent senior year bragging that it was where he was going to go?”

“He did mention that you ended up at the same university for your undergrad work.”

“Yes, and I tried to transfer out as soon as I found out he was there, but I had already turned down the scholarship at Duke, so it had been given to someone else. I couldn’t afford to leave where I was because my other options had already handed out their scholarships and grants, too. You have no idea how many times I nearly changed my focus area just to get away from him.”

“That couldn’t have been an easy decision,” Tony said sympathetically. Whether or not zy believed Wheeler, the calm, apparently sympathetic approach was getting the scientist to talk. “Keep going and be tormented, or change your focus and limit your options further.”

Tony did know what zy was saying was true from personal experience. When zy’d had to change zyr major because of zyr injury, zy had lost all zyr scholarships, and finding new sources of help had been nearly impossible.

“Yes. Besides, I love what I do. I know I don’t look like it, but I’ve logged more underwater hours than just about anyone in my field.”

Wheeler’s eyes lit up, and his gaze seemed to lose focus as he watched something in his mind’s eye rather than what was in the room.

“There’s no substitute for studying my subjects in their natural habitat. There’s so much we still don’t know about the underwater fauna on Earth that I could’ve been happy studying there for decades. There’s so much complexity and beauty in the ocean, Investigator Dex, beauty most people have never seen!

“Then I got the opportunity to join the Stargate program, and entire new worlds were opened to me, literally! Now I’m living in the middle of an alien ocean in another galaxy, and I have the chance to study these all these new, amazing creatures and their habitats. My colleagues from Earth can’t even imagine Atlantis exists, but I’m living on her with the Satedan ocean out my bedroom window every day!”

Tony smiled slightly. “I can certainly see you’re enthusiastic about your subject.”

Wheeler flushed and ducked his head.

“Sorry, it’s just being here was a dream come true, but now…” his smile faded, and the sadness and anger returned, “with Hoffman here too, now it’s a nightmare.” Wheeler shook his head. “I don’t expect someone like you to understand.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Someone like me?”

Wheeler gave a bitter laugh. “Someone attractive, desirable, pretty. How many times have you used your looks to get what you want, huh? Can you even count them all?”

“Dr. Wheeler, I might be—” Tony made a face. “—pretty, but I’m a kysra, a delt. The advanced degree you’re rightly proud of, the one that opened the door to get you into the Stargate program wasn’t even an option for me or others of my gender.”

“Oh, right.” Wheeler blinked rapidly, adjusting to that information. “It’s just, you’re so confidant, and I’ve listened to people talk enough to know that you’re smart. Even Dr. McKay thinks so. I guess I forgot you’re a kysra.”

He tilted his head and studied Tony. “Maybe… maybe you can understand a little bit. It’s like this: I’m at least as smart as Tom is, but because I don’t look like him, and I don’t have his confidence, people take his side. I’m good with sea creatures from algae to zebra seahorses, but I’m not good with people.” Wheeler shrugged. “You probably think I’m just whining, but this has happened over and over again with him and others.”

“Always last for kickball, huh?” Tony smiled gently. “I understand what you’re saying. That was me in high school.”

“At least you grew out of it.” Wheeler shrugged again, then winced as his new skin pulled. “It’s why I like my work: the creatures under the water don’t care who I am, what I look like, or how much money I have.”

“It sounds like you really love it here.”

“I do. Like I said, getting an assignment like this was like a dream come true.”

“Then tell me what happened with Hoffman. Tell me how it got to the point that you’re seriously injured and not going to be able to put on diving gear for months.”

Wheeler’s eyes had gone wide at the realization that he wouldn’t be diving for a very long time, and Tony had thought he might actually cry. The biologist had pulled it together and proceeded to give an account as different from Hoffman’s as day from night. It had sounded like an unrelenting campaign of bullying that was more appropriate to an after-school special than something that happened to adults, but having met Hoffman, Tony could see it was possible.

Sure, Wheeler was probably overplaying the “poor me” card, but Tony still thought his account was the most accurate. It didn’t hurt that Wheeler readily admitted to the things he’d done and the data he’d ruined, though he told Tony that he’d kept a copy of the original and agreed to turn it over to zyr.

In the end, Tony didn’t think Wheeler had had any malicious intent beyond what was borne out of decades of frustration at being Hoffman’s scapegoat and punching bag whenever they happened to be in the same area. However, that didn’t relieve him of all responsibility. Wheeler was an adult, and he had known what he was doing was wrong. He hadn’t tried to get help from his department head, from the CSO, or the Chief Investigator before he took it upon himself to do things he knew were wrong if not illegal.

Tony would discuss it with Carter, but zyr inclination and preliminary judgement was to fine Wheeler and have him do some hours of community service, but zy wanted Hoffman officially charged, fined, and out of the city as soon as possible. Ideally, he’d be held responsible for his colleagues’ destroyed work once he was back on Earth.

Tony rubbed his eyes and yawned.

“What do you think, Atlantis?”

//I believe your judgement is sound. I have been through records you do not have access to due to your reluctance to invade others’ privacy, and what I have found confirms Dr. Wheeler’s account. I am disturbed that the obvious problem was not brought to you, Rodney, or the Hera. That so many knew what was happening but did nothing is inexcusable.//

She paused, then continued thoughtfully, //I cannot hold myself entirely blameless. I do not dedicate time to the observation of those I do not find interesting. Had something like this occurred to you or Rodney, I would have known instantly. Now that I have all the power I need, I must begin observing all within my structure.//

Tony didn’t quite know what to say to that. Zy really didn’t want to turn Atlantis into a Minority Report situation where people didn’t have any privacy, but it was true that she could have helped them uncover and stop the problem between Hoffman and Wheeler as well as other situations that had arisen.

“Let’s talk to John, Wolfe, and Carter. I see what you’re saying, but I also want to make sure our people still have their privacy.”

//Acceptable.//

Tony yawned again before clicking open zyr email. Zy should have something from Jimmy: it was Monday on Earth, after all, and past time for the scheduled databurst to have been decoded and distributed.

“Hey.”

Tony looked up to see Ronon lounging against the doorway. He was smiling fondly at zyr in that way that made Tony helpless to do anything but smile back.

Ronon prowled closer until he could lean down and kiss zyr upturned lips.

“Hey, caro,” Tony murmured, one hand going to caress Ronon’s cheek. “How was… that planet with the name I can’t pronounce?”

Ronon chuckled and put his hand over zyrs on his cheek, turning his face into the caress and kissing the heel of zyr palm.

“Sheppard just calls it the gun planet.”

“Gun planet?”

“M16-357.”

“What? Oh, wait. I get it, M16 for the rifle and 357 for the handgun.”

Tony grinned and let Ronon turn zyr chair away from the desk until he could straddle zyr, sitting on zyr lap. Tony’s hands went to his hips, slipping beneath the soft, woven tunic Ronon had put on after his post-mission shower.

The shower was something he’d started doing after every mission instead of just after those where he got dirty or was exposed to something problematic. Tony thought he was paranoid, since Atlantis’ filters would remove anything dangerous, but Ronon was terrified of bringing back anything that could hurt Tony or the baby. If a shower eased Ronon’s mind, who was Tony to complain?

“Yeah. McKay says it wasn’t planned that way and rolls his eyes every time Sheppard says it, but I’ve noticed he can’t say N’lslasfa either.”

“Yet it just rolls off your tongue.”

Ronon gave zyr a shark’s smile and leaned in, nudging zyr nose with his own. “Well, you of all people know how talented my tongue is.”

Tony laughed, a thrill of arousal zinging through zyr. Zy looked up at Ronon through zyr lashes and licked zyr lips.

“Well, I think that’s probably true, but my memory is a little foggy on the subject.”

Probably?” Ronon leaned back, his eyebrows doing a little dance on his forehead. “M’kysra, I think there’s something wrong with your memory. Maybe we should have Doc X look at that during our appointment to see the kyta tomorrow.”

Tony hummed and tilted zyr head, pretending to think about it even as zy started unlacing Ronon’s tunic.

“That’s an idea, but don’t you think you should demonstrate your lingual talents right now, just so we know how long my memory lasts? I mean, it’s possible that by this time tomorrow I won’t remember enough to say your tongue probably is talented.”

Ronon growled, a sound that made Tony’s entire body react instantly. Zyr instincts knew that growl intimately. Zyr instincts knew Tony was about to get fucked to within an inch of zyr life.

Ronon stood and pulled Tony to zyr feet with one arm, spinning zyr and pushing zyr chest flat to the top of zyr desk. Ronon’s fingers went to the front of Tony’s uniform trousers and made quick work of the fastenings before he yanked them down to zyr knees.

“Kick them off, m’kysra. Now.

Oh, fuck. Tony hadn’t realized zy would like being manhandled and ordered around, but zy went from interested to rock hard in less than a second.

Ronon splayed a hand over zyr stomach to make sure zy wasn’t lying on the kyta, then leaned over zyr, his chest pressing against zyr back, forcing zyr flat to the desk, and rumbled, “I think you should be very careful what you ask for, meraska.”

Tony shuddered, zyr breath coming faster as warmth turned to hot desire. Zy decided email could wait and grasped the desk with the hand Ronon didn’t have twisted up behind zyr back.

“Shit, the computer. Can’t break it.”

“Then I guess you’d better hold still.”

“Oh, fuck.”

“Only after you beg for it.”

Tony groaned. It was going to be one of those times. Zy gleefully cursed, anticipation making zyr heart pound. Fuck, but zy loved to pretend to hate it when Ronon made zyr beg.

Ronon was already running his hands over zyr, pushing up zyr shirt and licking the small of zyr back. Six months ago, Tony hadn’t known zyr back was sensitive. Now zy knew Ronon could make zyr sob with the right combination of kissing and licking that barely slipped down into the divide between zyr cheeks.

He was already proving he knew just what to do to get Tony worked up. Every time his tongue touched the top of zyr ass crack, Tony twitched and swallowed down a grunt. Ronon knelt behind zyr and trailed kitten licks all up and down zyr crack without parting zyr cheeks enough to touch zyr hole or the slick zyr could already feel.

Ronon shouldered between zyr legs, forcing them wide and forcing zyr up onto the balls of zyr feet. Then he ducked between and licked a single stripe from zyr balls up zyr perineum and all the way to zyr opening. Tony shuddered and bit down on zyr lip. Zy wasn’t going to give it up that easy.

Unable to see what was happening, Tony couldn’t anticipate any of Ronon’s moves. Zy’d feel his breath on zyr ass cheek, but then he’d suck a mark into the join of leg and ass. He’d run his free hand all over zyr thighs, then pull zyr hard cock down between zyr legs and suck the head into his hot mouth.

The first time he did that, Tony jerked and yelped, nearly pulling zyr hand from where Ronon still had it trapped against zyr lower back.

“Naughty kysra,” he growled. “You’re supposed to be lying still and trying to remember if this is familiar. Your poor memory wasn’t working.”

Tony whimpered. Zy was in so much trouble… and it was awesome.

By the time Ronon let go of zyr hand, zy had sweat through zyr t-shirt and had slick running down zyr inner thighs. Ronon had kissed, licked, touched, teased, and tormented every part of zyr except for where zy wanted it.

“Oh, fuck, please,” Tony finally broke and begged.

“Please what, m’kysra? Did you remember something?”

“Yes! Please, please do it!”

“What do you want, dahrym?” he purred even as he used both hands to press zyr cheeks apart and bare zyr opening. He pushed zyr knee up on the desk, opening zyr further and forcing zyr to balance on one foot.

Tony trembled and hung onto the desk with both hands.

“Put it in and lick me, dammit!”

Ronon flicked his tongue in a circle around zyr. “Now is that any way to talk to your husband?”

Tony sobbed out a breath and forced zyrself think.

“No, please, caro. Please touch me, lick me. I need it; I need you!”

Ronon chuckled, and Tony could feel the vibration of it. “Sweet meraska, you should have just said so.”

He opened his mouth over zyr and gave zyr exactly what zy had asked for.

Tony’s eyes closed, every nerve focused on Ronon’s tongue in zyr ass. He was teasing, licking inside, then pulling back to press gentle kisses all around. He’d press his mouth tight and give zyr quick little stabs with his tongue, and then he’d pull away to circle and flick his tongue barely inside. Ronon sealed his mouth over zyr and licked in deep, as though determined to clean up the mess Tony was making.

All Tony could do was listen to zyr own hitching little sobs and claw at the desk, trying to reach that point, that precipice that would let zyr fall into orgasm.

But that point never came, so neither did Tony.

Eventually, zy knew zy was begging, but zy wasn’t quite sure for what. Zy only knew how to say yes, please, and more. Tony keened and thought zy would die on the spot when Ronon backed away from zyr. As it was, zy nearly fell off the desk, zyr knees were so weak. Zy was shaking inside and out.

Zy heard the rustle of clothing but couldn’t quite figure out what it meant. Then Ronon’s hands were on zyr hips, holding zyr steady.

Without warning, he pressed his cock against zyr opening then pushed deep inside in a single, smooth stroke.

Tony’s breath caught, and zy came all over zyrself and zyr desk. It was such a relief, more relief than pleasure, that zy was left gasping and shaking. Zy lost control of zyr muscles and went limp, forcing Ronon to hold zyr hips up as he began to fuck zyr hard, pulling back almost all the way, then fucking in deep with every stroke.

After all the teasing, it was exactly what Tony wanted. Zy would’ve told him that if only zy could get zyr brain to work enough to form the words. Instead, zy lay boneless and let Ronon fuck zyr as he pleased. The force of it rocked zyr body against the desk. Zy didn’t care.

Ronon shifted his grip and pulled zyr hips higher. On the next thrust, Tony’s skin prickled, and zy made a soft, hurt little noise when Ronon’s cock brushed against zyr prostate. Zy came again on the next stroke, clenching tightly around Ronon’s cock and spilling again, that two-part orgasm that made zyr dizzy.

Zy blinked away the haze and realized Ronon still wasn’t done. If anything, his pace had increased. Tony felt the pleasure gathering yet again, and zy whined. Zy was already shaking, zyr limbs no longer under zyr own control.

“Once more, m’ksyra. One more, and I’ll come inside you.”

Tony gave another wordless whine, and Ronon grunted, panting too hard to laugh.

“That’s it, Tony. Can you feel it? You’re getting close.”

Tony’s muscles started to tighten in preparation, and zy knew there was no stopping it. All zy could do was surrender. Zy gasped for breath as even zyr fingers clamped down on the edge of the desk, zyr nails digging into the wood.

“I’m gonna come, gotta come,” Ronon warned.

He fucked zyr fast and hard, grunting as he neared the point of no return. Their bodies slapped together, the sound loud in the small room. Finally, his hips lost any rhythm, stuttering against Tony’s ass as orgasm shook him.

At the feel of the first spurt of hot come inside zyr, Tony’s body clenched that iota more that it took to tip zyr over the edge. Zy choked on zyr own breath and came so hard the darkness behind zyr closed eyelids turned to sparkling, bright lights. Zy didn’t lose consciousness, but it was a near thing.

Ronon withdrew and somehow got them both safely to the floor, a messy sprawl of uncoordinated limbs. Tony rolled zyr head to the side and stared blankly. Zy couldn’t think beyond trying to catch zyr breath.

When Ronon saw where zy was looking, he grunted out, “Sorry ‘bout the computer.”

If zy’d had the energy for it, Tony would have laughed.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Keplerday, Einstein 37, First Year of the Returned
(April 27, 2008)

“So that’s eight more worlds willing to trade with us,” Carter said, reading through the information on her tablet, “seven for food products and one for the sienuash.”12

Tony couldn’t quite tell if she was pleased or disappointed. Her game-face had improved a lot over the past few months.

“That’s the mineral almost like naquadah?”

“Closer to naquadria than naquadah, Colonel, but it lacks the radioactive properties. I just wish they’d agreed to allow us to mine it instead of trading for such small amounts.”

Teyla frowned briefly. “Colonel Carter, I believe we should be pleased the Weshiena agreed to reestablish trade with us at all. We did not understand that they viewed the planet as a sacred caregiver, very nearly a parental entity. Now that we know, I can understand why they would see Dr. Weir’s rather… strident demands to trade in sienuash as offensive.”

“We were demanding a piece of their god, essentially.” Carter looked back down at her list and sighed. “I just didn’t expect it because so few societies are religious in Pegasus, other than worshiping the Alterans or the Vedaeus, and we didn’t know about the Vedaeus until recently.”

Personally, Tony thought if Weir hadn’t picked up on the fact that these people worshiped the planet itself, then she wasn’t nearly the negotiator everyone seemed to think she was. It had taken AR-1 about a day to figure it out.

“Well, Weshiena and their religious beliefs aside, we’re doing better than I thought we would when we started the Apologies Tour,” John said from his usual seat beside Carter at the horseshoe-shaped table in the main conference room.

Colonel Carter and Rodney both shot a glare at him, but stopped as soon as they’d noticed the other. Tony had to wonder what the deal was with that. Zy didn’t care enough to find out right then, so zy, and everyone else, ignored the by-play. Tony was more annoyed that the Colonel had decided Ronon needed to be present to review this stuff when they were supposed to have the day off. Tony could admit it: zy was spoiled.

It was Keplerday, zyr and Ronon’s usual day off, plus they hadn’t been married long enough for their days off to be anything but very honeymoon-like. It wasn’t like they could hop on over to some exotic and stupidly expensive tropical island for a quick vacation like they could have if they’d been on Earth. Atlantis was as beautiful as a tropical island, but they were rather limited for recreation… not that they would have left their bed much less their apartment if they’d had any choice.

Instead, they were sitting in a boring meeting in the main conference room yet again. Once Carter had put it on the schedule only the night before, much to Tony’s displeasure, it was only supposed to be for her and the two Apologies Tour specialized teams: AR-1 (John, Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon) and AR-5 (Major Devin Jordan, Captain Joseph Fairmont of the UK Royal Marines, Airman First Class Daniel Seung, and Dr. Jamie McNamara).

Ronon had been pissed enough at losing his time with Tony that he’d dragged zyr along. He’d flat out told Carter that it was his day off. If she wanted him there, Tony was going to be there too. For zyr part, Tony didn’t see why both of them had to be punished, but arguing with Ronon about it had been useless.

Carter had been irritated until Tony had joked, “We were planning to cuddle on the sofa with a Disney movie. Ronon gets awfully cranky if he doesn’t get his cuddles and 101 Dalmatians. He hasn’t given up trying to convince me Cruella de Vil is a Wraith.”

Her lips had twitched. “Well, I do appreciate your giving up part of your day off,” she’d said, “but please refrain from cuddling during the meeting.”

As it turned out, the entire thing seemed to be about the progress – or lack thereof – with the Pegasus worlds since they’d started the Apologies Tour. Tony was fairly certain John had just gone over the numbers with Carter the previous week, so the meeting had to be more for soothing Carter’s nerves than for any true sharing of information.

//This information was in many reports,// Atlantis groused in Tony’s head, echoing zyr own thoughts. //Surely this could have waited until the two of you had worn yourselves out yet again. You could have slept through such pointless talk.//

Tony smothered a laugh, but Ronon wasn’t so lucky. He’d just taken a drink of spiced tea when Atlantis had spoken to them, and he ended up choking rather dramatically.

“You okay over there?” John asked, watching Tony scramble for the paper towels that had appeared on the table at the same time as zy pounded on Ronon’s back.

“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” zy said, eyeing zyr husband’s red face and watery eyes. “Think it just went down the wrong pipe, you know?”

Eyes watering, Ronon wheezed, “’m fine. Keep going.”

//Apologies, Ronon.//

“I’m fine,” he repeated more clearly.

Carter chose to take him at his word.

“So as I was saying, that’s a total of eleven worlds willing to trade with us, though only New Athos would openly call us allies, and all of the Athosians bar those who stayed behind to care for the crops and then begin harvest preparations are now on the city, so they aren’t exactly a separate people anymore.”

“I am optimistic that others will be more open to trade once they begin to hear of our new agreements with these worlds,” Teyla said serenely, her hands folded in her lap.

John looked like he’d bitten into a lemon. “I’m not so sure.”

“Why do you say that?” Carter asked, concerned but not shocked or upset.

Tony assumed John or someone must have said as much in their reports.

“Well, there’s something that keeps coming up, and I really didn’t expect it.” John looked to Rodney, who grimaced. “I know you weren’t here at the time, Colonel, but those of us who were remember when the Daedalus happened upon the Tria when we were first searching for possible locations to set up the Gate Bridge.”

//Arrogant fools!//

“That bitch, Helia,” Rodney seethed, unknowingly mirroring Atlantis’ opinion of the situation.

Ronon abruptly cleared his throat and set his tea back on the table, which made Tony think Atlantis had included him in the conversation again. Good. Zy shouldn’t be the only one getting a running commentary during these things.

Tony was a little surprised when no one chastised Rodney, not even Colonel Carter. Though if what zy’d read in the report was accurate, bitch and arrogant fools were two of the more apt descriptions of the Alteran captain and crew.

“Anyway, when we gave up the city without a fight, the Alterans didn’t even give the Athosians the option to stay on the planet much less the city. They packed them up and shipped them to New Athos.”

“I was aware of that from the reports. Are you saying the Athosians are causing problems for us?” Carter asked with a questioning glance at Teyla.

“My people understood you had little choice, but there were and still are some hard feelings about the matter. The crops had been planted on Lantea, and the Athosians suffered a very lean season because they were never able to harvest what they’d planted. I fear that were it not for Atlantis herself guaranteeing that the Athosians would never be set aside in such a manner again….” Teyla trailed off.

“I see. What do the Athosians think we should’ve done? I believe Helia locked us out.”

//As if I would have allowed that to stand if the Earthers had even tried to fight!// Atlantis snarled.

Tony and Ronon exchanged a look. Sometimes it seemed like Atlantis was willfully ignoring the fact that no one but the two of them could hear her unless she physically manifested her humanoid form.

“It isn’t that they thought we could’ve kicked Alteran ass, it’s that we didn’t even try,” Ronon explained, his expression dark with hate. “They said ‘get out,’ and nobody even tried to disagree.”

//It was the second time the Alterans stole Ronon’s home from him. For that alone he would hate them,// Atlantis murmured. //Rightly so.//

“So you’re telling me the Athosians are carrying a grudge about the situation?”

“No, not a grudge, as I understand the term. Halling and the other leaders are grateful that you returned and are pleased to have established trade with the city once more.” Teyla paused, her head tilting slightly as she continued more slowly, choosing her words with care. “I would say that there are… tensions among the Athosians who do not yet know of Kysra Tony, tensions that did not exist prior to the return of the Alterans. I believe many were outspoken about their feelings immediately after we were removed from the city and planet. It was a time when tempers were running hot.”

“They got the rest of the galaxy pissed off about it,” Ronon interpreted Teyla’s tactful explanation. “Now those people are afraid that if they have a treaty with us and somebody challenges us over it, we’ll just give them up like you did me, Teyla, and the Athosians.”

Tony barely contained a wince. From that perspective… yeah, it was a terrible betrayal.

“Surely they don’t still think that way. Didn’t we prove we weren’t giving up?” 

“On the contrary,” Major Jordan stated calmly. “They know that Colonel Sheppard returned against the orders of our planet, so it is still a very valid concern to them.”

When Colonel Carter looked like she was going to object, Jordan raised one hand and said, “Wait, please, Colonel. I understand what you’re saying. Try to see it using all your tactical training, but from their point of view. If I may explain?”

Carter gave him a short nod, so he continued, “The only powers that have truly challenged Earth’s authority in Pegasus are the Wraith, the Genii, and the Alterans-slash-Asurans. Now, admittedly, the Wraith are in a league all their own as a species and a culture group, so let’s not count them just yet. Instead, let’s look at the Genii.”

“Now, just a minute,” John objected. “I think we pulled the teeth from that particular shark. Kolya and Cowen are gone, and Ladon Radim is a much better leader.”

Tony wondered if John knew sharks continuously grew new teeth.

“Better, yes, but how much?” Dr. Jamie McNamara asked, her cool, green gaze settling on Tony.

Tony wanted to groan when zy realized Jamie was setting zyr up to be the bearer of this particular bad news. Why had zy let Ronon talk zyr into coming along again?

After Jamie had extricated herself form the negotiations on the tanricu planet, they’d discussed Radim and the Genii with Sgt. Major Wolfe. That had been a little over a week ago. Tony much would’ve preferred this come from the Security Chief rather than zyr. Still, better to control the situation than let it control zyr.

Tony cleared zyr throat and leaned in, resting zyr forearms on the table. “As you all know, I’ve been reading through all the reports that come in with an eye to crime and justice.”

“Right, but how is that relevant here?”

With Colonel Carter’s question giving zyr tacit permission, Tony dived into the explanation.

“The thing Dr. McNamara and I have noted about the Genii is that they own, for lack of a better word, several planets. They have a small settlement on each, but it’s more a military outpost than anything else. Once the outpost has been established, they charge the locals the Pegasus equivalent of rent – trade coin, food, or other goods and services. The understanding is that the Genii military outpost and Genii ‘caretakers’ will prevent the locals from being taken advantage of by others.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“If it weren’t part of a larger scheme, maybe not, Colonel,” Tony said. “But here’s the thing: along with their ‘rent,’ the local population is required to turn over a certain percentage of their able-bodied young people for training. According to the intelligence reports from those who’ve talked to them, the locals think they’re getting their people back as soon as they’re trained when the reality is that the Genii are taking those young people to another, previously ‘secured’ world for training, but when that training and indoctrination is complete, they’re Genii soldiers following Genii orders, no matter where they started their lives.”

“At which point they’re taken to a new world and plunked down to start another ‘settlement’ among people they don’t know and don’t have any loyalty to, where the process starts all over again,” Colonel Carter finished for zyr, understanding dawning.  

“In the meantime, they’re still collecting the ‘rent’ from the first world,” Jamie added. “It’s a nice little protection racket mixed with an annexation strategy, and one I saw variations of when I was studying different cultures throughout history for my degree in anthropology. The Roman Empire did something similar, though they were more bloodthirsty and didn’t bother pretending their conquered territories had any choice in the matter.”

“How do the people not see what’s going on? Don’t they get suspicious when they never get their people back?” Carter asked.

Tony could only tell her as much as zy knew, which was mostly conjecture.

“I don’t have any documented accounts, but Dr. McNamara and I believe they must take back some people once in a while. Our guess is that they return those who wash out of training. The rest of the time, it would be easy to tell a community that their people had been culled while they were training, or they died while they were out defending a village that had called for help on some other planet. So far, they’re sticking to smaller worlds that are in less frequent communication with other planets, or they take on a small group of new planets at the same time so that the native peoples don’t know any better.”

“I didn’t see this when I read the reports,” John said, his brow furrowed. “How did you pick up on it?”

Tony shrugged one shoulder and leaned back in zyr chair. “I was undercover with a mafia family for almost a year; I learned how to look at situations like they do. Protection and extortion brought in money on a reliable schedule without much risk. Their method of annexing territory was different, but….” Zy shrugged again. “Then I discussed it with Dr. McNamara. She thought my theory was sound and explained a few things she had noted.”

“So the Genii are the mafia of Pegasus. Great. Just great,” John growled. “Are you sure this is still going on under Radim?”

“Your report from Weshiena said part of the reason they were willing to trade with us for the sienuash is they no longer trusted their old trading partners from Mrehzin. I know from another report dated less than three months ago that Mrehzin started policing their markets about that time, and all the guards were wearing uniforms that sound exactly like what the Genii wear. Also, the market had been moved from the locals’ preferred spot to some land that has a new, fortified structure overlooking it.”

“That’s not definitive proof,” Jamie pointed out, “but when you put it in context with the other worlds we’ve seen start out similarly and then appear to us to be suddenly under Genii control, it does make a good case for it.”

Major Jordan agreed, “Indeed it does, but there’s one thing that ultimately convinced me.”

“Oh?” Carter had one eyebrow raised.

“When Dr. McNamara came to me a few weeks ago and told me what she and Dex were thinking, she asked for permission to add something to our typical apologies speech for the locals,” Jordan explained. “It would be an experiment of a sort, with AR-1 as the control group and our team as the variable, but without any risk I could see. McNamara, want to explain?”

“Certainly,” the red-headed woman replied, straightening further in her chair.

Ph.D. or not, Jamie McNamara was a military brat who’d gone on to earn the rank of Senior Airman while completing her double Ph.D. in anthropology and linguistics. The military mindset showed in her mannerisms as much as it did in the grey-and-black uniform she wore.

“Once Chief Investigator Dex and I picked up on the Genii pattern, we decided to go back through old reports looking for data that would confirm or disprove our theories. Everything we found indicated we were on the right track, so I asked Major Jordan if we could include three specific things in our speeches to the local populations:  first, an apology for dismissing the value their established culture. Along with that went a statement about understanding that just because our society is militaristic, that doesn’t mean it’s the way every society should be. That seemed to soothe ruffled feathers most of the time.

“Second, we promised that no matter what, we would never ask them to trade their people – or any human lives, for that matter – for any goods or services we might offer. That alone seemed to have a lot of people willing to listen to us more than anything else.”

“Makes sense. Populations are limited now more than ever. Nobody wants to lose a single person, especially not the young and able-bodied,” Ronon said.

Teyla was nodding. “If the Genii are demanding able-bodied people in their ‘trades,’ the further we can separate ourselves from those expectations, the better.”

Carter prompted, “So what was the third thing?”

“The last thing we started doing was telling them we didn’t want to set up a trade relationship.”

“What?” John barked out, dropping his stylus and accidentally sending it skittering across the table. “But that’s the whole point of the Apologies tour!”

Tony could understand why John would be upset, but he needed to hear McNamara out. She wasn’t stupid by any stretch of the imagination, nor was Major Jordan.

Jamie glanced at Major Jordan. The older man nodded subtly.

“Yes, sir. We didn’t do this lightly. Everything that we learned about the Genii said that they like to use the phrases ‘trading partnership’ or ‘beneficial alliance’ when they started talking to the people in power on various planets. As Teyla said, I believe that the more we distance ourselves from them, the better it will be for us.”

“Colonels, Dr. McNamara explained this all to me, and I gave her one opportunity to test out her theory. When it worked, I gave her another shot. It kept working, and we kept getting trade agreements or, at the very least, an agreement to come back and discuss things further,” Jordan explained.

“How did you get trade agreements when you told them that wasn’t what you wanted?” John demanded.

“We said essentially the same thing, but we phrased it differently,” Jamie replied. “We told them that we just wanted to talk to them to see if we would be compatible enough to have a treaty of non-aggression between our two peoples.”

“That does sound very non-threatening,” Teyla commented.

“Yes, ma’am,” Jamie agreed. “I thought that with how dictatorial the Genii are and with how unintentionally ham-handed we were the first time around, we needed to back off and let them think a trade agreement was their idea.”

“I still don’t see how that worked,” Rodney commented with a frown. “How did sitting around talking get you the agreement for the urtrak13 on Megarus?”

“That’s where Airman First Class Seung was able to help us.”

“Airman?” Carter prodded.

“Well, ma’am, my mom never met a garage sale, antique market, or craft fair she didn’t like, and she dragged me and my siblings along with her. One thing I learned was that if one merchant seems kind of put-off or snobby, just ask them where you can find something else. That tells them you have money to spend, and you’re not dead set on spending it with them.”

The young man grinned, displaying perfectly straight teeth that had probably cost his parents a fortune in orthodontia bills.

“I realize that doesn’t seem like it could help in our situation, but it does. Instead of asking the leader for a trade contract, we started taking along stuff on the list of approved trade items and saying things like, ‘oh, while we’re here, my aunt’s friend has been looking for this thing. Would you happen to know of a planet where they have a craftsperson who makes those?”

“I get it,” Carter said, starting to smile. “Every leader wants it to get out that their people are the best at whatever it is, so they inevitably take you to the person they know makes the thing you’re after.”

“Exactly, ma’am.”

“Of course, as soon as the craftspeople realize you have trade items or some of the trade coins, though trade coins are less popular, others come out with one or two things they ‘just happened to have lying around, but they thought would be perfect for you,’” Jordan said, his dark eyes glittering with amusement.

Jamie went on, “It’s the same principle as what you were saying, Colonel Carter. Once they know we have money and that we’ll be polite and fair with their people, the leaders are more eager to invite us to stay for the local version of dinner and a beer. They’re usually the ones to bring up trade agreements by mid-meal.”

“I see,” Teyla said with a smile. “Rather than telling them you will be honorable trade partners, you are able to show them by small actions, thereby proving your intentions.”

“That is the idea, Ms. Teyla,” Seung agreed. “We know we screwed up, so our words aren’t going to say as much as our actions. We had to do something to get our foot in the door so we could show them instead of just saying it.”

“Teyla, you were a leader among your people. Did you do something similar?”

Teyla gave her a wry smile. “No, Colonel Carter. By the time I became Leader, I had spent years traveling with my father, confirming all the agreements between the Athosians and the other worlds. In my first year as Leader, I traveled to each world with Halling at my side so that the people would be used to dealing with him, should I no longer be able to fulfill my duties. Halling now travels with at least one of the other leaders, doing the same.”

A nice way of saying, ‘just in case I was culled,’ Tony thought dryly.

“Major, you said this worked most of the time, yet we only have a few finalized agreements.”

“You’re right, Colonel Sheppard. Out of the six worlds we’ve been to since we started doing it like this, we have firm agreements with three. Two more are willing to have us come back. The last one, well….” Jordan shook his head and snorted. “I’m afraid Win’nala would require intervention from Sateda’s Five themselves.” He turned and gave Tony a thoughtful look. “Or maybe just their Kysra.”

“No,” Ronon snarled instantly.

“Wait, I think I’ve heard of that one before,” Rodney said.

“What does Win’nala have that we wanted?” John asked, ignoring the way Ronon was growling at Tony and glaring daggers into Major Jordan.

“It’s supposed to have a structure with architecture similar to the Alteran structures we’ve seen. I don’t know about that, though I did see what looked like the very tops of a couple towers through the fog in the distance,” Jordan replied.

Jamie said, “What I found more immediately interesting is that the Win’nala produce cones of a soft but durable fiber that, when woven into cloth, is purported to be resistant to the Wraith’s feeding hand. They charge a huge sum for a small amount, but we’ve never been able to get that far with them. Ma’am, Sir, I think it’s worth investigating. If we could make undershirts for the teams who go out, it might protect them a few seconds longer from an attacking Wraith.”

“They know to just rip off our tac vests now, so having another layer beneath that was resistant to their feeding hands could mean the difference between life and death,” John said grimly. “We need to keep trying with this planet. We should at least get a sample of the stuff, there or at one of the planetary markets, I don’t care which, then have it woven into a cloth we can test.”

“If you can get the raw material, there are weavers among the Athosians who could weave it for us,” Teyla added.

Carter was already nodding. “I agree. Where are we with them, specifically?”

“We attempted to talk to them, but they took one look at our uniforms and chased us through the Gate with these flamethrower-looking things. Like I said, they’re going to need a hell of an inducement just to speak to us. I stand by that assessment, even if Ronon keeps trying to gut me with the power of his eyes alone,” Major Jordan said sardonically.

Tony snorted, making Ronon transfer his glare to zyr. Zy just patted his thigh and smiled sweetly. “You know I’d never go without your agreement, amore mio.”

Only partially appeased, Ronon took Tony’s hand and laced their fingers together, giving Jordan one last dark look and making him smirk.

Tony sighed quietly. Zy had no doubt Ronon would be doing his best to schedule Major Jordan for some extra hand-to-hand training with him, but Jordan didn’t look worried about it. Then again, there was talk that Jordan had taken down Staff Sergeant Wilkins the other day, so he’d probably end up bruised but not broken.

“So other than Win’nala, you have either firm agreements or invitations to return to every planet you’ve been to.”

“Yes, sir,” Jordan replied. “I think Dr. McNamara is on the money with this, and I think she and Chief Investigator Dex are right about the Genii. From what we can tell, they’re running ‘business as usual,’ even under the new regime.”

“Tony, how sure are you about this?” John glanced at Jordan. “Not that I don’t believe you, Major. I was just really hoping Ladon Radim was a different kind of fish than Cowan.”

“I’m certain it’s a protection racket or extortion scheme. Is it still happening? I think the evidence supports that theory, but I’m willing to be wrong.” With a glance at Jaime, Tony offered, “Dr. McNamara and I could put together a list of things to watch for and questions to ask if and when you get the opportunity to have a civil conversation with the locals. Right or wrong, more data is better.”

“Do it,” Sheppard ordered. “I want to know if we have somebody out there trying to conquer the galaxy, one world at a time. Never was a fan of the Roman Empire.”

“Tony has a program zy’s been using to run simulations, and the takeover almost always works,” Ronon told them proudly.

That got a response from nearly everyone in the room, and Tony suppressed wince.

“Now wait just a damn minute!” Rodney snapped. “That’s why you wanted Kings and Clans on your computer, isn’t it? You’re playing that stupid game using the Genii tactics!”

Tony and Ronon both snorted, which made Rodney glare furiously.

“You’re HItom, aren’t you? It’s not hit-something-or-other; it’s Hawaii Tom, as in Tom Selleck, Magnum PI!” He stabbed his finger at them, and Tony had the feeling that if they weren’t sitting across the table from each other, zy would be in danger of more than just air stabbing. “You jerk! You have most of my people playing that stupid game now. I think Zelenka was cursing your name the other day, but it was half in Czech, so I couldn’t tell for sure.”

“Wait, you’re HItom? You take a third of my crops every harvest! I still owe you that specialty tree from the orchard.” John said in outrage.

Spine stiff, Carter scowled at zyr. “You’re using your work computer to play a game?”

“Uh, yes?” Tony admitted reluctantly. It had seemed like a great idea at the time. Maybe zy should have cleared it with someone first.

“You know that’s taking up space on our servers; space that could be used for scientific research. And from the sound of it, you have most of the city addicted to playing too.”

Tony stayed quiet and ignored Rodney’s smug look. Zy tried to look repentant but didn’t think it was working too well.

Carter leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms, her expression as grim as zy had ever seen it.

“You realize I’m going to have to reprimand you,” she said. She let zyr sweat it out in silence until she slowly began to smirk. “I’m not going to pay you any pears from my orchards for the next five harvests, and you can completely forget about the ‘donation’ of my mid-level preserve-maker entirely!”

It wasn’t until Rodney squawked indignantly and Ronon snorted and started shaking his head that her words actually penetrated Tony’s brain. Carter? Colonel Carter was playing the game? Not only that, she’d just implied zy had permission to keep playing!

Expression serious but zyr eyes glittering with mirth, Tony said, “I think that’s more than fair, Colonel.”

Carter’s smirk softened to a genuine smile. “In all seriousness, you’ve been using this game to map out Genii actions?”

Tony nodded. “It’s been helpful for gauging real human reactions to the various demands I know the Genii make of the worlds they acquire. There’s also a spy network, much like what the Genii have, so I know which people are being plagued by bandits and raiders—”

“Wolfe,” Ronon muttered between fake coughs.

“—and ripe for the initial deal that will allow me to get a foothold on their territory.” Tony shifted so zy could squeeze zyr husband’s thigh in warning. “What I need to do now is find another player so I can play out various scenarios where that person interferes with my empire-building.”

“This would be something to simulate what would happen if we start interfering with the Genii?”

“Right. I could have Atlantis play it, but she has never been human and doesn’t react quite the same way. She’d have an algorithm to calculate income versus acceptable losses or something. That wouldn’t help.”

“Well, nobody invited me yet!” Seung looked at Fairmont. “What’daya think, Cap’n Tea-n-Crumpets?”

The British Captain raised one eyebrow and gave a faux haughty sniff. “I think I shall have to participate simply to keep you on-task. Heaven only knows you’d end up attempting to start your own empire. I’m given to understand you Colonists have that tendency if you’re not closely monitored.”

Jamie snickered, and Major Jordan sighed, rolling his eyes at what was apparently common by-play. Tony was glad to see the quiet young Captain had a sense of humor. Jamie had told zyr she liked her team, but zy had never seen them interact before.

“Not to be too mercenary about it, but could the Genii thing actually help us regain some of the ground we’ve lost with Pegasus worlds?” Jordan asked. “I don’t mean that we should come right out and say that we’re anti-Genii takeover, but Dr. McNamara’s strategy has been working pretty well.”

Carter looked at John and raised an eyebrow.

John shrugged one shoulder. “I think it’s worth a try. I’d like to have a meeting with our two teams to go over the reports from your planets—”

John and Carter suddenly froze, then bolted from their chairs.

“The Gate is activating, and Chuck can’t stop it!” John yelled on his way out the door.

Of course, that had the rest of them up and running out the door, Tony included.

The man at the dialing console exclaimed to the two Colonels, “I don’t know! It just started dialing, but these aren’t planets we’ve explored yet.”

“Well, make it stop!” John ordered. “McKay!”

“Move!” Rodney shoved the technician out of the way and started working furiously.

“Atlantis!” Tony whisper-shouted. “What’s happening?”

//I am seeking.//

“So it is you?”

//Yes.//

Tony wanted to groan.

“Right, well, you’re freaking everyone out. Could you put in an appearance and let them know it’s you and not some Wraith attack?”

Atlantis obligingly appeared at the top of the main staircase. “Rodney, please cease attempting to interfere. This is my doing, not an attack or malfunction.”

“What?!”

Tony knew zy wasn’t the only one who winced away from the volume of the combined exclamations from most of the people in ops. Zy tried to subtly move behind Ronon, not wanting focus to shift to zyr, as it tended to do with Atlantis showed up.

As it happened, it wasn’t necessary. Everyone was far more distracted by the way Rodney went barreling through the doorway with John close behind, out to where Atlantis was standing.

John pulled Rodney back when he’d just taken a deep breath to start yelling at Atlantis.

“Hey, Atlantis. What’cha doin’?” he asked casually.

“Greetings, Colonel Sheppard. I am seeking my harvesters on the empty worlds and those nearest the asteroid belts containing the elements I require to continue restoring my physical structure. When I open the Gate, I am assessing the condition of, then sending commands to each harvester to begin its work.”

“I see.”

“Atlantis, I thought you were going to wait until you had your ZPMs to start major demolition and rebuilding,” Colonel Carter said, stepping up beside John.

“Yes. I installed them and completed the necessary diagnostics while you were in your meeting,” she said, studying Carter as if she thought the Colonel were a little bit slow. “Now I am seeking additional materials, as I said.”

Rodney’s face lit up. “You mean you’ve finished them? We – you – whatever! The city is at full power?”

“Yes, of course. I had no wish to begin major projects if I could not protect them from damage if attacked.”

“Of course,” Carter repeated faintly, eyes wide. “So we would have the energy to run the shield and the cloak simultaneously now?”

The Gate flared again, connecting to a planet. Atlantis hummed. “It seems this planet is no longer uninhabited. That is vexing but not entirely unexpected.” The Gate closed abruptly. “To answer your question, Colonel, yes. If necessray, I could maintain the cloak and shield for upwards of six thousand years. If I had to, I could submerge myself and maintain the shield and all life support functions without negatively impacting the current population for at least three thousand years.”

“Well, that’s good news, right?”

“Of course it is, Sheppard! We’re as safe as it’s possible to be in Pegasus!” Rodney beamed at Atlantis. “You’re amazing. I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating.”

“Thank you, Rodney.”

Tony was surprised to see Atlantis smile fondly at the scientist as the Gate connected yet again.

“Ah, this is the final destination that interests me presently. It is what you call a space Gate in an asteroid belt. I shall send three Harvesters, since I have not harvested from it previously. I expect it to be rich with the elements I require.”

She turned toward the Gate, and everyone turned with her. They were all eager to see what a harvester was.

As it turned out, it was a massive ball of a machine – one that was so immense Tony didn’t know how it would fit through the Gate. Of course, zy also didn’t see how it could possibly harvest anything, but the shape made more sense than the boxy little Puddle Jumpers did: a sphere was the strongest geometric structure… or so Tony had learned in freshman geometry class what felt like eons ago. Maybe that wasn’t true anymore.

The harvester floated down from the same opening the Puddle Jumpers normally used in the ceiling of the main hall. Once in place, the machine turned 45° then slipped through the open Gate with what must have been mere inches to spare all the way around. The second, then third harvesters descended and left through the Gate equally smoothly. Once the third was all the way through, the Gate closed, and more than one person breathed a sigh of relief.

Atlantis turned back to Rodney.

“I have sealed the room containing my Zed-PMs, but I will show you if you would like.”

“Yes! Absolutely!”

“Very well.” Atlantis reached out and gripped Rodney’s upper arm. They both disappeared with a flash.

“I guess this means the rest of our meeting is postponed.”

Colonel Carter side-eyed John, then shook her head in amusement. Ronon started prodding Tony toward the transporter before they could change their minds.

*~*~*~*

“Are you still considering my offer, Rodney?”

Rodney forced himself to drag his eyes from the three ZedPMs and the insane amount of data he was receiving on his computer in order to look up at Atlantis. She looked a little like a ZedPM herself, in her dress and coordinating head wrap made of gold, orange, and red cloth.

“I am, but it’s not something I can just decide overnight, you know? You want to change my brain and my DNA.”

“Yes.” She moved closer and rested her hand on his shoulder. “I understand why you are reluctant, though I continue to hope I can persuade you.”

Rodney huffed. “I have to admit it would have been nice to have known what was going on before I freaked out upstairs.”

“Now that people know of my existence, I assumed they would understand the Gate was dialing at my direction.”

It was funny that she looked so baffled, though Rodney wouldn’t ever say so. Even he wasn’t that socially inept.

“Maybe we should have, but we’ve only known you exist since early Einstein. I guess that’s about one Satedan month, though it doesn’t feel that long. Also, we’ve had a lot of things go horribly wrong before, so we’re always going to assume the worst.”

“I suppose that makes sense.” She studied him intently. “You realize you could have asked me.”

Rodney flushed. “It – it actually didn’t occur to me.”

She sighed. “I imagined not. I would have answered if you had called out to me, you know.”

“Even though I can’t Vulcan mind-meld with you?”

“Of course. I would have answered if any of you had called me. It was only when Tony asked if I was involved and then requested that I reveal I was the one causing the Gate to open and close so rapidly that it occurred to me that you would not understand what I was doing.”

“Oh. I guess I didn’t realize you’d be that open to taking a physical form whenever somebody asked you.”

“It can be inconvenient,” she agreed but pointed out. “At the moment, it is the only way I can discuss things with anyone other than Tony and Ronon.”

“You didn’t have to fix Ronon?”

“No. He is Satedan and descended from the original Kysra. His physiology was made to receive communication from the Vedaeus.”

“That’s still weird for me, trying to understand that you used to be a goddess.”

“Never a goddess, not like you mean. Nor am I that being any longer,” she admitted quietly. “In all honesty, I prefer who I am now.”

“McKay! Where are you?”

At the panicked shout through his comm, Rodney nearly fell off the awesome rolling stool Atlantis had made for him. He huffed and reached up, touching it to open the link to Zelenka.

“I’m in the ZedPM room, of course. Aren’t you getting the information I’m sending to you? Get it together!”

“Am I—? What are you—? How?!”

Zelenka descended into Czech that Rodney was certain was more insults and profanity than anything else.

“Atlantis finished the ZedPMs, so stop talking and get to work. Chop chop!”

There was another string of irate Czech, then, “I’ll chop you!” and Zelenka disconnected.

Atlantis was snickering, which almost blew Rodney’s mind. She seemed too serene and higher-being-like for such a human emotion.

“You and Radek remind me of siblings.”

“No, my sister actually hates me. Radek just pretends,” Rodney said distractedly as he noticed something. “Hey, would you look at this a second? Why aren’t these systems coming online over here?”

“Those areas have not yet been cleared. I must ensure they are safe before allowing any changes in power flow.”

Oh. That made sense.

Rodney continued moving between his computer and the ZedPM station itself, trying to understand and integrate everything he was seeing. It was exciting yet weirdly comfortable having Atlantis there with him. He’d thought she would get bored and leave, but she never did. He wondered if that was what it would be like if he agreed to let her change him.

Rodney’s eyes kept being drawn to that dark section Atlantis was essentially quarantining.

“Do you think there are more of those devices holding deadly creatures, or maybe something like that one that makes you hallucinate before your brain explodes?” His fingers paused on the keyboard. “Well, not you-you, but humans. Us.”

“I do not know, Rodney,” Atlantis replied. “There are several experimental laboratories, any one of which could hold experiments such as those you have encountered. I have barred those buildings from receiving any additional power, and they have shields surrounding them that will hold within that which already exists as well as preventing anything outside from gaining access. Not even insects or the fisher birds are allowed through the shields.”

“That’s… that’s really smart. Just because something hasn’t escaped, or something hasn’t gotten in doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.”

“Yes. I meant it when I said I would do all I reasonably could to prevent loss of life.”

Rodney went back to his readings for several seconds.

“I don’t normally like to categorize things by good and evil, but the Alterans were evil, weren’t they?”

Atlantis made a humming sound, thinking about it.

“It would be easy to assign such a word to them, but not all were. There were those who fought against the experiments that created their worst atrocities. There were even a few who protested the experimentation on my kysra.”

“Sure, but they weren’t ever the ones in power, were they?”

“No, they were not. Power is such a dangerous tool, Rodney. It is easy to forget that it is merely a tool, not an end in itself.”

Yeah, he could see that. He’d read the report where Do-gooder-Daniel Jackson was in that dream state where he made himself into a tyrant and killed his own best friend. As much as Rodney hated to admit it, he could see that if power could corrupt someone like Jackson, then it could happen to pretty much anybody.

“Is it okay if I ask why the Alterans were doing that, taking and hurting your kysra in the first place?”

Atlantis considered it, then slowly replied, “Yes. Perhaps you will share the tale with the others? It is painful to discuss, and I would request you not to ask Ronon about it at all. I would not cause him further grief over what happened to his first home.”

Rodney tried to backtrack. “Oh, well, I mean, if it hurts you to talk about it, you don’t have to.” Despite what people thought of him, he didn’t intentionally hurt people most of the time.

“It is an old hurt that will never fade, for part of the fault for what happened lies with me.”

“Wait, what?”

“You know the tale of the creation of Kysra.”

“Yeah, I was there when Tony went in to that trance.”

“Thousands of years after that, the Alterans came to Sateda, and the Satedans welcomed them. By then, the world was beautiful, the people much changed from the days of the first Kysra. Though they had not learned how to travel between the stars, they were a largely peaceful, technologically advanced society.

“They were advanced enough that they believed the Alterans when they said they wished to share their knowledge with Sateda. It was possibly even true at first, for the Satedans did work with the Alterans on refining the Stargates. All was well for a time, but then the Alterans gained the trust of those with whom they worked, and they learned of the greatest secret of Sateda: the kysra.

“As young as the Satedan culture was, they were equally naïve. Had they known of the problems within the Alteran race, they never would have mentioned the kysra much less allowed the Alterans on their planet.”

“Why? I wouldn’t think the kysra would’ve interested the Alterans. I thought they were all about increasing technology and knowledge.” Rodney couldn’t understand why the Alterans would’ve been interested in the kysra at all.

“Ah, but they were. You see, the Alterans were a dying race, even then. The plague you have heard of in the Milky Way was one designed by the Alterans themselves in their attempts to make themselves smarter, stronger, better. They were forced to take those who had not been infected and flee to the Pegasus galaxy, but they did not learn. They continued with their genetic experiments until they had altered themselves so much that they could no longer carry their own children, and the genetic defects caused by their meddling grew more profound in every generation.”

“I still don’t get why the kysra were such a big deal. Why did they want them? Were they trying to change themselves into kysra?”

“Nothing so benign, Rodney,” she said, sounding tired. “No, they wished to learn how to use the kysra as living incubators.”

“Wha—? Oh, no! That’s—that’s just vile.”

“It is, yet they started their first experiments the moment they were able to steal a kysra – someone from one of the smaller communities.”

“Didn’t the Satedans realize what had happened?”

“They noticed when the kysra disappeared, and they worried for zyr, but in their naïveté, it didn’t occur to the Satedans that zy had been kidnapped. Such a thing was so unthinkable among the Satedans that it wouldn’t occur to them until more kysra began to disappear. When they did realize, the entire planet rose up in fury.

“Of course, the Alterans denied any knowledge of the missing kysra, but the Satedan government suspected and began to deny Alterans any access to the planet.”

Atlantis closed her eyes, her whole body reflecting the intensity of her grief.

“That was when I should have intervened. I could have stopped the devastation that followed, but my pride and my fear of being Separate kept me from taking a stand against the others.”

“They didn’t want to help?”

“No. We were arrogant. We believed the Satedans should have been able to anticipate the lies of the Alterans. They should have protected the kysra at all costs.”

“There wasn’t any way they could have known!” Rodney protested.

“I am aware of that, dear one. I know that now. In that long ago time and place, I allowed myself to be persuaded against my better judgement, and thus I watched as hundreds, perhaps thousands of kysra were taken and tortured to death in the guise of scientific experimentation.

“You see, the Satedans and the Alterans were not genetically compatible. Many hundreds of kysra died as the Alterans tried to force kysra to give birth to full Alterans, then to hybrids.”

“Like trying to force a human to carry a chimpanzee to term,” Rodney murmured, feeling like he was going to throw up.

“Just so. Even then, they had to alter the kysra so that their bodies would be unable to prevent or reject fertilization.”

“Oh gods. That’s why kysra on Earth today all die if the baby is harmed.”

“Yes. The kysra on Earth are the many-times descendants of the hybrid kysra-Alteran offspring.”

Rodney thought Earth had inherited more than the genetics of its ancestors; it had inherited their prejudice. If the Alterans had thought of kysra as nothing more than breeding stock, was it any wonder that the same attitude survived the centuries to present-day Earth?

“But… but if they are, then why don’t they all remember? Why don’t they all have an Interim like Tony had?”

“More genetic alteration,” Atlantis replied gently. “We wrote the Interim into the very genetic code of our Kysra. All who descend from zyr should have the memories. If the memories do not come forward, it is because they have been genetically suppressed.”

Rodney frowned. That didn’t quite make sense.

“Tony did remember though, and that was before you fixed zyr DNA. Was it just coming here that changed zyr?”

Atlantis’ lips twitched. “Perhaps, but I think that it had more to do with zyr exposure to purely Satedan genetic material.”

“What? Exposure to…. Oh. Oh. Right. Plus zy was talking to you too. Didn’t you have to do something to zyr brain? I think I remember Tony saying something about that.”

“Yes, I did have to make repairs in Tony’s brain. I unwisely assumed that zyr kysra heritage would make zyr physically capable of receiving telepathic communication, but the Alteran and Earth genetics affected that as well.”

“So what happens if other Earther kysra start coming here?”

“I have already discussed it with the healer, Xander. We both believe it would be better to take the kysra into the infirmary so they can be monitored. I will send them to sleep and undo the genetic damage so they will be Satedan kysra once again. I will not make the mistakes I made with Tony. Zy has been very helpful in allowing me to study zyr genetic coding to see what I should have done before I spoke to zyr the first time and injured zyr.”

“I suppose it’s better to do it that way than to wait and let them get hurt if their Interim happens unexpectedly.”

“Precisely what Xander and I thought as well.”

Rodney stared blankly at his computer screen and realized that he had kysra in his family. If Atlantis changed him, it was probable that he’d have an Interim as well. He’d be Satedan in truth. He’d be Tony’s genetic family, no matter how distant, as well as zyr chosen brother.

His heart began to race as he considered the decision he’d known he’d make from the very first time Atlantis had offered it.

“I—I think I want you to change me. I’m just afraid of what Earth will do when they find out.”

“They need not find out, if you do not wish it. I realize it cannot be soon, as you humans understand the word. When you are ready, request two days off. I can alter you in less than a day, but I would like to be able to observe you the next day to make certain you are well. Simply tell me when you are ready.”

Rodney nodded, allowing himself a slight smile.

“Yeah, I’ll do that. I want…. I know I’m not a kysra, but there are kysra in my family. It feels like, as ugly as it is, this is my heritage too.”

“It is,” Atlantis said firmly. “You were meant to be Satedan. It is only right that you claim what always should have been yours.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Noetherday, YangHui 1, First Year of the Returned
(May 1, 2008)

Logan’s door chimed, alerting him to someone outside.

“Come,” he barked out, his irritation from the day coming through more than he’d have liked.

When the door slid open, he looked up from his computer and huffed a laugh. “You look more pissed than you did the day you came in here declaring your intent to commit homicide. Spouse-icide, maybe? Is there a word for that?”

Logan rolled his chair back slightly, laced his fingers and stretched his arms out over his head, trying to relieve the ache in his back, right between his shoulder blades.

Tony snorted and rolled zyr eyes. “Mariticide, if you’re killing your husband. Killing a wife is uxoricide.”

“Why am I not surprised you know that off the top of your head?”

“Because you know I’m awesome at Trivial Pursuit.” Tony slid into zyr usual chair, closed zyr eyes and cracked zyr neck.

Logan flinched. “That is a disgusting habit, Dex. You’re going to get arthritis in your neck if you keep that up.”

He hated it when people popped their joints. Knuckles, backs, or necks: it all made his skin crawl, and he happened to know Ronon felt the same way. They were working on Tony, trying to get zyr to quit the habit.

“That’s if I don’t get it from dealing with all the pain-in-the-neck people around here first.”

“Not Ronon this time, I take it.”

Logan rose and went to the nifty little Pegasus-style mini-fridge that had appeared the other day. He had to admit he enjoyed being one of Atlantis’ favorites. He snagged two of the fruit drinks – ones that were obviously not from Earth – that had appeared the day the fridge had and handed one to Tony.

“No, Ronon and I are good. I told him what you said the other day, and it helped us both, I think.”

“Good.” He twisted open the bottle and took a deep drink. “So who’s giving you the biggest pain?”

“Too many people, frankly, and all of them civilians,” Tony said, holding the cold bottle to zyr temple. “They’re stressed about the Daedalus not showing up, and it’s been long enough that everybody knows there’s a problem the Colonels aren’t talking about. It’s making them tense, which makes them snap at each other. That leads to fights, petty theft, honest-to-Pete slapping wars between a couple of botanists, and messy breakups that mean I have to supervise them while one person gets his or her things out of the other’s quarters.”

Tony slouched in zyr chair and finally opened the juice. “Swear to the Vedaeus, Wolfe. I feel like an RA in a college dorm instead of a cop.”

Logan sighed and put his feet up on his desk, something he’d never do in front of anybody but Tony.

“I’d laugh at you if I didn’t feel the same way, except instead of slapping, I’ve had more fistfights in the last two weeks than I’ve seen since I’ve been here. It’s just like you said: people are tense and at each other’s throats over the smallest things. Before you came in, I was sitting here thinking I’m going to have to talk to Colonel Carter about making an announcement. Any kind of announcement about the Daedalus is going to be better than leaving people in the dark like this.”

“That’s exactly why I came to talk to you: I was thinking the same thing about talking to her and Colonel Sheppard. People, especially people like ours, who love their numbers, facts, and action plans, need something they can pin down rather than this nebulous fear they’ve got right now.”

“Don’t I know it,” he agreed vehemently. “Most of the time, military people and scientists – and military people who are also scientists – do better with more information.”

Tony raised zyr bottle in a mock cheers, which Logan reciprocated.

The problem with smart people was they were smart, and they could come up with scenarios the average population never would. Give smart people more information, and they’d have charts and graphs and 50-slide PowerPoint presentations on how to solve the problem. Let them sit and stew in silence, and they’d kill everybody on accident while trying to prevent some impossible scenario.

With the military, they were trained to fight their way out of bad situations. However, if they didn’t know what the situation was, then they’d start to fight each other out of frustration. Give them sufficient information about a problem, and they’d dig in, make the problem the enemy, and figure out how to solve it or endure it. That was especially true with the old-timers in the city. After what they’d seen, the only thing that really scared those folks was incorrect or insufficient information.

Logan pointed out, “It doesn’t help that we’ve had so many meals supplemented with Pegasus foods that even the least intelligent, most inexperienced E-1 has figured out we’re looking at a food shortage and rationing in the very near future.”

“I know, but I was trying not to say anything.” Tony let zyr head fall back on the chair and groaned. “I feel guilty for having food that I’m not sharing, but there’s no way in hell Ronon would let me if I suggested it. If I had enough that it would make much of a dent overall, I’d argue with him about it. I don’t really have that much, especially stuff with nutritional value, so I’m just trying to make sure I always eat my food and send stuff with Ronon for the team when they go out so that I’m not taking what others should be eating, plus I feel like I’m still contributing.”

“I’d veto the sharing idea. If we hit the rationing point, you and I are probably low on the list to be rationed anyway because we’re going to have our hands full with more than minor fights, especially if people panic. Besides, no matter what happens, you’re eating for two. Don’t look at me like that! I know it’s a dumb saying, but you do need additional calories and nutrients to feed yourself and the growing kyta. Doing yourself or your kyta unnecessary harm because you’re worried about other people is stupid.”

“I swear, I’m going to have Atlantis take that damned book off the server,” Tony griped.

Logan just smirked. He knew better than to laugh at zyr. “I hate to tell you, but it wouldn’t do you any good. The doc would just put it back up again. Even if he didn’t, enough people have downloaded it that they’d just share it with anyone who wanted it. Doc mentioned to me in passing that he’s been surprised by the number of people curious about babies and pregnancy in general. He said he finally put all the parenting books on the general-access server.”

Seeing Tony’s expression, Logan added, “I haven’t read that book. I’m telling you what I remember from experience. I’d be able to annoy you even without the book.”

Tony huffed and drank zyr juice. “Why are we friends again?”

“Well….” Logan leaned his head back and pretended to think about it. He looked at Tony and said, “Because despite my irresistibly sexy, Wolfe-ish grin, you went and married Ronon. Since he can kick my ass three out of five, I decided I could settle for friends.”

That startled a laugh out of Tony, and zy finally relaxed.

“You just wait, Mr. Sexy, wolfish grin. I’ll tell Ronon you wanted to get in my pants.”

“Nah, none of your pants would fit me, especially those booty-call jeans you were bitching about the other week. You’re too skinny—well, you used to be anyway,” he teased.

Tony pouted, fat bottom lip and everything. Logan didn’t tell zyr zy reminded him more of Aaron pouting than anything else when zy did that.

“How dare you mock those jeans! I’m going to be mourning those for the rest of my life.”

“Well, at least they did the job and snagged you Ronon before you went and ruined your figure.”

Tony exclaimed, “Asshole!” in mock outrage.

Logan chuckled and tossed his empty bottle into the recycle bin.

“Let’s go talk to Carter before you start throwing things at me… like your fists. I’m just done with fistfights today.” He stood and thought the door open. “I’m pretty sure Doc Xander is done with broken noses, too.”

“Fine, fine,” Tony agreed. “Come on over tonight. You can tell Ronon how many people he’ll have for IST. That always makes him smile.”

“Good plan.” Thinking about Ronon making idiots regret their choices put a little smile on Logan’s own face, which had the added benefit of scaring the hell out of the next three people they met in the corridors. It was a win-win situation.

*~*~*~*

Serreday, YangHui 2, First Year of the Returned
(May 2, 2008)

John slipped into his office and quickly thought the door shut behind him. He leaned forward, letting his head fall forward onto the closed door and breathed a sigh of relief. It had been one of those days where nothing had gone completely right for anyone, but it all ended up rolling uphill (it was supposed to roll downhill, dammit!) until he was the one who had to deal with the fallout.

Carter had made the announcement that the Daedalus was on the way and would arrive by the 26th of YangHui. Unfortunately, that was over three weeks away, and the non-combat and non-Gate team assets were going to have reduced portions so their limited food supply would last. That had resulted in a slew of complaints and accusations of food hoarding that Dex and Wolfe had been sent off to investigate.

Which reminded John: he needed to make sure Carter had those two listed as non-rationed. Even if Tony weren’t pregnant, they’d both need the energy in the coming weeks. John knew there were days he would rather deal with Wraith than with humans, so he didn’t envy the two their jobs in the near future. After all, John could just shoot the Wraith. Command frowned on shooting the city personnel, no matter how frustrating they were.

After the announcement, John had spoken with Carter about the message she’d received from Landry more than a week before, which notified her that the SGC and IOA were going to replace both of them along with Tony Dex and a few other people. John had been furious that she hadn’t shared what she’d been told, but it had soon become apparent that Carter thought he’d received the same information.

Carter had been apologetic and horrified that she’d made the assumption when she knew how vital all information from Earth was, so he was as sure as he could be that the two of them would be keeping each other updated, even if the SGC or IOA didn’t keep one of them in the loop. They’d tried to come up with the logic behind Landry not telling John what was going on, but nothing made sense. Even if they were taking John from Atlantis, he wasn’t gone yet, and he should’ve had that same information. It made them both wonder what was going on back on Earth.

All of that had been before his team’s mission to planet summer squash, as he thought of it, and that had been the icing on the cake. The natives of the planet hadn’t exactly run them off, but they’d been invited to leave while they still had all their limbs. The four of them had taken them up on their invitation and double-timed it back to the Gate, metaphorical tails between their legs.

So now John just didn’t want to talk to anyone for a while, and he was planning to hide out in his office until the coast was clear. Everybody knew he avoided the office because it meant paperwork, which was just as evil when it was on the computer as it was when he’d had to fill it out with a pen, so they wouldn’t come looking for him there.

As if on cue, someone cleared their throat behind him.

John froze. He should’ve known better. He was pretty sure they weren’t hostile, or he’d be dead already. Maybe if he ignored it, they’d go away.

“John.”

John raised his head and slowly turned around. He eyed the man trying to spin himself dizzy in John’s office chair and the woman sitting at the small table.

“Whatever it is, it wasn’t my fault, and I’m not dealing with it until tomorrow.”

Teyla got that little smile that meant she both pitted him and was amused by him. Ronon whirled himself around, though he caught his ankle on the edge of the desk and cursed. John didn’t feel the least bit sorry for him.

Giving in, John heaved a sigh and forced himself toward his desk.

“Out of my chair, Chewy.”

Ronon bared his teeth at him.

John scowled.

Teyla sighed like she’d been cursed with caring for two pigheaded toddlers. It was a look John was used to seeing aimed at Ronon and Rodney.

John crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Ronon, determined that if they were going to have a conversation that needed to take place in his office for whatever reason, he was going to sit in his own damned chair. He knew Ronon only got petulant like this when it was something he didn’t want to talk about but thought he had to. Or Teyla had bullied him into it, whichever.

“Ronon,” Teyla snapped finally.

“Fine,” he said, pouting as he stood and shoved past John.

He flopped down in one of the chairs at the table, and John smirked and made a point of sitting in his chair and wriggling around like it was the best thing he’d felt in ages. He was actually annoyed that the seat was warm from Ronon’s big ass, but he wasn’t going to let on.

“So what’s the deal?”

“Before Ronon’s unfortunate regression to youngling,” Teyla began, earning her another pout from the man, “he and I thought of a possibility we would like to discuss with you.”

“Teyla and I talked about it. We’re not sure how you feel about scavenging, but it might help our food shortage problem,” Ronon said, all playfulness and pouting instantly disappearing.

“Scavenging?” John glanced between them, trying to figure out where they were going with the idea.

“There are many worlds that no longer have inhabitants,” Teyla said, nothing about her demeanor betraying her own opinion about what she was saying. “It is not unheard of for other worlds to take advantage of the food animals and the crops the previous inhabitants left behind.”

John sat back, frowning. “So you think we should go scavenging these worlds, taking all their stuff that’s still there?”

He really didn’t like the sound of that.

“John, you come from a world of plenty. From our discussions, I know what you call first-world nations routinely throw away more than enough to feed several Pegasus worlds. You have not had to deal with failed harvests or animals poisoned by a bad well or an adversary. Even if those things happen, there are other first-world nations you may trade with to obtain the necessary food for your people.”

Despite John’s obvious discomfort, Teyla doggedly continued, “Here, things are not so easy. If we do not retrieve the crops left behind by those who no longer need them, they will either be taken by others or rot and die where they are, serving no purpose at all. There is no world in Pegasus so wealthy that they can afford such waste… at least, none that I am aware of.”

“We know you don’t see things in the same way,” Ronon said gruffly. “The talks I have with Tony, and even the arguments we sometimes get into, have taught me a lot about how Earthers think. I know you’re looking at this like it makes you a bad person if you take stuff from dead people.”

John made a face. “Yeah, it’s not something we do, at least not where I’m from. It’s a taboo, something that would be shameful to do.”

Teyla offered him a compassionate smile. “I am aware of that, yet I have spoken with Xander enough to know what you are used to is not how all of your planet lives. People who are truly hungry either glean the fields of their fallen neighbors, or they starve and die. There are also nations where the destitute live by scavenging through the mountains of food and other products discarded by the wealthy.”

John winced. Yeah, that happened in every country, even the so-called first-world nations.

“It’s not just food,” Ronon said. He sat forward and laced his fingers together on the table. Looking down at them, he said, “One of the first worlds I want to go to is former Sateda. There may not be anything left in the city, but I can get us to my family’s farm. Even if they’re feral, there should be food animals – livestock, Tony calls them – and fields that come back from the seed the previous year’s crops dropped when they died.

“Plus there’s the stockpile of weapons I made my pater and daetor keep in a hidden vault. If they’re still there, some of them will be energy rifles like the one I used the last time I was on former Sateda.” Ronon swallowed thickly. “I would’ve inherited the farm someday anyway. There isn’t anybody left but me to inherit the rest of former Sateda, so everything that’s useful there is rightly mine, if it makes you feel any better.”

John wondered what kind of an asshole it made him that it did help if he thought about it as going to get Ronon’s stuff rather than scavenging from a once-great civilization.

“The Athosians have returned to our former planet in order to plant crops each year. We did this knowing that most would go to others, but many times we returned to harvest what we could as well. That was how we survived the year we lost our crops on Lantea.”

John winced again at that reminder. Until the meeting the other week, he hadn’t thought about what the Athosians had had to do to survive without their crops they’d planted on Lantea. He’d known he and Weir had tried to help out some, but they’d stupidly assumed they’d had a storehouse or something, even when John would’ve known better if he’d thought about it for a second.

Teyla went on, “Halling proposed the idea of returning there for harvest time this year, which comes well before the harvest on New Athos. He proposed it not knowing of the problem with the Daedalus not returning on time.”

“I’d be willing to go to former Athos and New Athos, but….” John clenched his jaw. “I’m not saying we won’t go anywhere else, but it’s hard for me to get my head around it being acceptable to go through other people’s stuff after they’re culled.”

“Don’t feel bad about it. Whether you say yes or no this time, it’ll come up again,” Ronon said so matter-of-factly that it made John feel a little sick. “Being humans in this galaxy forces us all to be pragmatic in ways that are hard at first,” he continued. “Do you think I had time to grow crops or raise food animals when I was a Runner? I stole, and I did it knowing it was wrong. I tried to hunt and glean edibles from the wild when I could, but a lot of the time stealing was the only way I could stay alive to keep running back then.” He shrugged. “I’m not proud of it, but I did what I had to. If it means feeding my meraska, kyta, and friends, then I’ll do whatever I have to now.”

John heard the unsaid even return to former Sateda.

It gutted him every time he realized anew how young Ronon had been when the Wraith made him a runner. Sateda had been destroyed in 1998. Ten years later, Ronon was about to turn thirty-one. That meant he’d been twenty, twenty-one at most when he’d lost his fiancée, his family, and his entire world. Then he’d been made a toy in a sick game for the very Wraith who’d murdered them all. It was a wonder the man was sane, and it made his devotion to Tony and almost fanatic need to keep zyr safe that much more understandable.

If Ronon could be so brave as to stay alive for ten years while believing he was the last of his people, then John could suck it up and get past his personal discomfort.

Huh. Speaking of Tony…. “You know if we go to former Sateda, Tony will want to go too.”

“Yeah, I know. I talked to Atlantis, and she agrees that zy should stay home until we do recon in a cloaked Jumper. I know the Wraith who destroyed Sateda is dead, but we don’t know how closely any of the others watch that Gate. The way that first one watched Sateda is the only reason I’m pretty confident there will still be stuff for us to scavenge there.”

Teyla offered, “I will assist you in convincing Tony to remain until we know more about the situation.”

“Thanks, but no.” Ronon declined her offer politely but firmly. “Tony’s been unhappy about people treating zyr like a youngling who can’t make up zyr own mind. I’ll talk to zyr, and either zy will stay here, or none of us go to former Sateda at all.”

Oh. That made sense, actually. John was probably guilty of doing it too. He knew he’d caught himself being surprised by something Tony did when he wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been an XX or XY. It sucked to realize how much of that kind of thinking was still in him. He’d have to tell Tony it was okay to give him a reality check whenever zy noticed it. That way, zy’d know he was trying to change and wouldn’t be as offended, or so he hoped.

“Since we don’t know what we’re getting into there, let’s talk to Halling about going to former Athos first. I remember there’s that Alteran structure there, too. Let’s find out from Atlantis if she can connect to it through the Gate like she could her material harvester things. If that place has any power or sensors, it should be able to tell us more about what’s going on there on a day-to-day basis. I don’t want to take any risks that aren’t absolutely necessary.”

“I agree,” Teyla said with an understanding smile.

Ronon just nodded grimly. John suspected his mind was back on former Sateda. He couldn’t blame him.

*~*~*~*

Chernday, YangHui 4, First Year of the Returned
(May 4, 2008)

Atlantis’ gentle voice called Tony back from the depths of slumber.

//Tony, wake. You wished to be awake when Rodney arrived.//

Tony’s lashes fluttered as zy dragged zyrself to full consciousness and realized that zy was curled beneath zyr favorite blanket on the sofa in the piano room. Zy sighed and rubbed the soft blanket against zyr cheek, not quite able to force zyrself to open zyr eyes.

The blanket was a Korean mink done in tones of gold, bronze, and brown. It, along with the traditional wedding gift of carved Mandarin ducks, had been a gift from Myung-Dae and Eun-Kyung, one of the very few married couples on the city. They had been delighted when Tony later told them that the ducks were displayed bill-to-bill, since that denoted harmony between spouses, on a shelf in the same room as Tony’s beloved piano.

Finally forcing zyr eyes open, Tony was surprised to see Rodney sitting on the piano bench, but turned to watch zyr with a concerned expression instead of playing.

“Hey.”

The gentle expression fled, and Rodney scowled at zyr. He crossed his arms and demanded, “Are you sick?”

Tony blinked, zyr eyebrows drawing down into a slight frown. “Um, no. Why?”

“You were asleep, but it’s not even 2000 yet.”

Tony arched zyr back and stretched hard enough that zy felt a couple of vertebrae pop into place.

“Oh, that felt good, damn,” zy mumbled. Another deep breath that turned into a yawn, and Tony forced zyrself to sit up, pushing the blanket to the side. “I’m not sick, Rodney. I’m pregnant. Haven’t you heard Ronon whining about how I fall asleep at the drop of a hat? Wait, I’m pretty sure I’ve bitched about it, and it’s not nearly as bad now as it was. I didn’t feel tired when I sat down in here.”

“Maybe you mentioned it, but I probably wasn’t listening.” Rodney narrowed his eyes further and stared zyr up and down. “You’re sure that’s all it is? I could call Xander for you.”

Tony did zyr best not to roll zyr eyes.

“No, Rodney. This is perfectly normal, and Doc will only get the super serene, terribly amused expression he gets when neurotic people ask him about my health. Then he’ll refuse to tell you anything about a patient, and he’ll direct you to where he put every single parenting book he had on the servers because he was sick of putting them on individual drives for people.”

Tony suspected that some of those people were more curious about what pregnancy would be like for themselves rather than about what zy was going through. Zy truly wished somebody else would get pregnant just so people would stop looking at zyr stomach like they were waiting for zyr to suddenly look like zy swallowed a watermelon all the damned time, but that was another matter.

“Oh.” Rodney’s shoulders relaxed, and he uncrossed his arms, loosely curling his fingers around the lip of the piano bench beside his thighs instead.

“How far along are you?”

“Ninety-three days, as ahh—” Another yawn cut zyr off. “As of this morning,” zy finished.

“Isn’t that three Earth months? Does that mean you’re in your second trimester now?”

“Yep, technically as of day 90.”

“I thought that meant the first trimester stuff ended and you’d be fine for the next three months.”

Tony allowed zyrself a little smile when Rodney flushed. If he hadn’t read any books, he probably wouldn’t have known that little bit of information.

“Sort of. Everybody and every pregnancy is different. Usually the nastier side effects lessen for the next while, but that doesn’t mean they all go away completely. I sincerely hope I’m not going to pass out in Wolfe’s office when I’m talking to him about cases again,” (and hadn’t that been embarrassing,) “but I’m still making another human being inside me, and that means my body is working harder than it normally would be.”

Rodney was watching zyr, his brows furrowed in confusion, so Tony tried to explain it in a way that would make sense to him. “Think of it like this: if you’re injured – you break a bone, get shot, get sick, whatever – you’re really tired for a few days or even longer, right?”

“Well, yeah. My body has to heal either internally, externally, or both.”

“Right. You’re building skin, muscle, bone, antibodies, or whatever. Well, my body is doing that for nine months. I’m working to help the kyta build all zyr skin, muscles, bones, blood, nervous system, antibodies, and organs – everything that it takes to form a complete human. Plus, the only nutrition zy gets is directly from me. That’s work.”

Rodney’s eyes had gone wide, and when Tony finished, he exclaimed, “That’s insane! I mean, I knew that. Of course I knew that. But what are you doing awake? You should sleep more. Hurry up and go back to sleep! Right now! I’m going to tell Ronon to make you sleep more!”

“Rodney!” Tony laughed, holding up both hands. “Chill, buddy. I’m fine. I promise I’ll sleep whenever I need to.”

Rodney eyed zyr skeptically.

“Okay, how about this,” Tony relented. “I’m probably going to regret this, but I’ll give you permission to ask Atlantis if I’m taking care of myself. I’d say you could ask Ronon, but knowing the way you two can’t agree on the color of the sky, he’d get all offended. Just ask Atlantis instead. Though if it gets to be excessive, I’m going to cut you off, got it?”

“Fine.”

“Good.” Tony reached zyr arms over zyr head and indulged in another long stretch. “How about you? Are you taking care of yourself? You’ve been so busy with all that testing for that bridge thing that I didn’t know if I’d see you tonight.”

“Radek chased me out of the lab,” he admitted, his shoulders slumping. “He said I needed to go have piano time, or he’d strangle me with his bare hands. He didn’t even bother to curse at me in Czech, just English so he knew I’d understand it. I think it was because I made Miko cry. I didn’t even mean to this time!”

Tony sighed, noting the bags under his friend’s eyes and the tightness around his mouth.

“I know this is an important project. I definitely picked up on that when you yelled at me when I brought you supper the other night.”

“What? I did not! I don’t remember you bringing me anything!”

“You did, but I wasn’t offended. I know how you get wrapped up in these things. Believe me, I understand,” Tony hurried to explain. “I’m worried about you. I’ve been worried about you. That’s why I decided to wait in here tonight just on the chance that you’d come by.”

“You waited for me?”

For the thousandth time, Tony wanted to go back in time so zy could kill the McKay parents, then finish raising little genius-Rodney with Ronon. Even after months of friendship and even standing as Tony’s best man and brother at zyr wedding, Rodney was shocked that Tony liked him enough to make a point of getting to see him.

“Of course I waited for you. Here,” zy said, holding out zyr hand.

Rodney gave zyr a perplexed look, but gave zyr his hand readily enough— which Tony used to yank him off the piano stool and onto the couch with zyr.

Rodney squawked indignantly, but Tony ignored it, pushing and prodding him into place, then cuddled against his side. Zy didn’t put zyr head on his shoulder like zy would have done with Ronon. Zy thought that might be pushing it.

“What are you doing?!”

“Oh, just calm down,” Tony told him. The poor guy had gone completely rigid. “You’re exhausted. Take a little time to relax and talk to me, then you can play the piano while I make you some food, and then you can go back to running yourself into the ground.”

“Ronon—”

“Ronon would be fine with this, even if he were going to be back before second moonrise. He’s out with the Athosians doing… something. Something useful, I’m sure.”

“He didn’t tell you?”

“Oh, I’m sure he did. I just wasn’t paying attention. I heard Athosian, and I told him I had plans. There’s only so much adulation Magical-Unicorn-Kysra Tony can take.”

Rodney snorted and relaxed in increments. “Well, what can you do? You’re an avatar of the Vedaeus—ouch!

“I’m not an avatar of anybody,” Tony grumbled, though zy did pat the area he’d pinched just above Rodney’s knee in semi-apology.

“You’re worse than Zelenka,” Rodney whined. “At least he just slaps my hand if I annoy him. You’re like my sister.”

It was Tony’s turn to snort. “Oh, I am way less bitchy than your sister. I know that much from what you’ve said about her, plus your own ability to bitch people into submission. Getting the Gibbs-slap to the back of the head for years and then having Ronon tell me he doesn’t like playful hitting or slapping for his own reasons… I guess I trained myself to pinch instead.”

“Oh, fine. I’d say your husband is a big sissy, but he’d find out and kill me in my sleep.”

“I doubt that, though he might insist on giving you self-defense lessons again,” Tony retorted, amused.

There was a comfortable silence that had Rodney relaxing further until he was a malleable lump between Tony and the arm of the sofa. When Rodney yawned, Tony wasn’t completely shocked to see the wide footstool that went with the sofa start to slide slowly closer. Tony just sighed. It seemed Atlantis thought Rodney needed to sleep too.

“Hey, can you bring the footstool a little closer?” Tony asked when zy thought the footstool was within range.

Rodney made a snuffling sound that made Tony wish zy hadn’t said anything. He’d probably been more than half asleep.

“Wait, what?” he mumbled. “Where—was that there when I came in?”

“No, it walked itself over here, Beauty and the Beast style, but without the barking,” Tony said truthfully, but with a hard edge of sarcasm so Rodney wouldn’t believe zyr. “I think you can get your toes under the edge and bring it over here so we can put our feet on it.”

Rodney grumbled, but did as Tony had asked. He sighed happily as he stretched out, making Tony smirk.

“Oh,” Rodney said, “Ronon told you his birthday is tomorrow, right? I think I was supposed to ask you a few days ago, but I forgot.”

“Ronon didn’t tell me, but yeah, I know.”

“What are you getting for him, more people to beat up on?”

“You really want to know?” Tony asked mischievously. Zy had plans for the morning, but zy was guessing that wasn’t what Rodney meant.

“Yeah, ‘cause I have no clue what somebody like him would want. Just the PG version of whatever you’re planning.”

“Well, I know you don’t think Ronon is very smart, but he really is. A few of those e-books I had you sneak through the last time we opened the Gate to Earth are for him.”

“Really?” Tony could hear the surprise in Rodney’s voice even if zy couldn’t see his face because his head was starting to droop the other way. “You ordered a bunch of stuff in Spanish and Italian.”

“Yeah. Ronon’s thoughts on the English language can be summed up as ‘stupid’ and ‘illogical.’ We’ve talked about other Earth languages, and I think Spanish will be the easiest for him to learn next. It’s logical, mostly consistent, and there are markings to put on the words where the rules don’t fit. There aren’t nearly as many idioms as English has, though there are more than Satedan has, I guess.”

“Huh. I read tons of computer languages, and I understand some Russian from when I got exiled there, but I don’t really speak any other Earth languages. It wouldn’t surprise me that English is a stupid language. Look how many politicians speak it fluently. That has to mean something.”

Tony snickered. In some ways, Rodney had a very black-and-white world view: people were either stupid or they weren’t. He’d never met a politician who was also an expert at the hard sciences; ergo, all politicians were stupid. Also, politicians had prevented him from doing things he’d wanted, and the IOA frequently tried to mess with the way Atlantis was run, which just reinforced his opinion.

Instead of commenting on any of that, Tony said, “I once heard someone say that ‘English is a language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages, and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary.’”

“Probably talking about American English, then. Americans are ridiculously rude,” Rodney griped, making Tony bite zyr lips so zy wouldn’t laugh. “What else do you have for your cave-Dex? I can’t think books are the only things you’ve gotten.”

“Well, there is one other thing I can tell you about, especially since we’ll need you to move the file to the Tower server afterward.”

“What? What are you doing that needs a computer file?”

“We won’t need one; we’re making one,” Tony clarified. “We’re going for our third appointment tomorrow, and I got Doc Xander to agree to let us watch the kyta for an entire half hour.”

“Well, okay. That will make a larger file than normal.” Rodney was quiet for a few seconds, then said, “I don’t get why that’s a big deal. Is it soothing or something, like watching fish?”

“Rodney!” Tony let out a startled laugh.

“What?! Watching fish is supposed to be very soothing!” he protested. “Zelenka wanted to get a tank for the lab until I told him I would bypass his door security and cover his head with that pink goo stuff while he slept so he’d lose the rest of his hair. I don’t know what he possibly could’ve been thinking. He had to know stupid people would somehow break the tank and destroy all our equipment, and then where would we be?”

“Haven’t you looked at the files?” Tony asked, ignoring Rodney’s mini-rant.

“Of course not!” he exclaimed, shifting so he could glare at Tony. “I’d never invade your privacy like that.”

Tony patted his shoulder and nudged him back into place, still grinning.

“I didn’t think you would, but there isn’t anything you shouldn’t see on the files.”

Tony would know. Zy and Ronon had replayed them both enough that even Atlantis was bored with them.

Rodney huffed. “Oh. Well. I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to accidentally see you naked or something.”

“No, nothing like that. It’s just the kyta.” Tony wondered if Ronon would be irritated if zy shared the files with Rodney. Zy didn’t think so, since they had shared the printouts with the team already. “Atlantis, could you bring up the first—”

She cut zyr off with an aggrieved, //Yes. Perhaps it will make Rodney sleep.//

The familiar pinkish image appeared.

“This looks just like those pictures you showed me.”

“Yeah, this is the one I had my eighth week. At least you didn’t gasp and yell, ‘Tony, you’re having an Asgard!’ this time,” Tony said wryly.

John was still giving zyr shit about that, though not in front of Ronon because he’d decided he and John needed to start sparring more after the last time John had tried to tease Tony about it in front of him.

“Don’t be so touchy! I was concerned.”

Tony rolled zyr eyes, then smirked when Rodney jumped the first time the kyta kicked out zyr tiny feet.

“Yeah, Ronon and I were seeing this in real-time. We were surprised zy moves as much as zy does.”

“It’s kinda cute, for an alien-looking thing.”

Tony snorted.

“Atlantis, the one from just before week twelve, please?”

The file was replaced without additional commentary from the city.

“This one was a little early because we wanted to schedule it for our day off. Xander said we can’t do that every time, but he’s willing to try to work with us within the bounds of reason, except he didn’t define that. I guess we’ll wait and see.”

“This wasn’t that long ago. I thought you were going every month.”

“Yeah, we are. Xander made an exception – again – so we could have this next one on Ronon’s birthday.”

“Ears! Zy has ears now!”

Tony grinned. “Aren’t they cute?”

“Now they are, but you better hope zy takes after you. Ronon’s ears stick out a lot. It’d be best if the baby got my ears, but that’s not genetically possible, so I guess yours are the next best thing.”

Tony stared at the side of Rodney’s head incredulously before chuckling.

“Geez, Rodney. Never change.”

“What?” he asked without looking away from the video. “How big was zy here?”

“Nine centimeters. That’s a little larger than average, which is about 8.5 – about the size of a peach.”

“Kyta’s pater is larger than average, so I’m not surprised,” Rodney muttered.

“Yeah, and I’m big for a kysra, so it makes sense that zy’s on the higher end of average. Doc X said at that appointment that zy had finished forming all zyr organs and everything, so zy was going to start putting all zyr energy into growing bigger, and I believe it. Just a couple weeks ago I could have passed as having a beer gut. I don’t think that’ll work now.”

Rodney turned his head to look at zyr abdomen. He lifted one brow. “Yeah, that’s not a beer belly. You definitely look knocked-up.”

Tony rolled zyr eyes. “Aw, thanks, Rodney. You say the sweetest things.”

“It’s the truth,” Rodney said, shrugging one shoulder. “Can I ask you a stupid question?”

“I doubt it’s stupid, but sure.”

“Why do kysra measure two weeks behind women for pregnancy?”

Whatever Tony’s expression was, it made Rodney go on the defensive.

“Oh, fine. Yes, I read that stupid book Xander put on the server! I was curious, so sue me!”

“Rodney, chill,” Tony said, trying to calm him before he went on a rant, or worse, got embarrassed and left. That had happened a couple of times in the past. “First, I appreciate that you care enough about me to be interested. I know how much you have on your plate all the time, so it means a lot that you took the time out of your schedule to read something you probably wouldn’t have if we weren’t friends.”

“Yeah, well…” Rodney shrugged again, but his cheeks and the tips of his ears were pink.

“Second, it’s not a stupid question at all. It didn’t make sense to me until Doc Xander explained that women don’t usually know the date they conceive. Even though they know when they had sex, or at least a likely date if they’re with a long-term partner, they don’t know the exact date of conception, which can be up to couple of days later because of how their bodies work. That means they start counting their pregnancy with the first day of their last period. Ovulation usually happens about two weeks after that, so that means they start counting at least two weeks before they could become pregnant.

“We kysra don’t have to do that. We know exactly when we conceive.” Tony frowned as zy tried to find the words to explain it. “It’s not anything I can quantify, which I’m sure is annoying to you. All I can tell you is that the morning I conceived, I had a big rush of hormones that made me feel kind of high. Even without the hormones, I’d have known. It sounds stupid when I say it, but I just knew that I was pregnant with the same kind of certainty that I knew the sun would come up.”

“That is weird, but it does explain why your baby is doing stuff that a female’s baby wouldn’t do for another two weeks,” Rodney said, settling back into the sofa.

 “It doesn’t have anything to do with how the babies develop, just how doctors count the weeks. It’s also why the doctors have to keep refining the due date as they watch the baby develop. Kysra just get one date. It might change as much as two or three days, but that’s it.”

“This is why I like science, real science and not that medical stuff that pretends to be science. Real science is predictable. If I tell you I can make a shield hold for nine minutes, thirteen seconds, then it will hold for exactly that.”

“Yeah, but you’re brilliant. Not everybody can do that, even in ‘real’ science, Rodney,” Tony said fondly.

They watched the video of kyta Dex for a while longer, and Tony recognized when it started to replay. Normally Atlantis didn’t loop it unless zy or Ronon asked her to.

“Pretty,” Rodney commented. “Still kinda alien, but pretty too.”

Rodney’s tone was odd, so Tony snuck a quick look, and zy noticed the time between when he blinked and when he opened his eyes was getting longer. Well, Atlantis would be pleased, and Rodney did look like he needed the sleep.

“Y’know, watchin’ the kyta is kinda relaxing. Maybe a lil’bit like watching fish, but not. ‘Cause it’s your baby. I wouldn’t like it if it were somebody else’s baby. It probably wouldn’t like me either.”

Tony eyed the blanket, then reached out slowly for it, grasping it between two fingers and pulling it closer slowly. If zy could get it over him, zy would put money on Rodney falling asleep. It was nearly impossible to stay awake under that thing.

“Your kyta’ll like me, right?” Rodney asked plaintively. “Jeannie’s don’t, but that’s b‘cause she hates me. Yours‘ll like me, even if Ronon doesn’t, right?”

“Of course zy’ll love zyr Uncle Rodney,” Tony soothed. “Mini-me will need you to teach zyr real science so zy can grow up and become an astrophysicist just like you.”

“M’kay,” Rodney agreed, his eyes closing and staying that way.

Tony drew the blanket up around them both. There was no way Rodney would sleep if Tony got up, so zy sighed and settled in for another nap. Zy consoled zyrself with the thought that zy would need the extra energy for the non-PG plans zy had for Ronon tomorrow.

*~*~*~*

Keplerday, YangHui 5, First Year of the Returned
(May 5, 2008)

Ronon was dreaming. He knew he had to be, but he fought waking because then the wonderful touches and the wet heat rubbing over his cock would stop. He could feel his hips working, trying to get inside that tempting heat. He somehow knew it would be the tightest, hottest place he’d ever put his cock.

Ronon heard a low chuckle and was drawn closer to waking.

“C’mon, caro,” a voice he’d recognize anywhere crooned. “Parts of you are definitely awake. Time to bring that brain of yours online too.”

His lashes fluttered, and he opened his eyes to see his kysra’s smirking face over him. Zy was straddling his hips and grinding zyr ass against his cock. Ronon groaned and blessed The Five for giving him such a wonderful meraska.

Ronon lifted his hands to rest on zyr thighs.

“In,” he grunted, unable to say anything more coherent.

Tony’s smirk widened, but zy didn’t tease. Zy reached back and steadied his rock-hard cock, then sat back, slowly taking him inside zyrself.

Ronon’s eyes rolled back. He groaned.

Tony said something, but Ronon was too busy reveling in the hot, slick clench of zyr body around his to listen. Rolling zyr hips slowly, Tony began to ride him. Pleased words that Ronon couldn’t be bothered to translate and soft hitches of breath were a clear indication zy was enjoying zyrself.

Ronon let his eyes stay closed and used his hands to see his meraska’s body: zyr strong thighs, the left one with the scar from a bullet years ago, tensed and relaxed as zy moved over him. Zyr beautiful ass, which fit just right in his hands. The dip of zyr waist that was no longer unhealthily thin. The rounding between zyr hip bones, which couldn’t be mistaken as anything other than a growing kyta anymore. Then zyr ribs, which finally had a healthy layer of flesh, expanded and contracted with every panted breath.

Tony halted Ronon’s explorations and laced their fingers together, then pinned Ronon’s hands to the bed beside his shoulders and stopped moving entirely.

Surprised, Ronon grunted. His eyes snapped back open.

Tony gave him and evil grin. “There you are. Though you might go back to sleep.”

“Never. Just love touching you, proving to myself how well I know you, know your body.” Ronon made another disgruntled sound and thrust his hips up. “Move, dahrym.”

Tony leaned closer, bringing their lips together in a sweet, loving kiss that told Ronon he’d said something right. As if he didn’t know better than to say he kind of had been dozing and enjoying letting Tony do all the work. Ha! Ronon had been clever enough to woo a kysra; he definitely was smarter than that.

When Tony lifted zyr head, zy was smiling happily. Zy began riding him again without letting go of his hands.

“Love touching you too, husband. Almost thought you were gonna come before you woke up,” zy purred, rocking faster and letting zyrself drop onto Ronon’s pelvis, the sex going from pleasurable to hot in a flash.

Ronon growled and drew his knees up until his feet were flat on the bed. That gave him the leverage he needed to snap his hips up, forcing his cock deep and hard into Tony’s cloa the next time zy dropped down.

Zy gasped, zyr head going back, zyr jaw dropping.

“Cheater,” zy accused.

In response to Tony’s breathless accusation, Ronon bared his teeth in a predatory smile. Tony reflected the expression back to him, and anticipation filled him.

The air was filled with grunts, groans, and bitten-off curses as they worked together to bring each other to climax. Each breath Ronon took was filled with their combined sweat, arousal, and the distinctly salty-sweet scent of Tony’s slick as zy drew close to orgasm. Tony was so hard zyr cock was slick with precome, but zy refused to let go of Ronon’s hands so zy could bring zyr off first.

“Come, dahrym. Let me feel you come,” Ronon begged, his own orgasm practically sitting on his back teeth.

“You first,” Tony demanded.

Zyr thighs were shaking, zyr whole body shuddering every time Ronon’s cock grazed zyr prostate. Even if zy didn’t come first, Ronon knew it wouldn’t take much. With that knowledge, Ronon could allow himself to let go, to give in and let the wave of pleasure crest and crash through him. He felt his balls draw tight, and he started to come. With each pulse, his stomach flexed, and he grunted. Tony’s cloa became slicker as he emptied himself into zyr.

Nearly blinded by his own orgasm, Ronon heard Tony cry out as zy was seized by zyr own climax. He was able to get one hand free so he could grasp zyr cock and milk every last drop of come from zyr, prolonging zyr internal contractions.

With one last shudder, Tony collapsed over him. Ronon freed his other hand and cupped the back of zyr head as they caught their breath, and their bodies cooled.

When he could breathe again, Ronon hummed contentedly.

Tony lifted up on zyr elbows and leaned in for a kiss, which Ronon happily gave.

“G’morning, caro. Happy birthday.”

Ronon’s heart grew light, filled with joy. He traced Tony’s eyebrow and drew zyr back down, saying, “Having you in my life is a better gift than any I could have imagined.”

From the look in Tony’s eyes, speaking that truth had earned Ronon round two.

*~*~*~*

Teyla finished braiding her hair so the breeze would stop blowing it into her face. She tied it off with one of the clever elastic bands she’d traded an Earther for, then leaned into Evan’s side and sighed contentedly. Evan looked down at her and smiled, sliding his arm around her before turning back to listen to the end of Tony’s strange story about a criminal who broke into a woman’s home simply to grill a sandwich of cheese and Cheetos, whatever those were, then sit in a hot bath to eat it.

She caught Ronon’s gaze from across the way. He raised his eyebrows, widened his eyes, and gave a barely perceptible shake of his head before laughing obligingly when all the Earther guests did.

Well, at least Teyla wasn’t the only one who still thought Earthers were less than sane at times. She would think she finally understood them, then someone would tell of something that occurred on Earth, and she would realize how very strange they were yet again. Even people who had lived in the city long enough that she no longer thought of them as true Earthers would frequently do and say things that baffled her.

Of course, she had adopted enough of their turns of phrase and expectations that her own people thought her quite odd now. Perhaps it was just as well that Atlantis was rather obviously pushing both Earthers and Athosians toward becoming one people who would be known as the Satedans.

A fisher bird called out, and another answered it from a different part of the city. The grey birds with their long, red bills always became more active and noisome in the early mornings and when the second moon began to rise, as it was doing now. That had taken some getting used to when the birds had first discovered the city, but now it was a comforting sound.

Teyla’s gaze landed on each of her friends as they sat together on Ronon and Tony’s courtyard. It was good to see them all laughing together. She slipped her hand beneath the blanket, which Tony had gotten for her earlier when the cool night air had made her shiver, and laid it on Evan’s thigh. Perhaps she and Evan were quieter, but they were no less happy than any of the others.

Teyla was glad for the opportunity to see Ronon and Tony together in an informal setting. Tony had planned a birthday celebration for Ronon and, in addition to Ronon’s teammates, had invited Evan, Sgt. Major Wolfe, Colonel Carter, and Chief Poisson. There were just enough people that Teyla could observe Ronon and Tony together without being obvious.

So many months ago when Ronon had first posed the idea of going to Earth to bring back a kysra, Teyla had worried for him. She had feared that he would be disappointed. How could he not be, when Earthers were so strange, so different from the people of Pegasus? Too, she feared he was trying to replace the betrothed he had lost on Sateda. Teyla knew well that such an attempt would be doomed to failure.

Her worry had not abated after Ronon had returned with Tony. Zy was beautiful, true, but beauty meant little in Pegasus. Strength of character was far more important, and what kind of person would be willing to give up zyr entire life to go to another galaxy with a virtual stranger? One night of passion did not make a stable relationship.

Teyla had feared that Ronon would dedicate his whole self to making the kysra happy, but zy would not have the same devotion to him. More than anything, she had feared that Tony would decide zy could not cope with the reality of Pegasus, and zy would return to Earth, taking with zyr Ronon’s kyta and his heart. Teyla knew her friend would not survive such a loss.

So when Teyla met Tony, she saw zyr as more a symbol than a person. She saw zyr as a sign that there was hope for the future, hope the Vedaeus would return to them. However, she remained reserved and watched to see who this person truly was, kysra or no.

What she had observed since then pleased her greatly.

In the weeks and months following zyr arrival, Teyla had learned that while zy was something of a jissa that could transform itself to blend in and appear to belong among any school of fish it chose, Tony never hid zyr devotion to Ronon. Not even when the others were teasing zyr about zyr physical desire for zyr husband, as their friends were doing presently.

“Oh yeah? We’ll see if you get your computer fixed the next time it just ‘falls off’ a desk,” Rodney griped, waving his hands and pointing as was typical of the man. He rolled his eyes. “As if we don’t all know exactly how that happened.”

“Wasn’t that the second time you’ve had to fix that computer for Tony?” John questioned with false innocence.

“The second for this computer, but only because the first one was a complete loss!”

Tony’s cheeks flushed. Zy ducked zyr head and laughed with them.

“Well, can you blame me? You have met my husband, right?” Zy gestured to Ronon, zyr hand moving up and down to indicate the entirety of his body. “Do you really think I’m going to say no to him no matter where we are?”

“The kitchen, the office, the TV room,” Ronon started to list, his hazel eyes sparkling with mischief.

John groaned, “Never gonna sit on that sofa again.”

Tony smirked. “The piano—”

“Don’t remind me! I’m still traumatized!”

“Sheppard’s office that one time—”

John abruptly stopped laughing. “Wait, what?”

“Almost Rodney’s office that time we were waiting for him to get back, but Zelenka walked in.”

“NO! Oh gods, why?!” Rodney wailed, looking up into the night sky as if for help.

“That was just in the last week.”

Cheeks still pink, Tony shrugged. “If you can’t handle the truth….”

John made a face. “But my office? Really?”

Ronon and Tony looked at each other, then burst into laughter.

“Okay,” Ronon admitted. “That might have been a lie.”

“Your office is still safe, John,” Tony snickered, leaning forward to move another glass to hold down the edge of the cloth that was covering the leftover cake until they either ate it or took it inside.

The wind was gaining quite a bit of strength with the rising of the moons. It made Teyla wonder if there were a storm on the horizon, despite the bright, sunny day they’d had. It would not be the first summer squall that had surprised them since moving to the planet.

John heaved a dramatic sigh of relief until Logan Wolfe stretched out his legs and drawled, “Yeah, right. Tell that to someone who didn’t have to delete the surveillance footage of the two of you in the hallway outside Sheppard’s office. Couldn’t you have waited until you were inside the room?”

“Nope,” Ronon and Tony said in unison, both grinning widely.

“You’re kidding, right?” John looked pained.

Wolfe smirked, then tossed back the last of his hot chocolate, licking his lips when he was done.

“Oh, come on. I sign your paycheck! Well, I don’t really, but I’m sure I do something important that makes it so you get paid!”

“I guess you’ll never know.”

Even Colonel Carter was laughing.

“John, I believe our friends are practicing the art of ‘trolling,’” Teyla said, taking pity on him. “Tony explained this to me as saying something deliberately provocative in order to elicit a specific response from one’s audience.”

“She’s right,” Ronon confessed. “You and McKay are so funny, it makes it hard to resist.”

John crossed his arms. He looked to Rodney and raised one eyebrow.

“Don’t look at me. You know Atlantis will never let me shut off their hot water. That’s not to say I won’t try.”

“Aww, c’mon!” Tony protested, though zy didn’t look too bothered if the way zy was snuggling against Ronon was any indication. “You guys started it with giving me crap about fixing my computer.”

“Fine,” John huffed. “We’ll call it even if I get another piece of cake.”

“Go for it. You guys can take the rest home, if you want,” Tony said. Zy patted Ronon’s stomach. “I made two, and this guy ate a lot of the first one as soon as I got it frosted.”

“Hey, being this old takes more calories!”

“Old?!” Colonel Carter exclaimed. “If you’re old at thirty-one, what does that make me?”

Wolfe cut in, “Gorgeous and brilliant; the same as every other day.”

Carter’s eyes grew wide, and she turned bright red.

Wolfe blinked like he hadn’t meant to say anything and was surprised at the words that had come out of his mouth.

Teyla hid her giggles against Evan’s chest, but the others weren’t so discrete.

“And that is how you give a woman a compliment,” Tony proclaimed.

Ignoring the others, Wolfe smiled at Carter. “Sorry if I’m out of line.”

Carter cleared her throat. “Um, no. Not if you meant it.”

“I don’t say things I don’t mean,” he murmured.

The air grew thick with tension until Tony stretched zyr arms over zyr head and made a production of yawning.

“Well, hate to kick you guys out, but it’s gotta be done. It’s time for bed for all Curious Georges who want to see the tanricu tomorrow.”

It took very little time for everyone to be chivvied out the door – or into the transporter, more accurately. Teyla had to wonder if things would be awkward between the Sgt. Major and the Colonel, or if the attraction ran both ways.

Deciding it was none of her business, though she would be pleased if Colonel Carter found a companion whom she could trust, Teyla turned her mind to Tony’s last comment.

“Curious Georges?” she inquired as she and Evan strolled back to their quarters, hand-in-hand.

“I think it’s a kids’ book about a monkey – an Earth animal. I assume so because I saw one on the bookshelf my sister keeps for her kids. I don’t really know anything more about it.”

Teyla hmm'd. “If it is something meant for children, then perhaps we could obtain copies for the city. I doubt Tony and Ronon will be the only ones to have children. Perhaps even the Athosian children would enjoy hearing such tales.”

“I’ll look into it.”

Once in their bedroom, Teyla began to unlace her top.

“Here,” Evan came up behind her, sliding his hands beneath hers. “Let me help you with that.”

Teyla thought about very little for a long while after that.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

Gaussday, YangHui 6, First Year of the Returned
(May 6, 2008)

John looked around the command center and the Gateroom, where an unusual number of people seemed to be loitering. John knew exactly why they were there: AR-4 was returning from Verubriga. Every time Major Teldy’s team came back through the Gate, more people seemed to be in the general vicinity, trying to catch any information they could about the not-dragon planet.

That morning was worse than usual because the high priestess had agreed to negotiate with them, but she had demanded a meeting with their leader in their city before she would finalize anything. Nothing Teldy and her team said dissuaded her. John privately thought the priestess didn’t believe they had a female leader. Surely it wasn’t the first time people had tried to lie to get them to trade their valuable aknata.

While having a delegation come to Atlantis from another planet would normally be out of the question, without the Daedalus bringing supplies on time, and with a projected arrival date over two weeks away, the city was desperate for a source of meat, and a massive source at that. They were making inroads trading for other products on other planets, they’d started hunting and fishing for themselves, and harvesting from former Athos had certainly helped, but Verubriga was their best hope for large quantities of red meat.

The entire city knew the Daedalus was fine but had been significantly delayed, yet despite the initiation of rationing, very few knew how serious the situation was. When she’d announced the start of rationing, Colonel Carter had made it clear she’d be right there with them on restricted rations, since she wasn’t on a Gate team, nor was she a combat asset. That had gained her a lot of respect from the vast majority of people, who realized she wasn’t going to be one of those leaders who cut the supplies for others but went on eating surf-and-turf herself.

John was glad the Lorains were arriving if only because it kept people focused on that rather than their worries. The people who’d found they had work that couldn’t possibly be done anywhere but in ops (or somewhere else that coincidentally had a line-of-sight view of the Stargate) were there because they were excited. Part of the credit or blame for that excitement could be put directly on Tony Dex’s shoulders, since zy had been the one to enthusiastically repeat Ronon’s and Dr. McNamara’s descriptions of the not-dragons to anyone who asked. Add to that the high probability that the high priestess would bring one with her, and everyone in the city tried to come up with an excuse to be there. Even Sgt. Major Wolfe didn’t look too annoyed to be standing around. Normally, he had no patience for the pomp and circumstance that went along with a meeting between dignitaries.

John was pretty sure everyone on the city thought Tony wanted a tanricu. John thought Tony was more fascinated by the idea of them than anything else, which was completely understandable. Zy had said something to the effect of not wanting to clean a litterbox that big. However, John didn’t know if he could expect that to last if the opportunity arose for Tony to trade for one. Heck, being kysra, zy probably would just need to tell the Lorains zy wanted one, and they’d be happy to offer zyr a selection of sizes and colors.

“Oh crap,” John whispered in horror.

Colonel Carter, who was standing next to him, turned to him with a questioning look.

“Tony can never, under any circumstances ever, be allowed to go to Verubriga.”

Carter smirked, her blue eyes teasing. “Just figured that one out, huh?”

John frowned. “I thought you were only mean to McKay.”

“Oh, I am,” she retorted with an evil grin. “Hey, maybe you should go bug Rodney until the Gate lights up.”

A quick glance revealed the Chief Investigator to be in what was doubtlessly a riveting conversation with the Chief Science Officer. (And if anyone believed that, John had a real nice bridge in London he would sell them.) Even if John had believed Tony was doing something essential, the long-suffering expression on Ronon’s face would’ve given it away. There was no question in John’s mind that Ronon was chaperoning the two just to make sure Tony didn’t somehow magically call to the tanricu through the Stargate when it opened.

“Is that being mean to me or to McKay?” he asked skeptically, staring back at her.

Carter’s grin widened. John took that as her saying she was being mean to them both.

“Fine. Be that way.”

John sauntered over to the ops station where the three were talking … well, Tony and Rodney were talking. Ronon was leaning against the station, suffering not-so-stoically.

John manfully refrained from snickering at Ronon’s pain. Despite Tony’s close friendship with Rodney, Ronon found the scientist frustrating at best. Feeling a little mischievous, John decided he was going to torture all three of them before the delegates arrived. The ops station was just at the edge of the doorway, so he’d have plenty of time to get back in place before anyone actually walked through the Gate.

Evan Lorne, still on Carter’s other side, shot him a knowing look.

“Hey, guys. Important talk?”

There was a stereo version of yes was followed by Ronon’s lone no, which earned him a glare from the other two.

“Well, if it’s so important it can’t wait, maybe this isn’t the place to have it. For some odd reason, there are an awful lot of people around today.” John tucked his hands into his pockets and continued innocently, “Don’t you have an office yet, Tony?”

“No,” Ronon grunted, scowling. “We should go find zyr one. Now.”

Tony elbowed Ronon and gave John a congenial smile. “Not yet, but that’s okay. Rodney and I weren’t discussing anything top-secret, so we’ll just finish up right here. I’m fine with using that office a little way from Wolfe’s if I need to have a private discussion. I moved the stuff into a corner, so now I have all four chairs free.”

Ronon grumbled something John purposely didn’t listen to, having long ago learned to tune him out when he insulted Rodney and vice versa. Rodney looked like he wanted to stomp on Ronon’s foot, but he thought better of the idea before he could actually do it. The man did have a functioning self-preservation instinct.

“Well, that doesn’t quite seem fair. Does that seem fair to you, Ronon?”

“Nope. Has to be a real office for Tony around here somewhere. Let’s go look.”

John had only opened his mouth to reply when the Gate lit up. He sent an apologetic look to Ronon, who sighed, and got his ass back to Carter’s side just as the event horizon stabilized.

Chuck confirmed AR-4’s IDC, and then Major Teldy, her team, the high priestess, two human guards, and three creatures John had to assume were the renowned tanricu walked through the Gate and came to a stop just far enough away for the wormhole to collapse.

The tanricu had made it through the Gate, but they were seriously pissed off about something. He and Evan both moved in front of Carter as all three of the beasts rose up on their hind legs and made a horrific noise that was a cross between a scream and a roar. Everyone within hearing distance winced and covered their ears except for the three Lorains. The women had turned and were petting the things, talking to them. Though John couldn’t tell what they were saying, he assumed they were trying to get them to calm down.

The one on the right, whose coloring went from dark, glossy green on its back to light, yellow-green on its belly, flapped its gigantic wings and struck out at the Gate itself with a stream of fire.

John sucked in a deep breath. He was going to be seriously pissed if one of them broke their Gate!

It didn’t take the priestesses long to soothe the tanricu, despite John’s worry. The three creatures took their places beside the human women and somehow folded their wings until they were sitting back on their haunches, kind of like a bird on the top of a post, and their wings were folded up behind them. The middle of the wing bent so the tanricu could use the middle joint, which had three, taloned toes, John noted, to balance on the floor. He thought they looked a little like football players balancing on their knuckles at the starting lineup, except they were sitting down rather than standing with their asses in the air.

The tanricu on the left might have been the most intimidating, with its blue-black scales that faded to a soft orange on its belly, except that it and the green one were about two-thirds of the size of the middle one. John assumed the really big tanricu was the high priestess’. It was a deep, shiny purple that looked almost like it had red at the edges of its scales in one light, but then looked like it had blue in another. Even its belly was that same, duo-chrome color rather than fading to something lighter.

Objectively, the tanricu were pretty, in a predatory sort of way, but their talons and pointed snout – which John knew was for snapping the spine and breaking the bones of the aknata – had John’s balls trying to crawl up in his body where they’d be safer. Not safe, but safer.

The three women weren’t anything that unique. There were two brunettes and a blonde, and they were all lean and muscular. Their hair was intricately braided tight to their heads, and they wore close-fitting, brown leather clothing. The only thing that was different was they didn’t have any jewelry or metal of any kind that John could see. All the fastenings to the clothing looked like the same leather or cording.

John made the mistake of looking over at Tony and had to cover a laugh by clearing his throat.

Tony was grinning from ear to ear, zyr eyes fixed firmly on the tanricu, and zy was, well, cooing at them. They had all been warned that the tanricu were sacred to the Lorains, so any act of violence toward them was an act of violence toward the high priestess herself, but Ronon sure looked like he wished he could blast the things and put an end to a very large, carnivorous threat.

John would have to take Ronon a bottle of Zelenka’s moonshine to help him drown his sorrows later. If John happened to have a couple drinks too, well, that was just him being a good teammate. Nobody should drink alone. It had nothing to do with the women and their terrifying, weird-ass pets that would be on the city for the next couple of days. Not at all.

Once the tanricu were settled, Carter, Lorne, and John all moved down the steps as planned. Major Teldy led the Lorain group toward them, the tanricu using that same wing joint and talons to help them walk, and they all met in the middle.

Teldy and her team stepped to either side and bowed first to the Lorains, then to Carter.

Teldy turned back to the priestesses. “High Priestess Faerl, I present to you Colonel Samantha Carter, the leader of Atlantis. Ever loyal by her side are Colonel John Sheppard and Major Evan Lorne, my commanding officers.”

Teldy turned to Carter, “Colonel Carter, I present to you High Priestess Faerl. Companion by her side is the whirlwind Mair, Swiftscream. Ever loyal at her back are Priestess Theyrn and Priestess Drusta with their windsisters Deathsbane and Stormclaw.”

John forced himself to control a shiver. It was unnerving to be stared at by three sets of reptilian eyes… eyes that had more than just animal intelligence behind them. Swiftscream – and what the hell kind of name was that?! – ignored him and focused on Carter. Deathsbane, the black and red-orange one, and Stormclaw, the dark green and yellowish-green one, seemed to stare first at him, then at Lorne. It was really fucking creepy, if he did say so himself.

And he did. Loudly and with profanity, if only in his head.

“Welcome to Atlantis, High Priestess Faerl, Mair Swiftscream—” John was proud of Carter for only pausing minutely before she said the tanricu’s name. How had they forgotten to ask Teldy what the damned not-dragon’s name was? “—we are pleased to receive you to the city of Atlantis.”

High Priestess Faerl gave a solemn nod. “It pleases us to be received by you.” She paused and looked at her tanricu, which had been flaring its nostrils above the beak-like tip of its snout. “The windsisters would know your scent.”

John had been a whole lot more comfortable with this little get-together before there were as many tanricu involved, but Carter went ahead and extended both hands, palms up, to Swiftscream. The tanricu stretched out its neck and huffed in Carter’s scent long enough that John was getting worried, but the creature finally pulled back and gave a long, rumbling growl that seemed to vibrate the whole room. That was bad enough, but then the other two took up the sound, and John tensed, prepared to cover Carter if one of them went after her.

Faerl chuckled, her dark eyes glittering with amusement. “That is the sound they make when they are pleased. Your Major Teldy called it a purr.”

John was going to have to have a little talk with Teldy. She’d said the tanricu purred, but she sure as hell hadn’t described it as the bone-rattling noise Swiftscream and the others had just made!

“Forgive us. We’re not accustomed to tanricu, as Major Teldy must have told you. We were unprepared for them to be so loud,” Carter apologized. “Please, let me escort you to the conference room we set up. We have refreshments, though I’m afraid we didn’t anticipate more than one tanricu, so we might have to send for more.”

“Not necessary, Colonel Carter. The tanricu only eat every few days, or they become dull and sluggish. Too much food also affects their agility in the air, which can be deadly when they fight or hunt. Unlike humans, tanricu eat only when they become hungry. You may offer them sustenance, but please do not be offended if they do not eat.”

Well, that was comforting. Sort of. John just wasn’t going to think about what could happen if one of them happened to get a little peckish. John liked all his limbs where they were, thanks. He was kind of attached to them in their current configuration.

Damn, he’d have to remember that one to share with Rodney later. Teasing Rodney with bad puns was almost as much fun as teasing Chuck about hockey being a second-class sport.

“Of course. I’m happy to have the chance to learn more about the tanricu. It is a privilege to have them here.”

Carter offered Faerl an apologetic smile, which John didn’t get until she spoke again.

“High Priestess, I only ask that you have patience with us. In many ways, my people are still young and learning to be a people of Pegasus as well as people of Atlantis. We have no wish to offend, but we are very curious about our fellow beings.”

Oh, Teyla must’ve worked with her on that line. It seemed like Faerl liked it, though, because she nodded and gave Carter a pleasant smile.

“We were all young once, Colonel Carter. I will explain any misstep that causes offense. Let us never be divided over a misunderstanding. It is well our peoples are governed by women, rather than men who are ruled by pride and hormones, so we may avoid such things.”

Okay, prideful and overly hormonal weren’t the worst things John had ever been called. So far, so good. He just hoped he wouldn’t have to spend too much time around the tanricu before the trade agreement was ironed out.

*~*~*~*

Rodney scowled and barely restrained his urge to punch Zelenka. Well, he wouldn’t really punch him, but he might put a virus in his computer.

“No, no, no! If you make it a sweep, even for specific size, you will capture everything from crops to insects to small rodents!” Zelenka snapped. “I am thinking you do not want to repeat the Great Vole Infestation from two years ago. You remember what they did to all the wiring we had stored in warehouse seventeen.”

Rodney grunted, which was as far as he was willing to go to acknowledge that Zelenka might have a point.

“Atlantis said her harvesters work by harvesting the specific chemical compound or element she wants. They automatically move over the terrain – or through space, like that asteroid belt – and take in whatever they find. Then they separate the elements she wants and leaves behind the refuse. That would be ideal.”

“Even better would be to leave behind refuse and follow with another beam that worked it back into the soil. Disking, I think it is called in English. Would make for richer soil for planting the next crop.” Zelenka pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose with one finger. “If we had aknata or other livestock on mainland, parts of plants not used for human food could be fed to these animals.”

Rodney would have to take his word on that. He didn’t know much about agriculture, nor did he really want to. What he wanted was something to harvest fields without putting a bunch of people out there with scythes and the primitive machines Pegasus had. They had gotten very lucky on former Athos, but that wouldn’t last. Harvesting that way had taken a week, even with Earth and Athosian people working together, and the Wraith would end up culling people sooner or later.

Probably sooner, with the way the galaxy was going.

Rodney already planned to go back to former Athos to investigate the Alteran structure. Atlantis hadn’t been able to get anything from it, and it had been eerily dead to the Jumper instruments, but he hoped there would be something interesting (yet not deadly) inside it. Even if the structure were totally dead, it might be possible to take sufficient power crystals to give it enough power to turn it into a surveillance device so they could monitor the planet.

The Athosians were going to continue planting and harvesting what they knew to be fertile soil on a planet with a fairly moderate climate, which meant the rest of the city would be right there with them because New Sateda hadn’t been investigated nearly enough to know what the soil and dangers were like on the mainland yet, though doing so had jumped to the top of the list for the various biology sub-departments. Much to Rodney’s chagrin, Zelenka had been the one to point out that if they had surveillance on the planet, they could open the Gate to check in rather than leaving people there or sending people in Jumpers every time. It would be a much safer way to do things.

“We’re going to have to find a way to have the harvesters sample whatever it is they’re supposed to be harvesting, especially if it’s something as small as a grain of wheat or whatever,” Rodney concluded.

“Ah, yes. Scan function, then harvest function. This makes sense.”

“Of course it does. I thought of it.”

It would still expose people because someone would have to obtain the sample of whatever grain, fruit, or vegetable they wanted so it could be scanned; however, the risk would be minimal compared to what they were stuck doing now. They’d only have to land the Jumper, grab a sample, scan it, then scurry back into the Jumper and switch the harvester from scan to harvest.

Zelenka ignored that statement and gave him a cautious look. “Perhaps we should also program in all Earth foods. Just in case.”

Rodney hmm’d. “Especially coffee beans.”                        

“Yes, yes. Very true. Perhaps we grow them on the mainland and must harvest them.”

They both were perfectly aware that wasn’t all they wanted their harvester to do. At some point, Rodney was going to figure out a way to get it to Earth. He’d already contacted his investment manager and had her look into buying large swaths of land in various countries. He planned to pay people to plant and care for wheat, corn, oats, potatoes, and more, depending on the climate. Then Rodney would collect the harvest and smuggle it to Atlantis. If he had anything to say about it, they’d never have to depend on the Daedalus for staples like flour, potatoes, and sugar again.

Watching people around him have their portions reduced while his remained the same because he was on a Gate team was unexpectedly painful. He blamed Tony for making him feel things for people. It was inconvenient, even if Tony and Teyla had started giving him warm smiles when he said something they thought showed he was feeling compassionate or something else nonsensical. Just because he didn’t want people to starve, no matter who they were, didn’t mean he actually cared about them. What a ridiculous notion.

“It’s going to have to work through the cloak,” Rodney commented casually. “We can’t have the Jumpers just flying back and forth over a field and not expect them to draw attention from the Wraith or someone else.”

Radek didn’t look at him, but he could tell they were thinking the exact same thing: they didn’t want someone claiming they’d seen aliens harvesting crops on Earth. It would be just their luck that they’d accidentally out the entire Stargate program, and then Rodney would be exiled back to Russia, if he was lucky. If not, he’d be counting the bugs in whatever deep, dark hole they threw him in.

“Which means the harvesting beam must be invisible, not a bright light as the Wraith culling beam or Asgard beaming tech. This is also a good idea.”

Rodney didn’t bother to say anything to Zelenka’s grudging admission. He just allowed himself a smug little smile. They’d figure it out. They always did.

*~*~*~*

Casimirday, YangHui 7, First Year of the Returned
(May 7, 2008)

Tony was disappointed zy hadn’t been able to get a closer look at the tanricu. It was especially tempting now that zy’d caught a glimpse of them. Zy understood why Ronon didn’t want zyr anywhere near the deadly creatures, and zy honestly agreed about not wanting to get up close and personal with them, but that didn’t mean zy didn’t wish zy could see them a little closer than from behind the protective, clear barrier that divided the central ops area from the staging area.

Zy and Ronon had talked about it, and they didn’t know what kind of abilities the creatures had other than the obvious talons and teeth, nor did they know how they or the priestesses would react to meeting a kysra. Kysra ventured off Sateda so rarely that there was no way to know if the Verubriganians who would be coming would’ve met one at all. Plus, Tony would prefer not to find out zy smelled like the tanricu version of Kibbles ‘n Bits, as unlikely as it was. That was why zy’d had Atlantis beam them both into their apartment after getting that first look. Zy and Ronon hadn’t even gone running on their usual route in the central city the next morning, since they knew the Lorains and the tanricu were there somewhere.

It was only after Tony realized zy had left zyr work tablet in Wolfe’s office the previous day that Tony decided zy wanted to take a chance and stretch zyr legs to go get it.

//Are you certain you do not wish me simply to retrieve your tablet? I could do so easily, and Ronon will worry if he knows you have left your home while there are non-Satedans here.//

Tony stopped at the door to the transporter. Maybe zy should just have Atlantis get it for zyr.

//Besides,// Atlantis continued, “you should wait, as I am working on something that requires a great deal of my focus and energy. I will not be able to rescue you if you get into trouble.//

Okay, that rubbed Tony completely the wrong way. Zy knew Atlantis didn’t mean it like it sounded, but it still made zyr feel like zy was a toddler whose parent wanted zyr to hold her hand instead of wandering off.

“No, I want to go myself. I’ll take the back corridors so I don’t see anyone.” Zy stepped into the transporter and pressed the first location zy wanted. “Just don’t tell Ronon, and he won’t know until he comes home tonight. He’ll be cranky for a little bit, but then he’ll get over it.”

//After you have Separated from me and spent what you call ‘naked time’ with him. This I do not doubt,// Atlantis retorted dryly.

Tony couldn’t help but snicker as zy hurried down the hall to the next transporter. The door closed behind zyr, and zy pressed the location of the next one zy wanted.

“Probably. I know what Teyla said, and it doesn’t seem like we’re going to end our nal atan any time soon.”

//A statement of such truth, it could be used as the measure of all others.//

Tony laughed out loud, delighted that Atlantis had started teasing zyr instead of being so serious all the time.

“Oh, come on! We do other things too!” Tony protested, still laughing, as zy jogged down the corridor to the next transporter and pressed the last location.

//Yes. You also sleep.//

The transporter doors opened, and Tony darted out into the hall. This was really the only section zy might see anyone, since it was actually within the central tower, but it was unlikely enough that zy thought zy’d be fine.

Of course, as zyr luck seemed to go, at the same time zy jogged around the corner, zy heard mentally, //No, wait! Kysra!//

Zy physically heard, “Please stop, ma’am. We’re not going that way, so you don’t need to clear that area for the high priestess.”

Unable to stop quickly enough, Tony slammed directly into another person, sending them both to the ground. Zyr exclamation of “Oh, shit!” blended with whatever language the other person shouted. At the same time, the voice from before cursed and said, “Colonel Sheppard, could you please bring your party to my location immediately? We have a situation.”

Then there was the furious growling that seemed to vibrate Tony’s entire body.

Zy looked up into a blonde woman’s furious, snarling face. She was wearing the tight leather clothing zy’d just seen yesterday, and she had a black tanricu scale on a leather thong around her neck. Tony cursed mentally as zy realized zy had literally run into exactly whom zy had been trying to avoid. Why hadn’t Atlantis warned zyr before zy had gone running into the junction?!

The woman had zyr pinned to the floor, a deadly-looking knife raised and ready for attack.

//Tony!// Atlantis was nearly frantic in zyr mind.

“I’m okay, not hurt or anything,” zy said to Atlantis and the unknown woman. “If you are too, would you mind not killing me now? Look, no weapons on me at all—” which was just stupid on zyr part, since there were unknown people on the city, “so you can see this was just an accident, right?”

The woman lowered her hand with the knife but continued to glare at zyr with icy blue eyes, her teeth bared, as if deciding if zy was worth the bother of killing.

“Ma’am? Ma’am! Please don’t do that! Dex isn’t a threat to you or your high priestess,” the young Marine said urgently.

“Uh, look. I’m really, really sorry. I need to watch where I’m going more… and I will definitely do that from now on. Do you think it would be okay if I got up now?”

//I will retrieve you, Tony.//

“No, don’t!” Tony exclaimed at Atlantis, then added, “Don’t worry, I mean. How about you? Are you alright?”

It was at that point that Tony got to see a tanricu a whole lot closer than zy wanted to. The thing stuck its pointy snout with all its razor-sharp teeth bare inches from Tony’s face. It smelled like hot sand and ash, making Tony wish zy could hold zyr breath. The last thing zy needed was to puke all over the nice, terrifying lady.

“Awww, shit. Ms. Death Bane, please move back from the civilian. If you’re hungry, we just brought in some excellent osturk that I would be happy to have brought to you,” the Marine offered desperately. “If you’d like more of a challenge, we have the fisher birds outside. There’s a balcony just a few meters down the other way. You and your sisters could all go for a fly if you wanted to.”

The tanricu flared its nostrils and abruptly went silent. It nosed its human companion off Tony and leaned over zyr itself, sniffing its way down zyr chest. When it got to the Bump, as Tony had been calling where zyr pregnancy had truly started to show, it stopped and pulled in a huge gulp of air. It let out a softer growl that didn’t sound nearly as angry.

Tony continued trying to diffuse the situation with humor, “I would love to get up now, preferably before your friend decides I taste good with ketchup.”

“She has none of this ketchup.” The woman’s voice was harsh, like she’d gargled with gravel. “Nor is Deathsbane hungry.”

“Okay, that’s probably good. She wouldn’t like me anyway. I’d be all fat and gristle and hardly any muscle at all. Plus it would get her scales all messy.” Tony paused and looked between the two. “Does that mean I can get up now?”

The woman gave a single, sharp nod, so Tony rolled onto zyr side and started getting slowly to zyr feet about the same time two more tanricu and their human companions, along with Carter, John, and Lorne came streaking into the junction from another corridor. Tony barely missed landing flat on the floor yet again.

“Theyrn, we heard Deathsbane.”

Deathsbane. Wasn’t that just a cuddliest name that ever cuddled? Tony desperately wanted to go back fifteen minutes and rethink zyr decision not to have Atlantis bring zyr the damned tablet.

“Uh, that would be my fault, sorry,” Tony apologized. “I didn’t think anyone would be in this section, so I wasn’t watching where I was going when I left the transporter, and I was in a hurry. I kind of ran into, uh, the priestess – sorry I didn’t catch your name – in the junction and knocked us both off our feet.”

“Are either of you injured? Do we need to go to the infirmary?” Carter asked pragmatically. Only the tightness of her features betrayed her anxiety.

John was doing his best to glare a hole in the Marine who had been escorting the first priestess. The Captain looked like he wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else, really.

“No, I’m fine.”

“I am uninjured.”

The high priestess – or so Tony assumed, since she’d been the one in the middle when zy’d briefly seen them yesterday – narrowed her dark eyes at zyr.

“Then why was the windsister so furious?”

“Deathsbane and I were both surprised and reacted strongly. She calmed instantly after taking this one’s scent. It is my confusion at her calming that you sense, not any injury.”

Tony found zyrself the focus of everyone in the corridor, tanricu included. Zy was tempted to joke that zy really had showered that morning, so zy couldn’t smell that bad, but zy was pretty sure it was not the time for jokes of any kind. Humor didn’t seem to be working too well for zyr so far.

“Swiftscream,” the high priestess said without looking away from Tony.

The largest of the tanricu prowled toward.

John took a breath to object, but Tony wrenched zyr gaze away from the priestess’ and met his eyes. Zy pressed zyr lips together, trying to psychically will him to understand they shouldn’t screw up negotiations over an accident. Zy didn’t think the tanricu would hurt zyr – the other one hadn’t – and Atlantis had gone silent in zyr mind, apparently willing to wait and watch for the moment.

It was strange for Atlantis not to have any opinion on the matter at all, but Tony wasn’t going to worry about her until zy had to.

Swiftscream – and there was another gentle, cuddly name – pressed its, or her, Tony supposed, since that was how the priestess had referred to the tanricu, snout directly against Tony’s chest, making zyr jump back.

“Ah, hi there, uh, Swiftscream,” Tony tried to laugh off zyr reaction. “You’re a friendly gal, huh?”

Swiftscream snorted, then started pulling in Tony’s scent just as Deathsbane had. Tony forced zyrself still and endured it until the tanricu started huffing against the Bump as long as zy could stand it. Zy put both hands over the Bump and took a half-step back.

“Look, could you just…not do that? Your breath is really hot. I hadn’t expected you to be so hot. But I should have, what with the whole breathing fire thing.”

Swiftscream made a low, rumbling sound, and the third tanricu sild behind Tony, preventing zyr from backing away any farther. Tony could feel the heat of her through zyr clothes, which felt strange but not uncomfortable. Zy was nudged back toward Swiftscream. She snuffled Tony’s belly over zyr hands one last time, as if proving that she could no matter what zy thought about it, then backed up enough Tony didn’t feel in immediate danger of being eaten.

All three tanricu started to rumble-purr. The high priestess was frowning as she stared down at where Tony was protectively covering the Bump.

“I have only ever seen the tanricu respond thusly when they encounter a woman with child.” Her dark eyes came back up to pin Tony in place. “But you are no woman.”

Tony swallowed. Oh, fuck. Ronon was going to kill zyr. This was exactly what they’d been trying to avoid. Just that morning, they had again talked about not wanting any of the other cultures to know kysra existed yet.

“You’re right. I’m not.”

“Yet the tanricu never lie, and they are never wrong. All react as if they believe you prepare to bring forth a life from within you.”

“Lifebringer… well, uh, that’s….” Tony scratched zyr neck and winced. “That’s, uh…. Lifebringer is one name for my kind.”

“Impossible!” hissed the third priestess. She was glaring so fiercely that Tony wondered if she were part tanricu… or maybe related to the original Medusa and about to turn zyr into stone.

There was no way Ronon wasn’t going to find out about this, if Atlantis hadn’t already ratted zyr out. Tony thought it might be prudent to make sure he knew zy was alright, if in a bit of a situation. With Tony’s luck, Ronon would randomly decide to go back to the apartment and discover Tony was gone. If zy was being honest with zyrself, zy just wanted him there with zyr, too.

“Um, would somebody mind notifying my husband, please?”

//I already told him what has transpired, and he is on his way. Shall I assist him?//

Huh. Atlantis had an interesting combination of angry-resigned-guilty going on.

“The sooner, the better. He’s going to be furious with me for sharing our secret as it is.”

Moments later, the transporter opened, and Ronon came storming down the hall, only to backpedal when all three tanricu put themselves between him and Tony. They snarled menacingly at him, Swiftscream opening her mouth and making a screaming noise at him, appropriately enough.

Oh yeah. That was just great. If Tony lived through this, Ronon was never going to let zyr out of their apartment, and zy wouldn’t even be able to say zy didn’t deserve to be locked up.

“Hey, now, guys… er, ladies. That’s my husband, so please leave all his parts arranged the way they are right now.” Even if he is trying to stare you down and make you get out of his way through sheer force of will, zy added silently.

Deathsbane cocked her head. Tony hesitated, but then reached out and touched the blue-black, metallic-looking scales on her side.

“Wow, you’re really warm. Your scales are more like armor plating, and they’re as smooth as they look too. But. Uh, that’s not the point… which is please don’t eat my husband.”

Deathsbane twitched her head, her golden eye rolling to the side to see zyr better.

“Uh, mate? Is that a term you understand better? That is my mate, so please don’t hurt him.”

Tony wasn’t sure if zy or Ronon was more shocked when the tanricu grumbled but stepped aside to allow Ronon through. He rushed to Tony, grabbing zyr shoulders and giving zyr a look of fear and anger that nearly screamed, what the fuck are you doing away from the apartment? We had an agreement!

“Are you unharmed?”

“I’m fine,” Tony put both hands on Ronon’s chest and tried to calm him. “I’m fine. We’re fine. We’re all fine.”

Ronon dropped his gaze and placed one hand protectively over the Bump. He studied zyr face once more.

“Are you sure? I was told there was an accident, and you fell. Let’s go see Doc Xander and make sure.”

Tony put zyr hand over Ronon’s. “We’re fine, I promise.”

“How?” the high priestess demanded. She pinned each of them in turn with her furious gaze. “How is this possible? The entire galaxy knows the kysra are gone.”

“I was in hiding. Ronon came to that planet and somehow found me.” Tony offered her a careful smile. “I think the Old Ones meant for him to find me. No one else had ever come to that place to look.”

The priestess whirled to face the others and demanded, “This is true?”

“Yes. I was on the same planet when Tony was there, but I never saw zyr until Ronon introduced us.”

Tony could admire John’s neat little spin-doctoring. No need to make anyone think there were more kysra they could go get.

The priestess – whose name Tony still didn’t know – studied John and Carter, then turned back and studied Tony for long enough that it made zyr want to ask Atlantis to beam Ronon and zyr out of there.

Finally, she ordered, “You will come to Verubriga five days hence. You will come: you, your mate, and your leader. If the other tanricu also believe you are kysra, then Verubriga will trade with the Lanteans. We will hunt for you; we will teach you to make the best use of the aknata; we will be your sisters. As I say, so it shall be.”

Tony dug zyr fingers into Ronon’s arm when zy could tell he was going to object.

“Thank you for the offer, High Priestess. Does this please my leader as well, Colonel Carter?”

Though she was put on the spot, Colonel Carter didn’t flinch.

“I am happy to accept your offer, High Priestess Faerl. I must ask that none outside of the three, rather, the six of you learn about Tony before we make our visit. Our peoples have a common enemy who would like nothing better than to find out such information.”

“The Wraith,” Faerl hissed. The three tanricu growled menacingly at the word. “Yes, as you say, let it be. We six Verubriganians will speak of this to no one. Swiftscream and I will wait at the Ring to receive you ourselves when you arrive.”

“Then I am pleased to accept your offer, High Priestess,” Tony said.

Zy leaned in slightly and lowered zyr voice. Zy knew zy wasn’t saying anything the others wouldn’t be able to hear, but the idea was to connect with the priestess on a subconscious level to make her think she had Tony’s confidence.

“I will tell you another secret: this city is Atlantis, but our people are the Satedans. If you are our sisters, then you are sisters to Sateda reborn.”

A slow smile curled Faerl’s lips, a fierce joy lighting her eyes.

“Then let it be so, let us be sisters, Kysra.”

*~*~*~*

After escorting the six Verubriganians to the Gate, Colonel Carter took one look at Tony and Ronon and dismissed them, saying she’d speak to them later. Ronon grunted at her, and Tony could tell it was because he was so furious he was beyond words.

Zy allowed Ronon to guide zyr with a hand on zyr back into the transporter, where they were immediately transported home by an abnormally silent Atlantis. No matter how furious, Ronon’s touch was careful, which was something different from anyone else Tony had ever pissed off in the past.

As soon as they stepped out of the transporter, Tony turned to Ronon and opened zyr mouth to apologize.

“No,” Ronon snapped.

He closed his eyes and held up one hand. When he opened his eyes, he took a breath and managed to actually form words that didn’t sound like they’d been dragged out from behind his teeth with a crane hook and the Jaws of Life.

“Tony, you know how you tell me what you need, and I do whatever it is?”

Tony nodded warily.

“What I need is you to let me be really fucking pissed off for a while. I need to hit something and get through being angry, and then I need to sit down and talk with you. I need you to be within sight for a while too. Can you live with all that?”

“Yea—” Tony cleared zyr throat. “Yeah. I can do that.”

“Okay.” Ronon touched his hand to Tony’s waist and directed zyr in front of him. “Workout room.”

The workout room had been Atlantis’ gift to Ronon on his birthday. It was a room with a weight machine, a kickboxers heavy bag, an stationary bike, and two treadmills so Tony and Ronon could run together without going outside if they didn’t want to. The heavy bag was what Ronon went to after doing a quick-n-dirty tape job on his hands.

Atlantis silently transported Tony’s track pants, t-shirt, socks, and running shoes beside zyr. Tony didn’t want to just sit there, so zy took the hint and changed quickly, then started one of the treadmills. Zy knew Ronon would be able to see zyr reflection in the mirror-like substance that made up the walls, and he’d be able to hear the treadmill and Tony’s footfalls on it to know zy was still there. Tony had already done zyr usual six miles that morning, so zy set the speed to a little faster than zyr normal walk and let zyrself zone out.

There was a part of zyr that was frustrated at the circumstances because it was just a damned tablet! It wasn’t like Tony had been running around trying to get into the locked labs or searching out the Lorains on purpose. Zy hadn’t been trying to do something stupid, like lurking around the conference room where they were having talks. Zy had taken care to stick to the back ways, and zy honestly hadn’t thought zy would run into anyone much less a fucking tour!

Yeah, Atlantis had said she was doing something, but really? Wasn’t she aware of the city all the time? Why the hell had she not alerted zyr that there was a big-ass tanricu and her even bitchier human counterpart headed Tony’s way?

Then there was another part of zyr that understood why Ronon was so angry. That part knew what they’d discussed and felt guilty for putting zyrself in a dangerous situation unnecessarily. That part of zyrself was tempted to set the treadmill to zyr fastest speed and force zyrself to run until zy felt like zy had been punished enough, but Tony really was trying to work past the urges zy sometimes got to punish zyrself, hence the slightly fast walk.

As it was, it took over an hour of Ronon beating the shit out of the heavy bag. Tony had no doubt he would have seriously bruised hands.

When Ronon finally stopped, he steadied the bag with his hands and leaned his forehead on it, panting. He’d lost his shirt only minutes into his unplanned workout, and sweat had soaked his hair and was dripping from his face and body, making his skin glow golden. His chest was still heaving as he slowly regained his breath.

Once he was calmer, he straightened up and turned to where Tony had shut off the treadmill and was standing beside it, watching Ronon silently, zyr whole body tense with anxiety.

“Come, m’kysra.” Ronon held out a still-taped hand. “Please come shower with me.”

Tony silently moved to Ronon’s side and took his sweaty hand. They walked to the bathroom and stripped off their clothing in silence, Ronon ripping off and disposing of the tape on his hands. Having showered with Ronon enough to know what zyr husband liked, Tony let him wet himself and his hair, then zy held up the shampoo bottle Ronon liked best, raising both eyebrows in question.

Ronon nodded and closed his eyes, standing perfectly still as Tony lathered his hair, massaging the herbal-scented shampoo into the roots and then guiding Ronon under the spray so zy could rise it out. Zy repeated the action with the conditioner, spending quite a long time massaging it into Ronon’s scalp and the ends of his hair.

When zy was finished rinsing out the conditioner, Tony was a little at a loss. Zy had never dealt with a lover who was angry at zyr, silent, yet wanted zyr near him. Zy started to step back, but Ronon caught zyr with his hands at zyr waist. He stepped in and brought their bodies together, his hands sliding around zyr back, one down to cup zyr ass, and the other up to the middle of zyr back.

Tony closed zyr eyes and leaned in, resting zyr head on Ronon’s shoulder. Zy could feel Ronon resting his cheek against Tony’s head. It was a familiar position, a loving embrace they had shared so many times before, but this time it felt like there was an open wound between them. Tony didn’t know how to fix it.

“I’m sorry,” zy whispered, barely audible over the spray of the water.

“I know,” Ronon murmured back. “Me too.”

Ronon heaved a tired sigh. “Let’s get dressed and grab something to eat.”

“I’m really not hungry.” Tony was pretty sure zy would puke if zy tried to eat anything.

“Okay. Later for that, then.”

Letting go caused an almost physical pain, but Tony sucked it up and forced zyrself to do it.

Dried off and in what Ronon called ‘soft clothes,’ they settled together on their bedroom sofa, both sitting sideways with one leg under them so they could face each other.

Ronon reached out and took Tony’s hand where zy was scraping at zyr thumb with zyr second finger.

Tony looked up and searched his eyes. “Can we talk about it now?”

“Yeah,” Ronon immediately agreed. “I’m sorry I was… like I was when we came back. I was just so mad I knew I’d say something stupid I didn’t mean, and I’d hurt you. I wasn’t trying to give you silent treatment or whatever it is they joke about on those TV shows; I just didn’t want to hurt you.”

“I know that. I knew it when you said you needed to be mad for a while.” Tony tightened zyr fingers around his.

“Can you—Do you understand why I was so mad?”

Tony closed zyr eyes in shame, but forced zyrself to open them again when zy replied, “Yes, I know, Ronon. Despite all our talking, I left the apartment anyway.”

“Kind of,” Ronon hedged. “You broke our agreement, and that’s frustrating because I thought we were, what’s the saying? On the same book?”

“On the same page.”

“Yeah, that. I thought we both felt the same way. Did I misunderstand? Did I not hear something you were trying to say when we talked about it before?”

Tony shook zyr head. “No, I agreed with what we decided.”

Ronon frowned and pushed his hair back with his hands, rolling his shoulders, and then reaching for Tony’s hand again.

“Then I guess I don’t understand. When I left, I thought we both decided we wanted to keep the secret of kysra being alive as long as we could. Then the next thing I know, Atlantis is freaking out and telling me that you’re in the central city and literally had run into one of the Lorains, and you both fell. I made her show me what happened, and Tony....”

Ronon let go of Tony’s hand to scrub both hands over his own face.

“By the Old Ones, Tony. You came so close to death, and you didn’t even see it. I still don’t think you see what would’ve happened if the tanricu hadn’t suddenly decided you were interesting.”

Tony was surprised that Ronon thought zy’d been in so much danger.

Ronon made a noise that could only be called a laugh if it had been dragged face-down through a gravel pit before being released from his throat.

“You still don’t know. Tony, m’kysra, that priestess’ knife was known as an assassin’s blade on former Sateda. She had it low and aimed perfectly at your ribs. She would have slipped the blade between your ribs, into your heart, and you’d have been dead before you’d even realized what had happened.”

Tony’s jaw dropped. Zy’d thought when the priestess had lowered the knife that she had decided zy wasn’t a threat and that she wasn’t going to hurt zyr.

“Those priestesses aren’t like your Earth religious people, m’kysra. Most of them would be what your Earth warriors call black belts, and the best, like the priestess you ran into, are bodyguards for the High Priestess. Part of their job is to protect her from any and all threats, which means they do everything from throwing themselves on an explosive for her to assassinating an enemy. She was going to kill you and look you in the eye while she did it.”

Tony opened zyr mouth to reply, then closed it and swallowed several times.

“Oh.”

“Yeah, oh.”

Ronon sighed again and reached for Tony. Zy gratefully turned over zyr shaking hands to him to hold.

“I don’t.... I didn’t…. Why didn’t Atlantis take me away? She said she was going to.”

The simple statement couldn’t begin reflect Tony’s conflicted feelings on the matter. Zy had gotten so used to counting on Atlantis, to feeling safe no matter what because she could just beam zyr out of trouble if it happened. Zy didn’t doubt zyr own skills, but there had been times that zy hadn’t taken Wolfe or any other backup when confronting someone because zy had counted on her to be zyr backup. It would’ve been nice to know she wouldn’t always be able to do that.

//Tony, I wanted to. While we were talking about finding your tablet, I was filling one of the ZedPMs. It requires most of my focus and energy to do that, which is why I asked you to wait. Even so, I thought that if I kept an awareness of where you were, then I’d be able to warn you of any danger in advance. I—I overestimated my own abilities, and then I could not stop what I was doing to remove you from the situation. If I had released my concentration on the ZedPM, the singularity I was harnessing would have caused the destruction of this reality as well as the alternate reality connected on the other side.//

Worry about backup was replaced with horror that their entire reality could’ve been destroyed.

“That would have been extremely bad,” zy croaked.

//Yes. All life, including yours, Ronon’s, and the kyta’s would have been lost,// Atlantis agreed, oblivious to Tony’s inner turmoil. //As it was, I became distracted enough that I had to release the singularity in order to speak to Ronon and then to transport him to you once you were interacting with the high priestess.//

“Oh shit. Is everything okay? I mean, we’re still here, but what about…?”

//Yes, but I will need to do much clean-up in the Between before I can attempt to harness another singularity, and that crystal is irrevocably damaged.//

Tony flinched before closing zyr eyes again. “So you’re telling me that my fuck-up cost us a ZedPM.”

“No, not directly,” Ronon objected. “You weren’t the one doing potentially dangerous work without telling anyone.”

Atlantis was silent, which said everything.

Fuck. Rodney had told Tony about Atlantis’ dark room and the ZedPMs she was growing there. He’d explained enough that even without a physics background, Tony understood that the ZedPMs could be the answer to not just the shields on Atlantis, but clean energy and the protection of planet Earth from whatever megalomaniacal foes were still in the Milky Way.

Tony’s actions had cost them one of those precious crystalline shells, plus nearly led to the annihilation of their entire reality. Zy wanted to puke. Zy actually had to swallow several times against the rising bile to keep from doing so right there.

“I am so sorry,” zy whispered when zy could speak again.

“I know,” Ronon murmured back, just as he had in the shower. “It’s a mistake, and I forgive you, which I’m saying because I know you need to hear it before you’ll forgive yourself. I wanna work through this. I want both of us to be able to walk away and not feel as crappy as we do right now.”

“I’m not sure how to do that. I mean, I fucked up, Ronon. One impulsive decision, and the kyta and I almost died twice over, I distracted Atlantis while she was doing something really fucking important, and I have to go off-planet, which I know you and Atlantis both hate, and it’s not to proven allies this time. I don’t know how you can even forgive me for being so fucking stupid!”

Tony’s voice had risen to a yell, and zy yanked zyr hands back, putting them over zyr face and leaning over zyr lap to try to breathe.

A heartbeat later, and zy felt Ronon nudging zyr knee down so he could sit beside zyr, his big hand coming down to rub zyr back soothingly.

“Just breathe with me: In…. Out….”

Ronon continued the pattern, helping Tony get a grip on zyr breathing and zyr emotions. After several minutes, Tony was calmer, so Ronon pulled zyr into his side. Zy curled zyrself under his arm, letting him coddle zyr.

“I think this is because of another misunderstanding,” Ronon said finally.

“What?”

“I think that even though we talked about it, and you thought you were happy to work from home while I trained people in the gym today, there’s still a part of you that felt like I was trying to control you. Maybe you felt like I was treating you like a child, like someone who is weak and needs protection. You’ve told me about the people who forbid you to do things and say it’s because they’re afraid of what I’ll do to them, as if you can’t decide for yourself.”

“I don’t….”

Tony stopped to think about it. If zy had really thought it through, would zy have gone, or would zy have asked Atlantis to just get the stupid tablet? It wasn’t even like zy absolutely had to have it to keep working. Zy had just wanted it, and zy had wanted to be the one to go get it.

“Maybe. It’s not something I thought consciously though, or I’d have said it.”

“Okay. Do you feel like I’m overprotective? Do you feel like I try to control you other times?”

“Not usually,” Tony said slowly, thinking about it as zy spoke. “You trust me to do my job on a daily basis, but we really haven’t had anything happen where you felt like you had to protect me, have we?”

Ronon nearly choked. “M’kysra, I have to fight to keep from being overprotective every day. If I went with what my fears wanted me to do, I’d have you bundled in the apartment and never let anyone in who might pose a danger to you. I’d talk to every person in the city and figure out a way to know if they’d ever had a bad thought about you, and I’d kick those people out. I’d make sure your clothes were the best, softest material. I wouldn’t even let Teyla teach you to fight with the bantos because she might accidentally hurt you. I’d—well, I’d smother you. I’d be totally crazy, and I know it.”

Tony was shocked. Zy’d had no idea.

“I don’t do any of those things because I know it would kill who you are. When I’m not thinking crazy, I love that you’re independent and strong, that you can protect yourself and want to learn how to protect yourself better, like with the lessons from Teyla. I don’t want to change who you are, but there are times when I wish I could help you see that it’s okay for us to protect each other.”

“Give me a second,” Tony requested.

They were silent for a while as Ronon smoothed his hand over Tony’s back, and zy let zyrself think about zyr motives. Zy really had thought it was a spur of the moment thing, but had zy resented staying in the apartment? Zy had worked from home other days just because it was more convenient, and zy’d been perfectly happy with it. It wasn’t like they had decided zy would do something totally out of character. Had zy gone out just to prove zy could? Zy honestly didn’t know.

Eventually, zy said, “So you weren’t pissed because I left the apartment as much as you were that we decided something together, and then I did the opposite and ended up almost getting hurt.”

“Yeah, that’s it exactly. We talked about it as soon as we knew the Lorains were coming to the city, and I promised to stay in the gym and the mess hall in the west pier for the day. I called Sheppard to make sure they weren’t going to take the Lorains in that part of the city at all. You agreed to work from home because they wouldn’t be coming to this pier either, plus you’d have the additional protection of the shield around the tower in case the tanricu decided to go flying.”

Tony could see now that Ronon had done his best to make them equally secluded. He just couldn’t do his work from the apartment, and Tony could because zy’d planned to work on reports and more drafting of the city’s laws.

“But then I took off and went into the central city.”

“At least if you’d told me, maybe I could’ve met you and walked with you, and then we could’ve gone to the west pier mess hall for supper, or gone to harass McKay, since nobody in their right mind would take people to meet McKay if they wanted them to keep liking us.”

Tony huffed and rolled zyr eyes.

“M’kysra, we call each other and meet up for no reason all the time when we don’t have strangers on the city. At least if we’d been together, we both would’ve been taking the chance of running into the Lorains and tanricu. We could have checked with Atlantis to make sure she wasn’t doing anything that could explode the solar system, too.”

“To be fair, we didn’t know we needed to check with her on that.”

“True, which is why I’m pissed at her. She should have told us there would be times she can’t help us. I’ve counted on her a lot to protect us both, so I’m not sure what to think now that I know there will be times she can’t.”

//I am sorry,// Atlantis’ voice was sorrowful. //I will notify you from now on when I plan to fill one of the ZedPMs. At the very least, I will choose a different day when it is not the first time a new people are within my structure.//

“You should also notify Rodney or establish some other protocol for when you’re performing dangerous tasks.” Tony paused and sighed heavily. “I think growing up without anybody who cared about where I was or what I was doing fucked me up more than I thought.”

Ronon studied zyr before slowly saying, “I think you understand that I love you, but I don’t think you love or value yourself.” Ronon put his palm over zyr heart. “I think sometimes love that could or even should make you feel safe just makes you feel trapped.”

That statement left Tony blinking back shock as zy heard echoes of every person in zyr life who’d thought zy was a worthless fuck-up. There were no loving voices to drown them out or even balance them.

Tony gave a choked-off laugh. “Ronon, you are literally the only person in my life who has ever said he loves me and hasn’t tried to use it to control me.”

Ronon only nodded, his expression grave. “I know. You changed your entire life, gave up everything you knew to move to an unknown place with a man you’d met hours before. That’s not something someone would do if zy is well-loved and secure in that love.”

Tony flushed and lowered zyr gaze.

“I knew you were wounded in a way that had never healed, but so am I,” Ronon continued in a gentle yet unyielding tone. “I knew it would be easy to love you, and it is, even when it hurts because you push back to make sure the love isn’t a trap. I think that we will heal each other, but it will take time. In the meantime, we have to talk more, get better at saying things so we don’t catch each other off guard like this.”

Tony looked back up, green eyes meeting hazel. “We’ve talked about me and what I need. What about you?”

Ronon licked his lips, worried lines forming between his brows. “I need… I need to feel like I protect you. I’ve failed at protecting everyone else I’ve loved, so I need to feel like I do that for you. I need to feel like you trust me enough to tell me when you feel trapped instead of protected.”

Tony thought about that. It made sense, really. Ronon was terrified of losing Tony and their kyta, so he wanted to protect them from everything. He was doing pretty great at being rational about it, really, like making it clear to other people that he didn’t control Tony’s decisions, and talking to Tony to make sure that they came to a compromise together rather than demanding zy do something.

It wasn’t like he had ever stopped zyr from confronting suspects or going after people who could be dangerous. It was only when Tony had left after they had made a decision together that Ronon was angry. Even then, it felt to Tony like the anger was more fear at what could have happened than anger at zyr. If zy had truly been furious with zyr, then no amount of time kicking and punching a heavy bag would have calmed him.

“Okay. I’ll try to be better. I’ll try to at least realize when I’m feeling confined or whatever. If it’s something like today where I get the impulse to go do something we’ve agreed I won’t, I’ll at least have Atlantis call you so you can meet me, like you said.”

“That’s all I ask.” Ronon nodded, the worry lines fading.

“I’ll try to remember to ask why the situation is so dangerous, too,” Tony added. “Maybe if I’d understood that those priestess women are assassins, I wouldn’t have had the idea that I should go get my tablet myself. It was taking a stupid chance, even if I thought I’d avoid them. I know better than to think my luck works like that.”

Ronon leaned in and kissed zyr forehead.

“Don’t. Stop beating yourself up. It’s done, and it turned out okay.” He smiled weakly. “You got to meet a tanricu – three of them! – up close, so it’s not all bad, right?”

Tony huffed and all but climbed into Ronon’s lap.

“Oddly enough, I am completely cured of any desire to see them up close ever again. That was enough for me.”

“Yeah, well we have to go to the planet in five days, after that you won’t have to see them ever again.”

“Thank the Old Ones,” Tony breathed.

Ronon wrapped his arms around zyr, and Tony was quite content to hold and be held for a while.

*~*~*~*

Chernday, YangHui 12, First Year of the Returned
(May 12, 2008)

Sam was relieved they weren’t scheduled to head to Verubriga until after the weekly databurst had gone through. She was hoping to have something more than she’d previously gotten from the sniffer program she’d written, but first she wanted to read the letter from the IOA. Better to get that over with rather than have it hanging over her head the rest of the day.

She quickly decrypted the message and skimmed through it. Once she had finished, Sam very carefully did not throw her computer off the desk or repeatedly pound her head on a nearby wall. Nor did she voice any of the profanity that was running through her brain. She wasn’t normally a person who resorted to straight out cussing, but she thought this called for it.

She made a fist on the desk, then consciously forced herself to relax her hands and her shoulders. Giving herself a migraine wasn’t going to help anyone.

It seemed that the IOA wasn’t satisfied with sending Woolsey to Atlantis. No, they also wanted to interview Teyla and Ronon in person. As glad as she was that she wouldn’t have to deal with the entire IOA board at once, she really didn’t understand why Woolsey couldn’t interview the two ‘aliens,’ as the message put it, then forward the report to the rest of the IOA. That must have been too easy. They’d rather Sam send both Pegasus natives to Earth for an interview that would last an indeterminate length of time. “Until our questions are answered to our satisfaction,” was the way the message had worded it.

That kind of wording gave Sam a headache. She found herself tapping her short, functional fingernails on the arms of her chair.

Who knew what lengths the Trust would go to in order to get ahold of the two while they were on Earth? Also, who was to say the IOA wouldn’t just dump them in a black site somewhere and dispose of what they saw as a problem? Sam was going to have to do a lot of fancy footwork to show how useful Teyla and Ronon were without making it look like she leaned too heavily on any of their opinions or advice. She’d have to go back through all her reports that mentioned either one and make sure what she meant and nothing else could be read into them. If something else could be read into what she’d said, Sam was going to have to add supplemental clarifications to the initial reports.

It was going to be a long and arduous task when she had so many other things to do! There was also a long, ridiculously in-depth report for Sam to fill out on both of them. Because of course there was. Though how she could possibly know if they had indicated preference for any particular sport, and if so, which country nation and team they favored was beyond her.

Sam gave up and dug into her desk drawer for her little stress ball. Well, it wasn’t a ball. It was actually a squishy stress object shaped like a well-known person. Finding and buying her the entire set of Newton, Einstein, and Curie was actually one of the nicest things Rodney McKay had ever done for her. It was particularly satisfying to squish Einstein’s spiky hair into his spongy head when she was frustrated.

The only good thing was the IOA didn’t want Teyla and Ronon sent back on the Daedalus, which would’ve meant weeks of travel each way in addition to the time on Earth. Instead, they were to be the first human guinea pigs to make the journey from Atlantis to Earth through the Gate Bridge once the rest of the testing was complete. The IOA felt it was important that all their questions were addressed as soon as possible, so they weren’t willing to wait for Woolsey to ask his questions, send back his responses, then wait for a new batch of questions. Teyla and Ronon were to face the entire advisory committee all at once because of multiple concerns about the alien influence on the mission as well as the agendas and allegiances of said aliens.

Oh, but at least they finally acknowledged Tony was supposed to be on the city. Carter was supposed to send ‘the delt’ back too so ‘he’ could be properly debriefed and interviewed. The questions on the report she was supposed to complete on Tony… well, some of them made her want to blush, and some made her want to declare herself an Asgard and completely disavow any knowledge of Earth’s stupidity when it came to the kysra gender.

One thing Sam could be certain of: Ronon was going to kill them all, and she couldn’t really blame him. His temperament was nothing like Teal’c’s, and even he had struggled.

Sam stilled, taken by the thought.

Who better to help Teyla and Ronon prepare for that kind of interview than Teal’c? He had been before the IOA and several obnoxious scientists and senators, and he always managed to keep his cool. He was also tough enough and different enough that he didn’t scream Earther, so Ronon might be more likely to accept his advice.

Sam dropped squishy-Einstein back in the drawer, pulled up a new document, and began typing:

Dear Teal’c,

It’s been far too long since I’ve seen you. I couldn’t possibly get away right now, but how would you feel about coming to Atlantis? It’s an incredible place, and I think….

*~*~*~*

Tony let Ronon adjust the fit of zyr tac vest for the tenth time. Zy didn’t complain, though. Zy knew Ronon was scared shitless about going to Verubriga. Tony wasn’t exactly feeling confident about it zyrself.

“They’re not going to be offended by all the weapons we’re carrying?”

“No,” Sgt. Major Wolfe grunted. “Still no.”

Yeah, okay. So Tony might have asked that question a few times before. Zy was nervous. It wasn’t every day zy was presented to a bunch of not-wyvern so they could verify zyr gender and gravid state. And it wasn’t like the entire trade agreement with the only planet with a sufficient amount of meat to save them from starving to death completely rested on Tony’s shoulders or anything.

Okay, maybe that was hyperbole, but hadn’t it just been awesome when Ronon had gotten permission from Carter to tell zyr how serious the food shortage problem really was?

John ambled over, an irritated Rodney following.

“What’s the holdup?”

“Yes. Why are we just standing around? I know Cave-Dex checked your vest at least three other times, probably more that I didn’t see. Can we please get on with this? I haven’t had not-buffalo burger in over a month. I’m dying here!”

“Rodney,” John growled, side-eyeing Rodney to tell him to shut up.

“It’s fine,” Tony said, trying to give them a reassuring smile. From their reactions, zy must be out of practice. “No, really. Let’s go, guys.”

“You’ll stay beside me?” Ronon asked quietly as they moved out of the locker room toward the Gateroom.

Shifting zyr P90, Tony reached over and squeezed his hand. “Yes, I promise I will do my absolute best to stay beside you.”

“’kay.” Ronon squeezed back, then released zyr.

The others were waiting for them in the staging area. Jamie McNamara grinned at zyr from where she was standing with her team. AR-4 watched them approach, but Tony couldn’t read them other than to know the team leader, Major Anne Teldy, looked calm and collected. Well, that made sense. She’d been to Verubriga more than a dozen times already.

“Let’s get this show on the road, people!” John called out.

The teams obligingly settled themselves into some kind of order, with Tony and Rodney in the more protected positions. AR-4 was in the front, since they were the ones the people of the planet knew. John, Rodney, and Carter were next, with Wolfe, Tony, and Ronon directly behind them. Teyla and Jamie were directly behind them.

Jamie moved up behind Tony. “Hey, got your six,” she murmured. “You’re not going to need it, but I got ya anyway.”

Tony gave her a grateful smile over zyr shoulder and caught Teyla’s reassuring nod too.

The two younger guys on Jamie’s team were behind her with Major Jordan slightly behind them, watching all their sixes.

The Gate started to light up, and Tony swallowed nervously. This would be zyr third time through the giant ring, but only the second walking through. The other time zy had been in a Jumper, and zy hadn’t even noticed. They couldn’t use the flying machines, as the high priestess had called them, since they would frighten or anger the tanricu and possibly upset the aknata herds and cause them to stampede.

All that meant to Tony was that if the Wraith came, zy was seriously fucked if zy couldn’t run back to the Gate. For all zyr talk of not wanting to be confined, zy wouldn’t have minded a little cuddling and pampering at that moment.

The not-puddle formed, and Major Teldy said, “Let’s move.”

Tony couldn’t accurately describe the sensation of going through the Gate. It was weird and made zyr a little dizzy, but it wasn’t anything like the discomfort of going from the Stargate in Cheyenne Mountain to the one in Atlantis. Zy figured distance had something to do with it. Maybe zy would have Rodney tell zyr what made the difference someday if zy wanted to exasperate Rodney and make zyrself feel especially stupid.

Tony looked around curiously once the Gate was closed behind Jordan. Zy was surprised by how Earth-like it looked. There were trees, and a blue sky, and it actually felt closer to being on Earth than it did when they were on Atlantis.

Major Teldy was moving forward toward the person and tanricu waiting for them. Tony could tell instantly that it was the high priestess, just as she’d said it would be. No doubt the bodyguard priestesses were around somewhere, just out of sight.

Teldy’s team separated, two on each side like they had done when they’d introduced the important people when they’d come to Atlantis. John and Carter moved forward. High Priestess Faerl greeted them, then looked at the rest of the group expectantly.

“High Priestess,” Carter addressed her. “As you asked, we’ve brought Kysra Tony, zyr mate, and those who chose to act as bodyguards if there should be a threat from our mutual enemy.”

Tony swallowed, zyr tongue dry in zyr mouth.

“Kysra Tony,” Faerl greeted.

“High Priestess,” Tony returned. “This is my mate, Ronon Dex. It is his heart that beats in my chest as mine beats in his.”

Zy had gotten that wording from zyr crash courses with Jamie. By saying that they had essentially traded hearts, Tony was giving Ronon’s life equal status with zyr own and saying that any harm done to him would be as harm done to zyr. It was the best protection zy could give to zyr mate on a planet that didn’t place much value on a man’s life.

The high priestess gave zyr a sly smile, as if she understood exactly why zy had said what zy had.

“Very well. His life shall be honored as we would one of our windsisters.”

Tony smiled, finally able to breathe.

“I thank you. It is my hope that we will be sisters before I must return home.”

Faerl gave zyr an outright grin.

“That is my hope, too, Kysra. Shall we proceed?”

“Let it be as you say,” Tony replied.

The high priestess turned and began to walk toward the tree line. Her tanricu, Swiftscream, sprang up from the ground, spreading her wings and buffeting them all with grass and dirt before she was in the air.

Tony couldn’t help but watch as the creature soared into the cloudless sky.

Zy stumbled, and Ronon and Wolfe caught zyr by the elbows, righting zyr again.

Faerl had heard the stumble and turned, raising one dark brow.

“Are you well, Kysra?”

“Yeah, Yes.” Zy cleared zyr throat, then continued, allowing zyr awe to come through in zyr tone. “I’m sorry, but I’ve never seen anything like that. I couldn’t look away from her, so I tripped. She’s stunning.”

The high priestess’ chin lifted proudly as she smiled again. “Yes, she is. Let us resume.”

“As you say, High Priestess.”

They continued walking for what felt like forever. Unlike when Tony had gone to New Athos, it was a silent, tense journey. Zy could hear things high up in the trees. They jumped from tree to tree, so Tony assumed they were more tanricu that were following – or maybe escorting – them to the village. The only thing that made the journey bearable was having Ronon at zyr side. Jamie moved up close enough to get zyr attention and gave zyr a subtle nod and thumbs-up, which helped too.

The settlement was well-hidden, and they were upon it before Tony realized it was there. The dwellings were spaced out a lot more than the ones in New Athos had been. They were also more disguised and nearly blended in with the forest itself. Faerl lead them to a large, open area at the very center. By that time, what had to have been most of the population had stopped whatever they were doing to surround the central space, though there was still a good fifteen to twenty feet on all sides between their group and any of the curious watchers.

The high priestess tipped her head back and made a piercing, ululating noise.

The entire forest seemed to come alive. Abruptly there were tanricu dropping from the sky and the treetops all around them, and they were all obviously aiming for exactly where Tony and zyr group was standing.

“Down!” Ronon ordered harshly.

Tony hated it, but it had been what zy had agreed to. Zy went down to one knee and let Ronon, Wolfe, John, Teyla and Carter surround and protect zyr.

Under the cacophony, Tony could hear Faerl laughing.

Zy clenched zyr jaw. If she got them all killed, zy was going to figure out how to do that ascending thing so zy could come back and haunt her ass.

It felt like forever, but the noise died down but for snorting, grunting sounds from the creatures zy could see through the others’ legs.

“They will not harm you,” Faerl said, sounding far too amused.

“It would have been nice to have a little warning, High Priestess,” Carter said tactfully. “We mean no disrespect, but you know we’re not used to the tanricu, and they are intimidating.”

“Your forgiveness, Colonel Carter. I had to see whom you would protect. Now I know.”

Ronon reached down and helped Tony up with a hand under zyr arm. Zy brushed off zyr pants and looked for the high priestess. Immediately, zy wanted to punch her in her smug face. Tony knew zy wasn’t the only one clenching zyr jaw and holding back the impulse, even with the rainbow of tanricu surrounding them and the humans who had ventured forth among them.

Dark eyes full of amusement and challenge, Faerl told Tony, “Do come out from behind your protectors. If you are as you say, none here will harm you.”

Tony straightened zyr spine and lifted zyr chin. Zy started forward only to feel Ronon grab zyr elbow.

Right. Zyr promise.

Zy smiled at him and said, “Come with me, my heart, for wherever I am safe, you are also, just as High Priestess Faerl has already sworn.”

Ronon didn’t make a verbal response, but Tony could see the relief in his eyes. He hadn’t been kidding about needing to feel like he was protecting zyr.

None of their group looked particularly happy, but they allowed Tony and Ronon through. Carter took up Tony’s other side and walked forward with them.

“You remember Swiftscream.”

The iridescent tanricu came forward at her name, as though eager to see Tony again.

She lowered her head, and Tony tentatively touched her between the thick ridges above her eyes. “Hi, Swiftscream. You remember me, right? You liked me and didn’t want to eat me at all. No ketchup, remember?”

Swiftscream was taking in huffing breaths. She pulled her head back, her long neck moving sinuously as she looked around, then darted forward, mouth open. There was no way Tony could be fast enough to block her, nor would zyr fragile, human bones have made any difference.

Several people yelled, but Swiftscream had already grasped ahold of Tony’s vest and made quick work of ripping off one of the pockets, sending Tony to zyr knees with the force.

She raised her head and screeched in indignation that the vest was still in place, or so Tony assumed.

Hearing more yelling and the distinct whine of Ronon’s weapon priming as well as the sound of P90s being raised and readied for action, Tony yelled,

“No! Don’t shoot her! I’m not hurt!” Zy set zyr P90 on the ground, rapidly unzipped the tac vest Ronon had so carefully fit to zyr earlier, dropping it on the ground as well.

“Hold!” John barked out.

Swiftscream snatched the vest in her jaws, and Tony again had to yell, “She’s not hurting me! I’m okay; don’t shoot!”

As Tony rose to zyr feet, Swiftscream shook the vest like a dog with a rope bone, then spit it out as if it had personally offended her, making a sound that was almost like garbled complaining.

When her head came back around, she snapped her jaws at Ronon and Wolfe, who had both moved in front of Tony.

“Guys, it’s okay. I think the vest was throwing off her sense of smell. It’ll be okay. No shooting, okay?”

“Weapons down,” John ordered, though he didn’t sound happy about it.

Ronon growled, sounding not unlike the tanricu. He moved to the side but stayed with his shoulder just in front of Tony’s. Wolfe glanced at him and followed his lead.

Swiftscream extended her neck again, huffing against Tony from neck to belly, where she stopped. Her eyelids drooped, and she made the same rumble-purr she had the first time she’d sniffed zyr up.

All the Lorains burst into excited whispers.

Tony glanced at Faerl. She was smiling smugly and looking around at her people.

Another tanricu came forward to stand next to Swiftscream. It was a different one, her back the color of the brightest summer sky fading down to a light blue that turned to a soft yellow on her belly.

Well, Tony assumed it was a she. It was the same size as Deathsbane and Stormclaw.

Swiftscream stepped to the side, allowing the new tanricu to get close enough to stretch out her neck and sniff Tony much the way she had done. She too made the rumble-purr sound, and then she nudged Tony.

Hands shaking, Tony gently put them on her head, stroking the smooth, blue armor plates.

“Wow. You’re really kind of gorgeous, even if you’re terrifying too, aren’t you?”

The tanricu sniffed zyr one more time, then cocked her head and moved to sniff Ronon.

“Yeah, that’s my mate,” Tony said, hoping zy didn’t sound like a complete nutjob for talking to the tanricu like she could understand.

Everybody was completely silent, the humans and tanricu alike holding their breath.

The blue tanricu took a step closer, her head edging between Ronon and Tony, so Tony stepped aside and let Wolfe prod zyr backward between himself and John, who had come up behind him.

With a great deal more patience than Swiftscream had displayed, the blue tanricu snuffled Colonel Carter, then opened her mouth to tug gently at her vest with the raptorial point of her snout.

“Take it off, Carter,” Tony whispered urgently. “They don’t like the smell. Take it off.”

Carter shot zyr an incredulous look, but she handed her P90 to Teyla and quickly stripped off the tac vest, letting Teyla take that as well.

The blue tanricu sniffed Carter all over, then she pressed the top of her head and bony ridges over her eyes against her chest. She made a rumble purr that escalated into a warbling sound.

“Oh!” Carter blinked and raised both hands to the tanricu’s face.

Tony glanced at John, then at Ronon. They were both giving Wolfe a shocked look that made Tony want to burst into laughter. The tanricu wasn’t making the ‘oh, look at you, nice baby-maker-human,’ rumble-purr. Whatever she was saying, that wasn’t it.

“Speak her name!”

Tony startled and turned back to the high priestess, about to say zy had no idea.

“Starsong,” Carter whispered. She was running her hands all over the tanricu’s head and neck, then onto her wing. The tanricu lifted the middle joint and extended the three taloned ‘fingers’ to Carter, who put her own hand in their grip as if they were holding hands. “She’s Starsong, and she’s mine.”

Faerl clapped her hands, laughing triumphantly.

“My people!” she shouted, both hands raised high above her head as if in benediction. “I bring before you Kysra Tony, confirmed by our windsisters to be carrying a kyta sired by zyr heart’s mate.”

That created such a stir that Faerl had to clap her hands several times and call for her people to be silent. Once they calmed, she continued.

“Not only do I bring you Kysra Tony, but I bring to you Colonel Samantha Carter. It is windsister Starsong, the eldest of us and one who has never chosen a sister of her own; it is she who bonds our peoples together by choosing Samantha!”

Every single Lorain started to cheer or make that ululating sound.

Over the top of them, the high priestess shouted, “Let us celebrate! We shall feast, for we have new sisters among us!”

The cheering became completely insane at that point, with even the tanricu joining in, throwing their heads back and making the roaring scream that zy had only heard from Swiftscream. It was so loud Tony’s ears were ringing.

Someone touched zyr back, and zy immediately knew it was Ronon. Zy looked up at him and gave him zyr very best innocent look.

Zy yelled, “Not my fault!”

“Yeah, you just keep tellin’ yourself that!” John shouted from zyr other side.

“Maybe Carter can leave her here?”

Ronon tilted his head and gave zyr a look like indicating that was the dumbest thing Tony had said all day. Which, okay, that was probably true.

Zy shrugged. “At least she’s not mine!”

Ronon snorted.

Tony sighed. So much for not having to see another tanricu ever again.



 

 

For those who are interested, this is the duochrome color Swiftscream is.
The polish is ILNP's Tilted

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Interlude: Back on Earth

“Pretty little thing, isn’t he?”

“Knock it off, Ben. You know damn well he’s not one of yours. His mother would kill us both if you laid a hand on him.”

Ben Saunders raised both hands in mock surrender.

“Just looking, not touching. Don’t get your panties in a wad.”

Aaron hunched his shoulders and wrapped his arms around himself. The way Ben was looking at him made him wish he had on layers and layers of winter sweaters instead of just a t-shirt and jeans.

“I could make a fortune off him,” Ben commented, his gaze traveling all over Aaron’s body.

Aaron shivered and swallowed thickly. Why wouldn’t Ray just let him leave? He’d made, served, and cleaned up lunch, but his step-father still wouldn’t let him go back to his room.

“Mm-mm-mm,” Ben hummed, like Aaron was a steak he was about to devour. He stalked closer.

Aaron tried to back away, but the cabinet was right behind him.

Ben smirked and tilted his head.

“No touching, but what about pictures?”

Ray looked up, both eyebrows raised. “Is there much money in that at his age?”

Ben chuckled and reached out to lift Aaron’s head with two fingers under his chin.

“Of course there is. Cheekbones to die for, right there. With the right play of light and shadow…. Well, it wouldn’t be as much as other things, but he’d sell to the right clients.” Ben taunted, “Wanna be a model, sweetheart?”

Aaron shook his head, twisting away from his Ben’s touch. He tried to curl into himself even further. His skin was crawling, and the thoughtful look Ray was giving him made his chest feel tight and his stomach sick.

“Aww, now don’t be like that, baby. With a face like yours, you could be a star.”

Aaron had never been so glad to hear his mom’s keys in the front door as he was at that moment.

Ben snapped his hand back and swiftly started back to the couch where Ray was channel surfing during the commercials.

Ray caught Aaron’s eye and mouthed, “Not. A. Word.”

When Aaron nodded – more a full-body shudder than a nod – he added at a normal volume, “Go to your room. Now.”

He could hear Ben chortling again as he fled up the stairs into his room and quietly shut the door behind him. He’d learned long ago not to slam any doors. Ever. He rubbed his left wrist at the memory of what had happened when he’d dared to do so one time and only one time. The pins holding his wrist together made his whole arm ache when it got too cold.

Leaning back against the door, Aaron slid to the floor and put his face in his hands as he shuddered once, then began to tremble in reaction. His step-father had hit him, hurt him before, but he’d never acted like he wanted anything like that. Aaron wasn’t stupid. He knew exactly what kind of pictures Ray’s brother wanted to take. He also knew it wouldn’t stay just pictures for very long.

He choked on a sob and wished his dad, his real dad was there. Neither Ray or his super gross brother would dare to put a finger on Aaron if his dad was there. Too bad for Aaron, Logan Wolfe was on a secret mission somewhere, and Aaron knew he couldn’t tell him. He couldn’t worry him when there was no way Aaron’s mom would give up custody. It wasn’t like there was a family plan for super-secret Marine bases anyway.

No, Aaron would have to be tough, like his dad would want him to be. Just like with the bruises and broken wrist, Aaron knew his mom would never believe him even if he tried to tell her, and Ray had started monitoring his email, so he couldn’t tell his dad even if he wanted to, not now that he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere by himself except the daycare where he worked on weekends.

Aaron had to face the truth: he was alone, and there was no way out.

*~*~*~*

Noetherday, YangHui 17, First Year of the Returned
(May 17, 2008)

Rodney didn’t know what to do.

When the Gate had been opened to Earth last week, he’d given in to his paranoia and essentially hacked the US government via the SGC. Atlantis had helped him, since they were also tracking down every kysra in the United States. From there, they would move on to other countries throughout the world, but that had to wait until the code had had a chance to start spreading.

Rodney didn’t really know what Atlantis planned to do with the information she was collecting, but he thought it was her business because the kysra were hers anyway. It’s not like the countries they were living in wanted them. Rodney might feel differently if their countries and families wanted them and were treating them like human beings instead of a plague on humanity.

That wasn’t what was worrying Rodney. What was making him pace his quarters, which Atlantis had moved to one of her newly completed buildings and were now a luxury condo with an outdoor infinity pool, was the information his and Atlantis’ hacking had pulled up for Tony.

Rodney had just wanted to make sure that Tony wasn’t in trouble with zyr former workplace. He knew that Tony had investments that somebody should be managing, so he wanted to make sure those were safe as well. What he’d found hadn’t been what he’d expected at all, and now he had to figure out a way to tell Tony.

“Atlantis? Is Tony busy?”

//Zy is completing reports on zyr computer.//

Hearing the answer in his mind was strange in one way, yet perfectly natural in another. It had only been four days since Atlantis had fixed him last Keplerday… after he’d thrown an epic fit the likes of which the science department hadn’t seen since Tony and zyr piano had arrived. It had been the only way to get the time off, which was his scheduled day off that he never got to take because people were stupid, and he always had to fix their mistakes.

Throwing a screaming fit that made people wonder if he was losing his mind had done what all the begging and pleading in the world wouldn’t have: it made everyone leave him alone for the whole time Atlantis had needed to make the changes and then to monitor him while he went through his Interim. They’d even left him alone long enough for her to keep him asleep for several hours, then while she’d continued to monitor him awake for several more hours. Rodney couldn’t remember the last time he’d had two entire days to himself.

If he was being honest, he had to admit he’d enjoyed the day he’d taken just to relax in his quarters and work on his own pet projects while chatting with Atlantis off-and-on. The only difficulty they’d had was when Atlantis had tried to Separate from him. It had been uncomfortable, even painful.

Atlantis had soothed him, //We will try another time, Rodney. Your mind is very lonely. It clings to me and does not wish to be Separate any longer.//

He had been a little embarrassed, but he hadn’t been upset. He’d been lonely his entire life, but now Rodney had Atlantis with him at all times quite literally. It was like sitting alone in a frigid, empty darkness, then suddenly being wrapped in a warm blanket and sitting in the most comfortable chair in front of a glowing fireplace with a purring cat on his lap.

It felt like coming home. Was it any wonder his mind clung to her?

Atlantis hadn’t minded at all. She’d said Ronon mostly ignored her, and Tony wanted to be Separate a lot of the time. She would be perfectly happy to remain Joined to Rodney 24/8. That’s the impression that Rodney got, anyway.

Jerking his thoughts back to the present, he asked, “Does that mean zy’s at home?”

//Yes.//

Rodney took a deep breath and blew out the air slowly.

“Would you ask zyr if zy minds if I come talk to zyr?”

There was a brief pause, then Atlantis replied, //Zy says you are always welcome, just don’t take zyr mood personally. Zy has been a ‘cranky bitch’ all day today.//

“Right, okay.”

Well, that wasn’t great news, but Tony had a right to know. Rodney didn’t think a brother would keep things like this from his ayah, and he was determined to do the right thing for Tony, even if it meant he got yelled at. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time someone had screamed at him for the information he’d uncovered.

Rodney scrubbed his hands over his face, gathered up his laptop so he could show Tony what he’d found, and headed out the door toward the transporter before he could change his mind. He could do this. He wasn’t good with people, but Tony liked him enough to call him friend and brother. Tony wouldn’t kill the messenger… he hoped.

Tony greeted him at the transporter into zyr apartment.

“You look like crap.”

Okay, so that probably hadn’t been the best thing he could’ve said, but it was true. Tony was leaning awkwardly against the wall, kind of hunched over like zy was in pain. There were blue circles under zyr eyes, and zy was in sweatpants and a ratty, old, Ohio State sweatshirt. Zyr normal sex-hair looked like zy hadn’t washed it or even tried to do anything with it since zy’d rolled out of bed.

Tony snorted. “Thanks. Just for that, you have to suffer through another hug.”

Zy proceeded to drape zyrself onto Rodney, and he pretended to hate it. He was actually very careful about the way he hugged zyr back, especially when zy all but sagged into him.

“Oh, for—Tony, I’m not a piece of walking furniture! Let’s get you somewhere you can lie down. I don’t think you should be working on city stuff on your day off anyway. Where the heck is your caveman? Does he know you look like you’ve been hit by a Jumper?”

Tony made a growly noise in protest. Rodney heaved a long-suffering sigh and all but dragged zyr across the hall into the piano room and prodded zyr onto the sofa.

“Lie down. No, I’m serious. Shut up and lie down before I have Atlantis tell Ronon on you. Seriously, don’t you think I have enough to do?” Rodney kept up a mindless rant that kept Tony from objecting as he set down his laptop and prodded zyr onto the ridiculously comfortable sofa. “I bet Atlantis already said something about telling someone, but you’re too stubborn to let anyone know you feel like crap.”

Rather than being irritated, like most people would’ve been if Rodney had gone off on them, Tony just huffed a laugh. Rodney let out a disgusted noise.

“What, do you think it’s okay to take care of everyone else, but letting someone take care of you for once is unacceptable? Well, suck it up, buttercup; if you really didn’t want help, you shouldn’t have let me in,” Rodney continued, grabbing one of the throw pillows and that awesome brown blanket. “You’re an idiot. I don’t care if you are my ayah, you’re still an idiot.”

Once he had Tony situated like he wanted zyr, he sat down on the footstool – without any pain in his knees or back, ha! – and glared at zyr.

“Okay, so how sick are you, and do I need to call Doc Xander?”

“I’m fine, really.”

Tony shifted position, wincing as zy did.

Clearly, Rodney’s glaring powers were out of practice if Tony could shrug him off that easily. He was going to have to practice bitching out people in the labs. Maybe he’d go through a few of the next batches of research proposals before they went to committee. That level of stupidity ought to have him back in proper, terrifying form in no time.

“Do I look like I fell off an Athosian harvest wagon earlier today? No, I didn’t think so. Either be honest with me, or I’m going to call Ronon and Xander. You’ll be in the infirmary before you can say Mozart,” he said, snapping his fingers just to stress how short a time that really would be.

Tony groaned and rolled zyr eyes, rather melodramatic in Rodney’s opinion.

“Geez, you’re so damned bossy. How did I get to be best friends with somebody so bossy?”

“And yet I’m not distracted. What’s wrong with you? Last chance.”

“Nothing except I’m knocked up, and my body is trying to figure out what the hell I was thinking when I decided cooking up another person inside it was a good plan. It finally gave up on making me miserable through morning sickness – which is the dumbest name ever for something that lasts all damn day – and now it’s decided I should suffer through having my skeleton reshape itself to make room for the adorable little parasite.”

Rodney crossed his arms and set his jaw.

“No, I’m being honest now. I feel like shit, it’s true. I woke up kind of achy and then sat for way too long doing computer work before I decided I should get up and greet you at the transporter.”

//Zy is telling the truth, though zy is not telling you that zy did not shower because zy felt dizzy, and zy did not take a hot bath to soothe zyr ligaments because zy was afraid zy would get too relaxed and not be able to get out.//

Rodney hummed and narrowed his eyes. “So you’re feeling fine other than that? No shortness of breath, dizziness, weakness? No tingling or numbness in your hands or feet?”

Tony dropped zyr gaze. “Maybe a little dizziness, but nothing to bother anyone about, really. Just because getting pregnant is normal doesn’t mean it’s comfortable.”

“How about pain in your left arm or shoulder?”

“I’m not having a heart attack, Rodney!”

Rodney stared for several seconds before he was convinced Tony was telling the truth. The idiot was terrible about telling someone when zy needed help, but zy didn’t actually lie outright when specifically asked.

“Fine.”

Fine. Does that mean I can get up now?”

Rodney glared again. “Does it feel better when you’re lying down?”

“…maybe….”

“Didn’t you just tell me you’d been sitting too long, and that’s what was making the pain worse?”

Tony made a ridiculous face.

“Then there’s your answer. If this isn’t comfortable, then we can move somewhere that’s better, but you’re not allowed to go sit in your desk chair at all for the rest of today.”

“Bossy,” zy grumbled yet again. “You and Ronon can be so bossy.”

It was Rodney’s turn to snort and roll his eyes.

“Right,” he retorted. “That’s why every time I come over here when Zelenka kicks me out of the labs, I end up falling asleep on this very sofa and losing hours I could’ve been working. Because I’m the only bossy person in this room.”

Atlantis giggled, which felt so weird Rodney had to scratch his head even though he knew it wouldn’t do any good. It was either that, or he’d sneeze.

“You might have a point.”

If Rodney hadn’t been able to see the shyly pleased grin, he’d have thought Tony was mad.

“I’m always right.”

“I said you might have a point, not that you’re right!” zy protested, but zyr smile grew.

Rodney waved zyr off. “Meh. It’s all the same thing in the end.”

Tony huffed, but zy tucked the blanket up under zyr chin. The pain lines around zyr eyes were lessened, so Rodney counted it a win. It was just a good thing Tony responded well to being brow-beaten, Rodney McKay style.

“Now that we’re done discussing my health – please let us be done – what did you want to talk about? Atlantis mentioned you’d found out something you thought I should know.”

Rodney tensed, and from the way Tony immediately got a worried frown, zy saw it.

“Maybe we should watch a movie instead. We can talk about this stuff any day you’re feeling better.”

“Rodney.”

It was amazing that Tony and Sheppard could drawl his name the exact same way when they wanted information and didn’t want to wait.

He thought quickly and decided to take the chance that a distraction would work. Yeah, he was going to chicken out of telling Tony the real reason he’d come over.

“So you know how I told you Atlantis offered to fix me so I could talk to her?”

“Yeah….”

“I took her up on it a few days ago. She fixed my brain, and she was able to fix my back, knees, and all my allergies at the same time.”

Tony grinned in obvious delight. “Rodney, that’s awesome! How do you feel?”

“Fine.” He shrugged, allowing himself to smile a little. “Better than fine, actually. I thought it’d be weird having her in my head, but it’s not at all. I really like it.”

Tony’s bright smile turned soft. “That’s fantastic. I’m so glad to hear it. Just make sure to tell her when you want to be Separate. She’s good about doing it if you ask, but she’s never going to be the one to bring it up.”

“Yeah, well.” Rodney dropped his gaze to where he was picking at the seam on his pant leg. He could feel himself blushing.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong, per say. I know you like being Separate a lot, but…. It’s just that when she tried to Separate from me, it hurt. She said that—” he cleared his throat. “She said that we could try again later when we’ve been joined for longer. Right now my mind has been lonely for too long, so it hangs onto her when she tries to back away. That’s why it hurt.”

“Oh, Rodney.” Tony reached a hand out from under zyr blanket, and Rodney found himself taking it, automatically accepting Tony’s human comfort the same way he was starting to automatically accept Atlantis’ mental comfort. “There’s nothing wrong with that, you know. If I hadn’t had Ronon when I came here, I probably would’ve hung onto her the same way.”

Rodney let go of Tony’s hand and shrugged.

“I like it. I like having her there.”

“I’m glad,” Tony replied.

“Just don’t tell anyone, okay? Not even Ronon?”

Tony immediately got what Rodney was trying to say. “No, of course I won’t. Ronon doesn’t need to know unless you want him to, and it would be really bad if someone slipped and Earth found out. You can trust me to keep your secret.”

Rodney relaxed. “I know. I just had to say it.”

“The only thing I’ll say is that once you start talking to her, it’s a hard habit to break, so you’ll have to be vigilant when you’re working in your lab or whatever.” Zy laughed a little. “Meetings can be hilarious or horrible, depending on how amused or annoyed she is. Time your drinking or eating carefully.”

Rodney’s eyes widened. “Is that why you and Ronon choke so much? I thought maybe it was because your organs were getting squished already, and Ronon had sympathetic pains or something.”

Tony burst into laughter. “Oh, crap. Is that what everyone thinks?”

“How would I know? I was just worried you needed to have Xander look at you, but you saw him right after a meeting that time, and you never acted like there was a problem. I thought it was your business and let it go.”

Sort of. He’d kept a lot closer watch. He might also have a spreadsheet tracking when Tony choked, the circumstances, and the possible other causes, but zy didn’t need to know any of that.

“Nothing like that at all,” Tony said, still snickering. “Atlantis has a sarcastic streak a mile wide, which I think you will love, quite frankly. I don’t know if she was all that sarcastic when I first met her, though, so you and I might be more responsible for it than we know.”

//Not at all,// Atlantis interrupted. //I merely withheld my observations until a time I knew you would also enjoy them. Not everyone will delight in it as much as you two do.//

“That’s probably good. I’m sure there are a bunch of kysra and future Satedans out there who wouldn’t respond as well. Little kids especially.”

“Some of them will. I would have loved it if anyone had talked to me like Atlantis does when I was a kid,” Rodney said, thrilled to be able to share in the previously one-way conversations Tony used to have with Atlantis.

“Yeah, but you’re a genius. The majority of little kids aren’t, and they’re normally not as jaded as we were either.”

Rodney just hummed a noncommittal response.

“So what did you really come up here to tell me?”

“What?” Rodney blinked, caught completely off guard by the question.

Tony smirked. “Atlantis said you’d found out something you thought I should know. If your Joining with her had been it, she wouldn’t have said it that way. She’d have said that you had something you wanted to talk to me about, or maybe just that you wanted to come hang out.”

“Oh.”

Tony raised one eyebrow, which looked kind of silly when zy was lying down. “Give me a little credit, Rodney. I was a cop and a federal agent. I’m literally trained to listen to what people say and what they don’t say.”

Well, crap. Rodney could tell from the way Tony was looking at him that he wasn’t going to get out of it, so he reluctantly dragged his computer closer and opened it up, waking it from the hibernation mode it had automatically gone into when he’d closed the lid.

“It’s…. You’re not going to like it.”

“I figured.”

“Tony, I—I—” Rodney found himself in the strange position of not knowing how to say what he wanted to say.

//Speak your heart, dear one. Zy will hear you.//

Huh. Tony would hear, not just listen. That was an accurate description for the way zy talked to him.

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

Tony nodded, zyr expression so resigned it made Rodney want to destroy everyone who’d ever hurt zyr.

“I know, but you can’t protect me either. If it’s about that guy they’re sending to replace me, I already know,” zy said gently.

Rodney blinked. What guy? Had he missed something in the last databurst? He and Atlantis had been so focused on what was going on back on Earth that it was possible.

“No? Okay, don’t get distracted; just spit it out.” Tony sat up and patted the sofa next to zyr.

Unable to resist, Rodney moved up next to zyr and brought up the screens he needed.

“We’ll go back to what you just said, but I think you’ll strangle me if I don’t get to the point.” Rodney brought up several more screens; he hoped it was faster than Tony could read the text. “First, just know I didn’t do it for any nefarious purpose. I wasn’t thinking that way at all. I wasn’t even curious, not really! I just wanted to make sure you and your stuff back on Earth were okay. And then I started getting into it more, and—”

“Rodney.” Tony’s voice refocused him.

“Yeah, uh… well….” He cleared his throat again. “I might have hacked NCIS and a few financial institutions. Maybe the government, but just a little bit!”

Tony’s lips were twitching with suppressed amusement. “I figured that’s where you were going. I’m not upset. If I’d thought of it, I’d probably have asked you to do it anyway.”

Sometimes the level of faith Tony had in him blew Rodney’s mind.

“Right. Well, I found something with your name on it, and I remembered you said your father had used the Junior versus Senior thing to get some of your money once, so I made sure it wasn’t him. Because, um, the state of Maryland has you on record as being married.”

Tony blinked twice, zyr amusement turning to bewilderment. “I know you’re speaking English, but I’m so confused you might as well be speaking Urdu. How did Maryland get my marriage recorded?”

“It’s—it’s not the real one. It’s not your marriage to Ronon. I—”

Rodney made a frustrated noise and brought up the image of the document he’d found. He watched as Tony read through the certificate of marriage dated February 1, 2008. He saw the odd little twitch zy gave when zy saw zyr name listed as Male: Anthony D. DiNozzo, Jr. Then zy got to the next line. Female: Ziva R. David.

Tony went stiff; zyr eyes went wide, and zy made a pained sound. Zy stared at the screen in uncomprehending horror, not blinking. It was almost like Rodney could see Tony putting the pieces together and figuring out the rest of what he had to tell zyr. Then zy started to shake, zyr breathing turning into gasps. The pained sound became a high, anguished noise that escaped past gritted teeth. Zy started grabbing at Rodney with clawed fingers, all without looking away from the words on the screen.

If it had been an overloading ZedPM, if it had been a Wraith attack or an alien device about to detonate, Rodney could have dealt with it. But this was people, and he never knew what to do or say to handle people. Not even Tony. If he had, Tony wouldn’t have been panicking because Rodney wouldn’t have been such a moron! He didn’t know what else he would have done, but not this!

Even Rodney could recognize a panic attack, and a bad one. Rodney did the only thing he could think of….

“Get Ronon!” Rodney yelled even as he shoved the computer out of the way and grabbed Tony in a tight hug. He didn’t know if that was right, but Tony always hugged him when he was upset, so it couldn’t make things worse, could it?

//He comes now!//

Ronon appeared in a flash of light, sweaty, smelly, and dirty from where he’d been out working with the Athosians again. None of that mattered.

“What the fuck, McKay?!?!”

“I had to tell zyr! I had to tell zyr something bad!” Rodney shouted, almost as panicked as Tony. “I didn’t know! I didn’t want to hurt zyr; I didn’t know it would be this bad!”

He’d known it would be upsetting, but he’d never meant to do this! He’d thought he was getting zyr prepared for the really bad part. He’d thought he was easing zyr into it.

Ronon dropped to his knees beside the sofa and pulled Tony into his arms. His arm muscles flexed with how tightly he was holding zyr as zy keened and shook, zyr eyes fixed and no longer seeing anything in reality.

“Go get—we don’t have any more of that. Just get something to drink,” Ronon barked at him. “Water. Anything cold. Doesn’t matter.”

Rodney scrambled off the sofa, nearly tripping over his laptop. He ran through to the kitchen and jerked the refrigerator door open.

“Coldcoldcold,” he chanted as he stared. “Need cold.”

Nothing looked familiar even though he knew it all was. He was over often enough to know the contents almost as well as Tony did.

//Water, Rodney.// Atlantis’ voice was firm and calm, something to hold onto while he panicked. //Third shelf, left side. Take two bottles.//

“Right. Water. Cold water.”

Rodney grabbed a bottle, but his hand was shaking so badly he dropped it.

//Leave it. Take two others.//

“Yeah, others. Okay. I can do that.”

Rodney managed to get the two bottles and shut the door, then ran into the kitchen island, even though it was in the exact same spot it had been since Tony had moved in. He’d have a nasty bruise on his hip from that, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was getting the water to Tony. Ronon said Tony needed cold water, so Rodney was going to bring zyr cold water.

Back in the piano room, he dropped to his knees so hard beside them that it jarred his body all the way to his shoulders.

Tony was dry-heaving over a bucket Atlantis must have conjured. Ronon was holding zyr steady and speaking to zyr quietly enough Rodney couldn’t understand. That was okay. It felt like it would be wrong to hear the soft words between the two of them. Rather than try to hear, he cracked open the bottle of water and held it out.

“Here. Rinse.”

“Zy’s not actually puking,” Ronon snarled.

“I know, I know!” Rodney sucked in a shuddering breath. “But if zy rinses zyr mouth and spits, it can trick zyr body in to thinking it puked and it’s all over.”

Rodney knew from personal experience it could work. It didn’t always, but if it was something emotional or mental that was making him want to puke, it usually did. He’d used the trick many, many times in his life.

Ronon didn’t say anything, but he grabbed the bottle and helped Tony get a mouthful, then spit it into the bucket. When it seemed to help, he helped zyr do the same thing a few more times before Tony was calm enough to take tiny sips and keep them down. The bucket disappeared, so Atlantis must’ve thought it was working too.

Ronon helped Tony turn in his arms so he was cradling zyr, rocking their bodies gently as he whispered to zyr.

//Drink your water, Rodney,// Atlantis murmured.

He looked down, shocked to see he was holding a second bottle of water.

“Oh.”

Obediently, he opened it and mirrored the tiny sips Tony was taking.

Rodney had no idea how much time passed, but he thought Tony passed out or fell asleep against Ronon’s chest. Either was possible. He knew from his own panic attacks that the exhaustion that followed could knock him out for an hour or more.

Ronon looked up and pinned him with eyes so furious he truly feared the man for the first time in years.

“What the fuck did you do?” he snarled, his lips curling in disgust.

Rodney swallowed. “I—I—I never meant—I mean, I found out something. I couldn’t not tell zyr! Atlantis agreed.”

“So you waited and ambushed zyr with it? Were you trying to make zyr lose the kyta?”

“No! I know… I know you can’t stand me, but I would never, never hurt Tony!” The thought hurt so much the words were like broken crystals in his mouth, painful just to say. “You—you hate me. I know. Fine. Join the fucking club – it’s got a huge membership list here and on Earth. My own sister hates me so much she’d rather humiliate me than talk to me.” 

Rodney’s jaw trembled, and he had to blink rapidly. His eyesight kept going fuzzy. Maybe Atlantis needed to take another look at that.

“You look at me and see a loser who’s only a little more useful than I am annoying. I get it. I’m bad with people. I don’t get the social cues everybody else seems to get. People don’t make sense to me. They never have.” He laughed, the sound flat and anguished. “You have no idea how many times my parents had me tested for some personality disorder. If a kid’s parents can’t stand him, you know there’s something seriously wrong with him, right?”

Rodney sniffed angrily and wiped away the water on his face. He had no idea where that had come from. It was annoying and didn’t even cool his face like he thought the water from the bottle should have.

“But here’s the thing: Tony looks at me like nobody else ever has. From the first time we talked, it was like zy knew me. I still don’t understand it, but zy just looked at me and saw me. Just me. Zy didn’t want my money. Zy didn’t care about all my degrees. Zy had no idea what I could do for zyr, and zy didn’t care. Any time I do something for Tony, zy gets all surprised and happy. Zy never expects it or thinks I should have done more or better or different.

“Zy never looks at me with pity when I don’t get something. Zy never embarrasses me or teases me with the stuff that is only funny to the people saying it. Tony is literally the only person in my entire life who has looked at me and seen me and still decided I was someone zy wanted as a friend. I’d rather kill; I’d rather die than hurt zyr.”

Rodney swiped at his face again, finally realizing that he was crying. Shit. Yet another thing for Ronon to mock him for.

“You’re in love with zyr.”

Rodney almost didn’t recognize that the gentle words were aimed at him and not Tony. It took looking up at Ronon’s face, which had a weird expression he didn’t understand. Big surprise.

“No, but I could have been,” he admitted truthfully. “It would’ve been really easy to fall in love with zyr, but zy picked me to be zyr family. You gave us the word, you moron. Zy’s my ayah.” Rodney tried to force his trembling lips into a smile. “Tony is the first family I’ve ever had who loves me back.”

Rodney thought about what he’d found out. He thought about what it had done to Tony already and what it was likely to do when zy found out the extent of it. Rage filled him.

“Those assholes back on Earth,” Rodney growled, his hands clenching into fists. “They hurt my ayah. They made me hurt my ayah.”

“Yeah, they did.” Ronon agreed, watching him curiously.

“I can’t hurt them physically, but they have no idea what they’ve done. Everything on Earth runs with computers, and those I understand.” Rodney lifted his chin and resolutely met Ronon’s eyes. “I’m going to rip them apart. I’m going to shred their finances, their credibility, and their entire lives until they only wish they’d been eaten by the Wraith. I’m going to destroy them, and I’m going to enjoy it.”

A slow, bloodthirsty smile curled Ronon’s lips, but what surprised Rodney was the look in his eyes: respect.

*~*~*~*

Tony groaned. Zyr lashes fluttered.

“Oh, good. Hot tea or cold water?” McKay asked, both drinks ready to deliver into Tony’s hands.

“Wha-?”

Ronon kissed the back of zyr neck, careful to keep zyr body balanced against his so that the pressure was off zyr hip joints as much as possible. He was still pissed that neither Tony nor Atlantis had told him Tony was hurting. That the information had come from McKay was doubly irritating.

Although… it seemed like Ronon might have misjudged McKay. He’d thought the scientist was purposely arrogant, annoying, and oblivious to anyone else’s feelings. Yeah, he probably developed some of those traits to push people away, but maybe it was just to keep them from criticizing him or making fun of him more than they already did. Ronon felt guilty for the times he’d been the one feeding an etja14 to its kin.15

If what he’d said was true, and Ronon had no reason to think otherwise, McKay didn’t understand people the way Ronon didn’t understand astrophysics, English idioms, or something Tony called country western music. He could study, try to mimic it, even appreciate it… a little. Not the music so much… but he’d never really understand it or be able to react the way Earthers wanted him to. If that’s how people were for McKay, then it wasn’t a surprise he said the wrong thing at the wrong time so often.

Aw, crap. Ronon was going to have to start being nice… nicer to him now. Dammit.

“You’re okay, m’kysra,” Ronon murmured, focusing on Tony. McKay could wait. “You’re safe. We’re on the sofa in the piano room, and McKay—Rodney is here with something for you to drink when you’re ready.”

Tony’s eyes opened. Zy frowned, and Ronon could tell zy was remembering what had happened. Zy raised one hand to cover zyr eyes and groaned.

“Shit. Now if I can just have a major panic attack in front of Teyla, I’ll have the whole set!”

McKay’s brow furrowed. “What are you talking about? What is zy talking about? I don’t get it.”

Tony heaved a sigh and dropped zyr hand back to the sofa.

“I managed to completely lose my mind in front of John when Ronon and I were still back on Earth. I had a panic attack and wrecked the very nice breakfast we were all eating. Today, I lost it in front of you so bad that you actually had to have Atlantis get Ronon to get me calmed down.” Zy reached back and patted Ronon’s thigh. “Let me sit up, caro.”

Ronon didn’t like it, but he knew Tony wouldn’t let zyrself be anything but upright and in control after being so out of control.

Hearing Tony explain to McKay what zy meant triggered hundreds of memories of zyr doing something similar. Tony always explained things, never talked down to him, and never teased him, all while acting like it was completely normal. No wonder McKay was so devoted to zyr.

As soon as they were both sitting up, McKay slid the little tray with the tea and water closer. Tony took the fresh bottle of water, and McKay’s shoulders went back, and he smirked a little, like he was satisfied he’d just fixed something meaningful. Given what Ronon now understood, that probably was how McKay felt. If people really were that frustrating to him, then it probably was a big deal when he got something right. A lot of things that irritated Ronon about McKay were starting to make more sense.

“So now I just need to completely flip my shit in front of Teyla, and all of AR-1 will have seen me humiliate myself.”

“Oh, you’re embarrassed,” McKay said, the rest of his confusion fading. “Well, that’s dumb. Maybe if it had been some of those muscle-bound morons who parade around the city like they’re god’s gift to humanity, then you could be embarrassed. But it’s just me. You know I’ve had my share of panic attacks.”

Tony choked on a laugh. “Yeah, but at least you can bitch your way through them most of the time. I get going, and I flash back to the blue lights. A minor panic attack turns into a major thing.” Zy frowned. “I don’t know why I’m doing it now. It makes no sense, but this is the second time in less than six months.”

Ronon made a note of the blue lights reference for later.

“Probably because you’re not pretending to be somebody else all the time.” Ronon shrugged when Tony gave him a surprised look. “You don’t have to put all your real feelings in a box and close ‘em up tight. You know I’m still messed up about everything that happened to me. Pretending it isn’t there doesn’t make it go away; it just delays it.”

Tony and McKay both were staring at him with the same expression. He wasn’t sure why because that was just common sense. No matter how long Ronon had been on the run and trying to forget, it hadn’t been until he’d come to Atlantis that he’d actually started to heal. Even then, there were things that he’d only been able to start to let go of once he’d faced them with one of his team or with Tony. He was still messed up in a lot of ways.

“Oh, that makes sense, actually,” McKay said. “It’s like no matter how many work-arounds you have, if you don’t go back and repair or replace the original coding, the program isn’t going to function properly. You’ll have to go back and fix it eventually.”

“So what was it?” Ronon asked.

Tony raised an eyebrow and took another drink of zyr water.

“What was it that sent you back to the blue lights?”

Tony gave a full-body flinch, and McKay was almost as bad.

“Shut up, you idiot!” McKay hissed. “I already hurt zyr. Zy doesn’t need you to make it worse!”

“No, it’s alright,” Tony said. Zy dragged both feet up on the sofa and let zyr head fall onto Ronon’s shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault, Rodney. I’m pretty sure you didn’t expect me to get what you were trying to tell me right away.”

“Which was?”

Tony gave another heavy sigh and exchanged a look with McKay. He pressed his lips together like he was refusing to say anything. Looking between the two of them, Ronon could tell he wasn’t going to get any further. He tried a different tactic.

“What are the blue lights?”

“Wow, let’s start with the easy question, huh?” Tony said bitterly. Zy scrubbed zyr face with both hands, then sighed. “Okay, so back when I was an agent, I got exposed to this disease. It was engineered to be incurable with any medications we had, so I had to go to a hospital to be treated. Even then, I had an 87% chance I’d die. I almost did.

“During that time, the room I was quarantined in had these special blue lights that were supposed to kill any bacteria I breathed out, so I’d lie there, drowning in my own lungs and thinking I was going to die.”

“So now when you panic, it makes you feel like you can’t breathe. Not being able to breathe makes your mind think you’re back there.”

“Yeah, pretty much.” Tony dropped zyr gaze to where Ronon had laced their fingers together.

“I—I don’t understand why that thing I showed you made you panic today, though,” McKay said, watching Tony as carefully as Ronon had ever seen him watch his precious computers.

“Well, it kind of ties in, actually. See the only thing that made that time I was dying remotely tolerable was my partner. Kate pretended to be sick too so she could stay with me as long as possible. She kept teasing me, picking at me and reminding me I wasn’t dead yet until they kicked her out. Not long after that, she was shot right in front of me.”

“Did you get the guy who did it?”

“Yeah. Yeah we did. We also got a new woman on our team, and she was very little like Kate. In some ways, that was a good thing. I never looked over at the desk where Kate sat and expected her to be there. Not with this other woman sitting there. One of the biggest differences was Kate at least respected my ability as an investigator. Because of the masks I wore, she never thought I was more than an egotistical, chauvinistic pig, but she didn’t think I was an idiot. Her replacement didn’t even respect me that much. No matter what I did, she went out of her way to make sure I knew I was beneath her.”

Tony made a noise that was probably supposed to be a laugh. It sounded a lot more like a sob to Ronon’s ears.

“Sometimes I wondered if that’s literally what she wanted. She’d blow hot and cold, and I never knew if she wanted to fight me or fuck me on any given day. What’s worse, it was her brother who murdered Kate. To top it all off, she was the one who had put together the report on my team that her brother had used to decide which of us to kill. Her name is Ziva David.”

McKay’s eyes went huge and round, and he gasped in so hard he choked on his own spit.

“Yeah, so you can see why I was a little upset when I saw a marriage certificate for me and Ziva David, dated the very day that I met Ronon.”

Ronon saw red. “What.”

Tony’s lips curled up in a grim smile. “You remember I told you I’d gone to my boss that day?”

“Your taskmaster.” Ronon nodded.

“Right. Well, I found out from him that Ziva was going to be deported back to her own country, but she didn’t want to go. She’d spun some lie to my boss that she and I had been in a relationship, and she must have heavily implied she was pregnant with my kid. I told him it was physically impossible, that I’d never laid a hand on her that way, but I managed to out myself as a kysra at the same time. Obviously, I didn’t marry Ziva.

“As soon as I saw that marriage certificate, I knew Gibbs, my boss, had decided that he was going to use me to keep Ziva in the country. He’d long since proven he preferred her to me, so it wouldn’t bother him to sacrifice me to keep her. He wouldn’t even have to go far. I had two coworkers who would have fallen over themselves to do whatever Gibbs wanted them to do. I have no doubt Abby or McGee or both forged the license and the certificate.”

Tony paused, and something told Ronon that wasn’t the end. He was proven right after Tony took a couple sips of water and licked zyr lips so zy could continue.

“Rodney, you know how I just told you that I’m trained to hear what people say and what they don’t say?”

“Yeah….”

“Well, the second I saw that certificate, I knew that if Gibbs was willing to go that far, he would’ve had Ziva’s name put on all my finances, my property, and anything else they could find. I also know Ziva. She’s a first-class bitch who would’ve been thrilled to get her hands on it. I have nothing left, do I? No money in the bank, no retirement, no investments. It’s all gone, right?”

“I—I could have missed something.”

Tony shook zyr head. “You and I both know better than that,” zy said gently. “I’m just glad I went on that huge shopping spree, and John was willing to push for all the exceptions so I could bring all my stuff with me. She’d have sold – or set on fire – my piano purely out of spite. As it is, I have everything that mattered to me, and that’s what I have to remember. I think it was just the shock of realizing that everything I’d worked and saved for my whole life was suddenly gone.”

“I’ll get it back for you, Tony,” McKay offered. “You know I can.”

“No, don’t bother. I have to admit I’m impressed she managed to get the trust fund my mother left me. Not even my piece-of-shit father was able to get his hands on that.”

“It’s not right,” Ronon snarled. “That can’t be legal, not even on a backwards planet like Earth.”

“No,” McKay agreed, his blue eyes full of the same furious fire they had been when he’d vowed to get revenge. “It’s not. Let me get it back for you, please, Tony. Let me do that much.”

Tony waved him off. “It’s okay. I have some rainy-day accounts I set up under a couple aliases a long time ago, and you know? It might even be a good thing. I chose to be Tony Dex here on purpose, not Anthony DiNozzo or even Anthony Dex. It could be a good thing to have split completely from that world. I’ll need your skills to buy stuff using my Darius Paddington accounts. That’ll be plenty.”

“No, it’s not,” Ronon growled.

He turned Tony’s face toward him and kissed zyr. Normally, he’d never let himself be possessive because Tony should only ever belong to zyrself, but he figured giving zyr a hard, possessive kiss was better than walking back through the Gate and killing everyone on that fucking planet.

When he pulled back, Tony looked a little stunned.

“It’s not enough. You’ll never belong to anyone else; not even your old Earth name should be taken from you. You were willing to marry me and be Tony Dex, so now I’m asking you to let me marry you for Earth paperwork too.”

Seeing that Tony was cautiously interested, he continued, “When we talked to Jimmy, you made it sound like we’d been together a long time. If you let him, I bet McKay can fix it in their computers so those say we’ve been together a long time too, at least long enough that you can do something to get your money back.”

McKay sat up straight, his hands already twitching toward his laptop.

“He’s right, Tony! I can make it so you and Ronon have a civil union for as far back as you want. That would make that bitch’s fraud that much more obvious, and I have plenty of money to throw at a lawyer to make sure you get your money back. Even if you don’t want it, save it for mini-Dex and however many other mini-Dexes come along.”

Tony stared between the two of them.

“Oh, crap. The two of you are agreeing on something?” Zy started to smile faintly. “I don’t have a hope in hell of arguing you out of it, do I?”

“Nope.”

“Not really. I bet Atlantis agrees too.”

//Yesssss,// she hissed furiously. //Such disrespect to my Kysra is not to be borne!//

Tony raised zyr hands in defeat. “Okay, okay. I know when I’m out-voted. Do it, Rodney. Pick a date and witness for after the middle of last October. Before that would be… problematic.”

Tony had a weird tone. Ronon would have to ask zyr why before then would’ve been a problem. Had zy been involved with someone?

“It was a case,” Tony said, noticing how Ronon was watching zyr. “I was undercover, and I had to date the target’s daughter. It was a mess.”

“Okay. October or the next month is good,” Ronon said, deciding to drop it for the moment.

“You’ll have to hack NCIS and get my schedule, Rodney. I worked my ass off, but I can’t honestly remember what cases happened when, or which days I was at work so long that dating would’ve been impossible.”

Rodney shot zyr a scathing look, his fingers flying on his computer keys.

“Please, do you really think I didn’t capture everything remotely related to you?” He typed fast for a while, then asked, "How do you feel about November 10th? You could say you and Ronon started dating, and it was a whirlwind romance. You got married not even a month after you met.”

Ronon shrugged. “Fine with me.”

“If you say it works with my schedule for back then, I don’t care. The only wedding date that matters is Einstein 9th.”

Ronon cupped Tony’s cheek and pressed a soft kiss to zyr lips.

“Meraska,” he murmured.

“Husband,” Tony whispered back.

Rodney pretended to gag, but now that Ronon was looking for such things, he noted the small smile the scientist was trying to hide.

“There!” Rodney announced sometime later. “I am brilliant, as usual. You may express your adoration in chocolate and coffee at any time.”

“It’s all set for the next databurst?”

“Yes, but it’s even better.”

“Why, what did you do?”

“Well, when they let Ronon go to the hotel, they had to give him and official ID. They made him a foreign diplomat. Since you’re married according to the laws of his country, you and any children you have are covered under that law.”

Tony started laughing and couldn’t seem to stop.

Ronon wasn’t sure why, but he assumed it meant Rodney had done something really smart. Maybe this was a time he could make up for being such a sa’te wreth to McKay all those times.

“Good job.”

Rodney, who had been watching Tony laugh with a fond smile, jerked and stared at Ronon.

“For protecting our family,” he was forced to explain. “Good job.”

“Oh. Yeah. Okay. Uh, thanks?”

Geez. If he’d known it would make Rodney almost silent, Ronon would’ve complimented him a long time ago.

“Right. I’m going to go back to my lab and do important things now. You two should really take a shower, a bath, something.”

“Are you saying I stink?” Tony demanded playfully.

He closed up his computer and got up without complaining about his back or his knees, which Ronon thought was odd. Maybe he just didn’t want to complain when Tony had been so upset earlier.

“You smell like.... What’s the thing that Lorain say?” He snapped his fingers fast several times, trying to remember. “Oh, right.” He moved to the doorway and actually started backing out of the room completely. “You both smell like the south end of a north-bound aknata. You should do something about that before you come to supper.”

“Jerk!” Tony laughingly called out after him.

Ronon didn’t think it had hurt Rodney’s feelings, and Tony was back to chuckling helplessly. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to have him for a brother-in-law.