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Learning The Hard Way

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John came through the 'gate, wet, dirty and exhausted; the members of Major Lorne's team following behind him didn't look any better. Three days playing hide and seek in a forest with daily downpours had that effect, John thought with a wry smile as he watched Lorne's team stumble through the 'gate.

"Get your team cleaned up and checked out, Major," John said as the 'gate shut down. "We'll debrief in a couple of hours."

"Yes, sir," Lorne replied, and looked down at his muddy uniform with a grimace.

John turned away from the 'gate and caught sight of Rodney standing at the end of the ramp near the stairs leading up to the control room. He frowned when he noticed McKay didn't have his cane with him.

Carson will kill him, John thought to himself as he followed Lorne's team toward the exit.

The past eight weeks had been tedious while Rodney's broken leg healed, the injury meant the team was grounded until he was healthy again. John had hoped for a light at the end of the tunnel two weeks ago when Carson had taken the cast off Rodney's leg, only to then find out Beckett still wouldn't clear McKay for 'gate travel until he could walk without the cane.

Teyla had been happy with the situation. Once she knew Rodney was going to be all right, she'd spent most of the past several weeks travelling back-and-forth to the mainland, helping with the planting, and spending time with the Athosians. After Carson had cleared him for light duty, Rodney had holed up in his lab, tinkering with one Ancient device or another and hounding the new scientists. John, however, had been at loose ends and decided to use the forced downtime to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the new Marines.

Special Ops missions and deployments in Afghanistan or Iraq didn't do much to prepare someone for the new realities of travelling to other planets, and potentially being food for aliens. John had already sent a few Marines, men and women, back to Earth on the Daedalus who had washed out of his Pegasus galaxy training program.

"Training mission went well, I see," Rodney commented as John stopped next to him. He made a face as Lorne's team trooped past him, leaving a trail of muddy footprints across the floor and out the nearest door. "Maybe you should have Lorne and his team go to the botany labs before they shower. It looks like Parrish could get some interesting samples."

"It's the rainy season on Ymber," John replied, and automatically slowed his pace to match Rodney's limping gait as they left the gateroom. "Teyla forgot to tell me that part when she suggested the planet as a good place to run search and rescue drills."

John could tell Rodney was trying hard not to laugh, so he decided to turn the tables. "Does Beckett know you're wandering around without your cane?" he asked, and hid a smile as Rodney's humor dried up. "That's what I thought."

"I can walk just fine without it," Rodney replied with a scowl. "Carson is just over-cautious."

John stopped and stared at McKay, who had one hand surreptitiously braced against the wall, with a raised eyebrow. The slight itch at the back of his head from the mental link told him Rodney wasn't as fine as he wanted John to believe.

Rodney leant his shoulder against the wall, crossed his arms over his chest, and glared back.

John shook his head and started walking again. "It's on you when Beckett catches you."

Rodney grumbled something under his breath, and John smiled.

"Let me get cleaned up and I'll meet you in your lab after the debriefing. I want to hear all about your hot date with Katie Brown."

Rodney ducked his head as he followed John into the transporter.

"You didn't cancel on her again, did you?" John asked with a frown. "That's the third time."

"I was in the middle of a project," Rodney replied defensively.

"Uh-huh."

"What? I was!"

John tapped the map on the back wall of the transporter. "What's the problem? She obviously likes you, though I'm beginning to wonder why."

The transporter opened on the corridor for their quarters, and John led the way down the hall to his room.

"She seems nice, and I don't want to screw things up," Rodney said as John opened the door to his room and glanced over at him. "I don't exactly have the best track record when it comes to women," he admitted softly.

John suspected Rodney was thinking about Allina and shook his head. "I need to get cleaned up, and you need to get off that leg before Beckett sees you. I'll find you later. We'll figure out a way for you to not screw things up with Katie. Starting with actually having a date."

Rodney gave him a weak smile and wandered back to the transporter, one hand brushing the wall to keep his balance.

Showered, and in a clean uniform, John stopped in the mess hall long enough to find something to eat, then met with Lorne's team in the conference room. They spent the next hour reviewing and dissecting everything that had happened over the last three days on Ymber.

"Major, other than two of your men spending most of a day lost in the woods, you and your team handled yourselves well," John said as the meeting wound down.

"Thank you, sir," Lorne replied.

John sat forward in his chair, his arms braced on the table. "Anything else, gentlemen?" When he received four head shakes in response, John continued, "In that case, I think we're done. I'll let Doctor Weir know you're up in the mission rotation."

Lorne nodded and quirked a quick smile. "I'll make sure Walker and Coughlin take remedial map reading before our next mission, sir," he replied with a glance at the two men in question.

As the meeting broke up, John listened to Lorne's team as they left the conference room still teasing Corporal Walker and Sergeant Coughlin for getting lost. A quick stop in Elizabeth's office to let her know how the training mission went, then he would go find Rodney in his lab.

He saw Radek and Chuck poring over something on a computer screen as he crossed from the conference room to the walkway leading to Weir's glassed-in office and paused. He didn't hear anything that sounded like an immediate threat, crossed to the open office door, and tapped the frame.

Elizabeth waved him into the office, and John sat in one of the chairs facing the desk.

"So how did the training mission go?" she asked.

"Other than the wet weather, it went okay. I think Lorne's team will be a good tactical unit. We've needed one since Markham's team …" John let the sentence trail off.

Elizabeth looked down at her desk, and John knew they were thinking the same thing. The members of the original expedition had been close-knit thanks to the fact they thought they'd never see Earth again. The losses before and during the siege still hit close to home even months later.

"Anyway," John continued, "They handled themselves well during the search for Ford and during drills."

Elizabeth nodded. "Good. Chuck and the 'gate team found a couple of new planets in the Ancient database while you were gone. We need another team for survey missions."

"Should we be doing all of this exploration?" John asked, his tone and expression serious. "You said yourself, we're trying to keep the fact Atlantis survived the Wraith attack a secret."

Elizabeth nodded. "That's true, but the reality is, we don't have much choice. The need for food and trade partners aside, there are people back on Earth expecting the exploration of the Pegasus galaxy to continue now that we have more personnel. We're just going to have to do the best we can to not tip off the Wraith."

John sat and contemplated the bowl at the end of Elizabeth's desk for a moment. "Speaking of team rotations …" He left the sentence hanging as he glanced over at her.

Elizabeth shook her head. "You need to check with Carson. I've seen Rodney hobbling around without the cane, but as far as I know Carson hasn't cleared him yet. I don't like the idea of sending your team off-world when you're still a man short, anyway. I need to know Rodney is healthy before I even consider it."

John knew she was right. He wouldn't take McKay off-world until he was ready, but he wanted to get back to the real work. Training missions weren't the same as exploring new planets.

"I hear Ronon has started instructing some of the Marines in hand-to-hand," Elizabeth said after a brief pause. "Does that mean he plans to stay in Atlantis?"

John leant back in his chair. "I don't think he's made a decision one way or the other yet," John replied. "He saw Teyla training some of the Marines in Athosian stick fighting and offered to teach anyone interested in the Satedan techniques. I didn't think it would be a problem."

Elizabeth nodded. "He does seem to be settling in more. I understand Teyla took him to the mainland when she left a few days ago."

John nodded. "I think he was getting a little stir-crazy in the city. I'm hoping the fact he's curious about the mainland means he's coming around to the idea of staying."

Elizabeth studied him for a moment. "I hope you're right," she said, and glanced up at the door.

John turned to see Chuck heading across the bridge.

"Sorry to interrupt," Chuck said as he stood in the doorway and held up two folders. "You wanted to know when we had the preliminary data on those two new planets."

Elizabeth waved him into the office. "Anything interesting?" she asked as she took the folders.

"The Ancient database didn't have much on either planet. The first one, P2R-483, appears to be grassland. No pollution or energy readings to show any sort of human presence. The MALP did pick up a lot of plant and animal life. The database didn't have much to add, just some notes on mineral resources."

"Stackhouse is set to leave for P3R-849 tonight," John said as Elizabeth passed him the folder. He gave the report a quick scan. "Looks like Lorne's team has a new mission." He looked up at Elizabeth with a smile. "At least it doesn't look like it's been raining."

"And the other planet?" Elizabeth asked.

Chuck smiled slightly. "The other one, P9X-291, could be very interesting."

"Oh?" Elizabeth looked up.

Chuck nodded. "Sensors on the MALP detected a structure not more than a few kilometers from the stargate. We managed to get a few grainy pictures," Chuck nodded at the folder in Elizabeth's hand.

Elizabeth opened the folder, looked at the images and passed them over to John.

"From what we could tell, the building appears to be in pretty good shape," Chuck continued. "The information in the database only noted basic information about the planet itself. Nothing on why the Ancients were interested in it or if they found anything when they were there. It was a little strange, actually."

"Oh?" Elizabeth looked up from the file. "How so?"

Chuck pursed his lips. "The information we could find was fragmentary at best. Like reading a redacted mission report."

"What do we know about the building itself?" Elizabeth asked as she handed the rest of the file over to John.

"The MALP couldn't get much in the way of detail due to the trees, but Doctor Zelenka thought the building might be Ancient in design."

"There's an Ancient building on this planet and no record of it in the database?" John asked.

"That's what it looks like, sir," Chuck replied. "Like I said, the information in the database was weird. We enhanced some of the better images and Doctor Zelenka took them down to Doctor McKay to see if he could confirm whether or not the building really is Ancient."

John and Elizabeth traded a look.

"I don't suppose you could talk him into sending someone else?" Elizabeth asked half-heartedly.

John shook his head. "If that building is Ancient, he's going to want to go see it for himself."

Elizabeth sighed. "You're probably right." She looked back at Chuck. "Is the planet populated?"

"We think so. There are no settlements near the 'gate or the structure. The building and the stargate are close to an ocean." He pointed to an image of waves pounding the side of a cliff. "The MALP did detect evidence of what might be a village in an open area farther inland and closer to the mountains."

"How far is the Ancient structure from the settlement?"

"About thirty kilometers."

"Not too close, but not that far away, either," Elizabeth said with a glance at John. "That could be a problem."

"The mountain range is extensive," Chuck continued. "There are some foothills only a few kilometers from the Ancient building. The trees make it difficult to get reliable data closer to the structure. The MALP detected life signs in the forest, but we can't tell if it's people or animals. We didn't find any evidence of other villages closer to the forest or the cliff …" He trailed off with a pensive glance at the folder in John's hand.

"What's wrong?" Elizabeth asked.

"The forest is pretty dense. We only got the images of the building because it was relatively close to the 'gate. There could be people living in the trees, we just can't detect them."

"I could see if Ronon wanted to come with us," John suggested. "That would give us an extra man in case we run into trouble." And I can see how well he works with Rodney and Teyla in the field, John added to himself.

He hadn't mentioned his idea of including Ronon on his team to Elizabeth yet. He wanted to make sure Dex planned to stay for one thing, and for another, he wasn't sure she would agree. Not yet, anyway.

Elizabeth shook her head. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."

John frowned as his suspicion was confirmed. "He's not going to do anything to jeopardise Atlantis."

"I know you trust him, John, but I'm not quite there yet."

John sighed as he remembered having a similar argument when Teyla's people first came to the city. While he agreed with the idea of being cautious, Ronon had already been in the city for a little over two months, how much longer would it take to convince Elizabeth he wasn't a threat?

He felt Elizabeth watching him and looked up at her. "You said yourself, he hasn't made a decision whether or not to stay yet," she told him. "I'm thinking of what's in his best interest as much as I am the safety of Atlantis."

She waited for John's reluctant nod then looked back up at Chuck. "Are Teyla and Ronon still on the mainland?"

Chuck nodded. "She should be checking in soon. It sounded like the planting was almost done when she called yesterday."

Elizabeth nodded and closed the folder. "All right, I'll send Major Lorne's team to P2R-483."

"Food sources aside, it could be a good Alpha site," John said.

"Agreed. Please let Major Lorne know to have his team in the conference room at ten tomorrow morning."

John nodded and stood. "What about the Ancient building?"

Elizabeth sighed. "We'll talk about that tomorrow as well. Hopefully, one of us can convince Rodney we don't need to go right away. The building has been there for thousands of years, another few weeks won't matter."

John didn't say anything as he left the office with Chuck on his heels. He doubted anything was going to stop Rodney from getting to that planet as soon as possible. Ancient building aside, he had the sneaking suspicion McKay was just as eager to get out of Atlantis and back to exploring the galaxy as he was.

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

Rodney walked into the conference room the next morning and headed over to John and Teyla sitting on one side of the triangular table. He made a point of walking without the cane and made sure the limp was as inconspicuous as possible. If he had any chance of getting to the planet to see the building for himself, he would need to convince John and Elizabeth, not to mention Carson, that he could walk normally.

"Rodney, you are walking much better than the last time I saw you," Teyla said as he sat next to John.

"Can you tell Carson that?" Rodney asked, and glanced at the door as Major Lorne and his team entered the conference room.

"Colonel," Lorne said as he sat on the other side of the table. "Hey, Doc," he added, and smiled at Rodney then nodded a greeting to Teyla.

Rodney nodded back as Elizabeth passed out file folders to both teams.

"Major Lorne, you've had a chance to review the preliminary information on P2R-483?"

"Yes, ma'am," Lorne replied. "I'd say the planet looks like it could be a potential backup for the Alpha site."

"Colonel Sheppard and I agree," she replied. "You and your team will need to bring back as much information on the planet as you can."

"The area around the 'gate looks wide open," Lorne said as he looked at the images in his folder. "We could cover more ground in a jumper than on foot."

"Colonel?" Elizabeth said with a look over at John.

"Lorne could use the stick time," John agreed and turned to Lorne. "It's out of warranty, Major," he added with a smile. "No joy riding, and don't get any dents in the bodywork."

"Copy that, sir," Lorne replied. "We'll bring it back with a full tank of gas."

"Which leaves P9X-291," Elizabeth said as she opened the other folder.

"I've been studying the images the MALP sent back," Rodney said before anyone else could jump in. "And I've translated some of the symbols over the door. If I'm right," he looked from John to Elizabeth, "this is some sort of Ancient archive."

"You're sure?" Elizabeth asked as she looked at one of the images. "The pictures aren't very clear."

"Reasonably sure," Rodney replied, then paused. "At least fairly sure," he admitted, then glowered across the table as one of Lorne's team members snorted.

John frowned. "If this is an Ancient archive, why was all of the data removed from the database."

Rodney shrugged. "No idea. Maybe they were afraid the Wraith would find out about it? Look, the point is, the symbols are definitely Ancient. And from what we can see of the building, it looks surprisingly intact. We need to go see what's inside."

"I agree. However, are you going to be able to walk that far?" Elizabeth asked. "According to the MALP data, the building is several miles from the 'gate."

"I'll be fine," Rodney said shortly, ignoring the dull ache in his leg.

"There's no hurry, you know," John said, and Rodney could see the concern in his expression. "It's not going anywhere in the next few weeks."

Rodney frowned. "You can't know that. It's on a cliff, one good storm could send it over the edge and into the ocean."

"I don't think --" Elizabeth started to say.

"Ever hear of Ernest Littlefield?" Rodney interrupted with a glare at Elizabeth.

Elizabeth pursed her lips and looked down at the table. Rodney took that as a 'yes'.

"Well, I haven't," John said into the silence.

Rodney looked over at John. "Who he is doesn't matter. The point is when SG-1 found him, they also found this device. Doctor Jackson described it as a sort of three-dimensional book."

"Okay," John drawled.

"He never got the chance to really examine it or learn what it contained because the building it was in fell into the ocean during a storm. The knowledge of four alien races lost forever." Rodney looked from John to Elizabeth. "We need to find out what's in this archive. Before it's gone for good."

"We could send another team," Elizabeth said.

Rodney scoffed. "Who else knows Ancient technology as well as I do?"

"Doctor Zelen--" Elizabeth started to say, but Rodney interrupted.

"Radek hates going off-world," Rodney said shortly. "Besides he'll likely miss something, and then I'll have to go anyway."

Elizabeth studied his face for several seconds. "You need to be cleared by Doctor Beckett first," she said. When Rodney started to protest, she added, "I've already discussed this with Colonel Sheppard. Your team is short a fourth member as it is. Technically, I shouldn't send any of you off-world until a replacement is assigned."

"You have to be kidding! We're not going to go because of a head count?" Rodney fumed.

Elizabeth frowned and Rodney felt John kick him under the table.

"McKay," John hissed.

"That's not the only reason I'm concerned," Elizabeth told him with a pointed look and held up a hand when Rodney opened his mouth. "However," she added, "while it goes against my better judgment, the planet does seem safe. And this could be a treasure trove of Ancient information that we need to investigate before it's too late."

Elizabeth looked at John, who gave Rodney a sideways glance, then nodded.

"If Doctor Beckett agrees that you're ready, your team can leave this afternoon," she finished. "For a preliminary survey only," she added as Rodney started to stand. "Let's find out what we're dealing with and go from there."

"Fine," Rodney replied and made sure he didn't use the table to help him balance as he straightened.

Elizabeth turned to Lorne, "The side of P2R-483 with the 'gate is dark at the moment, Major. Your team has a go in twelve hours once the sun is up again."

"Yes, ma'am, we'll be ready," Lorne replied and stood. His team followed his lead as the meeting broke up.

"Rodney, Carson is expecting you in the infirmary," Elizabeth said.

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

Rodney sat on the edge of the infirmary bed, his arms crossed over his chest, and his face set in a frown. Beckett sat on a stool in front of him, holding his left foot in one hand.

"Have you been doing the exercises I gave you?" Carson asked as he probed Rodney's lower leg and carefully bent his ankle.

"Yes," Rodney answered. He hissed and flinched when Beckett found a tender spot along the scar on the inside of his leg.

Carson looked up at him. "This can't be rushed, Rodney. If you want that leg to heal, you have to give it time."

Rodney threw his hands in the air. "I've given it two months! I need to get back to work."

"Are you using the cane?" Carson gave him a hard look, and Rodney knew they both knew the answer to that.

"Sometimes," he hedged.

Carson shook his head and sighed. "That leg is still weak. You need to be careful and not overdo things. You try to do too much, too soon and you will set your recovery back weeks."

Rodney glared at the wall behind Carson's head. A part of him knew Beckett was right. His leg did still ache at the end of the day if he'd been walking around more than usual.

On the other hand, he also knew the Wraith were still out there. They'd been lucky the last several months, but it couldn't last forever. Sooner or later, they would find out the truth, and Atlantis would be in the cross-hairs again. He'd spent part of the last eight weeks working on a new design for the shield emitters that would allow them to use the cloaking device and the shield at the same time, but he was still a long way from having a testable prototype.

The idea of an undisturbed Ancient archive was worth some risk. Whatever was there, the Ancients thought it was important enough to hide it. He needed to see it. He knew he wouldn't be able to do everything alone, and was willing to accept that he would need help once they had an idea what was there. But for that first look, there really wasn't anyone else they could send.

"I need to do this," Rodney said. "The Wraith are going to come back, and one Zed-PM isn't going to be enough to hold them off for long. We need to see what's inside that building and there's no one else who can get the information we need."

Carson let go of Rodney's foot and leant back on the stool, his arms crossed over his chest as he studied Rodney's face. "I'll speak to Colonel Sheppard and Elizabeth," he finally said. "I don't really like this, but as long as you take some precautions, you shouldn't do too much damage to yourself."

Rodney looked at Carson, not sure he heard right. "Thank you."

"There are conditions," Carson told him, his expression serious. "You need to take regular breaks, don't overexert yourself. No carrying of anything heavier than your pack. With that much walking, your leg is going to hurt, regardless. You need to keep it elevated when you aren't moving. Take the pain medication with you and use it." He leant forward on the stool and whispered. "For John's sake as well as your own."

Rodney felt a stab of guilt at the reminder of how his plan would affect John. He'd spent most of the last eight weeks dealing with his own aches and pains, he hadn't thought much about how his broken leg would impact Sheppard. He suddenly wondered if part of the reason John kept taking the new Marines on training missions was so he could get a little relief from the headache and the itch caused by their mental link.

Carson tapped his knee. "I've had a few talks with John over the past weeks," he said as if reading Rodney's mind. "He's dealing with the effects of the link, but let's not make things worse for him if we can help it."

"Carson --" Rodney started to say.

Beckett held up a hand. "John is fine. Just take care of yourself. For both of your sakes."

Rodney put his sock and boot back on, nodded, and carefully stood.

"All right, then," Carson told him, "off with you. Before I change my mind."

Chapter Text

Rodney stepped through the 'gate and let out the breath he'd been holding as he looked around. Until he actually stepped through the wormhole to P9X-291, he wasn't sure Carson or Elizabeth wouldn't find another excuse to force him to stay in Atlantis.

The two times he'd broken his wrist, he'd been back to his regular routine after a few days once the casts were removed. He'd expected the same once Carson took the cast off his leg. He hadn't been prepared for how hard it would be to walk after spending six weeks hopping around on crutches. Once the cast had been removed, he ached almost as much as when he'd been trapped in the rubble after the Wraith grenade exploded. His leg had refused to hold his weight, and the exercises Carson made him do were both painful and exhausting.

Since he had still been on restricted duty after the cast came off, he wasn't able to do any work around the city, leaving any repairs or checks to Zelenka and his engineers. He'd spent the time in his lab either puttering with various Ancient objects or working on his plan to combine the shield and cloaking emitters. While he'd never admit it to anyone, he'd been a little bored the last two weeks with little to really do and no one around to talk to.

Teyla had gone off on the mainland, John had spent most of their downtime training one team or another which meant he wasn't around much, either, and Rodney still wasn't sure where he stood with Dex. He hadn't realised how much he counted on things like their regular team breakfast, his twice-weekly defence lessons with Teyla, or the fact that John would drop by his lab with coffee and keep him company until it had all stopped.

He had tried to eat with Dex a few times when both John and Teyla were away, but Dex never said much and Rodney, never one for small talk at the best of times, didn't know how to keep the conversation going. When John or Teyla invited Dex to join them for a meal, Rodney had used them as a buffer, letting them take the lion's share of conversation duties while he concentrated on eating and adding just enough input to count as participating. It seemed Dex had employed the same tactic. Left to themselves, neither knew what to say to the other.

He pushed those thoughts aside as he looked around at the surrounding landscape and carefully stepped off the dais. It felt like summer on the planet, pleasantly warm, yet not too hot, a refreshing breeze keeping the heat from becoming oppressive. He heard the sound of waves crashing off to his left, a reminder they were on a bit of a clock to save what they could from the archive before it was destroyed.

The area around the 'gate was lush and green, the grass at least a meter high with small pink flowers blooming in patches. They could have flown a jumper through easily, but there wasn't much point. The forest started only a kilometer from the clearing, and from the images the MALP had sent back, there didn't appear to be anywhere near the Ancient structure where they could safely land.

Rodney pulled out the Ancient scanner and started a search for life signs. "The scanner isn't picking anything up between us and the forest," he reported a moment later. "No surprise there is abundant life in the ocean." He looked up. "The only other readings it's getting are several kilometers away in that direction." He pointed off to their right.

"Any ideas what they could be?" John asked as he scanned the area near the 'gate.

Rodney shook his head. "There are several dots clustered together. It could be people, or it could be a herd of animals." He switched the scanner to look for energy signatures and frowned. "I'm not getting any energy readings."

"Guess that means we find this archive of yours the old fashioned way," John said and stepped down from the dais. "Teyla, take point. I've got our six."

"Yes, Colonel," Teyla replied. Rodney noticed she watched the surrounding area with wary attention and kept one hand on the P-90 clipped to her vest.

"I'll carry the generator," Rodney said, and looked around for the device.

"I've got the generator, don't worry," John replied, and picked up the small blocky object next to his feet.

Rodney started to protest, but John spoke over him. "Beckett told me the same conditions he told you. No lifting or carrying anything, remember?"

Rodney glowered for a moment longer before he followed Teyla as she walked past the DHD toward the forest. The grass came up almost to her knees, and Rodney noted there wasn't the usual path leading away from the stargate. According to the reports, there were supposedly people on the planet; it seemed strange there was no evidence they used the 'gate. Every other world they'd visited since their arrival in the Pegasus galaxy had some sort of trade network. It was strange finding a population so wholly self-sufficient.

"Weird there aren't any paths," John said as they started out, echoing Rodney's thoughts.

"I do not know of anyone who has visited this world," Teyla said from in front of them. "If this planet is regularly culled, it is possible the people here stay well hidden and refuse to come near the stargate out of a sense of fear or self-preservation."

"How regularly are we talking?" Rodney asked with a wary glance back at the 'gate then up at the sky.

"There is no way to be sure," Teyla replied. "I have known planets culled every few years."

Rodney gulped. "The chances of the Wraith coming while we're here is small, right? Or maybe they've already come and gone?"

"I'm sure we'll be fine," John said, and gave Rodney a light push to get him moving.

Rodney turned back to glare at him and caught John giving the 'gate a furtive look as well.

It didn't take long for them to reach the beginning of the trees. Sunlight played through the leaves, and Rodney heard a near-constant rustling as the thin branches quaked in the breeze. The trees reminded him of aspen or birch, their white, paper-like bark and small rounded leaves not that different from the trees he knew on Earth.

John glanced around, then pointed off to their left where Rodney could hear the sound of water breaking against the cliff. "The building should be in that direction."

Teyla nodded and led the way into the forest at an easy pace. The trees changed as they moved deeper into the woods, the aspen or birch trees giving way to maple and oak-looking trees that towered over them.

They hiked for an hour, stopping twice to give Rodney a chance to rest his leg, before coming out into a small clearing and found what Rodney thought was an Ancient archive. The building was long and low to the ground, the rounded stone roof forming the sides of the building as well as the top. A single door was inset into the middle of the front of the building with small windows on either side of the door.

Even with the rest breaks, Rodney was silently relieved they'd finally found the building. The forest was at the top of a shallow valley, and Rodney hadn't accounted for the rising elevation or how it would affect him. His leg had started aching fifteen minutes into their journey, but he was loathe to say anything after the fuss he'd made during the briefing that he was fine. Rodney knew he wasn't fooling John, he'd seen Sheppard rub the back of his head a few times as they walked. He suspected from the curious looks Teyla gave both of them that she knew something was wrong as well.

He found a convenient rock for his backpack and rummaged through the large main pocket until he found the bottle of pain medication Carson had given him and a bottle of water. He swallowed a couple of the pills and offered the bottle to John.

"Took something the last time we stopped," he said over the sound of the waves crashing below. "Sit down and rest a minute. Teyla and I will scout around and make sure there's no one else here."

John set the portable generator next to the rock as Rodney moved his pack and sat down with a grunt. John tapped him on the shoulder then turned to Teyla. "You take the left, I'll go right."

Rodney watched as they split up and took separate sides of the clearing. He pulled a power bar out of his vest pocket and ate it while John and Teyla looked around.

"There is no one here," Teyla reported a few minutes later. "Something is strange, however."

"Yeah, I think I know what you mean," Sheppard replied. "It doesn't look like anyone ever comes here."

Teyla nodded. "Precisely. Many people consider the Ancestors as gods to be worshipped. While the village is not near this clearing, I would expect to see signs of pilgrimages or other evidence the building is visited regularly."

Rodney glanced from John to Teyla. "So, what are you saying?" He looked around the clearing.

"I think we need to be careful," John replied with another look around the clearing. "Something just doesn't feel right about this place."

Rodney started to his feet, wincing as he put too much weight on his left leg. He shook off John's hand on his arm and tried not to limp as he made his way over to the door. He tried not to think about the last time John had had a strange feeling about a planet.

"This is Ancient text," he muttered to himself. "It's not at all like the writing on that house." He rubbed his arm and shuddered despite the warmth of the day as he thought about the Eidolon.

John blew up that house, he reminded himself as he squinted at the worn writing over the door. The Eidolon is gone. He let out a breath and concentrated on the symbols over the door.

"Looks like a Quonset hut," John said as he stood next to Rodney. "If Quonset huts were made out of stone."

"What is a Quonset hut?" Teyla asked.

"Cheap military housing," John replied. "They're rounded off just like this. Saw them a lot when I was stationed in Afghanistan."

Rodney ignored the discussion as he tried to translate the faded writing. "I was right," he said a few seconds later and pointed to the symbols etched over the door. "See this symbol here, it means repository or archive. I knew it!" He stepped back with an eager look and studied the rest of the door. "Now I just have to figure out how to open the door." He ran his hands along the edge of the door, looking for the access panel.

"What about the rest?" John asked.

Rodney glanced up at the symbols as he searched for the panel. "Something about Kadmos and hidden secrets."

"Kadmos?" Teyla asked.

"I think it was someone's name," Rodney replied absently.

His fingers felt an indentation on the right side of the door. He brushed away the accumulated dirt and found what looked like the same door controls as in Atlantis, except recessed into the frame of the door.

He tapped the control panel and waited. He frowned when the panel didn't respond, and the door stayed firmly shut. He touched the control again, and when nothing happened, he pried off the cover and looked inside. The panel contained the usual three crystals, but the crystals were dark, and when he touched one, he didn't feel any vibrations indicating they had power.

"Good thing we brought the generator," he said and stepped back from the door. "There's no power to the door. Probably means there's no power to any of the other systems, either."

John hauled the generator over to the door, opened the top, plugged in two wires, and handed the leads off to Rodney.

Rodney took the wires, and after a careful examination of the crystals inside the mechanism, found the power crystal. He connected the leads to the crystal and stood back as John threw the switch for the generator.

The crystals inside the control panel glowed, and this time when Rodney tapped the surface, the door slid open a few centimeters before it stopped again. It wasn't much, but it was enough for John and Rodney to get their fingers wrapped around the edge, and push the doors open the rest of the way.

Teyla stood on one side of the doorway and scanned the room with the barrel light from her P-90. Rodney watched as she entered the building slowly, playing the barrel light around the room as she moved to the left of the door.

Rodney started to follow, but John blocked him with an arm before he could cross the threshold. "We don't know what's inside. Stay behind me," John ordered.

Rodney made a frustrated face but stepped aside and waited for John to lead the way inside. Teyla was several meters from the door on the left, John took the right side of the room.

Rodney played the light from his flashlight over the room as he followed John inside. He heard a soft snick as the door closed behind them, and the sound of the waves was muted. There was a little light filtering into the room from the dirt-covered windows, and Rodney also saw daylight through the cracks where the stones no longer fit tightly together in the walls and near the door.

The room itself was lined with rows of shelves holding an assortment of items from books of all sizes to various pieces of Ancient technology. Rodney's flashlight beam reflected off of a large screen against one wall with a console in front of it. A desk, cluttered with an assortment of items, sat next to the console.

Rodney stopped at the console and squirmed out of his pack as John and Teyla cleared the rest of the room. He dropped the backpack on the messy desk as he sat down on the stool in front of the screen and looked over the tiles arrayed on the console, happy when he recognised a few. The controls for the environmental systems were to his right, controls to access some sort of database were on his left.

"Did you check it for traps?" John asked from directly behind Rodney as he reached out a hand to touch the edge of the console.

Rodney tried hard not to jump and turned to Sheppard with a glare. "I thought you were checking the rest of the building."

John shrugged. "It's a Quonset hut, basically one big room, and not that big. You didn't answer me, did you check it for traps?"

"Who would booby trap an archive?" Rodney asked dismissively as he reached out to the edge of the console again.

John grabbed his hand and gave him a hard look. "Ancients keeping secrets make me nervous."

Rodney realised John was thinking of the moon and the Wraith experiments done by Crius and swallowed. John let him go, and he pulled his hand back. He examined the console and then the ceiling above him. "I think it's fine," he said and reached out to the edge of the console again.

The tiles remained stubbornly dark. Rodney grimaced as he slid off the stool and ducked under the console, waving the beam of the flashlight along the underside looking for the access panel.

"Can you bring --" He heard a thump beside him and peeked out from under the console to see the portable generator on the floor near his feet. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," John replied.

Ten minutes later, Rodney had the generator wired in and watched as the console glowed to life followed by the lights.

"Wow," Rodney muttered as the light glinted off of the Ancient devices arrayed along the shelves.

"You can say that again," John agreed, and Rodney heard the awe in his tone. "I think we hit the motherlode."

"What is all of this and why keep it on such a planet?" Teyla asked as she trailed a hand over one of the shelves holding various devices.

Rodney sat back on the stool, absently rubbing his leg as he scanned the tiles on the console. He gave a few of the tiles an experimental tap, then pulled a laptop and a set of cables out of his pack. The computer wasn't as compact as the combo-computer he'd had since soon after their arrival, but he managed to balance it awkwardly on the edge of the console. He plugged the computer into the console and paged through the information on the screen.

"According to this, Kadmos was some sort of historian," Rodney said as he read the screen. "This planet had a huge city that used to be an Ancient hub for both commerce and academia." He glanced up at John. "Then the Wraith discovered the planet. Kadmos built this," he waved a hand around the room," when the Ancients realised they couldn't save the city."

"How was it not destroyed by the Wraith when they attacked the planet?" Teyla asked.

Rodney shrugged. "Maybe it had some sort of cloak or shield protecting it. Once the power was drained, the building was visible again." He looked at the long shelves of devices. "By then though, the Ancients were long gone. Since there aren't any people living in this area now, the Wraith probably ignore it when they come through the 'gate."

"If the Wraith knew Ancients were on the planet, that could explain the regular cullings," John suggested as he leant over Rodney's shoulder and read the information on the computer screen.

"Indeed," Teyla agreed. "The Wraith would want to make sure the people here did not advance to the point where they might find and use the devices in this room."

"We're going to need a lot more people out here," Rodney said as he sat back on the stool. "This is going to take weeks to sort through. Maybe months."

John looked at his watch and then out the door. "All right, if we head back now --"

"Didn't you just hear what I said? We can't go back!" Rodney exclaimed. "I need to start organising these artefacts, prioritising what devices we take back first."

"There are only three of us, Rodney," John said, and Rodney knew he was trying to hold his temper. "If you want more people out here, we have to get back to the 'gate and call Elizabeth."

"So go," Rodney retorted and turned his back on Sheppard as he typed a new query into the computer. "It shouldn't take you that long to walk back to the 'gate. I'll start the data dump while you're gone."

"I'm not leaving you here alone," John said.

"I'm not some sort of helpless child." Rodney looked up with a scowl. "I can take care of myself." He pointed to the Beretta strapped to his leg. "Besides, you saw the same MALP reports I did. The scanner says there's no one around here, and you said yourself the room was safe."

"McKay -- " John started to say, and Rodney matched him glare for glare.

"I will stay with Rodney, Colonel," Teyla offered. "We will be all right here until your return."

Rodney looked from John to Teyla. He knew if John insisted they all go back to the 'gate together, there wasn't much he could do about it.

"Fine," John said a few moments later. "You do not leave this room." John glared at Rodney. "I don't care what happens, you two stay here and watch each other's back."

"We will stay here," Teyla promised, and Rodney nodded absently as he read the data on the computer screen.

"Here," Rodney said, and held out the Ancient scanner.

John shook his head. "I'll be fine." He glanced at his watch. "I should be back in a couple of hours."

Rodney waited until John was gone, then said, "Thank you, for …" He nodded at the door where John had disappeared.

"You are welcome," Teyla replied and went back to examining the objects on the shelves. "I admit, I too am curious about the artefacts in this room," she added as she picked up one of the books. "My people's knowledge of the Ancestors is fragmentary at best."

Rodney tapped several of the tiles on the console looking for any sort of inventory or manifest of what Kadmos had stored in the room.

"Has John said anything more to you about Ronon staying in the city and joining our team?" Teyla asked after several minutes of silence.

Rodney shook his head as he read the data scrolling across the computer screen. "Last I heard, he was still thinking about whether or not he wanted to stay." Rodney looked up from the computer. "Not sure what he really needs to think about. Where else is he going to go?"

Teyla smiled as she walked over and stood at the edge of the console. "So he is no longer a stray to grudgingly accept?"

Rodney grimaced as he looked over at her. "To be fair, when I said that, I had just been cut out of a tree."

Teyla laughed. "I suppose that would color your impression of him."

Rodney sat back on the stool. "He did take over some of your defence classes while you were gone," he said thoughtfully. "I guess that's a good sign he might be staying."

"And what did you think of Ronon as a teacher?"

Rodney rubbed his aching leg, shuddered, and tapped a new query into the computer. "Do I look insane to you? I'll start training with the Marines before I give Dex a chance to kill me even in a so-called controlled setting."

"I doubt Ronon would really hurt you," she said with another smile.

"I'm not willing to take that bet," Rodney muttered under his breath as he read the new information on the computer screen.

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

Ronon sat in the corner of the mess hall near the windows, splitting his attention between the comings and goings of the people around him and watching the two moons rising outside, their soft glow reflecting off the water. The views were one reason after eight weeks he was still in Atlantis. Sheppard, Beckett, Teyla, even McKay, in his own way, was another, bigger, reason. It had been a long time since he'd felt a sense of camaraderie and friendship with anyone.

He still had a constant guard, but thanks to Sheppard suggesting he offer to teach anyone interested in Satedan combat tactics, the suspicion had been replaced with grudging respect. No one stared at him anymore as he sat eating, and several of the Marines even nodded or made some other gesture of greeting when they saw him.

He glanced up from his plate and saw Beckett enter the mess hall right on time. Ronon watched as he gathered his dinner, filled a cup and looked around the room. It didn't take him long to find Ronon sitting against the windows.

"Hello, Ronon. May I join you?" Beckett asked a few moments later.

Ronon jerked his head at the chair across from him and went back to his own meal.

They ate in silence for several minutes until Beckett said, "You seem to be settling in here fairly well." He gave Ronon a sideways look around his cup and added, "I know Colonel Sheppard is still eager to have you on his mission team. In fact, I'm a bit surprised he didn't have you tag along on this planet survey they left on today."

Ronon shrugged and picked up the hamburger on his plate. "Haven't decided if I'm staying or not," he replied as he took a bite.

Beckett gave him a knowing look. "I think you have, son. The fact you're still here tells me you want to stay in the city. The only thing you still need to decide is if you plan to accept Colonel Sheppard's offer to join him and Teyla and Rodney." He studied Ronon for a moment. "You aren't letting anyone down, or forgetting about them, by deciding to stay, you know."

Ronon stared out the window, finishing the burger, lost in thought as Beckett went back to his dinner. Beckett's comment had hit surprisingly close to the mark, and Ronon was surprised the doctor had read him so well. He still wasn't sure he wasn't somehow letting Melena and his friends down if he chose to stay in Atlantis and help Sheppard fight the Wraith rather then setting out on his own to exact his revenge.

He was pulled out of his ruminations ten minutes later when Beckett said, "I haven't had as many of your students in my infirmary the last few days." Beckett looked over at him with a smile. "Does that mean they are getting better?"

Ronon shrugged. "Some of them. They have the basics down. I want to start some weapons training next. Will need to talk to Sheppard about it first, I guess."

Beckett looked up as he finished his coffee. "What sort of weapons?"

"Knives."

Beckett set his coffee cup down. "You plan to use dummy knives, I hope."

Ronon glanced over at him and smiled. "Where's the fun in that."

Beckett started to sputter.

Ronon waited a beat and smiled slightly.

Beckett gave him a hard look as he got the joke and stood. "Well, I'm sorry to eat and run, but I have some research I'm working on in the medical lab that's on the delicate side."

"See you later, Doc."

Beckett hadn't been gone long when Doctor Zelenka and another scientist entered the mess hall, filled their plates, wandered over to Ronon's corner of the room.

"Has anyone heard from Doctor McKay yet?" the man asked Zelenka.

Ronon remembered seeing the man in the infirmary after the Wraith grenade had gone off in a neighboring tower. The man had been in a bed not far from Ronon's, and he remembered the man's name was Adam. Unlike the Marines, Ronon hadn't spent much time with any of the scientists other than McKay and Zelenka.

Zelenka shook his head as he and Adam sat at a nearby table. Zelenka gave Ronon a nod and a smile before he dropped a folder on the table and turned to Adam. "Colonel Sheppard's team is not scheduled to check-in until tomorrow. Hopefully, Rodney will have a better idea of what this archive contains when he calls."

"If it really is a cache of Ancient artefacts stored on the planet, it would be an amazing discovery," Adam said and started to eat. "I wonder if Doctor Weir would consider setting up a sort of research annex on the planet. It would simplify the cataloguing of any weapons and the artefacts immensely if we had long term access to the site."

Ronon heard the conversation and was reminded of how he had initially scoffed at the idea of Sheppard and his people searching the Pegasus galaxy for whatever technology the Ancestors had left behind. At the time, he couldn't see much of a point. The Ancestor's technology obviously hadn't prevented the Wraith from taking over the galaxy thousands of years ago, what made these people think those weapons would work any better now?

A few weeks after he and McKay had been rescued from the tower explosion, Sheppard had taken him on the promised tour of the planet and told him about the Wraith siege of the city.

Ronon looked out the front windscreen of the jumper as Sheppard made a slow pass over the city. It was clear to him the city had suffered significant damage during a recent attack.

"What happened? Ronon had asked as they passed over one of the long arms near the edge of the city. The pier was scarred with what looked like recent scorch marks, and several buildings needed repairs.

"Wraith," John said shortly. "We'd known they were coming for a few weeks and were able to fight off the first wave of hive ships. Unfortunately, a second wave of a dozen ships nearly destroyed the city."

Ronon stared at Sheppard. During his time in the Satedan military and seven years running, he had never heard of anyone surviving a culling from one hive ship, much less several. "How did you survive?"

Sheppard smiled. "Rodney out-bluffed them," he said cryptically, though Ronon could see the pride in Sheppard's expression.

"You don't bluff the Wraith," he replied with a scowl.

Sheppard studied Ronon for a few seconds then said, "Rodney did. He made it look like the Wraith had succeeded in blowing up the city, when in fact he and Zelenka had figured out a way to cloak it without them realising it." John looked out at the city below. "The Wraith think Atlantis, and everyone in it, was destroyed."

Ronon had spent the rest of the trip thinking about how Sheppard and his people had done something no one else had managed. They had fooled the Wraith. If they could do that, he realised, then maybe it was possible they could destroy the Wraith once and for all.

"I am not sure an outpost would be feasible," Zelenka said as Ronon gathered up his dishes and stood from his table. "The planet is inhabited, though the natives do not seem to live near the stargate."

Ronon's ears perked up at that comment. There had been rumors of a planet with a building filled with rare items just waiting for someone to come take them and make their fortune. He didn't know of anyone who had successfully brought anything back from the planet, however, and a few years later he found out why.

It couldn't be the same planet, he told himself. There had to be dozens of worlds with old buildings made by the Ancestors.

As he passed Zelenka's table, he glanced at the pictures scattered across the surface of the table between the two scientists and froze. The images were grainy, but it was easy for him to see the open area surrounding the Ancestor's ring and the tall thin trees in the near distance.

Why would they go there? Ronon wondered even as the answer stared him in the face. McKay, he thought to himself. He must have seen the building and convinced Sheppard they needed to visit the planet.

"Even if we're only able to stay a few weeks --" Adam started to say, but Ronon interrupted.

"Sheppard went to this planet? When?" Ronon asked. He dropped his tray on a nearby table, ignoring the startled response from his ever-present watchdogs. He picked up one of the pictures and studied it further.

The building would have tempted McKay the same way it had tempted so many others. Ronon growled low in his throat. The Marines shifted slightly and fingered their weapons.

Zelenka looked up, and Ronon could see the mixture of fear and uncertainty in his expression. "Yes, they left," Zelenka looked at his watch, "roughly four hours ago."

Ronon stared at the image of the low building surrounded by trees. He could be wrong, he told himself. There were lots of planets with the same sort of trees. There was one way to know for sure.

He looked up from the picture and growled, "Was this the only building near the ring?"

Zelenka pushed up his glasses and nodded. "There appears to be a settlement of some sort some distance away from the stargate. The building is on a cliff and, yes, it is the only structure near the 'gate itself."

Ronon pressed his lips together. It wasn't conclusive, but the more he looked at the image, the more he was sure he was right. Sheppard had gone to Mendar.

"I need to talk to Doctor Weir. Now." He glared at the two guards standing behind him, tense and alert.

Zelenka stood. "I don't understand. There did not appear to be anything dangerous about the planet."

"Trust me, that planet is more dangerous than you can imagine. I need to see Weir."

Zelenka took one more look at Ronon's face, picked up the scattered pictures, and nodded. "Yes, yes, come with me."

Ronon followed as Zelenka led the way out of the mess hall and up to the control room. One of the men looked up from his console, a startled look on his face, as Ronon and Zelenka passed the control room looking serious and determined, and tapped on the open door to the glassed-in office.

"Radek?" Weir said as she looked up from her computer and glanced first at Zelenka, then Ronon and his guards. "Is something wrong."

"I believe so," Zelenka said and stepped into the office. "It is possible we made a mistake sending Colonel Sheppard's team to P9X-291. According to Ronon," Zelenka nodded to Ronon standing near the door with his arms crossed over his chest, "the planet is extremely dangerous."

Weir glanced at Ronon and motioned him into the office. "Wait outside," she added to the two Marines trailing behind him.

Ronon glanced at his guards then followed Zelenka into the office.

"Ronon, please sit down," Weir said once the office door was closed.

Ronon shook his head and stood with his hands behind his back, not quite at attention, but still a position for a soldier reporting to a superior.

Weir accepted that. "What do you know about P9X-291? Why is it so dangerous?"

Ronon studied her face for a moment, and when he saw she meant to take what he had to say seriously, he relaxed slightly and said, "It's not the planet, it's the people."

"Go on."

"They sacrifice anyone who comes through the ring of the Ancestors to their gods," Ronon told her bluntly.

Ronon heard Zelenka mutter something under his breath and glanced over to see the shocked look on his face. "Elizabeth," he whispered. "They have been there for hours."

Weir took a deep breath, and Ronon saw her hands clench together on her desk. "And you're sure this is the same planet?"

Ronon gestured to the images in Zelenka's hand, and Zelenka handed them to him. "I've been there. When I was running." He pulled one of the images of the structure out of the stack and set it on Weir's desk. "This building is at the edge of some woods. It's in a clearing overlooking an ocean not far from the ring of the Ancestors. There have been stories. People go to Mendar to scavenge whatever they could find. They're never seen or heard from again."

"And you think it's because the people on this planet kill anyone who comes through the 'gate."

Ronon scowled at the question. "I watched them do it."

Weir ducked her head. "How did you escape?" she asked a moment later.

Ronon studied her face for a moment. Was it curiosity? Suspicion? He decided she genuinely wanted to know. "The Wraith following me underestimated the people living there. I was hiding nearby and watched as they captured it, took it back to their temple near the foothills, and then killed it. I didn't wait for them to find me. I ran for the ring," he told her, his expression neutral.

Weir looked up in shock. "They captured a Wraith?"

Ronon nodded. "And killed it."

"You saw this."

Ronon crossed his arms over his chest again. "Yep."

Weir stared at him a moment longer, then tapped her earpiece. "Weir to Major Lorne."

She paused for a moment then said, "Major, we have a situation. Your mission to P2R-483 is off. Come to my office."

She tapped off her radio and looked up at Ronon. "Major Lorne will be here in a few minutes. I need you to tell him everything you remember about the people on that planet."

Two minutes later, Lorne knocked on the door, and Weir waved him inside.

"You said something about a situation, ma'am?" Lorne said as he stood in front of her desk.

Weir nodded. "According to Ronon, Colonel Sheppard and his team may have run into trouble on P9X-291."

"Mendar," Ronon said from where he stood against the wall.

"Mendar," Weir corrected. "It seems the local population may be hostile toward any visitors who come through the stargate."

"Hostile in what way, ma'am?" Lorne asked with a quick glance at Ronon.

"Ronon?"

Ronon looked from Weir to Lorne. "That settlement you saw from your machine is a decoy. The actual village is hidden in a valley in the forest near some foothills. The people on Mendar capture anyone they can who comes through the ring. Prisoners are taken back to the village, and after some sort of ceremony …" He looked out the window at the Ancestor's ring below. "They take their prisoners to the top of a stone structure, tie them to an altar, cut the heart out, and burn it."

He heard the sharp intake of breath from Zelenka standing beside him and saw Weir and Lorne pale as what he told them sank in.

"I guess we know where the Aztecs got the idea," he heard Lorne mutter at the same time and wondered what an Aztec was.

Weir ducked her head for a moment then looked up. Ronon was relieved to see the determined expression on her face. It meant he wouldn't have to go to the planet alone. "I'm sending your team to bring them back, Major."

"Yes, ma'am," Lorne replied his own expression hard.

Ronon stepped toward the desk. He wasn't going to be left behind; he owed Sheppard too much to not volunteer to find him. This would even the balance slightly.

"I'm going with them," Ronon said, his blunt statement brooked no argument.

"I don't think --" Weir started to say.

"You need me," Ronon pointed out. "I've been there before."

Weir studied his face, and Ronon glared back.

"You've been to this planet?" Lorne asked into the silence. "And made it back through the 'gate?"

Ronon nodded, never taking his eyes off Weir.

"His knowledge of the planet could be invaluable, ma'am," Lorne said. "We could use his help."

Weir looked from Ronon to Lorne. After a moment, she sighed. "Fine. Go."

Lorne turned toward the door and jerked his head for Ronon to follow.

"Bring them back, Major," Weir said.

"I intend to, ma'am," Lorne replied and left the office.

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

John took a deep breath as he headed back through the woods to the 'gate. There was no real rush, technically Elizabeth wasn't expecting them to check-in for another six hours, and it wasn't every day he could take the time to just enjoy one of the planets they visited. He savored the rare chance to enjoy the pleasant weather and soak up a bit of nature as he listened to the birds chirping in the trees and the insects buzzing around him.

Ever since he was a boy, he'd loved the outdoors, camping, surfing, anything to be outside. Maybe he should talk to Elizabeth about some downtime for the three of them. Maybe head to the mainland, camp on the beach. They just had to stay as far away as possible from any Ancient totem poles, he thought with a wry smile.

Sheppard watched the dappled sunlight on the forest floor and smiled to himself. If they really were going to have a team camping trip, he'd ask Dex to come along. If he wanted Ronon to join the team, he needed to give Dex a reason to say yes. Show him that he was already part of the team and that they wanted him to stay.

Sheppard knew McKay would argue against the idea. John could admit their previous attempts at a team getaway had ended badly with a cave-in and the gauntlet from hell. On the other hand, they'd spent most of the last eight weeks going their separate ways, it was time for a little team bonding. Now that Rodney was reasonably mobile, it was as good a time as any for the three of them to spend some time together, away from Atlantis and the day-to-day problems. They needed some time to regroup.

He took another deep breath and relaxed slightly as he walked. Contrary to what he'd said to Rodney in the archive, he didn't think the planet or the building posed that much of a risk. If he had, he never would have left Rodney and Teyla alone without backup.

If anything, the discussion with McKay hammered home the fact he really needed to get Ronon on board with joining the team. It hadn't been a priority while Rodney had been laid up, but now that they were back in the field, John knew they couldn't continue as a three-man team long-term.

If Dex had been with them, it wouldn't have been an issue to leave Rodney at the building. Teyla could have come back with him to the 'gate while Ronon stayed with McKay. As it was, if anyone had to be alone, even on an apparently deserted planet, John preferred it was him.

A flock of birds took flight not far away from him. John froze, the P-90 up and ready, and waited several moments.

Even if there weren't people around, there were still animals, he reminded himself as he took a wary look around. He waited several more seconds, and when nothing else happened, John relaxed his aim and continued his trek back to the 'gate.

He couldn't really blame Rodney for wanting to stay and play with the Ancient toys. Along with any new discoveries to be made, he'd seen McKay surreptitiously rubbing his calf, and the itch at the back of his head told John the leg had to be aching.

He was in a small clearing not more than a mile from the archive when he noticed something was off. It was too quiet, no insects buzzed, the birds in the trees were silent. It even seemed as if the waves had stopped crashing against the cliff. John stopped and slowly turned in place, regretting the Ancient scanner he'd left with McKay. He thought he saw something moving in the woods to his right and took a step toward the trees behind him looking for cover.

So much for the idea that the planet was deserted, he thought as he saw another shadowy shape in front of him. He inched toward the cover of the nearest trees, his head in constant motion as he looked for more movement. Still, better him than Rodney or Teyla, he told himself.

He saw a blur of movement in front of him just as something stabbed him in the back of the leg, upsetting his balance. He awkwardly twisted back around, fired off several rounds from the P-90, and glanced down to see an arrow sticking out of his left leg just above his knee.

There was more movement in the trees, and he fired several more shots as more arrows flew in his direction. One bounced off the tac-vest, but another caught him between his right shoulder and chest where the strap for the vest left a gap. His arm spasmed in pain, and he dropped the P-90. The arrow wasn't embedded very deep, and he pulled it out with a groan, dropped it on the ground and looked around for the fallen weapon.

More arrows flew out from his unseen attackers in the trees. John tried to run, but his leg buckled under him and he dropped to one knee.

He stopped moving, and the arrows stopped as quickly as they started. John slowly stood and tried to take a step. Another arrow shot out of the surrounding forest, thudding into the ground at his feet. He stopped again and slowly raised his hands. For a moment, nothing happened.

John turned in a circle, watching as much of the forest as he could. He saw twenty men, with short dark hair, and dressed in hides, all of them taller than he was, come out of the woods and surround him. Each man carried a bow raised toward him with an arrow nocked and ready. They closed around him in a circle, leaving no gaps he could run through even if his leg didn't have an arrow sticking out of it.

"Look, if you wanted us to leave, all you had to do was say so," he said and looked from one man to the next trying to figure out who was in charge.

The blow came so fast, John never saw it. The punch dropped him painfully to his knees, and the arrow dug further into the back of his leg. John spat blood from his split lip and looked up with a glare.

"La ofero ne parolos," the large man standing in front of him growled.

Ofero? That sounds an awful lot like 'offering', John thought as he knelt on the ground. What the hell was going on here? he asked himself and looked around the circle of men surrounding him.

The large man glared at him a moment longer, then spoke to his men. Even though John couldn't understand a word he said, the words were clearly orders as the men fanned out and searched the clearing.

The men returned several minutes later, shaking their heads.

"Kie estas la aliaj?" the man demanded with a glare at John.

John tried to make his expression as innocent as possible. "I'd love to help, but I have no idea what you're saying. I don't suppose you speak English?"

The man curled his lip and back-handed John across the face again.

As John wiped the blood off his face, he saw movement in the trees and a flash of red hair. At the same time, several of the men turned in the same direction.

John wasn't sure what was happening or how they had angered the locals, and he certainly planned to have words with Teyla later about following him after she'd promised to stay with McKay, but all of that could wait for the moment. They needed to deal with the armed and clearly dangerous men first, he wasn't going to let any of his people get captured if he could help it.

Three of the men started toward the trees and John lunged at them, ignoring the tearing feeling in his leg as the arrow shifted when he moved.

He managed to bring two of the men down and heard the rapid fire of a P-90. Several of the other men fell to the ground, moaning as the bullets found their mark.

Another man ripped the arrow out of John's leg, dropping Sheppard back to the ground, and tried to stab him with it. John cried out as the arrow came out of his leg and barely stopped the bloody arrow aimed at his chest in time. He tried to stand, but his leg refused to hold his weight, and he ducked another blow from his attacker as more shots from the P-90 peppered the men surrounding him.

Even as a few more of the men went down, John knew they weren't going to win. There were too many, and he couldn't stop the men closing in on Teyla's position.

He managed to get the arrow away from the man on top of him, pushed the man off, rolled over, and yelled, "Teyla! Run!" just as he felt a hard blow to the back of his head.

As the world dimmed around him, he heard more gunshots, then silence as his world faded to black.

Chapter Text

Rodney pored over the data from the console as he downloaded as much information as he could to the computer. He didn't know who this Kadmos person was, but his archive was a godsend as far as Rodney as concerned. Along with any weapons that would make John and the rest of the military salivate, the sheer volume of scientific research would keep Rodney and his teams busy for months.

He stood and limped over to the nearest row of shelves, wandered along, looking for any symbols he recognised on the spines of the thick tomes. He found the Ancient symbols for the stargate on one of the books, grunted as he pulled down the heavy volume, balanced the book on the edge of the shelf, and opened it to a random page. From what he could translate, it appeared to be a description of the naquadah reserves used to power the 'gate when it opened a wormhole. He ran a finger down the page, picking out a word here or there. Once again, he wished for some sort of universal translator like the ones on television that would let him instantly understand the text.

"Rodney?" Teyla said as she came up beside him. "Should you be standing? Did Doctor Beckett not say you needed to take time to rest?"

Rodney glanced at her as he closed the book. "I'm fine," he replied as he limped back to the desk, the thick book tucked in one hand.

He set the book down next to his pack. He wanted to make sure they took it back with them, maybe that linguist, Chaudhri, would have better luck translating the contents. He went back to scanning the shelves, wondering if there was a book describing how to manufacture Zed-PMs somewhere.

He was reaching for another promising text when a searing spike of pain went through his skull.

He cried out and grabbed for the edge of the shelf as he felt himself falling. He landed on his side, his left leg throbbing in time with his head as it twisted under him.

"Rodney! What happened?" Teyla asked, and Rodney felt her hand on his arm. "Did you injure your leg?"

Rodney groaned and shook his head as he tried to sit up. "Not leg," he muttered. "Head. Feels like -- " He moaned, grabbed his skull again, and curled into a ball as another smaller spike of pain hit him.

He heard Teyla hiss beside him even as she rubbed one of his arms. He opened his eyes and stared at her, hoping his question was plain in his expression.

"I think Colonel Sheppard is in trouble," she told him.

"What?" Rodney groaned, and tried to uncurl from the floor. "How can you possibly know that?" he asked as he slowly sat up.

"Your reaction matches that of John's when you are injured." She stood and helped Rodney to his feet. "We need to find him. Quickly."

Rodney nodded and followed as fast as he could as Teyla hurried back up the row of shelves.

"I got hit with a blinding headache in Elizabeth's office. Not something I could really hide from her."

Rodney knew about the low-grade headache Sheppard dealt with any time he was trapped in the infirmary. Rodney had had his share of headaches as a side effect of John's injuries as well. He'd forgotten about the spike Sheppard had told him about after the transformer blew up.

The few times John had been seriously injured, Rodney had either been dealing with his own injuries or unconscious. He'd never felt a spike before. Now he realised John hadn't been exaggerating when he said the spikes were excruciating and something he hadn't been able to hide.

He reached the end of the shelves at the same time Teyla reached the door.

"Colonel Sheppard, it is Teyla, can you hear me?" she asked over the radio as she pushed open the door, and raised her P-90 as she stepped outside. "Colonel Sheppard, please respond!" she said again and glanced back at Rodney with a shake of her head.

"Go," he told her. "I'm right behind you."

Teyla hesitated for a moment, then gave him a quick nod. Rodney saw her running toward the nearby trees.

He was almost back to the door when another spike hit him, dropping him back to the floor. He fought the black spots dancing in his vision and tried to breathe through the pain. He needed to get up, he told himself. Sheppard was in trouble and needed help.

Rodney's head pounded as he crawled to the door and used the frame to lever himself back to his feet. The spike of pain had ebbed, but the headache was still there as well as a tingling feeling at the base of his skull that didn't stop.

He staggered out the door and squinted as the sun stabbed into his skull, making his head pound even more. He rubbed his forehead and looked around. He had no idea which way Sheppard had gone to get back to the 'gate. His head shot up at the sound of gunshots off to his left, and Rodney headed in the same direction. His hand reached for the radio, but he stopped short of using it. If either John or Teyla was hiding, he didn't want to give away their position.

He forgot all about the computer still downloading information from the Ancient console, the shelves of Ancient devices and books, even his backpack, as he limped through the woods, bracing himself on various trees as he stumbled toward the sounds of the gunfight. If Teyla was right, John was in serious trouble and needed help. He felt at his hip for the Beretta as he continued through the trees as fast as his aching leg would carry him.

There was another spurt of gunfire in the distance, then silence. Rodney froze, his body tense as he waited. Had Teyla reached John in time and they were on their way back to find him? he wondered. Or had something happened, and he was the only one left to try and rescue them? He unholstered the Beretta, stood with his back against a tree, and waited.

There was nothing over the radio, and Rodney debated once again whether or not he should try to contact Sheppard or Teyla. He settled for tapping the transmitter three times, the team's silent code to check-in.

"This is not good," he muttered to himself as he stared into the trees, hoping to see John and Teyla coming back toward him.

He waited several more minutes, and when he was neither attacked nor did he see Sheppard or Teyla reappear, he continued through the trees to the last place he'd heard the gunshots.

He reached the edge of a small clearing several minutes later and looked around in shock.

The bodies of several large men, dressed in what looked like animal hides, lay on the ground. Each body was riddled with bullet wounds. Whoever these people were, John and Teyla had put up a fight before … Before what? he wondered as he raised the Beretta and inched his way into the clearing.

Rodney felt his heart hammering as he stepped around the dead men and looked around the rest of the clearing. Broken arrows and spent brass littered the churned up ground, but there was no sign of Teyla or Sheppard.

"If they had killed all of their attackers, they would have come back for you," he told himself as he looked around. "Since they didn't come back, they must have been captured." He refused to consider the other option, that they weren't merely taken, but lying dead somewhere in the surrounding forest.

"If Sheppard were dead, you'd know it," Rodney reassured himself. He imagined the link snapping like a rubber band pulled too tight and shuddered.

He limped around the edge of the clearing and found a P-90 lying on the ground near the edge of the open space. He swallowed hard when he saw the red stain on the ground near the rifle. John's blood? he wondered. Teyla's? Or someone else's? He holstered the Beretta, bent down, carefully picked up the discarded rifle, and automatically checked to see how much ammunition was left. He searched the clearing again looking for anything else that could tell him what had happened to his missing teammates.

Should he forego trying to find Sheppard and Teyla and head back to the stargate? He had the scanner he should be able to find the 'gate quickly enough. Rodney patted the vest pocket where he usually kept the Ancient device and growled when he remembered it was still in the building, sitting on the edge of the console next to his computer where John had set it before he'd left.

Okay, he thought to himself, he didn't have the scanner, but even without it, it would probably be easier to find the stargate. Should he risk the time it would take to go back, explain to Elizabeth how he'd lost the rest of his team and then wait for her to put together a search team? He rubbed his forehead in an effort to ease the headache. If John and Teyla were in real trouble, they might not have that kind of time, he mentally argued.

He leant against the nearest tree and scrubbed a hand over his face. Trying to find Sheppard and Teyla on his own was just as risky, he knew. He had no idea how to track someone through a forest, he wasn't Special Operations trained like Sheppard nor had he spent his entire life hunting game like Teyla.

And what would he do if he did find them? He could barely walk, he told himself. He wouldn't be doing them any favors if the only thing he managed to do was get himself captured as well.

Rodney had almost convinced himself to head back for the 'gate when another thought hit him. It was entirely his fault Sheppard was missing, and possibly hurt, in the first place. If he hadn't been so focused on the treasure trove of artefacts in the room, if he'd only agreed to go back to the 'gate with John, it was possible the three of them together would have been able to fight off whatever had attacked Teyla and Sheppard and taken them who knew where. This was his mess to clean up, he realised. He could go back to Atlantis with his tail between his legs, or he could do the right thing and find his missing teammates.

"And that's lesson two, McKay," Sheppard's voice echoed in his head. "No one gets left behind. You get yourself in trouble, and we will be there to get you out."

"Well, Sheppard, it looks like you're the one in trouble this time, so I guess it's my turn again." He kept the P-90 in his right hand and scanned the ground for any other clues as to where John and Teyla might have gone. He found what he hoped was a path leading out of the clearing and started following it.

He'd limped through the woods for several minutes, following the faint traces, eating a power bar, before he realised his head hurt less and the tingling feeling at the base of his skull had gone away.

"Finally," he muttered to himself. "Maybe now I can think straight."

He'd gone several more meters along the trail before another thought struck him. Something John had told him about how he'd used the connection of the link to find Rodney and Teyla after Rasha had kidnapped them.

"You never did tell me how you found us," Rodney had said as they sat out on one of the balconies a few days after their rescue from Rasha's clutches.

John shrugged and leant back in his chair. "You and Teyla were both leaving breadcrumbs," he replied, "I just followed them."

Rodney watched the water for a moment, then shook his head. "But how did you know we were still in the ruins? I saw the reports. Ten of Rasha's men headed for the 'gate before you found us. You had no way of knowing Teyla and I weren't with them and gone for good."

John glanced over at him. "Actually, I did know you, at least, were still in the building." He pointed to his head. "The link told me. I just hoped Teyla was still there with you."

Rodney crossed his arms. "I'm not sure the Ancients meant for the link to be used as some sort of homing device."

John chuckled, but when he replied, his tone was deadly serious. "If it helps me find you, I'll use whatever I have to."

Rodney stopped short and looked around. Was the pain less because John was feeling better or because he was going the wrong way?

"You're a scientist," he said out loud. "Experiment and check your results."

Rodney stuffed the empty energy bar wrapper in his pocket, turned around, and headed back the way he'd come. It wasn't until he was back in the clearing itself that he felt the tingling at the base of his skull again.

He had been going the wrong way, he realised. So which way should he try next?

The tingling was becoming more and more faint. Did that mean John was still moving away from him? he wondered. If that was the case, he needed to decide on a direction soon, or he'd lose the link altogether.

Rodney walked around the clearing, concentrating on the link and what it was telling him. The tingling seemed a bit more pronounced off to his left.

"Great. That leads back to the archive," he muttered. "I could have just stayed there and saved myself the walk." Rodney took a deep breath, tightened his hold on the P-90, and headed in the new direction, letting the strength of the weird tingling feeling guide his steps.

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

Ronon stopped in his quarters long enough to grab his leather duster, then headed down to the armoury, his ever-present shadow in tow. For a moment, he wondered if the man silently trailing after him would be coming along on the mission as well.

"Reed, make sure you grab the first aid kit," he heard Lorne say as he walked into the armoury.

A thin man with dark hair nodded, pulled a green bag with a red cross emblazoned on it across the table and stuffed it into a large backpack.

"According to Dex, these people are known to be hostile, so make sure you have extra ammunition, too."

Lorne stood at the head of a small work table surrounded by three other men. The table was piled with various items the three men were packing into backpacks or the pockets of the vest they each wore.

Lorne looked up when Ronon entered the room and glanced at the man following him. "You're dismissed, Corporal," he told the Marine.

"Yes, sir." The Corporal saluted and left.

Lorne gave Ronon a quick nod. "What else can you tell me about these hostiles?" he asked as the other three men finished packing.

"They're armed with bows and knives," Ronon replied. "They probably watch the ring from the trees."

"But they didn't find you?" one of the men around the table asked in a suspicious tone.

Ronon glared across the table. "I got clear before they arrived. They caught the Wraith almost as soon as it came through." He turned to Lorne. "If they have captives already, we might get lucky, and they won't be watching the ring."

"So there's a chance we can take them by surprise?" the dark-haired man, Reed, asked.

Ronon shrugged. "Maybe." He didn't really think so, and looking at Lorne, the Major didn't believe it either.

"All right we sweep the area near the 'gate and head for the Ancient building," Lorne said. "It's possible Colonel Sheppard and his team are still there, none the wiser to the danger. We'll inform the Colonel of the threat and get everyone back to Atlantis."

"And if they aren't at the building?" Reed asked.

"Then we'll find them," Ronon said with a growl before Lorne could speak. "I know where the village is. If they've been captured, they'll be taken there."

Lorne checked a handgun and slid it into the holster at his hip. "If they have been captured, what's our timeline?"

Ronon studied Lorne's face for a moment. "When they captured the Wraith, they killed it just after sunset."

"It was already early afternoon on the planet when they left Atlantis. We may not have much time then," Lorne said, his expression grim.

"No, probably not," Ronon agreed.

"Here," Lorne said and held out a small earpiece. Ronon recognised it as the same type of radio McKay had used in the collapsed tower. "It's already set to my team's frequency, channel four. You know how to use this?"

Ronon nodded, hooked the radio over his ear, and watched as Reed and the others loaded and checked their weapons.

Lorne must have caught his look. He waved a hand at Ronon and said, "Come with me."

Ronon followed Lorne over to a corner of the room. He saw racks of rifles like the one Sheppard had had on the planet where they met along with what Ronon assumed was other ordinance. A chest of drawers, each fronted by a spinning dial, sat against the wall under a large slab of wood hung from the wall.

"What's with the wood?" Ronon asked as Lorne spun the dial on one of the larger drawers.

Lorne glanced up at the strange decoration. "Colonel Sheppard didn't tell you?"

Ronon shook his head.

Lorne looked from Ronon to the wood. "Huh." He turned back to the drawer and spun the dial in the opposite direction. "According to Sergeant Thompson," Lorne explained as he turned the dial back in the original direction, "Doctor McKay saved the Colonel's life with that." He bobbed his chin at the wood. "I never got the whole story, something about a forest, the two of them getting separated from Teyla and Ford, and Sheppard being seriously injured after his team was ambushed. Seems a little hard to believe someone like McKay was capable of getting Sheppard back through the 'gate alone, but Thompson swears it all really happened."

"Rodney will do whatever is necessary to protect John, just as John will risk himself to defend Rodney."

Ronon studied the slab of wood as he remembered what Teyla had told him his first night in Atlantis.

Lorne finished twisting the dial, opened the drawer, and pulled out a familiar weapon and holster. "Thought you'd probably want this," Lorne said as he handed over the particle weapon.

Ronon took the weapon, strapped on the holster, and checked the weapon's charge. "Thanks," he offered, and wondered if Weir knew he was now armed with something other than a knife.

Lorne shrugged. "You're welcome," he said as he led the way back to the front of the armoury. "Grab a vest and whatever supplies you need. We head out in five."

Ronon glanced at the last vest lying on the table and pushed it aside, he was used to travelling light. He found a canteen and hooked it to a loop on his belt. He also found some basic medical supplies and stuffed them in a pocket of the duster. There was an open box of power bars on a shelf and Ronon remembered a conversation with Sheppard in the infirmary after he and McKay had been rescued from the tower.

"If Rodney doesn't eat regularly, he gets the shakes, and if he goes too long without food, he'll pass out. That's something you need to know about if you decide to stay in Atlantis and join my team."

Did Lorne know about McKay's food problem? Ronon wondered. Something told him the answer was 'no'. Over the last few weeks, he'd heard McKay defend his eating habits loudly to several people in the mess hall, all of whom responded by rolling their eyes or otherwise dismissing his claim of hypoglycaemia.

Ronon grabbed a few of the foil-wrapped bars and shoved them into another pocket of the duster, then followed the rest of Lorne's team as they walked back to the room with the Ancestor's ring.

Stargate, he reminded himself as he entered the room. Sheppard's people called it a stargate.

Weir met them as they walked in, her expression neutral as she glanced at the gun strapped to his hip and watched Lorne and his team file past her. He noticed the small device she held in her hand and remembered seeing a similar object among the items in Sheppard's gear when they'd first met.

"Give us a minute, Major?" she said to Lorne.

Lorne glanced at his watch and nodded.

Weir motioned for Ronon to follow her back into the hallway.

"Don't try to stop me," Ronon told her, not bothering to disguise the growl in his voice.

Weir studied him for a moment. "I have no intention of stopping you," she told him. "Your knowledge of the planet could prove invaluable to Major Lorne, not to mention Colonel Sheppard."

"So what do you want?"

She held out the small device in her hand. "This is a GDO. It is how we verify someone is a friend before we lower the shield protecting our stargate."

Ronon took the object, turned it over in his hand, and examined the small screen and tiny keypad on one side.

"Each GDO is keyed to a specific person." Weir paused. "Zelenka showed it to me after you'd left my office. It seems Colonel Sheppard asked Rodney to set this one up for you a few weeks ago." Her expression wasn't pleased, and Ronon suspected Sheppard hadn't received permission from Weir before he'd talked to McKay.

She pulled a slip of paper out of her pocket. "This is your IDC code."

Ronon looked at the string of numbers.

"Your code will only work with the GDO assigned to you, and only you can enter the code. You need to memorise that number before you leave with Major Lorne."

Ronon nodded and studied the paper.

"Colonel Sheppard trusts you," Weir told him after a moment. She clasped her hands in front of her. "It seems I'm going to have to trust you, too."

Ronon looked down at her. The concern for her people was evident in her expression, as was the hesitation regarding him.

"I'll find them," he promised. He handed the slip of paper back to her.

Weir studied him for a moment longer, then nodded and turned back to the room with the stargate.

"Chuck, dial the planet," Weir said as she entered the room and walked over to the stairs leading up to the control room.

"Yes, ma'am," the man in the control room replied.

Ronon put the GDO device in the same pocket with the power bars and watched the symbols on the stargate light up.

"Major Lorne, go find our people," Weir said as the wormhole formed.

"Yes, ma'am," Lorne replied, then waved to his team. "Head out. Stay alert and watch yourselves."

Ronon came through the ring behind Lorne and took cover near the control pedestal. The three other men were already off the dais, crouched low as they spread out in the clearing.

"Clear," one of the men called a few minutes later.

"Clear here, sir," another voice said.

"All clear, sir," Reed reported to Lorne.

Lorne slowly stood and looked around. "I guess it was too much to ask for there to be a road or something leading away from the 'gate."

"They went that way," Ronon said and pointed to the trail of bent grass in front of them.

Lorne looked in the direction Ronon indicated, adjusted something on the radio, and tapped his earpiece. "Colonel Sheppard, this is Lorne, come in."

Lorne glanced up at Ronon and shook his head. "Doctor McKay? Teyla? Please respond." He tapped off the radio with a frown when McKay and Teyla didn't answer either. "That can't be good," he said as he studied the trees in the near distance.

"Something happened. We aren't going to find them at the building," Ronon said as he searched the trees for movement. There was no evidence of anyone else around. No one had attacked them as they came through the ring, and he didn't have the feeling of being watched, either.

Lorne pursed his lips. "No, probably not, but we still need to check there first. Just in case." He turned to his men waiting beside him. "Coughlin, take point. Stay sharp. Hostiles might be concealed in the trees."

"Yes, sir," a man roughly the same age and height as Sheppard replied.

"Walker, you've got our six," Lorne continued.

"Yes, sir," a young man with reddish-blond hair replied, and stepped to one side so the others could pass him.

"Move out."

Reed followed Coughlin as they walked toward the trees. Ronon watched the men around him with approval as they scanned the nearby area for threats as they entered the trees.

They'd been walking for twenty minutes when Ronon held up a hand and bent down next to a burnt tree stump.

"What is it?" Lorne asked.

"They stopped here," Ronon said as he studied the ground.

Lorne looked around. "There's nothing here. Why would they stop?"

"McKay."

"Sorry?" Lorne asked.

Ronon stood and walked around the stump. "This is Teyla," he said and pointed to the small footprints next to the stump. He took several steps back down the trail they'd been following. "These are Sheppard's." He pointed to the larger of two sets of prints side by side. "This is McKay." He pointed to the other set.

"You can tell them apart?" Lorne asked as he studied the prints.

Ronon bent down and waited for Lorne to crouch next to him. "These prints are deeper on the right side than on the left. McKay is limping."

Lorne stood and glanced at the burnt stump. "So they took a break." He nodded. "Makes sense."

Ronon nodded. "Also means they're going to be moving slower. They may not have made it to the building at all."

Lorne pursed his lips and nodded. "Let's hope that's not the case." He bobbed his chin toward Coughlin. "Let's go. Stay alert."

They found the Ancestor's building nearly an hour later without seeing any sign of the local people or any indication Sheppard's team was waylaid en route. Unfortunately, there was also no sign Sheppard, Teyla, or McKay near the building, either.

"Perimeter check," Lorne said just loud enough to be heard over the crash of waves coming from behind the building. He motioned his men to each side of the building while he studied the access panel for the door.

"All clear, sir," Reed said as he came back around one side of the building. "The rear of the building is right on the edge of the cliff. This is the only way in or out of the structure."

Lorne nodded and triggered the door. Ronon watched as Reed and Coughlin entered the building with their weapons raised. He followed Lorne inside and looked around. The building was one large room lined with shelves stacked with different objects and books.

"Colonel Sheppard?" Lorne called as he walked between the rows of shelves. "Doctor McKay? Are you here?"

Ronon spotted the computer balanced on the edge of a console and wandered over to it.

"They were here," he said and pointed to the computer and the bulky object under the console.

"And left in a hurry," Lorne agreed, picking up the backpack lying on the desk. "I doubt McKay would leave the computer otherwise." He dropped the pack back on the desk and looked around the room again.

Ronon went back outside and studied the ground. He ignored Lorne and his men as he walked in a careful circle looking for any indication of what had happened to Sheppard and his people. The ground near the door was too disturbed to make out anything one way or another, but the tracks he could make out were all bootprints; from what he remembered of the people the last time he was here, they were bare-footed.

He was near the trees when he found a single set of prints. He bent down and studied the marks for several seconds and decided they were Sheppard's footprints heading into the trees. Looking further, he found several of Teyla's smaller prints to one side of Sheppard's.

"She was following him," he muttered to himself. "Why weren't they together?"

Ronon looked around but didn't see any indication McKay had followed the other two.

"Anything?" Lorne asked as he stopped next to Ronon.

"Sheppard went this way. Teyla followed him."

"Followed? She wasn't with him?"

Ronon shook his head. "She was moving fast, tracking him."

Lorne looked at the prints, and Ronon wondered if he had any idea what he was looking at.

"I don't see any of those lop-sided prints you said were McKay," Lorne said after a moment.

Ronon smiled slightly, pleased to know Lorne was observant.

"No," Ronon replied. "But I wouldn't think Sheppard would leave him behind."

Ronon saw Lorne start to smile before he schooled his features. "No," Lorne deadpanned, "Can't think of any reason why Sheppard would want to leave McKay here." He tapped his radio and said, "Reed, looks like Ronon found the Colonel's trail. We're heading out."

"What about Doctor McKay's computer? Should we bring his kit with us?" Reed asked.

Lorne paused, then added, "Leave it. We'll come back for it if we can."

A few seconds later, Lorne's men joined them at the edge of the trees.

"Not sure Doctor McKay is going to like that we left his computer behind," Reed said as he stopped next to Lorne.

Lorne made a face. "He'll get over it," he said shortly. "Getting out of here in one piece may be all of the win we can expect from this trip."

"Yes, sir," Reed agreed. "I'm just not sure Doctor McKay will see it that way."

Ronon took point as they walked back through the trees. Sheppard was easy to track since he had made no effort to conceal his path, it was obvious he'd had no idea of the potential danger on the planet. Teyla was taking more care to not muddle Sheppard's trail, but he found a print of hers every now and then.

"Looks like Sheppard was heading for the ri -- stargate," Ronon corrected himself.

Lorne nodded. "Probably wanted to check in with Doctor Weir."

Several minutes later, Ronon led them into a small clearing. His eyes hardened, and he felt his muscles tense when he saw the bodies. "We're too late," he growled, and paced around the clearing, checking the bodies.

"Yeah," Lorne agreed with a frown as he pulled an arrow out of the ground. "Walker, Coughlin, perimeter check. Let's make sure everyone really is gone."

Ronon glanced over as the two men started a careful search of the nearby trees then went back to his own examination of the clearing. He knelt down and studied a spot near the center of the clearing. He found a few of the prints he'd marked out as Sheppard's. He also found several small brass tubes lying on the ground near the prints. He picked them up and bounced them in his hand.

"Bullet casings," Lorne said from behind him.

Ronon grunted and passed the bits of metal to Lorne.

Ronon did his best to read what the ground was telling him. There were close to a dozen different sets of prints in addition to Sheppard's, most of them bare-footed. He found a dark spot on the ground and pressed his fingers into the damp soil.

"What is it?" Lorne asked.

Ronon held up his hand so Lorne could see his fingers. "Blood." He looked at the ground again and found several more brass cylinders. "My guess, Sheppard was ambushed here."

"And he's injured," Lorne finished with a grimace. "What about Teyla?"

"Hard to say. The ground is too churned to really tell much." Ronon stood and looked around the clearing.

"Major Lorne!" Reed said from the trees off to their right. "I've got brass over here, sir. And a P-90."

Reed came back into the clearing carrying a P-90. "It was just lying on the ground, sir," Reed said as he stopped in front of Lorne.

Lorne held out his hand, and Reed handed over the weapon. Lorne glanced up at Ronon and said, "Colonel Sheppard told me during the search for Lieutenant Ford that Doctor McKay normally only carries a Beretta. If the Colonel was ambushed here," he nodded at the bloody spot on the ground, "this has to be Teyla's weapon."

"We know she was following Sheppard," Ronon replied and headed for the trees where Reed had found the rifle. "She must have seen the ambush and tried to stop it."

Lorne looked around. "Any sign of Teyla?" he asked Reed as he checked the P-90.

Reed shook his head.

"They must have taken her, too," Ronon said and searched the ground where Reed had found the weapon. "See?" He pointed to the small booted prints mixed in with several bare-footed ones. "She was captured." He prowled around the clearing then stopped not far from where Sheppard had entered. "They left in this direction. Teyla was able to walk." Ronon pointed out the small boot prints.

"I don't see any of the prints you said belonged to Colonel Sheppard," Lorne said as he studied the ground.

Ronon stood, his expression hard. "Someone was carrying him." He showed Lorne the set of bare footprints, deeper on one side.

Lorne studied the path for a few moments.

"They're heading back to the Ancient building," Lorne said.

"No, the building is closer to the cliffs. These prints head toward those hills." He pointed to a series of low hills in the near distance. "The village is in a valley in the same direction."

"The Colonel and Teyla are together," Lorne said as he stood in the center of the clearing. Ronon could see he was putting the pieces together. "So where the hell did McKay go? And where is the Colonel's weapon? Not sure I like the idea of these natives having access to a fully automatic rifle."

Ronon scouted the edge of the trees. "He was here," he said, "He wasn't following Sheppard's trail." Ronon followed McKay's prints back into the clearing. "McKay's prints overlap the bare-footed prints. Looks like he got here after the others were gone."

"I'll bet he hid in the woods," Walker hissed in a whisper to Coughlin. "Didn't want to risk getting hurt."

Ronon glared at the Corporal, and Walker took a hurried step back.

"What?" Walker exclaimed. "We're all thinking the same thing."

Ronon turned his back on Walker and scouted the perimeter of the clearing.

"McKay have any skills tracking?" Ronon asked a few minutes later as he knelt down near a game trail.

He heard a snort behind him and turned to see Lorne glaring a Walker before he turned to Ronon and shook his head. "Based on what I saw when we were looking for Lieutenant Ford, I doubt Doctor McKay has the first clue how to survive in the woods or track someone."

Ronon couldn't really disagree, but the tracks were telling him something else. "McKay headed off in this direction, but came back." He pointed out the set of prints leading back into the clearing to Lorne. "He knew enough to realise he was on a game trail and came back here."

"Maybe he just got lost," Reed offered with a shrug.

Ronon ignored him as he crossed the clearing and checked the trail left by the natives when they left with Sheppard and Teyla. He found McKay's prints a few feet away, heading back into the trees, going in the same direction as the hills and the native village. The odd thing was McKay wasn't following the trail or even walking to one side of it.

Ronon turned to Lorne. "He went in the same direction the natives took Sheppard and Teyla."

Lorne pursed his lips. "Was he following them or was he captured, too?"

Ronon studied the ground again. "He's going in the same direction, and he was alone when he left here."

"Meaning?" Lorne asked.

"Rodney will do whatever is necessary to protect John …"

Ronon stood and started back into the trees following McKay's trail. "My guess? He's following them. Probably has some plan to rescue them by himself."

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

John felt himself slowly rocking and spent several minutes enjoying the sensation of swinging back and forth. He had a flash of memory of the huge swing on his grandmother's front porch and felt himself smile slightly. He had loved lying on that swing with his eyes closed as the wind pushed him to and fro. It had almost felt like flying.

He shifted his body, and the swing rocked a bit wildly in response.

"John?" a voice said from far away, and he felt something brush against his arm.

He ignored the voice and tried to find a more comfortable position on the swing. The rocking motion changed again as he moved, and instead of feeling like he was flying, he felt a wave of nausea as his head pounded in response to the movement. There was a stabbing pain in his right shoulder and a second throbbing ache in his left leg just above the knee, telling him moving was not a good idea.

"Colonel?" the voice said again. "Are you awake?"

"Mumph," he replied, and decided this was definitely not his grandmother's porch swing.

"John? Can you hear me?" the voice asked him, and he felt the light touch against his arm again.

He stopped moving and waited for his various aches to fade. As he lay still, he heard a strange chanting noise coming from below him. Why below? he wondered.

It took another few seconds for his confused mind to realise the voice that had been speaking to him belonged to Teyla.

"T'la? he asked as he pried his eyes open. "Wha hap'n'd?"

He looked around and found he was lying on his back, his head resting in Teyla's lap. It took a little longer for him to realise they were in a sort of domed, wooden cage. Not that different from the kind of birdcage a neighbor had kept parakeets in when he was a child, John thought, and tried to focus on what Teyla was saying.

"You were ambushed by members of the local population in the forest near the Ancestor's building. I tried to intervene, but their numbers were too great."

Memories flashed in John's head of arrows coming out of the forest and hearing the distinct crack from a P-90 firing nearby. He groaned as he slowly sat up and leant with his back braced against the wooden bars next to Teyla.

John looked down when the chanting below them changed from slow keening to a faster tempo and realised they were suspended from a thick branch more than twenty feet in the air. Three large men were stationed near their tree watching the villagers and occasionally looking up at them. A wide stone pedestal with several steps cut into the base sat not far from the trunk of the tree.

Teyla looked down at the milling villagers with a frown. "We were both captured. The men from the clearing took all of our weapons. Luckily, they did not see the point of taking our tactical vests. Once they left us alone in our prison," she waved at the bars of the cage, "I was able to deal with your injuries."

John caught a flash of white from the corner of his eye and found a pressure bandage wrapped around his right shoulder. When he glanced down at his leg, he saw another bandage, spotted with blood, wrapped around his leg, just above his knee.

That explained two of the aches, he thought to himself.

He felt the back of his head and found a lump under his hair. And that explains the headache, he thought grimly. And the nausea, he realised as his stomach rolled in time with the rocking of the cage.

"How long was I out?" he asked as his fingers explored the lump.

"I would estimate close to an hour. You opened your eyes a few times during the journey here, but you were never awake for very long."

John grunted. "How bad?" he asked, reaching for the bandage wrapped around his leg.

"Your shoulder wound is not serious," Teyla told him as she gently moved his hand away from the pressure bandage. "I am concerned about your leg, however. Whatever caused the injury --"

"Arrow," John said. He remembered how one of his attackers had pulled the arrow out of his leg and tried to stab him with it.

"The arrow went through your leg. You have also lost a great deal of blood," Teyla told him as he leant back against the bars and closed his eyes. "You need to rest."

He opened his eyes and looked over at Teyla as her comment about trying to stop the attack sank in. He saw a bruise on her cheek and clean bandages wrapped around her upper arm and her right hand. "How badly were you hurt?"

"My injuries are not severe." She smiled slightly. "I do not believe these men expected a woman to put up much of a fight."

John couldn't help his answering smile. "Not a mistake they will be making again any time soon, I'm sure."

"For some of them, the error in judgement proved fatal," she agreed.

John merely nodded as he looked out at the buildings below them.

The tree they were in stood at the edge of a village square, several low, squat buildings that were presumably houses lined the square. Their tree stood at one end of the square while what could only be described as a truncated pyramid stood at the other end of the village, opposite the tree, backed by a series of low hills.

Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, this one was short, not much taller than the tree their cage was suspended from, and it looked as if the top had been sheared off. A ramp led up to the flat top, and John saw something that looked suspiciously like a stone altar.

John sat up with a start, and a groan as what he was seeing sank in. An altar. The man had said something about an offering ...

"We need to find a way out of here," John said as he looked for a way out of the cage. "Before it's too late."

"I do not understand."

John rubbed his forehead and looked down on the people chanting in the square as more villagers entered carrying armfuls of wood. He glanced down at the men standing below them. Were they there to stop anyone from escaping or to guard them against overzealous worshipers? he wondered.

John glanced at Teyla and saw she was watching him. "Back in that clearing, I tried to talk to the men who'd captured me," John said as he pulled on one of the bars of the cage. "But it was no use, they couldn't understand me."

Teyla pursed her lips. "That is strange. While some of my people still know a few words of the old language, the common tongue is spoken throughout the galaxy. I have never encountered a people who could not understand it."

"Considering the fact we're currently sitting in a cage, I get the feeling they aren't the most sociable of people." He glanced over at her and continued, "I don't suppose your people have ever heard of the Aztecs?"

Teyla frowned and shook her head. "The name is not familiar to me."

John stared at the pyramid again as long ago college history classes came back to him. "Not really a surprise. The Aztecs were a group of people that lived on Earth hundreds of years ago."

"I am not following. What does a long-ago culture on your planet have to do with our current situation?"

John rubbed absently at the ache in his leg. "Even though we couldn't understand each other, one of those men said something that sounded a lot like 'offering'. He was looking at me when he said it too."

"Offering?" Teyla asked and looked down at the people milling below them. "You don't think …" She looked over at John, and he saw the moment realisation dawned in her eyes.

"That's exactly what I think," John replied, his expression grim. "No reason to learn the language if all you plan to do is sacrifice your neighbors. I guess now we know why there aren't any paths leading away from the stargate and it has nothing to do with the Wraith culling this planet."

Teyla nodded. "People know not to come to this world." She watched the villagers for a moment. "Could this … offering explain why the information found in the database was so fragmented?"

John shrugged then winced. "I doubt it. Who knows why someone in Atlantis would want to keep this place a secret. Maybe McKay is right, and they didn't want the information falling into the hands of the Wraith."

John stared at the squat pyramid. "I get the feeling the Ancients were long gone when the current residents came here. Remember, Rodney said the planet was some sort of Ancient cultural center before the Wraith levelled everything."

At the mention of Rodney's name, John suddenly realised someone was missing from their hanging prison. He glanced around looking for another cage hanging nearby, and when he didn't find one, he turned to Teyla, fearing the worst. "Teyla? Where's McKay?"

Teyla hesitated for a moment, and John felt his heart skip a beat.

"Teyla?" He drew out her name.

Teyla glanced over at him. "Something happened after you left us in the Ancestor's building," she said with a glance at the pressure bandage wrapped around his leg.

John understood immediately what she wasn't telling him. "Damn," he muttered and scrubbed a hand over his face. He knew from experience how much a spike could hurt. "How bad?"

Teyla rested a hand on his arm. "He had two of what you described to us as pain spikes that I am aware of while we were still inside the building. We knew from Rodney's reaction you needed assistance, and I ran ahead so I could find you quickly. I thought he planned to follow me."

"But he wasn't with you when you found the clearing?"

Teyla shook her head. "I was already in the forest following the sound of gunfire when I realised he was not behind me. I assumed Rodney had been slowed due to his injured leg. I intended to help you, and then we would return for him once you were safe."

John closed his eyes and leant his head against the bars. One more reason they needed Dex officially on the team, he thought to himself.

"I guess the good news is, they didn't capture him, too. Hopefully, he made it back to the 'gate and sent word to Elizabeth."

They sat in silence for several minutes. John felt himself drifting and forced himself to open his eyes. He had to stay awake. They needed a plan, some way to escape before the villagers went through with their planned sacrifice.

He wasn't sure how much time they had, but he had to assume they didn't have very long. More and more people had gathered in the center of the village, chanting and swaying back and forth as the large pile of wood was set alight.

The wood was dry and well seasoned, and it didn't take long for the bonfire to catch hold and grow. John felt the heat from their cage at the edge of the village as the chanting changed, and the villagers began to dance around the fire.

"We're running out of options," John said, his tone serious as he glanced up at the sky. The sun would set in another hour, and he suspected when it did, their time would be up.

Chapter Text

Ronon led the way out of the clearing following the group with Sheppard and Teyla. McKay's trail started out close to the same path, but after a quarter of a mile, it wandered deeper into the trees and away from the main track.

Ronon turned to Lorne behind him. "McKay didn't stay on the trail," he said and pointed to the tracks leading away from the main path. "Which one do you want to follow?"

"You're sure he went in a different direction?" Lorne asked as he stopped next to Ronon.

"Didn't say that. He's still going in the same direction. The main trail goes straight toward those low hills. McKay went that way," Ronon pointed slightly to the left of the track they'd been following for the past ten minutes.

"Was he following someone or was someone following him?"

Ronon knelt and searched the ground for several seconds. "Doesn't look like it. McKay's prints are the only ones that leave the main track."

Lorne rubbed his forehead. "You're sure you know where the locals are taking Colonel Sheppard and Teyla?" he asked with a glance at Ronon.

Ronon stood. "I'm sure."

Lorne looked down the clear track in front of them, then in the direction McKay had gone. "Follow Doctor McKay for now."

Ronon nodded and led the way deeper into the woods.

McKay was heading toward the hills where Ronon knew the village lay, but he found McKay's actions more than a little confusing. It was obvious he had no skills as a tracker. He would follow the main trail for an indeterminate distance and then he would inexplicably veer off into the woods again, only to wander back to the trail at some point. He wasn't following the track, but McKay was still somehow heading in the right direction.

"Looks like McKay found the trail again," Ronon said nearly an hour later, and pointed out the barefoot prints in front of them. That made the third time McKay's trail had converged with the one left by the people who'd ambushed Sheppard and Teyla.

Ronon knelt and studied the ground for several seconds. He estimated close to two dozen of the natives were with Sheppard and Teyla. He saw a few of Teyla's boot prints, but he still hadn't found any of Sheppard's. He looked closer at the ground, touched one of the barefooted prints, and growled low in his throat.

"What?" Lorne asked.

"Someone was still carrying Sheppard," Ronon replied, and pointed out a set of prints much deeper than the others. "And he was still bleeding," Ronon added as he touched a dark spot on the trail then wiped his fingers on his trousers, leaving a brownish-red stain.

Lorne pursed his lips and looked in the direction they were walking. "If Colonel Sheppard is seriously hurt, that's going to make any rescue attempt problematic."

That was an understatement as far as Ronon was concerned.

Ronon stood and followed the churned track for almost half a mile before McKay's prints meandered off in a different, though still roughly parallel, direction again.

"I'm telling you, McKay is lost," Ronon heard one of the men behind him say as McKay's trail wandered away from the barefooted track and into the deeper woods. "Why don't we just follow the other trail? That has to lead us to this village and Colonel Sheppard."

Ronon stopped and turned around with a glare. He had no idea what McKay was doing, either, but as long as both tracks went in the same direction, he'd follow McKay's. He did not want to find Sheppard only to have to explain how he'd left McKay lost in an unknown forest.

Ronon started to give the Marine a piece of his mind, but Lorne held up a hand.

"Reed, do you think you can follow the trail left by the hostiles?" Lorne asked.

Reed studied the ground for a moment, then nodded. "These people aren't doing anything to hide their tracks. I can follow them, sir."

Lorne nodded. "You take Walker and Coughlin, and stick to the main trail. Ronon and I will follow Doctor McKay. Do not engage with any of the hostiles," he ordered. "If you find their village, fall back to cover, and wait for me."

"What if their ritual has already started?"

"It won't," Ronon told him with a glance at the late afternoon sun. "The killing isn't done until after sunset."

"We hope," someone mumbled, but Ronon wasn't sure who it was.

"You have your orders," Lorne said. "Watch yourselves."

"Yes, sir," Reed replied, and turned to Walker and Coughlin. "Let's go."

Ronon watched Reed and the two Marines head deeper into the woods. Once they were out of sight, he picked up McKay's trail and led Lorne in the slightly different, but still parallel direction.

"You think Doctor McKay is really following them or is he just lost like Walker said?" Lorne asked after they'd been walking for several minutes.

"Not sure," Ronon replied. "He's not tracking them. But he finds the other trail often enough it can't be luck."

Lorne snorted and muttered, "And I thought Doctor Jackson was bad."

"Who's Doctor Jackson?" Ronon asked. He bent down and studied McKay's trail. The tracks were getting deeper on McKay's right side, and Ronon saw a new impression, something small with an irregular shape, next to McKay's right boot print.

"What is it?" Lorne asked as he knelt next to Ronon.

"McKay's leg is getting worse. He's putting more and more weight on his right side." Ronon pointed out the clearly defined right boot print. "He's using a branch or stick as a crutch," he added and pointed out the irregular shape.

Lorne stood and looked toward the low hills. "If we need to make a fast getaway, will Doctor McKay be able to run?"

Ronon shook his head and started walking again. "Probably not."

"Yeah, I thought that's what you'd say. And we have no idea how badly Colonel Sheppard or Teyla may be injured." Lorne glanced around the woods. "So far, this rescue is going really well." Lorne shook his head. "We're going to need a fallback position in case we can't get them back to the 'gate."

McKay's path wandered through the woods, never more than half a mile off from the line where the village sat nestled near the hills. His track had turned toward the village itself again when Ronon spotted a new set of prints. He held up his hand to stop Lorne and motioned him to be quiet.

"What's wrong?" Lorne asked in a whisper.

Ronon pointed to a bare footprint inside the lighter tread of McKay's left boot. "Someone is following him."

Lorne glanced down at the clear impression of toes and heel inside the boot print and grimaced. "Any way to know how long ago this was?"

Ronon touched the print and noted how the dirt crumbled. "Not long. Five, maybe ten minutes."

Lorne pursed his lips. "We need to pick up the pace."

Ronon nodded.

A few minutes later, Ronon heard a voice ahead of them. He crouched down behind a thicket of thin trees and waved Lorne down beside him.

"This was a dumb idea," the voice muttered from the clearing ahead of them, and Ronon shook his head. One of these days he was going to talk to Sheppard about McKay's need to continually be talking. "You should have gone back to the 'gate and called Elizabeth."

Ronon pushed aside the low branches of a tree and saw McKay sitting on a stump rubbing his leg. He heard a slight rustle of the branches nearby, glanced over, and saw one of the natives slowly raise a bow and point an arrow at McKay's exposed back.

"We have company," Ronon growled and pulled his weapon out of its holster. "Fifty paces." He pointed off to their right. "Get McKay clear."

He could tell Lorne didn't like the idea of taking orders, but Ronon was already running, low and silent, toward the threat.

His plan was a simple one, sneak up behind the man, and kill him before he had a chance to shoot McKay in the back. He had to hope he'd be in time. Otherwise, he'd have to explain to Sheppard how he wasn't able to keep McKay alive.

It took only a few seconds to reach the area where he'd seen the man with the bow. However, in the time it took for Ronon to reach him, the man had the bowstring drawn back ready to shoot.

Ronon didn't waste any more time. He made sure the particle weapon was set to kill, not stun, and fired.

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

Rodney sat on the stump rubbing his aching leg, chastising himself for his stupidity. "If you'd gone back to the 'gate, there would be people much more qualified than you to lead this rescue operation. People who could walk on two legs for a start."

He wasn't sure what he'd tripped over, but he'd stumbled hard and felt something in his lower leg twinge as his ankle turned under him. He'd managed to catch himself on a nearby tree, but putting much weight on his left side sent waves of pain up his leg, reminding him he'd left his backpack and Beckett's pain pills in the archive. The branch he'd found to use as a walking stick helped, but all he wanted to do was find Sheppard and Teyla and go home.

He stopped rubbing his sore leg and looked around. Which direction should he go next? he wondered.

The tingling at the back of his head had faded again. Did that mean John was doing better or had he lost the trail again? he thought with a frown.

He'd nearly lost the trail completely a few times since he'd decided to follow the mental link. Every now and then, he'd find a track, churned by many footprints, but the link would eventually drift in a different direction. Every time the physical path diverged from his mental one, Rodney considered whether or not he should follow the trail or the tingling at the back of his head.

So far, the mental link had won, but the link had become harder to follow as the afternoon progressed. Rodney was afraid he was now lost with no idea how to find the trail left by the locals, or Sheppard, or the stargate.

He glanced at his watch then up at the sky as the sun started to set. "Great," he muttered, "You're lost, and it's going to be night soon. You're supposed to be the smart one in the group. You have an hour, maybe two, before it's completely dark. Better make use of it and not sit here."

He bent down for the small branch he'd been using as a walking stick and froze when he heard a rustling noise in the trees to his left.

He glanced down at the P-90 on the ground next to the branch and reached for it instead. His hand had barely closed around the grip of the weapon when several things happened at once.

A blur of motion wearing dark clothing, burst out of the trees a few paces to his left.

"Get down!" a voice yelled just before he was tackled to the ground.

Rodney fought against the hold of whoever it was who had attacked him. He groaned when his left heel dug into the ground as he and his attacker squirmed on the ground next to the tree stump. He heard the whine of what sounded like a Wraith stun weapon, and instinctively ducked away, giving his attacker the few seconds needed to pin his arms.

"Doctor McKay!" a voice said close to his ear. "Stop! It's me. Major Lorne."

Rodney stopped struggling when he heard his name. He turned enough to see Major Lorne behind him, his arms wrapped around Rodney's middle, pinning his arms to his sides.

"Major? How did …?" he started to ask before he remembered the sound of the Wraith stunner. "We need to get out of here. There's a Wraith nearby."

"No," Lorne replied. He let go of Rodney and sat up slowly. "That was Ronon."

"Dex? He's here, too? Why?" Rodney slumped with his back against the tree stump as the pain in his leg flared, reminding him once again of the abandoned backpack and the pain medication he'd left in the archive building. He noticed Lorne was rubbing his jaw and was about to apologise when Dex came out of the trees to his right looking oddly pleased with himself.

"He's dead," Dex announced and gave both Rodney and Lorne a quick look. "You two okay?"

"Yeah," Lorne replied as he stood. "We're fine."

Rodney wasn't so sure about that but didn't say anything. Instead, he looked up at Dex standing next to him and then back at the trees. "Wait. If the sound I heard was you shooting something, what were you shooting at? Who's dead?"

Dex looked around and pulled an arrow out of the ground near the P-90. "The guy about to shoot you in the back."

Rodney swallowed and stared at the arrow in Dex's hand.

"Why are you out here, Doctor McKay?" Lorne asked.

"I had to find Sheppard and Teyla." He noticed the odd look Dex gave him and ignored him. "They were attacked near the archive building, and now they're missing. I think they were captured."

"You should have gone back to the stargate and alerted Doctor Weir," Lorne told him with a frown.

Rodney scowled up at Lorne. He knew Lorne was right, he'd been saying the exact same thing only a few minutes ago, but he was not going to allow Lorne to treat him like some raw recruit.

He picked up the P-90 with his left hand, grabbed the stick he'd been using as a crutch with his right and pulled himself to his feet. The tingling sensation from the link was almost gone, but Rodney wasn't going to let that stop him. He took a stumbling step in the last direction where he felt the link pulling him.

"My team was in trouble, Major," he told Lorne. Rodney glanced at Dex and added, "We don't leave people behind."

Rodney was aware of both Dex's intense look at that comment and Lorne shaking his head in disbelief. He took an awkward step toward them and was prepared to give both of them a piece of his mind when Lorne turned away and tapped his earpiece.

"Lorne here." The Major listened for a few seconds, then said. "Pull back, make sure you aren't seen, and wait. We'll be there as fast as we can." He tapped the earpiece again and turned around. "Reed found the village. Colonel Sheppard and Teyla are still alive. They're being held in some sort of cage suspended in a tree."

"What do you mean 'still alive'?" Rodney asked, suspicion clear in his tone. "Why wouldn't they be alive? Why are you here, Major?"

Dex and Lorne exchanged a look and Rodney's worry for John and Teyla morphed into impatience. "What? What aren't you two telling me?"

Dex quirked an eyebrow at Lorne who nodded and turned to survey the surrounding trees.

"I've been to this planet before," Dex said.

"Good for you," Rodney replied sarcastically.

Dex glared down at him.

Rodney quelled his impatience when he saw the look of Dex's face.

"When you were a Runner, I presume," Rodney said, his tone as neutral as he could make it.

Dex nodded. "The last time I was here, a Wraith came through the ring less than an hour after I did."

"They must have had a ship nearby to pick up the tracking signal so fast." Rodney glanced up at the sky, his mind shifting for a moment from the immediate problem of Sheppard and Teyla missing to working out where the Wraith ship would have been to pick up the signal from the tracker. "You know, I took a look at the device Carson removed. The ship couldn't have been more than --"

Dex growled, and Rodney stopped speaking. He glanced up at Dex and pulled his mind back to the present. "You said a Wraith followed you. What happened?"

"The people here were near the ring when it came through. They captured it."

"These people?" Rodney didn't try to hide his skepticism. "They're armed with bows." He pointed to the arrow Dex had tossed aside. "How could they capture --" He stopped when Dex glared at him.

"They captured it, and a few hours later, they killed it. Cut its heart out of its chest."

Rodney stared up at Dex as he wrapped his head around what Dex was telling him. "They removed the heart?" he asked in a near whisper.

Dex nodded. "And burned it."

Rodney felt the blood drain from his face and plopped down on the stump. He'd heard of some ancient cultures on Earth performing a similar sort of rite. "Maybe they only do that to Wraith," he offered in a near whisper.

Dex shook his head. "There are stories about this world. People who come here and are never heard from again."

"Ancients keeping secrets make me nervous," he remembered John saying only a few hours ago.

Rodney had assumed the fragmented information in the database about the planet was because the Ancients had wanted to keep the archive a secret. Was it more than that? he wondered. Had the ancestors of the people who had captured Sheppard and Teyla lived here at the same time as the Ancients? Were the people living here already practising their sacrifices and Kadmos had encouraged them to adapt it to anyone who came through the 'gate?

Rodney shook his head, climbed to his feet, and forced himself to focus. John and Teyla had disappeared hours ago. He needed to find them. Before it was too late.

"Well? What are we waiting for?" Rodney demanded and took a limping step toward the hills, ignoring the pain that shot up his leg. "We need to go."

"I think --" Lorne started to say with a glance at Dex, but Rodney interrupted.

"I know exactly what you think of me, Major," Rodney replied, his expression hard. "And I don't really care at the moment. Sheppard and Teyla are somewhere that way." He used the P-90 to point toward the hills. He caught Dex's surprised look from the corner of his eye but now was not the time to explain the link. "That's where I'm going. Are you coming or not?"

"Sheppard is going to kill both of us," Lorne grumbled as he walked over to Rodney, took the P-90 from Rodney's hand, and clipped it to a loop on the front of his tac-vest. "You do know how to use that, right?" Lorne asked as he stepped back.

Rodney glanced down at the P-90. "Technically? Yes."

"Technically. Great," Lorne drawled, and shook his head as Dex moved to take the lead.

Rodney did his best to not slow down their progress, John and Teyla were in worse trouble than he thought. They needed to hurry. Dex seemed to know where he was going, and Rodney hobbled after him as fast as he could while Major Lorne brought up the rear.

The sun wasn't far from the horizon when three Marines came out of the trees toward them, and Dex stopped.

"Report, Lieutenant," Lorne ordered in a low voice as he stepped around Rodney.

Rodney only listened with half an ear as he looked around for somewhere he could sit down before his leg gave out entirely. Lorne already thought he was useless, he told himself. No need to fall on his face and prove him right.

"The village is just through those trees," Reed was saying. "The Colonel and Teyla are in a cage hanging from a large tree at the far end of the village. It's a good thing you got here when you did, Major. The villagers lit some sort of bonfire a few minutes ago. I think they're getting ready to … You know." He glanced over at Rodney.

Rodney sank down with his back against a tree and tried to stretch his left leg out in front of him. His boot felt tight against his ankle. He knew he'd done something Carson wouldn't be happy about, but Rodney was afraid he wouldn't get his boot back on again if he took it off and confirmed his hypothesis.

Not the day he'd hoped for, Rodney thought as he watched Lorne's team talking a few paces away. He was tired, he hurt, he was worried about Sheppard and Teyla. He felt his stomach rumble. And he was hungry, he realised. He patted his vest, looking for an energy bar and found the pocket empty.

"Great," he muttered and closed his eyes. "What else could go wrong?"

Rodney felt something tap his shoulder. He opened his eyes and found Dex standing next to him, holding out a power bar.

"Thanks," Rodney said as he opened the wrapper.

"You're welcome."

Instead of moving away, Dex stayed beside him, his shoulder leant against the same tree Rodney sat against, eating another energy bar.

Rodney finished eating, stuffed the empty wrapper in his pocket, and turned to ask Dex what else he knew about the planet.

"When you … What's wrong?" he asked instead when he saw Dex staring at the half-eaten power bar in his hand.

"You like these?" Dex asked, holding up the rest of the energy bar.

Rodney glanced at the power bar in Dex's hand. "They aren't that bad. It depends on the flavor, some are better than others." He shrugged. "Sometimes you just need the calories," he added, not wanting to try to explain hypoglycaemia to Dex.

Dex shrugged, finished the rest of the energy bar, and watched Lorne and his team discuss how to rescue Sheppard.

"You going to be able to do this?" Dex asked quietly as Reed described the layout of the village.

Rodney glared up at Dex. He had a sarcastic reply ready when he noticed the expression on Dex's face wasn't condescension, but concern. He fought against the urge to rub his leg and looked through the trees at a faint red glow that must have been from the fire Reed had mentioned.

"It's my fault they're in this mess," Rodney replied softly. He didn't see the puzzled look on Dex's face as he stared at fire flickering through the trees. "I'll be fine."

Lorne turned around a few minutes later. "Okay, I think we have a plan," he said, and stepped over to where Rodney sat. "Reed says there's some sort of pyramid or temple at the opposite end of the village from the cage where they are holding Colonel Sheppard and Teyla. Reed and Walker will head for that side of the village and create a distraction. That should get everyone looking the other way while Coughlin and I get the Colonel and Teyla out of the cage."

Rodney pulled himself to his feet, only slightly aware of the helping hand from Dex on the back of his jacket. "What about us?" he asked with a glance over at Dex.

Lorne gave him an appraising look then shook his head. "I get that you want to help, Doctor, but you can barely stand. We need to move fast. Get in and get out before anyone's the wiser."

Rodney pursed his lips and looked away. Lorne was right. If they wanted to free Sheppard and Teyla, he was little more than a liability.

He felt more than saw Dex move behind him. "McKay and I will take care of getting Sheppard and Teyla. You just worry about the diversion."

"That's not a good idea," Lorne argued.

"Maybe not," Dex replied, "But you need more than two people near the temple if you want to get your men out of there alive."

Rodney watched Dex and Lorne stare at each other. Lorne must have realised Dex was right and looked away first.

"Fine," Lorne said. "We'll create some noise and cover your exit." He looked up at Dex. "Your radio is still set to our channel. Radio when you're in position. Once you have them, head for the stargate. We'll cover you as best we can."

Dex nodded and checked the weapon strapped to his hip.

Lorne glanced at Rodney and added, "If you can't make it back to the 'gate, try for that building we found. It will give you some cover at least."

"We'll be fine," Dex told him.

Lorne gave them a last look and shook his head. "Let's go," he told his team.

Once Lorne was out of sight, Rodney turned to Dex. "Thank you."

Dex grunted. "Lorne's right. You should stay here. I can go get Sheppard alone."

Rodney turned toward the trees where he could see the red glow from the fire and checked first the P-90, then the Beretta. His leg ached when he took a step, but he left his makeshift crutch behind as he headed into the trees. If he needed to use either of the weapons, he was going to need two hands.

"I can take care of myself," Rodney said shortly.

Dex snorted and pulled Rodney behind him as he moved into the lead. "You better. Not going to carry you out of here."

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

John slowly stood and grabbed for the wooden bars as the cage swung wildly under him when he moved. His leg pounded when he tried to put any weight on it, and his shoulder throbbed when he tightened his grip on the bars to keep himself from falling. He shifted until he could brace his left side against the cage, taking the weight off his leg and taking better hold of the side of the cage with his left hand.

"Colonel, be careful," Teyla admonished, and John felt her hand under his arm helping to keep him upright as the cage swung back and forth.

Between his precarious balance and his tenuous hold on the bars, it took several seconds before he could look up and see how the cage was attached to the tree. A thick rope, woven through the bars at the top of the cage, did double duty as both the anchor tying the cage to the tree and keeping them trapped inside the cage. The rope was then wrapped around another branch and tied off near the ground. The only way to get out was if the cage was on the ground and the rope was untied or cut.

John had to admit it was an effective prison. The only way they escaped safely was if someone lowered the cage. Since the people nearby seemed determined to kill them, he wasn't expecting much help from the locals.

John eased himself back down until he sat with his back against the bars again, rubbing his aching head. Teyla sat beside him, and he watched as the sun slowly sank in front of them. A part of him idly wondered if the villagers had set the cage in a position to watch the sun set on purpose, or if it was luck.

The sun slowly dipped below the horizon, and the chanting around the fire changed. John saw four of the villagers leave the fire and head in their direction.

This must be it, John thought and looked around for any way Teyla, at least, could get away. He groaned when he spotted two more men watching the cage from deeper in the trees behind the village. The villagers had anticipated him, he realised, cutting off any escape route back into the forest.

Nine men. There was no way he and Teyla would be able to fight off that many without alerting the rest of the village. John pulled himself to his feet, keeping one hand on the bars as his leg spasmed.

He glanced over at Teyla. She returned his look, and John could see her face was set. Whatever happened, she wasn't going to run, and they weren't going to go along peacefully.

"Colonel?"

"I count nine hostiles," he whispered as he checked the ground below them again. "Did the men who searched you leave anything we could use as a weapon?"

Teyla shook her head. "I have a few medical supplies left and the radio. The villagers did not seem to know what it was."

John felt for his earpiece. "Must have lost my radio during the fight earlier," he said as he checked the pockets of his vest. He found an emergency blanket, a few antiseptic wipes, and his stash of power bars.

"All right, this is what we're going to do," he said with a glance at Teyla. He frowned when she took off her earpiece and studied the small device. "What's wrong?"

Teyla shook her head. "It is nothing. I fear my radio must have been damaged at some point as well. It has been silent for most of the day, however, for the last several minutes, I have heard a strange interference, almost like a strange buzzing noise. It is difficult to listen to for very long."

John stared at her for a moment and felt a stab of hope in his chest. He'd been ignoring the low-grade headache, assuming it was from the blow he'd taken earlier, but now that he was paying attention, he was aware the itch was back as well.

Could it be … he wondered and glanced down into the deepening gloom under the trees.

"Let me hear it," he said and held out his hand for her earpiece.

She handed over the radio. "There is no discernible pattern," she told John as he tucked the receiver in his ear. "It sounds like random noise."

John listened to the radio for several seconds then felt a wide grin spread across his face when he figured out what he was hearing.

"Colonel?" Teyla asked as Sheppard peered down into the gloom.

"It's Morse Code," he told her as he tried to spot how many Atlantis personnel were nearby.

If Rodney was close by, that meant he'd managed to get back to the 'gate and call for help. John was relieved not only to know he and Teyla would soon be rescued, but that McKay hadn't been captured or killed.

"Morse Code?"

"You remember the telegraph Rodney showed Jinto and some of his friends to make last year?"

"Yes. You said you and your brother had made similar devices when you were children."

"Right. Morse Code was the language we used to talk to each other." He listened again. "That weird buzzing sound you heard was the same code."

"It is a message."

John smiled. "Yep. A name. McKay. Give me your radio. I need to send a message back."

She handed him the transceiver, and he quickly tapped out the dots and dashes that spelt 'John' and waited.

"Oh, thank god," he heard Rodney mutter over the radio a few seconds later. "Morse was the only thing I could think of to make sure you still had your radio. If you hadn't answered when you did, Dex was going to take extreme measures."

"You convinced Elizabeth to let you bring Ronon back with you?" John asked. "Good thinking."

"Not exactly. It's a long story, and we don't have much time."

John glanced down at their guards and the chanting and dancing villagers. No one seemed to know McKay and Dex were nearby, but there was no sense in pushing their luck.

"Good point. I take it you have a plan?" John asked. He saw someone moving through the trees behind the village where he'd spotted the two men earlier and hoped it was McKay and the Atlantis rescue team.

"A very simple one," Rodney replied. "Major Lorne is almost ready with the distraction. When it starts, Dex lowers the cage, we get you out, and we all run for the 'gate as fast as we can. I assume you've figured out what the locals do with visitors to this planet."

"Yeah, I have a few ideas."

"Good. Then I don't need to explain why we need to get out of here sooner rather than later."

John heard Ronon say something off-mic that he couldn't catch and saw the four villagers were nearly to their tree. They stopped long enough to say something to their guards, then one of the men untied the rope at the bottom of the tree, rocking the cage as it slipped slightly once the tension on the rope was gone.

"Yes, yes, I know," Rodney said, presumably to Dex. John assumed Ronon had seen the men, too. "Tell Lorne we're ready."

The cage rocked again, and John winced as his injured shoulder banged into the wooden bars. He grabbed for one of the bars to keep himself steady.

Before he could ask what Lorne was going to use for a distraction, John heard two loud bangs echo from the other end of the village, along with a bright flash of light.

The villagers near the fire stopped dancing and started shouting and pointing toward the pyramid. Several of the men ran toward the temple, waving their arms as they yelled or picking up lengths of wood. The women ran into one of the low buildings, only to come back out armed with bows and followed the men.

The men near the cage looked back at the village as another flashbang went off. The three men guarding the tree ran back toward the village, yelling what sounded to John like orders. The four villagers, including the one holding the rope attached to the cage, joined the three guards and all of them ran toward the noise and lights created by Lorne.

John's relief at Rodney's timely rescue was short-lived as the cage plunged toward the ground. They were more than twenty feet in the air and the only thing under them was the stone pedestal. In the few seconds he had before the cage crashed to the ground, John realised how much the landing was going to hurt, groaned as Teyla was thrown against him, jarring his leg, and closed his eyes, bracing himself as best he could for the impact.

"The rope!" he heard Rodney shout from below them.

At the same time, two more flashbangs went off at the other end of the village, John heard more shouting from the villagers, and the cage juddered to a stop, slowly rocked back and forth in the air instead of slamming into the stone pedestal.

John opened his eyes and saw the cage two or three feet off the ground. He looked around and found Ronon standing beside the tree, a length of rope wrapped over his shoulder and around his back. He had his feet braced against the base of another tree as he used his own body to counter the weight of the cage.

"Okay, lower it the rest of the way," Rodney ordered as he slowly climbed the steps of the pedestal. He reached the top and braced the bottom of the cage with one hand.

John heard Ronon grunt in response as he fought to counter the weight of the cage. The rope jerked a few more times as Ronon lowered the cage to the ground next to the pedestal, the top of the cage now within easy reach of Rodney standing on the plinth.

Once the cage was on the ground, Ronon dropped the rope and disappeared into the surrounding gloom while Rodney started cutting the rope binding the top of the cage closed. John couldn't see any of the villagers, but he heard the distinct sound of several P-90s firing behind and to his left.

John heard Rodney muttering under his breath as he cut the first section of rope tying the top of the cage closed.

"Where did Ronon go?" John glanced around, searching for Dex as Rodney worked. The P-90 fire in the near distance was more sporadic and moving farther away from the village. John hoped that meant Lorne's team had the villagers on the run.

"Watching for any angry natives," Rodney replied with a grunt as he cut through the rope on one section of the cage and moved to the next.

"Hurry it up, McKay," Ronon growled as he stalked out of the gloom a few seconds later and stood at the base of the pedestal. "Lorne isn't going to hold them off much longer."

"I'm going," Rodney told him, and staggered as he cut free another section of the rope, upsetting his balance, "as fast as I can."

"Work faster."

"Work faster, he says," Rodney muttered under his breath as he started sawing through the last section of rope.

A few seconds later, he had the last of the rope cut from the top of the cage. "Done," he said. He dropped the knife and pulled the top of the cage off. "Let Lorne know we'll be ready to leave in a minute."

John heard Ronon talking, but couldn't hear anything over the radio. Different channel, he reminded himself as he watched Teyla climb up the inside of the cage. Rodney offered her a hand once she was balanced on the top, and she landed lightly on the stone pedestal beside him.

John wasn't sure how he was going to get out of the cage. The villagers must have had some way to get their prisoners free, another length of rope or maybe a ladder lowered down into the cage. Whatever it was, they didn't have it now, and his leg wouldn't hold if he tried to climb. The rim of the cage was only a few feet over his head, and he decided to try jumping. If he could reach the edge, Rodney and Teyla should be able to pull him out.

He didn't want to think about how much his leg would hurt if he missed his hold and fell back into the cage, but he didn't see any other options. He saw Rodney watching him from the top of the cage. McKay's grim expression told John he didn't have any better ideas.

John balanced as best he could, focused on the rim of the cage, and jumped. His fingers gripped the edge for a split second, but his shoulder twinged and he couldn't hold on.

John felt his grip slip and took a deep breath in anticipation of the agony that would shoot up his leg when he hit the bottom of the cage. Just as he lost his hold, he felt a pair of hands grab his arm, looked up, and saw Rodney, his body leaning over the top of the cage, holding onto him.

"A little help," Rodney ground out, and John saw his face turning red with the strain of supporting his weight.

John wasn't sure if he meant Teyla or Ronon, but Dex took the short stairs in two steps, reached down, grabbed the back of John's uniform jacket, and together they pulled him out of the cage.

Ronon let go of the jacket and turned back to the trees. The sound of P-90 fire had stopped, and John hoped that meant Lorne's team had escaped back into the forest. Of course, that also meant the villagers were going to come back soon and discover their birds had flown their cage.

"We need to go," Ronon said as if reading John's mind, and pushed Rodney toward the steps, Teyla was already at the bottom of the pedestal, watching the nearby trees.

John's leg wouldn't support much of his weight, and he held on to Rodney's shoulder as they made their careful way down the steps and followed Teyla as she led the way out of the small clearing. Ronon had disappeared again once John was out of the cage.

"Thanks for the rescue," John said once they reached the trees.

"Must have been my turn," Rodney replied but refused to meet John's eyes.

John frowned. Something was wrong. Rodney usually felt he wasn't given enough praise for his feats, now he acted as though he'd rather not be reminded.

Now was not the time, John reminded himself. Whatever was bothering McKay would have to wait until they were safely back in Atlantis.

The sun had set entirely while he and Teyla were getting out of the cage, leaving only a dim afterglow. The dim light made it difficult to see more than a short distance in any direction, and John knew they didn't have much time before they lost even that. Twenty minutes, thirty at best, and they would be stumbling through the unfamiliar woods in the dark.

John stopped at the edge of the trees and looked around for Teyla and Ronon. "What weapons do you have?" he asked Rodney.

"Umm, my Beretta and I found a P-90 in the clearing where you were presumably attacked." Rodney held up the rifle still clipped to his tac-vest as Ronon came out from behind one of the trees.

"We need to move," Dex said shortly. "The villagers are coming back. We need to get as much distance as we can between them and us."

John nodded. He was already exhausted, and his leg ached if he tried to put much weight on it. One look at Rodney and John knew he wasn't in much better shape. But Dex was right. They were out of the cage, but they weren't safe yet.

"They have lit torches and are following us," Teyla said and pointed back toward the village.

Ronon snorted. "Torches just makes them better targets."

"That may be true. However, they know these woods, we do not," Teyla pointed out.

John grimaced. "Ronon, take point. Get us back to the 'gate."

Ronon nodded and gave the area around the clearing another wary look. So far the only pinpricks of light were behind them, but John knew their luck wasn't going to hold for much longer. Teyla was right, the locals knew the terrain. It wouldn't be long before they had John's team surrounded.

"Rodney, give Teyla the P-90," John added.

Rodney unclipped the rifle and handed it over.

"Teyla, you've got our six. Shoot anything that isn't wearing Atlantis black."

Teyla took the weapon, checked it over, and nodded.

John glanced around, adjusted his hold around Rodney's shoulders and felt Rodney wrap an arm around his waist. "Time to get out of here."

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

Ronon pursed his lips and worked to hide his growing impatience at how slow they were moving. He knew Sheppard was injured and that he and McKay were doing the best they could, but if they didn't pick up the pace, the villagers were going to catch them, and this time Ronon didn't think they would bother with any of their usual ritual or ceremony before killing them.

If he left Sheppard, left Atlantis, he wouldn't have to deal with this sort of thing, he knew. Alone, he would already be back through the ring and on another planet. If he'd left the city weeks ago, he never would have known Sheppard and his people had come here, and he never would have come back to this planet just to be hunted again. Of course, that also meant no one in Atlantis would have known about the danger, and Sheppard, Teyla, and McKay would all be dead now.

Ronon growled under his breath. The problem was, Beckett was right. He didn't want to leave. The debt he owed Sheppard and Beckett aside, he liked Atlantis. He respected Sheppard. He was even developing a grudging respect for McKay. He'd come to realise in the last few weeks that if anyone had a chance of destroying the Wraith once and for all, it was Sheppard and his people.

"My team was in trouble, Major," McKay had said. "We don't leave people behind."

Ronon knew more than one soldier, more than one leader, who would have done precisely that. Without a second thought. He glanced back at Sheppard and McKay, stumbling along behind him and waited for them to catch up.

Ronon may not have said anything officially to Sheppard, yet, but he wasn't going to leave them behind, either. He wanted to be a part of this team. A part of what they were fighting for. Which meant having other people to worry about besides himself on hostile planets. Other people who would also worry about him and not leave him behind.

He heard a soft grunt of pain behind him and turned to see McKay and Sheppard stopped again. McKay said something Ronon couldn't understand and rubbed his head. Sheppard shook his head and adjusted his hold on McKay's shoulders. Teyla stopped next to Sheppard, a worried expression on her face in the fading light.

Ronon watched as she checked the bandage on Sheppard's leg.

"The wound has started bleeding again," she told Sheppard softly.

"I know," Sheppard replied, his voice tight. "Nothing we can do about it. It's not like we can stop. Make the bandage as tight as you can. We'll have to hope that's enough to get back to the 'gate."

Teyla frowned but tied the bandage again.

Ronon saw Sheppard grimace and clutch at McKay's shoulder as Teyla tightened the bandage around his leg. McKay winced and closed his eyes. Teyla kept one hand on McKay's shoulder until he opened his eyes again and nodded. Teyla smiled at him, gave Sheppard another concerned look, and stepped back.

Ronon frowned as he watched the exchange. This wasn't the first time he'd seen the odd behavior between McKay and Sheppard. In the days after their rescue from the tower, Ronon had watched Sheppard seemingly wince in pain several times for no apparent reason.

Something was going on, he just wasn't sure what it could be. A rustling in the trees nearby reminded him now was not the time to worry about it, however. He waited for the rustling noise to stop, then quickly searched the area where he'd heard the noise.

"Just an animal," Ronon muttered to himself and started walking again.

They were barely half the distance back to the ring when he sensed more movement in the nearby trees. This time he knew it wasn't some sort of night creature hunting or being hunted. The villagers were getting closer. They weren't surrounded yet, but Ronon knew it was only a matter of time.

They know where we're going, Ronon thought as he paused again and waited for the others to catch up.

He glanced behind him at McKay walking with his head down as he limped slowly along, balancing himself on another stick he'd found to use as a crutch while keeping his other arm wrapped around Sheppard's waist. Sheppard, for his part, had his arm draped over McKay's shoulder as he tried to direct McKay along the trail, avoiding roots or other obstacles that would likely send one or both of them falling to the ground.

The bandage on Sheppard's leg was bloody, and his face was a stoic mask. He said little, only the occasional word to McKay, pointing out a hole or trail of vine in their path. The injury was getting worse, and Ronon was impressed Sheppard was still able to move at all.

"What's the problem?" John asked as they caught up.

Ronon heard the exhaustion and pain in his tone. They couldn't keep going, he knew. They needed another plan.

"Villagers," Dex replied as Teyla joined them. "They know we're trying to get back to the ring."

"There are several behind us as well," Teyla added. "I have heard them moving through the trees, following us."

Sheppard pursed his lips and looked around. Ronon could tell he was weighing their options. They weren't in a clearing as much as an area with fewer trees. It wasn't an ideal defensive position, but it could be worse. None of the trees were big enough for someone to climb and they were on a slight rise, but it was now dark, two of them were injured, and they only had three weapons.

Ronon checked the charge on his blaster and made sure it was set to kill.

"How far is the archive from here?" Sheppard asked after a moment as he adjusted his hold on McKay.

"You mean the Ancestor's building?" Ronon replied. "Half a mile in that direction." Ronon pointed to his right.

"How many of the hostiles are between us and it?"

Ronon studied the trees for a few seconds. "Probably not many. They aren't expecting us to go in that direction."

Sheppard nodded. "Okay. We make for the building. It will give us cover, and with the archive backed against the edge of a cliff, they can only come at us from one direction."

Ronon shook his head. "We'll be cut off from the ring."

Sheppard smiled slightly. "Not for long. Somehow I doubt these people are used to flying ships."

McKay looked up. "The jumpers don't have weapons."

"They have drones," Sheppard replied. "And we have a city full of Marines. Lorne should be back to the 'gate by now. He can bring back a squad. That should give us enough cover to get from the building to the jumper. Then it's just a matter of flying home."

Sheppard took the earpiece out of his ear, made an adjustment, and said, "Sheppard to Lorne."

There was a pause, and then Ronon heard heavy breathing and the sound of someone running in his ear.

"Lorne here, sir. We're almost back to the 'gate. We had a group on our tail, but I think we lost them. Where are you?"

"We're about halfway to the 'gate, Major. But we've got a problem. Looks like the villagers found us."

"Tell me where you are, sir, and we'll come back for you."

"Negative, Major. Get to the 'gate and get back to Atlantis."

"But, sir --"

"No but's, Major. Get back to the city. Tell Weir what's going on, then get back here with a jumper, Thompson, and a squad of Marines. We're going to try to get back to the archive building. There won't be enough room for you to land, but you can drop the rear hatch on the edge of the cliff. Hopefully, the sight of the jumper and a squad of Marines will scare off the villagers long enough for us to make a run for it."

There was a long pause over the radio. "I'm not sure I'm that good of a pilot, sir."

"You'll do fine, Major. You have your orders."

"Yes, sir. Lorne out."

"You sure you want to do this?" Ronon asked as he studied the trees.

"Do you have any better ideas?" Sheppard asked. "We aren't going to make it back to the 'gate," he added with a glance at McKay beside him. "The building is defensible. We can hole up there until Lorne gets back."

Ronon checked his weapon and stared in the direction of the ring. He didn't like the idea of hiding and waiting for rescue. He turned around and found Sheppard watching him.

"I assume Elizabeth gave you a GDO," Sheppard said softly. "You can head for the 'gate without us. Meet up with Lorne and come back with him in the jumper. Teyla and I can find the archive."

Ronon glared at Sheppard, angry as much for Sheppard reading his mind as the implication that he would leave them.

"We don't leave people behind."

He stalked over and pulled Sheppard out of McKay's tenuous hold.

"Hey!" McKay protested. He caught himself on the trunk of a tree, and tried to find his balance on just the branch and his right leg.

"We need to move. Fast," Ronon growled as he adjusted his hold on Sheppard, and set a slightly quicker pace as he led the way back to the building by the cliff.

By the time they found the building, it was fully dark, and Sheppard was barely able to stand. He looked up when Ronon stopped then glanced behind them where Dex could hear McKay stumbling through the last of the trees, and Teyla's quiet murmurs as she tried to help him.

"We're here," Ronon said. "Now what."

"Need to get inside," Sheppard replied softly. "Where's the door?"

Ronon manoeuvred them over to the door with a glance behind him to see where Teyla and McKay were. He waited as Sheppard tapped the control and the door slid open, then pulled Sheppard inside. He was startled when the lights in the room glowed to life as soon as they entered.

He eased Sheppard to the floor, turned to check McKay and Teyla's progress, and frowned when he saw them coming out of the trees. They weren't much more than shapes moving against the deeper gloom, but he could tell Teyla was beside McKay, one arm wrapped around his waist, helping him as best she could. Ronon heard voices calling and caught glimpses of movement in the trees behind them.

The villagers had caught up.

He saw Teyla glance behind her and suspected she had heard the voices as well.

"We are almost back to the archive," Ronon heard her say to McKay, her tone calm, if a bit strained.

"Sheppard and Dex?"

"They are already inside. You can see the lights through the windows."

Ronon saw one of the shapes stumble and heard McKay moan as he fell. At the same time, he heard Sheppard mutter under his breath and Ronon saw him twitch slightly. He glanced from Sheppard sitting against the wall with his eyes closed, to the two shapes he could see at the edge of the clearing, and then at the trees. He knew the villagers had to be close enough to see McKay was down.

He ran out of the building and back across the clearing where Teyla was trying to help McKay back to his feet.

"I've got him," he said to Teyla as he took McKay's weight from her. "Get inside."

Teyla nodded and ran for the door.

McKay looked up as Ronon wrapped an arm around his waist. "Thought you weren't going to help," McKay muttered as Ronon propelled them both back to the building.

"Said I wouldn't carry you, McKay. Never said I wouldn't help."

"Oh. Well, that's different then, I guess."

Ronon ducked as an arrow missed his ear by inches. "Come on!" he growled, and half-carried McKay across the clearing.

Arrows hit the ground near their heels as they ran. Ronon heard answering fire from the building and looked up to see Teyla standing in the doorway shooting at the men coming out of the trees.

Teyla stepped clear of the door as Ronon pulled McKay inside. She fired more rounds at the men running toward the building until the rifle clicked when it ran out of ammunition, then ducked back inside and let the door slide closed behind her.

Ronon sat McKay on the floor next to Sheppard. "Your plan better work, Sheppard," Ronon growled as he looked out one of the small windows. "The villagers have caught up. We aren't getting out of here without help."

He glanced down at Sheppard, his eyes still closed, with McKay slumped beside him.

Ronon looked over at Teyla watching the clearing from the other window.

"Major Lorne will come," she assured him. "You will see."

Ronon grunted and turned back to the windows as the villagers entered the clearing. Some of the men carried torches and all of them were armed with bows. All Ronon could think was that Teyla had better be right.

Chapter Text

Elizabeth stood on the balcony outside of her office, her arms braced on the railing in front of her, a mug of cooling coffee on the table beside her as she watched the rising sun play across the water. If anyone asked, she would have said she was taking a quick break from the paperwork piled on her desk. One of the drawbacks of regular contact with Earth, she thought to herself with a tiny smile, the SGC wanted weekly reports and updates on what was happening in the Pegasus galaxy.

The smile disappeared when she remembered the real reason she had retreated from her office. She was worried, more than worried, about what was happening on Mendar. Sheppard's team had missed their check-in, not really a surprise after what Dex had told her about the people on the planet, but she hadn't heard anything from Major Lorne since his team had arrived on the planet several hours ago. Now she was wondering if she had sentenced more of her people to a terrible death as a result.

She watched the waves lap against the edge of the city far below and let the regular action of the water soothe her nerves. John was more than capable of taking care of himself and his team, she told herself. Of course, that team was a man down, and Rodney wasn't really one hundred percent healthy, she reminded herself bitterly. If they had been attacked by the local population, what chance did they have?

She picked up her cup and swallowed the now-cold coffee along with her self-recrimination. She couldn't afford to second guess her decisions. She had to trust that Sheppard and Lorne would somehow manage to get everyone home in one piece.

"Doctor Weir? We have an incoming wormhole," Chuck said over the radio.

"Understood. I'll be right there." Elizabeth took one last deep breath of sea air and steeled herself for whatever happened next.

"It's Major Lorne's IDC," Chuck told her as she came out of her office and stopped behind his chair.

"Lower the shield," Elizabeth replied, and headed down the steps to the gateroom. "Major Lorne," she greeted as Lorne and his team came through the 'gate. She glanced behind him as the 'gate shut down without any sign of John, his team, or Ronon. "Where is Colonel Sheppard?"

Lorne glanced at his team, then turned to Elizabeth. "We ran into a few problems, ma'am."

Elizabeth clasped her hands in front of her. "I see. Conference room, gentlemen."

Elizabeth led the way back up the stairs and across to the conference room. She sat at one end of the table and motioned Lorne's team to take the other chairs. "All right, Major, what happened? Where is Colonel Sheppard's team, and where is Ronon Dex?"

It didn't take Lorne long to explain about finding the archive building empty, following Rodney's trail, finding the village, and rescuing John and Teyla.

"The last communication I had with Colonel Sheppard, he said they were going to make for the archive building and wait for us to come back with reinforcements."

Elizabeth steepled her fingers on the table in front of her as she considered their options. "You said Doctor McKay was limping, what about Colonel Sheppard and Teyla? Do we know if they were injured as well?"

"Dex said he found blood that he thought belonged to Colonel Sheppard on the trail leading back to the village, ma'am. Based on the amount of blood we found, we have to assume Colonel Sheppard's injuries are serious."

"Which is why they couldn't make it back to the stargate after escaping from the villagers." Elizabeth nodded. "So what's your plan, Major?"

"The building isn't more than a few miles from the 'gate. Colonel Sheppard's orders were to bring a jumper and an assault team back through the 'gate. The increased firepower should be more than enough to scare off any villagers still in the area, giving Colonel Sheppard and his people time to get to the ship. "

"According to the initial report from the MALP, there's no place to land the jumper near the building. If Colonel Sheppard is seriously hurt, how do you plan to get them back to the ship?"

Lorne looked down at his hands. "The plan right now is to fly the jumper close to the cliff and use the rear hatch as a bridge of sorts. Worst case," Lorne leant forward and braced his arms on the table, "the jumpers have drones, ma'am. We can blast a space big enough to land the jumper, pick up our people, and get them home."

"Maybe save that as a last resort, Major." Elizabeth placed her hands flat on the table. "All right, you have a go to return to the planet." She tapped her earpiece. "Weir to Sergeant Thompson."

"Thompson here, ma'am."

"Sergeant, Major Lorne needs you and your team for a mission to P9X-291."

"Yes, ma'am. What's the nature of the mission?"

"It's a rescue operation. Colonel Sheppard's team ran into trouble with the native population."

"Understood. We can be geared up and ready to go in fifteen."

"Thank you, Sergeant. Major Lorne will fill you in on the details."

"Roger that. Thompson out."

Elizabeth turned back to Lorne. "I'm sending a medical team back with you as well, Major."

Lorne shook his head. "I'd rather not risk any more civilians on that planet, if possible, ma'am."

"This is not open to negotiation, Major. You said yourself Colonel Sheppard may be seriously hurt. Time may be a factor."

Lorne ducked his head. "Yes, ma'am."

"I'll call Doctor Beckett and have him put together a team to meet you in the jumper bay."

Elizabeth stood, and Lorne followed suit. "Good luck, Major. Bring our people home."

"Yes ma'am," Lorne said with a nod and motioned his team out of the conference room.

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

Teyla stood at the window, watching the villagers pace near the edge of the trees by the light of a few torches. A few smaller bodies moved around the clearing in front of the archive, and Teyla realised with a start the shapes were boys retrieving spent arrows. The men had stopped shooting at the building once she and the others were inside, but as far as she could tell, no one had left. Instead, the men stood near the edge of the clearing, shouting and waving their arms. She couldn't make out what they were saying but assumed it was threats of some kind.

She frowned when she saw more of the men lighting torches and sinking the poles into the ground, bathing the area in front of the building with a red glow. She had hoped once it was dark, the villagers would leave; torches meant they planned to stay. There would be no chance of the team sneaking back to the stargate during the night.

Teyla heard Ronon growl low in his throat, and assumed he'd come to the same conclusion. She glanced over at him in time to see him kick the table beside him.

The table screeched as it moved a few inches, startling a dozing John into action. His eyes shot open, and he tried to stand, but his leg buckled under him and he sank back down onto the floor with a groan. His movements jostled Rodney, who was asleep next to him. Rodney muttered something unintelligible, and his head rolled against John's arm.

"Ronon," Teyla admonished softly as she knelt next to John and gently moved his hand away from the bloody pressure bandage.

"What?" he growled back. "I knew this was a bad idea."

"What is done, is done. You must have faith that Major Lorne will return."

Ronon glowered at her. "Easy for you to say," he muttered and went back to staring out the window.

"John?" Teyla said and waited for him to focus on her.

"Teyla?" John asked, his voice tight with pain. He glanced over at Rodney leaning against him, then around the rest of the room.

"We made it back to the archive. We are waiting for Major Lorne to return with a jumper," she told him.

John nodded and closed his eyes.

Teyla checked under the bandage and frowned when she saw the blood on the dressing and found dirt in the wound. "I will see what medical supplies I can find," she told him and stood.

Her pack and the Colonel's had been taken by the villagers, but she found Rodney's backpack where he had left it on the desk. She rummaged through it until she found his stash of medical supplies.

"What are they doing?" she asked Ronon as she went back to Sheppard.

"Most of them are still yelling." Ronon paused. "A few of them have started cutting down trees."

"I need a knife," Teyla muttered and looked around. "Why would they be cutting down trees?" she asked.

"Don't know," Ronon replied. He pulled a knife out of the sheath on his belt and handed it to her. "Whatever it is, it won't be good."

Teyla sighed. She knew Ronon was not used to patiently waiting or accepting help from others, but they'd had little choice about coming back to the archive. Neither Colonel Sheppard nor Rodney would have made it back to the stargate. At least now they had a chance against the villagers.

Teyla removed the dirty pressure bandage, slit Sheppard's trouser leg from cuff to knee, and had her first good look at the damage done to John's leg by the arrow and their escape through the woods. The wounds were an angry red, and the jagged tear on the back of John's leg still slowly oozed blood.

Ronon glanced down at her as she worked. "How bad is it?"

Teyla looked up. "The wounds are becoming infected. We need to get him back to Atlantis."

She found an antiseptic wipe and did her best to clean the gashes.

John groaned as soon as she touched him. "Stop," he mumbled, and tried to move his leg.

"J'n?" Rodney muttered as he was bumped again. He sat up with a groan and Teyla saw the pain lines creasing his forehead.

Teyla paused and waited for John to look at her. "Your leg is getting worse," she said to Sheppard in a low voice, "and we do not know how long it will be before Major Lorne returns. It needs tending. I will be as gentle as possible."

John nodded, closed his eyes, and clenched his hands as Teyla quickly finished cleaning the wounds and tied a fresh pressure bandage around his leg.

"I need to remove your tactical vest," she said to Sheppard. "The injury to your shoulder was not as serious, but I should still check it as well."

Sheppard nodded and sat forward long enough to get the vest off, then leant back against the wall again. She slit the sleeve of his shirt, cleaned out the smaller wound, and wrapped his shoulder in a clean bandage.

"I have done what I can." Teyla squeezed his fingers. John let out the breath he'd been holding and nodded. "Pain medication," she added as she passed over a couple of ibuprofen and a bottle of water.

John swallowed the pills and water. "Thanks," he said in a whisper and closed his eyes again.

"Rodney?" Teyla asked as she moved around to his side. "How are you doing?"

Rodney rubbed a hand over his face. "Head aches, leg aches, and the tingling is still there." He glanced at Sheppard and gave Teyla a questioning look.

"I have done what I can," she reassured him. "The rest will have to wait until we are home."

Ronon looked down at them again when Rodney mentioned the tingling sensation. Teyla wondered how much Ronon suspected and how long he would wait before he started asking questions.

"Here, this will help." She handed him two pills and another bottle of water from the backpack.

Rodney took the pills and water without comment.

Teyla saw the slight tremble in Rodney's hands as he took the pills and bottle from her and frowned, memories of when she and Rodney had been kidnapped by Rasha assaulted her. She wasn't sure if the shaking was from exhaustion, pain, or the hypoglycaemia, but she wasn't going to wait to find out. She dug through the pack looking for the power bars she knew Rodney would have stashed inside before they left the city.

She found the foil-wrapped bars in one of the front pockets and handed one to Rodney.

"Thanks," Rodney said as he opened the wrapper.

Teyla nodded to him with a smile as she nudged John awake and gave him another of the energy bars. She held out another to Ronon, who shook his head.

"You should eat something," Teyla admonished softly, still holding out the food.

"I'm fine," Ronon replied.

Teyla studied his face and noted the pursed lips and the way he wouldn't look at the energy bar. It seemed they had finally found an Atlantean food Ronon didn't like, she thought with a tiny smile. She let the matter drop and ate the bar herself.

Once she finished eating, she turned back to Rodney. "You were limping badly by the time we arrived here, perhaps I should look at your foot," she said, and reached for Rodney's boot.

Rodney shook his head. "You take my boot off, I won't be able to get it on again. It's waited this long, I'll be fine until the jumper gets here."

He looked around the room with a tired sigh. "Speaking of which …"

Rodney pushed against the wall and stood, hopping on one foot as he braced himself first on the wall and then on the desk as he made his way across the short distance from the door to the console. He fell more than sat on the stool in front of the console and checked the computer still attached to the Ancestor's system.

"Hopefully, the computer managed to download the database while we were off getting chased through the woods." Rodney glanced first at the computer and then at the screen for the console.

"Rodney," Sheppard said and opened his eyes. "What did you do to that leg?"

Rodney ducked his head and typed something on the computer keyboard. "Not sure," he admitted softly. "I felt my ankle give earlier this afternoon while I was following you. It's ached ever since."

Ronon turned away from the window and crossed his arms over his chest. "That's not what you were doing."

"What?" Rodney looked up from the console, confusion evident in his expression. "Of course, I was following them."

"I was tracking you," Ronon told him. "You weren't following Sheppard or the villagers. You kept wandering away from their trail."

"I was, umm …" Rodney glanced at Sheppard.

Ronon dropped his arms and paced away from the window with his head down. He stopped a minute later, stared first at Rodney then down at John, and Teyla saw the moment he put all of the pieces together.

"It's more than just words," he said. "There's something else tying you two together."

John gave Rodney a quick look. "You could say that," he admitted after a few seconds.

"Ronon, this may not be the best time," Teyla added, hoping to delay the inevitable.

"Teyla, it's okay," John said, rubbing his forehead. He looked over at Rodney then up at Ronon.

Rodney frowned and shook his head. "You're sure?"

"If he's going to stay, he needs to know," Sheppard replied.

"Fine, I guess." Rodney stared down at his hands resting on the computer keyboard. He met Ronon's eye and continued, "You're right. I didn't follow the trail. Well, not the one you mean, anyway. I followed … the tingling feeling."

"The what?" Ronon asked with a frown.

"The tingling feeling, at the back of my head," Rodney explained with a tired sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose.

When he didn't continue, Teyla quirked an eyebrow, and John nodded.

Teyla stood in front of Ronon, her expression serious. "Do you remember what I told you about chaguo ndugu?"

Ronon shrugged. "Brothers by choice. We had a similar idea on Sateda. Not that uncommon."

"In the case of John and Rodney, it is more … complicated." Teyla smiled slightly and patiently told Ronon about the waypost and what they knew about the mental link.

By the time she was done, Ronon had leant with his back against the wall next to Sheppard, who was still sitting on the floor, his expression unreadable. "This was something common to the Ancestors?"

Rodney shook his head. "According to," he gave John a wary glance, "a source we discovered several months ago, linked pairs were pretty rare even for the Ancients."

Ronon grunted. "And this link does what? Tells you when the other is injured?"

John nodded.

"Among other things," Rodney said.

"And it's not always subtle about the pain thing," John added.

Rodney snorted. "That might be the biggest understatement I've ever heard."

Ronon looked over at Rodney. "That's what you were following? A feeling?"

Rodney nodded and looked at John again. "I figured as long as I could still feel the tingling from the link, I was going in the right direction."

"Does everyone know about this link?" Ronon asked as he glanced out the window.

John shook his head. "Only Teyla, Doctor Weir, and Doctor Beckett." He looked up at Ronon, his expression serious. "And now you."

"And Ford," Rodney added with a glance at Sheppard before he went back to work on the computer. "He knew before …"

"Yeah," John whispered. "Ford, too."

"Colonel," Teyla started to say but stopped when Ronon growled. He stalked from the window over to the door, pulling his weapon out of its holster as he moved. "What is the matter?" she asked.

"I know what the cut-down trees are for," he told her. He cracked the door open, fired off a few shots, and quickly closed the door again when arrows landed in the dirt in front of the building.

Teyla went to the window and hissed in a breath when she saw the pile of tree branches a few feet from the front of the building. There was a body on the ground near the pile of wood, and a burning torch on the ground next to it. Teyla suddenly understood what Ronon had been shooting at.

As she watched, another man ran forward, grabbed the torch, and threw it onto the pile of wood. The flame sputtered for several moments, then the fire caught and started to spread. She looked over at Ronon with a stunned expression.

"They're going to burn us out," Ronon said, his expression hard. "If the smoke doesn't kill us, the flames will."

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

Evan heard the clatter of running feet in the jumper bay, finished the last of his preflight checks, and looked back into the rear section of the jumper.

"Sergeant Thompson is here with the rest of the gear, sir," Reed reported as Thompson as his team entered the jumper.

Lorne watched as Thompson and his people stowed the last of the extra weapons under the bench seats. "Doctor Beckett is right behind us, sir," Thompson said as he came forward.

"Beckett? I thought Doctor Weir was just going to ask for a medical tech."

"When it comes to Rodney and Colonel Sheppard, Major, it's just easier for everyone if I come with you," Beckett said as he dropped his medical pack behind him and took one of the rear seats in the cockpit.

"Okay," Evan drawled as he closed the rear hatch. "More the merrier, I guess."

The docking system dropped the jumper down into the gateroom where Evan saw Doctor Weir standing in front of the control console, her hands gripping the railing in front of her.

"Major. Good luck," she said over the radio.

Evan nodded and waved as the jumper slowly rotated to face the stargate and the shimmering event horizon. The ship hung in place for a moment, then launched through the 'gate.

Full night had descended on the planet while they were gone, and Lorne pulled back on the control sticks, gaining altitude as the gate shut down behind them. He didn't think the local weapons could damage the ship if anyone was nearby, but he didn't plan on taking any chances.

"We'll head for the Ancient building, first. With any luck, we'll be able to pick up Colonel Sheppard and the others and be back through the 'gate before … " Lorne stopped speaking as the HUD lit up in front of him. The building was marked on the map along with several dozen life signs. "That's not good," he muttered.

"Major?" Beckett asked.

"I guess we really made those villagers mad," Lorne replied as the jumper rose above the trees and headed for the building in the near distance. "Looks like about forty of them are camped out around the building where Colonel Sheppard and the others went to ground."

"They made it back to the building, at least," Beckett said as he studied the heads-up display. "There are four life signs inside."

"Damn," Evan muttered as a red line suddenly appeared in front of the building. He looked out the windscreen and saw an orange glow below and slightly ahead of them.

"Major?"

Lorne glanced back at Beckett. "The villagers have started a fire. Looks like it's right in front of the building. We aren't going to get anyone out that way."

"What about another exit?" Beckett asked.

Evan shook his head. "The building backs up to a cliff. It's the front door or nothing."

He made sure the ship was cloaked, hovered over the clearing where the building sat, and pressed the tile for the jumper's radio. "Colonel Sheppard, this is Major Lorne. Come in."

"Sheppard here." Evan heard the tension and fatigue in Sheppard's voice. "Good to hear from you, Major."

Evan heard Beckett hiss softly behind him. He must have heard the exhaustion as well, he thought with a glance at Beckett's worried expression. "Got here as fast as we could. Looks like the neighbors don't want to go home, sir."

"What can I say, Major. We throw a hell of a party."

"Colonel Sheppard," Beckett cut in. "How badly are you and Rodney injured?"

"We've been better. I took an arrow to the leg, but the bleeding seems to have stopped. McKay thinks he twisted his left ankle, but he won't let any of us take his boot off and check it."

Evan saw Beckett's worry increase at Sheppard's news. "Leave Rodney alone for now, Colonel. The boot is actually helping him."

"Roger that."

"Anything else?" Beckett asked.

"Teyla's got some cuts on her arms and hand. We found some medical supplies, and except for Rodney's foot, we've done what we can."

"All right, Colonel," Beckett replied. "It sounds like you're all stable for now. Hopefully, we'll have you out of there soon."

"Soon works for us," Sheppard replied.

"Colonel, it looks like you've got forty men on your doorstep and they've started a fire," Evan reported. "We're working on a way to get you out of there."

"Understood. Don't take too long, Major. The wind picks up, and we're going to have a problem getting out of here."

Evan tapped off the radio and looked at Beckett, Thompson, and Reed. "Anyone have any bright ideas?"

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

Rodney sat in front of the console studying the data as it flowed across the computer screen. It gave him something to think about other than his throbbing leg, not to mention the fire only a few meters away from the building. He saw a few wisps of smoke trickle through the chinks in the stone and swallowed.

He checked the hard drive and compared the amount of data already downloaded to the database and shook his head. Best case, he might be able to get a quarter of the database downloaded before the hard drive was completely full.

"Understood," he heard John say and glanced up from the computer. "Don't take too long, Major. The wind picks up, and we're going to have a problem getting out of here."

John tapped off his radio and held out an arm to Dex. "Help me up. I need to see what's going on out there."

"Are you sure that is wise?" Teyla asked as Dex pulled Sheppard to his feet at the same time. "The bleeding has finally stopped."

Sheppard hopped on one leg as Dex guided him over to the window and kept one hand on his back. John stared out the window for a few moments then sat heavily on the stool Teyla pushed over for him.

John hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "Anyone have any ideas on how to get past that?"

Ronon grunted and checked his weapon. "I can think of one."

John grimaced. "There are thirty or forty people out there. Let's hold off on the kamikaze runs for the time being, okay, big guy?"

"What's a kamikaze?"

"Never mind," Sheppard replied, and looked around. "Rodney, I thought you said there were weapons in here."

"I said there were probably weapons in here," Rodney retorted. He watched as more smoke curled into the room and started to cough. "It's not like I've had time to do an inventory." He tapped a series of tiles on the console, and read the resulting scroll of information on the computer.

"Well?" Sheppard pressed when Rodney didn't answer right away.

"I don't know. There's no manifest or log of what Kadmos stored in here." Rodney stood, braced himself against the desk, and started to hop toward the shelves.

"McKay, sit down," Sheppard ordered. "You fall, and you'll make that leg worse."

Dex walked over, took Rodney by the arm, and set him back on the stool. "Tell me where to look," he said.

Rodney pointed toward the row of shelves farthest from the console. "Try down there. The row closest to us is just books. I don't remember seeing anything like a weapon down the next two when we were here before. The last row is our best shot."

Dex nodded and started down the last row of artefacts. Rodney heard John coughing and said, "We have another problem."

"Oh?" John asked once he had his breath back. "On top of the people that want to smoke us out of here just to kill us?"

Rodney grimaced at the reminder. "We need to save as much of this as we can." He waved a hand around, indicating the console and the shelves. "I'm not even going to get half of the information in the database saved." He stared longingly at the shelves of artefacts, then shook himself and picked up the large book he'd left on the desk earlier that afternoon. "The books would probably be the most useful."

"Rodney," Sheppard started to say, but Rodney talked over him.

"You and I both know Elizabeth is not going to authorise another trip back here. We have to get what we can now. Otherwise, what was the point of coming here and nearly getting killed?"

"We're going to be lucky to get out of here with our lives," Sheppard countered, and coughed again as more smoke drifted into the room through the cracks in the walls.

Rodney scowled. "This archive was built for a reason, Colonel. We need to preserve what we can. Who knows what could save us in the future." He snapped his fingers a few times and pointed to his backpack sitting on the floor near the door.

Teyla picked it up and handed it to him. "Thank you," he muttered around another cough and proceeded to dump everything out of the pack. "I can get several books in this and still have room for the computer," he said and shoved the large Ancient text from the desk into the pack.

"Rodney has a point, Colonel. We should try to save as much as possible."

John scrubbed a hand over his face. "Fine. Grab what you can."

Rodney started to stand again.

"Not you," Sheppard admonished. "Stay there."

Rodney pursed his lips but sat back down.

"Teyla, start bringing McKay books." John turned to Rodney as Teyla started down the nearest row of shelves. "We can't take everything. Choose wisely. We're going to need to move fast once Lorne has a way to get rid of the villagers. We can't be weighed down no matter how important you think the books might be."

Rodney nodded as Teyla dropped several books on the desk, coughing as she went back for more.

Dex came back from his search of the last row of artefacts a few minutes later. "This is all I could find," he said and dropped two devices on the desk. Each one had a narrow, metal handle at one end and a tapered glass housing at the other.

Rodney studied the devices for a moment, then typed a query into the computer looking for any information on what he hoped were weapons. To him, they looked like --

"Looks like a flashlight," John said.

Dex went back to the window. "Better hope it's more than that," he grunted with a cough.

"They're personal defence weapons," Rodney said a moment later as he read the computer screen. "According to this, they were standard issue for anyone assigned to one of the Ancient fleet ships. Hang on." He picked up one of the devices, studied it for a moment, and pressed a button inset under the handle.

The chamber at the front of the device glowed, and a thin beam of energy shot out the tip, hitting the wall just to the left of Dex's shoulder.

Dex ducked and turned on Rodney with a growl as more smoke poured into the room from the newly-made hole.

"Oops," Rodney muttered as he turned the weapon over in his hands.

"Gimme that," Dex growled, stalked over to Rodney, and snatched the device out of his hand.

"Sorry," Rodney said. "I don't think it would have really hurt you, though. According to this, it was only supposed to stun the target."

"Stun weapons don't leave holes in the walls," Dex said with a glare. He quickly checked the weapon, then tucked it in a pocket of his duster.

Rodney reached out for the other weapon, but Dex got there first. He grabbed the energy weapon and handed it to Teyla as she dropped another stack of books on the desk.

"What is this?" she asked as she took the offered device.

"A weapon," Dex replied with one last glower at Rodney before he walked back over to Sheppard.

"All right, we at least have something we can use to fight back," John said as Dex handed him the other Ancient weapon.

Teyla studied the weapon for a moment, then nodded at the books. "These are all of the books I could find that would fit in your backpack."

Rodney looked down the aisle at the thick-bound books still on the shelf. "You're sure?"

"Yes, Rodney," she replied. She turned back and picked up a sort of rectangular reinforced rucksack from the floor near the shelves. "I did find this, as well, so we will be able to take a few more of the books with us."

"Good, good," Rodney said. He coughed again and rubbed his eyes. The air in the room was getting hazy, and Rodney could taste the wood smoke as well as smell it. He glanced at the door and saw thick smoke coming from under the door lintel. More smoke came in through the gaps in the stone walls.

"Sheppard?" Rodney pointed at the door as he coughed again.

"Yeah, I know," John replied, his voice rough as the smoke caught in his throat.

"The villagers are fanning the fire," Dex reported from the window. "We need to get out of here."

Rodney didn't wait to hear the rest of the conversation. He turned back to the console, covered his nose and mouth with his shirt, and stopped the database download. When the computer beeped, he checked the information was intact on the hard drive, unhooked it from the console and stuffed it into the backpack along with the cables.

Once the computer was secured, he pulled himself to his feet and quickly scanned the titles on the books. He couldn't translate much, but picked out a familiar word here or there and added another half dozen books to his pack. He quickly sorted through the remaining books and gave eight more to Teyla to put in the other bag.

The air in the room was getting worse by the second. Rodney started coughing again, and it was several long seconds before the fit passed.

John tapped his radio. "Sheppard to Lorne," he said as he coughed. "We're out of time, Major, it's now or never."

With the computer and all of the books, Rodney could barely get the backpack to zip closed and settled the pack on his shoulders. He tried to hide the pain in his leg as the weight pulled him off balance. He didn't want to give Sheppard an excuse to force him to leave the precious books behind.

"Get to the back of the building!" John ordered, his voice hoarse as he fought a coughing fit of his own. "Lorne has a plan."

Teyla picked up the other pack, slung it over her shoulder, and took Rodney's arm. He limped down the nearest aisle, bracing one hand on the shelves, and carrying two smaller books in his other hand.

The smoke coming through the gaps in the walls increased and all of them were coughing now as the smoke filled the front of the building.

Rodney was about to ask what was taking Lorne so long when he saw a bright flash through the window and heard several loud bangs announcing the arrival of the Marines.

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

Evan watched the flames inch closer to the building. As the fire grew and the smoke spread, he had to fly the jumper higher and higher to keep the villagers from noticing it was there.

"We could try the flashbangs again, sir," Reed suggested. "If we drop them between the fire and the tree line, it might scare them off long enough for us to get Colonel Sheppard and the others out of the building."

"From the way Colonel Sheppard described their injuries, neither he nor Doctor McKay is going to be able to run very far or very fast," Beckett said.

"Shouldn't be a problem, Doc," Evan said, and pointed to an open area next to the building. "It looks like the people down there cut down enough of the trees I should be able to get the jumper to fit."

"Sheppard to Lorne," Sheppard's voice crackled over the radio. "We're out of time, Major, it's now or never."

Evan pressed the tile for the jumper's radio. "We think we have a plan, sir. Get as far from the front of the building as you can, and don't look outside."

Lorne tabbed off the radio. "Coughlin, Walker," he called into the back of the jumper. "Get ready with the rest of the flashbangs." He glanced over at Thompson.

"My team can provide cover fire, sir," Thompson said.

"Good," Evan replied.

"Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay are going to need help getting out of the building," Beckett reminded from his seat behind Evan. "I need to go with whoever you send inside."

Lorne frowned. "That's not a good idea, Doc. It's not safe down there."

"Safe or not, Major, I'm going," Beckett told him. "Medical needs aside, if the building was an archive like Rodney suspects, chances are it has standard Ancient security, which means the door is most likely sealed. Only someone with the Ancient gene will be able to get it open."

Evan grimaced. He should have thought of that, he realised. No one else on his team had the gene.

"Sergeant?" he asked hopefully.

Thompson shook his head. "No one in my group has the ATA gene, sir."

"Great."

"If you want to get that door open, I'm the only one who can do it," Beckett said and stood from his chair.

Lorne grimaced. "Thompson, get ready and go with him," he finally said. He hoped Sheppard and Weir wouldn't flay him too much when they found out he'd sent a civilian into a dangerous situation.

"Yes, sir," Thompson replied.

"Everyone ready back there?" Evan called a few seconds later. "We're only going to get one shot at this."

"Ready, sir," Reed replied.

"All right, here we go!"

Evan dropped the ship down until it hovered above the open area between the fire and the edge of the trees.

"Hang on back there," Lorne called as he opened the rear hatch.

"Flashbangs!" Reed shouted in warning.

A few seconds later, the clearing lit up for a brief moment. Evan had an impression of dozens of angry faces before they scattered back into the trees.

"They're running!" Evan reported, watching the life signs scatter on the HUD. "Going in to land."

He pulled the ship around and dropped it behind the fire line. Evan cringed as several trees snapped under them as the jumper landed next to the building. He angled the ship so the rear hatch was close to the building, giving Sheppard and his team some cover as well as keeping some of the smoke out of the jumper.

He heard the clatter of running feet on the ramp, then the crack of gunfire from the P-90s as arrows hit the windscreen of the jumper. Evan had to give these people credit, they were persistent. He understood a little better now how they had managed to capture and kill a Wraith.

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

Carson followed Sergeant Thompson out of the jumper and into the smoky area near the building.

"Need to hurry, Doc," Thompson said. "Those people aren't going to stay away for very long."

Carson ducked as gunfire erupted behind them and hurried over to the door. He found the sensor and waved his hand over it, thankful the door obeyed and slid open with ease.

Smoke hung in the air as he moved through the building, and both he and Thompson started to cough.

"Colonel Sheppard?" Beckett called.

"Back here," Sheppard's voice croaked.

Carson followed the sound of hacking down one of the aisles until he found Sheppard's team huddled on the floor near the back of the building. John and Ronon sat with their backs against opposite shelves, Rodney and Teyla were behind them against the back wall. All of them were pale with streaming eyes, and when they weren't coughing, Carson could hear them wheezing.

"Colonel?" Carson said and knelt down next to Sheppard.

"Hey, Carson," John said with a weak grin as he coughed again. "Glad you made it."

"I'm sure. Can you walk?" Carson didn't bother to hide his worry.

John nodded and slowly stood, balancing his weight on one leg while his left hand clutched the nearest shelf.

"I've got him," Ronon said as he took John's weight.

Carson gave him a quick appraising glance and nodded. Beckett had a good idea of how much Sheppard was hurting when John accepted the help without comment.

Carson looked behind them and found Teyla doing her best to help Rodney, who was bent nearly double as he struggled to catch his breath, stagger to his feet.

"Derek, help Teyla with Rodney, please," Carson ordered, rubbing his eyes.

"You got it, Doc," Thompson replied.

Carson watched as Thompson helped Rodney stand. He took the two books Rodney held, stuffed them inside his tac-vest, and wrapped an arm around McKay's waist.

"I will take the lead," Teyla offered as she scooted past John, Ronon, and Carson carrying a bulbous device in her hand.

"Major, we're heading out, now," Carson said into his radio.

"Copy that, Doc," Lorne replied. "Those men are coming back, we need to get out of here."

Carson looked behind him. "Stay as low as you can," he said as more smoke swirled into the room. He noticed hot embers floating in the air as they neared the console and the door. Several lit on the console or desk and glowed for a few seconds before dying.

Carson heard more gunfire as he followed Teyla to the door. "The jumper is just outside to your left," he told her around a cough.

Teyla nodded, readied the device in her hand, ducked low, and ran out the door.

The device in Teyla's hand glowed as she fired it toward the other side of the fire. Carson saw arrows littering the ground between the building and the jumper as he followed her outside. There was the whine of another weapon, and Carson glanced back to see Ronon firing as he half-carried Sheppard across the short distance to the jumper. Thompson followed with Rodney, shooting at anything that got too close with his Beretta.

Arrows landed in the ground around them, and all of them were so busy dodging the missiles, none of them noticed a few of the arrows landed around the entryway for the archive, keeping the door wedged open. More embers floated through the opening, into the room; a few landed on the books left on the desk. It wasn't long before a small flame flared to life against the edge of one of the books, licking hungrily at the old paper.

Carson followed Teyla up the ramp and into the rear section of the jumper. He directed Ronon and Thompson to set their charges on the nearest bench and frowned when he had his first good look at Sheppard and his team. All four of them were streaked with soot and coughing, even in the cleaner air of the jumper. Sheppard and Rodney both had their eyes closed, and Carson could see the pain lines around their eyes and creasing their foreheads. The pressure bandage around the Colonel's leg was dirty and spotted with blood.

Teyla shrugged out of the pack on her back, stuffed the bulbous weapon inside, then turned to Rodney beside her and tried to remove his pack.

"Let me help, lass," Carson said as he pulled Rodney forward against his chest enough for Teyla to wrestle the pack off his shoulders. Rodney grunted at the treatment and tried to say something, but all that came out was more coughing.

Carson heard the heavy thump of the pack as it hit the floor, and gave Teyla a questioning look as he settled Rodney back on the bench.

"Books," Teyla told him, her voice rough. "It was all we could save."

"At least something came out of all of this," he muttered, and frowned when Ronon and John started coughing again.

"Sergeant, see if you can find the portable oxygen," Carson ordered with a glance behind him at Thompson sitting on the other bench.

"Yes, sir."

Thompson took a couple of deeper breaths, then stood and pulled the medical kit from the rack above him. Carson felt a slight tightness in his own chest and made a mental note to have all of the Marines checked for smoke inhalation once they were back in Atlantis.

There was more gunfire outside, then a few seconds later, the last of the Marines were aboard, the rear hatch closed, and Lorne lifted off. Carson gulped as the jumper barely missed some of the trees as Lorne skimmed over the clearing. He also heard a clatter as arrows hit the bottom and sides of the jumper for a few moments, then they were clear. As the ship headed back to the 'gate, Carson turned back to his patients.

"Here you go, Doc," Thompson said. "There's only two masks," he added as he passed over the oxygen masks.

"Thank you, Derek, lad," Carson replied with a slight frown. He made another mental note to inventory the medical stores on all of the jumpers. Now that they had regular contact with Earth, there was no excuse for the lack of adequate supplies.

Carson eyed each of his patients, quickly assessed the worst cases, and settled one of the oxygen masks over John's nose and mouth. He gave the other one to Ronon, who was still having the most trouble catching his breath.

Ronon started to hand the mask to Teyla, but Carson stopped him. "You've inhaled a fair amount of smoke," he said. "I expect you will all be spending the night in the infirmary." He looked Ronon in the eye. "No arguments."

Ronon tried to glare back, but the effect was ruined by another coughing fit. When it passed, he took the plastic mask and held it over his nose and mouth.

Carson watched him for a moment longer then knelt in front of Sheppard and carefully checked the bandage wrapped around his leg.

John frowned and twitched his leg, but didn't open his eyes.

"It was some time before I could get the bleeding to stop," Teyla said in a low, hoarse voice.

Carson nodded and resettled the bandage. The wound looked serious, but the bleeding had stopped. He'd worry about the rest once he had the Colonel in the infirmary.

"Dial the 'gate," Lorne said from the front of the jumper. "Doc, we're almost there."

"Ask Elizabeth to tell Doctor Cortes to have more oxygen waiting as well as two gurneys and a couple of wheelchairs," Carson replied as he turned to check Rodney.

He grimaced when he saw the bruising on Rodney's leg and how tight the boot fit around his ankle. He hoped all Rodney had done was give himself a nasty sprain. None of them wanted to deal with more broken bones.

The light from the stargate blossomed in front of them, and Carson glanced at the front of the jumper. Lorne slowed the ship as they approached, and Carson felt the automatic systems engage as the jumper slid through the wormhole and returned to Atlantis.

John stirred, opened his eyes, and looked around as the jumper stopped in the gateroom before it slowly rose up into the bay.

"You are all right, John," Teyla said softly, and reached over Rodney to lay a hand on his arm. "We are home."

Chapter Text

Carson looked up from his computer several hours later when he heard a soft tapping on his door. "Elizabeth," he greeted, and cleared his throat. "I wondered when you would be along."

"Carson," Elizabeth said with a nod. "Shouldn't you be resting?"

"I'm fine," Carson assured her and stood from his desk. "As are the Marines and Major Lorne. We didn't inhale as much smoke as Colonel Sheppard and his team. An hour or so of supplemental oxygen saw them all much improved. I sent all of them back to quarters a few hours ago with instructions to take things easy for the next day or so."

"Good to hear," Elizabeth replied, and followed as Carson led her back to the corner of the infirmary where four beds, two on each side, held Sheppard's team.

Carson frowned when he realised not all of his patients were asleep.

"You're supposed to be resting," Carson said in a low voice as he stopped at the end of Sheppard's bed.

"Too many people," Ronon replied from the bed opposite Sheppard's. He sat up and started to remove the nasal cannula.

Carson shook his head and stepped over to Ronon's bed. "Leave that be." He glanced at the monitor next to Ronon's bed. "Your O2 numbers are still a little low. Let it do its job."

Ronon grumbled under his breath but left the cannula alone.

"Ronon," Elizabeth said, her expression neutral and her tone more formal than Carson was used to. "Thank you for helping to get them home safely."

Ronon studied her face for a moment. "You're welcome," he replied, his own expression unreadable.

Carson watched their exchange with interest. He knew Elizabeth was still wary of Ronon. She still insisted he had an escort if he left his quarters, including after their return from the planet. Carson had refused to let the guard stay in the infirmary. He'd told the Sergeant politely, but firmly, that his presence wasn't required. Elizabeth, thankfully, hadn't fought him, and the Marine had been dismissed without further comment.

Ronon eyed her a moment longer then looked back at Carson. He nodded toward Sheppard and Rodney in the beds across from him and Teyla asleep in the bed next to him. "They going to be all right?"

Carson nodded. "Oh, aye." He smiled and tapped Ronon on the foot. "Assuming you follow doctor's orders and rest, I'll be releasing you and Teyla tomorrow morning. My main concern for the pair of you was the smoke inhalation. The good news is, you seem to be responding to the oxygen treatments so there shouldn't be any lingering problems."

"What about Teyla's hand?" Elizabeth asked with a glance at the bandage wrapped around Teyla's right hand.

"It needed a few stitches," Carson replied. "The cuts on her arms were superficial."

Elizabeth nodded. "And John and Rodney?"

Carson stepped between Sheppard and McKay's beds, where he could see both of the monitors. "Aye, well, that's a bit of a different story. On top of the smoke inhalation, they've both had a bit of a rough time of it."

Carson stepped closer to Sheppard's bed and adjusted the IV line running into his arm.

"Aside from the damage done when the arrow pierced his leg, Colonel Sheppard has a slight fever and the beginnings of an infection. We cleaned out the wounds and stitched his leg. He had another, less serious, gash in his shoulder that we cleaned up and stitched as well. He'll be here a few days to give the IV antibiotics time to work. Once the infection is under control, I'll release him, but he will need to use a cane for a few weeks until his leg is fully healed."

"And Rodney?"

Carson glanced at the other bed where Rodney's left leg and foot were elevated on a couple of pillows. His ankle was wrapped, and there was an ice pack strapped to his lower leg.

"Rodney went and twisted his ankle right well, indeed," Carson said with a grimace. "I had to cut his boot off before I could run a scan, but thankfully the daft bugger didn't rebreak the bones."

Carson shook his head as he checked the ice pack and adjusted Rodney's foot on the pillows. "As it is, he strained several ligaments. Which means he will need some physical therapy and he'll be on crutches again."

He came back to Elizabeth's side. "They took a fair bit of punishment, but other than the Colonel's infection, which should be under control in a day or two, there's nothing to be too worried about."

Elizabeth gave Carson a tight-lipped smile and turned away.

"Elizabeth?" Carson asked as he followed her back to his office.

"This whole mission was a mistake," she said and glanced back at the corner with Sheppard's team.

Carson rested a hand on her arm. "There was no way to know the local population would be so bloodthirsty."

"We could have waited. Did they really need to go today?"

Carson pursed his lips into a thin smile. "I know you were worried, but they really are going to be fine. As for whether we should have waited," Carson shook his head, "we both know the Wraith will be coming back, we have to be ready for that."

Elizabeth stared at the four beds for another moment. She took a deep breath, clasped her hands in front of her, and turned back to Carson. "Speaking of the Wraith, you told me a few weeks ago, you had an idea about altering Wraith DNA to make them less of a threat. Has there been any progress?"

Carson stuffed his hands in the pockets of his lab coat. "Aye. Some. I think I have a handle on the genetics, finally. Now, it's a matter of figuring out how we can use that information.

"We're pretty sure the Wraith evolved after those bug creatures fed on humans, slowly merging the insect's DNA with humans over hundreds or thousands of generations. I'm hoping to find a way to suppress the Wraith characteristics in favor of the more human ones."

"Sounds promising. Keep me informed," Elizabeth said as she turned toward the infirmary exit.

"Certainly," Carson replied. "And Elizabeth?" He waited until she turned back around. "They are all going to be fine. That's the important thing."

She gave him a nod and a tiny smile before the door closed behind her.

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

Rodney sat in the infirmary bed the next afternoon, his foot propped up on a pillow, glaring at the mangled boot in his hand.

"Would you get over it already?" John said from the bed next to him. "I'm sure we can find you another pair of boots."

Rodney glanced up from the shredded boot. John's expression was a curious mix of irritated and exasperated.

"That's not the point," Rodney replied brusquely, "I had these boots broken in perfectly. Now I'll need to start over again."

John shook his head. "If you'd gone back to the 'gate instead of trying to follow us, you'd still have your boots."

Rodney dropped the boot on the floor and glared over at Sheppard, not bothering to hide his surprise. "What?"

John glanced over at him, and Rodney could tell he wasn't joking, Sheppard meant what he was saying.

"You should have gone back to the 'gate for help," John told him, his tone suddenly serious.

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and scowled. "What about leaving no one behind? Hmm? I thought that was rule one, Colonel."

John sighed. "What would you have done if Ronon and Lorne hadn't found you?" John asked, his own expression stony. "You were injured. You shouldn't have been out there alone. Hell, Ronon told me he shot one of those villagers just as he was aiming an arrow at your back."

Rodney started to snap an angry reply but stopped when he saw the underlying concern in John's expression. He uncrossed his arms and looked down at the boot on the floor. "I wasn't going to leave you and Teyla," he said in a near whisper.

He looked up and found Sheppard watching him. "You do know if Ronon hadn't found you when he did, you'd be dead right now, right?"

Rodney knew that. He was all too aware of how close a call he'd had. A part of him had known at the time his actions weren't logical. Another part, and frankly the more substantial part, hadn't cared. John and Teyla were in trouble. His job as their teammate was to try and help. Sheppard had spent more than a year telling him they did not leave people behind. Did he really think Rodney would have run away, abandoning them?

"There's a difference between leaving us and getting help when you need it," John told him gently as if reading his mind.

"Would you have gone running back to the 'gate if it was me and Teyla captured?" Rodney challenged, not willing to concede he may have been wrong.

Sheppard, at least, had the grace to look away. "That's different," he replied.

Rodney shook his head. "Not to me, it's not." He focused on the empty bed across from him. Teyla and Ronon had been released that morning, leaving Rodney and John alone in the infirmary.

"Besides," he added in a whisper, "it was my fault you were captured in the first place."

"You want to explain how?" John replied, and Rodney saw the puzzled look on his face. "You weren't even there."

"That's just it, we weren't there," Rodney told him, not bothering to hide his frustration. "You were alone because I didn't want to leave that building. I was so wrapped up in what we could learn --"

"Stop," John interrupted and held up a hand. "This was not your fault. I seem to recall Teyla stayed behind, too."

"Only because I didn't want to leave."

Sheppard frowned. "There was no reason to suspect any danger," John told him patiently. "We hadn't seen anyone on our way to the archive, and the scanner didn't show anything, either."

Rodney thought back to the group of life signs on the scanner when they'd first arrived. Had that been the villagers watching the 'gate? he wondered.

"And by the way," Sheppard added, interrupting Rodney's train of thought, "it was my choice to go and let both of you stay there."

"But --"

John shook his head. "If I didn't think the area was safe, would I have left you and Teyla while I went back to the 'gate?"

Rodney stared at John as his brain processed Sheppard's words. That was a point he hadn't considered. Sheppard had told Ford more than once he would not leave civilians, namely Rodney and Teyla, in a situation where they didn't have back up. If John had been willing to let them stay at the archive …

"Not your fault," John said at the same time Rodney reached the end of his thought.

"We still should have been with you," Rodney insisted.

John smiled. "I appreciate the idea, but even if we had all left together, chances are we still would not have held off those villagers. They've killed Wraith, remember. We all would have been captured, no one would have been around to rescue us, and we all would be dead right now."

Rodney quirked a smile of his own. "Well, when you put it like that."

"My point still stands, however," John told him. "If we are ever in that situation again, you need to find help. We were lucky this time. We may not get so lucky if there's a next time."

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

John sat on the balcony near his quarters a few days later, watching the planet's two moons slowly rise as he listened to the crash of waves far below. He had mentally set the lights on the balcony to their lowest setting, both to enjoy the stars scattered across the sky and to hopefully go unobserved by anyone inside. He absently twirled his silver challenge coin in his fingers as he thought about everything that had happened the week before.

The trip to Mendar had been a disaster, to say the least. He'd been shot in the leg, Rodney was back on crutches, and for what? A few books? John scrubbed a hand over his face. The only reason any of them were still alive was because Ronon had overheard the right conversation and had convinced Elizabeth to send someone after them. That was a lot of luck to try and swallow.

He looked down at the coin in his hand and thought back to a hill in California and deciding whether or not to accept Elizabeth's offer to join the expedition.

"You should tell him, John. If it was important enough for Rodney to know of your decision and what it meant to you after you died, it is just as important for him to know now that you survived."

Teyla's words echoed in his head as he flipped the coin in his palm. Another close call. Another skin-of-their-teeth escape.

"If it hadn't been for Ronon …" He let the words trail off. Teyla was right. He needed to talk to McKay, tell him exactly what he'd found in the Pegasus galaxy, thanks to the flip of a coin.

He heard the door behind him open and pursed his lips. He glanced up, ready to tell whoever it was to find another balcony, when he saw Elizabeth walking toward him. He forced down his irritation and smiled up at her. "Elizabeth," he said with a nod.

"John," Elizabeth greeted as she walked over and sat in the chair beside him. "I'm a bit surprised to see you out here. You aren't usually the stare-at-the-ocean type."

John smiled slightly and pocketed the coin. "Not much I can do at the moment," he said, and nudged the cane leaning against the chair.

Elizabeth gave him a tight-lipped smile and let the silence return as she looked out at the rising moons.

"I assume you saw Major Lorne's report about the destruction of the archive?" Elizabeth said a few minutes later.

John nodded. "From what he could tell, it looked like the fire did most of the damage."

"So many of the cultures we've met here in Pegasus seem to revere the Ancients," Elizabeth said, and John could see her puzzled expression in the dim light. "I'm surprised these people did nothing to try to save the building. According to the Major's report, they actually tore down anything still standing once the fire was out."

John shrugged. "I guess the no outsiders rule applies to the Ancients as much as the rest of us." He glanced over at her. "Rodney told me he'd had an idea that the Ancient who'd built the archive encouraged the human sacrifice stuff as well, sort of an extra security measure. Guess that wasn't the case after all."

"It has been ten thousand years," Elizabeth replied. "Maybe they've forgotten why they make those sacrifices." She looked down at her hands resting in her lap.

"Or the two things are completely unrelated. Without going back and asking them, we'll never know for sure."

"No, I guess not." Elizabeth clasped her hands in her lap, and John could tell there was something else on her mind.

"This whole mission was a mistake," she said after another pause. "Everything about it went against my better judgement, but I agreed anyway. I won't make that mistake again."

"Elizabeth," John started to say, but Weir shook her head.

"No, John, you know I'm right this time." She stood and leant against the railing. "Your team was a man short, and Rodney wasn't ready for fieldwork. I never should have authorised this mission."

John sighed and scrubbed a hand through his hair. On the one hand, he knew she was right. The payoff of the books and data Rodney managed to save was small compared to what had happened to them, what had almost happened to him and Teyla.

On the other hand, he knew they didn't have much choice. Their continued survival depended on going through the 'gate, exploring new worlds. This was one of those times when their exploration backfired.

It wasn't the first time, John thought, remembering the mission out to the Ancient weapons platform where Abrams and Gall had been killed. And it likely wasn't going to be the last.

"I'm not saying this will go down as a mission success," John replied, "but it wasn't a total loss, either."

Elizabeth turned to stare at him. "How can you say that? You and Teyla were injured and nearly sacrificed to who knows what god. Rodney re-injured his leg. Carson thinks he may have set his recovery back weeks. Not to mention, Lorne damaged a jumper rescuing all of you."

"That's part of the job," John said quietly.

"You can't be that blasé about this," Elizabeth countered.

John carefully stood and stepped over to her side, leaning on the cane. "I'm not. But I also know we can't sit here, wait for McKay to somehow fortify the city, and hope for the best. We have to be out there." John pointed at the sky. "Looking for new allies, and yes, looking for any other caches of information the Ancients may have left hidden. And sometimes that means we're going to run into people who don't want us on their planet. We still have to try."

"But was it worth it this time?" Elizabeth's tone was a combination of worry, exasperation, and maybe a little fear. "All three of you almost died. Would have died if not for Ronon and Major Lorne. Face it, John, we should have waited. Waited until Rodney was ready, waited until you had a fully manned team."

"Maybe," John finally admitted. "But as Teyla said recently, what's done is done. We survived, that's what matters."

Elizabeth looked down at her hands. When she looked up, her expression was serious. "You need to find a fourth for your team, Colonel. We don't know when or even if you will find Lieutenant Ford again. I won't authorise any more solo missions through the 'gate for your team until you do."

John sighed. He knew she was right. He also knew precisely who he wanted to fill that fourth slot. Would their recent trip to Mendar help convince Ronon to join the team, or push him farther away? he wondered. Would Elizabeth be willing to consider the idea after what Ronon had done to rescue them?

Only one way to find out.

"I'll take care of it," he promised.

Elizabeth studied his face for a moment, then nodded. She went back inside, leaving him alone with his thoughts and the stars. He pulled the silver coin out of his pocket and twirled it in his fingers. No, he wasn't blasé. He knew exactly what he'd almost lost. Maybe Teyla was right, he needed to talk to Rodney, sooner rather than later, and give him the coin.

He watched the two moons reflecting off the water for a moment longer, then carefully made his way down to Rodney's lab.

The hallway outside the lab was deserted at that time of night, which was a little odd. Rodney wasn't the only night owl in the science division, and John wondered where everyone had disappeared to. He knocked on the closed door to Rodney's lab, and when he didn't get an answer, he waved his hand over the sensor.

The door opened on a darkened room. John hobbled inside and looked around. A computer on Rodney's desk hummed softly as it ran some sort of program, data streamed across the screen too fast for John to read. The work table held one of the disassembled Ancient weapons Ronon had found in the archive. There was no sign of McKay, however, and John left the lab.

He wandered up to the mess hall and even tried Rodney's quarters on the off chance McKay had followed Beckett's orders and was resting. Not finding Rodney in either place, he took one last shot and headed for the rec room.

He was a few steps away from the door when he heard the soft music coming from the room.

John stood in the doorway watching Rodney, who sat in front of the battered keyboard, his foot awkwardly resting on a crate, playing a familiar tune.

"Don't hover," Rodney said a moment later with a glance behind him.

"Didn't think you'd be much for wedding music," John said with a smile as he came in the room. He took a pillow someone had left on the reclaimed jumper bench and limped over to McKay. "Pick your foot up," he ordered, and stuffed the pillow under Rodney's wrapped ankle.

"Thanks," Rodney replied. "It was hard enough managing the crate." He glanced at the crutches leaning against the wall.

John nodded and pulled out another crate. He sat with his back resting against the wall listening to Rodney play. "Seriously, what's with the wedding music?" he asked as the tune started again. "You and Katie Brown haven't even had a first date yet."

Rodney scowled. "Oh, ha-ha. For your information, this isn't wedding music, it's Pachelbel's Canon in D Major. Palliard's version," he glanced over at John with a sour expression, "your wedding music, is an abomination. The tempo is too slow, and he embellished it in a bid to make it more popular. The original," Rodney nodded at the keyboard, "is much better."

John knew better than to argue. He sat listening to the music for a few minutes, then changed the subject. "I went looking for you in your lab. Thought you'd still be poring over everything you got off the database on Mendar."

Rodney shrugged, and the music changed. It was another piece John recognised, something Rodney had played before, but he didn't remember the name.

"The computer is still decompressing everything. Some of it looks promising, though." He glanced at John then back at the keyboard. "'Prelude in C', by the way."

"What?" John asked, confused by the non sequitur.

"The music." Rodney looked over at him. "You've heard it before, you know."

"I knew that. Classical music never has real names. Hard to keep 'em all straight."

Rodney snorted and focused on the keyboard again.

John pulled the coin out of his pocket. "Rodney --"

"John? Rodney?" Teyla called from the hallway. She entered the rec room and stopped just inside the door.

Rodney jerked his hands away from the keyboard as if he'd been burnt and John watched his shoulders hunch slightly.

"We did not mean to interrupt," Teyla added with a worried glance at Rodney as Ronon slipped into the room behind her. "Ronon has been showing me some of the hand-to-hand techniques used by his people. We were on our way to find something to eat when we heard the music."

She looked over at McKay. "Rodney, I did not know you played such an instrument. The music was beautiful."

"Yes, well, umm," Rodney stuttered, and looked over at John.

To Sheppard, McKay looked ready to bolt, and John thought he probably would have if he didn't have the crutches to contend with.

"McKay is a man of many hidden talents," John said with a smile as he thumped Rodney on the back.

Rodney scowled at him, but John noticed he had also relaxed.

"Kinda slow," Ronon said from where he stood near the door with his arms crossed over his chest.

Rodney glared at him, and John held his breath. He'd thought McKay and Dex were getting along better these last few weeks, and he hoped Ronon playing music critic didn't set their relationship back.

"Know anything faster?" Ronon finished.

Rodney stared at him for a moment, then glanced at John. Sheppard could tell Rodney was more than a little surprised Teyla and Ronon had accepted his secret hobby so easily.

"Umm." Rodney looked down at the keyboard for a moment then started to play.

The song was undoubtedly upbeat, and John easily recognised it as a tune by Scott Joplin, though he didn't know what it was called; it was another one he knew well, thanks to movies. He watched as Rodney's fingers danced over the keys, marvelling once again at his friend's talent.

Rodney finished the piece with a flourish, and sat back, flexing his hands.

Teyla gave him a wide smile and squeezed his fingers. "That was wonderful. Does the song have a name?"

Rodney glanced at John with a wry smile. "Maple Leaf Rag."

John snorted a laugh.

"What's so funny?" Ronon asked. "I liked it."

"You do know the song has nothing to do with Canada, don't you?" Rodney told him, and went back to softly playing 'Prelude' as John continued to grin.

"I do not understand," Teyla said as she looked from Rodney to John.

John scooted forward and pointed to the patch on Rodney's sleeve. "That's a maple leaf," he explained, tapping the red and white patch representing the Canadian flag.

Teyla smiled as Rodney shook his head. She waited until he finished what he was playing and said, "We will leave you to your music, Rodney. That is unless you both would like to join us?"

"I could eat," Rodney replied. He awkwardly pulled his foot off the crate and reached for the crutches leaning against the wall beside him.

John smiled to himself when Ronon stepped forward, took Rodney's arm, helped him stand, and held on to him until McKay had the crutches situated.

Rodney nodded absently, and Ronon let go.

Maybe there was hope for his idea, after all, he thought as Rodney crutched out of the rec room with Ronon beside him. Teyla followed a few steps behind, and John heard Rodney say, "The history of ragtime is interesting. It's considered by some to be the modern equivalent of Mozart and Brahms."

John waited until the others were out of the room, then pulled the coin out of his pocket and flipped it over in his hand a few times. Maybe the conversation could wait a little bit longer, he thought to himself. He looked up to find Teyla watching him from the doorway.

"Colonel? Is everything all right?"

"Yeah, everything's fine," John said with a smile as he dropped the coin back in his trouser pocket and limped into the hall.

Rodney and Ronon were almost to the end of the hall and John could hear Rodney telling Ronon about the history of ragtime. John wasn't sure how much Ronon was paying attention, but he must have made enough of the right noises to keep McKay going.

John smiled and followed the others, followed his team, into the transporter.

FIN