Actions

Work Header

To Forgive ... Divine

Chapter Text


Rodney stood in front of the closed doors to the transporter for several seconds, trying to digest what Sheppard had told him. He'd been so sure of everything. So sure he was smarter than Zelenka who told him the Arcturus weapon was fatally flawed. So sure he could solve a problem even the Ancients hadn't been able to crack. So sure he was the smartest man in two galaxies. That he couldn't be wrong.

A successful test of the vacuum energy power source should have been a triumph. He would have found a powerful weapon they could use against the Wraith. Not to mention an unlimited power source for not only Atlantis but possibly Earth and every other inhabited world. Needless to say, the achievement would have also put him in the ranks of such scientific greats as Einstein, Heisenberg, and Newton. He'd had that Nobel speech practically written in his head.

Instead, his attempt to finish the Ancient weapon and power source had cost him a member of his science team, his confidence, and nearly his life. All of that, however, was little in comparison to the fact it had almost cost him John's life as well. His failure had undoubtedly cost him a piece of his friendship with Sheppard.

All of it? he wondered as he ducked his head and crossed his arms over his chest.

"I would ... I would hate to think that recent events might have permanently dimmed your faith in my abilities, or your trust. At the very least, I hope I can earn that back."

"That may take a while."

Sheppard's statement had cut him to the core, and he knew John was dead serious. More to the point, he knew he deserved it. He'd tried to make light of everything with his joke about not being right again, but the truth was he wasn't sure how much he trusted himself at the moment.

Could he earn Sheppard's trust back? he wondered.

His flesh and blood sister refused to have anything to do with him after their last fight. She'd even refused to accept the video he'd sent back to Earth before the siege. He'd learnt how wonderful it was to have a family thanks to Teyla, Carson, and Elizabeth. Thanks to John.

Rodney knew he was as much at fault for the falling out he'd had with Jeannie as she was.

Probably more, he admitted to himself and stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets.

He had wanted Jeannie to know he'd forgiven her and had hoped she was ready to forgive him as well. Her refusal to even accept the disc, much less watch it, made it clear to him that after almost five years she wasn't ready to forgive him yet.

Their fight over how Jeannie had chosen family over a lucrative career was nothing compared to what had happened with Sheppard on Doranda. Rodney didn't want to make the same mistake with John. He liked having a surrogate brother; he didn't want to lose the family he'd finally found for himself. There was no one to blame this time except himself, he knew that, but John didn't seem any more willing to forgive him than Jeannie.

Rodney sighed and tapped the sensor for the transporter. When the door opened, he pushed the section of the map for the science labs. Work had always been his solace in the past. He knew how to deal with data and formulae even if he didn't know how to deal with the emotional fallout of a family fight.

It was mid-afternoon, and Rodney was a bit surprised to find the hallway near his lab blissfully empty of the usual milling scientists. He wasn't looking forward to facing anyone else at the moment and accepted the bit of good luck as he made his way down the hall and around the corner to his lab. He entered his lab, closed and locked the door, and slumped into his desk chair.

He'd been so sure of himself. So sure he could solve the Arcturus problem, just as he had solved so many other seemingly impossible problems since they had arrived in Atlantis. He stared around the room, at the computers he'd used for the modelling of the Arcturus power source. He stared at the humming machines, some still running statistical models, as the memory of Sheppard yelling at him about waiting too long to leave the installation replayed in his head.

He shook himself and stood. There was no need for the models now, and he was too tired, physically and mentally, to deal with anything else to do with Doranda at the moment. He shut down all of the machines and stored them on a shelf at the back of the lab.

Maybe trying to work wasn't going to help this time, he realised as he looked around the room. All he could see was how close he'd come to killing not only himself but Sheppard, too.

He wandered past the work table, picked up one of the pieces for the prototype shield emitter, and turned it over in his hand. He had spent the last several weeks working on a better design. Better than anything the Ancients had come up with, he thought a bitter smile.

The problem was one of power consumption and distribution. The math bloomed in his head as he twisted the prototype one way and then the other in his fingers. To him, the problem seemed simple to solve.

What if all he ended up doing was destroying both the shield and the cloak?

That would leave Atlantis defenceless the next time the Wraith attacked. Had the Ancients tried a similar design that had failed? He hadn't found anything in his search of the database, but that didn't mean much. Was he about to make the same mistake again? he wondered, thinking that he was smarter than the Ancients who had built the city?

Rodney stared at the piece in his hand for several minutes before he found a box and packed up all of his notes and the prototype. Maybe the new emitter design was a bad idea, he told himself. The shield worked. Why mess with it?

He shoved the box into a nearby cabinet and closed the door. He wasn't in the habit of making the same mistake twice after all.

Instead, he pulled the Ancient mystery box off the shelf and tried to lose himself in discovering what it did, but it was little use. For once, tinkering was of little comfort to him. All he could see was Sheppard's disappointed face telling Rodney he didn't trust him any longer. He dropped the crystal in his hand on the work table with a frustrated sigh and left the lab.

Rodney aimlessly wandered the halls, avoiding any areas of the city where he was likely to run into someone until he found an out-of-the-way balcony in one of the more remote sections of the tower. He stepped outside and let the door whisper shut behind him.

As with most of the outside spaces in the city, the view was stunning. The spires of the various towers rose around him, lit with a soft pinkish glow as the sun set behind him. There were no chairs, so he sat with his feet dangling over the edge and his arms resting on the lowest bar of the railing, watching the ebb and flow of the water below.

Logically, he knew sooner or later there would be a problem he wouldn't be able to solve, there would be no last-minute save. In a way, Doranda had been a blessing. Yes, he'd been wrong, catastrophically so. But if there were any sort of silver lining, the Dorandan system had been uninhabited. If he had to be wrong, at least he'd been wrong in the right place. His error hadn't destroyed Atlantis, or Earth, or any populated worlds.

Rodney wrapped his arms around his middle and sighed. He'd spent most of the day either being called on the carpet for his actions or apologising to everyone for what he had done. However, there were still two people left he had yet to face. Ronon and Teyla had returned from a trade mission that morning. Rodney had caught a glimpse of them as Elizabeth had yelled at him for his actions on Doranda. He assumed Sheppard had told them something of what had happened with the weapon.

What would they say? he wondered. Would they tell him they could no longer trust his intelligence either? What would that mean for the team?

The sun set as he sat, lost in thought. He watched the lights for the city come on, reflecting in the water far below. It wasn't until the larger of the planet's two moons rose in front of him that he shook himself out of his brooding thoughts, rubbed his forehead, and glanced at his watch.

"No wonder you have a headache," he muttered to himself when he realised how late it was. He slowly stood up and walked back inside.

"Food," he told himself as he walked back to the transporter. "Deal with the rest tomorrow."

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

John sat on the edge of his bed the next morning and flipped his silver challenge coin over in his hand, thinking about the men he'd fought with in Afghanistan. The ones he'd saved, the ones he'd lost. He thought about a supposedly routine flight to ferry a general out to a remote base in Antarctica and everything that happened when he accidentally sat in the wrong sort of chair.

He thought about sitting on a hill in California, debating the pros and cons of joining a mission that sounded like something from a science fiction novel. John stared at the eagle on one side of the coin and swallowed when he remembered how close he'd come to saying 'no' and walking away from Elizabeth and her crazy idea of walking through a portal to another galaxy. He clenched his hand closed over the coin when he thought about how much he'd come so close to losing.

He'd meant to talk to McKay for months about how he had made the decision to come on the expedition and the family he had found as a result, but something kept coming up to delay the conversation. He rolled the coin across his knuckles. It had surprised him at first how well he and McKay got on with each other. Then came Teyla's declaration they were chaguo ndugu, brothers by choice, and John had accepted the idea with ease.

He had fallen back into the role of an older brother so easily with McKay, a role he had sorely missed when his relationship with David had soured all those years ago. Everything with the gauntlet and the mental link had seemed nothing more than a natural progression of the relationship they already had. A relationship built on mutual trust in each other and a genuine liking for one another.

"I would ... I would hate to think that recent events might have permanently dimmed your faith in my abilities, or your trust. At the very least, I hope I can earn that back."

John scrubbed a hand over his stubbled cheek as he remembered McKay's apology. In the space of an afternoon, McKay had laid waste to that trust, not unlike the destroyed Dorandan system itself. And while John was happy to hear McKay admit he'd been wrong and was willing to do whatever it took to fix things, he wasn't ready to forgive and forget quite yet.

McKay's single-minded focus on the weapon, to the point he didn't even consider John's well-being, much less his own, had scared him. Did he understand that? John wondered. Or was he still only thinking about the Ancient technology and his lost place in the annals of scientific history?

John flipped the coin a few times.

He had spent more of the previous day writing up the reports on what had happened on Doranda and standing in a meeting with Elizabeth where she told him in no uncertain terms what she'd thought of his actions during the whole fiasco.

John stood in front of Elizabeth's desk, his hands behind his back and his eyes focused on the wall behind Elizabeth's head. He had purposely made himself scarce when she had talked to McKay after their return. John had told himself this was one time he was willing to quash that instinct to protect McKay and let him deal with the fallout of his actions alone.

He was angry, yes, but more than that, he was hurt. McKay had asked him to trust him, and he had. John had trusted him enough to put his own reputation and life on the line to back McKay's play. In return, McKay's ego had nearly killed both of them and destroyed most of a solar system.

It hadn't taken very long for him to hear how the meeting between McKay and Weir had gone. Even with the door closed, everyone in the control room and the gateroom had heard the dressing down Elizabeth had given McKay for what had happened on Doranda.

John glanced at Elizabeth who stood behind her desk with her arms crossed over her chest, glaring at him. John focused on the wall again.

"Needless to say, I'm more than a little disappointed, Colonel," she said. "You told me you could keep Doctor McKay from going too far. That didn't happen."

"Elizabeth, I --" John started to say, but Elizabeth spoke over him.

"I warned you something like this could happen," she told him and sat down at her desk.

John ducked his head. "I didn't think he would go that far," he admitted. "How many times in the past has McKay done something none of us thought possible and saved the city?"

Elizabeth sighed and motioned John to sit in the chair opposite the desk. "That's exactly why I was so concerned," she said once John sat down across from her. "Rodney is a genius, not only because of what he knows but for how his mind works. He can make intuitive leaps that no one else would ever dream of. And I'm the first to admit that genius has saved all of our lives several times over in the last year.

"But like any genius, he doesn't always think about the ramifications of his actions. That's what I meant when I said he needs protecting from himself. While I am grateful for every one of those last-minute saves, all of that success meant Rodney thought he was infallible. That not only was he smarter than all of us, but he was also smarter than the Ancients as well."

John nodded. "I get that now. I'll keep a better eye on him next time."

"Good." Elizabeth sat back in her chair. "Though I hope there's isn't a next time any time soon."

John studied her for a moment, and when he saw her relax, he settled back in his chair.

"Rodney did surprise me in one way," Elizabeth said after a moment of silence.

"Oh?"

She nodded. "He apologised. He told me he knew he'd gone too far and actually said he was sorry for what had happened." She looked over at him and added, "It wouldn't surprise me if he came looking for you to tell you something similar."

"Thanks for the warning," John replied shortly and stood. He wasn't ready to hear any apologies yet. "Was there anything else?"

Elizabeth studied him for a moment then shook her head. John was almost to the door when Elizabeth said, "John, believe me, I understand how angry you are at the moment. I'm still mad at Rodney, too. Just be careful you don't say something you'll regret later."

John clenched his hands at his sides and nodded before he left the office.

He'd spent the rest of the day doing his best to avoid McKay. He knew Elizabeth was right. In his current mood, he could easily do something that could damage his relationship with McKay permanently.

When he'd finally been cornered at the transporter, John had done his best to keep his temper in check, but he had wanted McKay to understand precisely what his actions had cost him. John had seen the lost and hurt expression on McKay's face as the transporter doors closed, and for a split second, he had regretted what he'd said about McKay losing his trust. Then he remembered their frantic flight back to the 'gate as the Ancient weapon discharged wildly behind them and he'd hardened his resolve.

"Burnt fingers are the best teacher," John had muttered as he left the transporter near the gym. He'd spent the rest of the evening pounding out his anger and frustration against the punching bag and going for a long run.

John looked down at the coin in his hand. Maybe it was just as well he hadn't said anything, he decided. He set the coin on the bedside table next to the coin Ford had given him. Until that sense of trust was repaired, the coin and the talk could wait.

John entered the mess hall twenty minutes later and found Teyla and Ronon already seated at their usual table. McKay was nowhere in sight, and for once, John was okay with the fact that he had missed the team breakfast.

John headed for the mess line, dished himself a portion of eggs, bacon, and fruit, poured himself a cup of coffee, and headed over to the rest of his team.

"Good morning, Colonel," Teyla greeted him with a smile as she set down her teacup.

"Sheppard," Ronon added with a nod as he continued to eat.

John nodded a greeting in return, sat down across from Teyla and Ronon, and started on his own breakfast.

"I heard about what happened on Belkan," John said a few minutes later and frowned when Ronon gave Teyla a startled look. "That you found out there were other survivors from Sateda," he finished. What's with the guilty looks? he wondered.

"Yes," Teyla said with a smile John thought looked a bit forced. "There was much celebrating once Ronon heard the news."

"I'll bet." John glanced over at Ronon as he drank some coffee. "Any of the survivors anyone you knew?"

"A few," Ronon replied. "I knew Solen, the man we met in the village. He mentioned a few others that we served with were still out there on one planet or another."

John nodded and weighed his next question carefully. "You planning to go looking for them?"

Ronon shrugged and looked away.

John pursed his lips and went back to his breakfast.

"I have not yet seen Rodney this morning," Teyla said a few minutes later, and John sighed.

He had hoped to put off this discussion a little longer. With everything he'd been tied up with the day before, he hadn't had a chance to talk to either of them about what had happened on Doranda.

"Not surprised," John muttered and stabbed the fruit on his plate with his fork.

"Colonel?"

John looked over at Teyla and forced his temper back under control. "Things got a little out of control on Doranda," he said.

"We heard," Ronon replied. He picked up the water pitcher next to his plate and drank.

John gave him a puzzled glance.

"Doctor Weir was expressing her displeasure with Rodney in her office when we returned yesterday," Teyla explained. "Something about the destruction of a solar system?" She quirked an eyebrow at John.

John set down the fork and picked up his coffee cup as he tried to think of how to explain not only what had happened with the weapon, but what McKay had done to cause it.

"The weapon went critical and blew up," John said, his voice and expression flat. "Took out the planet and most of the Dorandan system. If the Daedalus hadn't been there, McKay and I would likely be dead as well."

Teyla stared at him for a moment. "I see. And you believe this was Rodney's fault?"

John slammed his cup back on the table.

Several heads turned in their direction, and John glared back at the men and women staring at them. The scientists and Marines at the nearest tables quickly turned away, finished eating, and left.

"He was completely out of control," John told her in a low hiss. "You should have seen him. He was convinced he was smarter than the Ancients and could get the power source and the weapon to work." John shook his head and picked up his fork. "His out-of-control ego nearly got us both killed."

"This is McKay we're talking about," Ronon said and took a bite from the muffin in his hand.

Teyla pursed her lips. "I think what Ronon is trying to say is something like this was likely to happen sooner or later. It should not be that much of a shock there was finally a device Rodney could not fix or a problem he could not solve."

John shook his head. "This was more than just a problem he couldn't solve," John growled. "He was convinced he was right and we were all idiots for doubting him. Zelenka told him the power source was unstable, and the weapon was dangerous. Elizabeth asked him to postpone the test until we knew more. But McKay wouldn't listen. He was only interested in proving how much smarter he was than everyone else. In winning a damn Nobel Prize."

"Nobel Prize?" Teyla asked.

"Fancy science award," John told her and finished his coffee.

"Still, there must be more to what happened than Rodney wanting to prove himself correct," Teyla said after a few seconds.

John pushed his plate away and crossed his arms over his chest. "That was a side of him I'd never seen before. Not like that anyway," he admitted. "Now I understand why so many of the scientists had hated him when we first came here."

John stared out the window behind Teyla's head. "McKay asked me to trust him, so I did, and it nearly got both of us killed. Won't be making that mistake again any time soon."

"John, you do not mean that," Teyla said and touched his arm.

"Yeah, I think I do," John told her shortly.

They were silent for a moment, though John caught the sideways look Teyla gave Dex.

Had something happened to them on Belkan? he wondered. He had been so wrapped up in what had happened on Doranda with McKay, he hadn't had a chance to ask about Teyla's trip to trade for seed.

He glanced from Ronon to Teyla and said, "Did something happen on Belkan I need to know about?"

Teyla picked up her teacup and sipped from it, avoiding John's gaze.

Ronon looked first at Teyla then at John and shrugged.

John had been only mildly interested before, but the way Teyla and Ronon were acting piqued his curiosity. "All right, what's going on with you two?" he asked, his tone, while mostly curious, held the undertones of an order.

Teyla set her cup down, and with what was clearly a warning glance at Ronon said, "There was a misunderstanding while we were negotiating for the flax seed. Nothing more."

John shook his head. For such a well-trained diplomat and negotiator, Teyla could be a terrible liar at times. Of course, the furtive look Dex had given her as she spoke hadn't helped. Something else was going on, he was sure of it. He was about to call them on the deception when Teyla stood up from the table.

"I must go," she said as she gathered up her tray and dishes. "I have a class to teach this morning."

John watched her leave, then looked over at Ronon. "You wanna tell me what really happened on Belkan?"

"Not really," Ronon said. He stood as well, cleared his dishes, and left the room.

John stared after them, considering his options. He could try to force the issue, but it was clear that while something had happened other than a simple trade for seed, neither Ronon nor Teyla was going to tell him what it was. Which left dropping the subject for now.

John poured himself another cup of coffee and wandered down to his office. Along with fresh supplies and saving their backsides on Doranda, the Daedalus had dropped off a new batch of Marines. While Lorne could handle the majority of the paperwork associated with the new personnel, John still needed to meet with each of them and sign off on the duty assignments.

Whatever problems that were brewing between Teyla and Ronon, never mind the issue of McKay, would have to wait.

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

Rodney woke feeling more tired than when he'd gone to bed the night before. Nightmares of not escaping Doranda in time, or Sheppard being horribly killed by another radiation surge meant he hadn't slept well. He glanced at the clock on the desk on his way to the bathroom and noted absently he wouldn't need to find an excuse to miss the team meal; it was already almost nine-thirty. He showered, found a clean uniform, and headed to the mess hall for a solitary breakfast.

There were still a few people in the mess hall when he entered, and Rodney caught more than a few stares and whispered conversations as he gathered his breakfast and headed for a far corner of the room. He sat with his back to the windows and tried to ignore the furtive looks in his direction as he ate.

Sheppard had said he could earn back the trust and friendship he'd lost if he really wanted to. There was nothing Rodney wanted more. The problem was he had no idea how he was supposed to do that.

He poked at his eggs and considered the problem logically. He had a feeling his usual method when dealing with emotional issues, namely, ignore them and hope they go away on their own, wasn't going to work this time. He had already apologised to Sheppard, Radek, and Elizabeth for his actions. What was he supposed to do next?

He'd never been one to grovel, and he didn't think Sheppard really wanted him to anyway. So how was he supposed to regain what he'd lost?

Rodney pushed his plate away, most of his breakfast uneaten, and picked up the coffee cup. The problem, he realised as he drained the cup, was emotions weren't logical. As a result, a logical solution wasn't going to work. Which left him stymied. Sheppard had seemed to accept he meant his apology for destroying the power source, but that clearly hadn't been enough.

Then there was Teyla and Ronon. He had to assume they knew what had happened on Doranda by now; if the rumor mill hadn't given them the details, he was sure Sheppard had. Were they now mad at him for destroying the weapon as well? He wasn't sure how much Ronon had ever trusted him, but he assumed Teyla would be disappointed in him. Needless to say, he wasn't looking forward to his defence lesson that morning.

Maybe part of regaining their trust would be facing them and letting them have their say, Rodney decided. Hopefully, that would allow them to at least move past the initial anger, for the good of the team, if nothing else.

He cleared his dishes, ignored the stares as he left the mess hall, and made his way over to the training room Teyla used for her various defence classes. Rodney heard the clack of the wooden fighting sticks before he reached the door. He stepped into the room and stood to one side, watching as the ten Marines, paired off in teams of two, moved through the various stick forms.

"Excellent, Sergeant Harper," Teyla praised as she walked past one of the pairs.

"Corporal Webber, your weight is not centered," Teyla said and stopped at another pair. "This is why Corporal Nakai was able to overwhelm you so easily." She repositioned Webber's feet and stood back. "Please try again."

Rodney watched as this time the shorter Webber managed to defend himself against the larger Corporal Nakai attacking him.

"Much better," Teyla said to Webber with a smile.

She saw Rodney standing near the door and nodded to him. Rodney nodded back and made his way around the room until he found an empty bench, sat down, and watched the rest of the class with interest. Teyla had been teaching him basic hand-to-hand for the last year or more, but their classes had yet to graduate to any sort of weapon.

He knew both Sheppard and Ronon were proficient in the use of any number of weapons, including the short sticks Teyla used. Maybe he should be as well, he thought as he watched the various pairs of men and women move through the forms. Rodney winced as Webber missed a block and Nakai landed a solid hit to Webber's ribs.

Then again, maybe it was just as well Teyla kept his training to just hand-to-hand, Rodney decided as Webber rubbed his side. After a moment, Webber reset, and he and Nakai moved through the form again.

Ten minutes later, Teyla dismissed the class and walked over to the bench where Rodney waited.

"Rodney," Teyla greeted once her students were gone. She sat on the bench next to him. "You were missed at breakfast this morning."

Rodney grunted, not sure if he believed her, and looked down at his feet. "I take it you heard what happened on Doranda?" He glanced over at her in time to see her nod.

"Yes," she replied. "Ronon and I heard Doctor Weir … discussing the matter with you yesterday when we returned from Belkan."

Rodney hunched his shoulders at the reminder of the dressing down he'd received after he and Sheppard returned.

"Colonel Sheppard told us what happened at breakfast," Teyla said and laid a hand on his leg.

Rodney snorted. "I'm sure he had a few choice things to say on the matter."

Teyla gave him a sad smile, and Rodney noticed she didn't disagree.

"Are you all right?" she asked a moment later.

Rodney stared at her. Of all the reactions he expected, concern for his well-being hadn't been one of them. He'd expected her to be angry with him, everyone else was. He wasn't sure how to react and fell back on his standby of scorn and sarcasm.

"Am I all right?" Rodney snapped and stood. "I'm perfectly fine. Unlike Collins." He paced a few steps away from Teyla and crossed his arms over his chest. What anger and frustration he felt dropped away when he noticed Teyla watching him, her expression sympathetic. "I-I don't know how to fix this," he admitted softly. "I asked Sheppard to trust me, and everything blew up in my face." He quirked a self-mocking smile. "Literally."

Teyla leaned her back against the wall. "I told you once before you and Colonel Sheppard have a strong bond. I'm sure you will be able to move past this."

Rodney shook his head. "This is more than just a fight over bad dating choices." He looked over at Teyla. "He told me he doesn't trust me any more. I-I can't really blame him for that, I guess. I told him I could get the weapon to work, and I was wrong. I'm just not sure something like that can be fixed."

Teyla walked over to him and grasped his hand. "You will find a way," she told him.

Rodney looked down at her hand holding his and shrugged. "Maybe."

Teyla squeezed his fingers. "However, you must first understand the real reason Colonel Sheppard told you he no longer trusted you."

Rodney gave her a puzzled look.

"It may not be for the reason you think," she added cryptically and let go of his hand.

What was that supposed to mean? he wondered as Teyla walked back to the bench and found a bottle of water in her workout bag.

"I have asked Doctor Weir for permission to take a jumper out to the mainland and deliver the flax seed to Halling and the others," Teyla said and took a drink from the bottle. "Doctor Beckett offered to pilot the jumper. He wants to check on Charin and a few of the others. Would you like to join us? If I remember correctly, you sometimes desire a change of scene when you need to … consider a problem."

Rodney gave her a crooked smile. He knew she was referring to the last time he and Sheppard had had a fight. His attempt at finding a quiet planet to consider everything that had happened with Chaya had ended with him and Teyla kidnapped by marauders.

Rodney shook his head. "Sheppard made me promise after everything that happened with Rasha not to disappear the next time I was mad at him. I guess the same rule applies if he's the one angry at me. If I want to earn back his trust, I can't go haring off even if it is just to the mainland."

Teyla smiled. "I believe that is a wise decision," she told him. She tucked her fighting sticks away and turned back to Rodney. "It will not be quick," she said, "but in time, I believe you and Colonel Sheppard will find a way to resolve this, and your bond will only be stronger as a result."

"I hope you're right," Rodney muttered to himself.

"Come," Teyla said and waved Rodney into the center of the room. "Show me how much you have been practising."

An hour later, Rodney headed back to his quarters for a quick shower and a change of clothes. His encounter with Teyla had gone better than he'd hoped, and with a little more confidence in his step, he decided to try and get some work done.

Rodney walked into his lab and let the door close behind him. He was checking his desk for any notes from Zelenka when he heard a tap on the door. Before he could decide whether or not to ignore whoever wanted to talk to him, the door opened, and Radek walked into the room carrying a tablet computer.

"Rodney," Zelenka greeted. He stopped just inside the door with the computer clutched against his chest.

"Radek," Rodney replied and stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets.

They stared at each other for a few seconds until Zelenka took a few steps forward, pushed up his glasses, and held out the computer. "I thought you would want to know, the botanists finished their analysis of the plants Sergeant Thompson's team brought back from P2R-483."

Rodney took the computer and glanced through the report. "Anything interesting?"

"Depends on what you think is interesting," Radek replied. His body movement became more animated as he looked at the computer screen upside down and point to a line of data near the bottom.

"They're all toxic?" Rodney asked, looking up from the screen.

Radek nodded. "To humans, yes. The animal life on the planet does not seem to be affected in any adverse way. Sergeant Garcia's allergic reaction was actually mild compared to what would have happened if his team had tried to eat any of the fruits they found."

Rodney remembered seeing Garcia soon after Carson had released him from the infirmary. Even with Beckett's ointment, he'd been covered in itchy welts for several days.

"Wonderful," Rodney said and handed back the computer. "One more planet off the list of potential alpha sites."

Zelenka glanced around the room. "Where is the prototype of the new shield emitter?" he asked and walked over to the work table, bare of everything except the Ancient mystery box Rodney had been working on the day before. "I thought you were close to having a working model for testing."

Rodney shook his head and turned back to the desk. "Turns out, it's going to need more work than I thought," he muttered, not looking at Zelenka.

"I see," Radek replied, and Rodney felt the muscles in his back tighten at Zelenka's knowing tone. "In that case, shall I start work on modifications to the desalination plant?"

Rodney wanted to tell him 'no', that the plant was doing an adequate job, they didn't need to try and improve it, but at the last minute, he changed his mind. He was surrounded by Ancient technology. They still needed to understand everything they could about the city's systems and how they worked.

"Yes, fine," Rodney told him impatiently. "If we can increase the efficiency, it will be less of a drain on the Zed-PM."

Zelenka studied him for a moment longer, then with a nod and a half-smile, he left.

Rodney stared at the closed door for a moment, then wandered over to the rack of Ancient devices and pulled one off a shelf. He moved the box out of the way, set the device down on the work table, retrieved his laptop from the desk, and sat down. He turned the small rectangular object over in his hand a few times before he remembered it was the small remote control device he'd found in the ruins on P2J-883 just before he and Teyla had been kidnapped by Rasha.

He started a search of the Ancient database to find out any information on what the device would have controlled, then settled down to figure out how it worked.

Several hours later, he had the remote control in several pieces as he studied the various components. The power cell was ingenious for both its small size and how much energy it could store. If he could figure out a way to reproduce it, cell phones and computers could potentially function for months without needing to recharge.

"Weir to Doctor McKay," he heard over the radio as he set the power cell to one side for further study.

Rodney hesitated a moment before he tapped his earpiece. "McKay here."

"Rodney, I need to see you in my office," Elizabeth told him, and Rodney could tell something was off in her tone.

"What's happened?" he asked.

"I'll explain when you get here. Weir out."

What now? he wondered as he stood up from the work table and left the lab.

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

Elizabeth stood on the balcony outside her office, a cup of coffee warming her hands as she watched the morning light play across the towers of the city. It was times like these when she felt the most alive. She was standing in an alien city, on a planet in another galaxy. There were days when she almost pinched herself wanting to make sure it was all real.

Then there were days where she had to deal with the harsh realities of life in another galaxy. Realities like one of the members of her expedition destroying a solar system. She shook her head as she sipped her coffee.

"Doctor Weir," Chuck said over the radio. "We have an incoming wormhole from M3X-649. Looks like it's Major Lorne reporting in on schedule."

Elizabeth swallowed the last of her coffee, stepped back into the office, and tapped her radio. "Thank you, Sergeant. I'll be right there." She set the empty cup on the end of her desk and walked across the bridge to the control room.

Chuck glanced up at her when she stopped next to him. "Channel open," he told her.

Elizabeth nodded her thanks and spoke, "Major Lorne, this is Weir. How is the negotiation going?"

"We've nearly wrapped up all of the initial ceremonies, ma'am. If all goes to plan, we should be ready to present our trade offer in the next day or two."

Elizabeth frowned. "Are you sure I can't be of assistance, Major. This trade deal seems to be taking an inordinate amount of time."

"I don't disagree, ma'am," Lorne replied, and Elizbeth heard the underlying frustration in his tone, "but the people here on Traegon take their ceremonies seriously. If we changed negotiators now, they would insist on the need to start over with the necessary rituals."

Elizabeth clasped her hands in front of her. "Understood, Major. Do the best you can to move things along. We need those supplies."

"Yes, ma'am. Lorne out."

"What's the status of the other off-world teams?" Elizabeth asked Chuck.

Chuck checked his computer. "Sergeant Stackhouse's team is due back later tonight. Sergeant Thompson should be checking in later this afternoon."

Elizabeth nodded and turned toward her office. "Let me know when Thompson dials in."

"Yes, ma'am," Chuck said, and Elizabeth went back into her office.

Their weekly check-in with Stargate Command was in a few days, and she still needed to figure out the best way to explain what had happened on Doranda. She knew there were any number of people who would be disappointed when they read the report on the loss of the weapon and power source.

The rest of her morning and early afternoon was taken up with meetings. Doctor Heller broke the news the plant life on P2R-483 was poisonous to humans. She thanked him for the information and made a note the planet was not a viable candidate for an alpha site.

She then had a meeting with the astrobiology team wanting to propose a mission to study the ocean on M8R-159. She listened and agreed the mission had potential and asked for a specific proposal on what they needed and how they would conduct their research since the ocean was covered in ice.

After meeting with Carson, who updated her on his current patients, thankfully few, and the progress he'd made on his Wraith retrovirus, slow but steady, Elizabeth sat in front of her computer, a blank document open in front of her as she pondered her report on the Arcturus power source and weapon.

She had typed and deleted the beginning of the report twice when she saw Chuck heading toward her office. "Umm, Doctor Weir?" he said from the doorway.

"Chuck?" she asked and pushed the computer to one side. "Is something the matter?" She glanced at her watch. "I thought Sergeant Thompson wasn't due to check-in for another two hours."

"It's not Sergeant Thompson, ma'am." Chuck glanced behind him, then stepped into her office. "We're receiving a subspace transmission from Colonel Caldwell."

"Caldwell?" She frowned. "He should be halfway back to the Milky Way by now."

Chuck nodded. "He says he has an urgent message from Stargate Command," he told her, and Elizabeth saw the worry in his eyes.

She sighed and closed her computer. "Understood. Put him through."

"Yes, ma'am," Chuck said and returned to his station. He glanced at the office, gave her a nod, and Elizabeth tapped her earpiece.

"Colonel Caldwell? This is Weir." She picked up the stylus for her computer and twisted it through her fingers.

"Doctor Weir, I think you can guess why I'm calling," Caldwell said.

"I assume you managed to get a data burst through to Stargate Command," Elizabeth replied and didn't bother to hide her frustration. "Jut how far did you have to backtrack in order for a subspace signal to reach Atlantis, Colonel?"

Caldwell ignored the barb and said, "General Landry ordered me to pass along a message, Doctor. He wants you to dial in to the SGC as soon as we're done here. Needless to say, some people have some questions about the Arcturus project and what went wrong."

"I'll just bet they do," Elizabeth muttered to herself. "Understood, Colonel," she added loud enough for the radio to pick up. "Thank you for passing along their concerns." She tapped her earpiece and sat back in her chair.

It seemed she wasn't going to need to worry about that report, after all, she realised. What did Caldwell think he would accomplish sending his report first? She tossed the stylus back on the desk and walked out to the control room.

"Doctor Weir?" Chuck asked, his tone grim.

"Dial Earth please, Sergeant," Elizabeth replied as she stopped next to his console. "It seems I have an unscheduled meeting with General Landry."

Chuck pursed his lips. "Yes, ma'am," he replied and started to dial the 'gate.

The wormhole formed with its usual whoosh. Elizabeth watched the watery event horizon shimmer in front of her, hoping to find a sense of calm before the confrontation she knew was coming. Chuck tapped one of the tiles on the console in front of him and nodded to Elizabeth.

"This is Atlantis base calling the SGC," Elizabeth said, unconsciously raising her voice.

"Elizabeth, you got my message," General Landry replied a few seconds later.

"I did, General. Though I'm surprised this couldn't wait until our normal day to call home."

There was a long pause over the radio, and Elizabeth knew Landry wasn't buying her bluff.

"Doctor McKay loses control of what could potentially be one of the best weapons we have against the Wraith, not to mention any number of hostile alien populations in the Milky Way galaxy, and you're surprised the brass want to know what happened?"

Elizabeth glared at the shimmering event horizon. "And you and I both know that's not what this is about, General. The brass," she drawled, "is looking for someone to blame."

"Probably, yes," Landry admitted. Elizabeth was grateful he didn't try to deny what was happening.

"I won't deny that mistakes were made, General, but this isn't right. I think you know that."

"Be that as it may," Landry replied, "you need to send Doctor McKay back here. Now. There have been a few changes since you were here last. A member of your expedition was killed, too many people want answers for a weekly data burst to suffice."

Elizabeth pursed her lips and crossed her arms over her chest. If she let Rodney go, there was no guarantee he'd be allowed to come back.

"I need Doctor McKay on this base, General," Elizabeth said. "Even after everything that happened on Doranda, he's our best chance of surviving the Wraith and anything else the Pegasus galaxy has to throw at us."

"I understand that, Doctor Weir," Landry replied, and Elizabeth heard his tone shift from discussion to order as he added, "but this isn't up for debate. I expect to see Doctor McKay on this base within the hour."

Elizabeth shook her head and clenched her hands behind her back. "I think --"

"And before you even suggest it, I was given specific instructions that Doctor McKay was to come alone. This is an enquiry into Doctor McKay's actions and how those actions led to the destruction of a powerful weapon and energy source, and the Dorandan system, not to mention the death of Doctor Collins."

"General --" Elizabeth tried again.

"No, Doctor."

"This isn't right."

"It's not a question of right, Elizabeth. It's a question of politics. One hour. Landry out." A few seconds later, the 'gate shut down.

Elizabeth stared down at the now silent 'gate for a moment. She felt Chuck and every other person in the control room staring at her as she unclenched her hands and slowly walked back to her office. She closed the door behind her and tapped her earpiece.

"Weir to Doctor McKay," she said.

There was a long pause before Rodney answered, and Elizabeth wondered what he'd been doing that she was interrupting him. "McKay here."

"Rodney, I need to see you in my office," Elizabeth said, trying to keep her voice and tone as normal as possible.

"What's happened?" he asked, and Elizabeth heard the mix of suspicion and fear in his voice.

Elizabeth closed her eyes. She didn't like what was about to happen, but she didn't have any way to stop it, either. "I'll explain when you get here. Weir out."

Chapter Text

Rodney stood in the gateroom, a small carryall in one hand and a computer bag over his shoulder, watching as the lights ran around the 'gate and the chevrons lit up one by one.

Would he ever see it again? he wondered as the last chevron locked and the wormhole formed.

He took a step forward but stopped when he heard someone coming down the stairs behind him.

"I really think you should talk to Colonel Sheppard," Elizabeth said as she stopped next to him. "He would want to know what's going on."

Rodney glanced at the shimmering event horizon. He doubted Sheppard would care one way or the other at the moment where he was. "This is my mess to clean up," he said. "No reason to drag Sheppard into it."

He didn't tell her that he hoped going back, alone, would show John he was willing to take full responsibility for what happened on Doranda. That it would help him regain some of the friendship and trust he'd lost with his actions.

"Rodney," she started to say, and he glanced back at her. She must have seen something in his face as her expression changed, and she gave him a tight smile. "We'll see you in a few weeks when the Daedalus returns."

He nodded and was almost to the event horizon when he heard running footsteps coming from the hall. He walked a little faster and was almost to the edge of the event horizon when Sheppard's voice stopped him.

"McKay!" Sheppard called from behind him.

Rodney closed his eyes and hunched his shoulders. So much for a clean getaway, he thought, and wondered who had told John what was going on.

He turned long enough to give John a tiny wave and a crooked smile, surprised to see the mix of worry and fear on John's face, then stepped through the event horizon. He thought he heard Sheppard call his name again just before he felt the rush of the wormhole transporting him away from the closest thing he'd had to a home in a long time.

"Doctor McKay," General Landry greeted, his tone formal, as Rodney stepped through the 'gate into the embarkation room of the SGC.

"General," Rodney replied, and looked around at the Marines guarding the stargate. They held their defensive pose for a moment longer, then stood down as Landry stepped back.

"I assume you understand why you were asked to return to Earth?" Landry asked as Rodney met him at the bottom of the ramp.

Rodney snorted at the word 'asked'. The impression he had was the request was as close to an order as Landry could make it, considering he was a civilian. "Eliz -- Doctor Weir said this was an enquiry into the death of one of the scientists," he replied, and refused to look away when Landry studied him.

"The death of Doctor Collins is certainly one of the things the IOA representatives would like explained, Doctor McKay."

Rodney grimaced and hefted the carryall in his hand. "What is this IOA? I thought this was an SGC enquiry."

Landry frowned at the tone. "There are new parties involved now, Doctor. A Richard Woolsey arrived this morning along with several members of the IOA, asking questions. Needless to say, they are eager to talk to you. Along with the circumstances that led to the death of Doctor Collins, they also want to know what went wrong that a powerful weapon was destroyed on your watch."

Rodney swallowed hard at the reminder of those last harrowing moments as he and Sheppard tried to get back to the 'gate.

Landry waited a moment, then added, "The IOA wants to start their first debrief at nine am tomorrow morning." Landry turned to Sergeant Harriman. "Escort Doctor McKay to his room, Sergeant. And see that he's in the conference room on time tomorrow morning."

"Yes, sir," Harriman replied with a sharp nod.

Landry studied Rodney for a moment and added in a lower voice, "As I said to Doctor Weir, this is politics, son. If you want to get back to Atlantis, I suggest you stow the attitude when speaking to these people. They aren't as patient as I am."

Rodney gripped the carryall and gave Landry a stiff nod.

Landry waited a moment longer, then said, "Carry on, Sergeant," and left.

"This way, Doctor McKay," Harriman said to Rodney. He led the way out of the embarkation room and down a hall to an elevator.

"I still don't know what this IOA is the General was talking about," Rodney said as Harriman pushed the call button for the elevator.

Harriman glanced over at him and pursed his lips. "International Oversight Advisory," he explained as the elevator door opened and he ushered Rodney inside. "General Landry was forced to make a deal a few weeks ago. The IOA gained oversight of Stargate Operations in exchange for increased funding for the project."

"Oh." Rodney frowned. "So they're in charge?"

"Not entirely. This is still a US military installation. But they can make life here … difficult," Harriman replied as the elevator pinged.

Harriman exited the elevator, and Rodney realised he was in a different section of the base than when he'd been here a few months ago with Elizabeth, Sheppard, and Carson. Harriman stopped outside a door, swiped a card through the reader and held the door open for Rodney.

Rodney stepped into a small room with a bed against the far wall and a small desk pushed against the wall next to the door. He dumped his computer case on the desk and the carryall on the bed.

Apparently, the condemned man didn't rate the Presidential suite, Rodney thought as Harriman handed him the keycard.

"An airman will be here in the morning to show you to the conference room. Good night, sir." Harriman stepped back and let the door slide closed.

Rodney dropped the keycard on the desk next to the computer and sank down on the bed, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He had expected questions, even censure for what he'd done, but if this new oversight committee was involved too …

He looked up and stared at the wall in front of him. "You are so screwed," he muttered to himself.

Maybe he shouldn't have been so hasty in his decision not saying a proper goodbye to Sheppard and the others. He realised the chances were slim he'd ever see any of them, or his city, again.

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

John stared at the 'gate after McKay disappeared, and the wormhole shut down.

He turned to Elizabeth with a frown. "Care to tell me what's going on?" he asked coolly. "I'd also like to know why a member of my team just left this base, and you didn't think it necessary to tell me about it beforehand. If someone hadn't alerted me that McKay was leaving …"

Elizabeth gave him a hard look and shook her head. "Let's continue this in my office, Colonel," she said, and led the way back up the stairs and across the bridge to her office.

"Elizabeth, what the hell is going on?" John asked once the door was closed, and they were seated.

Elizabeth clasped her hands on the desk in front of her. "Rodney was called back to Earth to explain what happened on Doranda."

"One of us should have gone with him," John said his body tense as he sat ramrod straight in his chair. "He's going to do something stupid just to prove …" He ducked his head.

"John?" Elizabeth asked, and sat up slightly. "What's going on?"

"I may have …" He glanced out the window at the 'gate below.

"Colonel, what did you do?" John heard the impatience in her tone as well as the concern.

He sighed. "I may have told McKay I didn't trust him anymore."

Elizabeth stared at him for a moment. "You did what?"

John looked back at her, his own temper rising. "I told him the truth, Elizabeth. I don't trust him at the moment. Not with my life and certainly not with his."

Elizabeth stood and paced back-and-forth behind her desk. "Well, that explains why he didn't want me to tell you anything until after he was gone."

"You still haven't told me anything, you know."

Elizabeth crossed her arms over her chest and sighed. "Colonel Caldwell radioed with a message that I needed to contact the SGC immediately. When I did, General Landry ordered me to send Rodney back to Earth." She dropped her arms and leant against the edge of the desk. "He also informed me that none of us were to come with him."

"And that didn't seem suspicious to you?" John asked as he glared across the desk at her.

"Yes, Colonel, it did," Elizabeth replied, her voice tight. "But there was also nothing I could do about it. General Landry said this was an enquiry into the death of Doctor Collins as well as an investigation into what went wrong with the device itself. Reading between the lines, I got the impression he was only following someone else's orders."

John growled low in his throat. "Damn it, McKay," he muttered, and stood from his chair. "They're going to hang this whole mess on him." He looked over at Elizabeth. "Aren't they?"

Elizabeth pursed her lips and nodded. "I'm afraid so. More than that, in his current mood, I'm afraid Rodney is going to let them." She paused and looked down at her hands on the desk. "If he takes things too far, I may not be able to get him back here."

John scrubbed a hand over his face. "I need to get back there," he told her. "I was on Doranda, too. I gave the order to continue the test. If they want to blame someone, they can blame me. McKay is part of my team and under my command."

Elizabeth looked over at him. "Is that his commanding officer speaking or his friend?" she asked.

John gave her a thin smile. "Maybe a little of both," he admitted. He turned away. "Damn it, he promised me he wouldn't just disappear," he mumbled to himself.

"I'm sorry?"

John glanced back at her. "After everything with Chaya and Rasha, I made Rodney promise me the next time we had a fight, he wouldn't run off. That we would deal with it."

Elizabeth frowned. "He didn't exactly have a choice." She paused, and John refused to look at her. "John," she said and waited.

John gave her a sideways look.

"He told me this was his mess to clean up and to keep you out of it," Elizabeth said softly. "My guess is he's trying to earn back some of that trust you said he'd lost by taking the blame and protecting you in the process."

John grasped the back of the chair he'd been sitting in and hung his head. "I'm mad about what happened, that he didn't seem to care about the amount of danger he was putting us in trying to prove he was right. That doesn't mean I'm going to throw him to the wolves to fend for himself."

Elizabeth sat down behind her desk. "I understand that, John, but for now there's nothing we can do to help him. We can't afford the power drain of repeatedly dialling the 'gate back to Earth. Our normal check-in is in two days. We'll dial in and make contact with the SGC instead of merely sending the data burst. At the very least, General Landry should be able to tell us how the enquiry is going."

John snorted. "You make it sound like they're actually going to listen to him." He glanced down as the 'gate lit up.

"That should be Sergeant Thompson checking in," she told him as the wormhole formed. "His team is on a reconnaissance mission to P7J-501." Elizabeth started to say something else but stopped and touched her earpiece. "This is Weir."

John watched as she listened for a moment then gave John a startled look. "We'll be right there." She tapped off her radio and hurried toward the door to the office.

"What's going on?" John asked as he fell into step beside her.

"I'm not sure. Chuck received a message from Corporal Daley, her team ran into some sort of trouble."

"Daley? Where's Thompson?"

"Good question," Elizabeth replied as Daley ran through the shimmering pool below, ducking as bullets hit the nearby walls.

"Raise the shield!" Elizabeth ordered as John hurried down the stairs to where Daley stood against the wall with her hands braced on her knees, breathing hard.

"Corporal?" John asked as the wormhole shut down. "What's going on? Where's the rest of your team?"

"Still on the planet, sir," Daley replied. She took a few more deep breaths, then straightened.

John glanced at the now-silent stargate. "Report, Corporal."

"We'd been exploring the planet for the last couple of days without incident," she said as Elizabeth came down the stairs and stood next to John. "Then this morning, we stumbled onto a campsite. No one was in the camp, but the fire was still smouldering. Someone had been there and left not long before we arrived."

"Someone who lived on the planet?" Elizabeth asked.

Daley shook her head. "We haven't found any signs of a local population in the vicinity, ma'am. There is a deserted settlement roughly two clicks from the 'gate. Someone lived there at one time, but whoever they were, they're long gone now."

Daley turned to John. "We were still scouting the area when we came under attack."

John clenched his hands behind his back. "Nature of the hostiles?"

"Number unknown, sir. Could be as many as ten, could be more. Only thing for certain is they weren't Wraith. Sarge thought they might be Genii."

John and Elizabeth exchanged a look. "You're sure?" John asked.

Daley nodded. "Pretty sure, sir. If they aren't Genii, they're someone with access to the same weapons."

John heard Elizabeth's hiss of surprise at that news.

"What happened next? Where's the rest of your team?" John asked.

"We returned fire. The hostiles appeared to fall back, and Sarge ordered me to head for the 'gate to request reinforcements. The rest of the team planned to hole up in the settlement until help arrived."

Three of his men against a superior number of hostile aliens. John didn't like the odds. It took him only a few seconds to consider his options and come up with a plan.

John nodded. "All right. Grab whatever supplies you think you need and be back here in ten, Corporal."

"Yes, sir," Daley replied, and with a quick salute, hurried out of the gateroom toward the armoury.

Elizabeth pursed her lips. "What's your plan?"

"I'll get Ronon and Teyla. We'll head back with Daley and see if we can't encourage these Genii, or whoever they are, to find another planet to explore." John glanced up at the control room. "Is Teyla back from the mainland?" John called up to Chuck, standing at the railing above them.

"Yes, sir," Chuck replied. "She and Doctor Beckett returned an hour ago."

Elizabeth pursed her lips. "I'm not sure this is such a good idea."

"Lorne and Stackhouse are still off-world," he reminded her. "There isn't anyone else. They need help now."

Elizabeth studied him for a moment, then nodded. "All right. Go. But we'll send the MALP through first. Let's make sure you aren't walking into an ambush."

"That would be a good idea."

"Be careful," Elizabeth added as John left the gateroom at a jog.

John headed for the armoury tapping his radio as he hurried through the corridor. "Ronon? Teyla? We have a situation. Meet me in the armoury." He didn't wait for either of them to respond and tapped off the radio.

John had his tac-vest on and was loading a magazine for the Beretta when Ronon and Teyla joined him. Daley stood on the other side of the table, loading a backpack with a first aid kit and extra magazines for the P-90s.

"Colonel?" Teyla asked. "What has happened?"

"Thompson's team ran into trouble off-world. We're going after them."

"Any idea who's attacking them?" Ronon asked as he found the extra power cells for the particle weapon.

"Sergeant Thompson thinks they're Genii," Daley said as she dropped the pack on the table in front of John.

"The Genii? Why would they attack one of our teams?" Teyla asked, and clipped a P-90 to her tac-vest.

"No idea," John said. "Maybe they're still angry over not getting Atlantis last year." John looked the other three up and down. "Ready?"

"Yes, sir," Daley replied and shouldered the pack.

"Ready," Ronon said and snapped the chamber closed on the power cell for his gun.

Teyla looked around the room. "Where is Rodney? Is he not joining us?"

"No," John said shortly and led the way out of the armoury.

"I do not understand," Teyla said as she fell into step beside him.

"McKay isn't here. The SGC knows about what happened to Doranda."

"Caldwell?" Ronon growled.

John glanced back at him, walking next to Daley and nodded. "Elizabeth was ordered to send McKay back to Earth to explain what happened."

"I see," Teyla said softly. "He will be returning to Atlantis, will he not?"

John sighed as they walked back into the gateroom. "I don't know," he told her as the 'gate started to dial.

Once the wormhole formed, John watched as the MALP trundled its way through the 'gate and disappeared.

"Getting MALP telemetry," Chuck reported a few moments later. "No life signs near the 'gate itself, though there are multiple readings two kilometers to the south."

"That's probably Thompson and the rest of his team. Sounds like they're pinned down," John replied.

"Looks like maybe as many as a dozen hostiles in addition to our team, sir."

"Colonel, are you sure you want to do this with just three people?" Elizabeth said as she peered over the railing. "It might be better to take a squad of Marines with you."

John shook his head. "It would take too long to get a larger team organised. I doubt Thompson's team can wait that long. Sounds like the Genii, or whoever this is, are busy with Thompson and his people, they won't be expecting us to come up behind them."

Elizabeth studied him for a moment longer, then nodded.

"All right, you have a go. Bring them back, Colonel."

"That's the plan," John said, and led the way through the 'gate.

He felt sweat prickle along his back as soon as he stepped through the 'gate onto P7J-501. No one had told him Thompson was reconning a desert planet.

He led the way over to the DHD with Teyla while Ronon and Daley found cover behind the edge of the 'gate itself. John ducked down into what cover the device provided and surveyed the area around the 'gate.

The ground near the 'gate was hard-packed sand, and he could see dunes in the near distance. A few scraggly trees and bushes broke up what was otherwise a flat brown plain. Heat ripples hazed the horizon in the distance, but John could make out what looked like a cluster of buildings off to their left.

"Maybe it is just as well Doctor McKay is not with us on this trip," Teyla said as she stopped next to John and wiped the beads of sweat off her forehead with the sleeve of her jacket.

John snorted a laugh as he looked around, remembering the last time McKay was on a desert planet. He quickly sobered when he remembered the super-Wraith and McKay's two dead scientists.

He took one last glance around the 'gate and tapped his earpiece. "Sheppard to Thompson. Sergeant, what's your position?"

"Thompson here, sir. We've taken cover in one of the buildings in the abandoned settlement."

"Status of the hostiles?"

"Unknown, sir. The building we're in doesn't have any windows. No way to know where they are. Masters was hit when he tried to set up a sniper nest on the roof. So we know someone followed us here."

"How bad?" John asked. He pointed Teyla in the direction of the settlement.

She nodded and took point. John nodded for Daley to follow her while Ronon covered their six.

"Could be bad, sir. Clipped him in the side. He's only semi-conscious, but the pressure bandage seems to be holding for now. He needs to get back to Atlantis sooner rather than later."

"Copy that," John replied. "We're heading your way, Sergeant. Should be there soon."

John tapped off his radio. If there was any good news, there wasn't anywhere for the Genii or whoever it was to hide on their way to the settlement. There was nothing to see around them other than sand and a few scruffy-looking trees.

Still, John couldn't help the instinct to watch for IEDs. The landscape bore more than a slight resemblance to Afghanistan, and he had to force himself to focus and not get lost in the bad memories.

"Hits a little close to home, doesn't it, sir?" Daley asked softly.

John glanced at her, and she continued, "I was support for a recon team in Afghanistan, sir, before getting assigned to the SGC. Trust me, I get it. As soon as we came through the 'gate the other day, all four of us were on high alert for anything that looked like an IED or a tripwire."

John nodded. "Something like that, Corporal." He tightened his grip on the P-90 and surveyed their surroundings. "Keep your eyes open," he said a little louder so Ronon and Teyla could hear him. "Thompson isn't sure where all the hostiles are located."

"Nowhere to hide out here," Ronon replied.

They weren't far from the settlement when John signalled for them to stop. The cluster of buildings sat on a slight rise surrounded by a wall with a metal gate in its center. The tops of the buildings poked above the wall, none stood more than two stories high, with squared sides and flat roofs. A cluster of taller, healthier-looking trees stood in the middle of the village. John assumed the spot marked the location of a water source.

"Lovely," John muttered to himself as he surveyed the small village.

Memories of another rescue mission rose unbidden as he lay on his stomach just out of sight of the buildings. That mission had ended with a promising soldier, not to mention the asset they'd been sent to rescue, dead. John shoved the memory back into its box as gunfire erupted near the center of the village.

"Thompson! Report," John ordered over the radio.

"We've got hostiles coming in the front door, sir," Thompson replied, and John heard more gunfire.

"Where are you?"

"East side, near the oasis. Single story building. I think there is at least one sniper on a neighboring building." Thompson paused, and John heard a flurry of gunfire. "That's how Masters got hit."

John pulled out the Ancient scanner and found four life readings inside one of the buildings near the center of the town. He also saw several more dots converging on the building while more dots at either end of the village blocked any escape.

"Copy that," John said. "We'll try and pull them off you." He turned to Teyla and Ronon. "Main road is guarded," he pointed to the guards pacing just inside the gate, "looks like two men."

Ronon glanced at the scanner in John's hand a nodded. "I'll take care of it." He unholstered his gun and checked the charge.

John glanced at him and nodded.

Ronon nodded back and disappeared as the crack of more gunfire carried from the middle of the village.

"Teyla, we need to clear a path to this building." He pointed at the scanner.

"Understood," she replied and readied the P-90.

"Daley, go with her. Watch each other's back in there."

John glanced out at the gate when the whine from Ronon's gun pierced the air.

"Road is clear," Ronon reported a moment later.

"Acknowledged," John replied and glanced over at Teyla and Daley. "There's a lot of nooks where someone could be hiding. Watch yourselves."

"You as well, Colonel," Teyla said and ran from the cover of the low dune, Daley on her heels.

John waited until they found cover near one of the buildings inside the gate then followed them, one eye on the buildings around him and the other on his backtrail. Ronon had already disappeared into the settlement.

He was in a sort of alley when the corner of the wall near his head shattered, and dust and debris rained down on him. At the same time, he heard a gunshot to his right. John ducked around a corner and returned fire. A yelp of pain and the clatter of a gun falling to the ground told him he'd hit his target. He took a quick peek, saw a body draped on a parapet on the next building and moved on.

He heard his next target moving in the narrow alley to his right and dropped low as he crept around the corner. He fired at the man aiming at Ronon's back as Dex fired into the building across the street.

A scream from the house told John Ronon had hit his target as well. Ronon spotted John in the alley and Sheppard signalled he was moving into the next street. Ronon nodded and covered the area while John ran from the corner of one building and ducked down against the wall of the building across the street.

He waited until Ronon ducked down beside him and tapped his radio. "All teams report."

"Four down here, sir," Thompson replied.

"Took out two on the road and two more in the buildings," Ronon added as he scanned the nearby buildings for more targets.

With the two John had found, that left two targets still at large.

"Teyla? Daley?" John called over the radio and exchanged a look with Ronon when neither answered immediately.

"I am here, Colonel," Teyla replied a few seconds later, and John heard the pain in her voice. "I shot one, another managed to escape. He is running back to the stargate."

"Is Daley with you?"

"I'm here, Colonel," Daley added. "We have a bit of a situation here, sir. Teyla was hit."

Ronon growled low in his throat and started back toward the edge of the settlement, but John stopped him with a hand on his arm.

"Teyla?" John asked again as he hurried down the alley between two buildings keeping one eye out just in case there were any more surprises. "Where are you and how badly are you hurt?"

"We are in the building across the street from Sergeant Thompson's team. I have been shot in the leg. Corporal Daley is trying to stop the bleeding."

John broke into a run, Ronon close behind. Several bodies lay around one of the buildings where Thompson stood, his P-90 ready as he searched for threats. Another body lay on the roof next door to Thompson's building.

"Sir," Thompson greeted with a nod at the house across the street.

John nodded back and braced himself against the wall of the building across the street. He gave Ronon a sharp nod, and Dex kicked in the door, gun up and ready as he entered.

"Clear!" Ronon called.

John followed Ronon inside and saw Teyla sitting on the floor near the door with her back against the wall. Daley knelt next to her, a pressure bandage, already red with blood, wrapped around Teyla's leg near her hip.

"I don't think the bullet hit the artery, sir," Daley reported as she moved out of the way, "but she needs a doctor."

John knelt down beside Teyla and offered her a smile. "Let me see," he said softly and gently lifted the bandage.

Blood still oozed from the wound. "Daley's right, you need to get back to Atlantis. We need to get this bleeding stopped before we try to move you."

"I understand, Colonel," Teyla replied and winced as John used his knife and slit her trouser leg, then found a fresh bandage in one of his vest pockets.

"Daley, keep her leg steady," John said and glanced behind him. "Ronon."

"On it," Dex replied and knelt on Teyla's other side.

John unrolled the fresh bandage and looked Teyla in the eye. "I'm sorry, but this is going to hurt."

Teyla nodded and took a deep breath.

John waited until she nodded, then wrapped the bandage around her leg and pulled the straps tight.

Teyla squeezed her eyes shut, and John heard her groan of pain as she took Ronon's hand in a tight grip.

John finished tying the bandage, squeezed her hand, then found the blister pack of ibuprofen and unhooked his canteen from his belt. "Best I can do until we get you back to Atlantis," he said and handed her the pills and water.

"Thank you, Colonel," she replied with a weak smile as she took the pills and water from him.

Thompson entered the room, and John watched as he gave Daley a quick once over and waited for her to nod. He turned to John and said, "Rest of the settlement is clear, sir." He jerked his head toward the door. "I think there's something you need to see, though."

"What did you find, Sergeant?" John asked as he followed Thompson outside.

Thompson jerked his chin toward the bodies in front of the building opposite. "I was right, these men were Genii."

John walked across the narrow road and knelt down next to the nearest body. The uniforms and weapons were the same as the Genii John remembered from Kolya's attempted invasion of the city. Why though? he wondered as he checked another body. As far as the Genii and anyone else in the Pegasus galaxy were concerned, Atlantis had been destroyed by the Wraith. Was this another renegade like Kolya, or just bad luck?

John shook his head. Right now, they didn't have time to speculate. "Drag the bodies into the building," John ordered. "Then we need to get Teyla and Masters back to Atlantis."

"Yes, sir," Thompson replied, and signalled to Garcia and Daley to help with the bodies in the street.

John returned to the building. Teyla was still on the floor with her eyes closed, and John recognised her breathing pattern from one of her meditation routines. The pressure bandage was holding, he didn't see any blood seeping through, but there was no way Teyla would be able to walk back to the 'gate.

"How are you doing?" he asked as he knelt down beside her.

Teyla opened her eyes. "There is much pain," she admitted.

"I'll bet. We'll find something we can use as a stretcher --"

"No, we don't need to," Ronon said from where he stood a few feet away. "I can carry her."

Teyla frowned and refused to meet Ronon's eyes. "I only need something to use as a walking stick, Colonel," she told him with a stubborn glare.

John glanced down at her leg and shook his head. "That bandage isn't going to hold if you try to walk on that leg."

"Colonel," Teyla started to argue, but John shook his head.

"You know I'm right about this."

Teyla sighed and nodded. "Fine."

Thompson entered the room and John met him near the door. "Bodies are all in the building across the street."

"Good work, Sergeant. How is Masters?"

"He's in and out, sir. No way he'll be able to walk. We took the door off one of the other buildings to use as a stretcher."

John glanced behind him when he heard Teyla groan and saw Ronon picking her up. He led the way outside where Garcia and Daley waited next to Masters lying on a narrow piece of wood, another pressure bandage wrapped around his middle.

"All right. We're heading back. Daley, take point and stay sharp. That last Genii soldier could still be out there waiting for us."

"Yes, sir," Daley replied with a nod and readied her P-90.

"Thompson, you and Garcia have Masters. I've got our six."

John watched as Daley led the way back through the narrow street to the metal gate. Thompson and Garcia followed her, carrying the makeshift stretcher. Ronon, Teyla held in his arms, walked a few paces ahead of John.

John grimaced as he brought up the rear, one eye on his people and the other on the surrounding landscape. Not the result he'd hoped for, but at least everyone was alive this time, he thought as he followed the procession back to the stargate.

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

Elizabeth listened with a frown as John gave his report on what had happened on P7J-501.

"You're sure they were Genii?" she asked once John was done.

Sheppard nodded. "Definitely Genii," he told her. "Could be some sort of splinter group though, no way to be sure."

Elizabeth shook her head and sat back in her chair. "That may not matter, Colonel. It only takes one to let the rest of the galaxy know we're still out here."

"We've been putting out the story for months now that a small group from Atlantis survived and settled on another planet," John replied. "This doesn't really change anything."

"You just killed almost a dozen Genii soldiers, Colonel." Elizabeth leant forward in her chair and braced her hands on her desk. "It's possible they might start to suspect it was more than just a small group of refugees that survived the Wraith attack on the city."

John studied her for a moment, then nodded. "Maybe you're right," he offered. "But even if they have guessed the truth, I doubt Cowen or even Kolya is going to give us up to the Wraith."

Elizabeth gave him a crooked smile. "Are you sure about that?"

John smiled in return, and Elizabeth relaxed in her chair again. "How are Teyla and Corporal Masters?"

"Doctor Cortes thinks Teyla will be fine. She removed the bullet in Teyla's leg without much trouble, and she'll be on crutches for a few weeks. When I left the infirmary, she was asleep."

"And Masters?"

John rocked one hand back and forth. "He's still touch-and-go. He lost a lot of blood getting back to the 'gate. When I left, he was still in surgery with Beckett."

Elizabeth pursed her lips. "Keep me informed."

John nodded and left the office.

Elizabeth watched him leave, reading the concern for his injured people in the set of his shoulders.

As if Doranda and the possibility her chief scientist was about to be reassigned wasn't bad enough, now she had to deal with a possible threat from the Genii as well. What else could go wrong this week? she wondered and opened her computer.

Chapter Text

Rodney followed the airman as she led the way up to the large conference room overlooking the embarkation room. She nodded to the two men guarding the door, then knocked before opening the door, and standing aside.

Rodney stepped into the room and swallowed when he saw the group waiting for him. Five men and women sat at one end of the long table in the middle of the room. A small video camera attached to a tripod sat on the table, pointed at a chair at the other end of the table.

A balding man, wearing a suit and tie of all things, sat speaking to a similarly dressed woman. The three others, all in expensive-looking suits, glanced up from their conversations as Rodney entered the room. Needless to say, he felt more than a little under-dressed in his button-down, short-sleeved shirt and tan trousers.

"Doctor McKay," the balding man greeted as the airman closed the door. "My name is Richard Woolsey." He stood and offered Rodney his hand.

Rodney stood at his end of the table and gave Woolsey a brief nod.

Woolsey dropped his hand. "I am the American representative for the IOA, and was asked to head this investigation." He waved Rodney toward the chair facing the camera.

Rodney glanced around the room, then sat in the indicated chair. He stared at the other men and women seated at the table. He didn't recognise any of them, though one of the men standing behind Woolsey's chair looked familiar.

With a start, Rodney realised the man had been one of the Marines stationed in Atlantis. Browder? he wondered. No, that didn't sound right. Bowers? That was it. He noted Bowers wore a suit instead of a uniform and assumed he had left the military once he returned to Earth.

He was disappointed when he didn't see Colonel Samatha Carter seated at the table. He'd hoped for at least one friendly face in the room. Looking at the committee members at the other end of the table, none of them had the bearing of a scientist. Carter, at least, was someone who understood the realities of dealing with alien technology; something he doubted the men and women facing him had ever worried about before today.

His fate was to be decided by a bunch of bureaucrats, he realised, and felt another stab of regret that he hadn't said anything to Sheppard when he had the chance.

"I think we're ready to begin," Woolsey said to the room as he settled into the chair opposite Rodney. He opened a leather folio and took an expensive-looking pen from the breast pocket of his suit coat.

Bowers stepped forward, turned on the camera, and pointed it at Rodney. He then sat down at a smaller table to one side of the room and opened a computer. As Woolsey read from the file in front of him, Bowers glanced over at Rodney then turned back to the computer and started to type.

Eight hours later, after a few short breaks for lunch and other requirements, Rodney left the conference room mentally drained and physically angry. When the session had started, he'd tried answering Woolsey's questions about vacuum energy and the Arcturus weapon. It quickly became apparent that neither Woolsey nor any of the other people around the table understood his answers. They wanted the power source and the weapon, and in their eyes, it was Rodney's fault both had been destroyed.

While he was willing to admit he may have been too eager, too sure of himself, to see the danger signs of the weapon about to overload, that didn't change the fact that, no matter how much he or anyone else wanted to think otherwise, the power source was never going to work. He'd triple-checked Radek's findings once he returned to Atlantis and had grudgingly admitted to Zelenka and Elizabeth that Radek had been right. The vacuum energy field was dangerously unstable. Nothing he or anyone else could do would ever allow the system to work safely.

After the third time one of the stuffed shirts tried to tell him what he'd done wrong, Rodney had given his temper and his tongue free reign.

"Do any of you have a background in physics?" Rodney asked bluntly as Woolsey turned a page in the file in front of him.

"I'm sorry?" Woolsey replied and glanced around the table.

"Physics. Theoretical? Astro? I'll even take, bio." Rodney waited a moment. "No? What about engineering?"

"Doctor McKay, I don't see how --" Woolsey tried to say, but Rodney spoke over him.

"None of you has the slightest idea of what is involved with harnessing vacuum energy." He glared around the table. "Do you? Yet you're going to sit here and tell me what I did wrong?"

The four people around the table glanced at one another then at Woolsey who glared down the table at Rodney.

"Doctor McKay, I believe it is you who doesn't understand the full gravity of your situation," Woolsey told him and closed the file on the table. "A revolutionary power source, not to mention a weapon that would have turned the tide of the war, not only with the Wraith, but with several hostile species in this galaxy, was destroyed. A member of your science team was killed. Someone needs to be held accountable for those losses."

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and scowled down the table at Woolsey. "I will have to live with the fact that I ordered Doctor Collins into that access tube and he died. I know that. But unless you all have advanced science degrees I don't know about, not one of you is qualified to sit there and judge my decisions with regard to the weapon or the energy source."

Woolsey glared down the table at him as the others shifted in their seats and tried to make feeble replies.

"I think that's enough for today," Woolsey said. "We will reconvene tomorrow morning at nine am." He stared at Rodney for a moment and continued. "Hopefully, by then, everyone will have calmed down, and we can proceed with a certain level of civility."

Rodney pushed back his chair and left the conference room before anyone could say anything else to him about either his actions or his attitude. He wandered the halls, once again frustrated there were no balconies where he could sit and watch the water or a lab where he could retreat and lick his wounds in private. Instead, he found his way to the mess hall, absently loaded a plate with food, poured himself a cup of coffee, and sat in the farthest corner of the room with his back to the wall.

After eating a few bites of food and not really tasting anything, he toyed with the meat and vegetables and considered his options. It was clear, even to him, that Woolsey and this IOA weren't interested in finding answers as much as assigning blame to someone. While he was willing to accept responsibility for what had happened to Collins, he wasn't interested in becoming a political scapegoat.

All he wanted was to get back to Atlantis. Back to his city and back to his friends and chosen family. After the day of questions, he realised he may have made a tactical error and wondered if he'd ever see Atlantis or Sheppard again.

Should he walk into the meeting tomorrow, proverbial hat in hand, and let them have at him? he wondered. Would that be enough that they'd let him go back to Atlantis afterwards?

Rodney shoved the plate away, crossed one arm over his chest and pinched the bridge of his nose with his other hand. No, he wasn't going to do that. He'd take responsibility for what happened, but he wouldn't let Woolsey or anyone else walk all over him in their attempt to cover their own backsides. He only hoped the SGC would let him send a message to John before they stripped him of his clearance and kicked him to the curb.

He heard something clunk on the table in front of him and opened his eyes.

"You look like you could use a fresh cup," Bowers said as he sat across from Rodney, sipping from a cup of his own.

Rodney gave the cup a suspicious glance. "Since when do you care?" Rodney asked. While he'd never been able to prove it, he suspected many of the rumors spread about him after the Genii invasion of the city had originated with Bowers or someone in his inner circle.

"Hey, Doc, we may not have gotten along all that well, but you did save all of our asses more than once last year." He jerked his head in the direction of the conference room. "You'd think they'd remember that."

Rodney grunted and swallowed some of the fresh coffee.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, and Rodney was starting to wonder why Bowers was watching him so intently when he felt the room suddenly sway and shift around him.

"Whoa," he muttered and clutched at the table. "Wha's goin' on?" He frowned when he heard the slurred words and looked around in confusion. He thought someone was sitting across the table from him, but he couldn't make out more than an human-like shape. "Who'r yu?" he asked the shape.

"Why don't you come with me, Doctor McKay," the shape said. "You don't look so good."

Rodney felt a tug on his arm and pulled himself free of the light grip. He didn't want to leave, did he? He needed to find John. Sheppard would sort everything out.

"Sheppard isn't here," the voice told him, and Rodney remembered Sheppard was angry with him.

He tried to tell himself he just needed to go back to his quarters, or maybe the infirmary, he decided as the room swirled around him. Maybe he was sick. He felt himself start to fall, but then there was a tight grip on his arm, and someone was beside him, supporting his weight.

"Almost there, Doc," the voice said.

Maybe the voice was taking him to Carson, Rodney thought. That would be nice because he wasn't feeling very good. He closed his eyes as the room tilted again.

Rodney couldn't really feel his legs or feet anymore, but someone was holding him up and helping him move, so he decided to let them.

He heard more voices around him, but couldn't make out the words. The voices stopped, and a few seconds later, he felt fresh air prickle his skin. He tipped his head back and let the breeze caress his upturned face. Finally, he thought with a smile and tried to sit down, he'd managed to find a balcony.

He heard a groan and felt something jerk him upright then the breeze disappeared as he was pushed into something small that smelt of rubber and oil. He lay curled on his side with his knees near his chin and thought he should be worried about the tight space for some reason, but he couldn't remember why as his mind slipped farther away. A few seconds later, he thought he heard the growl of an engine, but by then his body had joined his mind in not caring, and he faded away.

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

John walked into the infirmary two days later, a bag in one hand and Ronon following behind him. Thompson sat next to a bed on the near side of the room where Masters lay, surrounded by monitors. He was pale, and the pain medication Beckett had him on meant he was asleep more than he was awake, but Carson was pleased with his recovery so far.

"Sir," Thompson said with a nod as John stopped at the end of the bed.

"How's he doing?"

Thompson shrugged. "Holding his own, sir. Doctor Beckett says he'll start weaning him off the heavy pain meds in another day or so."

"Good news, then," John said and studied Thompson for a moment. "You look like you could do with some sleep as well. I know how uncomfortable that chair can get."

Thompson gave him a ghost of a smile and nodded. "Freddo, I mean, Sergeant Garcia, is set to relieve me in another hour, sir."

John nodded and continued on to the back corner of the infirmary. "I hear Beckett is letting you out this morning," John said with a smile as he dropped the bag on the end of Teyla's bed.

"Yes," Teyla replied. "As long as I promise to rest."

"And unlike you, I know Teyla will follow doctor's orders," Carson added as he and Sharon walked up behind John. "How are you feeling this morning, lass?"

"Much better, thank you. The pain is less, and it does not hurt as much to move my leg."

"Let's just have a wee look at things, then," Carson said with a glance at John and Ronon.

"We'll wait over there," John said and pointed toward the opposite corner.

Carson pulled a curtain around Teyla's bed.

"Doctor Weir is dialling Earth today, isn't she?" Ronon asked as they waited.

John nodded. He was trying not to think about what Landry might tell them. Would the SGC let McKay come back? That was the big question. John looked at the wall and rubbed the back of his neck. Even after everything he'd said, he still felt like he should have been there the last two days to take some of the heat off McKay.

"He's coming back," Ronon told him.

John snorted. "I hope so."

"You aren't sure?"

John sat on the edge of one of the empty beds. "It's not that simple," he said, wondering how he was going to explain the nuances of Earth politics to Dex. "A lot of people were expecting to have use of that weapon, and the power source would have solved a lot of problems on my planet as well as here."

"And you think these people are going to stop McKay from coming back here as punishment?"

"It had crossed my mind."

John was startled to hear a low growl come from Dex. "Didn't know you cared so much," he said with a grin.

Dex glowered at him. "You said it yourself. McKay is our best chance for defeating the Wraith."

"Admit it, you miss having him around."

Ronon snorted and shook his head.

John ignored the reaction and smiled. "Yeah. I miss him too."

A few minutes later, Carson came around the privacy curtain. "Sharon is just helping Teyla get changed," he said as he walked over to John and Ronon.

Sharon moved the privacy curtain out of the way a few minutes later, and John saw Teyla sitting on the edge of her bed, dressed in the uniform he'd brought for her.

"Let me know if you need help with anything," Sharon said to Teyla. She turned, gave John a nod and a smile, then went back to her desk.

"Stay there for a moment, and I'll find you some crutches," Carson said and walked over to the supply closet.

John hopped off the bed and walked back over to Teyla's side. "Okay?"

Teyla nodded. "Doctor Beckett says there is no sign of infection and I am healing well."

Carson came back carrying a set of crutches and a pill bottle. "Antibiotic," he explained as he handed her the bottle. "One pill, three times a day. Make sure to take them with food."

"I will, Doctor Beckett," Teyla told him with a smile. "Thank you."

"You're welcome, lass," Carson replied. "Take care of yourself and come back tomorrow so I can check the dressing."

Carson nodded to John and Ronon, then went over to Thompson. "Derek, I thought I told you to go back to your quarters an hour ago. Young Zachary is going to be here for several days yet."

John tuned out the rest of Carson's speech to Thompson and helped Teyla off the bed. Ronon handed her the crutches and John kept a grip on her arm until she found her balance.

"Ready?" John asked once Teyla had the crutches situated under her arms.

She nodded. "Where are we going?"

"Mess hall," John replied. "We're scheduled to dial Earth in an hour or so. I figure that gives us just enough time to eat and then head up to the control room to hear Landry's update on how things are going with McKay."

"And if things are not going well?" Teyla asked.

John grimaced. "I don't know," he admitted. "Let's hope that's not the case."

Teyla nodded as John led the way to the transporter. "I spoke to Rodney before he left," she said, "he told me a little about what happened on Doranda."

John stopped in front of the transporter and pursed his lips.

"He is unsure how to make amends to you for what happened," she finished.

John tapped the control for the transporter. "At the moment, I'm not sure either," he admitted.

He waited for the others to step into the transporter before he followed and tapped the section of the map with the mess hall.

After a hurried and mostly silent breakfast, John led the way to up to the control room. He hesitated for a moment outside the control room as Teyla's question rose in his mind again. What would he do if Landry told them McKay was not allowed to return? he wondered. He'd meant what he'd said to Elizabeth. He was angry, but that didn't mean he wanted McKay out of his life.

"I am certain everything will turn out fine," Teyla said. "Your people must know how valuable Rodney is here in Atlantis."

John grunted and followed Teyla into the control room.

"He is also a good friend," Teyla added softly as they stopped near the main console.

Chuck jumped to his feet and offered Teyla his chair. Ronon took the crutches from her and leant them up against the console behind them.

Teyla nodded her thanks to both of them and said to John, "We will do whatever you deem necessary to ensure he can come home."

"Here's hoping it won't come to that," John replied as Elizabeth walked out of her office.

"Colonel," she greeted and nodded to Ronon and Teyla. "Teyla, how are you?"

"Much better, Doctor Weir, thank you."

Elizabeth gave her a tight smile and turned to Chuck. "The weekly report is ready to go?"

"Yes, ma'am," Chuck replied.

Elizabeth took a deep breath and nodded. "Dial Earth."

John stood with his arms crossed over his chest and watched the symbols light up on the 'gate as Chuck punched in the address for Earth. A moment later, the wormhole settled into its shimmering pool.

Chuck pressed another sequence of tiles on the console and nodded to Elizabeth.

"This is Atlantis Base calling the SGC. Please come in."

There was a long pause and then, "We're receiving you, Atlantis Base. Stand by."

Elizabeth and John exchanged a worried look.

"Does that normally happen?" John asked.

Elizabeth shook her head. "No. It doesn't."

"That can't be good," Ronon rumbled from John's other side, and Sheppard silently agreed.

"Doctor Weir," General Landry said over the radio. "I presume Colonel Sheppard is with you?"

John's worry ratcheted up another notch.

"Yes, General, he is. Is everything all right?"

"Unfortunately, no. We have a situation here."

"What kind of situation?" she asked with a glance at John as he dropped his arms.

There was another short pause before Landry responded. "Doctor McKay is missing."

John clenched his hands as his face lost all expression. "What do you mean, he's missing?"

"I thought I was clear, Colonel. Doctor McKay did not show up for a scheduled meeting yesterday to discuss what happened on Doranda."

John turned to Elizabeth. "I'm going." His tone brooked no argument, and he was thankful she didn't offer one.

Elizabeth nodded. "General Landry, Colonel Sheppard is coming through now to offer his assistance."

John took the stairs two at a time. He wasn't sure what he'd do once back on Earth, but he would lay odds he'd have a better chance of finding McKay than anyone else.

He was nearly to the 'gate when he heard someone coming up behind him.

He stopped at the edge of the event horizon and turned around. "Where do you think you're going?" he asked Ronon.

Ronon pointed at the active wormhole. "With you."

John held up his hands. "I'm not sure --"

"We're wasting time," Ronon said and stepped through the 'gate.

"John," Elizabeth called.

John looked up at Elizabeth, standing with her hands gripped tightly balcony railing. "Good luck."

John nodded once and followed Ronon.

Chapter Text

Rodney woke with a groan. His head was pounding, his back ached, and he couldn't remember what had happened to explain why. He opened his eyes and blinked a few times trying to get the room into focus, and realised the problem wasn't with his eyes. Instead of lying in his bed in his quarters, he was lying on the floor in a room he didn't recognise.

"Where the …" He slowly sat up with another groan and looked around. The room was small, he estimated no more than four meters on a side. The floor was hard-packed dirt, and the walls looked like they were made from wood and cinder blocks. A broken-out window, high in the wall to his left, let in a cold draft that made him shiver. He looked down at his clothes and was surprised to see he was wearing a button-down shirt and trousers instead of his usual uniform and jacket.

Where were Sheppard and the others? He reached up to his ear, but the radio wasn't there.

Had they been on a mission? Was that it? he asked himself. He started to push himself to his feet when he heard the rattle of a chain, looked down and found his boots and socks were gone, and there was a rusty metal shackle clamped around his bare ankle. The other end of the chain was attached to a loop of metal embedded in the middle of the floor.

"Sheppard!" Rodney yelled. "Ronon? Teyla?" He waited several seconds and yelled again when he didn't get any response.

"Maybe they escaped," he told himself and tried to pull off the cuff. "They escaped, and they will be looking for you." Rodney glanced at the wooden door. "Or maybe they're in another room hoping you'll come find them."

He pulled himself to his feet, the chain clinking as he moved and he felt the rough metal rubbing the skin around his ankle as he walked over to the door. He was less than a meter away when the chain pulled him up short, and he grunted as the cuff scraped against his ankle.

He tugged on the chain, trying to find enough slack that would let him reach the door handle but the loop in the floor held fast preventing him from going any further. After several failed attempts to reach the handle, he settled for pounding on the edge of the door, hoping someone would come and tell him what was going on.

"Hey!" he yelled. "Anybody out there!"

He pounded on the door again. "Hello!"

After several minutes of shouting, he gave up, looked around the room, and stumbled over to the window in the wall opposite the door, the chain clinking as rattling as he moved. The window was high in the wall, but stretching up on his toes, Rodney was able to see low rocky hills all around him and higher-elevation mountains in the distance. A few scraggly pine trees made up most of the vegetation, everything else was various shades of brown. He didn't see anything like a major road or other signs of civilisation.

Another building sat in a field across a wide dirt road. Oddly enough, there also appeared to be what looked like a rusted out car with one of the wheels missing parked in front of the other building.

"This is Earth?" he asked the room. "When did we get back?"

He leant against the wall next to the window as memory flooded back. Returning to the SGC. Meeting Woolsey. Trying, and failing, to hold his temper in a room full of idiots asking about the Arcturus weapon. "So how did I get here?" he wondered aloud. "Wherever here is."

No helpful voice came out of the shadows to explain things to him.

If he was on Earth, that meant no team was looking for him. He swallowed and looked down at the chain. Chances were, no one was looking for him. Certainly, no one would be looking for him in what looked like the middle of a high-elevation, rocky, desert. Which meant, if he wanted to get out of here, he was going to have to rescue himself.

Rodney sat down next to the metal loop embedded in the floor. The chain was linked to the loop then threaded through the eyelet several times. No chance of breaking either the chain or the loop. He tried pulling on the loop, but it was sunk fast, and he had nothing to use as a shovel to dig around it. Which left the thinner metal cuff around his ankle.

He scanned the floor, found a chunk of cinder block, and tried hitting the lock for the cuff, hoping he could either break the lock or shatter the old metal. After several minutes, however, the only thing he'd managed to do was give himself several scrapes and bruises on his foot where he'd missed the shackle.

"So much for that idea," he muttered, and tossed the chunk of rock into a corner.

He sank back against the wall under the window with his knees drawn up to his chest and tried to piece together how he'd ended up in a dilapidated building, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. He'd been sent back to Earth to explain what had happened on Doranda. He remembered the conference room and Woolsey asking inane questions along with several other people all haranguing him for not doing more to preserve the Ancient power source and weapon.

"So how did you get from the SGC to here?" he asked himself. No matter how much he tried, however, he couldn't come up with anything to fill the gap from the meeting to the present.

His stomach told him he'd been here for several hours at least. He remembered eating lunch during the meeting with Woolsey. When was that? Today? Yesterday? He glanced down to check the time only to find his watch was gone along with everything else he'd had in his pockets. He twisted around and looked up at the window, but all that told him was that the sun was up. He had no frame of reference to know if it was morning or afternoon.

There was a clatter at the door, and despite the pain in his ankle, Rodney pulled himself up until he stood with his back to the wall, facing the door. Whatever was going to happen next, he was going to face it on his feet.

The door opened, and Rodney stared in shock as Bowers walked into the room followed by another man wearing, of all things, a tailored suit.

The man was tall and probably a few years older than Sheppard based on the grey peppering his short dark hair near his temples. Rodney could tell he did something to stay fit. Even if he was in his forties, he didn't look soft. The problem was, he had no idea who the man was.

"Good. You're finally awake," the man said as he walked into the room. "I was beginning to think David had given you too much Rohypnol."

Rodney scowled at the man. "Rohy -- you roofied me?" he shouted, and winced as his headache notched up another level.

"It was necessary, Doctor McKay," the man in the suit told him. "I have plans for you and Colonel Sheppard."

Rodney shook his head. "Sheppard? He's not even --" He gave the man in the suit a wary glance. "He's not even in the country."

The man laughed. "Oh, you can say it, Doctor McKay. Colonel Sheppard is currently in the Ancient city of Atlantis in the Pegasus galaxy. I know all about the Stargate Program. Did you think we brought you here by accident?"

Rodney turned on Bowers. "What did you tell him?" he asked with a scowl.

"Nothing I didn't already suspect," the suited man said. "Now," he nodded to Bowers, who left the room, "I'm sure you're eager to let Colonel Sheppard know how you're doing."

Bowers walked back into the room carrying a wooden chair in one hand and a video camera on a tripod in the other. He set the chair down in the middle of the small room next to the loop in the floor and placed the camera in front of it. Bowers pulled a coil of rope out of his back pocket and gave Rodney a feral grin.

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and moved as far away from Bowers as the chain would allow. He had a bad feeling about what was about to happen. "This idea of yours will never work," he sneered at the man even as he kept one eye on Bowers. "One, Sheppard will never fall for it. And two, I think we've established he isn't anywhere where he will see your little video."

The man laughed. "Don't be too sure of that, Doctor McKay. I know Atlantis is due to check-in with General Landry tomorrow." The man glanced at Bowers. "And I have it on good authority Colonel Sheppard will do whatever is necessary to protect those he considers family."

Rodney stared at the man for a long moment. "You do know he has an actual brother, right?"

"A brother he has neither seen nor spoken to in several years. Something you share in common, I believe," the man replied. "When was the last time you spoke to your sister?"

Rodney swallowed and said nothing.

"No," the man continued, "I think you and I both know I have the right bait to force Colonel Sheppard to listen to me and follow my instructions."

Rodney scowled at the word 'bait'. "I don't know what you're planning, but I'm not going to help."

The man sighed and looked at Bowers. "David, we're on a schedule. Please help the good doctor be seated."

"With pleasure," Bowers replied, and stalked toward Rodney.

Rodney curled his hands into fists and slid along the wall as Bowers came toward him.

Bowers laughed, feigned a move to Rodney's left, then trapped Rodney's arm when he fell for the trap.

Rodney tried to break the hold, but Bowers only pulled his arm farther up his back and wrapped his other arm around Rodney's neck.

"Move it, Doc," Bowers growled in Rodney's ear, and squeezed the arm wrapped around his throat.

Rodney tried planting his feet, but Bowers only tightened his hold around Rodney's neck and waited for McKay's knees to buckle. Black spots filled his vision as Bowers dragged him across the room and dropped him onto the waiting chair.

Rodney was only partially aware of Bowers tying his arms to the chair as he gasped for air. Once he had his breath back, he glared over at the man in the suit.

"I won't help you," he ground out, his voice hoarse from Bowers' chokehold.

Bowers back-handed him across the mouth, and Rodney tasted blood.

"David," the man admonished and pulled Bowers away. "That's enough. I'm sure Doctor McKay will play his part when the time comes."

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

John came through 'gate into the embarkation room and found several Marines pointing weapons at Ronon who stood at the top of the ramp with his hands up, glaring at the men in front of him.

"He's with me," John said with a glance at General Landry walking through the door from the hallway.

"Colonel Sheppard," Landry greeted and nodded to the Marines.

The guard detail stood down, and Ronon lowered his hands.

"Care to explain," Landry added with a nod at Dex.

"General Landry, Ronon Dex," John said shortly. "General, we're here to find McKay," John said. "I'm assuming you don't believe he simply decided to quit."

Landry eyed Ronon for a moment longer, then shook his head. "Come with me, gentlemen."

Landry led them out of the embarkation room and up the stairs to the conference room overlooking the stargate. A stack of folders sat at one end of the table, and Landry sat down behind the pile of reports. John took the chair next to him while Ronon leant against the wall behind Sheppard.

Landry studied Ronon for a moment longer then focused on John. "To answer your question, Colonel, no, I don't think Doctor McKay left of his own volition. In fact, we can prove conclusively that he had help." Landry held up a disc in a case. "When the airman sent to escort him to the meeting couldn't find him yesterday, we started a search of the base and scrubbed the security footage. We found this."

Landry inserted the disc in the player behind him, picked up a remote, and pushed a button. The screen mounted on the wall behind Ronon turned on, and John watched the grainy footage of McKay staggering toward the security desk at the main gate. Someone was beside him holding him up. When McKay nearly took a header, the other man wrapped an arm around McKay's waist and half-carried him down the tunnel to the base exit. The video jumped to a different camera angle showing a partial view of McKay being dumped into the trunk of a small car.

"There wasn't enough of the license plate to run a trace," Landry said as the video ended.

"He looked drunk," Ronon said.

John shook his head. "More likely he was dosed with something."

"That's what we think as well, Colonel," Landry replied.

"So who was that with him?" Ronon asked, and John noticed Dex's hands were clenched into fists.

"The cameras never get a good look at his face," Landry replied. "We have a few other angles of the two of them walking from the mess hall to the front gate, but we never get a clear view of the man with Doctor McKay."

"He knew where the cameras were," John said, his expression hard. "He's someone familiar with this base."

Landry dropped the remote on the table and scrubbed a hand over his face. "That's what it looks like," he admitted.

"I want to talk to whoever was on duty at the security desk. He or she saw who was with McKay, they can tell us who we're looking for."

"That would be Corporal Donaldson."

John knew from Landry's tone they weren't going to be talking to Donaldson any time soon. "What happened."

"I sent a security detail to Donaldson's apartment as soon as we saw this footage," Landry said, and clasped his hands on the table in front of him. "He's dead. Shot."

John pursed his lips. "Damn it," he muttered to himself.

"Oh, it gets worse, Colonel," Landry said with a grimace of his own. "We may not know who took Doctor McKay off the base, but we do know who is holding him, and why."

John jerked his head up and stared at Landry. "If you knew --"

Landry glared back. "We didn't know. Not until this arrived an hour ago." He held up another disc. "It seems Doctor McKay's captor was counting on you returning to Earth when you heard the news he was missing."

"Returning …" John stared at Landry as the implications of what that meant hit him. Whoever had McKay knew about the stargate, and probably Atlantis.

"Precisely, Colonel," Landry said as he opened the case and inserted the disc into the machine. The image on the screen changed from the grainy security feed to a clear, sharp image of a man in a suit.

John studied the image, focusing on the background. If he could figure out where the footage was shot, they'd be that much closer to finding McKay. He clenched his jaw when he recognised the structure as the same sort of buildings in any number of insurgent strongholds in Afghanistan.

Someone had managed to get McKay, not only out of the mountain, but out of the country? John asked himself. Who had that kind of power?

"General Landry," the man said. "You don't know me. My name is Alex Vance."

John felt a jolt in his stomach and jerked to his feet.

Landry paused the video and watched as John paced from the table to the corner of the room and back again.

"You know him?" Ronon asked.

John nodded. "Sort of. I only met him once, at his brother's funeral. He blames me for his brother's death."

"Did you kill him?" Ronon asked bluntly.

John shook his head. "No. Not directly anyway."

"Colonel Sheppard, need I remind you that mission is still classified," Landry said sternly.

John spun around and pointed to the screen where Vance stood frozen. "I think we're a little past classified, General. Vance just declassified it."

"Watch yourself, Colonel," Landry admonished, his tone severe. "I know you're worried about Doctor McKay, but you are on thin ice with the attitude."

John ducked his head. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."

Landry studied him for a moment longer then nodded at Ronon. "No details, Colonel."

Ronon looked from Sheppard to Landry then back. "What happened?"

John scrubbed a hand over his face and started pacing again. "My special ops team was sent into an area to retrieve an important asset." He glanced at Landry, who pursed his lips and nodded. "The intel was bad, and we walked into a trap. Vance's brother died as a result."

"So Vance blames you," Ronon stated. "Why take McKay?"

"The video explains that part," Landry said and glanced at John. "I should warn you, Colonel, you aren't going to like this part." Landry waited until John gripped the back of his chair and nodded then he restarted the video.

"General Landry, you don't know me. My name is Alex Vance. I have a message for Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. I understand you are one of the few people in a position to deliver it for me." Vance stepped out of the camera frame, and John felt the blood drain from his face as the camera focused on McKay. "Colonel Sheppard, you took someone important to me. I have returned the favor."

Even though McKay's hands were tied to the chair, his chin was set at a belligerent angle, and his eyes were hard. John noted the split lip and the trickle of blood at the side of Rodney's mouth, and felt his back muscles tense. He glanced over at Dex when he heard Ronon growl low in his throat.

"Do you wish to say anything, Doctor McKay," Vance asked from off-screen. "You were quite outspoken before."

John watched as Rodney glowered at someone, presumably Vance, standing to the left of the camera. "I already told you I wasn't going to play."

John's frown deepened when he heard the rasp in McKay's voice.

"Now, now, Doctor," Vance said, "I thought we decided you were going to cooperate. My associate is eager to convince you to to do as I request. I promise you, you don't want to test his patience."

Rodney glared at where Vance stood off-camera and refused to say anything.

"It seems the good doctor hasn't learnt his lesson after all," Vance said with a sigh.

"Told you he would be difficult," another voice said, and John took a step closer to the screen. That voice had sounded familiar …

Someone else stepped into the frame, his back to the camera, and John heard the unmistakable sound of a fist hitting flesh.

"That's enough," Vance said when the man drew his arm back to hit McKay again. "I believe Colonel Sheppard will understand the message."

"Man's dead when I find him," Ronon hissed in John's ear.

The man onscreen dropped his arm and stepped out of the frame. Rodney's head sagged on his shoulders, and John saw the red blotch and a scrape across McKay's cheek where the blow had landed.

Vance stepped back into the frame. "Please see to it that Colonel Sheppard receives my message, General; I am aware that it may be a bit of a, shall we say, long-distance call. If Colonel Sheppard wants to see Doctor McKay alive, he will be at the Sundown Motel, room 215, Wednesday night, ten o'clock."

Landry stopped the video and glanced at his watch. "That deadline is in nine hours."

John gave Landry an absent nod as he picked up the remote and rewound the video. He stopped, pushed play, and listened.

"... his lesson," Vance said.

"Told you he would be difficult."

John rewound the video and played it again.

"Sheppard?" Ronon said.

"I know that voice," John murmured as the video froze on McKay's bloody face. Then it hit him. "Bowers," John growled and tossed the remote onto the table.

"I'm sorry?" Landry asked. "Who is this Bowers?"

"He's a Marine," John replied, and turned to Landry. "He was sent back to Earth once we re-established contact. Was he reassigned to the SGC?"

"The name doesn't sound familiar." Landry pushed a button on the intercom on the table. "Walter, I need you in the main conference room."

"Yes, sir," Harriman replied.

A few moments later, there was a tap on the door, and Sergeant Walter Harriman entered. "You needed something, sir?"

"We're looking for a Marine named Bowers, Walter. Colonel Sheppard recognised his voice in the video."

Harriman stared at the table for a moment. "None of the current rotation of Marines here at the SGC is named Bowers, sir." He glanced at John and added, "There is a David Bowers that's part of the IOA contingent."

"That's him," John said, his expression hard.

Landry frowned. "Sergeant, please find Mister Woolsey and ask him to join us."

"Umm, yes, sir." Harriman saluted and left.

"You think this whole thing with McKay and the questions was a setup to get him here?" Ronon asked.

John shrugged. "Maybe." He glanced at Landry. "What is the IOA, sir?"

Landry looked at him for a moment, then stood and stared out the window overlooking the embarkation room. "Do you have any idea how much it costs to keep this base operational, Colonel?"

"Budgets were never really my thing, sir," John replied.

Landry smiled. "Let's just say, it's a lot."

"I'm not seeing the connection, sir."

"After the battle over Antarctica, we could no longer keep the stargate or what we've been doing here a secret. Most of the world's governments know about us now, and what we do here." Landry turned to John. "And they want a piece of the action."

'Ahh,' John mouthed. "So this IOA …"

"Was a compromise, Colonel. When the Appropriations Committee decided money could be better spent building space ships rather than ensuring the security of the stargate and this base, I had to take certain steps. In exchange for having a say in how we run things, those international governments picked up the rest of the tab for keeping the lights on," Landry finished.

There was a tap on the door.

"Enter!" Landry called.

Harriman opened the door, but before he could say anything, a balding man in a suit stormed into the room. "General Landry, I assume you summoned me because you have information on the whereabouts of Doctor McKay? The committee is not happy --"

Ronon stepped forward with a growl, and the man stopped short. "Who are you?" the man asked, looking up at Dex. "I don't remember seeing you here before."

John stopped Ronon with a hand on his arm.

"Mister Richard Woolsey, this is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard and Ronon Dex," Landry said. "Doctor McKay is part of Sheppard's team in Atlantis." Landry turned to John and added, "Colonel, Mister Woolsey is the head of the IOA investigation into what happened on Doranda."

"Colonel Sheppard," Woolsey started to say, but John cut him off.

"What can you tell me about David Bowers and Alex Vance?" John asked.

"I-I don't understand," Woolsey replied as he glanced from John to Landry.

"It's a simple question," Ronon retorted.

"Yes, I know that," Woolsey replied with an irritated glanced at Dex. "I don't understand why you want to know."

"Why don't we all sit down," Landry said. "Then Mister Woolsey here can explain how a member of his entourage is responsible for Doctor McKay's kidnapping."

John watched with equal parts anger and amusement as Woolsey gaped at Landry for a moment before he fell into the nearest chair.

"You're saying Doctor McKay was kidnapped. I just assumed --"

"Assumed what, that he'd just leave with no explanation?" John demanded.

"It wasn't outside the realm of possibility, Colonel," Woolsey replied, his tone and posture stiff.

"Why?"

Woolsey studied him for a moment. "The IOA was planning to strongly recommend Doctor McKay be reassigned to Earth." He looked down at his hands. "They were also considering filing formal charges against Doctor McKay for the death of Doctor Collins."

John stared at him. What the hell had McKay said in that meeting? he wondered. He'd known Rodney had taken the fact John no longer trusted him hard, and Elizabeth had warned him something like this might happen as a result, but John still couldn't believe it.

"What happened?" he asked.

"Let's just say the first day of our enquiry did not go well for Doctor McKay," Woolsey replied, and John could see he had recovered from his initial shock. "I ended the session when he refused to answer any more of the committee's questions."

John winced.

"Exactly," Woolsey told him. "We were supposed to reconvene yesterday, but when Doctor McKay couldn't be found --"

"You just assumed he'd left on his own."

"You still haven't given me any evidence to claim otherwise, Colonel Sheppard."

"I can assure you, Mister Woolsey, we have ample proof Doctor McKay was removed from this base against his will," Landry told him.

"So you say," Woolsey replied. "I'd like to see this evidence for myself, especially since you are accusing members of the IOA of kidnapping. I will personally vouch for every one of my people on this base."

"You may regret that, Mister Woolsey," Landry said and ran the videos of McKay leaving the base and then the message from Vance.

John ignored the images on the screen and focused on Woolsey. He watched as the man's arrogance melted after the first video ended. Woolsey looked pale and dumbfounded by the time Landry stopped the video with Vance.

Landry set the remote control down. "According to Colonel Sheppard, the man in the video with Alex Vance is David Bowers."

"The voice does sound familiar," Woolsey admitted.

"So you will agree this is proof at least some of your people were involved in Doctor McKay's disappearance," Landry said. He clasped his hands together on the table and stared at Woolsey.

"Yes, yes, I, umm, see what you mean," Woolsey stuttered and looked down at the table.

"David Bowers and Alex Vance," John said again.

Woolsey took a handkerchief from his suit pocket and cleaned his glasses. "Alex Vance is the president of a powerful conglomerate," Woolsey explained. "Scientific exploration is all well and good, but we need to be able to use those scientific discoveries in real-world situations. Vance's companies take those discoveries and use them to build new weapons, alternative energy sources, any number of things."

"So he learned about the Stargate Program through his business dealings," John said with a look of disgust. So much for classified, he thought bitterly.

Woolsey shook his head. "My understanding is, there are various cover stories to explain where these discoveries come from. As far as I know, Alex Vance has no knowledge whatsoever regarding the SGC or this facility."

"You're lying," Ronon said from where he stood behind John's chair.

"I beg your pardon," Woolsey told him stiffly.

"Vance had to know something, otherwise, how did he know McKay would be here?" Ronon told him.

"Man asks a good question," John added.

"I-I don't …" Woolsey stuttered with a cautious look at Ronon.

"What about David Bowers?" John asked.

"He seemed a perfect fit for the IOA. He had resigned from the Marines when he returned to Earth a few months ago, and since he already knew about Atlantis …" Woolsey let the sentence peter out.

John shook his head. "Let me guess, Bowers is connected to Vance in some way."

"Now that you mention it, yes. He was working for … one of … oh my." Woolsey gave John a startled look. "Before joining the IOA he worked at Alex Vance's head office in Denver as a security consultant."

John shoved back his chair and stood. "That's how Vance knew McKay was going to be here. Bowers never stopped working for him." He turned to Woolsey. "He was using his position within the IOA to spy on the SGC, waiting for a chance to grab …" John clenched the back of his chair. "Whatever Vance is planning, he's been working on it for months."

Woolsey furrowed his brow and rested his hands on the table.

"What?" John asked when he saw the puzzled expression.

Woolsey glanced up at him and shook his head. "Why do this? It doesn't make sense. If Alex Vance is targeting you, Colonel, why kidnap Doctor McKay?"

John and Ronon exchanged a quick glance. "He's a member of my team," John said. "Bowers must have told Vance that." He caught Landry watching him with a knowing expression but chose to ignore it.

Woolsey looked at each of them in turn, and John wondered what he had guessed about his relationship with McKay. "I … see."

"Thank you, Mister Woolsey," Landry said. "I think we've got what we needed."

Woolsey stood. "Of course." He glanced at John. "If there's anything I can do to help …"

"We'll let you know," Landry said.

Woolsey gave them one last nod and a weak smile, then left.

John sank into the nearest chair and pinched the bridge of his nose. He knew the who and the how. He could guess at the why. What he needed to know was the where. Where would Vance take McKay?

The silence in the room was broken a moment later when General Landry said, "Walter, I need everything you can find out about Alex Vance, and I need it in an hour."

John looked up at Harriman in time to see his stoic expression. "Yes, sir," he said and with a quick salute, left the room.

"We'll find him, Colonel," Landry added once Harriman was gone.

John straightened in his chair. "Yes, sir. Yes, we will." Because the alternative wasn't worth considering, he thought to himself.

Chapter Text

Rodney paced the tiny room, wincing as his questing fingers found the scrape on his cheek where Bowers had hit him. The skin under his eye felt puffy and hot, and he wondered just how bad the bruise was. The chain attached to the cuff pulled him up short, again, and he glared down at it with a mix of frustration and pain.

He had no idea how long it had been since Bowers had cut him loose from the chair. From the angle of the light, he estimated several hours at least. Once the camera had been turned off, Vance had left without a word or a backward glance. Bowers had cut him loose with a sneer, taken the chair and the tripod, and locked the door behind him, leaving Rodney alone.

"Think," he berated himself as he leant up against the wall, "You need to get out of here. Either Sheppard sees that video and walks into a trap, or he doesn't, and no one comes looking for you. Either way, you're screwed."

The light in the room slowly shifted from bright sunshine to the orangey glow of sunset as he paced and considered various ways to escape. He was near the window when he heard the lock for the door click.

"Now what," he muttered to himself, and braced his back against the wall.

The door opened, and Bowers stood there, holding an open MRE pouch. "Eat," he grunted as he dropped the bag and a small bottle of water on the floor before he closed and locked the door again.

Rodney debated for all of thirty seconds if he should trust the food or not before his stomach and shaking hands made the decision for him. The chain rattled as he hurried across the room and pulled him up just short of where the pouch lay in the corner next to the door. A part of his mind wondered if Bowers had dropped it where he had on purpose just to torment him.

He tugged and pulled at the chain, stretching to reach the promised food, ignoring the pain in his ankle as the cuff dug into his skin. He just needed to stretch a bit more, he told himself as his fingers brushed the edge of the pouch, just out of reach. A few more minutes' struggle and he managed to grab a corner of the pouch with the tip of the water bottle and sat down with his back against the wall.

"Probably too much to hope it would be meatloaf," he muttered and read the contents of the MRE bag. Beef ravioli. At least it wasn't one he was allergic to. Bowers had left him the spoon, and he wolfed down the lukewarm food gulping down water after every few bites.

Once he was finished eating, he sat and watched the light on the walls change from orange to reddish-purple as the sun set. The heat was less, and he shivered as a cool breeze came through the broken window; he was still only wearing the short-sleeved shirt and trousers he'd worn during the meeting with Woolsey. Rodney rubbed his arms and tried not to think about the enquiry or his chances of getting back to Atlantis.

"Assuming I get out of this alive," he grumbled.

He had no idea how Sheppard was going to get back to Earth in time to make Vance's deadline. Would Elizabeth authorise an unscheduled dialling of Earth? Rodney had been adamant once they'd returned from Earth after the siege, that they couldn't dial the Milky Way any time they pleased if they wanted the power source to last. He and Elizabeth had settled on once a week as a compromise that would keep the SGC in the loop and not overtax the Zed-PM.

"So what happens if Sheppard doesn't show up?" he wondered. He felt a shudder down his spine with the realisation there would be no reason to keep him alive. He wrapped his arms around his middle and drew his knees up to his chest.

"What happens if John does come?" He looked around the room as the light dimmed, the chain rattling as he shifted on the floor.

Vance needed Sheppard for something. Something he thought he could get if he had Rodney for leverage. So what did he want? Information? Resources?

Rodney swallowed and looked around his prison.

Revenge?

Rodney thought about the building outside and the surrounding landscape. He remembered how the Overseer had purposely made the topography of the area during their first challenge look like Afghanistan to distract Sheppard. The scenery he saw out the window wasn't that different. More rocky instead of sandy, but the feeling of isolation was eerily similar.

Revenge was looking more and more likely, he realised.

"Great," he muttered with a grimace. "This is practically guaranteed to not go well." The wind picked up, and Rodney curled into a tighter ball.

How much did Vance really know about his relationship with John? he wondered. Bowers had obviously told him enough that Vance thought Rodney was a better target instead of David, Sheppard's flesh-and-blood brother. How much of the city rumors did Bowers tell him? Did Vance suspect anything about the mental link he and John shared?

While the number of people who knew about the link was limited to the team, Elizabeth, and Carson, Rodney wasn't completely oblivious. He'd heard any number of guesses about what had happened to Sheppard in Weir's office after the transformer explosion.

If Vance did know about the link and what it did, was he planning to hurt him to further torture John? Rodney wondered. He shuddered from more than just the cooling night temperatures at the thought of what Vance, or more likely Bowers, would do to him.

Rodney pulled on the chain attached to the shackle as he considered various plans of escape. Vance had told John to be at some motel the following night. Did that mean they were still in the US? Possibly even still in Colorado?

He felt a jolt of hope in his stomach. If he was in Colorado, finding help after he escaped might not be as hard as he'd feared. He would just need to find a road or a town, someone with a phone. He could call the SGC and be back in Cheyenne Mountain before Vance even knew he was gone.

The chain rattled as Rodney huddled on the floor, shivering. It would be better if Sheppard didn't come back to Earth at all, he finally decided. Then John wouldn't end up in whatever trap Vance had planned for him.

He had come back to Earth, alone, in order to protect John from the wrath of the SGC over the whole Doranda mess. It shouldn't be that hard to protect him from Vance, too. Vance, and hopefully Bowers, would have to leave him alone to go to the meeting at the motel. He'd need to watch the road to see when they left and that would be his chance to escape.

The more Rodney thought about the idea, the more he liked it. It would keep John safe and also show Sheppard he could be trusted to find the answer when he needed to. All he needed to do was figure out a way to get free of the shackle. Everything else would be easy.

Well, less complicated at least, he told himself.

He toyed with the chain attached to the cuff until the sun set completely, leaving the room in darkness. Whatever plans he made would have to wait until morning, he decided. He moved around the room until he found the wall opposite the door, wrapped his arms around his middle, tucked his chin to his chest, and tried to sleep.

Rodney felt a boot kick him in the side and he woke with a start. Sunlight streamed in through the window above him, and he wondered what time it was as he rubbed his abused ribs.

"Food," Bowers growled at him, and dropped another MRE pouch and a bottle of water on the floor next to Rodney's head.

His face ached where Bowers had hit him, and he suspected chewing would hurt, but he wasn't going to pass up the chance to eat. Rodney reached for the pouch, watching Bowers move away with a mixture of apprehension and confusion.

Vance had said he was bait. He curled his lip at the term. What he couldn't figure out was why Bowers was helping him. It didn't make sense. And when something didn't make sense, his brain refused to let it go. Rodney grimaced and tried very hard not to think about Doranda.

Still, why would Bowers be involved in all of this? he wondered.

Bowers was across the room and had the door open when Rodney blurted, "You told Vance about Atlantis."

Bowers stopped with one hand on the handle for the door.

Rodney slowly climbed to his feet, the pouch of eggs in one hand. "You told him about Atlantis, and Sheppard, and the team. It's the only thing that makes sense for why I'm here."

Bowers turned with a glare. "So what if I did?"

Rodney couldn't hide his surprise. He knew Bowers didn't like him much, and the feeling was mutual, but he'd spent the last year and a half surrounded by men and women in the military. He knew something like honor was important to anyone who called himself a Marine. The fact Bowers would throw that away shocked him.

He swallowed and set the pouch of eggs on the floor. "Why?" he asked, and couldn't hide the genuine puzzlement in his tone.

Bowers stalked back to Rodney's side of the room. "Sheppard ruined my career, that's why," Bowers hissed as he stood in front of Rodney. "And I know you," he poked Rodney in the chest, "had something to do with it."

Rodney couldn't help it, he snorted in disgust. "You can't be serious. You're helping Vance because you didn't, what, get promoted once you came back?"

Bowers growled low in his throat, and Rodney was reminded of Ronon as Bowers jabbed him in the chest again. "You did something." Poke. "You and Sheppard." Poke. "And as a result, I was passed over for promotion."

Rodney batted the hand away. "You're an idiot," he snared, anger replacing his curiosity. He took a few steps away from Bowers and his jabbing finger. "I'm a scientist. I don't have any say on who gets promoted in the Marine Corps."

Bowers closed on Rodney and grabbed the front of his shirt. "Remember Corporal Stern? The guy couldn't win a hand-to-hand sparring match to save his life? Well, he made Sergeant and is now at Quantico. Chambers and Armstrong? Reassigned to Earth 'gate teams. And Hennessey? Hennessey, of all people, got orders to Oahu."

Bowers tightened his grip. "You said something to Sheppard," Bowers hissed as he shoved Rodney against the wall and twisted his hands in Rodney's shirt. "I got back here and was told not only was my promotion passed over, but my next assignment would be 29 Palms. Do you know where that is?"

Rodney shook his head; the hold Bowers had on his shirt was making it difficult to breathe.

"The Mojave Desert," Bowers ground out, and pushed Rodney's back up the wall far enough that he was forced to balance on his toes.

"That's enough, David," Vance said from the doorway. "Doctor McKay and Colonel Sheppard will see the error of their ways soon enough."

Bowers let go of Rodney's shirt and stepped back with a sneer. "Yes, sir."

Vance nodded the to discarded MRE pouch on the floor near Rodney's feet. "I suggest you finish your breakfast, Doctor. You are going to be rather … tied up later."

Rodney swallowed at the not-so-veiled threat.

Bowers gave him a last scowl and followed Vance out of the room.

Rodney waited until Bowers and Vance were gone and heard the snick of the lock before he looked around for the MRE pouch. The eggs had cooled and congealed, but he choked them down anyway.

"Definitely need to get out of here," he told himself as he drained the water bottle.

Unfortunately, there only seemed to be two ways out of the room, the door and the window. Rodney wandered back to the door, growling under his breath when chain brought him up short and the cuff bit into his ankle. He studied the door looking for any way he might be able to open it or break it down. As best he could tell, the door was solid wood. There were no convenient hinges on his side that he could pry the pins out and simply remove the door, either. Real kidnappers were apparently more competent than ones seen in the movies.

Which left the window.

Rodney carefully broke out the rest of the glass, and after a few minutes of mental math, decided he should fit through the opening. All assuming, of course, he could get the metal cuff off of his leg.

Another search of the room revealed nothing he could use to pick the lock on the shackle, even if he had the first clue how.

"Note to self, have Sheppard show you how to pick a lock," Rodney grumbled as he surveyed the room.

He spotted the chunk of concrete he'd thrown in the corner the day before, and after several minutes' struggle, managed to grab it. Maybe if he couldn't break the cuff, he could at least break the chain. He picked a link of the chain far enough away from his foot he wouldn't hit himself and spent the next several minutes trying to break the chain.

While worn and pitted, the chain proved just as resilient as the shackle; he'd managed to deform several of the links, but not enough to break them. He dropped the chain with a frustrated sigh and sat under the window with his arms crossed over his chest.

Rodney could tell from the light coming in through the window, the morning was gone and the afternoon was passing. He had to get out of the room, and soon. He vowed he was not going to help Vance do whatever it was he planned to do to Sheppard.

He fingered the bent links of the chain. What he needed was a second piece of concrete, he decided. While it was certainly uncomfortable to lie on, the floor simply wasn't hard enough to do what he needed. He was still scrabbling around on the floor when he heard the thunk of the lock in the door and quickly hid his chunk of concrete.

Bowers opened the door and stalked over to where Rodney sat against the wall. "Get up," he ordered, and emphasised the demand with a swift kick to Rodney's legs.

"Why?" Rodney said with a scowl as he stuffed the chunk of concrete behind his back.

"Mister Vance wants to talk to you," Bowers told him. "Don't try anything," he warned as he held up a key. "Mister Vance has no problem with me hurting you some more."

Rodney glared up at Bowers, who waited a moment longer then bent down next to Rodney's foot. Rodney sat with his back pressed stiffly against the wall and heard Bowers snicker as he fitted the key in the lock for the cuff.

"Thought you could escape and be the big hero, 'eh," Bowers said, and Rodney saw where the cuff and chain had been scratched by his efforts with the concrete.

"I already told your boss, I'm not going to help you," Rodney replied. "Chances are Sheppard won't even be at that meeting tonight."

Bowers leaned forward until he was mere inches from Rodney's face. "You better hope he shows," Bowers hissed. "Otherwise, things won't go too well for you."

Bowers unlocked the shackle and yanked Rodney to his feet. He pulled a gun from behind his back and pressed it into Rodney's side.

"Move," Bowers ordered and pushed Rodney out of the room.

Rodney winced as much from the pins and needles feeling of full circulation returning to his foot as the gun jammed into his ribs. He looked down at his bare foot and saw not only the bruises from his failed efforts to break the lock but the angry welt encircling his leg where the shackle had rubbed the skin raw.

Bowers led him through a narrow hallway with doors on either side every few meters and into another room. This room was slightly larger than the one he'd slept in, but there were no windows. The same wooden chair sat in the center of the room, and Rodney tried to resist as Bowers pulled him across the room and pushed him into the chair.

Bowers handed Vance the gun while he picked up the rope from the floor next to the chair and proceeded to tie Rodney's arms behind his back and his legs to the chair.

"Have you ever heard of Helmand Province in Afghanistan, Doctor McKay?" Vance asked as Bowers pulled Rodney's arms awkwardly behind his back.

"I watched the news," Rodney retorted, and winced as Bowers tightened the rope around his wrists.

Vance glared at him, the gun in his hand handled with almost casual indifference, even though the barrel never wavered from where it pointed at Rodney's chest.

"What you didn't see on the nightly news, what no one knew about until weeks after the fact, was a raid that was executed on an insurgent stronghold in a tiny, out-of-the-way corner of that province in 2002. That a military operation, led by one Captain John Sheppard, ended in the deaths of a serviceman and a civilian, I believe the term is asset?" He glanced at Bowers, who nodded. "A serviceman and a civilian asset."

Rodney wasn't sure what to say. John had told him a little about his time in Afghanistan, but nothing specific. He knew there had been failed missions, that Sheppard had lost men, friends even, who were under his command. He also knew John had never really forgiven himself for any of those deaths.

"Sheppard --" Rodney started to say, but Vance stormed across the room, his face red with anger.

"Don't try to apologise for his actions," Vance growled at him, the gun mere inches from Rodney's chest. "That serviceman was my younger brother, Scott. He was twenty-three years old when he died on that raid. Twenty-three."

"I'm sorry," Rodney tried again. Remembering what Vance had said about Sheppard taking someone important away from him, Rodney had a bad feeling where this whole charade was leading.

"Oh, you'll be more than sorry," Vance told him. "You're a part of this now."

Bad feeling confirmed, he thought grimly. "A part of what exactly?" he asked Vance, and winced as the rope dug into the welt around his ankle.

"I lost my brother, my best friend," Vance said and turned back toward the door. "Sheppard is going to know what that feels like."

Rodney gaped at him for a moment then started to pull at the rope binding his wrists. Bowers laughed as he stood back from the chair and took the gun from Vance.

"Get the camera, David," Vance ordered. "Time for one last message for Colonel Sheppard from his surrogate brother."

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

John spent most of the afternoon searching through every piece of information Harriman could find on Vance and his business dealings. He now knew Vance was the oldest of four brothers, Scott being the youngest, and that Vance had a knack for picking innovative new technologies. His corporation, AdVance Technologies, sprawled across most of the Western US, and included everything from traditional real estate holdings to internet start-ups. As a result, his businesses also held several lucrative defence contracts.

Woolsey had been right about one thing, Vance had no direct knowledge of the Stargate Program from his business dealings. All of his information about Sheppard, Atlantis, and McKay had to have come from Bowers.

He glanced over at Ronon sitting on the other side of the table, flipping aimlessly through another file, then at Harriman seated in the corner talking to someone on the phone.

Ronon tossed another folder on the growing pile and stood. "This is pointless. We're not going to find McKay looking at paper."

John looked up at Ronon, pacing the room, and part of him had to agree. Given a choice, he'd much rather be out busting down doors or questioning people to find McKay and Vance. The problem was, they had nowhere to start.

Vance's business dealings were far-ranging. He owned property in four states, not including Colorado, his various businesses had offices all over the country. John glanced at Harriman, still arguing with someone on the phone, and Vance's people were stonewalling them.

"Come on," he said to Ronon and stood from the table. "We need a break." He led the way out of the conference room, back to the elevator, and up the five floors to the mess hall.

John was thankful the dinner rush was nearly over, he didn't want to deal with the curious, or more likely the sympathetic looks from the rest of the base. McKay had been missing for almost three days, John knew the odds of finding him alive dwindled the longer it took for them to find a lead.

They started through the mess line, and John watched as Ronon loaded a tray with various foods.

"What?" Ronon asked as John chuckled.

"Nothing." John grabbed a plate of the first thing he saw, not really caring what he ate. He filled a cup with much-needed coffee, took a couple of swallows, and refilled the cup before following Ronon to the far corner of the room.

Ronon ignored the stares from the few other men and women still in the mess hall and attacked the various foods on his tray with gusto.

John picked at the Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes on his plate, lost in thought. The mission where Scott Vance had died had been bad from the off. He could understand Vance's hurt and anger for what happened. He could even understand Vance blaming him for what happened. But to involve McKay, who had nothing to do with any of it, crossed a line.

"Okay, boys. We get in. We get out with Naseer. Back in time for breakfast," John said as he looked over at the rest of his team in the back of the transport truck.

He tried to put a positive spin on the mission, but something about it had felt wrong from the start. Everything had been too easy. Their asset, Naseer, a long-time informant on insurgent troop movements, had been kidnapped two days previous. A day later, they received information Naseer had been seen arriving in a neighboring village.

John had been suspicious as soon as he laid eyes on the man telling them of seeing Naseer as he was led from the back of a truck into the low structure at the edge of the village. But it was the best lead they had. They owed it to Naseer to do whatever they could to find him and rescue him.

"You wanna try that again, Cap," Lieutenant Ritchie said with a grin. "You don't sound so sure."

John glared back. He could try to sugar-coat what they were walking into, but the entire team knew the intel was sketchy at best. "If we know it's a trap, Lieutenant, we can beat it," John told him and checked over his weapon as the truck slowed to a stop at the edge of the village.

They silently dropped off the back of the truck and made their way to the scanty cover of the alley between two houses as the transport truck continued down the road.

"Ritchie, take Dawson and Peters. Perimeter sweep of the house. Make sure no one gets away after we breach."

"Yes, sir," Ritchie replied, all humor gone now that they were in the village.

"Hunter, Vance, and Knowles come with me. We breach, get Naseer, and get to the exfil."

John waited until Ritchie and his team disappeared around the corner of the next house and radioed back they were in position.

"Let's go," John said and led the way across the street to the low house.

They paused at the corner of the house and John glanced back at Vance. "What's it look like?"

Vance looked up from a screen in his hand. "I've got three heat signatures, sir. One in the center of the house. Two more in what looks to be an adjoining room."

"Any movement?"

"No, sir," Vance replied and stuffed the screen back in his pack. "Maybe they're asleep."

John pursed his lips and studied the building. He didn't like it. Something was wrong, he could feel it. There was no wind, no night sounds at all. It was almost as if everything in the village had stopped and was waiting to see what happened next.

"Sir?" Knowles whispered.

John watched the house for a moment longer then nodded and tapped his radio. "Ritchie, looks like they're in the center of the house. We breach in ten."

"Yes, sir," Ritchie replied. "We're ready."

John tapped off the radio and nodded to Knowles and Hunter. "Breach it."

"Yes, sir," they said in unison and crouching low, ran to the door, planted the small explosive charge and scurried for cover.

Five seconds later, the door blew. John led the way through the smoke and inside the house, Vance on his heels.

The first two rooms were empty, and John pointed to the closed door in front of them. Vance nodded and took up position on the other side of the door. John kicked the door in, entered and froze when he saw Naseer, tied to a chair with his hands tied behind his back. From the amount of blood and the way Naseer's body slumped in the chair, John knew he was dead, but checked anyway.

"Sir?" Vance asked with a glance back at the doorway.

John shook his head. "Dead. Probably within the last half hour. Explains why his body heat still registered on the scanner."

"Captain Sheppard!" Hunter yelled from the next room. "We have a problem, sir."

John glanced at Vance and led the way into the other room. He took one look at the other two bodies and the wires running into a barrel in the center of the room.

"Move!" John ordered, and pushed Vance out of the room, Knowles and Hunter right behind him. John tapped his radio as he ran, "Ritchie, fall back. Repeat. Fall back. Explosive device."

John didn't wait for a response, tapped off the radio and followed the rest of his team. He heard the gunfire before he was halfway back to the front of the house.

"Damn it," he growled under his breath.

John stopped at the front door when he heard more gunfire in the street outside. He watched as Knowles and Hunter ducked down and sought cover behind a rusted out car parked in front of the house. Vance stayed inside the doorway, firing at someone on the roof across the street. John hastily pulled him back as the men on the roof returned fire and bullets riddled the doorframe.

His team returned fire and John glanced out the door. He saw three men on the roof across the street, backlit by the rising sun, another two in the next alley. Knowles and Hunter fired at the men on the roof, taking down one of them.

John glanced out the door in time to see the remaining insurgents run toward the other end of the village. It took all of half a second for John to realise why.

"Run!" he yelled and grabbed Vance by the vest to pull him clear of the house.

They were only a few steps away, trapped between the building and the car, when the house exploded.

John felt himself slammed to the ground by the force of the explosion. Heat scorched his back and neck, and he fought to breathe as the air was knocked from his lungs. He lay for several seconds listening to the blood rush through his ears and felt chunks of masonry hit his back and legs, then something hit him in the head and his world went dark.

Hearing was the first thing to return. He heard grunting and panting, nearby along with a voice saying, "Almost to the exfil."

Next, he felt himself swaying and fought to keep his stomach where it belonged, even as his head pounded and most of the rest of his body sent up painful protests at the movement.

He pried his eyes open. When did they close? he wondered, and tried to see where he was. There was a wet bandage stuck to his forehead, and his arms were trapped in someone's grip.

"Stop," he mumbled. When whoever it was carrying him ignored him and kept moving, he forced himself to concentrate and tried again. "Stop!" he said again, slightly louder.

"Sir? Are you back with us now?" a voice asked, and John felt himself eased down until he sat on the ground. He rubbed his head and stared at his bloody fingers for a few moments.

"Captain Sheppard, sir?" the voice asked again.

John looked up, and it took several long seconds for Ritchie's worried face to come into focus.

"Umph," John grunted. "Wha' ha'p'nd?" he asked. \

"House exploded, sir," Ritchie replied. "The four of you were trapped in the debris."

John rubbed his head and looked around. No buildings were nearby.

On the way to the exfil, John realised, and slowly looked around at his team.

Knowles had one arm draped across Peters' shoulders, his face and leg a bloody mess. Hunter stood a few paces away with Dawson, watching their backtrail.

John counted heads and frowned when he came up one short. "Vance?" he asked as Ritchie helped him to his feet.

Ritchie nodded to the body wrapped in a blanket next to Hunter and Dawson. "We did everything we could," he said.

John ducked his head and looked away.

"We'll find him," Ronon said.

John shook himself out of the memory and looked around. He wasn't in the Afghan desert, he reminded himself, this was the SGC. He picked up his fork and poked at the cooling food on his plate, replaying Vance's message in his head. The video was more than a day old. What had happened to McKay since then? he wondered. Was he even still alive?

He remembered Naseer tied to a chair, dead from a slit throat. Was that what Vance had planned for Rodney? When he finally found McKay, would he be tied to a chair with his life's-blood pooling on the floor under him? John closed his eyes and rubbed at the thin scar on his forehead, a permanent reminder of what listening to bad intel had cost him.

"Hey," Ronon said.

John opened his eyes and looked over at him.

"Where do we look next?" Dex asked.

John pushed his half-eaten dinner away and finished his coffee. He twisted the empty cup back and forth on the table between his hands and shook his head. "It's been two days. Vance could have Rodney just about anywhere by now, and it's kind of a big planet."

Ronon wiped his hands on his napkin. "So what do you want to do?"

John pinched the bridge of his nose. "Not much we can do except go to this meeting," John glanced at his watch, "which is in two hours. I'll just have to hope Vance is there with McKay."

Ronon growled low in his throat as he crossed his arms over his chest. "If he is, he's a dead man."

John shook his head and started to say something when Sergeant Harriman walked over to their corner. "Colonel Sheppard, sir," Harriman greeted.

"Sergeant."

"I finally got through to Vance's assistant at the AdVance corporate offices in Denver. According to him, no one has seen or heard from Vance in several days."

"No one thought that was strange?" Ronon asked.

Harriman pursed his lips. "I got the impression Alex Vance is not the type of boss who interacted much with his employees. The assistant, Sam Elder, told me Vance came to him four days ago and abruptly cancelled several important appointments and meetings, then disappeared."

John grimaced. "He found out McKay was coming back to Earth, probably from Bowers."

Harriman nodded. "That's what it looks like, sir."

John nodded and twisted the coffee cup in his hands. When Harriman didn't leave, John glanced up at him. "Was there something else, Sergeant?"

Harriman hesitated for a moment. "Umm, yes, sir," he replied, and held up a plastic case with another disc.

"Is that another message from Vance?" John asked as he gave the disc in Harriman's hand a worried glance. "Why didn't you say so?"

Ronon plucked the disc out of Harriman's hand and gave it to Sheppard.

Harriman shook his head. "Umm, no, sir. Sorry." He clasped his hands behind his back and continued, "That's, umm. That's the message Doctor McKay made for his sister a few months ago."

John turned the case over in his hands and looked up. "Okay, why are you giving it to me?"

Harriman took a step closer to the table and lowered his voice. "We tried to deliver the message to Mrs Miller in Toronto. Unfortunately, no one answered when we went to the house." He nodded at the case. "Corporal Byers told me he returned the disc to Doctor McKay when you were here before."

Harriman paused and glanced over at Ronon, then back to John. "I found it stuffed in a drawer in the suite after you all had left on the Daedalus."

McKay had mentioned to him in passing before the siege about sending a message to Jeannie. John had just assumed she'd received it. To find out she'd refused to even accept it … He flipped the case over in his hand and sighed.

Harriman shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I did some more digging and found out the Miller family had moved to Vancouver soon after Doctor McKay had left for Atlantis. Obviously, Doctor McKay didn't know that, and the only address we had on file for his next of kin at the time was in Toronto."

John glanced down at the case. "Did someone go to Vancouver?"

Harriman nodded, then ducked his head. "I went to see Mrs Miller myself, with the disc. She told me she didn't want anything that came from the Air Force. When I tried to explain it was a message from her brother, she told me that she wasn't interested and asked me, politely but firmly, to leave."

Harriman hesitated a moment, then added, "I didn't think Doctor McKay would want just anyone to see what was in that message. I kept the disc hoping someone from Atlantis would come through the base and I could return it to him." Harriman looked down at the table. "This isn't exactly the scenario I had hoped for."

John set the case on the table. "You watched it?" he asked with a frown.

"Umm, yes, sir," Harriman replied. "Someone had to break the messages up into individual files before they could be delivered to the recipients."

"And someone had to make sure no secrets got out," John said with a knowing look.

"That too, sir," Harriman replied.

John stared at the case for a moment. McKay had already tried to get rid of the disc once. What would Rodney do if he showed up with it? John wondered. Assuming he was even still alive, he reminded himself grimly.

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

"Thank you, sir," Harriman said. He took a step back and glanced at the case. "I guess it does explain why Doctor McKay changed all of his paperwork before he returned to Atlantis a few months ago," he added and left.

John stared after Harriman unsure what to make of the cryptic comment. He flipped the disc over in his hands a few times, then set it aside.

"Messages?" Ronon asked and picked up the case.

John picked up his coffee cup, remembered it was empty, and set it back on the table. "It was just before the Wraith attacked the city. McKay figured out a way to send a message back to Earth, letting them know what was about to happen. We sent back all of the mission reports, science reports, and the like. But there was enough space left over that everyone could send what we thought would be a last message back to family." John tapped the case. "That's the video message McKay made for his sister."

"But she didn't want to see it?"

John sighed. "It's … complicated."

Ronon grunted. "Who did you send a message to?"

John sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "Personally? No one. Anyone I cared about, or who cared about me, was already in Atlantis and knew what was about to happen."

John felt Ronon watching him. He glanced at his watch and stood. "Come on, we need to talk to Landry about borrowing some weapons and a car to get to this meeting."

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

John pulled into the parking lot for the Sundown Motel with ten minutes to spare on their deadline. The building was old and shaped like an L with a railing running along the second story. Faded blue paint peeled from the walls and there were several patches on the roof where the shingles were missing. The few cars parked outside rooms were all clustered at the far end of the building, leaving the shorter side empty except for their Air Force issue sedan.

Just luck, John wondered, or did Vance buy out the entire end of the motel to ensure they had privacy?

For a moment he reconsidered his insistence on not bringing any backup other than Dex. He'd told General Landry he didn't really expect Vance to do anything at the motel. Too many people knew about the meeting for one thing. For another, John suspected Vance wasn't finished toying with him yet. He would not have gone through all the trouble of kidnapping McKay from a secure base, just to hand him back at the first opportunity.

No, this was just the set up for something else. Thinking back to the mission where Scott Vance had died, John had the sneaking suspicion he knew what it was. He just hoped he was wrong.

"Still think this could be a trap," Ronon told him as he gazed out the windscreen of the sedan.

John nodded and opened the car door. "That's why you're staying here. Vance isn't expecting anyone to be with me. You're my backup." He pointed to the balcony running along the second floor of the motel. "Room 215 is on the corner. If I don't come back or send a signal in ten minutes, feel free to come find me."

Ronon nodded and readied the Beretta he held.

John made one last check of the parking lot and the motel's roof before he stepped out of the car and slowly walked across the lot to the stairs leading up to the second floor. He had his Beretta drawn, but held discreetly at his side, he didn't need a guest seeing the weapon, panicking, and calling the police.

The door to room 215 was cracked open, and John tapped on it before he slowly pushed the door open and stepped inside, the Beretta raised and ready. He made a quick check of the dingy room and the equally sketchy bathroom, but both were empty. He went back outside, checked the surrounding area, and signalled for Ronon to join him.

"Well?" Ronon asked a few moments later as he ran up the stairs and met John on the balcony.

John shook his head. "No one's here."

Ronon followed him as he re-entered the room and closed the door. John found a light switch and flipped it on. The room looked as worn as the rest of the building, except for the brand new television and DVD player sitting on a dresser across from the bed. A folder sat next to the television.

John handed Ronon the folder and stared at the television, wondering if it was booby-trapped in some way.

"This is some sort of report," Ronon said as he paged through the folder.

John glanced at the first page, then took the file. "This is my after-action report on that mission I told you about," John said as he scanned through the pages. "An unredacted copy. How the hell did Vance get his hands on this?"

"So you were right. Vance is looking for payback for what happened to his brother."

John closed the file and set it on the edge of the bed. "Looks that way." He looked around the room again then rested a hand on the top of the television. "What do you think the odds are the owners here are in the process of upgrading their rooms?"

Ronon looked at the shabby blankets on the bed, then pulled out the chair from the nearby desk. "Not very high," he said as he sat in the chair. The wood creaked as he leant back.

"Yeah, that's what I thought, too." John found the power buttons for the television and the DVD player and turned them both on.

There was a hiss of static, and the screen rolled a few times before the image stabilised.

"Apologies, Colonel Sheppard," Alex Vance's image said. "I know you were expecting to see me, or my associate at the motel, but this is a much safer form of communication." Vance paused and smiled. "No chance for any … unfortunate accidents this way."

Vance stepped back from the camera, and John noticed the room behind him was different from the room in the last message. Unlike the first room, which had a window, now the only light came from a single fixture in the ceiling. The more he studied the room, the more he realised it looked eerily similar … He glanced at the bed and the file folder with the mission report.

Vance blamed him for Scott's death and was forcing John to relive it, this time with his own family caught in the crosshairs. He sank down on the bed, his arms braced on his knees, and his head bowed.

"Sheppard," Ronon muttered, and nodded at the television.

John suspected he knew what he would see before he even looked at the screen. He swallowed and forced himself to focus. McKay's life depended on him finding Vance quickly. Before … He pushed the report away and stood.

The camera angle had shifted, and John saw Rodney sitting in a wooden chair in the middle of the room. His expression hardened as he took in the bruise on McKay's face and the way he was tied to the chair with his arms behind his back. The memory of finding Naseer flashed in front of his eyes. Would Vance go so far as to kill McKay the same way just to seek vengeance against John?

"You took someone important to me. I have returned the favor."

John sucked in a breath as Vance stepped closer to Rodney.

"Anything you wish to say to the Colonel, Doctor?" Vance asked with mock politeness. "Any … last words?"

Rodney's chin came up as he glared at Vance. John could tell McKay was afraid and that he was trying hard not to show it.

"This will never work," Rodney told Vance with a sneer, though John heard the quaver in his tone. "Assuming Sheppard even got your message, he isn't going to just walk into your little trap. He's too smart for that."

"I think you're wrong, Doctor. Colonel Sheppard is going to do precisely what I tell him to do." Vance nodded to someone off-camera.

Bowers walked into the frame. His back blocked John's view of Rodney, but it was clear what was about to happen when he drew back his arm.

John heard Rodney groan as Bowers hit him. At the same time, he heard a feral growl from Ronon just before Dex slammed a fist into the wall, leaving a gaping hole in the plaster.

Vance waved off Bowers and looked at the camera. "He knows what will happen if he doesn't."

Bowers moved out of the way, giving John a clear view of Rodney. McKay sat hunched in the chair, his body curled forward as much as possible with his arms twisted behind his back, and John assumed Bowers had hit him in the ribs.

John heard McKay panting as Vance stepped toward the camera.

"If you have followed my instructions, Colonel, it should be a little after ten pm," Vance said and held up a folder, the same folder now on the bed next to John. "You know how this mission ended. I lost my brother." Vance pointed to Rodney. "You have until dawn to find him. If you don't, then you lose yours as well."

The screen went blank, and John sat, staring at the dark television screen for several seconds.

"What happened?" Ronon asked, rubbing the knuckles on his right hand.

John slowly stood, removed the disc from the machine, stored the disc back in the case, picked up the file, and headed for the door.

"Sheppard?" Ronon asked as he followed John back to the car. "What happened on that mission?"

John stopped and turned around. "It was a trap. The asset, Naseer, was already dead when we found him." John stared up at the night sky.

Where was Pegasus? he wondered idly, then looked back at Ronon standing behind him with his arms crossed over his chest.

"Naseer was dead, and we found a barrel full of fertilizer and oil wired to explode in the room next door. The building blew up before we could get clear. Three of us were injured, but we made it back to our exfil." John looked down at the file and disc in his hand. "Scott Vance died in the explosion."

Chapter Text

Sheppard stared up at the stars for a few seconds then jerked his head toward the car. "We need to get back to base," he said, his tone a flat monotone. "We need to find Vance, and we don't have much time."

Ronon followed him back to the car, unsure what to say. He was pragmatic enough to know McKay could already be dead, there was no way to know when the video on the disc had been made. He watched Sheppard walk back to the car, his posture stiff and his expression hard.

He knows it too, Ronon realised.

This was a Sheppard he hadn't seen before. The easy smile as gone as was the relaxed attitude that at times made Ronon wonder if Sheppard understood the seriousness of a situation. This Sheppard understood what was at stake all too well. Ronon had no doubt he would do whatever was necessary to find McKay. Rescue him if he was still alive, avenge him if he were dead. Ronon was on board either way.

He was the first to admit he had little tolerance for McKay and his constant prattle. He'd been more than a little skeptical when Sheppard had told him how important McKay was to not only Atlantis, but Sheppard himself. However, over the last few months, McKay had proven time and again he was everything Sheppard and Teyla had claimed. Then there was the fact that McKay was a member of Ronon's team, and that meant something to him again.

He looked over at Sheppard, his expression closed, and his eyes focused on the road as he drove. His grip on the steering wheel tight enough his knuckles were white, and he hadn't said a word since the motel. Ronon was happy to leave him to his thoughts and watched the passing lights out the window.

The glow from the city winked in and out as they drove back to the mountain with the SGC base. It still amazed him the number of people that lived in such a small area. Sateda had had a few large population centers, but nothing on the scale of the city spread out in the valley below.

That Sergeant Harriman had told him almost 400,000 people lived in the city, and a little over two million more lived less than one hundred miles away in a place called Denver. Two and a half million people, all in such close proximity. It was something entirely outside his experience.

No wonder the Wraith were desperate to find this world, he thought as he caught sight of the city again through the trees.

Now he understood why Sheppard and his people were so determined to protect it.

This is what his home-world, and so many others in the Pegasus galaxy, would be like if not for the Wraith, he realised and clenched his hands into fists. One more reason the Wraith needed to be stopped, and he was more than willing to do his part.

He flexed his right hand a few times, noting the scraped skin and swollen knuckle joints, and pondered their more immediate problem. McKay was still missing, and they were no closer to finding him. Where would Sheppard look in an area with so many people and so many places to hide someone?

Ronon glanced over at Sheppard and was surprised when he returned the look.

"We'll find him," Sheppard said before he focused on the road again.

Ronon only nodded and went back to watching the city lights below, contemplating what he would do to Vance and Bowers when he caught up to them.

"Come on," Sheppard said twenty minutes later when they returned to the base. "General Landry is going to want an update."

"What's there to say?" Ronon asked as he followed Sheppard down the tunnel to the security desk. "Vance wasn't there. McKay wasn't there. All we have is another disc." Ronon clenched his hands again at the reminder of what he'd seen in the video.

"You should put some ice on those knuckles," Sheppard said once they were through the security checkpoint and in the elevator.

"It's fine," Ronon grunted and dropped his hands to his sides.

Sheppard studied him for a moment then shook his head. "I have an idea," he said and pushed the button for a different level.

"There's no one here," Ronon said as they entered the empty mess hall. "Not much chance of a meal if that's what you want."

"We're not here for food," Sheppard told him. He wandered into the kitchen area, found a small bag, and filled it with ice. "Here," he said, and handed over the bag.

Ronon took the bag and held it against his swollen knuckles as Sheppard led the way back to the elevator. The elevator doors opened, and Sheppard led the way down to the conference room overlooking the ring where General Landry and Sergeant Harriman were waiting.

"Colonel," General Landry greeted when they walked into the room. "I take it Doctor McKay wasn't with Vance at the motel?"

Sheppard shook his head and dropped the folder and the disc on the table. "Vance wasn't there, either. He left another … message."

Ronon saw the muscles in Sheppard's jaw clench as he finished speaking.

Landry studied Sheppard for a moment, glanced at the ice pack on Ronon's hand, and frowned. "All right, Colonel, let's see it. I need to know what we're dealing with."

Sheppard picked up the disc and put it in the machine. As the video played again, Ronon ignored the screen and watched Sheppard and Landry's reactions.

Sheppard stood stiff, with his hands behind his back. When McKay was punched, Ronon saw Sheppard's hands clench behind his back, and the muscle in his jaw jumped again, but he refused to look away.

General Landry watched the video in stoic silence while Harriman winced when McKay was hit and gave Sheppard a sympathetic look.

When the screen went dark, Landry stopped the video and turned to Sheppard. "I take it you have some sort of plan, Colonel?"

Sheppard nodded. "Vance didn't leave me much choice, sir. Assuming he didn't kill McKay as soon as the video ended, the only thing I can do is find him before this deadline."

Landry sat down at one end of the table. "And how do you expect to do that? Considering the time factor and the fact that the video was waiting for you at the motel, I think we can assume Vance didn't take Doctor McKay out of the state. That still leaves several hundred square miles of territory where he could be hiding."

Sheppard paced back-and-forth along one side of the table. "I know that, sir. But there might be a way. We have all of Vance's information, right? Business and personal?"

Landry glanced at Harriman, standing behind his chair and nodded. "Walter was very thorough."

"I think Vance put this plan together in the months since Atlantis made contact with Earth. There isn't any other way he'd know to take …" Sheppard paused. "A member of my team otherwise. If we go through that data again, focusing on just the last few months, hopefully, we'll find something that will tell us where he's holding McKay."

Landry glanced at the stack of file folders at the other end of the conference room table. "That's still going to be a lot of paper to go through, and you have," he glanced at his watch, "six hours until sunrise."

"There's the mission," Ronon said from where he leant against the wall. "The one where the brother died."

Sheppard snapped his fingers and spun around. "That's right. If Vance is going to make me relive that mission, we know what sort of place he'd need to use to pull it off."

He picked up one of the folders, read the label and set it aside. "He's going to want someplace isolated. Probably someplace that resembles the desert if at all possible." Sheppard opened another file and quickly read the information. He shook his head and set that folder to one side as well.

Harriman stepped around Landry's chair and picked up one of the files. "I'd suggest focusing on the shell companies, sir. Vance is smart, he's not going to want any evidence leading directly back to him."

"Good idea," Sheppard said with a nod as he glanced at another folder.

Ronon wasn't sure what they were really looking for and left the papers to Sheppard and Harriman. He spent the time making back-up plans. Sheppard was focused on finding McKay, someone had to worry about dealing with Vance and Bowers.

Ten minutes later, Harriman looked up from one of the files. "This could be something," he said and handed Sheppard the folder. "Vance bought an old gravel mine two months ago." Harriman pulled out a map from the back of the file. "Most of the surrounding land is federally owned forest, so there's not much out there."

Ronon wasn't sure how someone could own the forest, but he understood the main point. The area was isolated.

Sheppard skimmed the file, then passed it over to Landry. "There are several old buildings scheduled for demolition. If Vance is serious about recreating the mission where his brother died, this is a good spot."

Landry read through the information, then looked up. "I agree, Colonel." Landry closed the file "I'll inform the --"

Sheppard shook his head. "I'm going, sir. McKay is a member of my team, he's my responsibility."

"You know as well as I do, Colonel, the military has no standing to conduct operations on US soil," Landry replied, his tone stern.

"This isn't a military operation, sir. This is me finding a member of my team who has been kidnapped."

"I know you had a bit of a reputation for solo rescue missions when you were overseas," Landry said.

Ronon glanced at Sheppard, wondering what Landry was talking about.

"But we both know you can't go after Doctor McKay by yourself. That's exactly what Vance wants you to do. As much as I know you and Elizabeth value him, I'm not going to risk your life on what's likely to be a suicide mission, Colonel."

"He's not going alone," Ronon said flatly.

"As good as you are, son, that's not going to be enough," Landry replied.

"Sir?" Harriman offered, "I might have an idea."

"I'm all ears, Sergeant," Landry said.

"We could call it a training mission, sir. The area is isolated, and the mine is privately owned. I doubt Mister Vance will really be able to deny we didn't have permission to conduct some basic tactical training on his land."

Landry's eyebrows climbed up his forehead as Harriman spoke. "Are you always this devious, Sergeant? Don't answer that," he continued before Harriman could speak.

Landry studied Sheppard for a moment longer, then nodded. "Walter, it seems Colonel Sheppard has offered to train some of our Marines on search and rescue tactics while he's here on Earth."

Ronon watched as Harriman smiled slightly. "Yes, sir."

"Why don't you see about finding personnel in need of such training and have them meet the Colonel in the ready room."

"Yes, sir," Harriman replied, and started for the door.

"Preferably personnel who served in Afghanistan or Iraq," Sheppard said to Harriman.

"Sir?"

"Bowers did a tour in Iraq, he knows how to make IEDs," Sheppard told him. "I need people with experience finding and disarming any booby-traps he may have set to slow us down."

Harriman nodded. "Yes, sir. I think I know just the men."

Sheppard waited until Harriman was gone, then glanced at the folder they'd brought from the motel. He pushed it toward Landry. "It might be worthwhile to find out how Vance got his hands on that, sir. Bowers might not be his only source of information."

Landry picked up the file, read the first page, and Ronon saw his expression go flat. "I see your point, Colonel. I'll have Walter look into it while you're leading this training mission."

John nodded as Harriman came back in the room.

"A team is waiting for you and Ronon, sir," he said to Sheppard. "I've also alerted Doctor Lam. She is assembling a med team to go with you, and two personnel trucks are waiting at the gate."

"Thank you, Sergeant," Sheppard said.

Ronon fell into step as Sheppard turned toward the door.

"Colonel," Landry said, and Sheppard turned around, "this isn't the Pegasus galaxy. Regardless of what you find out there, we need these men alive."

Ronon growled and started to say something, but Sheppard shook his head. "Understood, sir."

Landry studied Sheppard for a few more seconds, then nodded. "Go," he said and waved towards the door.

Sheppard nodded to Landry, jerked his head to Ronon, and led the way out of the conference room and down to the ready room next to the SGC armoury.

Ronon walked into the room behind Sheppard and found the small space crowded with men seated around a table.

"Colonel Sheppard, sir," a sergeant greeted, and the others in the room quickly stood.

Sheppard waved them back into their seats while Ronon stationed himself to Sheppard's left and leant against the wall. He saw a few of the Marines watching him, clearly wondering who he was and what he had to do with the mission, but he ignored them.

"Sergeant Harriman told all of you why you're here?" Sheppard asked and glanced around the table.

"Yes, sir," the same sergeant replied. Ronon noted the name Yang on his uniform. "An SGC asset was kidnapped. We're tasked with getting him back."

Sheppard nodded. "I assume you all know who this asset is?"

"Doctor McKay, sir," a Corporal Martinez replied.

"Are we sure this is a bad thing?" someone else whispered with a snicker, and Ronon pushed himself off the wall.

"Say that again," he growled in a low voice and took a step toward the table.

"Ronon," Sheppard murmured. "Stand down."

Ronon glared at the Marine until he looked away, then went back to leaning on the wall with his arms crossed over his chest.

"Anyone else have any comments?" Sheppard asked. He waited a moment longer, then continued, "I think our targets are holding McKay here." Sheppard laid the map of the gravel mine on the table. "According to this, there are three buildings on the site. We'll need to clear each one, and we only have a few hours to do it."

"Why the short window, sir?" the other sergeant, O'Donnell, asked.

Sheppard glanced at Ronon, then turned back to the table. "Because the targets intend to kill McKay at sunrise if we don't find him first."

Ronon was pleased to see the hard set of the faces in front of him. Even the Marine who'd made the snide comment about McKay had a serious look on his face at the news he was in danger.

O'Donnell glanced around the room. "Understood, sir."

"We need the suspect targets alive, gentlemen," Sheppard said as he rolled up the map. "No kill shots unless absolutely necessary. Any questions?"

"No, sir," several voices replied, and the others shook their heads.

Sheppard nodded. "Good. Get geared up. We leave in five."

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

John sat in the cab of the transport truck, staring out at the darkness as Corporal Martinez negotiated the winding dirt road. While the gravel mine was less than twenty miles from Cheyenne Mountain as the crow flies, the circuitous path the roads followed through the foothills meant it took them nearly two hours to reach the site. The moon hung low in the sky over the mountains, and he knew they were running out of time.

He glanced down at the map in his hand. "Stop here," he ordered Martinez as they neared a bend in the road. "We'll walk the rest of the way."

Yes, sir," Martinez replied. He slowed the truck and pulled to a stop on the side of the road.

John jumped down from the cab once the truck stopped and walked around to the back. A gust of wind blew through the low pine trees growing near the road, bringing with it the scent of dust and pine pitch. He zipped his jacket a little higher against the cool breeze and listened to the trees creak.

"Sheppard?" Ronon asked as he jumped out of the back of the truck, followed by Sergeant Yang and his team.

"This is as close as we get with the trucks," John replied as the second vehicle pulled to a stop behind the first. "If the map is accurate, the first building is only half a mile up the road."

Sergeant O'Donnell and his team of Marines jumped out of the second truck, followed by the medical team. O'Donnell motioned his men away from the vehicles and took up a position where they could cover the road leading toward the mine. Yang and his team stayed where they were, while the two med techs hovered near the side of the first truck, their gear piled on the ground next to their feet.

Ronon stopped at John's side and looked up at the sky. "Sun will be up soon," he said.

John glanced at the fading stars overhead and nodded. "We're going to be cutting things close, I know." He turned to the Marines waiting next to the trucks. "Winters, you and Martinez hold here with the medical team. I'll radio once the buildings are secure. No one is to leave this area. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," Winters replied, and Martinez nodded.

"Yang, your team comes with Ronon and me."

"Yes, sir," Yang replied, and signalled to his men to fall in behind Sheppard and Dex.

They moved at a steady pace up the road, each team of four Marines moving ahead a hundred feet or so, covering the next group as they moved the next hundred. Fifteen minutes later, John heard a crackle over the radio.

"Building in sight, sir," O'Donnell reported.

"Understood," John replied. "Hold position until I get there."

"Yes, sir."

"Hold here," John said to Yang. "Wait for my signal to approach."

"Yes, sir," Yang replied, and motioned his team into the sparse cover of the nearby trees.

John and Ronon moved ahead, around a slight bend in the road, and found the forward team of Marines waiting.

"Looks deserted, sir," O'Donnell said as John crouched down next to him.

John frowned and studied the area. He had to agree, it didn't look like anyone was in or near the building.

Did Vance not expect him to find the gravel mine? he wondered. Or were they in the wrong place?

No, Sheppard argued with himself. This was the only property Vance owned that made sense.

"Sheppard?" Ronon asked as he stared at the building.

John gave the building and the open area around it one last look, then motioned everyone back around the bend in the road. "Yang, you and your team stay here. Take positions that let you keep an eye on the road. Alert us if you see any movement. The rest of you come with me."

John crept toward the building looking for any of the tell-tale signs of tripwires or other traps. Not seeing anything suspicious, he sidled up to the door and tried the knob. He was surprised to find it wasn't locked, and braced himself against the wall, just in case the door itself was booby-trapped.

Ronon positioned himself on the other side of the door and nodded.

John waited until O'Donnell's team was in position, then pushed the door open. Ronon swung around and led the way inside, taking the left side while John took the right. The four Marines followed behind, each two-man team moving forward down the hall, checking each room as they passed. It didn't take long for them to clear the building.

"Spread out," John ordered. "See what you can find."

John wandered around one of the larger rooms near the front of the building while Ronon watched from the door. "Someone's been living here," he said, and nudged the sleeping bag covering the thin mattress with the toe of his boot.

"Vance?" Ronon asked with a glance at the crude bedding.

John shook his head. "More likely, Bowers. Can't picture a man like Vance sleeping on the floor."

Ronon shrugged and glanced back out the door.

"Colonel Sheppard, sir?" O'Donnell called over the open channel on the radio.

John heard the hesitation in O'Donnell's voice and glanced over at Ronon. "Go ahead."

"I'm in a room at the back of the building, sir. There's something here I think you'll want to see."

"We'll be right there," John replied and tapped off the radio.

"That doesn't sound good," Ronon said as he followed John.

"No, it doesn't," John muttered, and felt a stab of fear in his gut.

John found two Marines standing guard outside another room near the back of the building, walked into the room, and stopped short. The wall opposite the door was covered with pictures, news clippings, and scrawled notes.

"Thought you'd want to know about this, sir," O'Donnell said as John scanned the wall. "I'll take my team and see if we can find any intel in the other rooms."

"Thank you, Sergeant," John said absently as he stepped closer to the wall.

O'Donnell nodded to the other Marine standing near the door, and both of them left.

John studied the wall, a feeling of dread mounting as he realised how much research and effort Vance and Bowers had put into their plan.

There were several pictures of John, everything from his official Air Force ID photo to what looked like yearbook pictures, even a few candid photos from his time overseas. Notes covered several of the photographs, information on when and where they were taken.

He found mission reports from various operations in Afghanistan tacked to the wall along with notes on his court-martial. One sheet even had his flight schedules when he was stationed at McMurdo. There was also a long diatribe blaming Sheppard for what happened to Scott Vance tacked in the center of the photos.

What made John's blood run cold were the pictures of Rodney. As he looked over the assortment of images, John noted some of the photographs were years old. Images of McKay receiving some sort of award, several others were from presentations, Rodney standing behind a podium or in front of an image projected on a screen behind him. There was even a shot of him as a teenager, dressed in a graduation robe festooned with cords, receiving a university diploma.

Copies of his doctoral diplomas and articles cut from science journals of papers he'd written covered another section of the wall. More notes surrounded the pictures of Rodney, his accomplishments, mission notes from Atlantis that Bowers had to have told Vance about, and details about his relationship to John.

John was surprised to find a few pictures of him and Rodney together. Several he recognised as pictures taken in Atlantis. Where had they come from? he wondered as he studied the various images.

Others must have been taken when they were back on Earth after the siege. An enlarged image in the center of the group was clearly from the embarkation room after his promotion. John stared at the picture of himself standing next to Rodney with one arm draped over McKay's shoulders, both of them smiling. He wondered again, who had taken the photo and how Vance managed to get a copy.

"These are pictures of you and McKay," Ronon said as he stopped next to John. "Who are the others?" he asked, and pointed to another section of the wall.

"That's David, my brother," John said as he studied the series of images on the wall.

The pictures, some of David walking down a city street, others of him at one restaurant or another, were obviously taken with a telephoto lens. Some of the images showed David talking to a group of people over a meal, other times he was sipping from a coffee cup as he waited on a street corner. A piece of paper tacked to the wall next to a shot of David and their father noted the lack of contact John had with his blood family, and that David wouldn't be a useful target.

There were also a few pictures of a blonde woman. Once again, it was clear the woman had no idea someone was taking pictures of her. The shots were taken from a distance and showed the woman in a parking lot, carrying a toddler. Another was taken in a park, the woman pushing the little girl on a swing. "That must be Rodney's sister, Jeannie," John said to Ronon. The more he studied the pictures of the woman, the more he saw the family resemblance.

John knew Rodney had regrets when it came to his relationship with Jeannie. He remembered the stories McKay had told him when they were trapped in the freezing jumper about growing up and the eventual fight that led to their current estrangement. He thought about the disc Harriman had given him and had to admit he was a little curious to know what Rodney had tried to tell Jeannie when he thought they were all about to die.

He glanced at the pictures again. Maybe it was just as well she had refused the contact, John thought grimly and made a mental note to not tell McKay about the wall of photos.

"Why would Vance be taking pictures of her?" Ronon asked. "She's not tied to you."

John shrugged. "Maybe Vance thought he could use her in some way. Threaten her to get Rodney to come with him. When he realised that wouldn't work, he had Bowers drug McKay and kidnap him instead."

As John studied the wall, it was easy to see why Vance chose to go after McKay instead of David. From the pictures on the wall, no one would suspect David, or Jeannie for that matter, had any siblings.

John pulled the picture from the embarkation room off the wall and stuffed it down the front of his tac-vest. "McKay isn't here," he said as he stepped away from the wall. "We need to search those other two buildings. The sun is going to be up soon."

John walked back to the front of the building, tapping his radio as he walked. "Regroup on the road," he ordered. "We're moving on to the next two buildings."

John stepped back outside and noted the lightening of the night gloom around the buildings. "We need to pick up the pace," he muttered to Ronon as the Marines fanned out along the road. "We're running out of time."

The last two buildings sat across the gravel road from each other another quarter of a mile down the road. John pointed to the building with a rusted car sitting in front of it. "Yang, you and your team take that one. Ronon and I will take Fraser and Curtis and check the other. O'Donnell, you and Jenkins watch the road. You see anyone heading this way, take cover and let us know."

"Yes, sir," Yang and O'Donnell replied in unison.

"Watch yourselves," John added as Yang's team started to move out. "If Bowers has laid any traps, this is the most likely place for them."

"Roger that, sir," Yang replied.

John waited until Yang's team had breached the building across the road, then crept closer to the building on their side of the road with Ronon, Fraser, and Curtis behind him.

"Something's wrong," Ronon said in a low voice. "It's too quiet."

John gave him an exasperated look, and one of the Marines snickered.

Ronon glared at the Marine. "Problem?"

The Marine regained his bearing and shook his head. "No, sir," he muttered.

For all the humor, John had to agree, something was wrong. The air felt oppressive, not that different from when he was clearing insurgent buildings in Afghanistan. It was that same heavy feeling of knowing something was about to happen, the only question was what and when.

If you know it's a trap, he reminded himself, you can beat it.

"Let's go," he said in a low voice and ran for the door in a low crouch.

John positioned himself to the left of the door and nodded to Ronon who tested the handle, then threw the door open. John waited a beat then dove through the front door and rolled against the nearest wall. Ronon entered the building behind him and braced himself against the opposite wall. Fraser and Curtis followed them.

"Stay here," John ordered Fraser in a low voice.

Fraser and Curtis nodded and stationed themselves just inside the main door of the building.

John slowly crept down the hall, senses alert to any threats with Ronon on his heels. When the corridor split in two different directions, John motioned to check the right hand one, and they turned in the new direction. Halfway down the hall, they found a room with the door standing open. John noted the heavy lock on the door looked new and nodded to Ronon, who stationed himself to one side of the door.

He counted to three using his fingers then rolled around the edge of the doorframe and into the room, Ronon following from the other side. The room was empty, but John felt his back muscles tighten when he saw the chain with a metal shackle at one end attached to a loop embedded in the dirt floor.

He bent down, picked up the cuff, and fingered it for a moment as he glanced around. He noted the open window and frowned when he remembered the short-sleeved shirt McKay had been wearing in the surveillance video as a gust of wind blew through the room.

"This is the room from the first message," Ronon said in a low rumble and pointed to four small divots in the dirt. "These were made by the chair."

John nodded and stood as he looked around the rest of the room. He spotted a couple of empty MRE pouches against the wall under the window and pointed them out to Ronon. "At least they fed him," John said and hoped one of those meals was recent enough that they wouldn't have to worry about hypoglycaemia on top of everything else.

"So where is he now?" Ronon asked as he picked up an empty water bottle.

Before John could answer, he heard gunfire coming from outside. "Damn it," he muttered. "Come on!"

He ran back through the hall to the exit and ducked down in the doorway behind Fraser and Curtis as more shots came from the building across the road. O'Donnell and Jenkins ran in a low crouch across the street and took up positions behind the rusted out car.

"Yang, what's your status?" John called over the radio.

"Single shooter, sir," Yang replied. "We've almost got him cornered."

"Remember, we need him alive, Sergeant."

"Understood, sir."

John turned to the two Marines with him. "You two stay here. Watch for any other targets. Ronon, come with me."

John hurried across the road as another few shots rang out, then silence.

"Yang?" John called as he and Ronon entered the building behind O'Donnell and Jenkins.

"Over here, sir."

John found Yang and his team in a room that fronted the road, another man sat on the floor holding his bloody shoulder.

"It's Bowers, sir," Yang said as John walked across the room.

"Where's --" John started to say.

Ronon stalked into the room, his Beretta pointed at Bowers' head and a look of cold fury on his face. "Give me one reason I shouldn't shoot you right here," he growled as he bent down with the gun in Bowers' face.

"Wow, replaced poor Ford already, have you, sir?" Bowers asked with a sneer as he glared at Ronon.

Ronon pressed his lips together and tightened the grip on the gun in his hand.

"Ronon, back off," John ordered, his voice hard.

Dex ignored him and glowered at Bowers for a few more seconds.

"Ronon!" John said again.

Ronon stared at Bowers for a few more seconds, then straightened and withdrew the gun.

Bowers snorted. "Good boy," he said with a sneer.

"Yang, take Bowers --" John started to say and broke off when Ronon turned around and punched Bowers in the jaw.

Bowers dropped to the floor with a grunt.

"Ronon," John said, the warning clear in his tone.

"You said not to shoot him. Never said anything about hitting him," Ronon said as he holstered the Beretta.

"Feel better?" John asked softly as Dex stepped away from Bowers, who was slowly sitting up, rubbing his jaw.

Jenkins knelt next to Bowers, a set of zip cuffs in his hand.

"No," Ronon replied. "Should have let me shoot him."

John shook his head and turned to Yang. "Sergeant, take him back to the truck. Have one of the medics check that shoulder wound. Ronon and I will finish checking the other building."

"Yes, sir," Yang replied. He and Jenkins jerked Bowers to his feet. "Get moving," he ordered and gave Bowers a shove toward the door.

"You're too late, Sheppard," Bowers said as Yang pushed him out the door into the dawning morning light. "Another few minutes and your little buddy goes boom."

Ronon stepped toward Bowers, but John stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Leave it. We don't have time." He ran back across the road with Ronon on his heels. "Get him out of here," John ordered Yang, then disappeared inside the other building.

They reentered the building, finished searching the rest of the rooms near where McKay had been held and found nothing.

John threw caution to the wind and called out, "Rodney!" and waited. When he didn't get an answer, he yelled again, "McKay! Answer me!"

John felt his fear inch up a notch. They were out of time. If he didn't find Rodney soon, all of them were probably dead.

They backtracked to where the hallway split and started checking the rooms down the other hall. All of them were empty, and as far as John could tell, had been abandoned for some time. They were near the end of the hall when John heard a soft thump and held up a hand.

"What?" Ronon asked, and checked their backtrail.

"I thought I heard something." John held his breath and listened for the thumping sound to repeat. He was about to tell Ronon he'd imagined it when he heard it again; this time there was a muffled groan along with the thump.

"This way," John said. He hurried past two other open doors, giving the rooms no more than a cursory glance, and stopped outside the closed door of a third.

The grunting noise and thumping were louder.

John tried the knob. Finding it unlocked, he nodded to Ronon, and pushed the door open. He darted his head around the edge of the door. He saw Rodney, very much alive, sitting on a chair, facing half-away from the door, his arms tied behind his back and a gag stuffed into his mouth.

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

Rodney glared at Vance as he packed up the camera and tripod. "You're an idiot," he said with a slight wheeze, thanks to the blow to his ribs.

Bowers took a step forward, but Vance waved him off. "I have been accused of many things over the years, Doctor McKay. Stupidity isn't one of them."

Rodney snorted. "Then there really is a first time for everything," Rodney told him and turned to Bowers. "You served with him for a year. Do you really think Sheppard wouldn't do whatever was necessary to keep his team safe?"

Bowers laughed. "Hate to burst your bubble, Doc, but Sheppard was court-martialed after the death of another one of his team members. There's a reason Colonel Sumner was supposed to be in charge of the military operation in Atlantis, and why no one was too eager to bring Sheppard along, even if he did have the ATA gene."

Rodney glared at Bowers even as he remembered the box marked 'court-martial' when he'd had a peek inside John's head while inside the gauntlet. A few weeks after their return from the mainland, he and John had been out on one of the piers drinking beer Markham had brought back from Drellim, and Rodney had carefully asked what had happened.

John had stared out at the water for a few minutes, saying nothing. Rodney had been ready to tell him to forget about it when Sheppard had quietly told him the trial was due to a mission that had gone sideways. At the time, John hadn't said much more, and Rodney had only nodded, drank his beer, and changed the subject to Kavanaugh's latest hobby horse.

Now he tried to hide his surprise at Bowers' news that the trial had been due to the death of one of Sheppard's teammates.

He realised he hadn't done a very good job hiding his emotions when Bowers leant forward. "Didn't know about that, did you?" he said with a sneer, and poked Rodney in the chest. "How's that hero-worship working for you now." Bowers snickered and walked away.

There's more to the story, Rodney told himself. He remembered how John had looked after the loss of Markham and Smith, of the Marines during the siege, after Ford disappeared, and shook his head.

"Still, whatever happened to your brother, it wasn't Sheppard's fault," he told Vance.

Vance dropped the tripod and stalked over to Rodney's side. "You have no idea what happened to my brother."

Rodney jutted out his chin and looked up at Vance. "I don't need to know the details. I know Sheppard. He wouldn't've let your brother die if there had been any way to prevent it."

Rodney saw Vance's hand clench and braced himself for another hit to his ribs.

Vance glared at him a moment longer, then straightened, stepped back, and picked up the camera bag. "I believe it is now you, Doctor, who is letting emotion cloud his judgement." He settled the strap for the bag over his shoulder and nodded to Bowers. "We wouldn't want the good doctor here, causing any trouble for the rest of the evening. David, if you please."

Before Rodney could react, Bowers was behind him, shoving a cloth into his mouth and tying it in place with a piece of rope. Rodney winced as the gag cut into the corners of his mouth.

"Been wanting to do that for a long time," Bowers said with a grin as he stepped back.

Rodney glowered at him, which only made Bowers laugh.

Vance jerked his head towards the door and Bowers followed. "Everything is set?" Vance asked in a low voice, and Rodney strained to hear what they were saying.

Bowers looked at the wall to Rodney's right and nodded. "It's all taken care of, just as you asked, Mister Vance. Timer is set, and it will go off as soon as the sun is up."

Rodney glanced from the huddled conversation to the wall as the meaning of what Bowers was saying sank in; it didn't take a genius to know what Bowers was talking about. There was some sort of explosive in the next room. Vance really meant to kill them. He tugged on the ropes and tried to yell around the gag, but Vance only laughed as he struggled.

"I do believe the good doctor as figured out our plan." Vance stepped forward and grabbed Rodney by the chin. "And Scott's death was entirely Sheppard's fault," he growled in a low voice. "Something I intend to see he pays dearly for."

Vance turned to Bowers. "I need to leave. Sheppard may be clever enough to get to the motel early. Wouldn't want to spoil the surprise." Vance glanced at Rodney. "Stay here. Make sure there aren't any problems tonight. If all goes to plan, we'll both get what we want by morning."

Bowers waited until Vance left, then turned back to Rodney. "Not so cocky, now, are you, Doc?" Bowers sneered as Rodney fought against the ropes binding him to the chair. Bowers picked up the tripod, and with a mock salute in Rodney's direction, he left the room and slammed the door shut behind him.

Rodney spent the next several minutes trying to get his hands free, to no avail. The ropes were tight, and he felt the coarse fibers dig into his skin every time he tried to move his wrists.

Think! he ordered himself. He had to get away. Find a way to warn Sheppard before he walked headlong into Vance's trap. He looked around for something he could use to cut the rope, but other than the chair he sat in, the only other thing in the room was the light fixture overhead, and there was no way he could reach it tied to the chair.

He had no way to track the time as he fought the ropes and his fears. Fear that Sheppard would do precisely what Vance wanted and blindly walk into a trap, getting himself killed. Of course, if that happened, it was likely he'd still be in this room, still tied to a chair, and would die as well. He tugged and jerked at the ropes, wincing as the rope rubbed his wrists raw.

There was also the possibility Sheppard had no idea what was going on. That he was still safely in Atlantis, blissfully unaware of what was happening to Rodney on Earth. He assumed Elizabeth had told John about the enquiry once he was gone. Sheppard may simply think Rodney deserved to be trapped in an endless bureaucratic meeting. Which meant he was more than likely going to be dead in a few hours when whatever bomb Bowers had created went off.

Rodney remembered their last conversation in front of the transporter. He realised there was also the chance Sheppard knew precisely what was going on and had chosen to remain in the Pegasus galaxy. He stopped struggling and tried to breathe around the gag.

"You need to avoid flying in predictable trajectories to prevent the weapon from locking onto us."

"I know what I'm doing," Sheppard retorted, his expression and posture stiff with anger.

Rodney gulped. "I'm just saying, be sure not to fly in a straight line."

"Rodney, shut up!" Sheppard scowled at him, and Rodney lapsed into silence.

Rodney closed his eyes and ducked his head. That had been one of the few times John had lost his temper in the year and a half Rodney had known him. There was a part of his mind that wondered if Sheppard would leave him to fend for himself this time; that the idea of no one left behind didn't apply to him any more. His own sister had no desire to speak to him after their last fight, why would Sheppard be any different?

No, John wouldn't do that, he told himself. What had he said to Bowers and Vance? Sheppard would do whatever he had to do to protect his team. If General Landry had passed along Vance's message, John would come. Which led him back to John walking into a trap. Rodney shook his head and gave another half-hearted pull at the rope binding his hands.

Part of the reason for his negative thinking, he knew, was because he was hungry, the gag left his mouth and throat feeling parched, and he was exhausted. Two days of little sleep and even less food, not to mention Bowers drugging him in the first place, was starting to take its toll.

How long had he been tied to this chair? he wondered. His best guess was that it had been late afternoon when he'd been brought from his cell and Vance had made his last video. So, how late was it now?

He cocked his head and tried to listen for any sounds that would tell him how late it was, but either the walls were too thick, or there was nothing to hear. His arms and hands had long since gone numb from the awkward way Bowers had forced them around the chair and behind his back. Still, he continued to tug and pull against the rope until his shoulders ached with the effort.

Rodney's head drooped until his chin rested against his chest in an attempt to ease the ache in his back and shoulders. His felt his body relax as his eyes closed, and he jerked himself upright.

He needed to get free of the chair, he told himself. He needed to warn Sheppard.

He gave the rope another half-hearted tug even as his eyes drifted shut again.

Maybe he needed to take a break. Just a short one, he promised himself. Then he would be able to find a way to get himself loose.

When the first dull pops invaded his stupor sometime later, it took several long seconds for him to realise the sounds were real and what they meant.

Gunfire! his mind screamed, and he jerked his head up with a groan.

He heard a single gun firing, then answering fire from several weapons. Had Sheppard brought a team from the SGC with him? Rodney wondered as there was more shooting. Or was John the lone shooter and the other weapons belonged to Bowers and Vance, meaning Sheppard was outnumbered?

Either way, it meant someone had found him. What time was it, he wondered. Bowers told Vance the bomb would go off when the sun was up. Did that mean he had hours or minutes left? Regardless, he needed to let whoever was outside know about the bomb before it was too late. He started pulling against the ropes tying his hands as the shooting continued.

Come on, come on, he berated himself, pulling on the rope harder, unaware of the damage he was doing to his numb wrists.

The shooting stopped as suddenly as it started and Rodney froze. What did it mean? he wondered as a jolt of fear stabbed his stomach. Had Bowers managed to get the drop on Sheppard and whoever he'd brought with him? Was Bowers dead? Where was Vance?

The ropes were as tight as ever, and he finally admitted to himself he wasn't going to get himself loose. He glanced behind him at the closed door and wondered if there was a way he could at least get himself out of the room, make it easier for Sheppard to find him. He gave the chair a test hop and grunted when the movement jarred his spine. He ignored the pain and jounced the chair again.

After several more hops, he had himself turned enough that he could see the door. With a target in sight, he bounced the chair faster in an effort to get across the room as quickly as possible.

He was too busy focusing on the door to notice when one of the chair legs sank a bit farther into the dirt floor than the others. He jerked the chair again, letting out a startled shriek through the gag when the chair started to overbalance. He threw his weight in the opposite direction in a desperate attempt to keep himself upright. Eventually, the chair dropped back down on all four legs with a loud thud, and Rodney took a moment to get his breathing and heart rate back under control.

Too close, he chastised himself. You're not going to help anyone, least of all yourself, by tipping over. He took a deep breath and started hopping again, this time checking the position of each of the chair legs before he attempted another hop.

He'd managed to get himself a few feet across the room and had a good rhythm going when the door to the room was flung open, startling him so badly he nearly tipped the chair over again. He stared, wide-eyed at the opening wondering if he was about to be rescued or if Bowers and Vance had returned to finish him off.

Rodney saw Sheppard's head peek around the corner and he let out a huff of relief even as he tried to shout around the gag.

"Rodney!" Sheppard exclaimed as he came into the room followed by Ronon. He scanned the room quickly as he crossed from the door to where Rodney sat in the middle of the room.

"Ronon, watch the door," John ordered as he knelt next to Rodney's chair. "How're you doing?" he asked as he untied the gag.

"Trap," Rodney replied, ignoring the question. Or at least, he tried to reply.

His mouth and throat were so dry nothing came out except a hoarse whisper. He scowled at his inability to speak and pulled on the ropes again, his frustration mounting when he couldn't make himself understood.

"Hey, calm down," Sheppard said, looking at the ropes tying Rodney's feet to the front legs of the chair. "Give me a second, we'll get you out of here."

He stood and looked over Rodney's shoulder at his hands, and Rodney saw him purse his lips into a frown.

"Sheppard," Ronon said from the doorway. "The sun is almost up, we need to move." He left the door and stood beside John.

Rodney gave Ronon a frightened looked then turned back to John. "Bomb," he tried again to explain, his voice still little more than a harsh whisper. "There's a bomb!" He tugged at the ropes again.

"Rodney! Calm down. You're hurting yourself," John told him and grabbed him by the shoulders. "I know there's a bomb, all right."

Rodney looked up at him in confusion, but John ignored him. "See what you can do about his hands," he said to Ronon. "I'll get the ropes around his ankles."

Rodney heard a hiss behind him and tried to turn around. "What?" he asked, his voice still rough. "What's wrong?"

"Hold still," Ronon ordered a pulled a knife from his belt. A few seconds later, Rodney felt a pressure against his hands as Ronon sawed through the rope.

His hands came free a few seconds later, and Rodney groaned as he brought his arms around in front of him. His wrists were a bloody mess from fighting the rope, and it hurt to bend the joints, but he flexed his wrists and fingers as best he could in an effort to get the pins and needles feeling to stop. When he noticed Ronon staring at the scars on his right arm, however, he wrapped his arms around his chest and refused to look at Dex.

Carson had mentioned once that Ronon had asked about the scars after their rescue from the Ancient lab. At the time, Rodney had given Beckett a non-committal grunt and changed the subject. He hadn't wanted to discuss what had happened with Kolya then, and he certainly didn't want to get into it now.

Sheppard cut the last of the rope around his ankles and helped Rodney stand. "Can you walk?" he asked as Rodney took a limping step toward the door.

Rodney nodded and took another step only to groan low in his throat as the feeling returned to his feet, and he stumbled.

"Ronon, give him a hand. I've got point." John shifted his grip on the P-90 and led the way out of the room.

Rodney wasn't assisted so much as propelled by Ronon's grip on his arm and the quick pace Sheppard set. His ankle where the cuff had rubbed throbbed with every step, but he knew they were running out of time.

Had it all been a lie? he wondered. Just something Vance and Bowers had said to scare him? No, John had said he knew there was a bomb. How? a corner of his mind wondered even as the larger part calculated the distance they still had to cover to reach the door and the odds of getting out of the building before it blew up.

"We need to move," Sheppard said, and looked back at Ronon and Rodney.

"Maybe it won't go off," Ronon offered even as he pulled Rodney along at a faster pace.

Rodney shook his head. "Bowers set a timer," he croaked. "He told Vance it was set to go off after the sun came up."

John glanced back at him, and for once, Rodney saw the fear in Sheppard's expression even as he grabbed Rodney's other arm and pulled him the last few meters to the door.

They made it out of the building, Rodney wincing as the sharp gravel dug into his bare feet as they hurried across the road, and he had started to believe they'd made it in time when he felt a pressure in his ears just before the building behind them exploded.

Chapter Text

They were in the middle of the gravel road when the building finally exploded, John a few steps ahead of Ronon and Rodney. He had hoped to get them to the cover of the old car, but he realised a split second before he felt the pressure wave from the explosion that they weren't going to make it.

John had a glimpse of Dex and McKay flung forward by the force of the explosion before he felt himself falling. He tried to protect his head as best he could even as he felt something hit him hard in the back.

When he opened his eyes a few minutes later, he was lying on his stomach. His head and back ached, debris lay all around him, and there was something wrong with his hearing. Everything sounded muffled and distant. He coughed from the dirty, smoky air and groaned as the movement made his head throb.

Explosion, he reminded himself.

He had a vague memory of the failed mission in Afghanistan, the deaths of Naseer and Scott Vance. Looking around, he expected to see the dun-colored hills of Afghanistan. Instead, his still blurry vision settled on the layers of red, yellow, and brown sandstone that marked the Colorado foothills and memory rushed back into place.

Vance. Bowers. McKay kidnapped. Where was Rodney? he wondered. And Ronon?

John pushed himself upright, sat with his legs bent and his arm supporting his weight, and looked around. The building across the road was little more than chunks of cinder block with the wooden support beams splintered and scattered like pick-up-sticks. Smoke rose from the pile of debris, and John thought someone should probably do something about the burning building before the fire spread to the nearby trees.

Ronon and McKay both lay an arm's length away from him. Both were bleeding from several cuts and scrapes, but John let out the breath he was holding when he saw them both start to move. He slowly crawled over and tapped Ronon on the arm.

"Okay?" he asked, frowning at the way his voice echoed in his own head.

Ronon looked at him slightly dazed, shook his head, and pointed to his ear.

"Are. You. Okay?" John asked again, this time louder and taking care to enunciate each word.

Ronon sat up, checked himself over, grimacing as his questing fingers found the bloody cut on his forehead, and nodded as several Marines converged on them.

"Colonel Sheppard, sir. Are you all right?" Sergeant Yang asked as he knelt next to John.

John caught the tone more than the words and nodded. "I'm okay."

Yang didn't look convinced as he gave John an appraising look but moved over to Ronon. He tried to check the cut on Dex's forehead, but Ronon jerked his head away with a glare.

"You're bleeding," Yang tried to explain.

"It's fine," Ronon retorted, and John recognised the glare even if the words were still muffled.

Yang studied him for a moment, then leant back on his heels. "If you say so." He held out an antiseptic wipe, but Ronon ignored him and glanced back at the destroyed building.

John shook his head, took the wipe from Yang, and pushed it into Ronon's hand. "Here," he said, and matched Ronon's glare with one of his own.

Ronon eyed the wipe and the bandage in Yang's hand a moment longer, then relented.

John nodded as Ronon opened the wipe and pressed it to the cut on his forehead.

Another Marine, it took him a moment to come up with Sergeant O'Donnell's name, knelt down next to Rodney, who was still lying on his side on the ground. O'Donnell must have asked McKay a question. John didn't hear it, but Rodney slowly shook his head, shifted his legs, and pushed up with his arms. Ronon leant over, helped him sit up, and kept one hand on Rodney's shoulder when he started to list to one side.

O'Donnell held out a canteen and John frowned when he saw McKay's bloody wrists and shaking hands as he took it and gulped down the water. He handed back the canteen, and John caught a glimpse of the blood running down the side of Rodney's face when McKay turned his head. He could tell from subtle itch at the back of his head and the glazed look in Rodney's eyes he wasn't as coherent as he pretended.

Shock or low blood sugar? John wondered as he patted the pockets of his tac-vest, looking for something he could give Rodney to eat. He found a slightly crushed power bar in one of the pockets and handed it over.

Rodney stared at the bar for a few seconds, then took it with a nod and started fumbling with the wrapper.

"Colonel?" Yang said, and John turned to him. "I radioed Corporal Martinez," Yang reported. "He and Winters are on their way with the trucks and the med team."

John nodded. "Good. What about Bowers?"

Yang glanced at the building that was still standing and made a face. "Secure, sir," he replied, his tone hard. John gave the Sergeant a puzzled look and Yang continued, "He laughed when the building blew up, sir. Said something about just desserts."

John glanced at the remains of the building, then over at Ronon, holding the bloody bandage to his head and McKay nibbling on the power bar. All of this because one man couldn't accept something no one could prevent. The Scott Vance he had known would be horrified and saddened at what had been done in his name.

He felt as much as heard the rumble of the trucks coming up the road and started to stand. They needed to get Bowers to a secure location and Rodney to a doctor, but Yang held him down.

"I think you should wait for the medic, sir," Yang told him. John started to protest, but Yang added, "You're kind of a mess, sir."

John glanced down at himself, noted his torn and bloody uniform, and decided Yang might be right. His head still ached, but his hearing was getting better, he could understand Yang well enough as well as hear the crackle of flames from the burning building. He scooted over far enough so Rodney, shivering in just his shirt sleeves, was sandwiched between him and Ronon and settled back to wait.

"How you doing?" John asked Ronon.

"I'm fine. Cuts, some bruises, nothing to worry about."

John studied Dex for a moment, decided Ronon was mostly telling him the truth, and turned to McKay. "Hey?" he said in a low voice and nudged Rodney who sat with his chin on his chest and his eyes closed. "How about you?"

Rodney opened his eyes and glanced up at John for a moment, then looked away. "Tired. Sore," he replied and pulled his knees up, rested his arms on his knees, and his head on his arms.

John frowned at the reaction, but before he could ask anything else, the trucks came around the bend in the road and stopped. The two medics jumped out of the back and hurried over to their little huddle on the ground, and John pointed one of them at Rodney as the other knelt in front of Ronon.

Unlike Yang, the medic ignored Ronon's protestations with practised ease. He quickly checked him over, probed the cut on his head and replaced the bloody bandage with a clean one, then wrapped a blanket around Ronon's shoulders before moving over to John.

"Sir?" the man asked as he checked John's eyes and ran practised hands over John's arms and legs. "Where does it hurt?"

John glanced over at the medic probing the scrape on Rodney's cheek when he heard McKay hiss in pain.

"Sir?" the medic asked again, and John forced himself to focus.

"Umm, head mostly, and my back."

The medic nodded and scooted around behind John. He felt careful fingers pressing on his back and winced. "You have some bruising, sir, and a few more lacerations. None of them looks too deep. I'll cover the worst of them, and then we can get you all back to base."

John nodded, suddenly feeling very tired. "Yang, take your team and get Bowers loaded in one of the trucks. Take O'Donnell with you." He gave Yang a hard look. "Make sure he gets back to base in one piece. There are questions we need answers to." Like where the hell is Alex Vance, John added to himself. "Once we're back at Cheyenne Mountain, put him in a cell."

"Yes, sir," Yang replied, and signalled to the Marines standing watch to follow him back to the building.

John glanced over at McKay, huddled in a blanket and half-asleep, then over at Ronon, who for all his claims of feeling fine, looked as done in as John felt.

"Come on," he said, and tapped Rodney on the arm. "I think we're all more than ready to get out of here."

Rodney blearily looked up at him but offered no protest when John pulled him to his feet. Ronon took McKay's other arm, and together they trudged over to the waiting transports.

They were near the lead truck when Bowers was led out of the building. "No!" he shouted, and pulled against the grip Yang and O'Donnell had on his arms. "You're supposed to be dead!" Bowers' feet scrabbled in the gravel as he tried to lunge at John.

Yang and O'Donnell jerked him away and shoved Bowers into the back of the other truck. John heard him yelling, followed by some harsh orders from Yang.

When the noise died down, John helped Rodney into the back of the truck, waited until Ronon was aboard as well, then climbed inside and sat on the bench seat between McKay and Dex. The truck jerked and bounced as it turned around, all of them swaying with the motion as they headed back down the dirt road, back to the SGC.

John ignored the motion of the truck, leant back, and felt himself start to doze. He was almost asleep when he felt something heavy pressing against his side. He opened his eyes long enough to see McKay, still huddled in the blanket, sleeping with his head resting against John's arm.

"We could lie him down on the floor," one of the medics offered in a low voice.

John shook his head and glanced at Ronon on his other side, watching them. If asked, he would deny it with every fiber of his being, but at the moment, he needed that tangible proof that they were all safe. That Vance had lost.

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

"You were lucky," Doctor Lam told John as she checked his back. "All of you were."

John nodded and glanced at the other two beds. Ronon sat on the edge of one bed as another doctor wrapped his arm. Rodney lay in the bed beside him, dead to the world.

Lam came around in front of him. "You have some deep bruising on your back. However, the lacerations are all superficial. I'll have one of the nurses clean them out and cover them, then you need to get some rest, Colonel." She gave him a hard look. "I know you haven't had much sleep the last few days."

Once he'd been reassured Ronon and McKay were going to be fine as well, John had tried to sleep, but the cuts and bruises prevented him from finding a comfortable position. He hadn't done more than doze in the hours since their return, and he felt tired on top of all the aches.

It was late afternoon, and John sat up in bed, picking at the food, a sandwich and some sort of soup, on the tray in front of him when Sergeant Yang entered the infirmary.

"Still no sign of Vance anywhere, sir," Yang told him with a glance at McKay. "We went back to the mine once Bowers was secured in a cell, but Vance wasn't there, and we didn't find any intel on where he could be going."

John nodded. "What about the office in Denver?"

Yang shook his head. "The FBI raided the building a few hours ago. General Landry is trying to get more information on what they found, sir."

John rubbed a hand over his forehead, in frustration as much as to ease the ache. "Thank you, Sergeant," he said.

"Yes, sir," Yang replied and saluted. "If I find out anything else, I'll let you know."

John waited until Yang left, then went back to the cooling soup and bland sandwich. He ate a few more bites, pushed the tray away, and looked over at the bed across from his. "You're supposed to be resting," he said to Ronon who sat on the edge of his bed.

"Could say the same to you," Ronon replied as he turned to face John.

John saw him try to hide how much it hurt when he moved and shook his head.

"I'm fine," Ronon told him. "I just want to get out of here."

In a way, John could sympathise. While the infirmary wasn't one of his favorite places either, he knew the open area, not to mention all of the strange people nearby, made Dex nervous. He took in the bandage on Ronon's forehead, the other bandages wrapped around his arm and wondered what the scrub top was hiding.

"How bad?" he asked with a nod at the bandage on Ronon's arm.

Ronon glared at him for a moment then said, "Cuts and bruises," he replied, "Something called road rash on my arm and side." He held up his bandaged arm. "Nothing serious. Like I said, I'm fine."

John knew how much road rash could hurt and winced in sympathy. "Have you had any sleep at all since we got back?"

Ronon shrugged. "About as much as you." He nodded at the bed beside John. "I don't think he's moved since we got here."

John looked over at the bed next to his where Rodney lay asleep, two separate bags of fluid running into the IV taped to his left arm. His wrists were wrapped, and John was relieved when he didn't see any blood spotting the clean, white bandages. The cut on Rodney's temple was covered with another bandage, and the bruise on his cheek was a dull purple.

The door to the infirmary opened, and John looked up in surprise when General Landry entered and headed over to their corner.

"General," John said in a low voice so as not to wake up McKay.

"Colonel," Landry replied with a nod, and glanced from Rodney to Dex. "I understand all three of you will make a full recovery."

John nodded. "Mostly cuts and bruises from the explosion," he replied as Ronon stood and walked over to the end of John's bed. John frowned when he noticed Dex limping, but held his tongue for the moment.

Landry quirked an eyebrow at McKay asleep in the bed next to John's.

"Doctor Lam says he'll be fine," John said in reply to Landry's look. "He was dehydrated, and his wrists were rubbed raw by the rope, but that was the worst of it."

"General Landry," Doctor Lam said as she walked over to their corner wearing a frown. "Are you disturbing my patients?" she asked as she pushed past Landry and stopped next to Rodney's bed.

Landry took a step back and crossed his arms over his chest. "Not at all, Doctor."

Lam made a non-committal noise and took a small device out of her pocket.

John saw the slight crease in Rodney's forehead when she pricked one of his fingers, but he didn't wake up. Lam inserted the tape with the blood sample into a machine and nodded before she removed one of the bags of fluid and set it aside.

"How is he doing?" John asked.

Lam turned to him, and with a glance at Ronon and Landry said, "His sugar numbers are back to normal. Sleep is the best thing for him right now." She gave Landry another look as she walked past the General and stood next to Ronon at the end of John's bed. "You and Mister Dex are free to go, Colonel." She glanced up at Ronon. "I'll have one of the orderlies find you both something to wear."

John nodded and pushed back the blanket on the bed. "What about McKay?"

Lam looked over at the other bed. "I want to keep him a few more hours to let the saline finish and make sure there isn't any infection from the lacerations on his wrists or his ankle. Assuming there aren't any complications, I'll release him tomorrow morning."

"Good to hear," Landry said.

Lam gave Landry one last hard look, then turned on her heel and left.

John wasn't sure what was going on between Lam and Landry, but one look at the General's face was enough to tell him not to ask.

"Meet me in the conference room once you've changed, Colonel," Landry said as he turned toward the door. "We need to discuss what to do with Mister Bowers."

A few minutes later, an orderly returned with a fresh uniform for him and a set of nondescript fatigues for Ronon. John changed and sat on the edge of his bed, tying his boots, watching Rodney sleep.

He was a little surprised the conversation with Landry and Lam hadn't woken McKay up and told himself he needed the rest. Rodney wasn't hooked up to any monitors and John took that as a sign he really was mostly all right after spending the better part of three days with Bowers and Vance.

"Ready?" Ronon asked, and stopped at the end of Rodney's bed.

John nodded and stood. "Let's go find out what Bowers can tell us about Alex Vance."

John walked into the conference room a few minutes later and found Mister Woolsey, seated next to General Landry, writing on a pad of paper next to him. He did his best to ignore the haughty look from Woolsey and focused on Landry. "Sir," John greeted with a nod. "You mentioned something about questioning Bowers? I want to be there."

"I rather thought you might, Colonel," Landry replied.

Woolsey looked from John to Landry and shook his head. "I'm not sure that's the best course of action, General."

"Excuse me?" John asked with a glare.

"Besides the obvious conflict of interest considering your relationship to Doctor McKay," Woolsey informed him stiffly, "do you have any idea how many laws you and Mister Dex here broke using military resources to effect Doctor McKay's release instead of alerting local law enforcement?"

Ronon took a step toward Woolsey and John used his own body to block him from getting any closer. "If I hadn't used those resources, Mister Woolsey, Doctor McKay would be dead right now," John replied.

"You can't know that, Colonel," Woolsey told him. "If you had alerted the FBI to Alex Vance's plan as soon as you returned from the meeting at the motel, it's possible they would have found that gravel mine and rescued Doctor McKay before Mister Bowers set off his bomb. As it is, your actions have seriously compromised any case we plan to bring against Mister Bowers for his role in this unfortunate incident."

"Unfortunate --" John started to say, but Woolsey spoke over him.

"Charges that include espionage, several counts of attempted murder, and a first-degree murder charge for the death of Corporal Donaldson. All of that, in addition to the kidnapping charge, are now in jeopardy." Woolsey picked up his pen and started writing on the pad of paper in front of him.

John stared at Woolsey for several seconds, unsure if he had heard the man correctly. He crossed his arms over his chest and kept tight control of his temper. "With all due respect, Mister Woolsey," he replied, "there was no way I was going to leave McKay's life in the hands of the local police or an overworked SAC at the FBI field office in Denver."

Woolsey looked up from the pad with a frown. "So instead, there is a very real possibility that Mister Bowers will walk free as a result of your actions," he retorted. "Tell me, Colonel, exactly where were your priorities during this case?"

John felt his control slipping in the face of Woolsey's pompous disregard for Rodney's life. He started to make a sarcastic reply when General Landry held up a hand.

"I think we can all agree, finding and rescuing Doctor McKay was the priority," Landry said to Woolsey. "Considering what we knew about Alex Vance and his plans for the doctor, not to mention, Colonel Sheppard, it was imperative he be found with the least loss of time."

Woolsey sat back in his chair. "For Doctor McKay's sake, I hope the Justice Department sees things the same way."

John frowned at the implied threat. He again tried to say something, but Landry stopped him with a glare and a raised finger. He clenched his hands behind his back and stared at the wall behind Landry's head.

Landry waited a moment longer, then said, "The FBI didn't find anything at Vance's office or his home. His wife hasn't seen him in days. She thought he was visiting one of the offices out-of-state. Had no idea what he'd been up to." Landry glanced at John and added, "According to my source at the Bureau, they're at a standstill as to where to look for him."

John bent forward and rested his hands on the table. "Which means our only lead is Bowers. We need to talk to him. Now."

Woolsey started to say something, but Landry cut him off. "Colonel Sheppard has a point. We need to question Bowers and find out what he knows about Vance's current whereabouts."

Woolsey glanced from Landry to John, then set his pen down and pursed his lips. "Only if he agrees to waive his rights, General," he said. "This case has already been compromised enough as it is, let's not compound the issue further."

"That won't be a problem," Landry replied. "Walter asked Bowers when he was brought in if he wanted to speak to a JAG officer, no civilian attorney has the proper clearance." Landry passed over a sheet of paper. "Bowers declined. Said he had nothing to hide."

Woolsey read the paper and set it aside with a nod. "Very well. I see no reason why we can't question him. I still believe Colonel Sheppard is too close to this matter to be objective. However," he added as John opened his mouth to object, "Mister Bowers did serve under the Colonel for more than a year, he may be able to offer insight into Mister Bower's veracity. He could be useful," Woolsey looked up at John, "in an advisory capacity."

"If you plan to question him yourself, that won't work. He won't talk to you," John said dismissively.

Woolsey sat straight in his chair. "I am an attorney with nearly twenty years of experience dealing with recalcitrant defendants, Colonel. I think I can get him to talk."

John shook his head and appealed to Landry. "Trust me, sir. If you want Bowers to talk, I need to be the one to question him."

"Why you, Colonel?" Landry asked, cutting off Woolsey's protest. "Mister Woolsey does have experience in these matters."

John stood up straight. "Vance is on the run, sir. We need to find him. Sooner rather than later. Bowers is a coward at heart. Trust me, sir, I'll get him to talk."

"Yes, I'm sure you will," Woolsey muttered under his breath.

John ignored him and continued. "I won't do anything to compromise a criminal case, sir. I want Bowers to pay for what he did as much as you do." John took a step forward. "But we both know Vance is the one behind all of this. He's the," John glanced at Woolsey, "priority."

Landry studied his face for a moment then nodded. "All right, Colonel. I'll have Bowers moved to an interrogation room."

"General," Woolsey started to object. "The IOA --"

"Mister Woolsey and I will be watching from the observation room, Colonel," Landry continued. "Anything out of bounds and I won't hesitate to have you removed. Is that understood?"

Yes, sir," John replied, and stepped back.

"Mister Woolsey?"

Woolsey pursed his lips. "This is highly irregular, General." He glanced from Landry to John and back again. "However, it appears I have little choice but to agree."

"Good. Glad everyone is on the same page," Landry said and stood.

John and Ronon followed the General and Woolsey back to the elevator and up to the interrogation rooms on level sixteen. Two Marines stood guard at each end of the hallway and Landry led the way to a door halfway down the corridor.

Landry stopped John outside the interrogation room, his expression firm. "Remember, Colonel, nothing that's going to upset Mister Woolsey or the IOA."

John glanced at Woolsey, standing just inside the door to the next room. "Trust me, General."

Landry studied him for a moment, then turned around and ushered Woolsey into the adjoining room.

"Everything will be fine, Mister Woolsey," John heard Landry say as he followed Woolsey into the observation room.

John waited until the door was closed, then turned to Ronon. "Whatever happens, do not engage with Bowers. We need to play this right, or he'll clam up and we'll never get the information we need."

"A knife would be faster," Ronon told him, his hand wavering near the knife on his belt.

John shook his head. "We do this my way. Got it?" He waited for Ronon to nod, then took a deep breath. "Let's go."

Bowers looked up with a scowl when John opened the door, his hands resting on the table in front of him were cuffed and attached to a ring set in the table. John pursed his lips when he heard the handcuffs rattle against the ring and tried not to think about the cuff and chain he'd found out at the mine.

Ronon leant against the large mirror attached to the back wall while John sat across the table from Bowers. He rested his arms on the table, mirroring Bowers posture, and didn't say a word. It was a trick he'd seen used to great effect more than once, and this time was no different.

Bowers tried to maintain his air of superiority in the face of John's calm façade, but it didn't take long for him to drop his eyes and nervously shift in his chair.

John let the silence stretch for another few seconds, then said, "Where's Vance?" He made certain his tone was calm and devoid of emotion.

Bowers snorted and ignored the question as he stared at his reflection in the mirror.

John took the response in stride. He knew it wasn't going to be easy getting Bowers to talk. He studied Bowers for a moment, noted the sweat beading on his forehead, and tried a different tact. "Vance's motive, I can understand. His brother died in action, and he can't accept it. Why you, though? What did Vance promise you?"

Bowers glowered and said nothing.

John turned to Ronon, standing behind him with his arms crossed over his chest. "I don't think he wants to talk to us."

Ronon smiled. "I can get him to talk," he replied, and fingered the knife at his belt.

John imagined the look on Woolsey's face at that moment and had to hide his smile. "I don't think that will be necessary," John replied to Dex. He turned back around to face Bowers. "But we'll hold onto that as Plan B."

John waited a moment, more to see if Woolsey burst through the door than to have any further effect on Bowers. "This is your last chance to help yourself," John said after a few moments.

"What is this, your version of good cop, bad cop?" Bowers asked with a sneer.

John worked to keep the satisfied smirk off of his face. The first reaction was always the most difficult. He had Bowers talking, now the trick was to keep him talking long enough to get the information they needed.

He clasped his hands on the table in front of him and replied. "You shared highly classified information with a civilian. You murdered a Marine, and tried to kill several more with a bomb planted in that building." John leant forward. "And you kidnapped a member of my team. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't walk out that door and let Ronon here have his turn with you?"

Bowers' head had jerked up at the mention of Donaldson's murder. "I didn't kill anyone," he replied. "I swear. That was Vance."

John sat back in his chair. "Well, that's convenient. Blame the guy who's not here to defend himself."

Bowers shook his head. "I swear it wasn't me. When we got out to the mine with McKay, Vance said he needed to go back into town and set things up with the motel. We pulled McKay out of the trunk of Vance's car, and he left. He was gone for hours."

Doctor Lam had confirmed John's suspicion that Rodney had been drugged when Bowers had kidnapped him from the base. Hearing he'd been in the trunk of a car for the hours-long drive to the mine, all John could think was at least Rodney had been unconscious at the time and unaware of how trapped he'd been.

"I hauled McKay inside and left him chained to the floor. Then I went out to the other building and waited for Vance to come back. I didn't even know Donaldson was dead until that Air Force sergeant told me this morning."

John studied him for a moment. "So tell me where Vance is, and we'll only have to charge you as an accessory."

Bowers sat back in his chair and shook his head.

John leant forward and rested his arms on the table. "Why are you even a part of Vance's plan? What were you supposed to get if things had gone your way?"

John watched as Bowers' expression changed from indifference to anger. "I would get revenge, just like Vance. You ruined my career, Colonel." Bowers sneered as he said the rank. "I should have had my choice of any top assignment in the Marine Corps after a stint like Atlantis. Instead, my promotion was denied and I was sent to the Mojave Desert. I knew then I'd never see sergeant if I stayed in the Marines. My tour was up. I cut bait and got out."

Bowers tapped a finger on the table. "That's when I went to work at Mister Vance's corporate office. Since I was his main security consultant, we met a few times a week to talk about his security setup. When he found out I was a former Marine and that I'd served with you, Vance started asking questions."

"And you just gave up classified information?" John asked in disgust.

Bowers turned his head and stared at the corner of the room. He chewed his lip for a moment, then said, "Not at first," he admitted. "I kept things vague. Talked about missions, but made it sound like the operations were in the Middle East. That's when he told me about what happened to his brother and that he would never forgive you for getting him killed. He wanted you to know what it felt like to lose a brother, someone you cared about. After you torpedoed my career, I was happy to help him."

John forced down the anger roiling in his stomach. "So you told him about Atlantis and McKay."

Bowers shrugged. "Vance already had information on you and your brother. He figured out on his own that you didn't have much contact with anyone here on Earth, certainly not your family. I just gave him a better option."

John saw the expression on Bowers' face change from defensive to contemplative.

Bowers sat forward in his chair and clasped his hands on the table in front of him. "Now that I think about it, though, maybe you should be thanking me, Colonel."

"Really?" John replied sarcastically. "I should be thanking you for kidnapping a member of my team and nearly getting him killed."

"Vance wanted to just kill McKay," Bowers explained. "Slit his throat after we finished that second video, and leave his body for you to find. I was the one who suggested using a bomb instead."

Bowers looked up at Ronon at the same time John heard Dex move a step closer to the table.

John glanced up at Ronon and shook his head. Ronon glared at Bowers a moment longer, crossed his arms over his chest, and stayed where he was.

John waited a moment, then turned back to Bowers. "Go on," he said, his eyes hard.

Bowers gave Dex a wary look. "Vance showed me the unredacted report on the op that killed his brother," he explained. "I told him I could build a bomb just like the one in the report. We'd let you find McKay still alive, I told him. Let you think you'd beat us, and then BAM!" Bowers slapped his hand down on the table. "You would get so close to saving him, and then die knowing everything was your fault."

Bowers sat back with a smirk. "Vance loved the idea."

John heard Ronon pacing behind him, but refused to let it distract him.

Bowers leant forward. "So you see, if I hadn't talked Vance into using my plan, McKay would have been dead for hours by the time you finally managed to get to that mine. He would have bled out just like poor Naseer."

John bit down on the anger and residual fear welling up in his chest. He'd been right. Vance had planned to kill Rodney. He forced himself to stay calm and replied, "Instead, McKay is fine, I'm fine, and you're left holding the bag. So why don't you help yourself out and tell me where Vance is."

"You haven't told me what I get if I help you, Colonel," Bowers told him. "What are you willing to offer in exchange?"

"That's not how this works," John told him. "You're already on record admitting to kidnapping and attempted murder. What I'm offering you is the chance to mitigate whatever jail sentence you end up getting for your role in all of this."

Bowers jerked the handcuffs and stared at his reflection in the mirror. "Not good enough."

"All right," John said in mock resignation, and started to stand. "I guess it's Plan B after all."

"Good," Ronon said as he reached for his knife.

Bowers gave John a startled look as Ronon stepped forward, a feral smile on his face. "You wouldn't dare," Bowers said, but John could see the fear in his eyes.

John leant over the table until he was mere inches away from Bowers. "Try me," he replied in a low growl.

Bowers swallowed and looked away. "I don't know, all right!" Bowers shouted. "He never came back after taking the last recording down to the motel."

John glanced at Ronon, motioned him back, and sat down in his chair. Bowers had been their one chance to find Vance quickly. If what he said was true, Vance had had almost a full day to escape.

He could be anywhere, John realised.

There was a quick tap on the door before it opened and Landry said, "Colonel? A word."

John stood and left the room with Ronon on his heels. Landry led him into the adjoining room where Wolsey sat writing furiously on a pad of paper.

"Do you believe him?" Landry asked with a nod at the window into the other room.

John rubbed the stubble on his chin and nodded. "Vance is smart. It wouldn't surprise me if this was his plan all along. He didn't agree to Bowers' idea of using a bomb because he thought it would somehow hurt me more. Vance did it to set up Bowers to take the fall."

John watched through the window as Bowers lowered his head to the table. "And I think he just figured that out."

"I'll get Walter --" Landry started to say.

"No, General," Woolsey interrupted and stood. "The military involvement in this case has gone on long enough. You have Doctor McKay back, which was your claimed objective. Now it's time to let the true authorities take over."

Woolsey glanced at the window. "The IOA will take charge of Mister Bowers. He will be charged with kidnapping, espionage, attempted murder for setting up the bomb, and accessory to murder for the death of Corporal Donaldson. We will also continue to work with the FBI to locate Alex Vance. Once we have him in custody, I assure you, both men will be serving long prison sentences."

"Should have just let me shoot him," Ronon said in a low rumble.

"Mister Woolsey has a point, Colonel," Landry said, ignoring Ronon's comment even as Woolsey looked indignant. "I think we've done everything we can here. Why don't you go see about your man while Walter and I deal with the paperwork to turn Mister Bowers over to the IOA."

John pursed his lips, then nodded. McKay was back, safe and mostly sound. Once the Daedalus arrived, they would head back to Atlantis where neither Bowers nor Vance could do anything to him.

As if reading his mind, Woolsey picked up the leather folio and his pen, and said, "Once Doctor McKay is released from the infirmary, we will reconvene the enquiry into what happened on Doranda. No sense in further delaying the committee's questions."

"You can't be serious," John objected.

Woolsey looked up in surprise. "I'm perfectly serious, Colonel. There are still several questions we need answered. Not the least of which is whether or not Doctor McKay should remain in charge of the science teams in Atlantis."

John stared at Woolsey as he gathered up his papers and left the room with General Landry beside him. He'd expected a reprimand, maybe additional checks and paperwork before any dangerous experiments were started. The idea Rodney would be pulled from the expedition entirely had never been more than a remote possibility at best.

What the hell did you say to them, McKay? John wondered.

"They can't do that, can they?" Ronon asked. "Keep McKay here?"

"Yeah, I think they can," John replied. He stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets and led the way back to the elevator. "I'm going back to the infirmary to check on Rodney. You coming?"

Ronon shook his head as he fell into step next to John. "Had enough of that place. Going to find something to eat."

"I guess I can understand that," John replied, and pushed the call button for the elevator.

"I'll see if McKay is awake yet, and then meet you in the mess hall," John said a few moments later as the elevator door opened on level twenty-one and he stepped out.

"Take your time," Ronon replied as the doors closed.

John entered the infirmary and was happy to see Rodney awake and eating from a tray on the roll away table in front of him.

He looked up from his dinner as John walked over, and Sheppard didn't miss the uncertainty in McKay's expression before he ducked his head and went back to eating.

John ignored the nervous reaction and sat down in the chair next to the bed. "How're you feeling?"

"Oh, umm, fine," Rodney told him, never making eye contact. "Some rope burns and a little dehydrated is all." Rodney gave John a sideways glance. "Doctor Lam said she'd release me in the morning."

"Well, that's good news," John replied with a smile.

"Mmm," Rodney replied, still not looking at John.

John wanted to ask what had happened in the meeting with Woolsey, but one look at the tired slump of Rodney's shoulders told him now was not the time. He pursed his lips and watched as Rodney toyed with the food on the tray. "What's the problem?" he finally asked.

Rodney looked up in surprise. "Nothing," he replied a little too quickly. "The doctor says I'm fine. Everything's, umm, fine." He went back to poking at the mashed potatoes on his tray.

"You're a terrible liar, you know that?" John said. "What's wrong?"

Rodney pushed the table away and crossed his arms over his chest, careful of the IV still in his arm. "I just …" He glanced over at John, then looked away. "I wasn't sure if you'd come," he muttered as he focused on the wall across the room. "And considering what Vance had planned for you, I wasn't sure I wanted you to come."

"Rodney …"

"I'd already almost got you blown up once," Rodney told him, focusing on John for the first time since he'd entered the room. "I didn't want to be the reason again." He looked away again, rubbing the bandage on one of his wrists.

John sat back in the chair. "You really didn't think I'd come find you?"

Rodney shrugged and gave John a sideways look. "Honestly? After what you said before I left Atlantis … no."

John frowned. "What's the first rule?"

"After …" Rodney waved a hand in the air. "I really didn't think it applied any more," he muttered.

"Rodney …" John paused and scrubbed a hand over his face. "I was mad. If I'm honest, I still am. What happened on Doranda …" John shook his head. "That doesn't matter. The point is, I may be mad at you, but that doesn't mean I'm going to abandon you."

"That hasn't been my experience in the past," Rodney admitted softly and picked at the tape holding the IV in place.

"Rodney --" John started to say, and stopped when he saw the defeated look on McKay's face.

"It sounds to me like the pair of you need to sit down and actually talk to each other. And maybe listen without jumping to conclusions."

Oh, hell, John thought to himself as he remembered a similar conversation with Carson months ago. It's Chaya all over again.

John leant forward with his arms braced on his knees. "Why am I mad at you?" he asked softly.

Rodney gave him a puzzled look. "What?"

"It's a simple question. Why do you think I'm so angry with you?"

Rodney stared at him. "Because I screwed up. I lost us the power source, not to mention a powerful weapon, and I blew up a solar system in the process."

John shook his head as his suspicion was confirmed. "That's not it."

"What do you mean, that's not it?" Rodney asked, the defeated look disappearing as his temper flared. "I-I wasn't smart enough to find the answer, and we lost the Ancient weapon as a result."

John sat back in the chair and studied Rodney as he sat in the bed, a mix of confusion and frustration coloring his expression.

It hit him, then, that Rodney really didn't see it. He really thought everything boiled down to the lost technology. How was he supposed to overcome a lifetime of people telling McKay he was only as valuable as his next discovery so he could see the real reason for John's anger?

"You do know you almost got me killed, don't you?" John asked carefully.

Rodney's bluster vanished in a heartbeat as he refused to meet John's eye and went back to picking at the tape holding the IV in place.

John leant forward and stilled McKay's fidgeting fingers. "More than that, you almost got yourself killed," he said softly.

Rodney glanced over at him with a frown.

"That's why I'm mad. Not because of some lost Ancient weapon, but because you were so focused on solving the puzzle, you didn't stop to think about what could happen to us." John stood from the chair and stuffed his hands in his pockets. "You scared the hell out of me, did you know that?"

"I'm sorry --" Rodney started to say, but John held up a hand.

"No," John retorted. "Just listen for once." He waited for Rodney to press his lips together and nod. "Elizabeth warned me, but I didn't listen. I figured I knew you better than she did, and I could keep everything under control. Protect you from yourself, as she put it."

He waited for Rodney to look at him. "But you were completely out of control." John took his hands out of his pockets and braced them on the rail at the foot of Rodney's bed. "You wouldn't listen to Radek or Elizabeth," he said, his voice getting louder the more he spoke. "You certainly weren't going to listen to me. And you nearly got us both killed as a result."

John saw one of the nurses staring in their direction and worked to get his temper back under control before she came over and kicked him out. He let go of the railing and stepped to the side of the bed.

"I want you to understand something," John said, his voice low and serious. "There is nothing, no weapon, or piece of technology, or puzzle that's worth your life. Do you get that? I don't care if it's a choice between you and finding some magic bullet that will stop the Wraith once and for all. If it means you have to die, it's not worth the price."

He watched the emotions race across McKay's face. Contrition gave way to confusion then disbelief before he saw a glimmer of acceptance at what John was telling him. "I-I don't --"

John held out his hand. "No. Don't try to say anything or explain. Just promise me we aren't going to have to have this conversation again."

"I, umm, promise," Rodney replied and shook John's hand.

"Good," John said with a nod and a smile. "That's settled then."

John sat back in his chair, and Rodney pulled the tray with his dinner closer. He picked up a newspaper someone had left on the next table and glanced over the headlines as Rodney finished eating.

"Umm," Rodney muttered a few minutes later. "You wouldn't …" He stopped and John watched as he poked at the mashed potatoes on the tray.

"What?"

"You wouldn't know anything about picking locks, would you?" Rodney asked.

John gave him a puzzled look. "I might. Why?"

Rodney shrugged and scooped up the last forkful of mashed potatoes. "Just wondered."

John saw McKay's foot twitch under the blanket and frowned.

"It might be a useful skill to have, that's all," he finished with another glance at John.

"Useful skill, huh?" John set the paper down and stood. "Get some sleep. We'll talk about teaching you to basics of larceny once you're out of here."

Chapter Text

John twisted around, trying to see the extent of the bruising on his back in the bathroom mirror. His muscles ached after a night's rest, but the headache was gone. He didn't feel much of a reaction through the link either, so it appeared Lam was right, all McKay needed was a decent meal and a good night's rest.

He thought back on the conversation with Rodney the night before as he changed into a set of sweats Harriman had found for him. McKay had listened, which had surprised John a little, but he still couldn't shake the feeling of betrayal for McKay's reckless attitude.

"A long run might help with that too," he muttered to himself as he turned toward the door.

John walked out of his bedroom in time to see Ronon about to leave the suite. The way Dex moved, almost as if he were trying to sneak out of the room, reminded John of the way Ronon and Teyla had acted after their return from Belkan. He had planned to talk to both of them once Teyla was out of the infirmary, but with everything that had happened on Earth, he'd never had the chance.

McKay was going to be fine. Bowers was in custody and Landry had every federal agency in the state looking for Vance, leaving John at loose ends until the Daedalus returned. Now was as good a time as any to find out what really happened in the village, and why Dex and Teyla were so determined to keep it a secret.

"Ronon," John greeted.

Dex froze then turned around. "Sheppard. Thought you were still asleep."

"Nope," John replied with an easy smile. "Where you off to?"

Ronon stopped a few paces from the door and glanced over at John. "Shooting range."

John raised an eyebrow, and Ronon continued. "One of the Marines from yesterday, Winters, wanted a few pointers."

"Pointers. Right." John drawled as he leant against the side of the sofa. "Wasn't Winters the one who made the comment about McKay in the briefing yesterday?"

Ronon crossed his arms over his chest. "Maybe."

John shook his head as Ronon turned back to the door.

"Hey, hold on a sec," John said.

"What?"

"There was something else I wanted to talk to you about."

Ronon let go of the door handle and faced Sheppard.

"You never did tell me what really happened between you and Teyla on Belkan," John said.

Ronon shrugged. "Like she said, it was just a misunderstanding."

John stood up straight. "I know there's more to it than that," he said, his tone changing from curious to serious. "If there's a problem with the two of you, I need to know."

"There's no problem," Ronon told him and stepped toward the door.

John shook his head and moved between Dex and the door. What had started out as simple curiosity had blossomed into real concern, and not a little frustration, with Dex's stonewalling. What the hell had happened on a quick mission to trade for seed? he wondered. He crossed his arms over his chest, gave Ronon the same silent look he'd used on Bowers, and waited.

Ronon glowered at him for a few seconds, then crossed the room where he paced back-and-forth between the bedroom door and sofa.

"You heard about the survivors from Sateda?" Ronon asked a few minutes later.

John relaxed and nodded. "I don't think I ever said how happy I was for you. You aren't the only survivor after all."

Ronon stopped pacing and stared at the painting of the Rocky Mountains on the wall behind the sofa. "One of those survivors was a man named Kell."

"I take it you knew him."

Ronon nodded. "He was my taskmaster when I was in military training."

"Sounds like you two were close. I'm happy a friend --"

"He wasn't a friend," Ronon growled. "He was a traitor. He sent whole divisions to their deaths just so he could save himself." Ronon clenched his hands into fists, and John wondered if another wall was about to have a hole in it.

"I found out he was on Belkan to trade," Ronon continued after a few moments. "I asked Teyla to set up a meeting. When he got there, I shot him."

John stared at Dex in stunned silence. Of all the things he thought could have happened on a trade mission, Ronon shooting someone in cold blood never even made the list. He scrubbed a hand over his face as he considered all of the ramifications of what Dex had done.

First things, first, he decided. How hard was this going to blow back on Atlantis in general and his team, and Dex specifically?

"Were there any witnesses?" John asked after a moment.

Ronon looked up, clearly surprised.

"Were there any witnesses?" John asked again, his tone hard, and walked over to Ronon. "Anyone who's going to take what you did personally and come after you?"

Ronon shook his head. "Other than Teyla, just a couple of Kell's personal guards. They won't do or say anything."

John took a step back. "That's why Teyla was angry. You used her. Broke her trust." He shook his head. What the hell had happened to his team. First McKay and now Ronon. Neither one of them stopping to think about how their actions would affect those around them.

"I --" Ronon started to say, but John turned on him, his face set.

"I don't want to hear it." He walked over and stood in front of Dex. "We're going to get a few things straight. First, I don't ever want to hear about you doing something like this again. Did you stop to think about the danger you were putting yourself in?"

Ronon started to answer, and John stopped him with a glare. "And what about Teyla? Did you even bother to warn her what you were planning to do?"

Ronon stared at the wall behind John's head.

"I'll take that as a 'no'," John said, not bothering to hide his frustration.

He watched Ronon for a few moments, then sighed. "You ever do something that reckless again, I'll shoot you myself."

He waited for Ronon to nod then continued, "Second, if this ever comes up again, you come to me, and you tell me. We will figure out a way to deal with it."

"Not your problem," Ronon told him.

John stepped forward. "You aren't alone any more," he explained. "You have a team, people who care what happens to you. That means we'll help you and watch your back the same way you watch ours." He stepped back. "Do you understand that?"

Ronon gave him a stiff nod.

"Good," John said.

"Are you going to tell Weir?" Ronon asked. "About Kell?"

John shook his head. "There's no reason for her to know. You said the situation was contained and it's not going to come up in the future?"

"Anyone who survived from Sateda knows the kind of man Kell was. No one is going to try to avenge his death."

"Then there's nothing to really say to Elizabeth," John said. He walked over to the door and held it open. "I'm going for a run, then the infirmary to see if Doctor Lam is ready to spring McKay." He turned back to Ronon. "Make sure Winters knows who the better shot is," he added.

"Won't be a problem," Ronon replied, and followed John out of the suite.

John returned to the suite an hour later. His body felt better for the exercise, even if he hadn't found any solutions to his various team problems. He showered, changed into a clean uniform, and was outside the doors to the infirmary when he heard his name.

"Colonel Sheppard, sir?" an airman said and stopped a few paces away from John. "General Landry would like to see you in his office."

John glanced at the door to the infirmary, then over at the young woman standing in front of him. "Thank you, Airman," John said with a nod. "I'll be right there."

The airman saluted, turned on her heel, and left. John considered his options for a moment, then pushed open the door.

"He's still asleep," Doctor Lam told him as John stopped at the end of Rodney's bed.

"He's hardly been awake since we got back," John said with a worried frown.

"Don't worry, Colonel," Lam assured him, "Doctor McKay is going to be fine. Once he's awake, I'll release him."

"You said yesterday the drug Bowers used was still in his system. Is that why he's …" John pointed at the bed.

Lam nodded. "That's part of it, certainly. There will be trace amounts of the drug in his system for another couple of days. Doctor McKay may tire more easily as a result, but there shouldn't be anything to worry about long-term."

John nodded and stepped away from the bed. "I have a meeting with General Landry. If he wakes up before I get back, let him know I was here, and I'll be back later."

Lam waved him toward the door. "I'll pass along the message, Colonel."

John nodded and headed out of the infirmary and down to Landry's office.

He tapped on Landry's door, and when the General looked up, said, "You wanted to see me, sir."

Landry waved him into the office and pointed to one of the chairs in front of his desk. "I spoke to a friend of mine in the FBI this morning." Landry sat back in his chair, his expression grim. "It seems Alex Vance slipped their net and managed to escape. They have alerts out to neighboring states, but so far, there's no sign of him."

John clenched his hands on the arms of his chair as his fears about Vance were confirmed. "So what do we do next, sir?"

"The airports have been alerted, but Vance has money and connections. You and I both know he could get out of the country easily enough if he wants to."

John nodded and stared at the commendations hanging on the wall behind Landry's desk. If Vance managed to escape the country, nothing was stopping him coming up with another plan to get his revenge. Vance knew about David and his father, not to mention McKay's sister, Jeannie. Until he was caught, none of them were safe.

"The IOA assures me they will take steps to keep an eye on your brother and McKay's sister," Landry told him.

John looked over at him. "How --"

"It was written all over your face, Colonel. Don't worry about Vance. One way or another, we'll find him."

"And Bowers?"

Landry sat back in his chair. "Mister Woolsey promises he will be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law."

John nodded. It wasn't the news he wanted to hear, but it was the best he could expect.

He heard a tap on the door behind him and turned around as Sergeant Harriman opened the door.

"What is it, Walter?" Landry asked.

"Sorry to interrupt, sir, but Doctor Lam just called." He looked at John and continued. "Doctor McKay is awake. She says he can be released as soon as someone brings him some clothes."

John stood from his chair and glanced back at Landry.

"Go," Landry said and waved at the door.

"Thank you, sir," John replied, and left the office.

He stopped at the suite long enough to find Rodney's carry-all and dig out some clothes, stuffed the clothes in a bag, and picked up the new pair of boots an airman dropped off when he brought Rodney's belongings over to the suite. He then headed back to the infirmary.

John walked in as a nurse finished taping a new bandage around one of Rodney's wrists. He noted the other wrist and McKay's ankle were similarly wrapped.

"You're all set, Doctor McKay," the nurse said with a smile as she packed up her supplies. "Come back tomorrow evening so we can check the bandages."

Rodney nodded and absently rubbed his wrist. When he saw John standing a few feet away, he dropped his hands to his sides and hopped off the bed.

John didn't miss the hiss of pain as he landed on the taped ankle.

"Ready to go?" John asked as he handed over the clothes.

"More than ready," Rodney replied. "And hungry."

John chuckled. "Get changed, and we'll find you something to eat."

Rodney disappeared behind a screen with the clothes and John sat down on his bed to wait. He was still there a few minutes later when Ronon entered the infirmary and walked over.

"Finished already?" John asked.

Ronon shrugged. "It wasn't much of a contest."

"Rodney is getting changed, then we're heading to the mess hall."

"I could eat," Ronon said as Rodney came back over to the bed tugging at the sleeves of his shirt.

"I don't suppose you know where I can get --" He stopped speaking when John pointed to the boots waiting next to the chair.

"Thanks." Rodney sat in the chair and pulled on the boots.

Once he had his shoes tied, John led the way out of the infirmary and up one level to the mess hall. He shook his head and hid a smile as both Ronon and McKay loaded their trays. John found his own breakfast and led the way over to a table against the wall.

"The Daedalus is due to arrive in a few days," John said after they'd been eating for a few minutes. "Assuming they didn't run into any problems, we should be back in Atlantis in a month or so."

"Sooner the better as far as I'm concerned," Rodney replied, never looking up from his food. "I don't need to come back here any time soon."

John frowned at the comment but said nothing. He glanced up as a corporal entered the mess hall, looked around, and headed for their table.

Now what? John thought to himself as the corporal stopped at the side of their table. He saluted John and turned to McKay.

"Message for you, sir," he explained as he held out a folded sheet of paper.

"Umm, thanks," Rodney replied. He took the note, and the corporal left.

John watched as Rodney read the note, then pushed his half-full plate away.

"Rodney?" John asked. "What is it?"

Rodney ignored him as he stared at the note. He started to crumple the paper in his hand, but Ronon snatched it away from him.

"Hey!" Rodney exclaimed.

Ronon ignored him, read the short note, and passed it over to John.

"It's from Woolsey," Rodney said with a tired sigh as John read the note. "They're reconvening the enquiry into what happened on Doranda at ten this morning." He rubbed his arm. "I guess it was too much to hope that he would forget about the whole thing."

John frowned and glanced at his watch. "That's in twenty minutes."

Rodney drained his coffee cup and set it down.

John and Ronon exchanged a look as he finished the coffee and stood. "I should …" Rodney hunched his shoulders and nodded toward the door. "I'll, umm, see you later."

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

Rodney stopped outside the conference room long enough to tug his shirt sleeves back over his bandaged wrists, then took a deep breath and opened the door. The setup was the same as the last time he'd been here. Woolsey and the other IOA members sat at one end of the conference table while a lone chair sat at the other. He tried not to flinch as an airman set a video camera on the table in front of him as he sat down.

"Doctor McKay, thank you for coming," Woolsey said with a nod as he opened the leather folio in front of him.

"I wasn't aware that I had a choice," he replied without thinking.

Woolsey looked up with a glare and Rodney mentally kicked himself. If he wanted to get home, he told himself, he couldn't antagonise these people.

Woolsey let the silence linger a moment longer then said, "Where were we?" He scanned the pad of paper in front of him. "Ahh, yes," he looked up at Rodney, "we were discussing ways the vacuum energy source could have been safely repaired." Woolsey looked up from his notes. "Did you have --"

There was a brief tap on the door before it opened and Sheppard strolled into the conference room followed by Ronon.

Woolsey looked up at John with a frown. "Colonel Sheppard, I believe you were informed your testimony was not required at this time," he said, his posture stiff and his tone severe.

John pursed his lips as he moved one of the empty chairs around to Rodney's end of the table and sat down next to him. "See, that's where you're wrong, Mister Woolsey."

Ronon found another chair and sat on Rodney's other side, his arms crossed over his chest as he glared at the men and women at the other end of the table.

Rodney looked from one to the other, his expression a mix of confusion and gratitude. "Sheppard, what are you doing?" he hissed with a glance at Woolsey and the IOA members whispering at the other end of the table.

John ignored him. "You wanted to know what happened on Doranda, right? Well, I was there, right up until the end."

Rodney flinched at John's bald statement of how close they'd come to dying and focused on the wall behind Woolsey's head.

"What do you want to know?" John finished.

Woolsey set down his pen. "Colonel Sheppard, your actions over the last two days have not been above reproach --"

Rodney glanced from Woolsey's disapproving expression to Sheppard's look of calm resolve. There hadn't been any time for Rodney to ask how John had found him, but from the look on Woolsey's face, he knew it wasn't something the IOA had signed off on.

Rodney turned to Sheppard. "What did you do?" he asked in a loud whisper.

John glanced at him and shook his head. "Don't worry about it."

Rodney saw the irritated look on Woolsey's face, and he wondered if Atlantis was going to lose its military commander as well as its chief scientist. "Seriously, Sheppard, what did you do?" he tried again.

John pursed his lips. "I did what I had to do." He gave Woolsey a hard look, and Rodney was surprised to see Woolsey was the one to look away first. "Like I said," John told Rodney with a tight smile, "don't worry about it."

"Colonel Sheppard? Doctor McKay? If you don't mind, we'd like to continue." Woolsey nodded to the four other people seated at his end of the table.

Rodney gave Sheppard one last questioning look then turned back to the IOA members.

"Now, as I was saying," Woolsey picked up his pen and looked down at his notes, "we were discussing how the vacuum energy device could have been safely controlled."

"The machine blew up," Ronon cut in. "Why are we still talking about it?"

Woolsey sighed and dropped his pen again. "Mister Dex, I really don't think --"

"Now hang on a second," John interrupted. "Ronon has a point. The energy device and the weapon were never going to work. The Ancients stopped that research for a reason."

"You can't know that, Colonel," Woolsey argued. "Given enough time, it's possible --"

John turned to Rodney. "Would it have worked?"

Rodney looked from Sheppard to Woolsey.

"Knowing what we know now …" Rodney met Woolsey's eye and set his jaw. "No, the device was never going to work. Trying to harvest vacuum energy from our universe creates too many unstable particles. There would be no way to contain the energy output safely."

Ronon stood and pushed his chair back under the table. "If McKay couldn't get it to work, no one else was going to, either."

Rodney looked over at Ronon, not bothering to hide his surprise at Dex's vote of confidence. "I, umm --"

Woolsey frowned at Ronon. "Even if we were to concede that point, there is still the matter of Doctor Collins' death."

Rodney swallowed and refused to look at anyone. Collins' death had been a tragic accident, he knew that. But he had ordered Collins into the command access tube where he had died. If he hadn't done that …

John stood and tugged Rodney to his feet. "Mister Woolsey, I suggest you look up Doctor Harry Daghlian. Sometimes, bad things happen, and there's nothing we can do except make sure we learn from them."

"That is not an acceptable explanation, Colonel," Woolsey told him. "Doctor McKay's actions led to that man's death and the destruction of an important piece of technology. I would think you of all people would sympathise with our point of view. You were almost killed when the device overloaded and blew up."

Woolsey's statement hit too close to home, and Rodney flinched. Enough was enough. It was time to end this before Sheppard dug himself into a deeper hole on his behalf. "Can I say something?"

"That's rather been the point of this enquiry, Doctor," Woolsey told him, the impatience and frustration bleeding through his calm façade. "Please." Woolsey nodded to the chair at the end of the table. "Explain yourself."

"Rodney," John drawled, the warning clear in his tone.

Rodney waved a hand at him and sat back down, his back straight and his chin up. "I'm sorry about what happened to Doctor Collins. He was part of my team, and he died on my watch." He looked down at his hands clenched on the table. When he looked back up, his face was set, and he looked Woolsey in the eye.

"While I have to live with the consequences of his death, I didn't cause it. We were dealing with unknown technology. Mistakes," he glanced up at John, "were made, but none of those mistakes were made out of negligence or malice. Only ignorance." He couldn't help the look of distaste that crossed his face.

"You've read Doctor Zelenka's forensic notes on the first test, and the preliminary report on the second. I can sit here and try to explain the science to you if you like, but what it boils down to is this. The Arcturus Project was fatally flawed. It was the result of a scientific hypothesis that proved unworkable."

"While I may agree --" Woolsey started to say.

"You wanted to know what happened," Rodney interrupted. "That's what happened." He glanced at John, then Ronon, and stood. "The only thing left to decide here is if you're going to waste one of your best assets by recalling me back to Earth permanently, or if you're going to let me go back to Atlantis and get back to work."

Woolsey studied him for a moment, then closed the leather folio in front of him. "I see. In that case, Doctor McKay, I believe we're done here. I will inform you of this committee's decision by the end of the day."

Rodney gave Woolsey a stiff nod, then left the room without a backward glance.

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

Two weeks into the trip back to the Pegasus galaxy and Rodney still couldn't believe he was really going back. Back to Atlantis. Back to his lab, his life. His home. He wandered into the tiny mess hall, filled a cup with coffee and found a table where he could watch the streaking hyperspace effect out the window. He could calculate the math involved in achieving such speeds in his head but didn't bother. It was rather beautiful in its way.

He pushed the metal cup back and forth between his palms and considered how close he'd come to never seeing the light show again. Another trip to Earth, another near-death experience. It said something about his life that he felt safer on another planet in another galaxy than on his homeworld. If John hadn't found him when he did … Rodney felt a shudder run down his spine at the close call.

Then there was the Doranda fiasco, Woolsey, and the IOA committee. When Woolsey himself had shown up at the door to their suite, Rodney had expected to hear the news he was never going back to Atlantis.

"I thought we would have heard something by now," Rodney groused as he paced the room. "How long can it take to make a simple yes or no decision?"

"Hey, don't knock it," John replied from the desk in the corner. "It means their decision wasn't a forgone conclusion. The longer it takes, the better our odds."

"Our?"

John gave him a sour look. "Our. All for one, remember?"

Rodney walked over to the sofa, sank down with his head resting against the back, and closed his eyes. "What am I going to do if they decide I can't go back?" he muttered at the ceiling.

He felt the sofa bounce as John sat down at the other end. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that."

Rodney snorted and glanced over at John. "That's the best you can do?"

Before John could answer, there was a tap at the door.

"Doctor McKay?" Woolsey's voice drifted through the door.

Rodney swallowed and looked at John.

"You get the door. I'll get Ronon."

Rodney nodded and stood.

"Whatever the decision, we'll deal with it," John told him then turned to the bedroom.

Rodney took a deep breath and opened the door. "Mister Woolsey," he greeted, his tone as neutral as he could make it.

"May I come in?" Woolsey asked, his expression neutral, giving nothing away.

"Umm, sure," Rodney replied and opened the door wider.

"I wanted to deliver the committee's decision --" Woolsey broke off as John and Ronon walked into the sitting room. He turned back to Rodney. "This is a rather personal matter, Doctor, do you wish to continue in private?"

Rodney shook his head and walked over to where John and Ronon stood near the sofa. "Just spit it out," Rodney replied, and steeled himself for the bad news he knew was coming.

He hoped Woolsey would at least let him keep his clearance, maybe do some consulting work from time to time. At least that way, he might see Sheppard and the others occasionally through briefings or the weekly update from Atlantis.

Woolsey frowned. "In that case," he said and paused. "It was by no means a unanimous decision, and as head of the investigative committee, it fell to me to cast the deciding vote." Woolsey stopped and glanced from Rodney to John and Ronon. "After careful deliberation, it has been decided that you, Doctor Rodney McKay, shall not be held liable for the loss of the Arcturus device, nor for the death of Doctor Robert Collins. Once the Daedalus arrives, you are free to return to Atlantis."

Rodney sipped at the hot coffee and smiled as he remembered Ronon thumping him on the back hard enough that he nearly fell. John had given him a nod before he politely, but firmly, ushered Woolsey out of the room.

Now that he was going home, he allowed himself to think about the projects waiting for him once he was back in the city. He'd talked to Zelenka during the weekly check-in before Daedalus arrived. Radek had informed him he had found information in the database that referenced an underwater jumper bay somewhere along the northern arm of the city. He planned to send out a team to see if they could locate it in the next few days.

He and Radek had hypothesised the jumpers could be used as submersibles ever since the hurricane the previous year. If the new area proved to be an actual bay … He felt a jolt of excitement at the idea of exploring the ocean near the city. He suspected Sheppard would jump at the chance to try out one of the shuttles underwater.

Thinking of John reminded him that while things may be better between them, there was still an awkwardness, a hesitation on Sheppard's part that hadn't been there before Doranda. There had been several times over the week they had in Colorado while waiting for Daedalus where Rodney had suggested something they could do to pass the time, but John begged off, claiming meetings with General Landry or some other excuse to avoid contact.

He crossed his arms and stared out the window, no longer seeing the streaks of light. He knew Sheppard was still angry, John had said as much when they talked in the infirmary. Sheppard's actions, avoiding him as much as possible since then, proved he wouldn't be forgiven so quickly or so easily for what he had done.

He needed to talk to Sheppard, he decided. And sooner rather than later. The Daedalus had entered the Pegasus galaxy that morning, they would be back in Atlantis soon. He needed to know where they went from here. Could they still work together or not?

He picked up his coffee cup, found it empty, and stood. At the same time, John walked into the mess hall and froze when he saw Rodney standing by the windows.

"Umm, hi," Rodney said, and set the cup back on the table. " I was just, umm, coming to look for you."

"Oh?" John replied, his tone bland.

Rodney stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets. "I know Woolsey and the IOA determined I wasn't to blame for what happened to Collins and the Arcturus device. But I wanted to know …" He paused and stared out the window, then took a deep breath. "I wanted to know if you agreed with their decision."

John walked over and stood a few feet away from Rodney. He crossed his arms over his chest and refused to look at him as he watched the streaks of light out the window.

Rodney ducked his head. "I see," he whispered and sank back in his chair.

"I'm glad the IOA agreed to let you come back to Atlantis," John said and glanced at Rodney. "I told Woolsey after you left the meeting that you were probably our best chance for finding a way to defeat the Wraith once and for all."

He blew out a breath and stepped closer to Rodney's chair. "And I believe that I really do. But you asked me to trust you, and I did. And we both know what happened. It's going to take some time before I'm ready to take that chance again."

Rodney hunched his shoulders and stared out the window. "I'll do whatever I have to in order to earn that trust back," he promised.

John glanced over at him and nodded. "I'm sure you will."

Rodney sighed. "So, what happens in the meantime?"

John leant against the window and looked down at him. "We do what we always do. Like I said before, I'm still mad about what happened, but that doesn't mean I'm cutting you out of my life." He gave Rodney a tiny smile. "With how small Atlantis is, I doubt I could if I wanted to."

"Oh, ha-ha," Rodney replied in kind. "Still," he added a moment later, "you're doing better than Jeannie, I guess." He looked down at his hands. "She never saw the video I made before the siege," he admitted softly.

Rodney saw John flinch at the mention of the video and frowned. "What?" he asked.

"About that," John said, and hesitated. "Sergeant Harriman found the disc."

Rodney stared at John for a moment, unsure of what to do. He had tossed the disc in a drawer, hoping to forget about it. Forget the reminder of the rejection.

"He wasn't sure what to do with it and gave it to me," John added.

"Oh, umm." He gave John a sideways look. "Did you watch it?"

"No!" John exclaimed and stood up straight. "I wouldn't do that. Not without telling you first. I told him I'd get it back to you."

Rodney shook his head. "It doesn't matter now, I guess. Jeannie made it clear she's not ready to either forgive or forget yet."

John started to say something, but Rodney shook his head. "It's okay," he said with a crooked smile. "At this point, I'm used to it." He stood and took a few steps towards the door. "You said you have the disc? Here?"

John looked over at him and nodded.

"Go ahead and watch it if you want," Rodney told him. "Someone should."

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

A week later, John stood looking out the window in his quarters as the lights from Atlantis played across the water. It had been a long, frustrating month since the last time he'd had a chance to admire the view. Doranda. Vance. Finding out what Ronon did on Belkan.

How had so much gone so wrong so quickly? he wondered.

Alex Vance was still at large. Landry's contact at the FBI had several unconfirmed reports he had managed to escape from the US. One report said he was in Ecuador, others claimed he was somewhere in Asia. The bottom line was, he wasn't going to be caught any time soon.

Then there was everything with McKay, not to mention Ronon and Teyla's issues. They were all telling each other everything was fine, but John knew better. There were some serious problems with his team, and he needed to find a way to fix them. Before they ran into trouble on a mission.

He turned away from the window and spotted the computer disc sitting on the edge of his desk. He had yet to sit down and watch Rodney's message to his sister. Even though McKay had given him permission to watch it, a part of him still wasn't ready to start caring again.

Another part, however, was curious to know what Rodney would have said when faced with imminent death. Why would he be okay with John seeing what he assumed would be something incredibly personal given Harriman's reaction?

He stared at the disc a moment longer, then picked it up along with his computer, and sat on the bed with his back against the wall. After another brief hesitation, he inserted the disc into the computer and waited for the video to start.

Rodney sat in his lab in his shirt sleeves, staring at the camera.

"Ford, if you cut everything else, just … Keep this part, okay? Jeannie? This is your brother, Rodney ... obviously. I wanna s-say, um ... I wanna say something. Uh ... Family is important. I-I've come to realise that because the people here have become a sort of a ... kind of a surrogate family to me."

He gave the camera a shy smile and looked away.

John hit pause on the computer and stared at the happy expression on Rodney's face. McKay had no problem telling anyone around him what he thought when it came to a science problem or something they should be doing, be it repairs to the city or the planets they visited. But he rarely allowed anyone to see him so vulnerable.

Other than their conversation on a balcony where he'd told Rodney of Teyla's chaguo ndugu idea, McKay never talked about how important their relationship was to him. And he'd never said how he felt about Teyla, Elizabeth, or Carson, how important they were to him. To hear Rodney admit how much John and the others meant to him, and that he would say it so easily, surprised him.

He glanced over at the picture he'd found at the mine of himself and Rodney standing in the embarkation room after he'd been promoted. There had been a natural comfort to their relationship then. Something that had been missing over the last month of awkward encounters on the Daedalus and sideways glances.

Still, he reminded himself, once bitten, twice shy. McKay had said he understood John's point about taking unnecessary chances. Had even promised not to let his ego get so far out of control again. But until John saw the evidence for himself, he wasn't going to risk his trust.

He pursed his lips and hit the play button.

"Now, I know what you're thinking: I've never really been the poster child for that kind of sentiment but, uh, when ... when one's contemplating one's own demise, one tends to see things more clearly."

Rodney stared into the camera.

"I really do wish you the best, you know, and I'm sorry we weren't closer. Perhaps, um ... if by chance I make it out of this, perhaps one day we can be. And I would like that."

John paused the playback and pushed the computer off his lap as what Rodney had said sank in.

Everything came down to forgiveness. Alex Vance couldn't forgive or forget what had happened to his brother. He needed to blame someone, and Rodney had nearly paid the price for that anger.

Ronon refused to forget what happened with Kell. Now Kell was dead, and Ronon's relationship with Teyla had suffered as a result.

Rodney had never told John much about what happened between him and Jeannie to cause their estrangement. McKay, however, had tried to make amends. Jeannie had refused to even listen. She refused to forgive.

Which left Doranda. Rodney had apologised, more than once, for what had happened. John knew Rodney was sorry about what had happened, and he believed McKay when he said he would work to earn back the trust he'd lost.

Which meant John had to forgive. He hadn't been able to forgive David for what happened when they were younger, and he'd lost touch with his brother as a result. He glanced at the photo on the desk. He didn't want to make the same mistake again.

Sitting in his quarters, staring at McKay's frozen image on his computer screen, John set aside the anger and forgave. Willing to trust unconditionally again, would take longer, but he hoped they would get there in time.

He popped the disc out of the computer and stored it back in its case. He set the case on the shelf next to his bed. Safe. Someday he'd make sure Jeannie saw the video. He'd give her the chance to forgive as well.

FIN