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Reconstructing Rome

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“Rome has been seized and occupied by enemies so many times that it is hard to come up with an exact number. After each sacking, however terrible, Rome rose again, phoenix-like.”  

MATTHEW KNEALE, "Seven Times Rome Was Sacked"


“Good luck and… goodbye, Rome,” said John from the screen of her laptop. The screen went black as the video file ended. Even after countless viewings, that cut to black still hit her like a slap in the face. Or maybe it was just John’s message. She didn’t understand.

Dr. Rodney Meredith Mckay was a problem solver. She specialized in machines and physics, not people, and especially not motivations and feelings. Getting people to do what she wanted was often an exercise in frustration, especially if they wouldn’t let her bully them into something with her genius. If she’d been good at people, the IOA would’ve chosen her as the head of science on Atlantis and she’d be in the same galaxy as Colonel John Sheppard instead of stuck on Earth for the last year. 

She just knew that if she’d been on Atlantis, they wouldn’t have lost contact with Earth or be in half as much trouble.

Since bludgeoning people with the truth of her genius had become even less effective than usual lately, Meredith had been forced to resort to lying to get what she wanted. She wasn’t good at lying. However, she found that if she just talked fast enough to someone dimwitted (which included the majority of the population) and overworked (which currently included most of Stargate Command), she could sometimes get their eyes to glaze over enough to have them agree to her demands without noticing the lie.

Which is how she found herself flying to Atlantis on the Daedalus, Earth’s first intergalactic spaceship, a spaceship she’d helped design. Atlantis needed a problem solver like Meredith. There were a million reasons why, but the most relevant right now was because this was a rescue mission. Unfortunately, the IOA committee couldn’t see how necessary she was to the future of Atlantis. However, no one else she’d steamrolled had even blinked twice when she walked on board and demanded a private cabin for the intergalactic trip. They knew the IOA should send Dr. Mckay to save Atlantis. It had been the first thing to go right for her in a long time.

For Meredith, the events of the past few years had felt like getting backhanded over and over again by a movie villain and his henchman. It didn’t matter how intelligent and amazing you were when the hits came so fast you couldn’t catch your breath. Every time Meredith thought she’d finally regained her feet, something knocked her down again. 

You’d think she’d be jaded by a lifetime of hits. The bright spot of finally getting posted with John again and repairing their friendship had quickly been muddied by the assault by ex-boyfriend Seward, being denied the chance to explore Atlantis because she wasn’t male, the IOA choosing her bastard ex-husband Troy as science head instead, losing John to Atlantis after barely getting any time with him, being forced to go on off-world missions while trying to repopulate her department with new hires because everyone competent had gotten to leave for Atlantis without her, losing all contact with Atlantis and being forced to wonder if they were all dead, and then to add insult to all of the injuries, having to go back to Manudia again where everyone was a too-familiar stranger because—

Sucking in her breath sharply, Meredith buried the memories beneath a slew of equations calculating the tilt of the last exoplanet she’d seen. Even in the privacy of her thoughts, she had a policy of avoiding Manudia. It was safer that way. Math was safer.

She should be jaded, but events kept coming along and slapping her across the face just when she thought she’d managed to catch her breath. Atlantis had finally managed to get a message out in a short data-burst. They were under siege by an alien species called the Wraith that basically ate people and wanted to make the Milky Way their new buffet, which was just awesome news when Earth already had enough problems with other alien races like the Ori and remaining Goa'uld. 

The people of Atlantis didn’t have a lot of hope that they’d survive, which is why they desperately needed a problem solver like Meredith Mckay. 

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the expedition had also sent goodbye videos. She’d gotten two. Neither had been welcome. They’d hit like a roundhouse combination to the face. However, Meredith had always been too stubborn to stay down. 

Fingers steepled in front of her mouth, Meredith cued up the video of John again. They’d been friends for more than a decade before finally starting to date a couple of months before he’d left with the expedition. In retrospect, she should’ve taken his initial attempt to leave without making her any promises more seriously. He’d tried to make a clean cut but she’d forced the issue, just like she’d forced the exchange of “I love you”s. Because she did love him. She’d never expected John to regret it.

Her ex-husband Troy’s final message had been viewed once and then deleted. She should probably do the same to John’s—she already had his words memorized and he obviously wasn’t as brokenhearted by their separation as she’d been so watching the video again was pointless and bordering on masochistic. 

Meredith hit play anyway.

John’s eyes were focused somewhere off-camera. He had lines on his face that hadn’t been there when he’d left for Atlantis a year ago, but they only made him look more magnetic. It was unfair for someone to be that attractive. She could see desperation and exhaustion in the shape of his mouth, but at the same time, the comfortable and confident way he carried himself hinted at how his time on Atlantis had finally given John something he’d always seemed to be searching for: a righteous cause and people worth making himself vulnerable for. 

The mission reports from Atlantis that she’d devoured showed John to be engaged in a way his previous record had only occasionally hinted at. In Pegasus, John had come into his own as the military leader of Atlantis. He didn’t bother hiding his intelligence or passion anymore. He let himself care and fought openly for what he believed in. Meredith wished she could've been there to see the transformation. It must’ve been thrilling to witness.

Nothing and no one could force John into anything, not his father and commanding officers or even his best friend and now former girlfriend, one Meredith Mckay. That John had once chosen to love her romantically had been a gift. Unfortunately, it wasn’t something she’d expected him to take away. Out of all people, she hadn’t expected John to throw her away, even if she’d become a useless girlfriend on the other side of the galaxy. 

She should’ve known better.

Even with repeated viewings of his message, Meredith still didn’t understand why or what had changed. John didn’t even directly address her until the last moment. Meredith had always been bad at social cues, but she’d thought she understood John. She’d been so certain he loved her. Maybe he still did, but that didn’t change his message. She hated not knowing the why of things.

In the video, John gave his stilted speech. “My final message is for Mckay. Tell Mckay I’m glad she isn’t here. I’m glad she’s safe on Earth and far away from Atlantis. I should’ve ended things when I left like I’d intended.” 

No matter how many times she viewed this, that line always made her flinch.

After a short pause, John finally looked straight into the camera. His eyes and mouth went soft with downturned corners. “Good luck and… goodbye, Rome.” John’s lips opened again as if something else trembled on the tip of his tongue, but before it could escape he reached out and ended the recording abruptly. The screen went black. 

Meredith desperately wanted to know what else John was going to say. She wanted to believe it would’ve been something kinder and more logical. That’s why she kept watching the video, trying to figure out what words the potential in those open lips would’ve become if given kinetic force. 

Better to think that instead of the more likely scenario that he’d found someone else while they’d been parted, someone like Elizabeth Weir or that alien woman on his team, Teyla Emmagen. The Pegasus galaxy was probably full of gorgeous women who all swooned over John when he turned on his Captain Kirk charm. 

He probably gave them all special nicknames too. Had Teyla the Athosian become his Athens? He’d do well to remember that Athens had fallen before the might of Rome.

Meredith felt simultaneously homicidal and gutted.

If she could, she’d stop thinking about it, but her mind had always moved a mile a minute—though really it should be a kilometer a minute because she was Canadian after all instead of an American with their outdated system of measurements. Whatever the case, the point was that her mind was always working on at least ten different things and right now one of those ten thought streams was frustratingly fixated on John Sheppard. If she could just figure out what was going on with him, maybe she could get that brain power back.

Of course, she’d had him stuck in her head for years, but never let it be said that Rodney Meredith Mckay was a quitter.

She stabbed the play button again. 

“My final message is for Mckay. Tell Mckay—” 

A chime sounded in her cabin, forcing her to pause the video. Meredith’s heart rate increased. “Yes?” she said, fighting to keep her voice from squeaking. The moment she’d been waiting for had finally come, albeit in a less than ideal way, but sometimes you had to take a great risk for a great reward. Atlantis was a really great reward and no one, from the IOA to John Sheppard, was going to keep her away from it. She was going to save Atlantis and the people on it and then she was going to stay and study the workings of the Ancients until she understood how it all worked. Everyone would be thanking her one day.

“Dr. Mckay, it’s time,” a voice said over the speaker. “The Daedalus is approaching Atlantis now. We don’t have radio contact yet, but sensors show the Wraith Fleet already there bombarding the city. Grab your kit and come to the bridge. They’re going to have to do a quick fly-by to try and beam you in, but if the fighting is too fierce to get close, Colonel Caldwell said you’ll just have to wait until everything is over to go down.”

“Well, you tell the Colonel that that’s not acceptable. Atlantis needs this ZPM to raise its shields, especially if they’re being bombarded. He’s going to have to find me a way in. I’ll be right there. Mckay out.” 

Closing the lid of her laptop, Meredith slipped it into her bag and secured the straps. Glancing inside her pack to make sure the ZPM was still inside, she pushed away the pang at not getting time to study it more and slung the pack over her shoulder. It was thrilling to be carrying that much power around, though the original plan hadn’t really been for her or anyone else to actually carry it. 

They’d sent the ZPM they’d found on Earth to Meredith to clean and pack up in a crate to ship off on the Daedalus, who’d fly to Atlantis ASAP and beam it down for the scientists there to install. That had been the intention, but with all the stress and chaos of current events on Earth and the news of how bad things were going for Atlantis, the actual orders given to Meredith had been unfortunately quite vague.

Meredith couldn’t help it if she’d assumed that orders to do her best to prep the ZPM for transfer and installation on Atlantis meant going to Atlantis to install it herself, since doing her best obviously required a personal touch. If only the men on the IOA had thought to give her more specific orders. She was only a woman, after all. Whoops.

She also didn’t trust Troy or whomever he delegated it to not to muck the ZPM installation up and that’s just what she’d tell people when they asked her later what she’d been thinking. They’d have to do their questioning over the radio since once on Atlantis she planned to do everything in her power to stay there. 

She’d accepted that she wasn’t going to be in the chain of command, though she really hoped she could find a way to not be under Troy’s thumb. She’d talked to Richard Woolsey on the IOA about theoretically forming a new department in Atlantis that specialized in her areas of interest sometime in the distant future. He hadn’t realized how close that future was going to be, but he’d seemed positive about the idea.

Meredith glanced around the cabin they’d given her on the Daedalus one last time to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything important. She’d helped design the interstellar spaceship with Dr. Samantha Carter and knew every nut and bolt on the BC-303. Despite the rushed construction this last year and running the engines at max capacity right from the start, it had performed beautifully on its maiden voyage. Having Hermiod, an Asgard, in charge of the engine room helped a lot with that, but Mckay would still argue that it wouldn’t be possible without her contributions to the construction. 

When the expedition had left her behind on Earth a year ago, Meredith had thrown herself into her work. She’d even gone along with O’Neill’s plans to distract her by going through the gate several times with Major McLean’s SG-15 as a technological ambassador and handyman for the SGC. If she hadn’t been so battered by recent events she never would’ve agreed to it, especially when her first off-world mission had been going to Manudia to set up a new defensive shield.

Going back to Manudia had been the hardest. She’d almost called up Jack and told him she couldn’t do it a hundred times leading up to the mission. It had been hard and the nightmares had gotten worse, but she’d done it. Off-world missions after that were easy by comparison. 

Normally she did her best to pretend Manudia didn’t exist. She’d never told anyone the details about her time there. Even Jack, Troy, and Jeannie were only told the bare minimum because they couldn’t help but notice the difference in her from before and after the kidnapping. Meredith didn’t have anyone else close enough to care. The pressure of keeping silent hurt, but not talking was easier. 

Except for sometimes, she got the urge to tell everyone about her greatest mistake. Her muscles cramped with the desire to shriek out her guilt and pain and find a crowd to talk about how unfair it all was, but once she started talking she didn’t think she’d be able to stop and what if no one cared? Troy certainly hadn’t and if anyone should care shouldn’t it be him? The man who’d been her husband? What if no one else understood either? What if they blamed her even more than she already blamed herself? 

No, it would just make people gossip and judge her even more harshly. She didn’t care what most people thought, but she did care when it made her life difficult. Despite her genius, her reputation for being difficult was already bad enough that it affected where she was allowed to work. It had kept her from Atlantis. She couldn’t take another loss like that.

Although she had complicated feelings about Manudia, she couldn’t deny that the people there had been happy to see her. The new president of the Aquila Engineering College had begged her to come back soon for another visit. They’d thrown parties and showered her with gifts they’d been holding on to in hopes that she’d one day return. Last time she’d run out of there so fast she’d taken nothing but the clothes on her back—well, that and the painful memories. 

This time her farewell had included a lot of hugging. The kids had ambushed her and then it had been too late to escape from the adults. In a move that would surprise everyone who knew her, she hadn’t shoved them off and run screaming for the gate. To her surprise, some of the hugging had felt… nice. Comforting even. She still wasn’t sure if she felt more grateful or resentful for that. Either way, it had made her cry.

They’d given her a small wooden box filled to the brim with letters, the ink faded and edges soft and bent with age. They currently sat in her bag. Meredith hadn’t read them yet, didn’t know if she’d ever be ready to read them, but she couldn’t bear to part with them either. They were the only link she had. The only way she’d gotten past what had happened on Manudia had been by pretending to herself and everyone else that nothing had happened at all. Reading the letters would shatter that illusion and shattered things had sharp edges that could cut you to the quick. The pain might not be worth it. What if she didn’t heal right? She’d barely healed the first time.

Meredith’s nightmares had gotten worse in the last year. On top of everything else keeping her awake, her old traumas had gotten new life from the visit to Manudia. Reading the letters might bring the pain of those dreams even more into her waking hours. It could make things so much worse. Sometimes it was better not to know. Meredith had work to do. She couldn’t afford the distraction. 

Looking down, she checked for the gun strapped to her thigh. She often forgot to bring the weapon unless Major McLean or Sgt. Kindall reminded her in the locker room, but today was not the day for mistakes. SG-15 wasn’t here to look out for her anymore, didn’t even exist as such since they’d disbanded to face new threats. She was alone now. 

Good thing Meredith was used to being alone.

Meredith had to save Atlantis. She had to save the city holding answers to so many of her questions. Most importantly though, she had to save the people she cared about because she didn’t think she’d survive being too late again.

Meredith refused to believe that John was dead. Just the thought made the usual crispness of her thoughts fuzz and her lungs go tight. Sometimes she hated him for making her care about him so much, especially when he didn’t seem to feel the same obsession. She could live without John Sheppard in her life (had for great stretches at a time though always while keeping tabs on his records), but having him dead and gone from the Universe would be like losing the ability to see blue. Even inside a house with the curtains closed, you still knew the sky and ocean were out there somewhere. John being dead would mean living a life of heavy gray skies and gritty sand dunes for the rest of her life. She knew what it was like to live without the sky but she couldn’t bear to lose the ocean too.

And she knew she was being melodramatic but she couldn’t make the feelings stop!

As if beaming down into the middle of a warzone with enemies who wanted to eat you wasn’t enough to worry about. She wanted to cower up here safely, not put herself in danger. At least the ZPM she was bringing should power Atlantis’s shields and make everyone (including herself) safe. If it wasn’t John and Atlantis, she’d stay cozy in her room on the Daedalus until the fighting was over and then beam down. Well, she might admit to wanting to save Miko, Radek, and a (very) few of the other Marines and scientists too. However, if Troy screwed the ZPM installation up, a bunch of people she didn’t really like or care about very much would die too. They needed her genius to save their lives. It was the right thing to do. Having a conscience and caring about people could be so inconvenient. The only person she completely trusted to not screw this up was herself. 

Reading between the lines of the science reports, Meredith couldn’t ignore how much the people on Atlantis needed her genius. Even Troy had admitted to needing her in his self-serving and irritating farewell video message. She noticed things the science department was missing because it was so overwhelmed or too shortsighted, ways to improve Atlantis and maximize energy utilization. In several reports, she could see so clearly that they just needed to swap out crystals in an Ancient console and insert a few lines of new code to reactivate it, but they got stuck or distracted and abandoned the project. It was maddening that they were missing such obvious fixes, but then again, they didn’t call her a genius for nothing. She was obviously needed on Atlantis and the sooner the better. 

Meredith just really hoped she didn’t get injured or killed in the process. She hated pain and still needed to finish her grand unifying theory of the universe. She needed to prove how much better she was than Troy and how useful she could be on Atlantis to the SGC and IOA. She needed to get awards and recognition from everyone worth anything that she was the greatest genius to ever live! She also had to find out just what John had meant in that video.

Adjusting the pack on her back for the final time, Meredith smoothed back her hair to check for loose strands that might get in her face and distract her from the work to come. She could do this. She would do this. Meredith shoved down her fear and marched out of her room.

Once in the hall, she was so busy trying not to freak out about what she was about to do that she almost ran somebody over and had to stumble to the side to avoid a collision. Looking up, she saw two lieutenants with environmental science patches going in the same direction. Seward had worked in that department but, after attacking her, he was now in Leavenworth and good riddance. She couldn’t afford to think about Seward right now or how memories of that night still gave her panic attacks. She had to focus on being noble and brave and saving Atlantis. 

The two lieutenants swerved to avoid her. One said sorry. Meredith didn’t bother acknowledging it as they passed her going down the hall. She was too busy focusing on being heroic. 

So it took her a few seconds to realize that the duo had stopped in the middle of the hall and turned back around. They whispered together, looking her up and down, huffing, and glaring as if she’d personally offended them, which she didn’t remember doing beyond almost running into them a second ago but which was entirely possible. People got offended so easily over the stupidest things so she’d stopped caring or paying attention once she hit puberty. 

She glanced at their uniforms, but the names Lewis and Hollis were unfamiliar.  However, as soon as she noticed that they stared with L and H she also noticed how similar they looked to the famous comic duo Laurel and Hardy, except the big round-faced one was female instead of male and didn’t sport a small bristly mustache—wait, no, nevermind, as they moved closer Meredith saw thick dark strands of hair on the corners of the woman’s upper lip. 

Thus distracted, she was unprepared for the thin male to abruptly move forward and slam his bony shoulder into hers, knocking her back as he passed her. 

“Ouch!” she rubbed her shoulder and glared. “What was that? Watch where you’re going, idiot!”

The man named Lewis sent her a thin smile that made the hair rise on the back of her neck. Meredith made sure to keep her expression irritated instead of creeped out. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d gotten to her. She was much too old to be shoved into a locker by a bully.

You better watch out,” growled his mustached friend as she lumbered closer, living up to the image of the bully Hardy in Meredith’s mind and making it unlikely Meredith would ever remember the woman’s real name. She definitely looked like the type to shove people into lockers.

“We’re gonna make you regret what you did, you Jezebel.” The thin Laurel look-alike spat at her feet. 

Gross. Also, germs. Meredith had a very delicate immune system.

The woman blocked the hall, looming over Mckay and cross her beefy arms. “That’s right, Mckay, you’re gonna pay.”

“I’m not paying for anything.” Nor did she know or care what they were talking about. Meredith needed to get to the bridge to bravely save Atlantis and didn’t have time for two bottom-rank bullies to intimidate her. Besides, this was a public corridor. Someone else would come along any second now. She didn’t need to be afraid. Irritated, she tossed her golden braid over her shoulder and sent the two disdainful looks. “Being only second lieutenants and not very intelligent, you probably don’t understand that when you’re important like me, you don’t have to pay. People give you things for free.” 

She’d heard that line while watching some mind-numbing television show last week after she’d woken up from another nightmare. It worked as well as it had on the show, making the skinny man’s face go red and the big woman’s jaw clench. Meredith smirked. “Your Laurel and Hardy act needs work. I don’t know what your problem is and I don’t really care. I’m due on the bridge with Colonel Caldwell five minutes ago so get out of my way. Now.”

At that moment the overhead speakers sounded, “Dr. Mckay to the bridge!” A group of three men passed them in a fast jog, barely sparing them a glance.

“Move.” Raising a brow, Meredith gestured impatiently. The large woman sullenly moved to the side. Meredith stepped past and put them out of her mind. They weren’t important, Atlantis was important and now she really was late.

When she got to the bridge, Colonel Caldwell sent her a slashing glance, obviously unhappy. “Dr. Mckay, nice of you to finally join us. The fighting above and inside Atlantis is fierce. Their puddlejumpers are clearly outnumbered by those Wraith darts and the chatter we’re picking up doesn’t sound promising. The window is almost closed for any possible transport. Are you sure you want to go down there? I won’t be able to retrieve you if something goes wrong. You’ll be on your own.”

Raising her chin and hiding how her insides were jittering more than a preschooler needing to go pee pee (visiting Jeannie while Maddie was potty training had been hell, a very stinky and damp kind of hell), Meredith crossed her arms. “I’m used to being alone. Just get me to Atlantis, Colonel Calwell. I’m sure I’ll be fine.” This would also look really good for the review committee who’d decide if she got to stay on Atlantis after the siege was over. 

“Very well.” Lips pressing tight, Caldwell consulted his screen and snapped a few orders to the bridge crew. 

Head tilting, he frowned and tapped at something on his screen, muttering to his XO, “Something strange is happening with that formation. They’re making a hole for that puddlejumper leaving Atlantis.” 

Caldwell leaned forward in his chair and activated the channel to engineering. “Hermiod, beam Mckay out now and then stay on standby. I have a feeling something big is about to happen.”

Meredith opened her mouth to ask what he meant, but before she could get out the words she found herself standing in the gateroom on Atlantis. She was in Atlantis! The pictures hadn’t done it justice. Meredith slowly closed her gaping mouth. The stargate here was both beautiful and functional, sleek in a way Earth engineering hadn’t quite managed. Soaring stained glass windows and high ceilings evoked the feeling of some alien cathedral that worshipped discovery and exploration. 

And the blues! Every shade of blue imaginable had gone into the construction of the space. It was as much art as engineering, even the glowing staircase leading up to the balcony above. The room was filled with light and the air smelled crisp, almost electric.

“Meredith?” Looking up, she saw Troy standing on the balcony overlooking her and the gate. “What are you doing here?” He blinked, as if not sure she was real, and rubbed his eyes. Stubble uncharacteristically darkened his chin.

Next to Troy stood Radek Zelenka and expedition leader Elizabeth Weir. Weir looked pale and almost pained beneath a veneer of iron control. Sparing Meredith a single glance, she turned back to the monitor everyone was clustered around, including a gray-haired and wrinkled old woman with brown skin like tree bark. Meredith was disturbed to recognize the old woman as the once-strapping Colonel Marsha Sumner. Meredith had read about her getting drained by a Wraith, but the reality was much more disturbing.

John was conspicuous by his absence, though he could be out there somewhere fighting. Could be, but each quick step up the stairs and closer to the cluster of people around the monitor increased the jittery feeling in her gut. Meredith activated her com to Caldwell. “I’m down safely, Colonel.” Not bothering to switch the channel off, Meredith joined the command staff. “Dr. Weir, what’s your status? Where’s Colonel Sheppard?”

Flinching, Weir sucked in a breath and schooled her expression. “Sheppard is in a ship, cloaked and radio silent. He’s flying a bomb onto one of the hive ships, trying to blow it up and save us.” She gestured to the small puddlejumper icon on the screen sliding between Wraith darts as it approached one of the huge hive ships. 

“What?” That was suicide. “No. No no no no no.” 

As Meredith watched, John’s ship landed on the closest of the huge Wraith hive ships. An invisible hand clamped around Meredith’s throat, choking back the scream building in her chest. 

Then the hive exploded. The signal from the puddlejumper disappeared, the puddlejumper with John on it. John was gone. He’d destroyed the hive, but at what cost?

He was dead. 

John was dead and she’d been too late. Again. She’d been useless. Again. John had left her alone. Again.

Pressure squeezed her mind mercilessly like the migraine from hell. Despair and anger and fear slashed over her like iron barbs. The gateroom was as silent as a tomb. How fitting. John was dead. Meredith didn’t think she could survive another loss like this. She hated John for making her feel that way but, most of all, she hated herself.

John Sheppard was dead.

Chapter Text

“I think about that centurion from time to time and wonder, had he retired to a farm in Campagna, happy with his harvest of grapes and grandchildren, or had he fallen amongst his comrades on some distant, ruined field, defending the honor and the ever-expanding borders of the Republic? What we foreigners have failed to comprehend over the centuries is that the proud centurion would have found either fate equally satisfying.” 

ANDREW LEVKOFF, “A Mixture of Madness”


-11 months earlier-

He was being watched. Finger on the trigger of his gun, Lt. Col. John Sheppard pivoted, sweeping his eyes across the rutted dirt road and sun-bleached wooden buildings of Biva, designation M6G-209 in the Pegasus galaxy. He didn’t see anyone, but the prickling feeling on the back of his neck didn’t go away. John moved soundlessly into the shadow of the nearby barn. 

He hoped it was a villager who had survived the Wraith culling but braced himself to engage a Wraith drone. He’d only been in Pegasus for a little over a month and had already witnessed more civilian casualties than his entire time in the Middle East. It made him feel both angry and helpless.

John still didn’t find the watching eyes on his second pass. His sweep of the rooflines also proved fruitless. It was only when he looked down at the open road that he found the source of the feeling. He was being watched, but not by anything living. Feeling stupid, John moved his finger away from the trigger.

In the middle of the dirt road sat a rag doll. She’d been hastily dropped, leaning sideways with her legs splayed out. A lace collar and sleeves framed the doll’s painted face and floppy yellow hair, which had been gathered to one side with an intricately knotted red ribbon—a prayer braid dedicated to the mother goddess worshipped here on Biva, according to Teyla. For a necklace, another knotted red ribbon held a pretty piece of metal and crystal that looked Ancient in origin. 

The doll’s painted blue eyes stared at John accusingly.

John didn’t blame the doll for her glare. He was guilty, at least indirectly. They all were—all those who’d come to the Pegasus galaxy looking for treasures in the city of the Ancients and, in the process, accidentally woken up the Wraith early to start their feeding cycle. Intellectually he knew he should place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the enemy, but it was hard to be logical when faced with an empty town he’d so recently seen full of people.

The Wraith were a sentient, hive-like, humanoid species with advanced technology. Humans were their food, though they fed on life-force instead of flesh. No one in Pegasus but the Wraith had space-faring technology and the Wraith wiped out anyone who showed signs of getting too technologically advanced. It had been going on for millennia. Despite that, many of the people here hadn’t given up hope or stopped fighting, though the ways they’d been forced to adapt to survive alternatively horrified, saddened, and enraged John.

The Ancients who built the Stargates had pre-dated the Wraith but later fled Pegasus for the Milky Way Galaxy, probably to escape having to deal with the Wraith problem, too busy trying to ascend to worry about saving the humans they left behind as food. It pissed John off.

Teyla Emmagen, John’s Pegasus-native guide, had told them that the bulk of the Wraith usually fed in predictable cycles and then hibernated for long stretches, giving the people living here time to repopulate and rebuild. All of that had changed after the SGC moved into Atlantis and started naively stumbling around during their explorations. Even once they’d learned of the wraith, they hadn’t taken the threat seriously. 

Then the wraith had caught and interrogated Col. Sumner. She’d managed to not betray the exact location of their home galaxy, but she hadn’t managed to keep the Wraith from finding out it existed. Now the Wraith were feeding on the few humans left in this galaxy like a plague of locusts, stocking up for a trip to find new feeding grounds in the highly populated Milky Way. 

The expedition had come to Atlantis to find technology and allies to help protect Earth. Instead, they’d made things worse for both the people here in Pegasus and the people back home. At least the Goa'uld and Ori didn’t want to eat people.

John should be glad he wasn’t the one responsible for keeping the expedition alive and safe. He should be, but wasn’t. He couldn’t help the burn in his gut as the leadership kept making what he considered overly-cautious mistakes and blunders. The command staff in charge of Atlantis—Col. Sumner, Dr. Weir, and Dr. Forrester—didn’t seem to see the value in sending more scientists out on gate teams or in making closer ties with the native peoples here. Considering they might be cut off from Earth forever unless they found another ZPM, the current strategy seemed the height of foolishness to John.

Then again, maybe they were doing the best they could. This situation was so much worse than they’d expected or planned for. How did you prepare to be seen as another species’ food? Although his orders chafed, John was a career officer. He knew how to bite his tongue and obey, no matter what the black marks in his jacket implied. 

Usually when a situation chaffed, John focused on what he could actually control and tried to stay unattached and let everything else roll off his back, but something about being out here made that difficult. Maybe it was the uniqueness of being a part of the SGC and protecting not just American interests but those of the entire planet and now the entire galaxy. Maybe it was meeting natives like Teyla who’d lived under unimaginable strain without letting it break them. Maybe it was finally having the second-highest rank but not actually being given the power and respect that should go with it.

Or maybe Rome’s uncharacteristic reverence and enthusiasm for Atlantis had infected him. She’d always been good at getting him to do things he hadn’t intended to do. Rome had been the crowbar that had first pried him out of his numb shell and made this mission sound like such a good idea. 

Rome—professionally known as Dr. R.M. Mckay—had often knocked him painfully head over heels during the years of their acquaintance, though she rarely noticed and never apologized for it. In return, he never thanked her for it even when he should, though he always felt comfortable complaining. As difficult and high-maintenance as she was, he’d always known he wasn’t smart enough or ambitious enough to keep up with her, though that hadn’t stopped them from somehow becoming best friends. For a few months, they’d even been more than friends.

Since Rome wasn’t here to argue about it, he’d decided to blame her for the current state of his bleeding heart. Since she was constantly on his mind, it made her a convenient target. Sometimes he also blamed her for the problems on the command staff and the irritation of having to deal with her ex-husband, the head of sciences Dr. Troy Forrester. Everything would be better if Rome was here and in charge of the sciences instead of Forrester. She’d complain about the food and natives left and right while improving everything she touched and miraculously fixing machines that had been broken for millennia. If she’d been here, they’d probably have already found or fixed a ZPM and be in regular contact with Earth. Of course, if she’d been here, she’d be in danger of being eaten by the Wraith too.

Not that Mckay hadn’t been devastated to be refused the chance to come to Atlantis, but being irritated with her for not being here was easier than feeling sorry for both her and himself. Everything in this galaxy was hard so John was choosing to feel something easy.  Irritation was a lot more acceptable than the way his throat closed up at the thought of never hearing Rome’s voice again or seeing the ferocious intelligence in her blue eyes, of never again kissing her lips outside of ephemeral memories and frustratingly insubstantial dreams. John might privately admit to pining over Rome, but if anyone asked, he was simply irritated.

Of course, if anyone asked what he felt, they’d probably be more surprised by his feelings about Atlantis. The City of the Ancients spoke to him in a way nothing else ever had. The mental component of Ancient technology had become a constant companion on the fringes of his mind. It should’ve felt annoying and claustrophobic, but instead, John surprised himself by coming to like it. Speaking in math, Ancient symbols, and simple emotions, the constant press of machine babble refused to let him feel lonely. Ancient technology was always pleased by his presence and attention, even if it was a distant and haughty pleasure. 

At first, he’d merely felt bemused, but soon the experience broke through his walls and in the process made him inadvertently care about not just the city itself, but all of the people who had come to call it home. Once he started to care about them too, it was hard not to care about all of the innocent people he met on missions through the stargate. 

He’d blame that on Rome too, but that was too much of a stretch. She’d always been someone more comfortable caring about people in the abstract. It was rare she became attached to specific people. She could seem callous on the surface, but a little digging revealed her heart of gold—even if you had to break through the steel plating to get inside. For a genius who loved the sound of her own voice and bragging, Rome was strangely silent about the big things she did out of kindness and love. 

John didn’t know how he’d earned Rome’s regard, but he did know she’d gone out of her way to help him out over the years. He suspected that she’d interfered in his career to try and help it along even more than she’d already admitted to, compensating for what she considered an appalling lack of ambition. John had benefited from way too many “lucky” coincidences over the years, starting a few months after they’d first met testing experimental planes in his early twenties. 

Of course, he’d never find out if his suspicions were true now. Without the power of a new ZPM to reopen the gate to Earth, talking to Rome again was impossible. She was lost to him. At least she was lost safely over there instead of here in danger of getting eaten by the Wraith.

John still hadn’t found a single surviving villager in Biva. He pulled out the Ancient life signs detector to check again. The LSD always sent out tendrils of mental math to make sure John knew it was pleased to be useful again. John just wished the answer it was giving him was different. 

He counted the number of lights on his screen, which corresponding to living human beings in range, but the number hadn’t changed from when he’d first gotten here. There were still only the five dots of his people and the two traders who’d come through the Stargate right after them. The rest of this thriving village had completely disappeared—culled by the Wraith for food. Everyone had searched it by foot anyway, hoping against hope that the LSD was somehow wrong, but they hadn’t found anyone, just echoes of the people who’d lived here like the doll dropped in the middle of the street. 

Glancing at his watch, John’s stomach clenched with anger and sadness. He’d like to call for a jumper to try searching the nearby forests and hills to see if anyone had escaped culling by hiding out farther afield, but his orders from Col. Sumner were clear. It was time to report back in. 

John added the lost village of Biva to his mental tally. One of these days, he was going to take the fight to the Wraith and teach them that they could no longer feed on human beings with impunity. He was going to teach them the meaning of justice and revenge. 

But not today.

“Time’s up, people,” Sheppard said over the radio. “We can’t do anything more here. We need to head back.”

Within a minute, Teyla appeared at the end of the flattened dirt street. Resignation and sadness were stamped across her normally serene face. “We have searched the houses and Foran, who was born here before leaving to apprentice with his mother’s people on another planet—” she gestured to the visibly upset trader trailing behind her, his brown hair held back from a pale brown face with an intricately braided red cord that matched the doll in the road “—took us to the hidden places where the villagers would have tried to hide from a culling. Unfortunately, there were no signs that anyone had made it that far. Have your men found anyone else?”

Teyla was helping them out as a native guide who’d traded with many worlds and knew many locals, but the command staff of Sumner, Weir, and Forrester wouldn’t let her or the other Athosians do more or have a bigger presence on Atlantis. That the Athosians had been allowed to retreat to Atlantis and later settle on the mainland after their world was culled had taken a minor miracle and John asking forgiveness rather than permission during times of chaos. John wanted to help the Athosians even more—and knew that Teyla would be helping the expedition more if the command staff would just let her join a team full time—but it was out of his hands. He was only the unwanted Air Force 2IC in a posting dominated by Marines and scared civilians.

John wished he could do better by her, that he could tell her he’d managed to find a survivor, but all he seemed to bring to Teyla and the people of Pegasus was disappointment, made all the worse by the short-sighted and stringent orders constraining him. Just because John had spent most of his life being a disappointment to somebody didn’t mean his current failure didn’t sting, especially when he was trying so hard instead of letting himself coast on by. 

“I’m sorry, Teyla.” John didn’t specify for what.

She tried to hide it, but he heard the hitch in her breathing. When they’d visited the thriving village last week, Teyla had been greeted with hugs and cries of joy by the matriarchs here. They’d teased Teyla gently about choosing one of their men to give her a child and finally make her a mother. Several men had followed her around hopefully with calf eyes. Teyla was a regular visitor here and knew most of those who’d been culled by name.

Behind Teyla, the trader Foran moaned and tangled his hands in his hair, not seeming to notice when his knotted red prayer braid broke at the pressure and slid to the ground. “The culling cycle has started too soon. Too soon. The Wraith should not have woken up like this for another fifty years and they shouldn’t be this hungry. Always before, they have left at least a few, some children if nothing else to replace the population later. It’s wrong.” Eyes red, he leaned over and picked up the doll in trembling hands, hugging it to his neck with an angry sob.

John had been trying his best not to picture the face of the little blond girl who’d been playing with that doll in the street last week, but Foran’s actions conjured up the memory. 

They’d come chasing rumors and trade alliances. A barn storing boxes of Biva’s famous Redolla fruit stood next to the little blond girl’s house, though the real trade had been for information about possible Ancient artifacts and structures. The expedition wasn’t desperate for outside food yet, but it was still nice to supplement the dried stores with some variety and freshness, especially with something as tasty as Biva’s Redolla fruit, which looked like a red peach with no pit and tasted like coconut strawberry cola.

During trade negotiations, the little blond girl had snuck from her doorway into the barn and stolen a Redolla out of a box right behind the backs of the matriarchs. When she’d seen John watching, she’d widened her eyes and put a finger to her lips. At his amused nod, she’d sent him a crooked grin, tossed her golden hair back, and run off gleefully. The smile and attitude had made him think of Rome and what her daughter might look like if she ever had a kid.

Not his kid, though. 

That possibility was as dead and gone as this culled village. As much as he desperately missed having Rome by his side, he was even more desperately grateful that the IOA had denied her permission to come to Atlantis with the rest of them. At least he’d never have to see Rome grow old before her time, sucked dry of life and all that bright vitality by the Wraith, never have to see her eyes scared and bruised by living under the shadow of death like so many of the faces in this galaxy. This way, he wouldn’t be responsible for her life or continued survival. This way, she was safe.

Unlike the rest of the people stuck in this galaxy.

If only the expedition had done things differently, maybe they wouldn’t be scrambling so hard to catch up. Maybe if Sumner had listened to Teyla more on Athos or if John had asked better questions. Maybe if they hadn’t run into the Wraith before fully understanding the situation. Maybe if Troy Forrester wasn’t such a self-centered coward and actually tried to use his intellect to go out and help others instead of just himself. Maybe if Elizabeth Weir wasn’t so aloof and cautious.

All of the if-onlys and what-ifs made John’s chest hurt. He had to stop looking back and focus on the here and now. Regret didn’t do him any good. The Wraith would’ve come no matter what, even if it had been a few decades down the road. This wasn’t the first or even the fourth culled village he’d seen in the last month. He knew better than to think it would be his last. 

Even the Ancients had fled from the Wraith, but his people on Atlantis and those in the Milky Way didn’t have that choice. Earth didn’t have that choice.

Then again, the people of Earth might not be as advanced as the Ancients, but they also weren’t as heartless. Despite his frustrations with them, John knew that Col. Sumner and Dr. Weir would not give up on the people here in Pegasus or refuse to fight the Wraith. If Atlantis could save the people here from the Wraith without needlessly endangering the expedition or Earth, they would. They might go about it differently than John would’ve, but they were trying.

Down the street, John saw his people jog around the corner. Lts. Ford and Tolman, two dark-skinned Marines with matching scowls, looked similar enough to be mistaken as brothers except for Tolman’s larger nose and cleft chin. Lt. Cohen, a tall woman with golden skin and dark hair and eyes who was usually known for her indefatigable cheerfulness, looked uncharacteristically solemn, her eyes puffy and face splotched red. Only Lt. Ford was a regular member of John’s gate team—well, Ford and Teyla when he could get permission to take her. The other two spots were filled on an as-needed basis on Colonel Sumner’s orders. John didn’t like it, but he wasn’t in charge. Cohen had been on the contact mission to Biva so John had brought her along as a familiar face for the villagers.

Scrambling after the soldiers was a pale and sweating Dr. Troy Forrester. John hated Forrester, but he was trying his best to stay professional for the good of the expedition. That the man was Mckay’s ex-husband wasn’t even the only reason, though it was enough of one. John had too much honor to just let a man die on his watch, but if Forrester suffered a fatal accident outside of John’s control to stop, John wouldn’t shed any tears. Since the hatred and homicidal feelings were mutual, John made sure to never give the doc a chance to stab him in the back because the man would certainly take it and then shed crocodile tears at the discovery of John’s body. 

John could admit that Forrester was decent at his job administering the Science Department, but he didn’t seem to care about anyone but himself. Problems were always someone else’s fault and repairs delegated. Forrester tried to hide it, but he disdained military personnel and their mission objectives. Even with Dr. Weir, he kissed up to her in public and undermined her in private. Forrester was here to grab glory for himself, not to better the situation of the people back home or on the expedition. He concerned himself mainly with his personal research and keeping the science labs organized, leaving the grunt work of exploration and fixing of the Ancient infrastructure to others whenever he could get away with it.

Forrester hated going out on missions, but they needed someone to investigate Ancient structures they found in situ and Dr. Radek Zelenka—John’s choice—was currently too busy doing practical things to make the city safe and livable to go off-world just yet. As much as John liked Zelenka, the man didn’t like being on a gate team and had no interest in staging a coup of the science department to take over from Forrester and his equally disagreeable deputy Dr. Peter Kavanaugh. 

Unfortunately for John.

Despite this, Weir and Sumner regularly teamed up to make Forrester go out on missions at least once a week. Privately John wondered if it was an excuse to get Forrester out of their hair for a while. Forrester hadn’t been able to charm the two female commanders despite his best efforts. Although John really wished he wasn’t assigned as Forrester’s usual babysitter, he at least got the satisfaction of watching Forrester be equally unhappy.

There had been rumors of an Ancient temple here on Biva, but the structure in the center of town had turned out to be a normal building housing a few broken Ancient crystals and a panel broken off of a puddle jumper. The team had found the remains of an ancient crash site and pieces of a puddle jumper on their first trip, which was why Forrester had been coerced into coming along to pick up the supplies this time in case he could detect something more.

“We didn’t find anyone, Colonel. What about you?” Cohen was trying to look tough but couldn’t hide the sadness in her red and watery eyes.

John ground his teeth and shook his head. “The Wraith took everyone.”

From the corner of his eye, John saw Teyla flinch. She looked down and scrubbed knuckles across her mouth.

Reaching out, John couldn’t help but touch her arm. “I’m sorry. Again.” He didn’t know what else to say. The situation on Atlantis and out on the field made him feel so powerless.

Expression softening, Teyla shook her head. “No, Colonel, you could not have known what would happen. Place your blame at the feet of the enemy, where it belongs.”

“What does she mean?” Foran growled, taking an angry step towards John. “What did you do? Is this your fault? Did you bring the Wraith here to take my people?” Spittle flew from his mouth as he threw the doll at John’s head.

John caught the doll in front of his face with one hand. It felt sticky and smelled of the sweet Redolla fruit they grew here. The little blond girl might’ve been eating when the culling started, dropping her doll in the street to run from the culling beam. The Wraith had gotten her anyway. 

Shaking his head to dispel the blond girl’s image, cursing his imagination, John lowered the doll to his side and took a step back. Foran followed. John didn’t want to fight Foran. “No, I did not.” 

With a click, Ford disengaged the safety on his gun, pointed it at Foran, and cleared his throat warningly. “Step back from Colonel Sheppard. Now.” 

Tolman and Cohen stepped back to give themselves space and readied their guns as well.

“It’s fine,” John said, holding out his hand in a signal to wait. There was nothing to be gained by fighting with a grieving man.

“He’s done nothing deserving of blame, Foran,” Teyla said, stepping forward and lifting her hands peaceably. “The culling is no more Sheppard’s fault for coming here than it is that lost child’s for being born. The Wraith bear all the blame, as is always and ever the case.”

Foran narrowed his eyes at John, not looking placated by Teyla’s explanation. The trader’s body tensed and a muscle ticked in his jaw.

Just when John braced himself to dodge a punch and send the man to the ground, Foran’s eyes flicked down John’s body and abruptly flared wide. Foran froze. Shock and fear flashed across his face. “It’s glowing,” he breathed. “How? Just who are you?”  

Looking down, John saw that the doll’s crystal necklace had lit up at his touch. It made him aware of the weak feeling of an Ancient device on the edge of his mind, like the sound of a puppy’s tail thumping hesitantly against the ground in uncertain greeting. 

Sighing internally, John ran mental fingers down the device’s code, soothing it back to sleep. The glow turned off.

“I’m just a traveler named John Sheppard,” John said quietly. “A friend of Teyla’s and a trader like yourself, but otherwise no one worth remembering.”

Foran’s eyes narrowed. “A traveler named Colonel John Sheppard who carries high-tech weapons, makes the Ancestor’s machines glow at his touch, and shows up around cullings. I won’t forget you and the debt you owe my people.” His eyes glittered with hostility. 

“Foran, let us get what we came for and go,” the other trader called wearily as he finally joined them. He was an older man with dark hair and skin the color of teak. Walking to the supply barn, he pushed open the doors and ducked inside, returning with a full pack over one shoulder. “Here is what we paid for, let us leave lest the Wraith come back. We will hold the ceremony for our kin when we return home. Fighting is pointless. Come.”

After a moment of hesitation, Foran’s head bowed. Not looking at John, he turned and left for the Stargate.

“Fare thee well, Huron,” Teyla said to the older trader, who had paused by her side. Putting their hands on each other’s shoulders, they touched foreheads in farewell according to Teyla’s Athosian customs.

Tears stood in Huron’s eyes when he stepped back. “May the Ancestor’s guide your steps, Teyla Emmagen. May they guide us all in these dark times.” Nodding to John with more reserve, he caught up to Foran and they disappeared over the curve of the hill leading to the clearing housing the Stargate.

“Should we take our supplies too, sir?” Ford asked John hesitantly. 

Unsure, John looked to Teyla. He knew Sumner would put practicalities over local traditions, but Sumner wasn’t here and he was. The expedition still had enough supplies to be flexible with the locals. “Teyla? What is your preference? I don’t want to be disrespectful of those you knew here.”

Teyla bowed her head. “Thank you for your consideration, Colonel. I would not approve of looting the personal effects of those who are lost, but taking perishable supplies and even harvesting the already planted fields is an accepted practice. To survive we must often choose the practical over sentiment.”

“Great, so moving on, can I see the crystal that lit up?” Forrester interrupted, gesturing to the doll in John’s hand. “Might as well try to get something useful out of this stupid trip.”

Lips flattening, John pressed the doll to his chest and suppressed his first urge, which was to bare his teeth and tell Forrester that he’d touch the doll over John’s dead body. “It’s not anything useful, just a bit of crystal and housing from beneath that broken puddle jumper’s navigation console. We have plenty of those still intact in Atlantis.”

Ignoring the opening of Forrester’s mouth, John announced, “I’ll be right back,” and strode away into the house next to the barn. It was easy to find the little girl’s bedroom. Flowers were painted on the walls and an embroidered blanket was crumpled at the foot of the bed. On the floor was a dropped pillow and discarded nightgown. A tower of wooden blocks sat in one corner.

Returning the pillow to the bed, John laid the little blond doll on top of it and turned to leave. He took two steps and stopped, dropping his chin. Letting out a heavy sigh, he scrubbed a hand over his head and turned back around, going down on one knee, to untangle the doll’s knotted red ribbon and tug her dress straight. Once she looked as neat as he could make her, he pulled up the blanket and tucked her in. 

When John stood up he felt twenty years older. Acid burned his gut as he looked down at the little blonde doll in the bed. “I’m sorry. I promise that I’ll do what I can to keep the other little girls out there safe and one day, though I don’t know how or when, I will make the Wraith pay.” 

Reaching down, John brushed his fingers across the crystal with a mental command, making it glow softly, a night light to keep the doll company in the dark. 

John gently closed the door at his back and left the house, ignoring Forrester’s scowl and Teyla’s soft look.

Turning to Ford, Tolman, and Cohen, John pointed at the barn. “Let’s get those supplies loaded up and get back to Atlantis.” 

As everyone moved forward, John noticed a rash forming along the side of Cohen’s neck. In fact, her cheeks looked a bit blotchy too.

“Lt. Cohen, are you feeling alright?” John frowned.

She looked at him in surprise. “Sir?” Her voice sounded husky, as did her breathing now that he was listening for it. Cohen’s hand went to her throat and she swallowed. “Oh shoot, I think I’m allergic to that red fruit they grow here. We went through the orchard to search and I got itchy, but I thought I’d be fine. I stayed away from that area the first time. I’m so sorry, Sir.”

Frowning, John reached into his pocket for the EpiPen he’d made part of his standard kit ever since becoming friends with Rome, who had an anaphylactic allergy to citrus. “Do you need a shot of epinephrine?”

Stepping back, Cohen held up her hands. “No! Sorry, but that would make things worse. An EpiPen could actually give me a heart attack and wouldn’t stop the allergic reaction or swelling of my airway at all.” She was sounding wheezier. The blotchy red hives rising on Cohen’s skin looked painful and her eyes watered. The red and puffy eyes he’d noticed earlier must’ve been from the allergic reaction, not crying. He felt a bit ashamed for assuming she was weepy just because she was a woman. 

“I need medicine but I think I have a few more minutes before it gets serious. I’m sorry. I can help load up first.”

“Absolutely not,” John said. “Get back to Atlantis and see Dr. Beckett ASAP. Ford, make sure she gets there okay. The rest of us will grab the supplies and follow.”

“Yessir,” the two soldiers answered, taking off for the gate at a trot. Ford matched his pace to Cohen. 

John, Lt. Tolman, and Teyla quickly loaded redolla fruit into the large packs they’d brought while Dr. Forrester mostly just stood around looking sullen and bored. As soon as they finished, they left the culled town of Biva and returned through the gate to Atlantis.

Chapter Text

“I thought I knew everything when I came to Rome, but I soon found I had everything to learn.”

EDMONIA LEWIS

 

Back in the gateroom, John passed his full pack off to a waiting Marine and waved down Sgt. Bates, who was in charge of base security. For Sgt. Bates, the Marine Core was his religion and anyone outside of it to be held at a distance. He had short-cropped curly brown hair, light brown skin, and a long face and full mouth more given to sternness than smiles. 

John had a feeling Bates didn’t like him very much, perhaps because of the rivalry between Marines and the Air Force or perhaps because Bates was rabidly loyal to Sumner and back on Earth she hadn’t bothered to hide her resentment and disdain for John being forced on her as a 2IC. However, no matter what Bates’s personal feelings, he gave John the respect demanded by his position and had proven to be very good at his job. John had to respect that in turn.

“Bates, did Lt. Cohen get to the infirmary alright?” John asked.

Bates nodded. “Yessir. Dr. Beckett said Lt. Cohen would be uncomfortable and itchy for a few hours, but mostly recovered by tomorrow. However, he said to tell you no off-world travel for a week to make sure she doesn’t have an unexpected flare-up. Cohen’s cheerful attitude makes her popular, so I told the infirmary to expect a steady stream of visitors until they release her.”

John relaxed at the good news. “Great, did any other problems pop up while I was gone?”

Bates uncharacteristically hesitated. Staring straight out across the gateroom, he straightened his shoulders. “No, sir. No one has activated anymore unknown Ancient machines or gone outside our designated safe zone, so the city has been quiet. In other good news, the Athosians on the mainland found a new herd of goat-like creatures and are planning a hunt. They’ve offered to let a few of us come along to collect fresh meat for the city as long as Col. Sumner approves. Some of the kitchen crew started a rumor about asking the Athosians to capture a few to supply us with fresh cheese, so if you could put in a good word with Sumner, the men would appreciate it.”

“Fresh cheese,” John said wistfully, passing over his weapons to a waiting Marine to be returned to the armory. “Consider it done, sergeant.” 

Tapping his toe, John still didn’t continue on his way, instead folding his arms and turning to watch the men unpacking the supplies he’d brought on the other side of the room. The scent of squashed redolla fruit drifted over and John was grateful someone else would be in charge of cleaning the packs out instead of him. Rank did have its perks.

Turning with him, Bates shuffled his feet but didn’t leave to continue his rounds. The dour-faced sergeant was hesitating over saying something. Whatever it was had to be important if he was thinking of telling John about it.

John let the silence build before softly prompting, “Is there anything else I should know? Maybe on the down-low?” He kept his gaze focused on the bustle on the other side of the room, only watching Bates’s expression from the corner of his eye.

Breath stuttering, Bates looked down at his feet. Another minute of silence passed before he murmured through tight lips. “She passed out again during our meeting this morning. Hit her head. She woke up before I could call medical and ordered me to leave.” Bates took a step back, turned on his heel, and walked away up the steps to continue his rounds.

John struggled to keep his expression even. It felt like a helo had crash landed on his shoulders. It reminded him that having even a little bit of responsibility was often more curse than a blessing. 

Something had to be done. He’d been burying his head in the sand about this for too long. But what to do and how to do it, now that was the million-dollar question. John wished he could pass it off to someone else, but there was no one else he could trust to do it, not really.

Lt. Ford was the third in line for command and a Marine like Col. Sumner. He was a good man, but he was also too young and new to command to task with a problem like this. He could be both overly-ambitious and insecure and didn’t always think things through when stressed. John liked Ford too much to make him do something that could land him in the brig, despite John’s attempt to stay unattached to the people he worked with. John felt responsible for Ford. It was one of the reasons John had dragged himself out here to Atlantis when he had someone like Rome waiting for him back on Earth. He couldn’t ignore how much the people on the expedition needed him.

Despite John’s attempts to keep to himself, he kept finding himself becoming attached to people: the men and women under his command like Ford and Cohen, scientists like Miko Kusanagi and Radek Zelenka, and even Elizabeth Weir and Marsha Sumner—two very different but strong women full of integrity and grit that he couldn’t help but admire even when they were making—in his opinion—short-sighted command decisions. 

In Atlantis, John couldn’t pretend he didn’t care. It wasn’t that he worried about himself—he was a military man; if he died, he died. But the stakes were too high out here for everyone else. He couldn’t just coast or say screw it when the expectations felt strangling. John had to step up and do something because the consequences if he didn’t could mean catastrophe for not just the people he knew here but for every human being in the Pegasus galaxy and perhaps the Milkyway as well. John didn’t have a great track record with living up to people’s expectations, but he couldn’t stomach the thought of failing. 

First, however, he needed to join his team for the post-mission check-up in medical. This problem had been brewing for a while. It could wait a few more hours.

By the time he got to medical, Forrester had charmed a civilian nurse into agreeing to let him go back to his quarters to shower instead of doing it in the nearby locker room, which was SOP. Since they’d been to the planet before without incident and Forrester had obviously passed his physical, John didn’t bother protesting this time, especially since he wasn’t guaranteed to win the argument with the arrogant Forrester since the man didn’t recognize John as having any authority over him. However, he did make a mental note to casually bring the situation up later with Dr. Carson Beckett, the head of medical. Beckett didn’t allow anyone to give him the runaround in his infirmary.

If Sumner was told, she’d definitely dig in her heels on the side of following the letter of the law, but she already had enough stress on her plate right now without adding something so petty to it. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t wanted John as her 2IC. That was his job and he was going to do it to the best of his ability. Not caring wasn’t an option anymore, no matter what he might prefer or what would be easier. That included balancing what Sumner could do in her current state with what he could get away with doing himself and with what they could both safely ignore. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it was what he had to work with. 

“Sheppard.” Walking by John on his way out of the infirmary, Forrester pushed his glasses up his nose and sneered. “Unlike you, I’ve got important things to do, so you can report to Elizabeth and Marsha that we didn’t find anything useful and that sending me out in the field was a complete waste of my time.”

“You’ll file your own report on the server within twenty-four hours, just like everyone else, Forrester.” John met Forrester’s eyes evenly. He’d let the shower slide, but he would not let the man think he could start giving John orders.

Forrester paused, trying to dominate John with his gaze like he was some insecure lab tech instead of the son of cutthroat CEO Patrick Sheppard, a career officer in the Air Force, a veteran of conflicts in the Middle East, and the best friend (and short-term boyfriend) of the notoriously strong-willed Meredith Mckay. John would not cower before the likes of Troy Forrester, even if he was Mckay’s ex-husband. Especially because he was Mckay’s ex-husband.

The head scientist blinked and looked down with a huff, losing the battle of wills. Forrester fiddled with his glasses petulantly. “Fine, I’ll type something up later.” Body stiff, he turned and stomped out of the infirmary. John didn’t bother hiding the contemptuous quirk of his lips as he watched Forrester leave. 

Turning, John made his way to a curtained off bed. He got through his physical quickly and took a shower before dressing in a fresh uniform. Strapping on his watch and inserting his radio into his ear, John rolled his shoulders, took a deep breath, and activated his radio before he could talk himself out of it. “Col. Sumner? This is Sheppard. I just got back from a mission. Do you have time for a meeting?”

“I’m just doing paperwork in my office, Sheppard. Come on up whenever you’re ready,” she said.

“Thank you, ma’am. Sheppard out.” Rolling his shoulders again, John clenched his jaw and left for his CO’s office like a man walking to the gallows. There was nothing about this meeting that he was looking forward to. Going to the nearest transporter, he waited for the door to swish closed and keyed in his destination. Instantly he was transported to the new location, the Ancient device sending him a happy lick of code at being of service.

Too late, John realized that he could’ve walked the long hallway and flights of stairs to put off this conversation for at least a few more minutes. Col. Sumner had taken over the fourth floor in the main tower for military administration. The floor had several rooms set up like offices with desks, chairs, and big pots that the city had automatically planted with fast-growing trees once power was restored. It also had a large number of balconies and staircases leading to several key locations inside and outside the tower in case of emergencies, important in the early days before they’d discovered the transporters. 

Since then the Atlantis population had spread out from the main tower. That early expansion had led to a lot of accidents. Since then Sumner—fully supported by both Sheppard and Bates—had made it a rule that people weren’t allowed to travel to a new sector until it had been cleared by the military and posted as approved on the listserve. 

Luckily Elizabeth agreed to the limitation since Forrester and some of his scientists had protested that it slowed down their research. They’d also somehow overlooked that it had slowed down the rates of accidental death and injury on the expedition too.

Glancing out the windows lining the hallway, John allowed the beauty of this alien city situated in the middle of the ocean to soothe him. Everything was so blue. He liked it. Some people found it stressful that Atlantis was unlike anywhere found on Earth. Others found the constant mental press of Ancient code intrusive. 

Not John. 

He didn’t advertise it, but from the moment he’d first stepped out of the Stargate, the steps had lit up at the touch of his foot like a pack of dogs gleefully welcoming home a long-lost master. Other programs wound around him like cats, curious and sometimes affectionate but not particularly obedient. Not all of the programs here were so friendly, especially those farther out from the core, but the feeling of them moving back and forth around the edges of his mind had become his new normal. John hadn’t slept so well in years, despite the heavy stresses of their current situation.

Here in Atlantis, Dr. Beckett had finally succeeded in creating a gene therapy to give people an artificial version of the Ancient genes so they could activate the otherwise gene-locked technology. The scientists had been so excited that several fights had broken out over who’d get the gene therapy first. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for everyone. 

It hadn’t worked for Col. Sumner. 

John wondered if that was one of the reasons Sumner had seemed so cautious about adapting to their new situation and embracing life here. Unlike John, she didn’t constantly feel welcomed. She didn’t feel at home. Then again, the reason for Sumner’s emotional reserve was probably a lot simpler and a lot more obvious. In her place, he’d probably not be doing half as well.

But Atlantis was John’s chosen home and people now. He would do whatever he had to do to protect them. Even this. Reaching Sumner’s office, John didn’t let himself hesitate before knocking on the door. 

“Come,” Sumner called in a wavering voice that would never again carry commandingly down the hall. 

Opening the door, John stepped inside and shut it behind him, saluting the frail, white-haired woman sitting behind the desk. He’d finally gotten used to seeing a stooped old woman with papery brown skin creased with age instead of a sleekly-muscled and commanding woman in the prime of her life. Well, mostly got used to it. The burn of dismay, anger, and guilt low in his gut would never truly go away. His CO had been drained of almost half a century of life in that first meeting with the Wraith. By the time John got to her, it had been too late. She’d only still been alive because the Wraith Queen was still interrogating her about the location of Earth and the population of the Milky Way using some sort of telepathy. 

John had managed to shoot the Wraith Queen and rescue Sumner before she unwillingly gave away all their secrets, but he wished he’d have known then what he knew now about making sure a Wraith was well and truly dead before walking away from the body. Maybe if he had, the rest of the Wraith wouldn’t have learned about the dense feeding grounds of the Milky Way and woken up early to cull the humans of Pegasus for the trip. Or maybe because of their telepathy it had already been too late. There was no way to know now.

Sometimes he wondered if Sumner wouldn’t have preferred to die in that hive instead of being rescued and forced to live as a frail old woman. She’d locked eyes with him during her torture and silently urged him to shoot her. He’d shot the Wraith instead and gotten lucky enough to miss the face and hit her feeding hand instead, which he now knew was probably the only reason she’d retreated. Headshots didn’t always keep a Wraith down. Knowing what he knew now about the effects of a Wraith feeding and if given a choice, John probably would’ve chosen death for himself instead of what Sumner was going through. He wondered if she resented him for saving her.

Maybes and what-ifs. John had to let it go.

“At ease, Sheppard,” Sumner said, gesturing him to sit down with age-spotted hands. Her eyes were sunken and the bones of her cheeks and brow protruded in between the layers of wrinkles. She wasn’t eating enough. Her clothes hung on her body like a hanger. She wore her gray and black paneled expedition jacket and a black shirt with the collar partially unzipped, her only concession to the current heat and humidity of Atlantis. The tip of the feeding scar on her chest was just barely visible in the open zipper, a gnarly line of brownish-pink scar tissue about an inch wide corresponding to a Wraith fingertip. 

The corner of her forehead looked dark and slightly swollen, probably from where she hit it when she passed out during her meeting with Bates. It reminded John of why he couldn’t keep ignoring the problem at hand. Protecting his people meant protecting her too, even from herself.

“How did your mission go?” she asked, bringing up the relevant file on her computer screen. 

“Biva was culled just before we got there,” John said bluntly. “Probably last night or this morning. The embers of the cooking fires were still warm.”

Sumner’s fingers froze for a moment before she sat back, lips pressing tight. “Damn it. Any survivors this time?”

“No, we looked but—no.” Looking down, John rubbed his hands on his thighs. “Teyla said it would be okay if we took any of the perishables as long as we didn’t touch personal belongings, so we loaded up the already prepared supplies we’d traded for and came back to base. If we need to we can go back for more or send people to harvest the fields, but if you and Dr. Weir want to do that we should act fast. We ran into two other traders there so word will spread. I wouldn’t be surprised if the place gets picked clean within the week, even with the fear of the Wraith returning.”

Resting her chin on her hands, Sumner frowned. “What about the Ancient site? Did Forrester uncover anything of use there?”

“It was just a building housing a few broken pieces recovered from that jumper we found. There wasn’t anything worth taking that isn’t already here in the city in better and greater supply.”

Sighing, Sumner sat back in her chair. “I’ll update the database and talk to Elizabeth.” She stared at him without saying more. Her eyes went heavy-lidded and unfocused.

“Ma’am?” John prodded, fingers twitching in preparation to catch her in case she fainted again.

Sumner startled, blinking rapidly before her eyes focused again. 

“We should probably talk about this,” John forced himself to say. “Believe me, I want to keep ignoring it too, but the men are starting to feel uneasy and insecure. That’s dangerous on an isolated posting like this, especially in a warzone. You’re also not taking care of yourself properly, which I find upsetting on both a personal and professional level. Ma’am.”

Looking upset, Sumner pushed herself to her feet shakily. She went to the balcony and opened the doors, gulping in a breath of brisk ocean air. Most of the offices had some sort of balcony. The Ancients must’ve liked ocean views as much as humans did. When Sumner looked back at John, she had her expression once more under control and her breathing even. 

Tilting her head, she silently invited John to join her outside and they moved out onto the balcony. Sumner folded her arms behind her back. “Did you know that before we left Earth, Dr. Mckay cornered me in a conveniently broken elevator?” 

Confused by the nonsequiteur, John leaned an elbow on the balcony and looked out over the vast blue ocean. In the distance something whale-like leaped out of the water, landing with a white splash, and a flock of almost-gulls soared around the gleaming spires of Atlantis. 

“Did she try to convince you to smuggle her in as an Air Force Captain? Because I told her that wouldn’t work.” At the memory of how that day had ended with their first kiss, a smile tugged up the corner of John’s mouth. Even covered in grease and dirt, she’d been beautiful.

“Actually, no. We didn’t talk about her. We talked about you,” Sumner said.

The smile instantly dropped from John’s face. He had a bad feeling about this.

Sumner turned to face John with an arched brow. “Mckay gave me quite the speech. She started out by telling me that you would probably seem lazy and stupid. She said you’d try to avoid responsibility and attachments if I let you get away with it.”

Straightening up from his slouch, John ground his teeth at Rome’s attempt to help .

“Since I wasn’t happy having a washed up Air Force officer chosen for his genes and gender forced on me as a 2IC in the first place, you can imagine how thrilled her comments made me feel.”

John kept his eyes trained on the almost-gulls on the pier below, not trusting himself to say anything. He could feel a muscle jumping in his jaw. Usually, he could shrug off criticisms, but that Rome had torn him down behind his back and to his commanding officer to boot—it hurt and made him feel angry and betrayed. She was lucky to be on the other side of the galaxy right now and out of his reach.

Sumner continued, “While trying to fix the mysteriously broken elevator that only stopped working once we were alone, Mckay said a few more insulting things that further reinforced my bad opinion of you.” 

John shoved his fists into his pockets and concentrated on breathing through his nose. 

Sumner shook her head in admiration and followed his gaze to the almost-gulls. The gray feathers on their heads had an iridescent pink sheen. “It was very cleverly done.”

“Excuse me?” John’s head jerked over to glare at Sumner, even though he should know better than to glare at a superior officer, even—or rather especially —during a dressing-down.

The breeze ruffled Sumner’s white hair above the darkening bruise on her forehead. Glancing at him out of the corner of her eye, Sumner’s mouth quirked. “By bad-mouthing you with carefully phrased truths, she got me listening and agreeing with her despite my initial intentions. I even made the mistake of nodding. She trapped me easier than a snot-nosed private in basic.”

Confused, John blinked and pulled his hands out of his pockets.

Sumner turned her eyes back out onto the ocean. “After all of those insults, Mckay trapped me in that piercing blue gaze of hers and wouldn’t let me look away, much like the ocean can suddenly turn deadly when it catches you in a riptide. She told me that I needed to ignore all of that and expect great things from you instead, that you were smart and trustworthy and if I gave you my respect, you would be the best officer I ever had the privilege of working with, that you would follow me to hell and back and do absolutely everything in your power to protect our people, up to and including sacrificing yourself. Then she told me I just had to put in the work.” 

Uncomfortable, mind spinning more than a surfer tumbling off a big wave, John crossed his arms.

Sumner swiveled to face John, the sun at her back haloing her white hair. “I don’t take well to unsolicited advice, especially not from civilians. I opened my mouth to tartly inform Mckay that I already knew how to treat my officers when she surged to her feet and got in my face.” Huffing, she shook her head and quirked her lips. “I’ve made Generals think twice with my glare, but despite being almost a head shorter and a lot softer, your Mckay just shrugged it off and glared back with her finger in my face. She informed me that John Sheppard was solid to the core, hiding a brilliant mind and a fierce heart.”

John didn’t know what to say to that, to any of it. A bird shot by only a few feet overhead but neither of them looked up. His skin felt alternately flushed and clammy.

“At that point, Mckay turned away, twisted something inside the open elevator panel, and finished with the advice to not believe the front of the lazy house cat who only comes running when the treat of flying is involved. She told me you could be a lion protecting and leading the pride if I only gave you the chance.”

John shuffled his feet and swallowed.

Sumner gave a slight nod as if reading something on his face. “The elevator finally began moving as Mckay apologized for staying up late watching Animal Planet the night before and told me that she wished she was coming with us but that at least she didn’t have to permanently give her stupid neighbor her cat, which is a detail you’d think I’d forget but the strangeness of it all burned everything into my memory. When the elevator came to a stop on the next floor and the door opened, Mckay picked up her toolkit and stepped out, turning one last time to tell me that leaving you on the sidelines would be stupid and my file didn’t show me to be a stupid woman, challenging me to judge you for myself. Before I could reply the doors closed, leaving me once more on my own. Throughout that entire conversation, I never got in a single word.” Sumner’s lips quirked. “It was a rather startling experience.”

John ran a hand through his hair. “Rome is… Rome… is Mckay,” he said lamely. He didn’t know what to feel: embarrassed, flattered, loved, or frustrated. Nothing with Rome was ever easy.

Cocking her head to the side, Sumner looked John up and down. “I am not a stupid woman, Colonel Sheppard, but nor am I hasty to act. That caution has served me well during my career. However,” she turned so the sun caught her, turning the strands of her hair to silver clouds and her face to something ethereal, “Dr. Mckay was right. Mostly. It took me a long time to give you a chance, but as soon as I did, Sheppard, you stepped up, impressing me over and over again… except for when it came to making hard choices for the sake of the mission.” 

John’s lips went tight along with the muscles in his back.

“I’ve been waiting for you to come and talk to me about taking over, waiting but at the same time half-hoping this conversation would never come.” Sumner released a long, slow breath. “They say it’s hard for an old woman to change and I can tell you from experience that it’s doubly hard for a young woman in an old woman’s body, but when we put on the uniform and choose to serve we agree to take the path that is right over that which is easy.”

“Ma’am?” John prompted roughly when her eyes drifted over his head and went unfocused again, the silence stretching for too long.

Clearing her throat, Sumner shook herself and looked John straight in the eyes. “John, I think it’s time you started calling me Marsha.”

John inclined his head in a move copied from watching the ever-dignified Teyla. “I’d be honored, Marsha.”

“Good.” Nodding, she straightened her thin shoulders and raised her chin. “Change has come for us both, forcing us to take a new path. Colonel Sheppard, I am putting you in charge of the Military stationed here in Atlantis. Circumstances are forcing me to step down, so you will step up and take care of our people and our mission to the best of your ability.” She sent him a sharp look that made his spine snap straight. “So there you are. Will you accept? Or will you disappoint both myself and Dr. Mckay? Are you a housecat or a lion?” 

Mouth gone dry, John swallowed to wet his tongue. “Yes, ma’am—I mean—of course.” Looking down, he muttered, "I hate cats, I'll never understand Rome's obsession with them." 

Stomach swooping, John was reminded of the curse, be careful what you wish for. He’d know taking command was the likely solution, but he’d secretly hoped Sumner would pull another option magically out of her hat. Ambition had never driven him but the freedom to follow his instincts was appealing. He was both cautiously excited about finally being able to make a difference out here and abjectly terrified he’d fail and let everyone down, getting people killed. He wiped sweaty palms down his pants.

Sumner— Marsha watched him with steady eyes. "Rome is Dr. Mckay I assume?" 

“Yes—sorry, it’s a nickname,” John shook his head and went into a parade stance. "Thank you for your trust, ma’am. I accept the command and promise that I will do my best for Atlantis and our people." As the vow settled over his shoulders, John felt his doubts subside. He’d finally have the power to make a difference. That would be awesome.

Marsha nodded. Looking out at the geometric spires of Atlantis piercing the sky, she sighed and allowed her shoulders to droop. Her lips thinned. “I considered moving you to a new position attached to base administration and promoting Lt. Ford—and in some ways I'd still prefer a Marine with ambition for leadership—but I have a feeling you can step up in ways this galaxy needs even if your training and personality are not exactly like my own.” 

“I will be a different type of leader. Will you support that?” John asked seriously.

Clear-eyed, she nodded firmly. “As soon as command passes, I will never again contradict you in public, on my honor as a Marine. I won’t hold my tongue in private—and I expect you to be wise enough to make time to meet with me regularly—but out there we will be a united front for the good of the expedition. I will tender my resignation to the command council as soon as we conclude our meeting and move my things somewhere out of the way.”

Tapping his hand on his leg, John had an idea. “You’re right that there can’t be any ambiguity about my being in command, but I don’t think completely side-lining you serves our mission well either. Your mind is still sharp even though your body is failing you. I’d like to create a new position for you as the Matriarch of Atlantis, giving you an advisory position on the command council but outside of the chain of command unless something dire happens. The position would include maintaining military fitness and base security along with some administrative tasks. Bates could be your second along with another assistant so the position isn’t too strenuous. You’d also be in charge of riding herd on the civilians to reign in some of their suicidal enthusiasm and coordinate with Weir, Beckett, and Forrester.”

Going back on her heels, Marsha’s brows went up in surprise before narrowing in thought. She hummed thoughtfully. “Matriarch of Atlantis. I could do interesting things with that.” She met his eyes and nodded crisply. “I like it. Count me in, John, and… thank you for not sidelining me completely.” She held out her hand. “Welcome to command.”

John took her hand and shook it firmly. “Thank you, Marsha, for your honor and grace in the face of the unthinkable. I don’t know that I’d be adjusting as well as you have in a similar situation. Going forward, I will do everything in my power to keep the members of this expedition safe and to fight the good fight against the Wraith.” John felt a burn of excitement at being able to finally take action the way he’d been wanting to since they got here.

“Good luck, John.” Marsha inclined her head regally. “I’m going to go and talk to Elizabeth. We’ll push through your new clearances. After that, I think I might take a long walk.” Her lips quirked, “You can take over the requests needing approval on the military server and the other paperwork that’s now your responsibility as military commander.”

“Will do, just,” John took a quick breath and caught Marsha’s eye, “check-in first with Dr. Beckett about passing out this morning… and stay close to the public areas on your walk, just in case. I may be taking over, but I’m not so arrogant or so stupid as to think that I don’t need your experience and wisdom for as long as I can get them.” When she hesitated, he added an earnest, “Please.”

Corner of her mouth turning down, Marsha looked away and nodded. “Fine. Atlantis is now yours to protect. Serve her well.”

“To my last breath,” John promised solemnly, saluting her and staying standing as she turned and walked slowly away. 

Only when she was gone did he let himself feel what had just happened. He’d never wanted this much responsibility but now that he had it… rubbing his face, he felt a positively leonine smile stretching his cheeks. Atlantis was now his to protect and direct in the fight. He still had to answer to Elizabeth but he now had the power to make things better. It was a heady feeling.   

Leaving for his office with a skip in his step, John began planning out his first wave of changes. He could finally ask Teyla to become a permanent member of his team. He could also make someone else deal with Forrester off-world from now on. John had a feeling he was going to enjoy being in charge.

Chapter Text

“Rome is one enormous mausoleum. There, the past lies visibly stretched upon his bier. There is no today or tomorrow in Rome; it is perpetual yesterday.”

THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH


-1 month earlier-

Ten months after taking command of Atlantis and about a year after leaving Earth, John Sheppard leaned against a wall listening to Troy Forrester layout abysmal news from the newly discovered long-range sensors. Three Wraith hive ships were headed directly for Atlantis. The command council had met to discuss what to do, but there weren’t many options. John didn’t have the supplies or technological superiority to keep his city or his people safe. Despite his best efforts, they were staring down the barrel of a gun. It seemed unlikely they’d survive the fight to come. It was his worst nightmare come to life. 

John was doing his best to keep the despair and animal rage off his face as he asked Troy, “How sure are you about that timeline of two weeks?”

The head scientist looked down and fiddled with his glasses. “The long-range sensors show a steady travel speed that puts them that far out unless they unexpectedly accelerate. If that happens, I’ll let you know right away, not that there’s much we can do about it except die more quickly.” Troy grimaced bitterly.

“The city may be a sitting duck, but there’s no reason for us to wait passively to be slaughtered,” Marsha said, cutting her age-spotted hand through the air. “If we can’t repel the assault, we can evacuate our people from Atlantis and do our best to blow up the city behind us so they end up with nothing.”

John’s chest physically hurt at the thought of destroying Atlantis, but he knew Marsha was right. “We should start evacuating the Athosians from the mainland and non-essential personnel through the gate before the Wraith ships arrive. I’ll send Bates and a team out to look for an Alpha site that can hold all our people.” Pushing away from the wall, John looked around at the faces in the room and did his best to project calm. “We need to prepare for the worst, but I’m not ready to just give up on Atlantis without a fight.”

“I agree,” Elizabeth said, the corners of her eyes and lips tight. “But keeping Atlantis and information about the Milky Way out of the hands of the Wraith comes first, even above our own survival.”

“Though survival is still very important,” Troy cut in stridently. “Most of us are civilians, not soldiers expected to fight and die for King and country.”

“Which is why we’ll evacuate non-essential personnel before the Wraith get here,” Marsha told him curtly.

“I could leave Zelenka and Kavanaugh here and go ahead to prepare the Alpha site,” Troy quickly offered. 

“Troy,” Elizabeth said commandingly, waiting for him to meet her eyes, “you are both our foremost expert on the technology here in Atlantis and the leader of the Science Department. You have to stay. We’re going to need you on hand here if we’re to have the best chance possible to defend the city. Only if the time comes when all hope is lost will I order the evacuation of the command staff.”

Face pale and lips pressed tight, Troy stared at her for a moment before nodding jerkily. He looked away and swallowed hard, fiddling with his glasses again.

Looking down, Elizabeth adjusted the position of her tablet half an inch before glancing up. “That said, not only is this our home, it’s also where the SGC will come looking for us if they ever find a ZPM on their end to open the stargate. Once we leave Atlantis, the chances of them finding us again go down drastically. Is there any possibility of leaving a message so they can find us?”

John crossed his arms and frowned. “I won’t agree to that unless we can guarantee the Wraith won’t find it and use it to track us to our new Alpha site. Our current safety has to come first.”

“He’s right.” Marsha went to gesture but grimaced and fisted her hand when the fingers started to tremble. The tremor wasn’t fear, it was the effects of old age. Her shooting accuracy scores had been plunging the last few months because she had trouble keeping her hands steady. If they weren’t in an active warzone and it wouldn’t risk destroying her mental stability and his people’s morale, John would deny her the right to carry a gun at all. He hoped to send her away to the Alpha site with the first wave of evacuees but had a feeling she’d insist on staying to the end with the rest of them. Then again, even with the tremor, she could still shoot better than Troy.

“As it so happens, I do have a solution for that,” Troy said, running a hand through his brown hair and causing the carefully groomed strands to stick up untidily. “We’ve just refined a revolutionary data-compression process that will allow the expedition to send a quick but massive data burst through the stargate to Earth. Opening the gate for even a split second will drain a lot of our power, but nothing that would save us in the current situation. At least it will remind the people on Earth that we’re still here, maybe even give them the impetus to do something that could save us. We can use it to tell them what’s happening and how to find us.”

“Good.” Knocking her knuckles decisively on the table, Elizabeth nodded. “At this point, I agree that the power usage would be worth it. John?” He nodded in agreement. “Good. Let’s put together everything we have and send it out ASAP. No use putting it off.” Looking around the room, she added, “If there’s room, I think we should also allow people to record personal messages to those back on Earth as well. Troy?” She looked at the scientist in question.

Checking something on his tablet, Troy cleared his throat. “Yes, that should be fine. A short video recording from every member of the expedition wouldn’t add much to the final file size.” He looked up. “I’ll get a camera set up and make a schedule for passing it around as quickly as possible. It’ll be… nice to have the chance to say goodbye. Even though it was always a possibility, many of us never believed coming to Atlantis was going to be a one-way trip. This was supposed to be the scientific discovery of our lifetimes and the beginning of bigger and better things, not… this.” Gesturing weakly, his shoulders slumped, making him look small and sad. 

None of them had expected it to be like this. John felt a spurt of gratitude that at least it was Troy looking down the barrel of the gun instead of Rome. As much as he wished he could consult with her genius brain on a solution to their current problems, he was glad she wouldn’t be dying on his watch. Losing Troy would be bad for the expedition but not something that would keep John awake at night considering how much they disliked each other. Maybe that made him a bad person but he was too tired to worry about it. “Is there anything else to be discussed?” He looked around.

“I think that’s it,” Elizabeth said, also subdued. “I’d like us to meet daily, even if only for fifteen minutes, to make sure everyone stays current on what’s being done. We all have a lot to work on to get ready for the upcoming siege, but make sure to pace yourselves and your people so no one collapses right when we need them most. Good luck.” 

Meeting dismissed, they scattered to prepare for the Wraith invasion. John called a staff meeting with Sumner and his officers and got them up to speed on the crisis. They brainstormed ideas for offensive and defensive measures. John cherry-picked the best ideas and sent everyone scrambling.

Right after seeing Bates’s team off in the gateroom to go and find an Alpha site, John returned to his office to find a new email waiting from Troy. John had been assigned the final and latest time slot to record a goodbye message for the people on Earth. It may have been intended as a slight from Troy, but John didn’t really care. He wasn’t even sure he was going to record a personal message. He’d rather his family remember him from his last visit than whatever trite and grim goodbye he’d manage to come up in the midst of the current situation. 

As for Rome, he had too many words tapping against his teeth to fit within a short video, not to mention that all of them felt too private for public viewing by some random SGC tech. Rome knew how he felt, knew he loved her. What more could he say that would help ease his upcoming death? She was strong. She’d be fine. It hurt too much to think otherwise.


That evening, John couldn’t sleep. He got up, went to his office, and prepared a few words for each of the families of the brave men and women they’d lost on the expedition going all the way back to their first encounter with the Wraith. Marsha may have been doing something similar but he didn’t ask. As acting military commander of Atlantis, it was John’s duty to honor and remember his fallen people.

Once done with his notes, he went on a walk through the night-darkened halls of Atlantis, mentally telling the lights to stay dim. John didn’t want light right now. Even the normally eager Ancient programs felt subdued as if the city itself somehow understood the threat they all faced. John relaxed his mind and slid his fingers across the walls as he wandered, subtly soothing and petting the programs of Atlantis. He hoped it wasn’t a farewell but at the very least the action gave him a sense of peace, at least enough to find some sleep for the night.

Turning a corner to loop back towards his private quarters, John passed an open door. A glance inside showed a darkened room striped with a column of light from the open door of the balcony where someone had the lights on. Looking closer, John saw Troy Forrester through the door. Troy had his arms wrapped around one knee while he talked into the video camera set up on a tripod. John had never seen the man really relax, but his shirt collar was gaping open and his expression looked uncharacteristically vulnerable. John would’ve left Troy to his privacy if he hadn’t heard him mention Mckay. Any message Troy recorded to Meredith Mckay was something John wanted to hear, whether it was his business or not. John moved closer but stayed in the shadows of the doorway. The nearby lights dimmed as Atlantis sensed his intent.

Looking soulfully into the camera, Troy said, “I miss you, Meredith. I miss my wife. Sometimes on laundry days I still check for green ink smudges on my white dress shirts from the eager press of your hands, even though you haven’t touched me in years.” 

Face falling, the fingers clasped around his knee went tight and his voice small. “I guess I should say I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known what was going to happen to you, I hope you know that. We both lost our tempers, but who could’ve guessed that they’d really send you out when you were like that and let you get kidnapped to a backwater like Manudia?” 

John’s curiosity sharpened. Like what? And what kidnapping? It didn’t seem like Troy meant the time she’d been rescued by Sgt. Kindall. Had Rome kept a second kidnapping from him? Why? And what exactly had Troy done that he was half-heartedly apologizing for? 

Rome had avoided mentioning any specifics about her marriage to Troy except for the fact that it had ended badly and that she now hated Troy’s guts. Since John already disliked Troy and hadn’t wanted to talk about his failed marriage to Nancy, he hadn’t bothered pushing for more. He wished he had now.

Out on the balcony, Troy rubbed his knee, his voice turning petulant. “I understand you being upset by my subterfuge and regrettable loss of temper, but you didn’t have to divorce me over it. Your temper was just as bad and you were back to normal soon enough, after all. You should’ve given me another chance.”

Back to normal after what? Just what had that bastard Troy done to her? Clenching his teeth until they ached, John felt a muscle jumping in his jaw.

Sighing, Troy looked up into the camera. “I had a plan. Once I established myself here I was going to lobby the IOA to bring you out to work under me. I was going to make you love me again. My biggest regret is losing you and what we had together—well,” he smiled wryly, “my biggest regret after coming to Atlantis in the first place, considering I’m likely to die in the upcoming Wraith attack. I don’t want to die. I don’t deserve it.” 

His face spasmed and he took a shuddery breath. “You should be here instead of me. I should’ve let you have the spot and stayed safely on Earth.” He held up a finger, “And before you get mad and turn this off, I want to say that that’s not even entirely selfish. You’d know how to fix things here, I know you would. You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met and no matter how many times you get knocked down, you somehow always get back up on your feet and keep on swinging. You’d probably see something I’m missing and find a way to destroy the Wraith and open the gate to Earth in one fell swoop...” his voice trailed off unhappily.

Smoothing back his hair, he dropped his knee and straightened his back, pulling on his usual mask of arrogance until all traces of vulnerability were hidden. “Or not. I am just as smart as you, after all. I guess we’ll never really know if you could’ve succeeded where I failed, not that it’s over yet.” 

Troy’s lips quirked and he glanced out across the moonlit spires and ocean waves. “I do wish I could show this place to you, it’s even more amazing than we ever imagined. We could’ve had a lot of fun exploring and discovering together, but now it’s secrets are likely to die with me and you’ll have to live on in ignorance. Shed a tear for me, would you, darling? Maybe even name a theory in my honor, something that’s worthy of a Nobel and write-up by the worldwide press.” He pushed his glasses up his nose and looked back at the camera. “Farewell, my wife. Think of me fondly once I’m gone.” Lower lip trembling, Troy turned the recording off.

Mood foul, John slipped away before Troy noticed him eavesdropping.


When John’s turn with the camera came the next evening, he set himself up in his office with his notes and dutifully recorded messages to the families of all those lost. As he finished the final recording, he found his finger hesitating on the stop button. 

Licking his lips, throat dry and pulse jumping, he dropped his finger and sat back. “My final message is for Mckay.” He hadn’t planned this, but with echoes of Troy’s message playing in his mind, John found his mouth working on autopilot. “Tell Mckay I’m glad she isn’t here. I’m glad she’s safe on Earth and far away from Atlantis.” 

Desperately glad. John never wanted to be responsible for Rome’s death, for failing her so spectacularly. He already had recurring nightmares of racing down to the science labs, only to find the Wraith-drained corpse of Rome as an old woman with broken hands smudged in green ink. If she was still alive when he found her in the dream, she spent her last moments cloudy-eyed and speaking threadily about all the ways he was a failure and disappointment, that she should’ve known he was too stupid and useless to save her. In other dreams she screamed for him as she died, screamed for a rescue that always came too late.

Fingers trembling out of sight of the camera, John focused on the wall and grappled for control of his breathing. He didn’t know what more to say but he didn’t want Rome suffering and pining over his loss and she would because she had a ridiculously sensitive and extremely loyal heart once she decided to care about someone. She’d probably even feel bad for Troy even though he was a dick and had done something unforgivable to her. John felt powerless. Maybe he was being arrogant, thinking she worried about him when he wasn’t around, but what if she was? He loved Rome too much to wish for her tears. He didn’t want to be the cause of her pain.

“I should’ve ended things when I left like I’d intended.” No matter how much they loved each other, he should’ve known better. Even if he’d stayed, he never would’ve been enough for Rome long-term. Long distance relationships almost never worked out. He’d seen that too many times over the years. Plus, she was always going to want someone smarter and more ambitious than John to settle down and have genius babies with. Maybe if he’d moved them back to being just friends she’d already be over him and he’d be able to focus on the fight to come instead of constantly obsessing about her back on Earth, but he hadn’t. Instead, John had selfishly clung to her words of devotion and left her with the uncertainty of hope.

How would Rome take the news of the permanent loss of both John and Atlantis?

Badly. Very badly.

Abruptly he realized that there was nothing he could say that would make Rome feel better about any of this, nothing he could do to stop the hurt. Looking into the camera and addressing her directly for the first time, John pictured her face and kept it simple. “Good luck and… goodbye, Rome.” 

There was more, so much more he wanted her to know, but it was too late. The time for that had passed. Reaching out, John hit stop before the dam holding back the desperate and raw words in his heart burst open. He’d never been good at poetry and sweet nothings. Better to stop now than to go on record babbling like an incoherent idiot. Besides, the words in his heart were too private for anyone’s ears but hers, which meant she’d never hear them because John was never going to see her again. 

Sitting back in his chair, John rubbed hard at his mouth and ignored the stinging in his sinuses. What had he been thinking? Going off the cuff had been a bad idea. He should write down something better and re-record it. The little he’d said to Rome had been stilted and awkward. He should’ve just left her alone. Everything she needed to know had been said during their farewell in the gateroom last year. 

Irritated with himself, John leaned forward to delete the message when his earpiece chimed. 

“Colonel Sheppard, sir?” It was the sergeant on duty in the gateroom.

“Yes? Sheppard here, go ahead.”

“You wanted to know when Sgt. Bates returned, Colonel. He and his team just came in hot, but no serious injuries. They’re going straight to medical now and asked to meet with you after they complete their post-mission checkup.” Bates was supposed to be finding them an Alpha site on an empty world. Injuries meant something had seriously gone wrong. With the Wraith bearing down on them, they didn’t have time for a new problem.

“Thank you, sergeant. Let them know I’ll meet them there.” Jumping to his feet, John picked up the camera and left his office at a jog. This new problem meant they needed to get the data burst off to Earth STAT before the option disappeared. The scientist who’d discovered how to compress the files for the data burst—Miko Kusanagi without any input from Troy at all despite his use of the royal ‘we’ when claiming credit—had an office on the way to the infirmary. Her door was open but she was gone, so John just dropped off the camera on her desk and broke into a jog towards the infirmary. 

John needed to know who had been firing at his men and what had happened with the supposedly safe and isolated Alpha site Bates had radioed in about just an hour ago.


Getting the answer made their situation feel even grimmer. The Wraith were tagging planets, making it harder for the people on Atlantis to find a place to escape. 

They sent off the data burst for Earth that night, opening a stargate to Earth for a split second. Despite the late hour, the entire command staff gathered to watch. It seemed such a huge thing to go by so quickly. Before he could even swallow down the lump in his throat the gate had already winked closed. Their generators registered a massive but not debilitating drain and the work of preparing for the siege went on.

Suspending all non-essential missions, John put every team he had left on finding a safe planet for the Alpha site. 

It took a week. 

During that time John lost three Marines to Wraith ambushes on far-flung planets and one civilian who broke under the pressure and jumped off a balcony into the ocean. The losses brought morale to the breaking point. 

After meeting with Marsha, John chose the most isolated planet they’d found for the Alpha site and started evacuating all non-essential personnel. John wished he could test the safety of the planet even longer but they didn’t have the time. Crossing his fingers, he armed the initial group as heavily as possible. 

Despite his arguments, Marsha flat-out refused to leave, calling John’s bluff about having her tossed through the gate by saying that she might break a hip and have to come right back anyway for treatment. 

Throwing up his hands in frustration and turning away to hide his relief at not having to do this alone, John made her go through the military roster again to send as many soldiers as they could through to protect the civilians. There was no need for anyone to die needlessly.

All of their plans hinged on destroying the Wraith fleet at a distance or fooling them into thinking Atlantis was already gone. If the Wraith made it in close enough to beam onto the city for a hand-to-hand fight, the city would be lost. It was simple math. There were too many Wraith and not enough human soldiers. Keeping his people here when they were doomed to die was pointless.

Maybe if Atlantis had another ZPM to power weapons or shields… but she didn’t. There was no point in wishing for a miracle that wasn’t going to come. John hadn’t slept or eaten well in weeks, too busy trying to find a way to keep his people alive when every new piece of news was worse than the last. 

John was doing his best to save his people and his city, but he privately accepted that he was probably going to die in the attempt.


The next few days didn’t do much to change that impression, especially when they were forced to activate the self-destruct and start abandoning Atlantis. 

Even when Col. Everett gated through from Earth with a troop of Marines, six naquadah-enhanced nukes, several rail guns, and a Mark II naquadah generator to power the chair’s weapons platform, John didn’t get too attached to thoughts of actually surviving, probably due to Col. Everett taking over unilaterally, countermanding most of John and Elizabeth’s standing orders, and sidelining Marsha completely. Despite having no experience fighting the Wraith, Everett thought he knew better than the people who’d been doing it for the last year (or even their entire lives like Teyla). 

When Everett went out with a squad of men to engage the enemy in the hallways of Atlantis and abruptly stopped responding to radio hails, John was sad and disappointed, but not really surprised. 

When the scientists rigged up bombs big enough to take out the approaching hive ships but failed to figure out how to remote pilot the jumpers, John merely felt a sick sort of acceptance. Of course things wouldn’t go right for him. They never had.


-Now-

Thus as John flew a bomb towards a Wraith hive ship, he felt rather fatalistic about his role as a suicide bomber. If it saved Atlantis and his people, it was more than worth it. The clincher was knowing that he was keeping Rome safe back on Earth. He was fine with dying as long as it kept danger far away from the woman he loved. John took comfort in picturing her safe in her lab on Earth, scribbling away on an engineering schematic with one of her favorite green pens.

For too long John had struggled with the self-knowledge that no matter how hard he tried, his best was never good enough. Since disappointing people was inevitable and painful, he’d gotten into the habit of not bothering to do his best. Atlantis had changed that. He might have wished that the best way to protect Atlantis, Earth, and Rome didn’t necessitate his death, but at least he knew that his death would make a difference. It was something to be proud of.

And hey, at least he would finally get a little bit of rest, even if it had to be a final rest. 

As he touched down on the deck of the Wraith hive ship in his cloaked jumper, John activated the bomb and closed his eyes. 

Like the snap of a flag catching the wind, the memory of a lazy Sunday on Earth unfurled behind his eyes. John let himself fall into it. Rome was draped across his chest with her fingers delicately petting the smoothly-shaved contours of his cheeks and jaw while John’s hands traced up and down the perfect dip of her lower back and the curves of her hips, their mouths lazily kissing and kissing and kissing. They lay in a puddle of warm sunlight and warmer emotion where they pretended that nothing mattered but each other and tomorrow would never come. It was a good memory.

White light flared hotly against John’s closed eyelids as the bomb exploded. 

Chapter Text

“There’s one thing that I like about Rome that was stated by Napoleon: that from sublime to pathetic is only one step away. And in Rome there’s a constant shifting between sublime and pathetic.”

PAOLO SORRENTINO


-Now-

John was dead. 

Meredith’s vision tunneled. She had to lock her knees. Air whistled through her throat. She teetered on the edge of a panic attack but she didn’t have time to break down. John would be so disappointed if she collapsed at his death instead of using the time he’d bought with his sacrifice to save Atlantis. There would be time to mourn later, the rest of her life in fact, which would probably be short unless she installed this ZPM and raised the shields against the remaining Wraith cruisers. Meredith needed to be strong. She focused on breathing and managed to wrench control of her body back from her subconscious. 

“I brought a ZPM to power the shield,” Meredith said into the heavy silence. “Troy I—I need you to help me. Troy.”

Blinking rapidly, Troy sucked in his breath and moved towards her convulsively. “Did you say a ZPM?” He reached for her backpack but she shied away. It was her ZPM, not his, and she would be the one to put it in Atlantis. She needed the purpose to keep from thinking about John being dead.

“Yes, and it’s mine. Just take me to the housing chamber and I’ll do it,” she said curtly, looking away to hide the hitch in her breathing and the teary sheen in her eyes that she couldn’t quite suppress. 

“Of course. A ZPM!” Troy held his hands up peaceably but didn’t move his eyes from the pack on her back.

“I’ll raise the shield as soon as we have the power,” Zelenka said in a strained voice. “This could save us all. Is good to see you Mckay, even with—well—with everything.” 

He meant with Atlantis under attack and John being dead—but she wasn’t thinking about John right now. Not about him being dead and not about any spirits that John might be joining on the other side. 

Heart breaking, Meredith wrenched her mind back to the sight of Zelenka’s crazy hair and sad eyes, sucked in a wet breath, and scrubbed a hand across her face. She had to focus. She had to be strong and prove to these people that she was useful. “Yes, right! The ZPM housing chamber. Let’s go. Now.”

The radio on the consol abruptly crackled, signaling an opened connection. “Atlantis, this is Sheppard.” 

Grabbing Troy’s arm to stay upright against the surge of vertigo, Meredith dug in her fingers, ignoring his wince or the way he put his hand around her back a second later to steady her. She was scared that she was hallucinating. What if this was an aneurysm? It was too early for the world to loose her genius. Her heart felt like it was thumping unevenly in her chest. Did heart attacks cause auditory hallucinations?

Weir clutched at the edge of the console and leaned forward, “John? Is that really you?”

“It’s me. I’m alive.”

The people in the gateroom burst into celebration. 

Feeling like she was going to faint, Meredith dropped her forehead to Troy’s shoulder and closed her tearing eyes. John wasn’t dead. Sucking in a wet breath, she forced her head back up and wiped her nose across her sleeve.

John gave a slightly hysterical laugh over the open channel, quieting the cheering crowd. “The SGC sent us a spaceship! They beamed me out just before the explosion crisped me, though it was close enough that I feel like I’ve got white after-images imprinted on the inside of my eyelids, but enough about that. You need to tag the final bomb for the Daedalus up here. They can beam the warhead onto the last hive ship instead of our pilots doing another suicide run. I’ll update Colonel Caldwell on the situation down there and then get them to beam me back down to you.”

“That’s great, John, and tell Colonel Caldwell thanks.” Smiling fiercely at their abrupt reversal of fortune, Weir turned and started snapping out orders. 

Looking up Meredith and pausing for a moment, Weir nodded. “We’re glad to have you, Dr. Mckay, and that ZPM. Get to it.”

Meredith felt like she could fly. Releasing her grip on Troy, she stepped away from his supporting arm. John was alive! Taking a deep breath, she brutally shoved down her inconvenient emotions and reminded herself that she was here to do a job. She needed to be professional, not breathing into a bag or doing pirouettes.

On the same page, Troy gestured briskly. “Come on, Meredith, we need to go and get that shield up.” 

Glancing at Weir, he added, “It’ll take us about fifteen minutes to reach the housing chamber and another five to ten to install the ZPM.” 

“Hurry,” she said curtly. “We need those shields.” Weir turned away to answer a question from someone else.

“Stay in the safe zones and listen for bulletins about Wraith in the corridors!” called a sergeant with a nametag reading BATES as he rushed past them.

“Don’t we need bodyguards?” Meredith asked weakly, but all the soldiers seemed too busy to answer.

“Wait,” Zelenka said, grabbing a case off a nearby table and tossing it to Troy. “There’s one more dose of gene therapy in there. Give it to Mckay just in case.”

Troy fingered the latches of the case but didn’t open it. “Maybe we should wait. I know you hate needles, Meredith.” He started moving, forcing her to follow.

Meredith was already rolling up her sleeve. She’d been desperate to have the ATA gene therapy ever since she’d read about the successful version in the mission files. “It’s fine, go ahead.”

“There’s a chance it won’t work,” Troy warned as they reached one of the transporters she’d read about. He switched the case to his far arm and frowned.

Pursing her lips, Meredith looked at him for a moment before realizing what his expression meant. “You don’t want it to work on me. You don’t want me able to activate Ancient technology by myself.”

Proving her guess right, Troy stumbled and almost dropped the case. 

Meredith glared and snapped her fingers at him. “Give it to me, Troy. Now.”

“Don’t order me about, Meredith,” he huffed, finally opening the case and pulling out the one remaining syringe. He paused for a brief second before unscrewing the cap.

Eagerly turning to present her biceps, Meredith nonetheless whimpered when Troy slammed the pressure-injection needle home—perhaps a little harder than necessary. “Ouch, that hurt,” she whined, pressing on the wound with the edge of her shirt to staunch the bleeding. 

“I told you it would,” he answered snootily, dropping the needle into the case, and discarding it into the nearest planter before stepping inside a small room the size of a closet. 

Joining him, Meredith tried to hide her wonder as the doors slid closed and a panel in the back lit up with a city schematic that made her fingers itch. With John safely alive on the Daedalus, she could turn her attention to the exhilaration of finally being on the city of the Ancients. The throbbing of her arm was as good as a pinch for letting her know this wasn’t a dream.

“How long does the gene therapy take to work again?” she asked, bouncing a little on her feet and flexing her arm to get the blood flowing faster.

Troy shrugged. “If it works it usually takes between a few minutes to a few hours. Something about being in the city accelerates the effect. Don’t get your hopes up though. It doesn’t work for a lot of people.”

“It’ll work on me. I just know it.” 

“You always were arrogant.” Troy shook his head and touched an area on the glowing map on the back wall. “Let’s go. We need to hurry.”

Despite knowing better, Meredith still expected to feel a tingling as they were transported across the city. When the doors shushed open on an entirely different corridor, she blinked in surprise. This new hallway was sheathed in glass, giving her a breathtaking view of crisply gleaming city spires of metal and glass in the midst of a turbulent ocean. 

Before she could get carried away by the view, a sleek Wraith dart zipped into view above the city with a blunt-nosed puddlejumper on its tail. The dart made a sharp dive as if trying to crash into one of the crystalline towers. Before it succeeded, it was hit by a shot from the puddlejumper and exploded.

“If you just came to sightsee, give me the ZPM so I can raise the shield.” Troy thrust his hand in front of her face and curled his fingers demandingly.

Jumping, Meredith took a step sideways. “Yes, yes, I’m coming. Lead the way.”

They took off down the glass-lined hall at a fast but sustainable pace. 

“We have to take a separate transporter in this tower to get to the housing platform for the ZPMs. The housing chamber in the main tower was damaged and doesn’t have the ability to accept extra ZPMs anymore. That or the programming was corrupted in the Alteran exodus. You’ll find that there’s a lot of that around here,” Troy told her snootily.

“Well luckily for you, I’m here now and I have ideas on how to fix quite a bit of that.” Meredith sent him a superior smirk and tried not to look like she was trotting at his heels.

Troy raised one brow and gestured her around the corner. He tried to direct her with a hand on her arm but she sidestepped his touch. Grabbing him earlier had been necessary to avoid faceplanting on the floor, but she didn’t want to give him any ideas. Meredith still hated him. “Hands to yourself.”

The corners of Troy’s eyes tightened. He huffed and moved to keep ahead of her. “Watch your step then. As for your ideas on fixing things, they may or may not work. Unlike your theories, I’ve spent the last year gaining practical experience with Ancient technology. You’d do well to learn from me and not get too cocky. I’ve survived things that would give you nightmares.”

After reading over the last year’s mission reports, Meredith privately agreed with him about the nightmares. However, he didn’t need to know that. “It’s true that your surviving this place is a surprise, but to be honest, I’m even more surprised that you survived working with John for so long. I kept expecting to read in one of the reports that you’d arranged fatal accidents for each other.”

Grimacing, Troy rolled his shoulders, not seeming to notice the two more darts exploding above their heads. A puddlejumper plummeted through the smoke clouds like a brick and crashed into the ocean with a huge splash. It wasn’t clear whether the pilot had gotten out first or not. Meredith was grateful when they went down a staircase and left the view of the aerial battle behind.

“Just a second, I need to grab some tools in case we need something special to get inside the housing chamber.” Troy took a sharp turn. Opening a doorway to reveal an equipment closet, he reached inside and pulled out a toolbox. 

They continued their quick pace down the hallway. Meredith’s breathing sped up and sweat beaded on her hairline and upper lip but at least she wasn’t panting outright. She could see another transporter up ahead. A weird pressure began building in her head. She hoped it wasn’t allergies or a sinus infection. That would be inconvenient, as she didn’t have any sort of inhaler or drugs, only her emergency EpiPen. She hadn’t read about anyone being allergic to Atlantis, though there were those nanites that had infested people’s bodies early on. Please let it not be nanites. 

Troy distracted Meredith from her budding panic by picking up the thread of the conversation. “As for John Sheppard, I don’t have to like him to appreciate that he keeps me alive out here.” He shifted the toolbox to his other hand. “Now that we’re back in contact with Earth though, I’m going to strongly suggest replacing both him and Marsha Sumner. Probably Elizabeth Weir too. None of them have been easy to work with.” 

“And you are?”

“I’m good at my job and vital to city function. They’re scraping by.” They stepped into the next transporter. Troy touched another section of the city as soon as the door slid closed. 

“And you hating John has nothing to do with that professional opinion. Really?”

Huffing, Troy sent her an irritated look from the corner of his eye and shrugged. “I’m not saying I would’ve been disappointed if your ship had been a few minutes too late to beam Sheppard out and saved me the effort of lobbying for a better replacement.”

Meredith seriously considered pulling the gun strapped to her thigh and shooting him in the leg. Gulping loudly at her expression, Troy hastily exited the transporter when the doors slid open. She had to run a few steps to catch up with him. 

Running a hand over his hair, Troy looked at her with a sneer when she came level to him. “But it’s just as well John survived, considering his popularity with the women in this place and how obnoxious their mourning would’ve been. After a year of watching him trot out the fake charm, I finally understand how he tricked you with it, though I’m disappointed you fell for it.”

Stomach souring, Meredith quickened her pace. “Just what do you mean by that?” she couldn’t help but ask, even knowing she was going to regret the answer.

Troy sent her a pitying look. “John’s made himself very popular with the ladies here. He does most of the trading missions. The very first planet he visited, he came back with their leader, a gorgeous woman named Teyla Emmagen. She’s barely left his side since, even joining his gate team as soon as he had the power to demand it. He’s also very close to Marsha and a particular favorite of Elizabeth. When not with one of them, he spends his free time getting sweaty with Teyla behind closed doors. Supposedly they’re just sparring, but considering how she dresses and alien morals—well, you can imagine the rumors.” 

Yes, yes she could.

Troy snorted, slightly out of breath from the pace but still having enough air to keep talking. “When we ran into that Ascended Lantean—Chaya—John even disappeared against orders for a night to have some sort of spiritual sexual communion with her. I can’t even remember how many times he’s been offered a chieftain's daughter in marriage or trade. It’s disgusting. Dr. Beckett treats the man regularly, probably for all of those Pegasus STDs considering how much he gets around. You should be careful about letting him crawl on top of you again.”

“Enough,” Meredith snapped, looking down to focus on her steps as they slowed down to travel along the wall side of a damaged walkway that creaked beneath their feet. Teeth grinding, she supposed Troy’s gossip had at least answered her question about what John’s video message had really meant. She didn’t think John wasn’t a cheater by nature, but he also was just a man. When it seemed like they’d lost contact with Earth for good, he’d probably wished he’d broken up with Meredith cleanly on Earth so he could pursue the women here guilt-free. The pressure of his position must scrape at him. He’d probably needed a way to forget for a little while that he was cut off from Earth and responsible for so many lives. Sleeping around was a traditional male coping strategy. Meredith hated tradition. Hurt throbbed in her chest like a sore tooth. 

“How much farther is the ZPM chamber?” She needed to focus on work.

“The other side of this tower, so another five minutes of rushing will get us there. I wasn’t kidding about our problems with technology like the transporters. We’ve only got a fraction up and working.” Troy sounded a little too cheerful for Meredith’s peace of mind. She didn’t want to risk him going on even more about John’s conquests, so instead, she started grilling him about the things she’d read in the technical reports coming out of the science department. The discoveries they’d made were so fascinating that soon Meredith was able to push away her earlier upset as Troy answered her questions about Atlantis with contagious enthusiasm.

“—and so the crystal configuration still isn’t understood well enough to make smaller gate dialing devices—ah,” Troy began running as they came around a curving hallway, “there it is finally, that archway up ahead.” 

The hallway dead-ended at a set of doors surrounded by a silvery-blue archway carved with geometric shapes. They didn’t have a meaning as far as Meredith knew, but she’d have to ask one of the anthropologists she knew like Rigo Diaz or Daniel Jackson to be sure. 

“We discovered this secondary ZPM housing chamber early on, but without a ZPM to put inside it, there didn’t seem to be much point in looking for a closer transporter to get here from the main tower,” Troy explained as he touched the door to make it slide open. 

Inside the room sat a low central console for housing up to four Zero Point Modules. Dim lights flickered on at their approach. The thought of what Meredith could do with four ZPMs was dizzying. That, combined with the buzzing cotton allergy feeling in her head, gave her a second of vertigo that thankfully didn’t last. She suspected that their entrance had disturbed millennia-old layers of dust, even though the air looked and smelled clean. She patted her pocket to make sure her tissues were inside. Faint depressions on the walls made her think that more control panels could slide out as needed.

“My radio won’t work inside this room because of all of the shielding, so we won’t be able to talk with anyone else until we go back out into the hall.” Troy moved past her and touched the console, making the lights brighten. He typed in a sequence of Ancient symbols that made the central column rise up and open like a flower. “I need to clean and test the ZPM cradle to make sure it can take the ZPM. You can unpackage the ZPM and then assist me.”

“Sounds good.” Meredith swung down her backpack and set it on the floor. Unzipping it, she felt a jolt at the sight of the thin wooden box holding her letters from Manudia sitting on top. Moving to block Troy’s view, she slid the box to the side so Troy wouldn’t notice and ask questions he had no right to. She probably shouldn’t have brought the letters with her but she hadn’t been able to stomach leaving them behind. Grabbing the handle of the ZPM case, she lifted it out. Once she’d placed it carefully on the floor she zipped the backpack shut again.

Unpacking his tools, Troy shot her a quicksilver smile over his shoulder that lit up his blue eyes behind his glasses. She used to light up from the inside after looks like that, but now they just made her feel wary because she didn’t trust the invitation anymore. Troy’s hands slid across the console as he returned to his work. Parts of the central console reconfigured. He leaned forward with one arm, trying to reach a narrow slot in the middle to twist open the port. His fingers strained, not quite fitting.

Leaving the ZPM case on the ground, Meredith went over and reached past him with her slimmer fingers to unscrew the cap. She handed it to Troy to place on the console. There wasn’t time for petty games like watching him struggle in the small space. Troy adjusted seamlessly, handing her a prong and alligator clips one at a time  She inserted the prong into the open port and attached the leads around the housing, handing the ends of the cables back to Troy. He connected them to his tablet, grabbed another wire to connect the tablet and console, and began typing in a string of code for the diagnostic. 

The corners of his lips lifted gently. “Just like old times. We always did work well together.” 

For a second, Meredith felt a spurt of charity and affection tugging her own lips up in response. It was true. When it came to scientific work, they were the best. Very few people could keep up with her as Troy did.

Then Meredith remembered that Troy was her ex for a reason. She thought of the unread letters in the wooden box. Her lips tightened. “Sometimes. Other times, not so much.” She couldn’t forget that he had the morals and honor of a moray eel and was twice as slippery.

Meredith moved away from the console, kneeling down to cut open the tape securing the foam around the ZPM case. Removing the foam, she laid the hard plastic case flat on the ground.

“We could be good together again, Meredith,” Troy said leadingly, not looking away from the diagnostic on his screen. “It’s not too late for us.”

Grunting to show her lack of interest in his suggestion, Meredith unsnapped the latches on the case and lifted the lid, revealing the foam-lined interior holding the ZPM.

Troy glanced over at the sound of the snap, his eyes lingering avariciously on the ZPM. “Two more tests and then I’ll be ready.” He shook his head and forced his eyes away. “Can you monitor the programs while I wipe this down?” Troy sprayed a cloth with cleaning solution and began delicately wiping the inside of the housing. Meredith agreed with the precaution. She’d already cleaned her ZPM five different times on the trip over. 

Leaving the ZPM safely in the case, Meredith took over at his tablet. “Everything’s looking good,” she told him after a moment. “Though there’s a crystal with a minor wobble in the response curve. It’s probably safe but I think we should replace it.”

“Which one?” Troy looked over with pursed lips and then nodded in agreement when she pointed to the trace on the screen. He unscrewed the panel housing the crystals. “So what’ve you been up to in my absence? I’m sure you missed having me around on Earth. No matter what lies you tell yourself, I know you still love me.”

Meredith’s lips thinned and her fingers tightened into a fist next to the tablet. All the readings looked good so far. She tried to focus on that instead of the blood pounding in her temples. “No, I don’t. The SGC sent me out to visit a few of our allies to improve their defensive technologies against the Ori threat.” Temper flaring, she lost control of her tongue. “They sent me to Manudia.”

Fumbling the crystal in his hand, Troy dropped it. It tinged against across the floor and rolled beneath the console. “Oh.” Troy looked down and cleared his throat. “ That Manudia?” He disappeared underneath the console to retrieve the crystal, muffling his voice, “Are there still…?”

“Yes, they’re still around. They haven’t forgotten me.”

White lines bracketing his mouth, Troy reappeared. He silently threw the faulty crystal into his toolbox.

“I haven’t forgotten why I got stuck there either,” Meredith told him.

Movements jerky, Troy took out a new crystal and moved to the open panel. “You never let things go. That’s your problem, Meredith. It was a mistake, a gambit that ultimately backfired. I lost and you won. I’ve apologized and moved on. Why can’t you?” 

Flabergasted, Meredith’s mouth dropped open. How dare he?!

Troy inserted the crystal into the open slot in the panel and craned his neck to see the tablet. “How are the readings? We’re running low on time.”

It took her a moment to force enough air into her lungs to answer him through gritted teeth. “Better.” 

She never should’ve brought up Manudia. Troy was never going to change, never going to say anything that would make that experience better. He couldn’t because to do that he’d have to care about someone more than he did himself. The man she thought she’d married had never really existed. It had been wishful thinking on both their parts. He’d wanted a less threatening wife and she a more loyal husband. Troy probably thought that getting her back would erase his failures and ultimately mean he hadn’t done anything wrong. He thought this was still a game he could win, but Meredith was done playing games with Troy. Any remaining bit of love she’d had for him had died on Manudia.

They had a job to do. People would die if they failed. Meredith would die. Bringing up their history was useless. 

Meredith cleared her throat and focused on her screen. “This test needs to finish and then we can insert the ZPM. If it fails we’ll need to rewire the housing.”

Screwing the panel back into place over the control crystals, Troy frowned up at the ceiling. “I don’t like being out of radio contact when there are Wraith invading Atlantis. We need those shields if we’re not going to die.” He looked uneasily at the open door. 

Meredith checked the tablet screen. “One test to go. We don’t want to risk blowing up ourselves and most of the city if that housing has any damage.” She shifted on her heels and bit her lip, touching the gun strapped to her thigh. “But maybe you should close and lock the door, just in case some of those Wraith got into this section of the city.”

“Good idea.” Troy blinked as the doors slid shut, then shook his head and moved forward to touch his fingers against the doorframe. “Atlantis must’ve done that. Sheppard’s super genes can often get things to work with only a thought, but the artificial version they gave me requires physical contact even just to close and lock a door.” His brows beetled. “It’s not fair, but those genes are the only thing Sheppard’s got going for him. Otherwise, there’s nothing particularly special about him or his DNA.” 

Glancing her way, Troy paused and licked his lips nervously. “Not like me and you.” 

He moved, leaning against the console a little too close for Meredith’s comfort and tried to catch her eye. She kept her gaze focused on the energy readings on the tablet screen. “You know, you’re looking at things the wrong way. What happened to you was probably a good thing. It gave us a blank slate. We should try being together again. I still want you. Don’t you miss me, even just a little bit?”

Red lightning rage crackled through her mind. “No. I’d sooner dive into a vat of lemons and die of anaphylaxis than enter into another relationship with you, romantic or professional. Now, can we focus on saving Atlantis here?”

Troy glanced at the screen. “The interfacing test’s not done yet and hyperbole merely means you don’t have a logical excuse for saying no to me.”

“I don’t need logic when I have seething hatred, Troy,” she told him. Her jaw hurt from the grinding of her teeth. If she punched him she’d hurt her fingers. Unfortunately she needed her fingers to insert the ZPM.

Troy moved to hover over her shoulder, but Meredith shifted sideways to face him so she could keep both him and the tablet in view. After being attacked by Seward last year, she couldn’t take people standing that close to her back, especially not men. She still fell into PTSD-induced panic attacks when surprised. Now was not the time for that. She couldn’t afford to show him that kind of weakness.

Unfortunately, Troy took her turn to face him as encouragement for his suit. He tilted his head to the side and sent her a heated look. “You’ve got to be getting tired of hate. Wouldn’t it be better to turn all that energy and passion towards something else? Something better? We used to light the sheets on fire, the two of us, don’t you remember?”

Rubbing her forehead to try and reduce the headache, Meredith met his eyes. “I am getting tired, Troy, but only of you and this conversation. There will never be an us ever again. I shouldn’t have even told you about visiting Manudia. Manudia is mine, not yours.” She wished she wasn’t trapped in this room with him. Troy never listened to anything he didn’t want to hear.

“It doesn’t have to be,” Troy said. “You could tell me more about it.” 

Meredith flexed her fingers to shake off the renewed urge to hit him, unbearably frustrated. 

A window popped up on the tablet with a ding, counting down the last thirty seconds of the test. They both looked over. All of the readouts looked green.

Troy began putting away the tools he’d spread across the console. “What’s yours could be ours again,” he coaxed, looking at her through his lashes, his lips turning up. “Did you meet anyone with my intelligence or good looks during your visit to Manudia?”

“No, only mine,” she said curtly. The test finished with all readings in the green. Before Troy could say anything else, Meredith took two steps away and leaned across the console to remove the prong and alligator clips from the ZPM housing. “Finally done. Hand me the cap,” she shoved a hand in his direction.

“Here,” Troy said, placing the cap in her hand with an unnecessary amount of skin contact as his fingers dragged across her palm.

Growling, Meredith screwed the cap back into place and stepped back. “Initiate the program on the console while I get the ZPM. Make sure everything’s ready for me.” She crouched to carefully lift the ZPM from its case. She could probably throw the ZPM at the floor with all her strength and not even scratch it, but just knowing how much power was contained in such a small package demanded caution and respect.

“You’re forgetting that I’m in charge here on Atlantis, not you.” Troy tossed the wires roughly in the toolbox and stabbed at the keys to bring up the console program as she’d demanded. 

“Actually, I’m pretty sure Elizabeth Weir’s in charge, not you,” Meredith responded snootily. She cradled the ZPM in her arms like a baby.

Troy turned with hands out. “Give me the ZPM. I’ll do it.” 

She evaded his hands with a scowl. “Not a chance. You’ve stolen everything else from me, but not this. I’ll do it!” When Troy planted himself between her and the console and tried to forcefully take it from her arms, Meredith hip-checked him sideways and scrambled forward. 

From the corner of her eye, it almost seemed like the floor rippled beneath Troy’s feet at her imagined desire, making him stumble just long enough for her to brace herself against the console, slide the ZPM into the open slot in the middle, and rotate it into place. 

The housing console gave a metallic sigh as lights around the room flashed as bright as a sun. With blue and orange afterimages spotting her eyes, Meredith blinked rapidly and snatched back her fingers as the console sucked down the ZPM like a hungry mouth, almost taking her fingers with it. The lights in the room dimmed back to normal levels but faint cerulean symbols now covered every surface in the room including the ceiling and floor. The ground thrummed against the soles of her boots. Seconds later it stopped but she got the oddest sensation as if a purring cat was stropping across her ankles, but inside her mind instead of across her skin.

Wait, was she feeling Atlantis? Or one of its thousands of programs? Had the gene therapy worked?!

“Damn you, Meredith!” Troy’s lips curled with petulant anger. His words pulled her back to the situation at hand and killed the excited grin breaking across her lips.

“Damn you too, Troy,” Meredith flung back. 

Tucking a strand of blond hair behind one ear, she arched her brow and decided to gloat. “Also, just so you know, my gene therapy worked. I can sense Atlantis now,” she put her hands on her hips and gave him a toothy smile, pleased when his expression turned even sourer. Other people might take hours or even never respond to the gene therapy, but other people weren’t as amazing as Dr. Meredith Mckay. 

Not waiting for Troy’s input, she unplugged the final cord connecting the console and tablet, tossing the cord into Troy’s bag as she looked over the readout. “Everything still looks good. Zelenka should’ve noticed the obvious surge in power and raised the shields by now. We should head on back, see if they need our help elsewhere, preferably in separate places.”

Chapter Text

“All things atrocious and shameless flock from all parts to Rome.”

TACITUS

 

Lips tight and nostrils flaring, Troy snatched up his tablet to put it away. Striding out into the hallway outside the ZPM room and its shielding, he paused a few steps out of the door, head tilting to the side as he listened to something on his radio. 

You’d think he’d be more seamless with the earpiece technology considering how long he’d been using it, Meredith thought uncharitably. She wished someone had given her a radio before she’d taken off with Troy so she knew what was being said. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a good reason to demand he give her his.

Face going pale, Troy swallowed and met her eyes. “Zelenka did his job and got the shields up. A bunch of Wraith darts exploded against it mere seconds afterward. They’re still dive-bombing the city, have been for about five minutes. That might’ve been nice to know earlier. We could’ve skipped that last safety test considering we might’ve died either way.”

“At least we finished in time,” she said, putting a hand over her queasy stomach. She didn’t like coming that close to dying. Even with all their talking (and arguing), she and Troy had jogged through the corridors and been working as quickly as possible to install the Ancient power source with the minimal number of tests. She felt very sweaty right now and knowing how close she’d come to dying wasn’t helping her dry out.

In the hall, Troy waved his hand for her to follow. “Come along, Meredith. We need to get back to my lab. Things aren’t over yet and they probably still need us. Plus, it's possible more Wraith beamed onto the city before the shield went up. They don’t always show up on our sensors. We should get out of the halls.” He turned and strode away down the corridor. 

Adrenaline spiking at the thought of running into a Wraith, Meredith nevertheless paused after exiting the room and laid her palm against the door, thinking clearly about closing and locking it very securely in case any of the invading Wraith made it this far. The last thing they needed was one of the invading Wraith getting access to the ZPM, though a stupid and clumsy Marine could be almost as bad. Better to lock it against everyone below command staff level, excluding herself, of course. 

The ancient program flicked its whiskers at her request and licked her fingers with a mix of numbers and symbols. Mentally. Which was both strange and delightful. The door slid closed and almost seemed to fuse with the doorframe.

“Stop dawdling, Meredith. Unless you want to be a story on Wraithbait.” Troy was already halfway down the hall, not bothering to wait for her.

Scowling, she nevertheless broke into a jog to catch up to him. She didn’t want to be left alone in the middle of an invasion. Even Troy was preferable to that. 

The programs sliding by the edge of her perception became harder to feel the farther she got from the ZPM room. Her anxiety spiked. She really hoped it was just the gene therapy needing more time or the signal being stronger in that particular place and not her body rejecting it.

Before she could worry more about it, she became distracted by the view. The opaque panels formerly lining the hallway had turned into clear windows looking out over the city. An iridescent translucent geodesic dome of energy arced overhead, lit by intermittent fireballs of what must be Wraith darts hitting Atlantis’s new shield. There were a lot of darts exploding out there. She flinched down as the section directly over her head filled with orange and black.

Noticing the same thing, Troy’s shoulders crept up towards his ears. “Maybe we should try to take a shorter way back. There’s a transporter around the corner that might be active again now that there’s another ZPM installed.”

“Good idea.” Meredith said. The back of her neck was crawling. She wanted to be surrounded by big burly marines with guns.

When they got into the transporter, Troy let out a sigh of relief as the directory on the back wall lit up. However, his expression quickly changed to a frown when the colors flickered. “That’s strange. The level with the science labs just went purple.”

“What does purple mean?” Meredith could faintly feel the programs he accessed on the wall panel.

“I don’t know. It’s never done that on me before. Maybe something to do with the extra power from the ZPM activating a new system?” Troy scrolled to several other areas on the city map, most were still the usual colors but a few of them had turned purple as well. 

“Just send us to the central tower,” Meredith told him. “There are Marines with guns there and we can consult with Weir and John about where we’re most needed.” She really wanted to see John now.

“May I remind you—again—that you’re not the one in charge here?” The lights from the screen reflected off Troy’s glasses and rendered his eyes opaque, but the muscle jumping in his jaw was clear enough. Troy stabbed at the screen to bypass the main command options and typed in a quick string of code. “I am in charge of the sciences here on Atlantis and I say we are going to the science labs!” 

Returning to the map screen, Troy selected the science lab level again, ignoring the way it started flashing violet-red beneath his finger. Despite his override, the transporter still wouldn’t work, the location beneath his finger turning pale pink. 

He didn’t seem to notice or care that the Ancient symbols flitting across the edge of Meredith’s mind were becoming more spindly and jagged with his every touch. Troy kept pounding on the same pale pink spot over and over again uselessly. 

“It’s not working, Troy,” Meredith snapped. “You could try the transporter past the atrium at the base of the stairs—”  she’d memorized as much of the data from Atlantis as possible during her ride over on the Daedalus, including the schematics of the main tower and science lab levels “—but I really think we should go to the central tower instead.”

Grunting, Troy moved his thumb to the other transporter she’d mentioned instead of being reasonable.

The programs fuzzing the corners of Meredith’s attention abruptly went flat as they transported across the city. It was unnerving. Meredith stepped back. “Troy, maybe we shouldn’t—”

“Don’t be such a girl about this, Meredith.” Troy opened the doors and stalked out. “Either be useful or run back home to your pathetic little life with its empty flat and borrowed cat.”

Scowling, Meredith stomped after Troy into the hallway. They passed two closed doors and climbed up a flight of stairs. The glowing symbols on the stairs looked dimmer than the ones she’d seen in the gateroom, despite the added power of the ZPM. She didn’t know if that was normal or not. The short curving hallway they followed opened up into an atrium with glass walls. Three corridors branched off from the room. 

A shadow flickered in the corner of her eye, but when Meredith turned to look, nothing was there. She saw something ripple on the far side of the room and spun, but nothing was there either. Meredith gulped and moved closer to Troy, bumping into his back. For once he didn’t seem to notice or appreciate her proximity.

Eyes focused straight ahead, Troy strode towards the corridor housing the main science labs. A potted tree shaped vaguely like a rhinoceros sat sentry on one side of the entrance. Troy passed it without a single glance. 

All of the doors up and down the corridor were shut except for one: the broken transporter Troy had tried to access. The transporter’s door sat half-open, the quality of light inside the interior dappled with strange shadows. Trying to get a better look, Meredith stepped on the back of Troy’s foot and knocked him into the wall, making Troy drop the toolbox on his foot.

Swearing, Troy elbowed her off of him. Bending over with a snarl, Troy pushed his foot back into his shoe and picked up his toolbox. “Watch it, will you?!”

“It was an accident!” 

Troy swung around to say something scathing but then his eyes slid over her shoulder. Eyes going wide, the blood drained from his face, leaving it pale and waxy. He stumbled back, not seeming to notice that he’d dropped the toolbox again.

Meredith spun around to look. A hulking Wraith drone bore down on them from the other side of the atrium in a lope. He looked massive in a breastplate that left the bulging muscles of his greenish-blue arms bare. White hair cascaded around a textured bone mask that covered his face completely and made him appear even more alien and menacing. A gun and knife hung at his side, but he didn’t reach for either, instead charging forward empty-handed like an animal about to pounce on his prey and eagerly rip it into bloody shreds with claws and teeth.

Screaming, Meredith turned to run, only to see that Troy was already halfway down the hallway and racing towards the open transporter. Meredith broke into a sprint, desperate to join Troy and get away to safety. She didn’t want to be food. The reports made it sound agonizing. She was too young and smart to die! 

Troy’s long legs and head start made it impossible to catch up to him. Not looking back once, he reached the partially open transporter and dived inside the shadowed interior. 

“Troy, wait!” Meredith gasped desperately. “Wait!” She only had another ten feet to go to reach safety.

Troy’s terrified eyes met hers, the whites reflecting the lights in the hallway for a split second before his hand slammed onto the doorframe and the transporter door slid gently but inexorably shut, leaving her alone on the other side.

Meredith’s body slammed into the closed door mere seconds later. “Troy!” she screamed, pounding on the door frantically. “Let me in, Troy! Please! You said you still loved me!”

The door didn’t open. Troy was probably already gone. 

Hyperventilating, Meredith looked over her shoulder to see the Wraith soldier entering the hallway. He slowed at seeing her trapped, lowering his head and stalking closer with supreme confidence in catching his prey and primitive delight in her terror. He seemed more basic animal cunning than the higher intelligence she’d been led to expect from the Wraith species in reports, but it didn’t look like it was going to matter because she was dead either way.

“Maybe we can talk about this? I’m sure I don’t taste that good,” Meredith said in a wavering voice as she scurried away down the hallway.  

The large Wraith drone didn’t respond verbally, he just quickened his pace.

Suddenly Meredith remembered that she had a gun. She hadn’t come all this way to Atlantis only to die now. Pulling her weapon, she thumbed off the safety, aimed, and pressed hard on the trigger, emptying the entire magazine into the chest of the Wraith with a bellow worthy of Rambo. She’d gotten good at center mass shots under the draconian training regime of Major McLean, whose team had been assigned to escort her on all of her off-world missions this last year. If she survived this, she’d have to apologize to McLean for complaining so much and brag about how most of her shots hit where she aimed at the Wraith’s chest and arms.

Unfortunately, the Wraith staggered but didn’t go down under the barrage. He barely even seemed fazed, merely stopping and looking down at his bleeding body, a body which was healing the bullet holes even as she watched.

Too late she remembered that with Wraith drones you had to take headshots because they were so tough. Despite McLean’s efforts, Meredith wasn’t very good at headshots, not that it mattered considering that she was now out of ammo and stupidly didn’t bring a backup magazine. She wasn’t supposed to use all of her bullets at once, but it was too late now for regrets. 

Unfortunately, her big brain never really shut up. It was currently providing her with a long commentary of regrets and mistakes and all the horrible ways she was about to suffer before dying. She’d been so proud of remembering to strap on her gun when preparing on the Daedalus. Maybe she should’ve spent some of that time remembering to grab extra ammo too.

Throwing her gun at the Wraith futilely, Meredith ran shoulder-first into a door frame. “Help me! Somebody, help! There’s a Wraith out here!” She pushed at the door, mentally screaming OPEN at the Ancient program. The door stayed locked. If she’d had time she could’ve broken in using the crystals and wiring in the walls but SHE DIDN’T HAVE TIME with a Wraith trying to eat her. She ran to the next door with similar results. Nothing opened. Every door in the hallway was locked.

Meredith’s back hit the wall at the end of the hallway. She’d reached a dead end. There was nowhere else to run. Tears poured down her face as she sobbed in terror. 

Shifting sideways, her calf knocked into a chest-high tree in a decorative pot. Batting away the scratchy leaves, one more assault on top of her approaching death, she saw the Wraith lunge for her chest with fingers extended. Meredith screamed and scrambled sideways, but there was nowhere to go. She was trapped. 

Her flailing fingers hit the rough bark of the decorative tree. Grabbing on, Meredith swung it up and around like a hockey stick, slamming it across the Wraith’s outstretched arms as hard as she could. The trunk cracked across the Wraith’s forearm even as the pot hit the Wraith’s other hand and shattered, the shards slicing into his forearm and fingers. 

Meredith felt a spurt of hope. If she injured his feeding hand, he wouldn’t be able to kill her. 

Not that way, at least.

The Wraith cried out—the first sound he’d made—and pulled the injured feeding hand into his chest. Red blood dripped across the aegis symbol on the chest plate of his uniform.  He staggered back with his other arm hanging limp and crooked by his side. It looked broken.

Meredith’s burgeoning hope died a quick death when the Wraith’s injuries once again healed before her eyes. His crooked forearm straightened and the wounds on his hand stopped dripping and faded to blue-green lines. Rolling his shoulders, he grabbed the remnants of tree trunk off the ground and tossed it behind him with a low snarl that rumbled monstrously out of his bone mask.

Her brain chose that moment to helpfully remind her of the report that explained how the Wraith could speed up the healing process by attaching their feeding hand to a human victim’s chest and pumping the victim full of enzyme to keep the victim alive and in agony until the Wraith had completely drained the human of “life force.” Probably remembering the same thing, the Wraith flexed the fingers of its mostly healed feeding hand and advanced.

She really wished it was just to cop a feel of her frankly magnificent breasts. It wasn’t fair, she didn’t want to die. Despite being repeatedly warned of the dangers, she had arrogantly assumed that she wouldn’t die. Meredith had too many things to do. She wasn’t nearly famous enough yet. Besides, she’d only just gotten to Atlantis. She hadn’t even slapped John yet. Or kissed him again. She’d really wanted to kiss him one last time if she was going to die.

Sobbing for breath, Meredith cowered, curling up into a ball with her back pressed against the wall and her head tucked down, trying to keep her chest protected for as long as possible from the Wraith’s feeding hand. She knew it was futile. She knew she was doomed. Her stupid brain couldn’t even let her irrationally hope.

The Wraith grabbed her shoulder to wrench her up just as a percussive blast assaulted her ears. The Wraith dropped on top of her, smashing her flat and stealing the air from her lungs though—surprisingly—not the life force from her body, at least not yet since she was still internally monologuing and not full of agonizing pain, just normal pain from being smashed to the floor. 

Seconds passed.

Meredith waited longer to see if she was going to die.

If John didn’t shed at least one tear at her funeral, she was coming back to haunt him for his callous and man-whore ways. If Ancients could ascend she could figure out how to haunt. On top of that, John would definitely have to revenge kill Troy—a gutless wanker in the words of the British—if John ever wanted her ghost to give him any kind of peace in this life. And her eulogy better be epic. 

The edge of the Wraith’s breastplate dug uncomfortably into Meredith’s shoulder. It would definitely leave a bruise if she survived this. Was she going to survive this? Shockingly, she still wasn’t dead. Considering the fact that the Wraith on her back was as heavy as a moose and twice as stinky, but not really doing anything otherwise or even moving anymore, her survival seemed to be an increasingly wonderful possibility. Maybe the Wraith was dead and she was alive. Dare she hope?

Or maybe she was in the first euphoric grip of the Wraith enzyme and experiencing hallucinations before the agony of being sucked dry started. At least she wasn’t having a PTSD flashback on top of getting smashed flat and then drained of life. However, it was getting hard to breathe and spots flickered on the edges of her vision.

“Damn it, I ordered that no one was supposed to be out in the corridors, especially not the civilians.” John’s voice brought tears to her eyes. She really hoped this wasn’t a torture-induced delusion. “Did we get here in time?” John asked.

The weight of the Wraith’s (hopefully dead) body was dragged off Meredith’s back. He landed at her side, the back of his head looking like a cracked open egg full of brain and bone and blood. Lots of red gelatinous blood. It looked super gross. This might turn her off red Jello cups forever. Vomit surged up her throat. The Wraith’s wound wasn’t healing, so that probably meant he would stay dead. 

If not, she’d just have John shoot the Wraith a few more times.

Stomach roiling, Meredith swallowed hard and looked up, hoping to see John and get a big hug and armed escort to a safe place with a cushy chair and bottle of water and computer with unlimited access to the Atlantis mainframe. Instead, Meredith found herself meeting a pair of exotically tilted brown eyes. 

The gorgeous woman standing above Meredith had glowing brown skin and tawny hair. She looked both regal and dangerous. Pointing her gun at the floor, she crouched down next to Meredith with a kind look. “Are you injured? Do not be afraid, the enemy is dead. You must be newly from Earth. I am Teyla Emmagan, once of Athos and now of Atlantis. You are safe now.”

Meredith started at the gorgeous Teyla— John’s Teyla—for several beats before sighing. “Of course you are.” Only the best of warrior princesses for John Sheppard, but now Meredith couldn’t hate Teyla on sight because the woman had just helped save Meredith’s life. Meredith was petty but she tried not to be that petty. It wasn’t Teyla’s fault that she was so perfect. And she’d just saved Meredith’s life after Troy had abandoned her to her death.

“Thank you for that, by the way.” Meredith’s voice came out as a shaky whisper instead of her usual crisp and carrying dictation. “Saving me, I mean.”

She didn’t want to sound fragile. She wanted— needed to sound impressive. How irritating.

Then again, she’d just been seconds from death, a grim and agonizing death. Looking down at the sticky patch of blood and brains soaking her jacket’s shoulder and sleeve, Meredith swallowed hard. That could’ve been her blood and genius brains splattered everywhere. 

The world felt like it was tipping to the left and her thoughts went thick. Meredith didn’t want to feel this way. She tapped herself in the cheeks, trying to snap out of her spiral of shock and regain the use of her tongue and intellect. She was better than this.

“I am glad to be of service,” Teyla said formally, inclining her head. Reaching out for Meredith’s other—much drier and cleaner—arm, Teyla helped lift her to her feet and made sure she didn’t fall over.

“Ow Ow Ow!” Meredith whined, in pain and feeling sorry for herself and still in shock over surviving. She felt like sobbing but forced herself to complain instead to get over the urge. “I’m bruised all over and full of splinters from that alien tree that are probably poisonous or related to lemons and I’m going to suffocate and die just moments after my miraculous survival and triumphant arrival on Atlantis.” 

Ignoring the eyebrows inching up Teyla’s forehead, Meredith craned her head to look past the woman so she could finally catch a glimpse of John. Meredith deserved a hug. She could slap him later for breaking up with her over video. Right now she needed comfort. Her eyes stung but she blinked them furiously to keep the tears at bay. She refused to cry anymore. Her head already hurt enough.

Stepping sideways, she finally saw him. Instead of the handsome and dashing hero swooping forward to lift her into his arms, she beheld a handsome yet scruffy John Sheppard standing frozen in the middle of the hall: eyes wide, face bloodless, and gun hanging limply from his fingers. He stared at her as if seeing a ghost. No one must’ve told him she’d beamed down to Atlantis.

“Hey, John.” She was impressed by how normal her voice sounded. The words being single syllables probably helped. Nevertheless, maybe she was going to be able to act all cool about their reunion after all instead of being a quivering mess. 

“Rome?” Her name slid from John’s lips on a single breath, running like a warm hand down her spine. His eyes latched onto hers with an intensity that felt magnetic. The world hushed and the air thickened. Their bodies curved toward each other like two parentheses yearning to close. 

Impatient, Meredith broke first. Stepping over the dead Wraith’s legs, she walked—not ran—towards John so that when he got over his shock at seeing her she would be conveniently close for hugging and cosseting. “John.” Her voice betrayed her by breaking in the middle. 

If anyone asked, she’d say that John started running towards her first, but whatever the case, they were half a hallway apart and then feet were flying across the floor and their bodies slammed together like colliding molecules exchanging electrons to fit together. John’s arms engulfed her in a hug just shy of strangling but despite her bruises she pressed into it, trying to get even closer. Meredith hooked her fingers over the edges of his tac vest and hugged him convulsively, dragging her cheek along his sweat-damp hair as she buried her face in the warm curve of his neck. 

The hug was both perfectly awkward and awkwardly perfect. John’s bulging tac vest pressed painfully into her torso, the fabric of her blood-drenched sleeve clung uncomfortably to her arm, and a large splinter at the base of her palm throbbed. John smelled of gun powder and sweat and exhaustion above the familiar musk of his skin. It wasn’t comfortable but it was real and somehow that made it the most comfortable thing in the world. Meredith never wanted to move from his embrace. 

“Oh John,” she whispered, lifting her mouth to press an impulsive kiss to the tip of his endearingly pointed ear before pressing her cheek against his hair.

John buried his face in her neck and took a ragged breath. “Rome… Rome!” His stubble rasped against her skin and made her shiver, a clear message that John was here and not just a dream. 

He was here with her… but for how long? A tendril of cold fear wound a strangling cord about her pounding heart. Her body tensed. What was she doing? How long would she get him this time before he left her again? Was she really going to let him do this to her again? There were so many ways this could go wrong for her.

A tremor traveled up her spine as she felt John’s chapped lips drag across her skin as he mouthed her name against her shoulder, her neck, the hinge of her jaw, ending at the corner of her brow with a kiss that felt like a benediction before slowly pulling back to stare into her eyes. 

Breath hitching, feeling out of control and vulnerable, Meredith tried to look away, to save her stupid heart, but John wouldn’t let her, cupping her face like the trigger of a beloved gun and tipping her eyes up for his inspection, his touch both gossamer-light and brutally possessive, expecting trust and demanding obedience. 

And just like that, Meredith gave in and stopped worrying. The knotted muscles in her back went supple and she surrendered, letting John see what he needed to see. Her body trusted—even if her mind was anxious—that John being here meant everything was going to be okay. He’d keep her safe and make sure she was fine. He wouldn’t abandon her to face danger alone. He’d either shield her from it or face it by her side.

John’s thumb rasped across her cheek and slid back and forth against the lobe of her ear, making it oversensitive, all her attention arrowing to that part of her body. She felt languid and soft, her eyelids becoming heavy. John’s pupils dilated, big and black with a ring of grey-gold, sliding down to her mouth and hovering, making her lips part as the air grew thin. John licked his lips, leaving them wet and shiny and red. An ache built down low in her gut. She needed to taste that red lower lip, needed to see if it was as good as she remembered. 

Meredith swayed forward, sending John’s thumb sliding down her neck and over a forgotten cut, ripping off the scab with a sharp sting. She flinched and sucked in a breath. 

Lips pressing tight, John’s eyes dropped to examine the freshly bleeding scrape on her neck. The skin over his cheekbones went taunt. He rubbed gently at her throat, wiping away the fresh trickle of blood. Leaning back, his eyes scanned up to her forehead and back and forth from ear to ear in a probing survey that was now obviously more about cataloging injuries than anything romantic, more fool she. 

Perhaps all that emotion had been for the survival of a friend and not the lead up to a kiss at all. Meredith told herself to stop acting like a lovesick idiot. She needed to shore up her defenses and start thinking with her brain instead of her hormones.

“Are you hurt anywhere else?” Leaning back, John looked down her body, eyes stopping on her bloodsoaked sleeve. Sucking in a breath, his eyes jerked up to search her expression for answers.

“The blood isn't mine,” she told him quickly. At least he still cared. Maybe they could go back to being best friends. She’d rather have that than nothing… wouldn’t she? Or would that end up hurting even worse in the long run? Meredith didn’t know the answer to that. She hated not knowing answers, but today had been a bad day. She’d almost died. Just for today, Meredith decided to indulge her whims and not think about it. “It isn’t mine. I survived.” 

That was a bit stoic for her, so Meredith shook her head and took a breath. She should give him a long list of her current woes. That would be normal. She wanted normal with John. “I’m still alive, so… yay.” Wiping her hand across her eyes, she gave him a crooked and wobbly smile, the best she could muster at the moment.

Something in John’s expression cracked. He surged forward and sealed his mouth over hers, licking into her open mouth and palming her nape and lower back, pulling her back against him. The list in her head dissolved into white static.

“Mmmph!”

This wasn’t a friendly health checkup, it was an erotic invasion. John’s deep kiss had her eyes slamming shut and her fingers scrabbling for purchase as she was pulled up onto her toes. His mouth tasted of fire and desire and homecoming. John worshipped at her lips even as he thrust his tongue into her mouth in a primal claiming that had her digging her nails into his shoulders and gasping for breath. 

Shocking herself, she whimpered and tipped her head back to give him better purchase, feeling completely wanton as her body twisted against him, begging for more, withholding nothing. 

In the past, they’d always been so careful when it came to intimacy. She’d been jumpy after Seward’s assault and the clock had been ticking down to John leaving for Atlantis without her. They’d kept things either light and sweet or hot and languid, doing their best to stay above the belt and keep clothes on. John had made her feel drugged with his kisses and she’d learned how to turn him into a purring cat arching into her caresses, but beneath everything John had never let himself lose control. He’d respected her boundaries and let her set a slow pace.

This ferocious passion was new. This was John not holding back. It didn’t make her feel uneasy. It made her feel unbearably turned on. 

As she surrendered to the intoxication of John’s mouth and hands, he growled and pulled her up to ride his thigh, making her arch her back with a wet gasp as pleasure zipped up her spine. John’s teeth scraped across the edge of her jaw and bracketed her racing pulse, biting down just shy of breaking the skin. He sucked lightly down the straining cords of her neck, lifting his lips before returning to suck lightly again—too lightly because the way she felt she wanted him to suck hard enough to leave marks for days, proof that he was there and just as desperate with wanting her as she was for him. She wanted to scratch lines down his arms and across the planes of his back for him to see later when she wasn’t there, for her to see later and remember. 

John shifting from sucking to licking, moving down to the hollow of her throat as if he couldn’t get enough of her taste, the rasp of his tongue keeping time with her rapid breathing. He seemed wild, arching her harder against his mouth and thigh, demanding more contact, not bothering to hide how desperately he needed her. His unfettered desire felt intoxicating.

Twisting against him, damning the thickness of their uniforms and his stiff tac vest, Meredith tried to find purchase in his hair to pull him back up to her lips. She moaned hungrily, impatient for his kiss. Her body felt like it was a live wire. She felt owned. She felt powerful.

Damn, but she’d missed John this last year. Damned if she didn’t love him. She wanted to eat him alive. Meredith yanked harder at his hair. John growled, the vibrations feathering across her skin. She desperately wanted to kiss his lips, needed to kiss him like she needed air to breathe.

Stumbling backward, John hit the wall. She gasped at the jolt and John’s mouth returned to drink the sound from her lips. Meredith nipped at his bottom lip for making her wait and then ran her tongue across its plump lower curve to soothe the sting. John chased her tongue with his before sliding past and surging forward to flick his tongue across the roof of her mouth and along the inside of her upper lip. Their lips rubbed back and forth, up and down, wet and swollen and never enough. Meredith couldn’t get enough.

Groaning, John turned to press her against the wall, lifting her higher on his thigh and making the throbbing between her legs ratchet higher and tighter. She could feel the hard thrust of his excitement against her hip. Logical thought had deserted her. She’d become a creature of flesh and need. 

Undulating against his body, she moved a hand to brace herself against the wall as John did something with his tongue that made her eyes cross. He dragged his hand down beneath her thigh and pulled her leg higher on his hip. The shift of their bodies made the sensations sharper, brighter, electric. She never wanted this moment to end. 

Chapter Text

“Caught in a bad Rome -ance”

PUN

 

Meredith’s wanton moan abruptly turned into a yelp when John slammed his elbow against the hand she’d braced against the wall—the one with the large splinter embedded in her palm. Pain shot through her hand. She instinctively jerked back and knocked her head against the wall. “Ow ow ow.” She carefully touched the back of her head with a wince.

Immediately John pulled away, waiting only long enough to make sure her feet were steady before ripping away his hands, leaving her cold and alone with only the wall to support her weight. Eyes flashing, John’s urgency flipped from passion to panic as he began patting her down in a way that was anything but fun and sexy. “I’m an idiot. I don’t know what I was thinking. Where are you hurt? Did he feed from you?”  

Without waiting for a response, he unzipped her jacket and yanked down her shirt collar until the cloth bit into the back of her neck, frantically checking the unblemished skin of her upper chest, not even pausing at the sight of her frankly adorable kelley green bra and impressively mounded breasts before releasing her collar. Her hair was thin and blah but she was proud of her rack and felt it deserved more respect. 

John ran his hands over her shoulders, along her arms, and down her legs in a rapid but unfortunately clinical checkup. When he yanked the gigantic splinter out of the base of her palm without a by-your-leave and pressed against the bruises down her side when grabbing the bottom of her shirt to untuck it to check for more hidden wounds, she was done indulging his worry.

“Ouch!” Meredith furiously slapped his hands away from her body. “Stop it, John, just stop!” She jerked away. “Now I hurt even worse! You have the bedside manner of a goat. If you want to know how I am, let me talk and I’ll tell you!” 

“I had to make sure.” Breathing heavily, John stared at her, his eyes glittering strangely, something almost alien moving in their depths. “If you got hurt on Atlantis, when Atlantis is mine to protect, when you’re...” he stopped speaking and swallowed, dropping his eyes to hide the thoughts in his head. The overhead lights highlighted his dark eyelashes and cast faint, lacy shadows on his cheeks. She could still taste him in her mouth.

Meredith glared at him and put her mouth over the bleeding hole left by the splinter in her hand, banishing the taste of his lips with the copper tang of her blood. It hurt. John’s eyes arrowed down to where her tongue licked at the wound. His lips parted. Meredith dropped her hand from her mouth and glared harder. His eyes stayed with the movement of her tongue as it swiped clean her lower lip.

If John tried to kiss her again right now, she’d hit him. 

Probably. 

Maybe. 

Okay, so John was a phenomenal kisser and not exactly easy to turn down when those lips were on offer. She’d had a hard day. Perhaps she’d kiss him, break away to give him the slap he so richly deserved, and then kiss him again to show that all was forgiven as long as he was really sorry and ready to explain just what the hell he’d meant on that video and grovelled for a few weeks after giving her all of the kisses and love she’d been missing over their long and lonely year apart and bragged about her genius to everyone and went to bat for her with the SGC to keep her on Atlantis now that she’d made it here without orders. 

Didn’t she deserve easy for once in her life? Didn’t she deserve nice? Yes, yes she did. This was a good plan.

John jerked his hot gaze away from her lips and took in a hard breath, flaring his nostrils. It made him miss how her glares had softened to invitation. He looked down and adjusted the tight fit of his pants. 

Meredith licked her lip enticingly, but he didn’t notice. She lifted a hand towards him and swayed forward just as John jerked his twisted tac vest straight and stepped farther back. He didn’t seem to notice that either. 

Flattening his expression, he became an uninviting wall.

Meredith realized that things were not going to follow her new plan. Her stomach dropped. The sweat on her skin turned icy. Of course she wasn’t going to get nice and easy. Of course not.

Focusing on the wall over her shoulder, John fisted his hands. “You’re supposed to be safe on Earth, not being chased by Wraith on Atlantis. Just what do you think you’re doing here, Mckay?”

Gone was the man kissing the name of Rome against her skin, gone even was her best friend checking for wounds. Instead, a cardboard cutout of a Colonel glared at her, stern and disapproving and using her last name like they were practically strangers and he hadn’t just had his tongue down her throat.

Stung, Meredith closed her jacket up to her neck with a loud ZIP! “Saving you and Atlantis, Colonel . I’m the one who brought the ZPM to power your new shield. I came on the Daedalus, Earth’s new interstellar spaceship, the one that rescued you from your suicide mission, remember that? I helped design her.” She jerked her chin up. “You should be thanking me.”

John pinched the bridge of his nose. “The ZPM room is on the other side of the city. Why are you out roaming the halls with Wraith on the loose instead of safe in the central tower or locked down in one of the labs like I ordered for all civilians!” John’s rising voice filled the hallway.

Meredith wasn’t about to let him get away with yelling at her. “Because I don’t have a radio and Troy said we needed to go to the science labs next! Which are on this level and require travel through the hallways to reach! So why don’t you and your soldiers get on that Wraith problem while I go and solve everything else!”

Red flushing up his neck to his forehead. John leaned forward. “You can’t solve being dead! You shouldn’t be here, especially not with the damned Wraith everywhere! I don’t want you here!” 

Meredith flinched at the reminder. She couldn’t control the way one corner of her mouth turned down. “Well, too bad. I’m here anyway.” 

John turned and kicked the wall hard. “Damn it! 

Feeling fragile, Meredith crossed her arms and straightened her back, forcing air into her lungs. “Look, you might as well just let me get back to work. I’m happy to move to a room somewhere safe. I don’t want to get attacked again, I just want to work. Well, that and find Troy so I can punch him in the nuts and kick in his face for abandoning me to become lunch for that Wraith, but I’m not here to cause trouble for you so you can stop worrying. I’ll be fine. I don’t need you babysitting me. I can take care of myself.”

Skin going tight over his cheeks, John pressed his lips so tightly together they went white. He grabbed her by the arm and yanked, dragging her down the hall towards the transporter, ignoring her struggles to get free or slow the pace.

“John!” Meredith protested. “Stop! Let me go!” His grip hovered on the side of uncomfortably tight but not quite painful. Even in a temper he was careful not to hurt her. It didn’t stop her from getting angry. She was starting to change her mind about being equally careful to not hurt him.

The transporter doors opened smoothly at their approach, no longer locked since Troy’d already gotten out safely, she noticed bitterly. The Ancient code tickling like whiskers along the edges of her mind had returned. She noted that the small room looked regularly lit without the dappled shadows from before, perhaps a power saving measure not included in the reports she’d memorized. 

Meredith expected John to shove her rudely inside and send her back to the gate room or wherever Troy had run off to find safety. Instead he jerked her to a stop in the doorway and jabbed at the floor. “That could’ve been you!”

“What?” Merdith’s eyes followed the path of his finger. What she saw made her freeze in shock. Her brain hiccuped. 

“You’re going back to Earth as soon as possible.” John’s voice sounded distant and muffled by the static in her brain.

There were two bodies splayed across the floor of the transporter. Two dead bodies. Her brain tried to make sense of it before falling into what felt like a pit of tar. Every thought slowed and went sticky and dark.

Gulping in air, she ignored the first body by focusing on the details of the second. Each thought felt full of effort. The second body was Wraith. Unlike the drone she’d fought. An upper-caste warrior. Slim build, pale blue skin, long white dreadlocks, and a catfish beard below small face slits. Multiple bullet wounds from stomach to skull, enough to ensure he stayed down. 

Was he really dead? He looked dead. The bloody wounds weren’t healing, weren’t leaking new blood either. His chest wasn’t moving. He certainly seemed dead. No threat. No mind tricks like hallucinations and strange shadows. 

Meredith’s eyes slid to the other body on the floor. Locked. A human body. A dead man. Crooked glasses spiderwebbed with cracks. Wrinkles. Agony and terror twisted the features into a stranger. 

A stranger? 

Static. Tar. 

Catalog the evidence. 

Atlantis science uniform. Jacket and shirt clawed open. Skin stretching tight over a bony chest. Angry red wound surrounded by five smaller lesions. A Wraith feeding. Drained. He was dead. A dead human scientist wearing glasses. British flag patch on his arm, the arm of the dead man. 

The evidence was clear. Undeniable. Meredith’s tongue felt thick in her mouth. “Troy?” 

“That could’ve been you!” John shook her, his tone loud and aggressive. Afraid. She felt too off-balance to fight back. To respond. “You could’ve died!”

Instead, Troy was dead. 

Troy was dead and the grip on her arm was the only thing keeping her from sliding to the floor. Troy was dead. She’d hated Troy and wanted him hurt, wanted him gone, said over and over she wanted him dead, but not like this. 

Her hands pressed against her aching chest, rising and falling with each breath. She’d been so mad at Troy, so hurt, so betrayed. John was right. The dead body on the floor could’ve just as easily been her, would’ve been her if Teyla and John hadn’t shot the Wraith who’d been about to drain her—which should give her some feeling of appreciation for poetic justice considering Troy had left her to die to save himself but he’d still died anyway—but instead all she could think about was that his dead body could’ve so easily been her instead and once upon a time—for a very very short time—she had loved that man enough to marry him even though she’d spent even more time since hating him and his dying that way looked just about as bad as a death could get and she didn’t feel better knowing he’d died that way. She didn’t feel happy or vindicated. Instead, seeing his drained corpse felt like one more assault and betrayal. Meredith felt bad for Troy and worse for herself, battered both inside and out.

“You could’ve died.”

“I know.” Meredith closed her eyes. She didn’t want to look at Troy anymore. She didn’t want to deal with John. She didn’t want to feel all of these emotions. 

“You could’ve died,” John repeated, voice going ragged instead of angry.

She scrunched her eyes tighter and hunched her shoulders as much as possible with John still gripping her arm in an iron grip. “I know.”

“John, stop it,” Teyla said firmly, reminding Meredith of her presence, forcing Meredith to open her eyes and look over. Teyla came up and touched John’s arm with a single finger. “John.” Just his name said firmly, but that was all it took. 

John released Meredith’s arm as if burned and took several steps back. Spinning on his heel, he lifted his gun back into position and prowled to the end of the hall. Meredith moved in the opposite direction and leaned against the wall with her head turned away so she could no longer see inside the transporter. The transporter doors slid shut.

Teyla looked at John from the corner of her eye before turning to Meredith. “You must understand that Colonel Sheppard has been under much stress while preparing for and leading our fight against the Wraith during the siege. He takes the protection of his people very seriously.”

The presumption of Teyla being so intimately involved with John that she felt comfortable speaking for him put Meredith’s back up. The spurt of temper shook Meredith out of her stupor over Troy’s death, something she’d have to process later… or never. Never sounded good.

Teyla gracefully gestured at John’s back. “You must forgive his loss of temper.”

If Meredith had been a cat, Teyla’s words were the equivalent of being petted against the grain. Meredith straightened her spine. “Must I? Not likely.” She arched a brow at the woman and glared, daring her to dispense more advice and excuses.

Down the hall where he stood sentinel, a muscle at the hinge of John’s jaw twitched. Seeing it throb was very satisfying.

“As you will,” Teyla answered serenely, seemingly unfazed by Meredith’s response. “But Colonel Sheppard is right in that the hallways are not yet safe. I stepped out to check out the atrium again and it seems safe for now, but we should not linger here as there is still much work and fighting to be done. May I have the honor of knowing your name? You are welcome to call me Teyla.”

Meredith wiped her hands down her jacket before thrusting a hand out towards the woman who had, admittedly, helped save her life. She wished Teyla had interrupted that kiss too instead of discretely walking around the atrium. “Dr. R. Meredith Mckay. I go by Dr. Mckay professionally.” Recognition flitted across Teyla’s face, making Meredith feel a bit smug. It was good to know her reputation as a genius had preceded her, as well it should. 

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Mckay. I look forward to learning more of you in more pleasant circumstances.” Teyla took Meredith’s outstretched hand and shook it in a firm but not too-tight grip. It was a good handshake. Combined with the respectful and polite words, it soothed Meredith’s ruffled feelings and made her evaluate the woman more favorably. Teyla was probably too good for John, the jerk.

Releasing Meredith’s hand, Teyla didn’t move back. Instead, she stepped forward—much closer than socially acceptable for a new acquaintance—and boldly reached up to put her warm hands on the sides of Meredith’s face. The hands were full of quiet strength. Meredith froze, not sure what to do or not do. Teyla tipped Meredith’s forehead forward. Was this some strange tribal greeting in Pegasus? Or was Teyla confused by Earth customs and thinking that John’s kiss had been a normal sort of Earth greeting? And how embarrassing that the woman had seen that kiss at all. Meredith could barely think about it without flushing, not that John hadn’t ruined it at the end, but whatever the case, Meredith didn’t want to kiss Teyla. She also didn’t want the other woman to think less of her for some reason. Was this some sort of gay chicken? Lesbian chicken? Wasn’t that supposed to be a male thing? An Earth male thing? But Meredith didn’t want to be the first one to flinch.

Meredith glanced around to silently ask John for help, but he just watched them over his shoulder and refused to meet her eyes. 

Unconcerned by Meredith’s discomfort, Teyla pressed their foreheads together and serenely closed her eyes with a soft exhale. It felt so awkward. Meredith could smell Teyla’s breath. It wasn’t awful but it was probably full of germs that would infect Meredith with a Pegasus galaxy cold. Finally Teyla released her and stepped back with a friendly smile. 

Strange tribal greeting, check. “Yeah, um, nice to meet you too,” Meredith stuttered, giving an awkward wave and stepping back.

John had turned his body to watch the two of them with a soft and dopey look on his face. Meredith had no idea what it meant. Happiness at his two friends getting along? Relief that his former girlfriend hadn’t slapped his current girlfriend? Relief that his current girlfriend hadn’t shot him when he’d been devouring the mouth of his former girlfriend? 

Which was weird. Meredith would’ve shot John if she’d still had a gun and caught him kissing another woman while they’d been dating, but maybe expectations of fidelity were different out here in Pegasus. Though Teyla seemed pretty classy and gorgeous enough to demand and get monogamy from a man. She was also obviously a warrior. Maybe Teyla wasn’t feeling violent over that kiss because she wasn’t dating John?

In fact, considering the source of Meredith’s assumptions were her own jealous imaginings and Troy’s insidious words—and hadn’t Troy also implied that John was sleeping with every woman on the senior staff, including Sumner who currently had the body of a crone, along with random women during away missions—perhaps Meredith should just ask point-blank if John was sleeping with Teyla instead of tying herself up in knots over potentially stupid assumptions.

Meredith hated feeling stupid.

Turning to John to do just that, Meredith paused and frowned. His eyes had gone glassy, his chin and gun drooped, and his body listed to the left. Examining him more closely, Meredith realized that John looked about to keel over. Less than an hour ago he’d flown a suicide bomb onto a Wraith hiveship, fully expecting to die. Dehydration and lack of food were also highly possible considering he’d been fighting a losing battle for weeks and had no care for his own survival. He should be in a bed somewhere with a nutrient drip, not out on patrol.

Meredith frowned. If John let himself get hurt after she’d come all this way with a ZPM to save him and Atlantis, she was going to be very angry. 

Opening her mouth to let him know her feelings on the matter, she was derailed by John suddenly jerking his head up and blinking rapidly. His gun jumped back up into guard position. Spine straightening, he activated his radio. “Copy, this is Sheppard. We just took down two more Wraith by the science labs, over.”

Listening to the response, he and Teyla both frowned. Their eyes met and some secret message passed between them. 

“What’s going on?” Meredith demanded crankily, hating that they had secret looks for each other that left her out.

“I’ll swing by in ten to twenty. Sheppard out.” John turned off his mic and grimly met her eyes. “We need to get you a radio. There are pockets of Wraith scattered across the city fighting our people. They won’t surrender even with the shield up trapping them down here. In addition to the fighting, Colonel Everett was finally found. He’s alive but about eighty years old after being drained from a Wraith who was killed mid-feeding.” 

Meredith’s shoulders lifted to her ears as the danger of her current situation washed through her all over again. She desperately hoped that SG-15 hadn’t been with Everett. Normally she didn’t worry too much about the fate of individual grunts in the military, but she’d spent a lot of time with SG-15 over the last year, enough to maybe even call them friends. Major McLean, Sgt. Kindall, and Captain King had volunteered to dissolve their gateteam—leaving behind anthropologist Dr. Rigo Diaz—to go and reinforce Atlantis with Everett as part of the ground troops. 

She’d had no idea they’d even left for Atlantis until they were already gone and Rigo had sought her out to commiserate about being left behind. She’d been left behind again. One more hurt she tried to pretend she didn’t feel. Of course, this time Meredith had managed to find a way to get herself to Atlantis on her own.

John continued, “We lost contact with Everett hours ago and assumed the worst, but I always try to hope—well.” Rubbing his mouth, John cleared his throat. “I need to get going. Where do you want me to stash you?” He flicked his eyes at the ceiling and then met her eyes with a plea.

If Meredith were just a bit more cowardly, she’d take the out John was trying to give her and have him call the Daedalus to beam her up again, though for all she knew they were currently fighting Wraith hives and darts overhead and no more safer than down here. She did have a healthy sense of her own mortality and the dangers threatening it, but that wasn’t the same as being seen as a coward. 

In the end though, it didn’t matter. Meredith had vowed that once she set foot on Atlantis, she would fight tooth and nail to stay here. She wasn’t about to break that promise at the first sign of trouble, no matter the peril. With the shield now up, the probability of danger had also just dropped dramatically. She’d survived so far and that had to be a sign that she was smart enough to keep herself alive down here as long as she exercised a few sensible precautions and stopped trusting people she should know better than to count on. 

Pulling herself up, Meredith did her best to project capability and confidence. “I’m not some item to be stashed on a shelf somewhere, Colonel . You may escort me through the doors of the science labs or to wherever Dr. Zelenka is, both areas where my expertise and genius will be useful and needed.” 

Lips twisting unhappily, although she also caught a spark of reluctant respect in his face, John gestured her to follow him down the hall. “Of course, Doctor .” He put the same emphasis on her formal title that she’d put on his, as if he hadn’t started it earlier by calling her Mckay.

Teyla looked back and forth between the two of them but wisely kept her mouth shut. 

Stalking down the hallway, John quickly outpaced Meredith. He moved four doors down, rapped his knuckles, and activated his radio. “This is Col. Sheppard and Specialist Emmagen. We’ve neutralized the threat on this floor and have a visitor for you. Unlock the lab door.”

Teyla stepped up next to Meredith, who’d paused down the hall. The distance from John gave Meredith the illusion of privacy and a perfect opportunity to be blunt. “Are you dating or sleeping with John?” she asked Teyla, fisting her hands behind her back and bracing herself for the answer.

A shocked snort escaped Teyla. “Me and John? No.” Teyla looked over at John with crinkled eyes and shook her head. “No, we are merely very good friends.” Teyla seemed sincere in her protestations, filling Meredith with a rush of relief.

Teyla turned to Meredith with a speculative look. “I don’t think he’s shared his heart with anyone here in the time I’ve known him, too busy being a leader and tangled up in yearning for a lost love, or so I assumed. You should talk to him.” Her voice was a quiet murmur, matching Meredith’s wish for secrecy.

“Maybe,” Meredith muttered, trusting that Teyla wasn’t dating John but not trusting that John had been ‘yearning’ over Meredith after the things he’d said to her in that video. “Or maybe not.”

In front of John sounded a clank as something heavy on the other side of the door was moved. The door hissed gently and slid open part way before stopping. Seconds later the face of Dr. Peter Kavanagh peeked out. Expression sour, he looked at John with distaste. “Are you sure it’s safe out here, Colonel? It doesn’t sound like it. And what visitor?”

Kavanagh was a mediocre scientist with lank brown hair slicked back into a short ponytail, a forgettable face covered in wire glasses, and a whiny voice. Meredith didn’t know him well, but what she did know she hadn’t liked. He’d applied for Atlantis when he’d heard it was being led by a civilian, not liking the military leadership in the mountain. Somehow he’d convinced Troy to make him second in command of the sciences in Atlantis, but based on the reports she’d read he’d floundered and buckled under the responsibility, losing the respect of his peers in the process.

A hard-edged smile lifted one side of John’s mouth. Looking past Kavanagh dismissively, John leaned one hand on the door and shoved it open, causing Kavanagh to fall against the frame. John leaned past him and called, “Repent ye sinners of science, for Dr. Mckay and her green pen of doom have arrived on Atlantis.” His voice had started out mocking, but by the end had deepened into something sincere and joyous that made Meredith’s breath catch and her eyes threaten to sting despite her current irritation.

After a beat of shocked silence, someone inside the lab squealed. Cheers broke out along with laughter tinged with both exhaustion and hysteria. Meredith’s spine straightened and her shoulders went back at the sounds. People both needed and wanted her genius here on Atlantis. Of course she’d suspected that already, but it was nice to have independent verification.

Kavanagh straightened with a grimace, only to fall sideways back into the room as an uncharacteristically flustered Miko Kusanagi appeared in the doorway and shoved him out of the way, launching herself out into the hall. Miko’s eyes, surrounded by purple rings of exhaustion, darted past John and Teyla. “Meredith!” 

Shocking herself, Meredith reached out and hugged the petite Japanese woman for all she was worth. Miko hugged her back tightly. Nose stinging, Meredith leaned back before she actually did something as embarrassing as start to cry. Miko had always been one of Meredith’s favorite people and coworkers. She’d even go so far as to call them friends, but she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed Miko until she saw her again. “It’s good to see you again, Miko. Very good.” 

“I’m so glad you’re finally here,” Miko said fiercely. Linking arms, Miko pulled Meredith past John into the lab. It was full of familiar faces. 

People crowded around to clap Meredith’s shoulder and shake her hand, some with naked gratitude and hope on their faces, even people who’d told her to her face that they hated her back in the mountain and called her the Queen B (the dog, not the insect). Meredith knew it was only because they needed her right now, but she was used to that. She’d spent her life making sure people found her useful. When people didn’t find her useful, they didn’t want her around. She’d just have to make sure to remind everyone how smart and amazing she was when the first flush of excitement wore off and they started to forget.

Everyone looked leaner and harder than she remembered. Things hadn’t been easy for any of them this past year. Now that she was here, she’d make sure things went better and make sure they knew who to thank for it.

Putting her hands on her hips, Meredith looked around the room. “I know you must be exhausted but my mind is still fresh and smarter than ever. What is your most urgent need now that I’ve put a new ZPM in and gotten your shield up? I memorized all of your reports on the ride over here so I’m up to date as of your last transmission.”

Arms crossing over his chest, Dr. Kavanagh stomped to the front of the crowd. “That should be for Dr. Forrester to decide or, in his absence, me. Just because you read the reports doesn’t mean you understood everything.”

Meredith’s lips tightened.

Clearing his throat from the doorway, John waited for everyone to look his way before activating his radio. “This is Sheppard. Dr. Zelenka and Dr. Weir, I need your attention. There’s no easy way to say this. I’m sorry to report that Dr. Forrester is dead.” The mood in the room shifted to shock and dismay. “He was caught by one of the Wraith in a transporter and killed, though Teyla and I have since cleared the rest of this section of Wraith. Thankfully Dr. Mckay escaped and is safe now with the other scientists in the main lab.” 

Looking over, John met Meredith’s eyes for a heart-stopping moment. “I’ve got to get back, but I’m sure that Dr. Mckay will help keep the science department here running smoothly.”

It was harder than she expected to drag her eyes away from John’s steady stare. Meredith gave him a nod and forced herself to look around. She didn’t bother glancing Kavanagh’s way for orders. She didn’t trust him to use her skills effectively and had no interest in being under his incompetent thumb. “First, I need someone to get me a radio. I need to talk to Zelenka about what the shield‘s drain on the new ZPM looks like and make sure that’s stable. Then I’ll start going down the list of urgent needs to repair and stabilize Atlantis and keep her secure.”

“What we need to do is get out of here and go back to Earth now that we have a ZPM to power the gate!” cried Kavanagh in a strident voice. “We’re dying pointlessly out here. Dr. Forrester is gone and we could be next. Our efforts should be towards abandoning this damned place and getting back home safely, not getting killed for Sheppard and the SGC’s selfish military agenda.”

John’s face shut down into blandness, an expression that she knew meant he was violently angry and trying his best to control his temper.

“That’s not your choice to make, Dr. Kavanagh,” Meredith snapped before John could. “And Atlantis isn’t damned because I’m here with reinforcements to save it.” Having an interstellar spaceship and a bunch of tough Marines in her corner gave Meredith a lot of confidence. If she exaggerated her role in the efforts it was only precipitous. She was quite sure she would save this place several times over in the days to come through her genius. 

Meredith looked around at the scientists in the room. “I know you’re tired but we’ve got a shield around Atlantis now. We’re winning. Now’s not the time to retreat or give up.” 

Hurrying back from the other side of the lab, Miko handed Meredith a radio earpiece. Meredith quickly fit it into her ear, rotating her jaw to get used to the sensation.

Only seconds after putting it in, the radio alert sounded. “This is Weir. I need all members of the command staff in my office ASAP, along with Radek now that Troy is—is gone.” 

“That should be me, not Zelenka,” Kavanaugh said through gritted teeth, though he didn’t activate his radio to say it aloud to Weir. Everyone ignored him, which just made him angrier. “And that doesn’t sound like someone who’s winning, that sounds like there’s a new situation to panic about!” The mood in the room began to tip back towards fear and despair. Heads lowered and feet shuffled.

Meredith really hoped there wasn’t a new problem, but now wasn’t the time to show these people her own fear. It was time to be seen to step up and lead so she had character witnesses for the IOA later. “The people here on Atlantis have proven time and again that they’re winners. I’m confident that this time will be no different, especially now that I’m here to help the frankly brilliant scientists that work here.” She looked around and met people’s eyes, trying to show them her pride and admiration.

It was even the truth… mostly. Their reports had shown glimmers of brilliance in amongst the heaps of false leads, slow slogs, and misunderstandings. A lot of them were still idiots more often than not, but considering they’d had to do all that work cut off from Earth support, she could admire their efforts. She would have done much better, even under such pressures, but none of them were as brilliant and amazing as she was, so she had to give them some credit. They’d done the best they could in frankly horrific circumstances.

“Now Dr. Kavanaugh, as a member of the senior staff, why don’t you get started making a list of urgent repair needs for the city.” Her steely look made his mouth snap shut. “I’ll look those over after I evaluate the state of the shields and integration of the ZPM.” As Meredith continued handing out tasks in a calm and confident voice, the scientists moved to do her bidding, seemingly happy to just have someone tell them what to do and that it would all be alright, even Kavanaugh.

While she was distracted, John and Teyla left.



Chapter Text

“If we could be reborn wherever we chose, how crowded Rome would be.”

FRANCINE PROSE

 

Despite Meredith’s hopes for things to settle down, the next thirty-six hours proved to be four parts glee—Atlantis was even more amazing than she’d expected—to six parts terror and extreme stress. 

Twelve more hive ships descended on Atlantis, the Daedalus got damaged and had to land on the city, Teyla did some mind-meld woo-woo with the Wraith hivemind, and Atlantis exploded a nuke above the new shield to try and trick the Wraith into thinking Atlantis had destroyed itself rather than be conquered. Meredith’s fingers had cramped from all of the new code she’d had to write and consoles rewire under conditions of extreme pressure. She was half-sure she was going to die and deprive the universe of her genius.

Yet against all odds, it worked. Atlantis survived. 

Then the real work began.

In the midst of a million things to do, she’d taken fifteen minutes to check that her favorite Marines from SG-15 were still alive. After getting over their surprise at seeing her on Atlantis, Major McLean had fondly ( probably fondly) reamed her out for following them to Atlantis during a siege and then gotten her a new gun and spare magazine of ammo, Sgt. Kindall had given her a big bear hug and a chocolate PowerBar (her favorite flavor) to keep her blood sugar up, and Captain King had clapped her on the shoulder hard and laughed at her balls (neither of them really had balls, being women, but Meredith was pretty sure it was a compliment). Adding them to John, Miko, Carson, and Radek Zalenka, Meredith was grateful that the few people she personally cared about had all survived the siege. 

Troy hadn’t survived. She still felt weird and uncomfortably emotional about that so she tried not to think about it. She could always do therapy later if it really became necessary. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be necessary.

Meredith had been running from problem to problem ever since she’d arrived. Zelenka had gratefully taken her help in the science department and made her attend the command staff meetings with him. She appreciated the acknowledgment of her importance, but if she wasn’t going to be in charge she would rather be out fixing things than in meetings explaining what needed to be fixed.

It was while she was on her back beneath Zelenka, the two of them fixing an awkwardly placed power converter with a thousand finicky little parts that Radek had to hold in place while she screwed in new pieces, that she overheard Weir radio him as the acting head of the science department. The conversation started with what might charitably be interpreted as stilted flirting before moving on to the point of the message: they were going to open the stargate to Earth. Earth needed to know that Atlantis had survived and Dr. Beckett wanted to send across the worst of the injured and the bodies of the fallen for burial back home. Elizabeth considered it worth the drain on the already taxed ZPMs.

“We’re opening the gate at eleven hundred hours. You can tell Dr. Mckay that I’m planning on mentioning to the SGC how we owe our survival to her efforts,” Weir told him. “We’re lucky they decided to risk sending both Mckay and their new spaceship out here to help us.”

An awful realization popped to the forefront of Meredith’s mind. She jerked in panic and banged her head against a pipe. “Ow.”

Radek signed off with Weir and smirked down at her. “Be careful not to damage genius brain you always brag about,” he narrowed his eyes, “or make us start over on repair. I will send Kavanaugh as my replacement to help you if you do.”

Grimacing, Meredith grabbed the tiny nut she’d almost dropped and used her fingertips to gently screw it into place. “I think I’ve been punished enough by the pain now radiating across my skull. Threatening me with Kavanaugh is just excessive.” Radek laughed evilly and handed her a tiny wrench.

As soon as they finished the repair, Meredith strode off to lock herself in the nearest bathroom and have herself a bit of a freakout. Not a real panic attack, she knew how terrible those felt— ugh —but at the very least a well-deserved mental and emotional breakdown. She’d forgotten that no one knew she technically wasn’t supposed to be on Atlantis. The IOA and SGC were not going to be happy. John and Weir were not going to be happy. Radek probably wouldn’t care but Radek didn’t have the power to keep her here.

If they ordered her to return to Earth, Weir would do it. John would probably be happy to toss her back through the gate where it was supposedly safer. It was depressing. 

Well, Meredith was just going to have to plant her feet and fight with everything she had for her right to stay on Atlantis. 

However, they were only a couple of days out from being destroyed by the Wraith. Meredith was too tired to fight right now. Also, she who lives to run away lives to fight another day. At fifteen minutes shy of the gate being opened her nerves got the better of her and she fled to the far side of the city. 

A report from that morning declared the area Wraith free but damaged, with patchy radio signals. Meredith wasn’t a coward, she was merely going to do some repairs. And if the patchy radio signals meant she couldn’t hear Weir ordering her to show up in the gateroom ASAP to be tossed back through to Earth and the stargate had to close again to conserve power before they could find Meredith, well, none of that would be her fault because she wouldn’t be hearing the orders while she was busy fixing things in a section with bad radio coverage. Oops. The stargate could only stay open for a maximum of thirty-eight minutes. Meredith just had to stay missing for that long. 

She put her head down and focused on repairing what looked like an Ancient hydroponics lab. The makeshift one the expedition was currently using to grow food had problems. It was all Earth-built and pieces had quickly degraded in the salty ocean air, which shouldn’t be happening after a single year but obviously they’d bought materials for the expedition from the cheapest supplier, who’d probably just resold the SGC Chinese knockoffs bought on Ebay. The yields in the garden were low and the upkeep costs high.

In general, there’d been a lot of problems with the supplies sent—or not sent—with the expedition when it originally left Earth. Someone should get fired over it. Knowing government bureaucracy and the members of the IOA, Meredith wasn’t holding her breath.

When it had been over two hours since the gate should’ve safely closed, her stomach growled, reminding her she’d only had a strange purple roll from the DFAC for breakfast at 07:00 and it was now lunchtime. Low blood sugar meant low brainpower. Unfortunately she’d left her special chocolate PowerBar from Kindall in her room. Since no big burly Marines had appeared to drag her back through the stargate, Meredith decided that it was probably safe to show her face again. 

Stepping over the guts of the hydroponics console she’d spread out across the floor like the spokes of a fan, she walked to the door and almost ran into it face first when it wouldn’t open. Touching the doorframe didn’t work, nor did pushing. Mental commands didn’t work. The door stayed stubbornly shut. 

“Oh no,” she moaned. Dropping her head despondently against the locked door, she realized that she’d forgotten to take into account that part of her mind had been desperately broadcasting the desire to stay hidden the entire time she’d been in here with her hands buried in Ancient machinery, ancient machinery designed to respond to mental commands.  She’d locked herself in here. And then she’d started dismantling that same machinery because part of trying to repair things meant taking them apart first.

She was new to the mental aspect of Ancient technology. Luckily no one was here to witness the humiliation. Of course, that also meant there was no one there to help her get out. Typical. Meredith always had to save herself in the end.

Almost an hour later, she finally discovered the crystal needed to open the door in the leftmost spoke of the parts she’d spread across the floor. “Ha, that’s right! I am a genius, after all. I don’t need anyone else to save me. I can do it all on my own,” she gloated, holding up the crystal to the light. Her celebration faltered when she saw a hairline crack, a flaw that hadn’t been there when she’d first pulled the crystal out. Mind racing, she remembered that she’d taken the crystal out right in the middle of when the stargate was open and everyone was finding out about her lying. Stressed and distracted (but not scared, not her), she’d practically tossed it onto the ground. It must’ve cracked then. What a stupid, rookie mistake.   

Teeth clenching, she shook her head sharply and then carefully inserted the crystal back into the console. The readings on her tablet looked fine, but when she typed in the command to open the door, the crystal shorted out with a pop and turned cloudy and the door stayed locked. Putting her hands behind her neck, she squeezed hard and focused on the feel of the tile floor beneath her knees. Her stomach grumbled with hunger, making her mouth decide that it was feeling dry and thirsty.

Meredith was going to have to call for help. She was stuck. Humiliated, she activated her radio. 

The signal didn’t connect. Fear of being sent away really had turned her brains to mush. She’d forgotten that she’d chosen this spot because of the radio blackout. No one could hear her.

Taking two steps to the right, she kicked the wall hard and then fell down with a cry and clutched at her foot. “Son of a—that hurt!” she squeaked breathlessly. Why did John kick walls when he was mad if it hurt so much?

Flopping onto her back (carefully so as not to damage anything else), Meredith set her watch for three minutes, stared at the water pipes crisscrossing overhead, and felt sorry for herself.  

When the watch alarm went off, she groaned, pulled herself to her feet, and returned to work. 

Three hours and forty-six minutes later, she swapped a set of crystals from the wall into the main console, banged shut the outer panel, and typed in the command to open the door. “Ha!” she pumped her fist as the command was accepted. Turning, she jogged over to the door.

However, the door didn’t open. Instead, the pipes overhead hissed softly, followed by a faint gurgling. Looking up, Meredith felt her eyes go wide in horror as the ceiling misters once used to water plants opened wide and began spraying the room in rank-smelling water. Within seconds, Meredith was soaked. The weight of the water pulled her hair free from its loose bun, causing it to slither in cold and clammy clumps across her face and neck. 

Jumping towards the hydroponics console, she slipped and fell to one knee. Not bothering to stand, she frantically typed the command for off, only realizing after the fact that she could’ve tried to shut it off mentally instead. It might not have worked, but if she was going to be living on Atlantis she should start trying more mental commands. The water stopped. As she tried typing in other commands without much effect, she felt a vibration beneath her as suction pulled the puddling water down between the floor tiles, followed by a faint static tingle that seemed to zip across every surface, leaving the room once more dry.

Except for Meredith. She was still soaked and dripping. Rising to her feet with a wince for her poor bruised knee, she pushed her dripping hair off her face, trying not to gag at the stench of the water. At least there was nothing in her stomach to throw up. She was starting to feel just as useless as her mother had always called her.

Feeling like a drowned rat, she looked up at a strange shushing sound only to see the door opening. A beam of bright light streamed in from the hall like the sun breaking through the clouds. A handsome Marine stood haloed in the doorway like the hero in a summer blockbuster. He had the kind of face that made orchestral music swell, with brown skin begging to be licked, high chiseled cheekbones, and plump sensual lips. 

She was saved! 

Then his mouth opened and he barked, “Hands up! Now!” 

Jumping, Meredith instantly put her hands in the air. 

Examining her and the room, his lips twisted down harshly. He called over his shoulder. “It’s a girl, not a Wraith.” 

She revised her first impression. The Marine would only be considered handsome if he wasn’t currently pointing a gun at her, didn’t sound so disgusted at the sight of her, and wasn’t named—she looked at the sergeant’s uniform patch—Phukuntsi. 

If Phukuntsi had a nickname that wasn’t a swear word or type of genitalia, she’d be completely shocked. The now very unattractive Marine’s gun had drifted sideways as his eyes got stuck on the way her raised arms made her wet shirt cling to her breasts—which yes, magnificent, she knew that, but that didn’t give him the right to ogle her. Breasts this great weren’t made for grunts like him.

“Eyes up here, sergeant!” She snapped, not lowering her arms as long as he had his gun out but not willing to be treated like a side of beef either. 

It was hard to tell if Phukuntsi flushed with skin that dark, but his eyes did jump up to her face. “A girl shouldn’t be out here, especially not alone,” he told her. His eyes drifted back down to her chest. “Anything could happen to you.”

“Excuse me, I’m Dr. Mckay, not a girl. I’m practically the head of the science department and I can go wherever I want! Is there a reason you’re still pointing a gun at me? Not that you’re doing a good job considering you’re evaluating my bra size more than my threat level, Sgt. Pervy McStupid!”

Instead of seeming cowed, the Marine looked angry. The emotion only showed for a brief second before he took a deep breath and smoothed his expression into one of condescension. “Atlantis is too dangerous for a girl to be out alone, but you probably can’t help acting stupid since your bra size looks bigger than your intelligence.” Smirking, he lowered his gun to his side.

Meredith sucked in her breath in rage. “Excuse me, but they’re both bigger than the size of what you’re packing,” she flicked her eyes towards his crotch and curled her lip dismissively.

Eyes narrowing, Phukuntsi tutted at her. “Considering how you’re soaked in the middle of a dry room, sugar, I sincerely doubt your job skills or ability to measure. Did you get here through one of those flat on your back promotions? Because I can help you audition for a better one back on Earth. Where you belong.”

“You’re the one who belongs back on Earth, probably as a parking lot attendant, though even that might be too complicated a job for an idiot like you. As for me, I just fixed this hydroponics system, which has been broken for over ten thousand years, by myself!” Lungs heaving, she glared.

“You’re getting hysterical there, babe. You should probably have that Dr. Z check over your work before you start bragging too much. Better yet, you should transfer back to Earth where it’s safe. Girls don’t belong out here.” He returned his eyes to her heaving chest in a thorough perusal from left to right, making her feel dirty. 

In the past, she might’ve thrown a wrench at his head, but that was before she’d learned how weak she was compared to a man refusing to take no for an answer. Meredith swiped up a screwdriver, crossed her arms, and gritted her teeth, ignoring the fear and memories starting to seep into the edges of her mind. She was not a victim. She was not. “I am a genius. I don’t need anyone to double-check my work and if you don’t want me to shove a screwdriver in your eyeball you will look away from my chest. Now.”

A blond-haired Marine in the hall stepped into view and nudged Phukuntsi, clearing his throat. “We’re wasting time here. Dr. Mckay, this area is supposed to be unused for now because of the problem with radio signals not working. When the power readings started rising, command worried that a Wraith might’ve snuck in. You’re lucky we didn’t have itchy trigger fingers.”

“She’s lucky we came out here to find her. Women shouldn’t be allowed in war zones. They’re too fragile.” Phukuntsi pursed his lips and dragged his eyes down her body. “They get hurt.”

“Ma’am, civilians aren’t supposed to be this far out without military authorization,” the blond told her directly, ignoring Phukuntsi.

“It’s doctor, not ma’am!” Meredith snatched up her dripping toolbag, tucked away her screwdriver, and slung the bag over one shoulder. “And last I knew, this was a civilian-run outfit, not a military one. The area was cleared on the server so you soldiers need to back off.” Meredith belatedly remembered that Marines hated being called soldiers for some reason, but she didn’t currently care. “Now I’m needed back at the labs, so if you’d stop bothering me and get out of the doorway, I’ll leave.”

Rolling his eyes, Phukuntsi waved his arm widely and stepped back to let her pass. 

Happy to finally escape, she strode out of the room into the hall. Each footstep squelched and her clothes clung uncomfortably, but she kept her head held high. She heard a muffled snicker at her back. 

When she reached the transporter and turned to face the squad in the hallway, a baby-faced Marine in the back with thin black eyebrows and a cleft chin looked at her apologetically but didn’t say anything out loud. The blond’s eyes jerked up from where they’d been watching her butt. None of the men looked at her with respect. They didn’t make her feel safe. She’d almost have preferred to have gotten out of the room on her own. 

Sleeve still dripping, she touched the button to close the transporter door in their faces. She wasn’t sharing. They could wait.

Meredith went straight back to her rooms, ignoring the looks of shock and amusement she generated along the way. Once there, she locked the door, stripped off her sodden clothing, and took a hot shower with lots of soap. Dressed in dry clothes again, she thought about going down to the DFAC for dinner but didn’t feel like braving the crowds. Instead, she scarfed down one of the MREs she’d liberated and stashed in her desk drawer. You always knew what you were getting with an MRE.

She’d just finished the last bite when her radio beeped with a call from Radek. A command staff meeting was starting in fifteen minutes and Weir wanted both Radek and Mckay there, probably to talk about all of the urgent repairs they hadn’t gotten to yet, as if the science department wasn’t already doing the best it could. 

“We will suffer together, yes?” Radek grunted before signing off.

Throwing back her head, Meredith groaned up at the ceiling. She wanted a nap, not to go be dazzling during a meeting. Throwing her MRE into the trash, she turned to the unpleasant task of putting on her still-wet boots and rushing to make the meeting on time. Meredith had a feeling she was forgetting something important to do with seeing Weir, but the way her socks immediately soaked through and became clammy proved too distracting. 

Chapter Text

“Ancient Rome was a violent place.”

JAME PUREFOY

 

Meredith walked into Elizabeth Weir’s office with only a minute to spare before the meeting started. Radek and Colonel Sumner were already there. On the opposite side of the room sat Weir at her desk, too busy reviewing files to look up. The walls and desk were cluttered with colorful and strange knickknacks from alien cultures around the Pegasus Galaxy. It was possible some of them were from Earth too, but Meredith was a scientist, not a wishy-washy anthropologist. 

Weir’s office was a long room with a large meeting table on one side by the entrance and a desk in the far corner. A balcony door sat opposite her desk. Square windows flanked the currently open balcony door where Colonel Sumner stood with her arms crossed behind her back, staring out at the rain falling over the ocean as seen through the flickering gold and bronze of the energy shield and cloak surrounding the city. Meredith didn’t like looking out at Weir’s balcony because the low, half-melted wall from falling battle debris made her feel anxious. 

That was her story and she was sticking to it. 

Her anxiety had nothing to do with the way the cloudy sky looked through the shield surrounding Atlantis or how it transported her mind back to a time she did her best not to remember. Her recent nightmares had nothing to do with being trapped behind a shield again. For goodness sake, she’d almost been killed by a Wraith and seen the dead body of her ex-husband. That was enough to give anyone nightmares. Old memories of Manudia had nothing to do with it.

Shuddering, Meredith jerked her eyes away from the view and focused instead on where Radek hunched over his tablet at the table. Hearing Meredith come in, he waved her over and smirked. “So I heard a rumor you walked through the hall dripping today, perhaps related to how you decided to improve the water cycling system yesterday on the military floors and instead broke the hot water and made many naked Marines shriek like little girls?” 

“Today’s dripping was completely unrelated and the Marine’s hot water was only gone for half the day, the whiners,” she muttered, dropping down into her seat. The chairs in Weir’s office were huge and heavy. She had to put a lot of effort in to scoot herself back into the table. “They didn’t have to get so upset about it. The old system had a lot of built-in waste and redundancy. It’s better now.” The fact she’d overestimated herself and instantly regretted trying to fix it without fully understanding how it had been set up wasn’t something she was prepared to admit to. Or how all those angry Marines shouting and swearing her name at the top of their lungs had been a bit scary.

“Maybe you should try to fix the problems we already have instead of making new ones, yes?” 

“Or maybe people should be grateful for what they get.” Meredith lifted her chin. “I also found and repaired a hydroponics lab today. That’s why I was dripping. Botany and the kitchens should be happy.” 

“Why? Who would ask for a new hydroponics lab when we’re still repairing infrastructure?” Radek gestured at the half-melted balcony outside and rolled his eyes behind his glasses. 

Meredith had no intention of telling him she’d only fixed hydroponics so completely because she’d accidentally locked herself in the room while hiding. 

“Nevermind, I’m too busy to care,” Radek said. “I have a better problem for you. Let’s talk naquadah generators.” Meredith quickly agreed. Tilting his tablet in her direction, they began brainstorming. When Radek got an email he needed to answer and waved her off, Meredith looked around.

“Is Colonel Sheppard not joining us?” Meredith asked crankily. If she was going to be forced to attend meetings, it was only fair that John should be forced to suffer along with her. 

There was a conspicuously empty wall space where a certain handsome but aggravating man should be leaning. John liked to stay standing during these meetings, even when he looked like he was about to collapse from exhaustion. She suspected it was so he could leave quickly to avoid talking to her. Meredith didn’t understand why and was getting sick of it. Once things settled down a bit more she was going to force him to talk to her, even if she had to lock the two of them in a “mysteriously malfunctioning” transporter.

Weir looked up at Meredith, the corners of her mouth pursing and her eyes going tight. Meredith’s next words faltered in her mouth, the look an unpleasant surprise considering the sense of camaraderie and respect that had been building between the two of them over the last five days of working together to survive the siege of Atlantis. Why would she—?

Oh. Crap.

Jerking her eyes down, Meredith shut her mouth with a click and tried to control the surge of adrenalin making her fingers want to shake. Sweat beaded on her skin and made her shirt clammy. The Stargate to Earth had opened this morning, which meant that Weir now knew Meredith wasn’t supposed to be here. Did it count as being AWOL if she wasn’t technically away anywhere and was in fact still doing her work just in a different location? 

Meredith’s eyes flitted around the room. Was John missing because he was in her quarters right now roughly packing up her things to toss through with her back to Earth? He’d made it clear that he didn’t want her here. Was he about to burst in with a pair of handcuffs and arrest her in front of the entire base? Or would he stand back and watch while one of his minions did it? She didn’t know what would be worse. Her stomach turned queasily.  

“We should probably start without Sheppard. I don’t think he’s going to make it back in time.” Colonel Sumner’s voice broke Meredith from the dark spiral of her thoughts.

“Where is he? I need him here for this.” Weir’s frown made Meredith’s fingers drum anxiously along the outside of her thighs.

Trying to distract herself, Meredith watched Sumner walk to the table. She still hadn’t gotten used to how OLD Sumner looked now, painfully skinny and wrinkled like a stick of beef jerky, though admittedly deadly jerky that could punch you across the face, knife you in the gut, and shoot you in the head for good measure, but still—Sumner looked like the effort of stomping you into the ground might send her into cardiac arrest as soon as she finished. Her movements had an underlying brittleness that hadn’t been there when Meredith had cornered the once-Amazonian Marine in an elevator at Stargate Command last year—back before the Wraith had gotten to her.

That could’ve been Meredith if Teyla and John had shot the Wraith attacking her just a few seconds later. Of course, if they’d shot too late, she would’ve been dead like Troy. Meredith was rather attached to being both young and alive.

Wasn’t there anything else Carson could do for Sumner to make her young again? Maybe with the new ZPM installed they’d find some ancient device to reverse the damage. Meredith would have to ask Carson about it, see if there was anything in the infirmary she could try to repair. Meredith would hate to be old like that. If she ever got attacked by a Wraith again, it would be comforting to have a backup to fix herself with.

“Marsha?” Weir prompted, pursing her lips.

Sumner’s thin shoulders went back and the wrinkles on her face deepened. “Sheppard went through the gate looking for a missing teammate.” Weir didn’t look satisfied with the brief explanation, forcing Sumner to elaborate. “Lt. Ford, a member of Sheppard’s gate team, got injected with a massive dose of Wraith enzyme when a Wraith started to feed on him but he didn’t get drained of life before the Wraith was killed. Ford woke up paranoid, knocked out a medic, stole a jumper, and went AWOL through the gate. Sheppard went after him to try and get both Ford and the jumper back.” Frustration added snap to her voice, though whether it was for the actions of the Wraith, Ford, or Sheppard wasn’t clear. Probably all three. 

Weir shot Meredith a sideways look that made her tongue go dry before focusing on Sumner and placing hands flat on the table. “We’ll table my part and start with the military instead. What’s the current security situation on the city?”

Sumner, about to sit down, instead bobbed back to her feet to pace. “Patrols are still clearing the city room by room, so we haven’t ruled out the possibility of more Wraith in hiding, especially in the uninhabited sectors, but it shouldn’t be too long before we can conclusively clear the living quarters and main work areas in the central towers. It would help if people would stay in the main living areas and stop making our job harder.” 

Meredith thought that might be a jab at her for going to the hydroponics lab. She stuck out her chin to show she wasn’t cowed. 

“The Wraith have taken all they’re going to get from us,” Sumner said, cutting her hand through the air in emphasis, but the weakness of old age betrayed her, making her bony, age-spotted fingers tremble like a kite on the wind. Frustration flashing across her face, Sumner looked down, fisting the hand and bringing it to her chest. The pose made her look vulnerable, which Sumner must have realized herself because a second later she jerked the hand open and flattened it down by her side, turning away from them to focus on the distorted reflection of the balcony door in the large vase sitting the floor. 

The light in the room seemed to dim and become almost hazy. Meredith shifted in her seat. It was probably a cloud over the sun or malfunctioning light fixture. Feeling awkward, Meredith looked down and checked the energy readings for the room on her tablet just in case. Everything seemed normal but she ran a diagnostic to give herself something to do. She hated feeling awkward, but it was better than the acid eating away her gut from wondering what Weir was going to do. Meredith wiped a hand across her sweaty forehead, drying it on her leg.

Weir leaned forward, making Meredith look up with a gulp. “Keep me updated as sections are cleared so I can let people get back to work. Also let me know when John gets back, with or without Lt. Ford.” Weir looked around cooly. “I know we’re all busy, so I’ll try to keep the rest of this meeting short. What are the most urgent issues in your departments right now?”

Meredith couldn’t stand it anymore. Maybe Weir didn’t know after all and all this anxiety was for nothing. Her head hurt. What if she gave herself an aneurysm and deprived the world of her genius for nothing? Shifting in her seat wafted air up out the collar of her shirt, a sour sweat smell that screamed guilty. She needed to get out of here before the tension killed her. “If that’s all, I’m sure Radek can fill you in. I’m probably needed elsewhere.” Meredith started to rise to her feet.

“On Earth, I’d imagine,” Weir’s crisp words made Meredith’s legs go wobbly and sent her crashing back onto her seat, “but you chose to sneak out here without orders.” Radek choked on his spit and started coughing, forcing Weir to speak louder to be heard over him. “We’re going to talk about that in a moment, but despite what you may think there are more important things around here than you, Dr. Mckay. We’re stuck with you for now so you better start proving to me that Atlantis needs you. You want to be useful? Put your ego on hold and contribute to this meeting.” Weir sent her a flinty look.

Meredith forced herself to nod meekly. She could prove herself to Weir. Sure, it might be nice to actually be wanted for once without the whole song and dance, but it wasn’t necessary. She didn’t have to be wanted to be needed. Nobody really wanted Meredith, just Dr. Mckay, and that was fine . It was. Mckay would prove to everyone that Atlantis needed her. If Weir only cared about results, Dr. Mckay would give her an avalanche of results.

Weir turned away dismissively. “Now Marsha, do you have anything else to add for the military?” 

Anger made Sumner’s eyes black as she glared at Meredith. “How dare you lie to us? Lie to Colonel Caldwell and the Daedalus, putting their careers and safety at risk? You don’t get to just ignore and disobey orders because you don’t like them. Do these wrinkles on my face mean nothing to you? Do you think this is all some kind of game?”

“I know it’s not a game!” Meredith snapped back, stung. “I was ordered to get the ZPM ready ASAP and onto the Daedalus to power Atlantis’s shield. The quickest way to do that was to go with it to clean and prep it en route. I might’ve interpreted my orders a bit liberally, but nothing I’ve done since has been anything but in service of the safety of this city and the people of Earth!”

“You disobeyed your orders, Mckay!” Sumner jerked her eyes away from Meredith. Her whole body twitched.

“I only—!” Meredith’s words choked off as Sumner drew her gun, flicking off the safety. The barrel swung towards Meredith. Her perception of time slowed from churning river rapids to slowly melting icicle as she saw Sumner’s finger on the trigger tense and start to pull.

Meredith’s mother had always predicted that she’d drive someone to kill her one day, though she hadn’t expected that day to be today. Of course, there was always the possibility that it wasn’t really Meredith’s fault and merely that Sumner’s prematurely-aged brain had misfired and she would shoot the whole room in a fit of dementia. Either way, Meredith would still be dead. She didn’t want to die, especially not so pointlessly. 

The barrel of Sumner’s gun pointed at Meredith’s face for a heartstopping moment before swinging past and opening fire with a head-splitting brat-ta-tat-tat! The sound made Meredith’s lungs rattle against her ribs like the sensation of falling down a metal staircase. Eyes snapping over to where Sumner was aiming, Meredith saw a Wraith silhouetted in the balcony doors. 

“DOWN!” 

The snap of Sumner’s command voice grabbed at Meredith’s hindbrain and sent her slithering out of her chair and under the table before her mind quite caught up to her ears. Her chest scraped painfully against the edge of the table as she dropped. Meredith whimpered. Pressing a hand to her stinging chest, Meredith looked at Radek and Weir in terror. Shots from the Wraith’s weapon blasted above their heads and over the floor, turning the chairs into kindling and the vase by the door into shards. There was no way to make it to the exit door and escape without getting hit. Flinching down, she tried to make herself smaller. Weir cried out as something slashed across her face, leaving a welt beading with red blood on her pale cheek.

The gun in Sumner’s age-weakened hands shook, spraying bullets across not just the Wraith but the desk, walls, and balcony too, adding to the debris flying through the air and the chance of injury. The acrid scent of ozone, ether, and burning drifted from Sumner’s rapidly firing P-90. The table offered minimal protection but there was nowhere better to hide. It was all happening too fast. 

Sumner ducked down behind a stack of chairs an arm’s length away to reload. The Wraith blasted gouges in the floor and furniture like streaks of rain on glass. Panicked and helpless, Meredith scrunched down small and put her arms over her head. 

Something hot spattered her skin. Looking down, she was horrified to see bright scarlet on her hand. Blood. 

Meredith didn’t feel pain but what if she was in shock and just couldn’t feel it yet? She frantically patted herself down but couldn’t find any mortal wounds. 

Head whipping sideways, she froze on seeing Sumner’s face. A long and ragged gash ran the length of Sumner’s head and bled copiously. It drenched Sumner’s hair, painted her face red, and pooled grotesquely in her wrinkles. The whites of her eyes stood out starkly against the red blood coating her eyelids. Teeth bared like a feral dog, Sumner had successfully reloaded and gone up onto one knee, shooting bullet after bullet at the Wraith. She swiped the back of her hand across her blood-smeared eyes and flicked, sending blood spattering through the air. Three warm drops landed on Meredith’s wrist, making her recoil in horror.

On the balcony, a shot hit the Wraith in the knee. He fell. Pressing her advantage, Sumner’s bullets focused on the Wraith’s gun arm, chewing up half of it along with the doorframe. 

In the momentary lull as he tried not to drop his gun, Sumner staggered to her feet and charged the Wraith. Despite the unevenness of her gate and aim, the bullets spitting from her rifle managed to force the injured Wraith to back up against the damaged balcony, which only came to mid-thigh. He teetered for a moment and the metal creaked in strain. Meredith caught her breath, hoping he might fall, but the Wraith jerked forward and regained his footing.

A round blasted through his cheek, leaving a zombie-like hole with broken, blood-stained teeth. The flesh around the hole rippled sluggishly as it started to heal closed. Meredith had to swallow down burning vomit at the sight. 

Despite the injuries, the Wraith wasn’t down. He switched the gun to his less damaged arm and resumed shooting, though his shots had become slow and almost as erratic as Sumner’s. 

Sumner dived, trying to take shelter behind the balcony door, but she was injured and her body that of an old woman. She wasn’t fast enough. Her body jerked as she was hit. A cry ripped from her throat and a dark red stain soaked rapidly across the back of her uniform. The Marine fell to one knee and then sideways, the doorframe the only thing keeping her body from sprawling onto the floor. Her P-90 went silent.

The Wraith jerked forward at seeing her fall and swung his gun straight out from his body to shoot her in the head. However, the abrupt movement was too much for his injured body. He started coughing violently, blood spewing from his lips. His shot hit the wall instead of Sumner’s body. 

His gun slipped from his spasming fingers and clattered to the floor. Body hunched over and good arm wrapped around his waist, his long white hair whipped in the wind, almost disappearing against the cloudy sky. 

In the absence of firing, Weir’s voice became the main source of noise as she called for help on the radio. Eyes watering and nostrils flaring, the Wraith’s eyes flitted past the injured Sumner to focus on Weir with what looked like recognition. Baring bloody teeth, the Wraith took a staggering step forward and pulled out a large grenade from his lacerated chest plate. 

Fighting hysteria, time slowed again as Meredith’s mind flipped with lightning speed through the reports she’d read until she found the specs for the Wraith weapon. Despite being small, it was a lot stronger than a traditional grenade. The blast was powerful enough to take out the entire gateroom and everyone in it, maybe even collapse parts of the central tower if he tossed it inside Weir’s office and the explosion took out a weight-bearing wall. 

Before her scream could leave her lips, the Wraith’s finger flicked the grenade open and pressed the trigger. Meredith’s mind spun uselessly, desperate to find some way to survive and coming up blank. She’d stopped carrying her gun once they’d gotten the cloak up and she’d probably hit Sumner instead of the Wraith even if she did still have it. There was nothing she could do. She was useless. She was going to die.

Her mind flashed to John. Despite the current state of their relationship, Meredith was suddenly, fiercely glad he’d gone after his AWOL teammate and missed this meeting. At least John would survive this. She hated giving him the satisfaction of knowing that he was right about her safety on Atlantis, but at least he’d be alive to do his gloating and maybe use the guilt of her death to goad him into finally finishing his damn doctorate in math so his mind and potential didn’t waste away completely. And at least she’d gotten that last kiss before he’d lost his temper and pushed her away. Again. He may be a jerk, but she would always love him. It may be her greatest stupidity, but she couldn’t bring herself to regret it.

Weir grabbed her hand hard, making time restart. Meredith gripped back just as tightly, not looking away from the grenade and her impending death. At least she wouldn’t face it alone for once.

Behind her back, Meredith heard the door to the hallway finally opening, the reinforcements too late and too slow to do anything but die with them.

The Wraith’s arm pulled back to toss the grenade into the room, blood dripping off his elbow to join the growing puddle beneath his feet.

At that moment when all seemed lost, Sumner abruptly surged to her feet and threw herself at the Wraith, her frail and injured body slamming into him, grabbing him about the waist and bearing him backward. She wasn’t strong enough to heave him over the balcony wall, even with the battle damage, but it didn’t matter because the fragile structure gave a shriek of tortured metal and snapped at the impact of their bodies, sending the two straining combatants flying out into midair. The grenade dropped from the Wraith’s hand.

The grenade!

“Doors close! DOORS CLOSE!” Meredith screamed frantically. “CLO—!” 

The world exploded. 

The concussive force slammed into Meredith’s body like a giant’s steel-toed boot, ripping her hand from Weir’s. The table jumped into the air and slammed down again, legs screeching across the floor to add to the cacophony. A dark shape slammed into the edge of the table. Crying out, her voice was lost in the noise. Bright light seared her eyes and she wrenched her head away as the world bucked beneath her knees worse than the mechanical bull John had once dared her to ride at a country fair years ago. The groaning and shaking got worse.

How unfair that her last thought before dying should be of a stupid mechanical bull.

Chapter Text

“Going around Rome, you can find beauty because, quite simply, Rome is very beautiful. But the beauty of the people is sometimes harder to discover.”

PAOLO SORRENTINO

 

If she was still cursing the mechanical bull then it wasn’t her last thought because she was still thinking, right? So... she couldn’t be dead. Not yet at least. Right? 

The shaking stopped. She was pretty sure she was still alive. Everything ached. Meredith cracked open one eyelid and then the other. Lights flickered and alarms wailed, stabbing at her already tender brain. An acrid, musty stench swamped her sinuses, a combination of Atlantis’s fire suppression systems and the clouds of particles swirling through the air. 

The ventilation system whined beneath the alarms, damaged but still trying to clear the air. It was working, just slowly. As visibility improved, Meredith squinted at where the balcony had been, seeing collapsed ceiling panels and buckled walls, the windows like huge bubbles full of spiderwebs that, amazingly, remained intact. The balcony door was warped with a finger-width crack down the center, stuffed with shards of debris like serrated teeth protruding from the mouth of a prehistoric shark.

Dazed, she looked over at Weir and Radek in the blinking lights. Moving her neck sent sharp pain zinging through her pulled muscles. Meredith hissed through her teeth and shifted her whole body instead of just her head. It didn’t hurt as much that way, though the rest of her body protested the movement. 

Radek sat up and touched his chest in wonder. “ Přežili jsme !” He grinned at Meredith like a lunatic, his teeth a blinding white against the dull grey powder coating his face. Taking off his glasses, he cleaned them on the inside of his shirt, the lenses filthy but amazingly unbroken.

Pushing herself up cautiously, Weir looked around her office. “We’re not dead,” she said in surprise before bending over in a fit of coughing. Radek reached over to pat her back, sending up a cloud of dust that just made her cough worse. The red blood from the cut on her face mixed with the powder to create clumps of gruesome mud down Weir’s cheek and neck. It looked painful and reminded Meredith of her own injuries.

Gently rotating her neck to try and find a comfortable position, Meredith saw that Weir’s desk had traveled from the other side of the room and ended up tipped on its side against the table. Despite the damage during the firefight, the desk hadn’t broken apart or slid beneath the table to smash the people crouching beneath it into salsa. In fact, the large piece of furniture had shielded them from the blast that had gotten in through the crack in the balcony door. Otherwise, her genius really would’ve been lost forever.

She’d just almost died! Again! At least she hadn’t been electrocuted this time or had a dead body fall on top of her, but near-death experiences were not something she’d ever get used to. Meredith found herself panicking now that it was all over. Her throat felt like it was closing down, making it hard to breathe. Each time the lights flickered off she worried that they wouldn’t come back on again. What if she survived the initial blast only to get stuck in this room and die from her injuries? She probably had some sort of fatal injury, it would be just her luck. Meredith’s lungs started to burn. 

“Radek, are you alright?” Weir asked, obviously trying to pull herself together. “Mckay?” A hand touched Meredith’s arm and squeezed, the voice changing from gentle to sharp. “Meredith!” It was the first time Weir had called her Meredith instead of Mckay. “Breathe Meredith!” She shook her arm.

Blinking, Meredith sucked in a big breath. Her lungs took it in greedily, exhaling quickly before sucking in another. Breathing, right, that was what she was supposed to be doing. Good advice, Weir. Her body and—most importantly—her genius brain needed oxygen to stay alive. Living was good.

Radek looked at her in concern but Meredith waved him off. She didn’t want to talk right now, she was too busy breathing and protecting brain cells. He nodded and turned to Weir. 

“What about you, Elizabeth?” Radek frowned and gently touched Weir’s bleeding cheek with his fingertips. “Are you hurt anywhere else?” Their eyes locked for a moment, a heavy moment where Meredith was pretty sure they both forgot that she even existed. 

“I’ll be fine.” Weir’s face became soft and open as she stared at Radek, an expression Meredith hadn’t been sure was actually possible on the usually tightly controlled woman. It made her look strangely young. “Thank you.”

Radek Zelenka and Elizabeth Weir? Really? Obviously Weir could do a lot worse than Radek but—“Is now really the best time to be flirting?” 

Radek’s fingers sprang away from Weir’s skin and their eyes shot in opposite directions like startled gazelles. Meredith couldn’t tell if Weir was blushing beneath the dust. Radek definitely was. 

The wailing alarm cut off, allowing them to hear banging on the main door and the sound of metal on metal as people worked to get it open. “Took them long enough,” Meredith muttered. Here’s to hoping they’re actually competent enough to get it open without her having to go over and help.

Elizabeth cleared her throat and schooled her features, but not before her hand slid over and squeezed Radek’s arm once. Letting go, Weir levered herself up onto her knees, the flickering lights making her miss the besotted look Radek sent her and the way it changed into a glare when bent upon Meredith. Weir reached up to adjust her radio, which had fallen into her collar during the explosion. Meredith’s was completely gone, lost somewhere in the shards of furniture and broken tiles scattered everywhere. 

“This is Dr. Weir, copy. I have Zelenka and Mckay with me. We aren’t seriously injured, but we’d appreciate an assist in getting out of here.” Which was a bit presumptuous considering Meredith hadn’t gotten a chance to answer about being okay with the two of them so busy making googly eyes at each other.

The blinking lights overhead abruptly went out, plunging the room into darkness. Meredith froze. The background noises of whirling fans and buzzing wires disappeared. The silence was shocking. Then something groaned like a great leviathan rising from the deep. The room shook once as something boomed. A hail of new debris showered across the room. With nothing to see and each inhalation thick with dust that coated her mouth and nose with grit, it felt like being buried alive. 

Abruptly the lights came back on, a blinding blaze that seared her pupils. Crying out, Meredith slammed shut her eyes and threw an arm over her face. Her neck muscles shrieked in pain. Blinking away tears, she cracked open one eyelid at a time, noticing that the light was now steady instead of blinking. The ventilation kicked on, quieter and quicker than before.  

Seconds later, the door to the hallway was forced open with a triumphant shout. The first face Meredith saw was Sgt. Boots—Bates—the grumpy Marine in charge of base security. He brandished his gun on all corners of the room including the people under the table before rushing over. Meredith was sick of getting guns pointed at her today. “What happened, ma’am?” he asked Weir.

“A Wraith attacked us from the balcony. Marsha… Marsha defended us.” Weir’s voice became raspy from dust, that or emotion. She cleared her throat and rose to her feet with Bates’s assistance, though she had to close her eyes and swallow hard on standing. 

Meredith’s neck twinged sharply when she tipped her head too far back to see Bates and Weir. It looked like Weir was trying not to throw up or pass out. Meredith could sympathize since she’d throw up too if she could guarantee not to splash herself in the process. Weir better not throw up on Meredith or she would return the favor. 

More Marines poured into the room, stepping over debris and clambering over broken pieces of furniture.

Meredith felt shaky. Folding her arms around herself, she felt on the verge of crying. That or hitting someone with a big wrench. Unfortunately, there was no one to hit. The wraith was already dead, along with Colonel Marsha Sumner. Did the soldiers know that yet? 

“Colonel Sumner’s dead,” Meredith told them. She meant to sound sympathetic and composed, but her voice came out strident instead. Bates slashed a devastated look her way and then turned to Weir for confirmation. 

“I’m sorry,” Weir said. 

Bates tightened his lips and swallowed hard. Voice uneven, he snapped a series of orders over his radio. More people rushed into the room, making it a veritable forest of legs and debris. 

Muttering to himself in Czech, Radek pushed himself to his feet and climbed out, stumbling to stand by Weir. Although she swayed slightly on her feet, Weir was relaying orders through the radio in a steady tone of voice. Bates passed her off to another Marine who escorted her out of the room. Hovering at her side, Radek followed.

No one bothered to help Meredith up. They were probably waiting for a medic and a stretcher. That or no one cared if she’d survived. Maybe the Marines blamed her for Sumner’s death. Or maybe they were still bitter over her little repair mixup yesterday that had turned off all the hot water in their quarters for most of the day. Or the fact that she was smarter than they were on top of being female and bossy.

Meredith sat in the middle of the growing crowd and felt increasingly sorry for herself, futilely trying to wipe the dust from her face with dirty hands, avoiding the splatters of Sumner’s blood out of a morbid kind of respect, and cataloging the scrapes and bruises on her skin. She deserved a soft bed and shower and painkiller and sympathy, not necessarily in that order. John would be nice too, a nice and helpful John instead of the closed-off and resentful one she’d been dealing with lately. He didn’t even need to be her boyfriend, she’d happily take a normal friend right now. 

Meredith poked at a bruise on her knee, trying to figure out if it was from just now or falling in the hydroponics lab earlier. It hurt. Everything hurt.

“Mckay.” A pair of knees in military fatigues crouched down in front of Meredith. She looked up into Major McLean’s familiar scowl. His dark skin looked pale. That or dusty. Meeting her eyes, the former leader of SG-15 frowned even harder, bringing out lines all up his forehead and over his shaved head. His mean-looking expression made her feel better because his eyes didn’t look mean at all. It had taken her a long time to realize that you had to ignore McLean’s mouth for his eyes. The eyes said he was happy that she had survived. 

Good. Someone should be.

Reaching out with a grunt, he put his hands under her elbows and hauled her to her feet, watching hawkishly to see if she could stand. McLean was more of a tough-love than a cuddles kind of man, but at least he was on her side now. Meredith gave him a wobbly smile and sniffed as her nose started to run. “Hey, Mr. Clean, there was a Wraith. And a bomb. It almost killed me, almost killed all of us!” She wiped her nose and shivered. “I hurt. Everywhere.”

“You spitting up blood? Anything broken?” McLean looked her over carefully, checking the size of her pupils and flex of her limbs. He carefully wiped away Sumner’s spattered blood with his thumb, checking that her hand was undamaged. She thought about telling him it was Sumner’s, but couldn’t get her mouth to form the words. 

“You made it through just fine, Mckay, as always.” She’d always appreciated that he had a very sexy voice, all low and growly. The praise helped steady her nerves, which had probably been his intent. Over the last year of working together, he’d never really indulged her hysteria—though hysteria was a perfectly natural reaction in dangerous situations! He was all about the tough love instead, but at least the love was there and he seemed happy to have figured her out enough to manage her. It sucked that she’d been in danger enough times this last year for him to learn to manage her, though the last week had shrunk all of those dangers into perspective. Since coming to Atlantis she’d almost died multiple times and been attacked by a Wraith. Twice! She should tell him that.

“A Wraith almost killed me twice this week. Twice! Plus that second fleet of ships almost killed all of us and Atlantis. But I’m alive and the Wraith are either dead or gone, like Troy. Troy almost killed me by leaving me behind to die but he got killed and I didn’t. I’m both sad and not sad that he’s dead, so I’m trying not to think about it too much. The important thing, Mr. Clean, is that I’m still alive, still smart, and still winning. Ha!” She tested her knees by stepping forward, finding them more stable than she’d expected. “Go me.” 

“Good. Let’s make sure you stay that way, but cut it out with that Mr. Clean crap or I’ll stop being so nice to you, whether you’re being useful or not,” McLean growled, putting his massive paws around her waist and lifting her up over a pile of debris into a clearer spot by the door. It made her feel almost dainty. She was not a dainty woman, but he was the size of a grizzly bear, albeit one with a shaved head instead of all furry.

“No, you won’t. You like me now,” she said insistently, though she made sure not to use the nickname again, just in case. Having him as an ally was so much nicer than as an enemy, it was just that remembering all of the proper social rules was annoying. Weren’t people supposed to like nicknames, especially people in the military? “You know you find me charming.”

At the door, McLean passed her over to Sgt. Kindall. “But you’re my favorite Marine,” she told him earnestly. Kindall should know that. She didn’t have many people who’d mourn her if she died or bring her red jello if she was sick. She should treat him better. Maybe.

“C’mere, Mckay.” Flashing a smile, Kindall put a supportive arm around her waist and squeezed gently in what she was going to interpret as a supportive hug. She deserved a hug. 

Hopefully, it wasn’t just a random flexing of his frankly amazing muscles. Not that she didn’t appreciate the muscles. Both Kindall and McLean had the kind of bodies that meant they could moonlight at bachelorette parties on the weekends. Unfortunately, the thought of kissing either one of them left her cold. Kindall felt like the brother she’d never known she’d be willing to put up with and McLean like a G.I. Joe whose pants didn’t come off. It didn’t matter how attractive they were. If there was an ounce of justice in this world, she’d have torrid affairs with one or both of them and make John insanely jealous and herself delightfully exhausted, but in both cases, the relationship had moved straight past hostile acquaintances into platonic buddies and gotten stuck there. When she wasn’t feeling so pitiful she tried to be grateful, since almost everyone else she knew was still stuck at hostile.

She wanted to keep Kindall and McLean. That meant making sure to regularly compliment and praise them according to a book on making friends and influencing people she’d once read and mostly forgotten by the next day, unless the advice had actually come from training dogs on Animal Planet, which actually made a lot more sense. “Thank you, Kindall. I’m very glad to see you and your muscles even though I’d never kiss you romantically,” she told him. 

Turning her head to McLean, she made sure to clarify, “I wouldn’t kiss you either, except for maybe on the cheek or top of your head in extreme emotional circumstances.” McLean gave her a stink face. “Of which these are not.” He rolled his eyes.

Chuckling under his breath, Kindall dropped a kiss on her head as he supported her out into the hall. “Pah, dust,” he turned his head and spit. Gross. “But there, one non-romantic kiss for my favorite genius. You gave us all a scare, Mckay. I’m really glad you’re alright.”

“As you should be.” She sent him a wobbly smile. Kindall really was the best.

A couple of years ago, Kindall and his old team had tried to rescue her after she’d gotten kidnapped off-world. They’d broken her out of her cell after only a few hours of discomfort, but then everything had gone FUBAR and she and Kindall had ended up alone together in the middle of a forest without a radio or supplies. That first night they’d been forced to sleep fitfully against the trunk of a tree with low-hanging branches. Kindall had been injured and angry, jumping at shadows and never moving his hand far from his gun and knife. Meredith had been bitter about being kidnapped again , forced to fight off PTSD and nightmares of Manudia, and irate at the botched rescue. 

Despite the rocky start, they’d bonded over staying alive in an alien forest and their shared love of geeky movies and nieces named Madison. Somehow, they’d become friends. And unlike most people, after they’d gotten themselves back to Earth, Kindall had gone to the effort of staying her friend. They shopped for their nieces together and talked regularly. His loyalty, once given, had never wavered.

Even more amazing, Kindall had somehow influenced his new teammates to start liking her too. Most people didn’t like Meredith (unless she was being useful, though even that wasn’t a guarantee), ranging from her parents—who’d emancipated her as soon as legally possible as a fourteen-year-old and happily cut off all contact until their deaths—to her teachers, bosses, and coworkers, which was monstrously unfair because she was an awesome person and a genius everyone should revere. Her people skills might be weaker than average, but her other attributes should more than makeup for that. Even putting aside her genius (though who would want to), she had healthy skin, nice features, and perfectly symmetrical and perky breasts, which was a lot rarer for a woman in her mid-thirties than you might expect. She could also build or fix just about any machine, do complex physics equations in her head, and had helped build a spaceship. Looked at logically, people should be beating down her door for the chance to be her friend. Unfortunately, people were rarely logical like that.

Meredith got distracted rubbing dirt from her stinging and irritated eyes and almost tripped. 

“Steady on there, Mckay,” said Captain King, who’d been waiting out in the hall. King was the third Marine from SG-15. The dark-haired woman was like Xena but with guns instead of a sword and chakram. Meredith and King wouldn’t ever be the kind of friends who braided each others hair—though to be fair the only friend who’d ever braided her hair was John when Meredith was dying from food poisoning at a small base in the pacific—but King kept her teasing of Meredith more friendly than not, shared her food on occasion, and would glower with a hint of teeth at anyone who got too out of line with Meredith. Rigo Diaz, SG-15’s anthropologist, was the only member of the old team still stuck on Earth, the poor sucker. 

Up ahead, a group of Marines had stopped outside a door, blocking the hallway. Meredith recognized Dr. Carson Becket’s voice coming from inside. “On three they’re going to lift the panel and we’ll slide you out. Ready? One, two, three!” A woman shrieked in agony, followed by sobs that trailed off into wet gasps and whimpers. Several of the watching Marines winced and one looked away, rubbing a shaky hand across his mouth. 

“This is why women shouldn’t be in warzones. We’re supposed to keep them safe and protected, even from themselves.” It was the not-handsome creep from hydroponics, Sgt. Phukuntsi. “It was a mistake to let so many women stay here. They’re too weak, too soft and emotional for this kind of danger. None of them should be out here! Look what happens? Listen to her!”

A short Marine with a scar across the bridge of his nose shot an elbow hard into Phukuntsi’s side, sending him jolting back. “Shut up, man. She didn’t do anything wrong. It was an accident and you’d scream just as loud if your leg got crushed like that.”

“If she’d been safe on Earth it wouldn’t have gotten crushed,” Phukuntsi said sourly, rubbing his side sullenly. “Women don’t belong anywhere near danger like this.”

Eyes narrowing, King stalked forward with a feline snarl and sent the group scrambling up against the walls to get out of her way. Phukunsti narrowed his eyes in resentment and disapproval as she moved past. He looked like he wanted to say something, but when his eyes flicked to McLean and Kindall he restrained himself, though seeing the way they supported Meredith made his lips twist.

Meredith ignored the sexist marine and kept her eyes away from the doorway with the injured woman as they passed. She didn’t like seeing the gooey inside of people's bodies. She wasn’t a medical doctor for good reason. Besides, most of medicine was practically voodoo since there were too many variables to control.

“You okay back there, Mckay? You’re being strangely silent.” Not waiting for an answer, King turned to the nearest person and barked, “Where’s the infirmary?”

The dark-haired woman she’d spoken to, one Lt. Cohen—Air Force not Marine—flinched at the tone but bravely stood her ground. “Orders are to be seen by a medic first before going to the infirmary. They’re just over here.” Gesturing, Cohen led them to where the medics were set up in a corner. Several other people were already being treated.

Kindall snagged the attention of a man with a stretcher and McLean helped Meredith lay down. Meredith’s neck cramped sharply at the movement, making her whimper and clap a hand to the muscle. “I don’t like pain. I’ve got scrapes and bruises and strained muscles in my neck and my heart is galloping out of my chest and I probably need an MRI and CT scan and—”

“Anything actually serious?” McLean broke in with that tone of voice that said not to exaggerate her injuries or else he’d make her pay for it dearly.

“Well I don’t know,” Meredith said, cranky at getting cut off, “I’m not a medical doctor. However, I was just almost blown up and”—her mind flashed to the screaming woman’s voice and then that last glimpse of Sumner’s wrinkled and blood-drenched profile as she tackled the Wraith off the balcony—“and Colonel Sumner’s dead,” she finished with a quaver. Her fingers shook as she brushed the hair out of her stinging and watering eyes. All that dust was such a nuisance.

Looking over at Kindall as the person most likely to give her the kind of comfort she needed, she swallowed and tried to ignore the brusque medic checking her vitals with his icy-cold hands. “Colonel Sumner got shot but she still saved us, tackled the Wraith off the balcony so the grenade didn’t go off inside. If it had, all of us would be dead, not just me but most of the lower tower too. I couldn’t do anything, just hide under the table and watch.” 

Kindall gave her a serious look. “You were an unarmed civilian, of course you were supposed to stay undercover. Sumner did what she was trained to do. She was an amazing officer and I’m sorry I never got the chance to serve with her.” He put his warm hand on Meredith’s calf and squeezed gently.

“I did, years ago.” King swallowed and looked off into the distance. “She knew the regs better than the people who wrote the books and bled Marine code values when cut. Sumner was tough as a snake and twice as mean, the ideal Marine. Serving with her was an honor.” 

“It all just happened so fast,” Meredith said helplessly. “One minute we were all talking and then the Wraith appeared on the balcony and now Sumner’s dead.”

Punching Meredith on the shoulder a little hard considering that Meredith had just been in an accident, King sent her a sharp nod. “Hey, I’m glad you’re alright. She’d be glad too. Sumner wouldn’t have regretted going down taking out an enemy versus being shipped back home into forced retirement sprinkled with stints as a lab rat because of her forced aging from the Wraith attack. I know I would’ve hated that. Honor her sacrifice. Colonel Sumner did the Marine Corp proud.”

“Hoorah,” called all the nearby Marines—both those on guard and those injured on stretchers—making Meredith jolt up onto her elbows and look around in surprise. Her neck spasmed painfully. Pulling in air through her teeth, she carefully laid back on the stretcher and tried to think peaceful thoughts.

After a minute Dr. Carson Beckett came striding down the hall. A stretcher holding the sedated woman followed him and was rushed past and around the corner. Meredith didn’t look too carefully. “I want everyone here triaged and taken to my infirmary to make way for any new patients!” Carson’s Scottish accent sounded thicker than usual.

He paused to check with Meredith’s medic about her status, nodding in relief at the listing of minor injuries before kneeling down by her side. “Listen to the medic, Meredith, and try not to give my people too much grief.” Squeezing her hand, he left to check on the next stretcher, which Meredith finally noticed held Weir. 

Elizabeth, not Weir. They’d just survived near-death together. That sort of thing was a bonding experience, right? Meredith could call her Elizabeth now, couldn’t she? After the explosion, Elizabeth had called her Meredith instead of Mckay and they were going to be working together closely on Atlantis from now on since Meredith wasn’t going to let either Elizabeth or the IOA pry her out of here. They were practically equals, so first names would be natural. Happy with her decision, Meredith closed her eyes and waited to be taken to the infirmary and get some painkillers.

Chapter Text

“They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I wasn’t on that particular job.”

BRIAN CLOUGH

 

Despite her desire to take some sleeping pills and painkillers and not wake up until everything stopped hurting so much, Meredith didn’t even get to spend an hour in the infirmary. She’d just showered and laid down with a heating pad on her neck when an overwhelmed engineer ducked into the infirmary begging for advice. Radek was still in the bathroom so he beelined for Meredith.

The explosion had managed to destabilize several parts of the tower—so much for sturdy Ancient engineering. If they didn’t fix the damage asap, exterior walls going up to the top of the tower could start to sheer off. Even worse, if they collapsed in instead of out, they could bring down the upper floors and potentially bury both the puddlejumper hanger and the stargate. All non-essential personnel and equipment were being evacuated to other towers. Without Radek and Meredith to direct things, the engineering team was getting pulled in twenty different directions.

Cutting the man off, Meredith began laying out a plan of action. Barely a minute into her rapid-fire response his eyes had already started to glaze over. He was trying to take notes but kept dropping his pen. 

Huffing, Meredith saw Radek come out of the bathroom across the room. She caught his eye past the engineer’s shoulder, tilted her head, and rolled her eyes. Sighing and wiping a hand down his face, Radek nodded, changing directions to join her. 

“Can you—can you repeat that one more time?” the engineer asked with a crack in his voice. He clutched his pen so tight it broke in his hand, leaking blue ink everywhere. Meredith couldn’t remember what his name was and didn’t have the energy to care.

“Nevermind, Dr. McFumbles, Radek and I will take care of it. You focus on stabilizing the upper levels with your team until we tell you differently. Grab an extra engineer, maybe,” scrolling through faces in her mind, Meredith snapped her fingers as she searched for a name, “Dr. Rachel Kushumba, she’s less stupid than most.”

“Really, you’ll take over?” Looking back and forth between her and Radek like Christmas had come early, the engineer wiped a hand across his face, leaving a streak of blue ink on his brow. “Thank you. I’m sorry but thank you. I’ll go get Dr. Kushumba right now.” Turning on his heel, he practically sprinted from the infirmary as if afraid she’d call him back and change her mind.

Sighing, Meredith updated Radek and knocked back a cup of pills she’d badgered from Carson.  She’d need them to get through the rest of today. The two of them left the infirmary and caught a transporter to the lab with the power tools. Radek, used to thinking with a much narrower focus, forced her to stop and clarify why they should bother with anything outside the central tower during the current crisis. Once he understood, however, he submitted to her genius and adopted her list of priority repairs.

Therefore it was an unexpectedly bitter pill to swallow when they entered the lab and she was reminded of the fact that she wasn’t actually in charge. People swarmed forward, begging for Radek’s attention and pushing her to the side. Before she could say anything, Radek calmed the horde and began handing out repair orders. Everyone quickly scattered.

“Here.” Radek handed Meredith a bag of welding tools and opened a channel on his radio. “This is Dr. Zelenka. I will join the teams stabilizing the interior areas of the central tower while Mckay leads the teams outside on the ground. Direct your questions accordingly. Zelenka out.” Picking up his own toolbag, he turned to leave.

“But, but—!” Meredith sputtered at his rapidly shrinking back. 

Radek just waved a hand over his head dismissively without turning around. He had a bandage on the back of his neck disappearing beneath his collar, showing that he hadn’t emerged from the explosion as unscathed as she’d assumed. “You’ll figure it out!” He called, disappearing out of the room.

Of course she would, that wasn’t in question, but Meredith didn’t want to be outside. Her mouth twisted. However, she wasn’t the boss right now—Radek was—and now he knew she was on Atlantis without permission. That meant he could assign her to whatever he wanted and she had to go if she didn’t want to lose his support in the battle to stay here. She needed to start working harder than ever to prove to everyone, especially Elizabeth, that she deserved to stay here.

Frustration turned to muted panic as she looked outside the window and up at the cloudy and distorted shield-covered sky. Meredith could still radio Radek to beg him to switch with her… but if she did Radek would make her explain why before agreeing and… no. No, she couldn’t talk about that. Not today. Not ever. 

There was no choice. She’d have to suck it up and prove herself useful by going outside. As long as she kept her head down, she could just pretend that the shimmering energy shield and cloudy sky weren’t there. She could pretend she was fine. The view didn’t have to remind her of anything. This was Atlantis, not Manudia. She would be fine.

Going downstairs, not allowing herself to hesitate, she exited the doors and made her way over to the group of soldiers and civilians already clearing debris and trying to stabilize things. If her breathing was slightly elevated and she kept her eyes raised no higher than straight ahead, well, no one had the seniority to ask her why. 

They were also doing things wrong, she realized with narrowing eyes and rising agitation. She picked up her pace and focused on the external problems. “Hey morons, what are you doing? Were you trained in a zoo? Of course not. Zoos are better constructed than this. A flock of flamingos could build me a better wall.” 

Wading into the action, Meredith kicked the panel they’d just put up, making something snap and the panel fall sideways fifteen degrees because of the shoddy way they’d been securing it. “Are you kidding me?” She looked around with disgust. “I’m not even that strong! What did you use to put this up, bubble gum?”

With Elizabeth’s balcony on this side of the building, most of the lower levels had torn or missing exterior walls. Even if the walls had survived, you still had to worry about the windows that had bubbled when absorbing the force of the explosion. They’d started to collapse under the uneven weight of their new shape, threatening to fall out and brain the workers below. 

As she barked orders and whipped things into shape, grumbles and complaints reached her ears. She was used to it. That didn’t mean she liked it, but experience had taught her that ignoring it was the most efficient way to complete the work. They were doing what she said for now. The rest was just background noise.

“Oh great, we got stuck with Mckay. As if this day couldn’t get any worse.” 

“Isn’t the Queen Bitch supposed to go back to Earth now?”

“Maybe Earth doesn’t want the Queen B either. You think the Wraith would take her?”

“Nah, even they aren’t that masochistic.”

“Dude, have you seen their outfits? They totally shop at BDSM stores.”

“Great, now I’m thinking of her in a leather corset with a whip.”

“As long as she’s gagged, I’d do her.”

“Yeah, there are a lot of isolated places in Atlantis. Maybe they’ll assign us alone to do repairs and I can stuff a sock in her mouth and my—” a burst of ugly laughter covered the rest of his words.  

Sweat pricked on Meredith’s spine. Most of the talk like that stayed as just talk in military environments like the ones she’d been working in for the last two decades, but being attacked last year had reminded her that she wasn’t invincible. Plus, being outside under the shield was making her jumpy. She took note of the faces of the men who were laughing. She would make sure she didn’t end up working alone with any of them, just in case. 

An all-military crew working on the next section finished up and trotted over to check-in. From what Meredith could see, they’d done a good job. At the head of the group walked a dark-haired woman with Air Force engineering tabs. She looked young and slightly familiar.

“Dr. Mckay? I’m Lt. Cohen. We've been assigned to assist you.” Meredith placed Cohen’s face. She was the woman who’d directed King to the medics earlier. Cohen had a sweet prettiness often associated with dimwitted beauty queens. It made Meredith suspicious of her qualifications. However, a barrage of fast and brutal questions showed that Cohen at least sounded like she knew her way around a spanner and circuit board. Since Cohen also seemed respected and well-liked by the rest of the work crew and they’d managed to do decent work before Meredith had arrived on the scene, she decided to cautiously trust Cohen to be competent at her job. 

Meredith got everyone sorted into groups. The least competent were sent to tear down exterior girders and panels too damaged to fix. The ones who seemed like they had two brain cells, like Lt. Cohen, were trusted to reinforce the structure and repair what they could. 

Once the largest pieces were taken down, Meredith broke the teams into even smaller groups and turned to fixing or stabilizing the more delicate sections. Beneath the outer wall ran thousands of wires and conduits that had to be repaired because no one knew what it would effect if they didn’t.

After the gossip from earlier, Meredith didn’t want any of these people at her back. She decided to take a smaller section to work on alone. If she needed more help she could call for it easily.

Wielding a blow torch, Meredith kept her eyes down so she couldn’t see the sky and firmly focused on her task of repairing a torn section of panel full of machinery that was normally hidden inside the wall. Her polarized facemask thankfully helped disguise the cloudy grey light distorted by the energy shield overhead, making it easier to ignore. Meredith needed to stabilize the big pieces of the panel before she could switch to her soldering iron for the more delicate wirework. She didn’t have time to worry about the sky or sexual harassment. Meredith needed to make herself indispensable so they didn’t send her back to Earth. This was another chance to prove to both the command staff and the IOA how useful she was on Atlantis. 

Finally breaking through a mangled screw, Meredith opened the torn outer panel to evaluate the interior. Heart dropping, she groaned at seeing a twisted wedge of metal the length of her arm stabbing through a tangle of delicate wires. She needed to remove it without severing more of them or causing a power surge.  

Just as she reached out to touch it, the wall began vibrating faintly. Something in the tower structure creaked and groaned. Programs whimpered on the edge of her mind as externally her tablet shrilled in warning. Snatching her fingers back, Meredith dived for her tablet, expecting to see a catastrophic failure happening on an upper level. 

Instead, she saw that someone had opened the stargate. Slapping on her radio, she shouted, “Turn off the stargate, you idiots! Stop all gate travel until we get things out here better stabilized or the tower could collapse!”

“Turn off, off!” Radek echoed harshly, followed by a string of Czech insults and swearing as something clanged on his end. 

The gate sergeant jumped onto the line, his voice strained. “Sorry! Just one more second to get everyone through…okay! Shutting down now. I’ll lock down the gate from further travel now that everyone’s back.”

“You better!” Radek took it upon himself to properly cow the man so Meredith sourly shut off her radio and returned to the panel she’d been fixing.  

The metal shrapnel jammed in the wall was shaped like a wedge. Unfortunately, the shaking from the stargate had made it start to bend beneath its own weight, pulling several wires taunt and threatening to snap them and create even more of a problem for her to fix later. Meredith took a firm grip and pulled, but she wasn’t strong enough to get it out by herself. Just trying caused more wires to almost snap. 

New plan. Glancing down at her tablet to make sure she wasn’t in danger of being electrocuted or otherwise zapped by the exposed wires, she fired up her blowtorch and started cutting off as much of the shrapnel’s weight as she could while still leaving a grip to remove the piece later. Once it was no longer in danger of falling and damaging the area further, she could take her time finding someone stronger or a better tool to get it out.

She’d burned three-quarters of the way through the metal shaft when her tablet shrilled another warning. Lifting the flame away from the metal, she looked over. The energy flow on the nearest circuits had increased by five percent and was climbing, despite supposedly being deactivated. Meredith immediately shut off her blowtorch and stepped back. Even through her face shield, she could see that the glow of the exposed wires was increasing, along with a subvocal purr that was mental, not physical. At least this purr felt happy instead of damaged.

Glancing around with a frown—even forcing herself to check the shield overhead despite the way it made her heartbeat race—Meredith didn’t see anything that could’ve caused the change. The light overhead was getting fainter as the sun approached the horizon, but she’d already set up orders to have exterior lights set up for the work crews. She checked her tablet, but no one had activated the gate again. 

Annoyed, she decided to check out the area in case someone had decided to do something stupid. Lifting her face-shield off the top of her head, she set it to the side along with her blowtorch. Bruises and fatigue forced her to move more slowly than usual.

Something rattled above her head. The floor above her was missing its exterior walls already, exposing the interior to the elements. The earlier vibrations of the stargate could’ve loosened more debris. Before she could force her weary body to scramble backward out of the way of anything falling, she heard John’s familiar and ragged voice calling her name, “Rome!” 

Meredith’s head snapped up. Her pulled muscle protested sharply. Slapping her hand to her neck, she hissed. Breathing through the pain, she moved backward so her neck wasn’t at such an awkward angle. 

“Rome,” John called again, collapsing to his knees in the jagged opening above her head where they’d removed a shattered section of wall on the second floor. Body tense, his eyes looked manic, though seeing her seemed to bleed off some of the crazy from his expression. He’d been worried about her. Good. Though if he cared this much, why was he being such a jerk and avoiding her?

As John looked her over carefully, Meredith sighed and decided to indulge his concern by holding out her arms and then running them down her body to show that she was still alive and kicking. Well, not really kicking. She was too tired for that. Before she could find a way to let him know all about her strained neck and the scrapes and bruises and emotional trauma, the weight of John’s eyes changed. The look of examination turned to soft appreciation, the sensation of his eyes gliding down her body feeling like warm fingertips memorizing her curves. Her breath hitched involuntarily. 

Finally, John seemed satisfied, sagging over and rubbing at his face with shaking hands. His hair stuck up crookedly and sweat and copper-colored dirt stained his pants from whatever planet he’d just come back from. Dark circles shadowed his eyes and the bones of his cheeks looked more defined than she’d ever seen them. He was too skinny.

Dismayed, Meredith frowned up at him and put her hands on her hips. He definitely wasn’t taking proper care of himself. When was the last time he ate? Sure, he’d been in crisis mode for weeks, but hadn’t anyone here noticed that he was at the end of his rope? She doubted that he’d slept more than three hours in the last three days. She’d ask, but he’d been avoiding her unless forced to see her during meetings.

Meredith frowned up at him. “You look terrible. I almost got blown up by a Wraith while you were gone—” John flinched “—and I still look better than you.” 

John’s lips went tight. “I know I should’ve been here. I’m sorry.”

“Why, so you could’ve blown yourself up again?” John flinched harder and the blood drained from his face, making him look even more like a corpse. Meredith didn’t like it. “If you pass out and fall from up there, I’m not going to catch you.”

John rolled his eyes weakly and turned his head away. “As if you could. Your arms are noodles. I’d flatten you, so just as well I’m not going to pass out.” He rubbed his knuckles against his chest. “I’m glad you’re okay. You deserve to be safe. That’s why you shouldn’t be here.” Forehead creasing, the corners of his lips turned down and he glared at the wall hard enough to set it on fire. He looked mean. That or upset. Either way, she didn’t like the expression.

“I’m here because I want to be here, John. I deserve to be here. Don’t make me fight you on that because I’m not going anywhere.” Meredith didn’t have time to run up there and yell at him about whatever his problem was, no matter how much she wanted to. These external walls needed to be fixed as soon as possible because the energy released from the stargate opening had the potential of further destabilizing the structure and causing collapse. If they lost the stargate they’d be stuck on this planet or have to evacuate on the Daedalus. Not being able to use the stargate was a huge tactical disadvantage.

John probably didn’t have time to come down here either, no matter how ragged he looked or how talking (or arguing) with her for a few minutes would probably do them both some good. She was mad at him but she’d been mad at him before. It didn’t mean that she’d stopped caring or that she’d ever stop caring. It was years too late for that. She was stuck with this affliction—affection—same thing when it came to John Sheppard. 

Putting her hands in her pockets, Meredith felt the chocolate PowerBar Kindall had given her. She’d been saving it because it was her favorite flavor. Meredith rocked back on her heels. Selfishness warred with nobility. Sadly, John’s pitiful appearance was just too much to bear, especially after he ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up like a bedraggled kitten. Unfair. He was such a jerk.

Pulling the chocolate PowerBar out of her pocket, she growled and threw it at John, aiming for that stupid mouth that kept saying mean things about not wanting her here. Being sweet didn’t preclude a little bit of sour. However, Meredith was not a championship thrower and he was ten to fifteen feet above her head. Privately she had to admit that her arms sort of were like noodles. Dismayed, she watched as the PowerBar reached the top of its arc several feet short of its target and started to fall. 

Head snapping over to track its fall, John grabbed the edge of the wall in one hand and lunged out into space. Squeaking, Meredith’s heart jumped into her throat and her arms shot out instinctively to try and catch him, noodly muscles forgotten in the heat of the moment. John stretched out on one toe and precariously snatched the falling PowerBar out of the air with two straining fingers. She couldn’t breathe until he’d returned both feet to safety. 

As John went back down onto his heels and opened his hand to see what she’d thrown at him, she felt a strange surge of nerves. Was he going to get mad at her for almost killing him over a PowerBar? He blinked and then his face softened. 

Crouching down, he looked at her with his brow wrinkled. His mouth opened and closed silently without saying anything. He rubbed his knee, cupping the PowerBar in his other hand, and looked lost. 

Meredith sighed in exasperation and flung out her hands. “You eat it, John!”

John continued to stare at her in silence. His head tilted. Slowly his lips curled up into a close-mouthed smile. His eyes softened from flat gray to enticing green, crinkling at the corners. 

The look made her feel strangely exposed. She crossed and uncrossed her arms, fiddling with the hem of her jacket. Her face felt hot.

Just as John opened his mouth to finally say something, a gruff voice inside the building at his back called his name. John’s mouth snapped shut and he turned to look over his shoulder. Rising to his feet, he said something in acknowledgment and waved. Tension sprang back into his shoulders, all softness disappearing as the mantle of command settled across him like a cloak. 

Meredith ignored the disappointment bubbling in her veins. John could leave. That was fine. She had work to keep her busy, after all. 

Looking over his shoulder at her, John tipped his head in thanks and pressed the PowerBar to his lips, holding her gaze until he disappeared from view. 

Breath whooshed out of her mouth. What did that even mean? A man couldn’t just say he didn’t want you around and then kiss PowerBars at you like that. He wasn’t a Captain Kirk, he was worse! 

Scowling, Meredith snatched up her face shield and blow torch, made sure the energy readings had returned to normal with John’s absence, and returned to her repairs.

Chapter Text

“You look at passers-by in Rome and think, ‘Do they know what they have here?’”

FRANK MCCOURT

 

If Meredith thought things might change between her and John after that, she was quickly disabused of that notion. Between recovering from the siege, integrating new people, and securing the wreckage across the city, John stayed much too busy to talk to his old friend Meredith Mckay. She was very busy too, but he was one of the few people important enough for her to make the time to talk if he wanted to. 

He didn’t want to. 

It would be easier if she could just put John out of her mind and focus on her work of becoming indispensable to Atlantis, but during the day she caught regular glimpses of him out of the corner of her eye as he checked up on her like a stalker before ghosting away before she could say anything. If he didn’t care it would be one thing because then she could start hating him and feel justified, but it was obvious that he did still care. John took her safety very seriously. When she was scheduled to go into potentially unstable areas she always found herself assigned a few extra marines. He had someone from the kitchen start labeling everything with citrus in it and the kitchen scheduled a meeting with her to explain the DFAC’s system to make sure she only ate safe food and how they’d been trained to respond if she had an allergic reaction. He sent Miko an email reminding her to make sure Meredith got moved to nicer quarters with better furniture and sent a supply clerk to check in on her to make sure she had enough clothing and other supplies. She even got an “anonymous” note one day advising her that the mess was serving red jello and she shouldn’t skip lunch in favor of work. 

Which was nice and all but she didn’t want red jello, she wanted her friend back! Okay, and the red jello too, but that wasn’t being unreasonable. Yet he still wouldn’t talk to her face to face. It was so selfish and unfair. She was supposed to be the selfish and self-centered one, not him. She’d tried to respect that he was probably grieving all the people he’d lost and recovering from a rough period of time. He was probably depressed and mentally exhausted. She tried to give him space, but as time went on and he still slid out of every room she entered, her frustration was joined by hurt. They’d fought before, but never like this. The hurt made her angry. 

Neither of them liked messy emotional stuff and it didn’t get much messier than the current state of their relationship. The tension was distracting. That made her angry too. It wasn’t like she wanted John to suddenly marry her. She loved him (as illogical and frustrating as that was) but she wasn’t foolish enough to expect him to want that kind of commitment with her. She wasn’t even sure she even trusted in it anymore. Having a husband like Troy had taught her about the hollowness of such promises from others even if Meredith had taken them seriously. 

Meredith missed talking to her friend. And maybe she also missed making out with John but he was a really good kisser, okay? Why did he have to make it more complicated? Why did he have to blow hot and cold? Why couldn’t he just talk to her and hang out with her again? 

Why did everyone always leave her?

Twisted up over John’s idiocy, proving herself to the people of Atlantis, and the looming threat of their next check-in with Earth, Meredith threw herself even harder into her work. She should be so exhausted that she slept deeply and easily, but instead, she kept waking up at three AM sweaty and hoarse. If it wasn’t screaming, it was hysterical crying. In her nightmares she was always alone, racing against the clock to save the day, but always failing because she was useless. Failure had consequences. Sometimes she died—electrocuted, shot, blown up, beaten, or drained by a Wraith. That was horrible but it wasn’t the worst. In other dreams, she had to watch helplessly as the people she cared about died—on Earth, Atlantis, and even Manudia. The worst by far were the dreams on Manudia because they were closer to fact than fantasy and made her sob so hard she felt like her guts were going to rip up out of her throat. 

The unopened box of letters in her bottom drawer felt like another person in the room on those nights. A specific person staring at her accusingly. Sometimes she pulled the box out and ran her fingers over the edges, playing with the idea of opening the lid and finally knowing for sure what they thought of her instead of her pained imaginings. She never did. The biggest regret of her life was already painful enough. She didn’t know if she could survive hating herself even more over it without breaking down. It would consume her until nothing was left. She should probably discuss it with a therapist, but as much as she loved talking about herself, this was something so raw she just couldn’t touch it, a wound she’d rather leave to fester than have someone well-intentioned try to scrub it out. She just couldn’t. So she always put the box of letters back away, closed the drawer firmly, and forced herself to lay back down in her bed.

Without a distinct role on Atlantis, her days were spent on work she had to define for herself or beg from Radek, meaning that sometimes he threw demeaning jobs at her just to get her to go away so he could focus on what he was doing without her looking over his shoulder and criticizing. That she corrected his faults in detail and at full volume didn’t endear her to him or the rest of the science department. She honestly admired Radek and found him a pleasure to work with, but he could also be short-sighted and shockingly stupid too. Nevertheless, she did everything asked of her and more.

Radek lasted for almost two weeks with Meredith as his extremely useful but terribly insubordinate assistant before they got into a screaming match that had the entire floor running for cover. The next morning Radek marched into Weir’s office for a private conference. Everyone knew why. He was going to get rid of her. Efficiency in the science department slowed to a crawl since everyone was too busy gossiping and placing bets. Miko supported Meredith, but that didn’t stop her from betting too, it just gave her better odds with the bookie. 

Meredith spent most of the morning on the verge of throwing up, though she did her best to hide it. Her chest hurt too. Taking a quick break, she ran over to the infirmary to make Carson check her for low blood sugar, the stomach flu, and a heart attack before he pronounced her healthy but stressed and kicked her out. She went back to the lab.

Finally, Meredith was called on the public lab channel to come to Elizabeth’s new office for a meeting. Kavanaugh smirked at her cruelly. He would love to see her get kicked out, not that it should matter to him considering he was transferred back to Earth any day now. Glancing around the lab at everyone either avoiding her eyes or staring at her with hostile glee, she realized that they all thought that. Despite her best efforts, she hadn’t been useful enough. They didn’t want her here. 

Why were people so stupid and hard to please?

Keeping her head held high despite the pounding in her chest, Meredith stood up to leave. She swept her eyes around the room haughtily, noticing an error on a nearby computer and another on a whiteboard covered in blue equations. “Are you idiots trying to get someone killed? Are your doctorates real or just napkins written in ketchup?” 

Around the room, shoulders hunched up around ears, but it was too late to hide from her wrath. “Rhodes, your angle and speed calculations are wrong. A pimply kid with a skateboard could do better.” She kept walking as she ripped the room to shreds. “Kushumba, you need to add friction to that equation. From the beard-burn on your face, you’d think you’d know something about friction. Congratulations Partridge, by trying to run away from me like a baby rabbit you just erased half of Yamamoto’s whiteboard with your big butt. It was only thirty percent crap, so you better hope he remembers what he was writing. Yamamoto, the crap was your ideas on energy transference. I’ve seen drunk Marines draw more symmetrical curves using vomit. Atlantis deserves better than sloppy science. I know you can do better. Everyone better start focusing on their work and fix this before I get back.” 

Because she would be coming back. She had to be. Stalking from the room, Meredith let anger crowd out her fear. A junior technician about to get into the transporter with Meredith took one look at her face and turned on her heel, retreating in the opposite direction. 

On reaching Elizabeth’s new office, Meredith barely waited for the door to close before opening her mouth and waving her arms. “After everything I’ve done for Atlantis, I can’t believe you’re kicking me out! You need me here! Everyone else in the science department is too stupid to live. You can’t send me back to Earth. The only reason Atlantis has recovered as quickly as it has since the siege is because of my genius and efforts!”

“Excuse me?” Radek folded his arms and pursed his lips sourly.

Meredith huffed. “Yes yes, Radek helped too. He’s an expert in his field and a very—” she threw out her hands “—a very smart and able man, obviously, but he’s not me . I’m an expert in many fields and a genius who thinks quickly on her feet. You need a problem solver like me! Taking into account all of the repairs, departmental efficiency is better than it ever was under Troy and that’s because of me. You need me here!”

Rolling his eyes, Radek sat back in his chair. “And she’s so humble too.”

“I don’t need humility when my superiority is a fact! Please, Dr. Weir. Elizabeth. I need to stay in Atlantis. I am being extremely useful and I will just keep getting better and better. ”

“Dr. Mckay. ” Weir knocked her knuckles on the table and gave her a stern look. “Meredith. Sit down.”

Trying not to hyperventilate, Meredith pulled out a seat and perched on the edge.

Weir waited a moment before saying evenly, “We aren’t kicking you out, Meredith. We’re promoting you so we can keep you.”

Jumping back to her feet, she resumed arguing, “Before you do that I want to say one more… thing… wait, what? You’re what?” Meredith was so wound up expecting the worse that it took her a moment to process the words. Blinking rapidly, she looked back and forth between Elizabeth and Radek to make sure this wasn’t some sort of joke or hallucination. “Really? You want to keep me?” she asked, voice going small.

“Why don’t you sit down—again—and we’ll explain what we’re thinking.” Weir looked at the chair pointedly until Meredith sank into it. “There’s been a lot of discussion at the SGC about whether to let you stay on Atlantis or bring you back to Earth. A note of censure has been added to your file and my opinion has been solicited. While your intelligence is undeniable, you can also be difficult to work with and prone to prioritizing your personal ego over the greater good. However, the things you’ve done since coming here have been impressive. I’ve chosen to gamble on the fact that you’ll prove yourself more help than hindrance to our mission in Atlantis. I hope you justify my trust.”

Meredith nodded mutely, lungs hurting with the unexpected joy blooming in her chest.

“Instead of shipping you back to Earth, we’re going to make an argument for keeping you here. I suggested slotting you into Radek’s old position but,” Elizabeth steepled her fingers, “he’s asked to move to second-in-command of the Science Department instead and have you take over the administration since you have more seniority in the program. After some discussion, I’ve cautiously agreed to make you the de-facto head of the Sciences—pending IOA approval—if you want the job.” 

“Of course I want the job!” Meredith beamed from ear to ear. “Yes!” Of course they wanted her. She never should’ve doubted herself. 

.-.-.

When Mckay’s new position was announced that afternoon, John had been standing on the gate platform at the edge of the crowd. She was too busy gloating and shaking hands to watch his reaction, but when she smugly glanced over later, he was gone. 

The smile dropped from her face. The jerk hadn’t bothered to even come over and say congratulations. She told herself that the feeling of being punched in the gut was merely an echo of memory from the Wraith grenade that had gone off nearby and had nothing to do with John’s abandonment. 

John avoided her even more completely after that. No more corner of the eye checkups. If she hadn’t seen him at mandatory staff meetings, she’d have sworn he’d left Atlantis altogether. When she let herself think about John instead of the mountain of tasks she’d inherited, she felt the urge to punch him in the face. If she’d had time, she’d have reprogrammed his shower to only produce needles of icy-cold smelly seawater and reversed the flow when he flushed the toilet to make it spit at him.

Luckily for John, she no longer had any spare time. After her promotion, she spent a solid week doing eighteen-hour days of administrative tasks with no fun scientific research whatsoever. That’s why it took her so long to realize that she’d been tricked. Radek had hated creating status reports and reviewing requests from the soft sciences, not that Meredith had a lot of respect for biology and psychology herself, but he’d done the bare minimum while he’d been in charge. He’d claimed to be too busy with more important things like repairs and recovery, but it was a weak excuse. It would take weeks to dig her way out of the requests Radek had let pile up and whip things into coherence. All the interesting projects she’d started before her promotion gathered dust.

When a sympathetic Miko and smug Radek appeared in the doorway of her new office one evening to brag about their most recent experiment integrating Alteran and Earth components, Meredith threw her green pen straight at Radek’s face. She was so tired that she missed him entirely. The pen fell to the floor a measly three feet away. Meredith glared down at it morosely. She was too tired to even lean over and pick it up. 

At least she was also too tired to think about John more than five times a day. Okay, Six. Sixteen—oh, who was keeping track anyway, she was just tired and thoughts were harder to control than actions. 

In pity, Miko and Radek made her turn off her computer and dragged her back to her new quarters, where she collapsed into bed and blacked out for seven blissful hours of sleep. 

Radek didn’t offer to take back his job again, but to be honest she wouldn’t have let him anyway. Meredith wanted to be in charge and knew she was good at it. Everyone here on Atlantis along with those back on Earth, especially the IOA, would see that she was good at it too. They had to see that.

The gate to Earth opened once a week for a split second to send through compressed data packets before shutting again. Elizabeth made her type up and send a justification for why she’d personally brought the ZPM to Atlantis and of what she’d been up to since arriving in hopes of keeping Meredith from being arrested, fired, or demoted. Each time the gate opened after sending it, Meredith twisted herself up into knots expecting the worst, yet the SGC sent her no messages one way or the other.

In fact, the only note she received from Earth was from Jack O’Neill. First, he chewed her out so hard it made her wince from even a galaxy away, followed by threats that she better toe the line in Atlantis, then he made a few bad jokes that had her wincing for another reason altogether, before finally ending with a surprisingly sweet offer of support and a wish for good luck. She hadn’t expected to care about Jack’s opinion, but she found her mouse moving away from the trash button to archive the message instead.

When the official word on her position finally arrived from the SGC, it wasn’t what she’d been expecting at all. 

In a public memo, the SGC ordered that John, Elizabeth, and Carson to come through the gate in one week and explain in person what the expedition had been up to during the year they’d been separated from Earth. A temporary Expedition Head would be assigned while they were gone. Colonel Caldwell was to expedite repairs to get the Daedalus space worthy and return to Earth so he could turn around and fly the command staff back to Atlantis in a few weeks to save power on the ZPM.

At the end of the message—like the merest afterthought—the IOA accepted Dr. Weir’s decision to confirm Dr. R.M. Mckay as the new Head of Sciences on Atlantis. 

Meredith was staying on Atlantis! 

However… there were no explanations, no further punishment for sneaking out on the Daedalus, and no apologies for passing her over for the position before or praise for her current actions. Just the endorsement of Elizabeth’s decision. It was insulting! After so much buildup and struggle it seemed too easy, like a trick. Meredith wanted to know why. 

After a sleepless night stewing on her options instead of her nightmares for once, a bleary-eyed Meredith reluctantly decided that she had to let it go. Although tempting, now wasn’t the time to blackmail someone on Earth to hack the IOA meeting minutes for her.  Her curiosity and meddling could put her new job at risk. She’d finally gotten what she wanted and her risk of heart attacks from hearing more misogynistic insults and personal attacks only increased with age. The knowledge wasn’t worth her health. Besides, the chance of actually getting the praise, accolades, and apologies she wanted to hear was astronomically low. No one ever appreciated her the way she deserved. 

It wasn’t very satisfying, but what else was new. She finally had the job she wanted in the place she wanted. She was staying in Atlantis and doing cutting edge research on amazing things. That part was exciting. She’d have to do her best to content herself with that. 

 

Chapter Text

“At its height, the Roman Empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Euphrates River in the Middle East, but its grandeur may have also been its downfall. With such a vast territory to govern, the empire faced an administrative and logistical nightmare. Even with their excellent road systems, the Romans were unable to communicate quickly or effectively enough to manage their holdings.” 

EVAN ANDREWS

 

The night before the command staff left for Earth, Meredith finally felt on top of things enough to leave her office before midnight. Sitting back in her chair and stretching, she happily realized that she could start taking time for personal research again. She’d caught up faster than anyone had expected. She really was as awesome as she always told everyone she was. Smirking, she shut down her computer and locked up.

Walking to her quarters through deserted hallways, mind lazily calculating equations for the geometric curves of bronze and blue on the walls and floor, she exited the transporter, walked around the corner, and saw John pacing outside her room. Her feet stuttered as shock warred with anger and exhaustion. Pride pushed its way to the top. Meredith threw back her shoulders and lifted her chin to stalk down the hallway like a queen. 

“Why John, what a surprise to see you lurking in my hallway, seeing as you’ve been avoiding me like a 14-year-old who broke up with his girlfriend using a note in her locker, which, basically, is what you did with that video.” 

The reunion kiss didn’t count since he’d acted like an ass not a minute later and not stopped since. Arching one eyebrow, she put her hand on her hip and waited for his response. She was hoping for a good explanation but would take apologies, groveling, or even a good argument at this point. Screaming at him would feel really good.

Rocking back on his heels, John put his hands in his pockets but otherwise didn’t respond to her taunt. His expression looked remote and calm. It was so irritating. “They’re sending me back to Earth tomorrow.” 

“I know that,” she snapped. “I’ve been at all the same meetings you have seeing as I’m the Head of Sciences now. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of work done without all of Elizabeth’s mandatory meetings where you sit as far away as possible and avoid looking at me.” 

When John didn’t respond she kept talking, making her voice bored. “They’re keeping you for two to four weeks on Earth for debriefings. At that point, they’ll decide whether it’s urgent enough to use the gate to send you back or follow the plan to save power and return you on the Daedalus.” 

Brow creasing, John focused over her shoulder and shrugged. “They’re probably not going to let me come back to Atlantis.” His carefree body language and lazy tone of voice didn’t fit his words at all. “They’ll send out someone new to take over my job, someone better qualified.”

Stricken, Meredith dropped her hands to her sides and moved closer. “What? That’s ridiculous! Of course they’ll let you come back. You’re a mouth-breather, but it’s obvious that the people here think you’re great. You’ve done an amazing job with the military and your gene’s the strongest out of anybody here. You’re also the only person with a dick left on the command staff and the IOA cares a lot about things like that.” John rolled his eyes at that despite it being one-hundred percent true. “Look John, it’s clear from the reports that the expedition only survived because of you. They have to let you come back. You belong in Atlantis!”

Hands faltering in midair, a thought fluttered to the surface of her mind. “Unless…,” she chewed unhappily at the inside of her lip and gave him a sideways glance, “you do still want to be here, don’t you?” 

Jerking at her question, John’s careless persona cracked as he met her eyes hotly. “Yes, I want to be here.” His gritty, crisp delivery conveyed more emotion than most people’s shouts. His voice dropped an octave as looked down at her with eyes that flared like burning copper, a green flame that made heat billow beneath her skin. “Everything I’ve worked so hard to build and protect is here. And now you’re here. Of course I—” cutting himself off, John clenched his jaw and looked away.

Unable to stop herself, Meredith cupped the side of his neck, pressing her thumb against the muscle throbbing at the hinge of his jaw. “Then we’ll make sure you are.” 

Lips quirking mirthlessly, John shook his head, careful not to dislodge her grip. “You can’t promise that.”

It hurt because it was true. 

Seeing her face fall, John put his hand over hers and squeezed softly, protectively, his thumb rubbing across the back of her knuckles. Although only a few inches taller in height, his hands were large enough to cover hers completely. They both relied on their hands for work, but John’s fingers were calloused by guns and pull-up bars instead of pens and wrenches. She could feel the heartbeat in his neck throbbing beneath the pads of her fingers, strong and a little fast beneath the press of two hands. There was a metaphor somewhere in there, the idea that John would protect himself—life and heart—most carefully only when protecting another. She’d never much liked metaphors unless they were related to the variables of x , y, and z .

“There is something you can promise me,” he said slowly, sending vibrations through the flesh of her palm. 

“Anything,” she told him recklessly. A second later panic slammed into her at making such a foolish statement. Hadn’t she already allowed him to hurt her enough? “Well, anything within reason and that I am actually willing to do and that won’t make me look stupid or kill me.”

John’s fingers abruptly tightened around her hand, almost uncomfortably so. “I wish you could promise me not to get killed out here.”

“That’s a promise I’d be happy to make,” she told him earnestly.

“But not exactly something in your power… or mine.” He grimaced and looked down, a curtain of dark lashes hiding his expression. His fingers slid to her wrist, gently but firmly pulling her hand away from his face, leaving the skin of her palm feeling shockingly cold. She closed her fingers but the feeling of emptiness persisted, spreading up her arm and into her chest. 

Breath catching at the rejection, Meredith stepped back and crossed her arms, tucking her hand away and trying to ignore the way she was feeling. “So what do you want from me, flyboy? Besides a faster plane or a Ferris wheel?” 

John slouched against the opposite wall, crossing his legs and cocking his head, messy emotions all packed away once more behind a lazy mask, the carefree and careless Colonel. “Could you really do that? Build me a Ferris wheel on Atlantis? Because I’d love that.” His teeth flashed in a boyish grin that tugged on her heartstrings.

Irritated, Meredith snapped her fingers in front of his face. “John, be an adult and focus. It’s late and I’m tired. Of course I could build a Ferris wheel. The real question is if I should and where we’d get materials fabricated, if we’d need a crane or a jumper with a good winch, and if the time it would take me wouldn’t be better spent actually doing my job figuring out the advanced technology of the Ancients for the protection and betterment of Earth and the humans in Pegasus, not to mention working on my grand unification theory and finally receiving the recognition I so richly deserve.”

“Work a guy like me wouldn’t understand, right? I guess me and the ferris wheel are always going to come in last place with you.” Cracking his neck from side to side, John glanced over his shoulder up the hallway. “It is late. I should let you get some sleep. So long.” Waving casually, he took a step away.

“John!” Meredith stomped her foot and growled. “You drive me crazy. Tell me what you want me to promise!”

Ruffling the hair on the back of his head, John looked over his shoulder at her. “It’s stupid.”

“You’re regularly stupid. I accepted that early on in our friendship. It’s never stopped you before.” She arched one brow at him and waved her hands expectantly. 

Lips quirking, John inclined his head and leaned a shoulder against the wall, getting comfortable as he gathered his thoughts. The long lean lines of his body fell into repose as perfect as a painting hanging in a gallery. Meredith felt a tug of longing deep inside her chest. She wished she knew how to keep him, how to have that face and body and mind with her every day of her life. If she knew how she’d bind John Sheppard to her forever. 

Of course, forcing him to be with her would make him hate her. She’d certainly hate anyone who caged her like that. Like her grand unification theory, John was a lifelong problem that despite her extraordinary genius she had yet to solve. Some days her continual failure at everything important felt bitter and choking. Nights were worse. 

Finally, John spoke. “I know Atlantis is beautiful, but she’s also deadly. This whole galaxy is. You have to be twice as careful in Pegasus as you do in the Milky Way. Don’t underestimate the dangers here because the Ancients created almost as many problems as they solved. Elizabeth is a good leader, so you should listen to her objections instead of just ignoring them out of hand. When you’re exploring Atlantis, be careful activating things. We’ve lost a lot of people that way. Triple-check before turning something on. And if you go out on a gate team, make sure it’s with people that you know you can trust before you let yourself get so caught up that you forget to watch your surroundings. Most of my people are solid, but if things go really FUBAR on a mission, there are a couple of people I wouldn’t trust to keep you safe at the cost to themselves. Teyla knows who they are. They do well enough at other tasks on base, but if I’m gone whoever’s in charge might run things differently. I’m trying to get them transferred back to Earth but I’m not sure if that’ll get approved. When in doubt, trust Teyla. She’ll guide you true.” Looking down, John blew out a breath.

“So you want me to promise to be careful,” Meredith said slowly. 

“Yes.” John bit off the word as if a thousand more bubbled up beneath it.

Meredith scuffed her foot against the floor and shrugged. “Sure, okay, I promise.”

“Great. That’s it then. Goodnight.” Head turning away, John straightened up from the wall. 

“Wait,” she blurted. “Do you really regret not ending things with me before you left for Atlantis?” Ugh, she hated how pitiful her question sounded when said out loud but she wanted— needed —to know so she could stop obsessing over it. At least she hadn’t asked if he really didn’t want her, if he regretted getting with her in the first place. She tried to keep her expression merely curious instead of feverish. John was going to leave her behind again and this might be her last chance at getting any sort of answer.

“Rome,” John looked up at the ceiling for strength or inspiration, maybe both. Finally he looked back at her and sighed. “Yes.”

Nodding curtly to keep her lips from trembling, cursing her curiosity, Meredith turned on her heel and quickly made her way to her door. She slapped the frame to make the door open faster. However, the door only slipped open a handsbreadth before jerking to a stop. Not expecting it, she stubbed her toe and almost smashed her nose. The door refused to respond to her commands, even when she put her hands on it and pushed, and she had too many curves to fit herself through the narrow opening.

“And no,” John said roughly at her back. 

Kicking the door did nothing but hurt her foot even worse. Kicking John would probably be just as painful. Meredith leaned her head against the chilly doorframe and closed her eyes. “You know I hate ambiguity, John.”

“No you don’t, you’re a physicist,” he said maddeningly.

Turning around, she scowled at him. “I’m going to be a murderer if you don’t actually answer the damn question clearly.”

“I don’t like hurting you,” John said nonsensically.

“Don’t worry, murdering you will hurt you more than me,” she growled, poking him in the chest.

Instead of flinching back, John stepped closer. His teeth flashed as he tried and failed to repress a smile. It made her want to hit him harder. “From the beginning, I’ve always liked you. We’ve been in and out of each other’s lives so many times over the years. You have this inexplicable charm. You drive me crazy, make me irritated and angry, but at the end of the day I can’t help how much I like you.” 

“You shouldn’t want to help it,” she muttered, crossing her arms. “Are you done now?”

John’s smile faded. “You’re so tough and independent, but for some reason, you claimed me as your friend, claimed me as yours.” He swallowed. “But you don’t really need me. I’m never going to be enough for you and if I let myself—let you act like you need me then you’re only going to keep getting hurt over and over again as life tears us apart and I let you down by not being there and not being what you need me to be. Long-distance relationships never work. You deserve better. I do care about you. That’s why I regret leaving you hanging.” Lifting a hand into the space between their bodies, he asked, “Do you understand?”

Anger sizzled beneath her skin as Meredith slapped his hand away, forcing him to take a step back. “No, I don’t. Your logic is stupid and irrational and cowardly. You’re trying to make this somehow my fault instead of yours, letting your fears control you, and throwing away the best thing that ever happened to you.” Tossing back her hair, she bared her teeth at him. “You’re being a coward and running away. Just. Like. Always.” She punctuated each word with a vicious poke.

Expression tight, John exhaled slowly, his eyes going black. “Watch it.” 

“Why should I?” Meredith poked him in the ribs. He jerked back but she followed. “Things got hard and it scared you.” Poke. “You decided that you know better than I do what I want and feel and need instead of trusting me to make those choices and accept the consequences.” Poke. “Our relationship got tough—”  

Got tough?”

“—and I stopped looking like a victim in need of protection and somehow that made you feel vulnerable. Being with a powerful woman was too scary—”

“I’m not the one with the persecution complex—”   

“—so you pushed me away and ran. You always run away when things start getting tough.”

“Now wait one minute—”  

“You’d rather not care than risk fighting for what you care for—”

“I fight for a living!”  

“—and then tell yourself you’re alone by choice. Running—”

“Versus being alone because you’re a shrew?” 

“—is the story of your life! Your father, your brother, your ex-wife, your career prospects, and now Atlantis!” Poke. “Useless coward,” she hissed.

John blocked her next poke and shoved her hand away. “Don’t flatter yourself about being brave or useful. And you’ve been tough to get along with from day one. That’s nothing new.” Grinding his teeth, a muscle jumped in John’s jaw as he glared. “You’re the coward who runs her mouth whenever things don’t go her way and if you’re lonely, just take a look in the mirror to understand why.”

“Ha!”

“I own my actions while you just lie to yourself about how perfect you are and act bewildered when things go wrong. The useless coward is you, not me. I put my life on the line every day to serve and protect others while you hide behind your computer screen and don’t even bother to learn the names of the men and women blocking the bullets aimed at your back. You don’t know the meaning of the word sacrifice. Hell, you’ve probably never loved anyone or anything more than you love yourself.”

Sucking in a breath, fighting the prickling in her eyes, Meredith barely stopped herself from swinging at him. “I’ve loved more deeply than you can possibly imagine, John Sheppard, and no, I’m not talking about you!”

Nostrils flaring, John grimaced and looked down. He ran a hand over his head, fisting the short strands. “Look, I don’t want to fight with you. That’s not why I came. I just wanted to say goodbye and maybe explain—but you’re misunderstanding everything and being a—” John cut himself off and sucked in a breath through gritted teeth. “Look, okay, I was trying to protect you. I’m being practical. I just want you to be as safe and happy as possible because I care about you. Long-distance relationships never work out, especially when I try them. I thought you’d appreciate logic over wishful thinking. I get that it came out badly, but I was trying to be nice.” 

Stomach tight, Meredith straightened her spine. “You should know already that I’ve always preferred honest respect over niceties and lies. I won’t be protected from living life my way. You’re trying to manipulate and control me, John, and I won’t put up with it. I won’t, never again. This is my life and I will live it as I see fit.” 

“Rome—” 

“Don’t call me that!” she cried, cutting her hand through the air. “You say Rome, but you don’t respect me. I have to wonder if you’re thinking of the Roman empire or the Roman slaves. A cage made of lies and manipulations may look safe from the outside but from the inside, it’s still a cage.” 

“I’m not trying to cage you,” John growled. He loomed over her, his broad shoulders blocking her view of the rest of the hall. “I’m trying to protect you!” Anger and frustration ate away his mask to reveal the dangerous warrior hiding inside. A normal person would be cowed by the look on his face, might fear physical violence, but this wasn’t Troy or Seward or another man, this was John. He would cut off his own arm before he’d ever hit her in a fit of temper. For once her PTSD agreed, staying quiet and letting her meet temper with temper.

Meredith went toe to toe and growled right back. “A Roman emperor wouldn’t put up with this crap and neither will I! I take calculated risks and earn my glory,” she pounded her chest with her fist, “and my pain and regrets.” Tilting her head, she narrowed her eyes. “Aren’t you the same? Isn’t that why you’re a Colonel instead of a CEO?” Meredith gave a humorless laugh. “Then again, you have been acting like your father of old lately, disowning and refusing to talk to people who make choices you disagree with.”  

John’s teeth clenched so hard that white lines of strain radiated from his mouth and jaw. Every muscle in his body clenched. “Are you finished, your majesty?” he asked through gritted teeth.

“No, because unlike you, I never got the chance to choose where to start. You just went ahead and disowned me in a message,” Meredith spat. She fisted her hands to keep them from shaking. It was just the adrenaline surging through her veins, but she didn’t want him to misunderstand and think her weak. “I’m sick of men lying to me. If you don’t want my friendship or love me anymore, fine, you tell me that, but don’t lie and say you dumped me to protect my feelings when it’s not about me at all, when it’s really because you’re afraid of getting hurt and trying to protect yourself. That cowardice is on you, not me.” It was a strong speech until she ruined it at the end with a quivery little breath.

“Rome—” John’s expression was a complex mix of anger and frustration. The tension in his mouth might also be regret, but she’d never been great at reading emotions.

“No,” Meredith cut him off with a slash of her hand. She felt raw and exposed, on the cusp of saying something even more ugly and vengeful, something perhaps unforgivable. The longer this conversation went on the more it hurt. Sheathing the sharp words trembling on her lips, she went with an ultimatum. “I’m done with worrying about us. It’s distracting me from my work. I need to be all in or all out. Decide what risks you’re willing to take with not just your life, John—because I know you hold your life cheaply—but with your heart. If you’ll fight for me, I’ll give my all for you and for us, but if you can’t—if you won’t—then we’re going to become strangers and you can live with that regret for the rest of your life. I’m so mad at you right now, I’m not sure that I’d regret it.” 

She sounded hard and threatening, but inside she was pleading for him to reject that option and reach out for her. He cared for her, she knew he did. He just had to show it.

Jaw clenching and nostrils flaring, John stared at her without saying anything. Of course, she did keep cutting him off, but it wasn’t like he was trying very hard. Why was she the only one trying here? Just once, she wanted to be put first. She wanted John to need her enough that he chose her over his fears and doubts. He had to choose her, didn’t he?

The continuing silence was damning, a ringing rejection. Meredith barely kept herself from doubling over as betrayal stabbed through her gut. 

He wasn’t going to fight for her. 

John licked his lips and shifted, rubbing his fingers on his thigh as he blew out a breath. “I’m not throwing the history of what we are to each other away, but you’re being deliberately difficult. It isn’t as simple as being willing to try or not. We have to be realistic. There is no being all in together when we’re living in entirely different galaxies with limited communication and visitation opportunities. Just because you want something doesn’t make it so. Even you have to admit that.”

Eyes welling, Meredith looked down to hide it and swallowed. She braced her hand on the wall to combat the weakness in her knees. A distant murmur of Ancient math tickled the edges of her mind like soft fur, a small comfort in the sea of her misery. “You won’t fight for me and you won’t fight to stay on Atlantis. Are you willing to fight for anything that isn’t a direct order from the people controlling your flight access? Is flying the only thing you care about?” 

“That’s not fair,” John snapped. “You want me to listen to you but you’re not listening to me at all!”

Fair? Ha, that was rich. “It’s late. I’m going to go to bed.” She slid forward, but her door still wouldn’t open all the way. “John?”

He grunted.

“Open. My. Door.” If eyes had laser beams, he’d have a few new holes in his face.

The door to her room abruptly popped open, proving her theory that he’d been the one keeping it closed. She walked inside the room, not bothering to turn on the lights. The darkness fit her mood.

“There’s too much past between us for us ever to be strangers.” John’s silhouette hovered in the doorway, his voice tight with frustration. “And I do respect you, even when you’re not being fair.”

Meredith turned her face away. Her fist clenched and unclenched by her side. What did John know about fairness? He had no idea what she’d been through. Life wasn’t fair.

“Look, just—just listen. When I recorded that video, I thought that I was probably going to die soon and I was glad— desperately glad you weren’t here to die with me and that I wasn’t going to fail to protect you like I was failing everyone else. I was glad that you were safe on Earth eating gourmet marshmallows and drinking peppermint hot chocolate in summer and being brilliant, that even after I was dead you’d go on changing the universe for the better because that’s what you’ve always done, what you can’t help but do because you don’t know how to quit. But if I was dead there was no point in you not quitting on me, no point in you worrying about me and staying loyal. Your loyalty would become a cage—the cage you don’t want and don’t deserve. That’s what I meant when I said I regretted not ending things before I left.”

Digging her palms into her eyes, Meredith dropped her head and blew out a long breath into her hands. The air billowed warm and damp past her collar and over her chest. She did hear what John was saying, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t what she wanted or needed to hear. 

At her lack of response, John’s voice shifted from conciliatory to strident. “No matter what you like to claim, you don’t always know best. You’re not perfect!” 

He paused for a response but she was tired. She didn’t want to argue anymore because she’d already lost. If he was going to leave her alone then he should just leave so she could start resigning herself to being alone again. She didn’t need to listen to a litany of her faults first.

The tension stretched. 

When John finally broke the silence, he sounded as weary as she felt. “And it’s glaringly obvious that I’m not perfect either.” He gave a humorless laugh. “Right now there are almost no promises I can make that are in my power to keep, including whether I’ll ever even see you again after I go through that gate tomorrow. I want to come back to you and Atlantis. I’m going to fight for that, but I can’t promise more than that. I won’t make a promise I can’t keep.” 

The sound of breathing filled the darkness. Meredith stayed mute. His words weren’t enough. She hadn’t been enough. The only thing she had accomplished tonight was her humiliation. She pressed her hands harder to her face, damming the tears and fighting the stinging pressure in her nose.

When John spoke again his voice was soft and vibrating with intensity. “For what it’s worth, I can promise you that nothing will ever make your well-being unimportant to me… or make me stop loving you. I’m hoping for the best but I have to act on my reality. I wish things were different because I do love you, Rome. I do.” Something fluttered across her neck and shoulders as if fingertips had slid down the loose fall of her hair, leaving behind a line of warmth. 

Breath shuddered from her mouth. If he loved her then why was she so easy to leave behind? Pressure built in her chest, words straining to get out. Was her pride really worth losing him for good? Worth ending it this way?  

Licking dry lips, Meredith broke. She dropped her hands and turned around, body straining—“John”—towards nothing. The door and hallway beyond were empty. She was alone. 

Just. Like. Always.

Two fat tears escaped her eyes, the warm moisture slicing down her cold cheeks and dripping onto her collarbones like the tolling of a bell. More tears followed, drowning her sight. Smearing a hand across her face, Meredith shut the door, leaving the room in darkness. 

Mechanically stripping off her clothes, she crawled into bed by feel and buried her face in her covers, trying to keep her breath from hitching, failing, trying again, failing, trying again and again until she finally got it under control by focusing only on difficult astronomical calculations. 

Meredith needed at least four hours of sleep. The command staff were all leaving tomorrow morning. She had to make a good impression while they were gone. Nothing could be allowed to go wrong. She had to prove her usefulness and that her appointment had been the correct decision. 

Rome had burned down to ashes and charcoal, but she still had Dr. Meredith Mckay. Dr. Mckay was very useful. Besides, ashes made lye for soap and charcoal fueled the process of ignition for gunpowder. She’d be fine. 

Chapter Text

Start of Season 3

“Ancient [Romans] used molten iron to repair Pompeii's streets before the historic and devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.”

OWEN JARUS

 

Repairs, repairs, repairs, that’s all Meredith spent her time on since the rest of the command staff left for Earth. Without her oversight, the ad hoc work crews scattered around Atlantis tended to get lazy and take shortcuts in their work. On top of that, Colonel Caldwell kept requesting her presence on the Daedalus for repairs like she was just a spare ladder he was borrowing from a neighbor. And yes, of course Meredith was extremely qualified to repair the damage to the starship—being one of the designers and a genius engineer, physicist, mathematician, programmer, etc. etc. but Meredith didn’t want to be scrunched up in a dimly lit tube manufactured on Earth when she could be lounging beneath a stained glass window swapping high-tech crystals in a control panel built tens of thousands of years ago by the Alterans.

At least Meredith was great at repairing things. People and relationships… not so much. Being so busy at least kept her from spending all her brainpower obsessing over John and their final words to each other before he disappeared through the gate back to Earth. She was mad at him and hurt, but after a few days, she’d started to feel like she might’ve gone a little too far in calling him a coward and comparing him to his father. She probably owed him an apology. Maybe. If they ever saw each other again and she deigned to talk to him. 

Whatever happened in the future, Meredith was no longer letting John Sheppard bruise her heart. She’d made a mistake in letting herself act on her love for John. Maybe if she’d never kissed him after that kidnapping attempt outside Sheppard Industries they’d still be friends. Meredith had a bad habit of falling in love with the wrong people. She was done with romance. Loving people always led to being left alone and hurt. Meredith was sick of it. She was going to do her best to stuff all the memories in a box in her head and lock it away. Dwelling on all her past mistakes hurt too much. Better to just focus on the now. 

If she got lonely, maybe she’d think about making a new friend or getting a pet. She really missed her cat, Hedy Lamarr. A new cat would be nice.

At least she had all of the repairs and challenges of her new position to distract her and keep her busy, even if she was spending a lot of it in less than scenic locations. 

Flat on her back in a small tube deep in the bowels of the Daedalus, Meredith unscrewed the panel over her head and carefully slid the plate next to her side, tucking the screws into her breast pocket. The flashlight mounted on her forehead did a good job of illuminating the bundled wires overhead. They looked relatively unscathed by the battle until Meredith reached up and pushed aside the lower layers, revealing an area of melted and fused plastic the size of her fist. 

Humming, Meredith probed for more areas of damage.“You were right, the surge did get this far. Luckily the damage is minimal. I’m only going to have to replace a chunk of damaged wiring, not the whole thing. Pass me a bag and cutters, Lt. Coco.”

“Of course, Dr. Mckay, and once again, it’s Cohen, not Coco,” the lieutenant said cheerfully. “I’ve been thinking about this ever since that first time we worked together and if it helps, Cohen rhymes with protozoan and Roman. My first name is Roni, which is also close to Roman but closer to bony, but since the rhymes for Roni Cohen are a bit forced already, you don’t need to bother remembering both names. Just Cohen is fine.”

Meredith’s fingers paused for a moment as she mouthed ‘Cohen protozoan’ to herself. 

Cohen cleared her throat outside the tube. “Actually, now that I’ve said that out loud, I realize that being remembered as Bony Protozoan is a lot worse than anything you’ve ever called me. Maybe you should just forget what I said.”

Meredith chuckled under her breath.

Lt. Roni Cohen was a young Air Force engineer from Atlantis that Meredith had first met and worked with after the office bombing. Before Atlantis, Cohen had worked on the initial construction of the Daedalus and so was familiar with its systems. She and Meredith had ended up working as a repair team whenever Caldwell demanded extra help, which meant they’d seen each other almost every day this week. Cohen was incessantly cheerful and hard to offend. Meredith still hadn’t decided if she found it more charming or irritating. 

“Here’s the cutters and a bag on your left.” Cohen passed up the tools. 

“Got it.” Snipping out the ruined section of melted wires, Meredith dropped them into the bag. Carefully feeling up around inside the paneling, she didn’t find any more damage. “I think the rest of this survived intact. Hand me the wire and I’ll finish this section on my own. You go and get started on that damaged assembly in sector sixteen. No point in you just sitting around watching my feet.” 

Meredith started stripping the ends of the dangling wires overhead. Pieces of plastic pelted her chest like dried needles from a Christmas tree in January.

There was a beat of silence. “Work teams are supposed to stay together while doing repairs,” Cohen said hesitantly, stretching into the tube to hold out the spool of wire over Meredith’s knees. “I don’t think I’m supposed to leave you alone.” 

Reaching down, Meredith took the wire and moved it up to rest against her side. At almost a foot wide and half a foot tall, the spool of wire dug into her hip uncomfortably, but there wasn’t room to put it anywhere else and still have easy access for the overhead repairs. She’d probably have striped purple-blue bruises down her side and hip tomorrow, but it wouldn’t be the first time—or the last. 

Meredith pulled down the dangling wires and continued stripping ends. “Look, I’m in charge of orders and I say I don’t need you here. The Daedalus needs to leave and it can’t until these repairs are done. The sooner we do that the happier everyone will be. This area has no power because we shut off the switch. There aren’t any safety issues for you to watch out for or any ways to help me since we can’t both fit in here. You’re useless right now. What would be useful is for you to listen to my orders and go get started on the next job. It’s going to take thirty to forty-five minutes just to remove the damaged pieces of that assembly before any repairs can even start.” 

Stopping to spit out a bit of plastic that had attached itself to her lip, Meredith glanced down her body to the circle of light outside of the tube where Lt. Cohen knelt. “You’ve proved yourself competent in the last few days. I trust you to go and get started by yourself. I’ll join you when I’m done.”

“Are you sure…?” Cohen trailed off.

Huffing, Meredith clipped a length of wire from the spool and held it up above her head to make sure it fit in the space. “Of course I’m sure. I don’t know why you’re making this so difficult. Most people, especially military people, are glad to get away from me and my abrasive personality as soon as possible.”

“I like working with you,” Cohen said. She sounded like she meant it too, which was… strange. Nice, but strange. Not knowing how to respond, Meredith focused on splicing in the wire overhead.

“Alright, I’ll go and get started on the next job, but I’ll leave my radio open to your channel. If you need anything at all, just let me know, Dr. Mckay.” 

“Yes yes, thank you, Cohen-protozoan,” Meredith said without thinking it through. She must have decided that pollyanna was more charming than irritating after all. 

There was a beat of silence, potentially awkward silence. Should she not have mentioned the protozoan thing after the woman had said to forget it? “At least I got the Cohen part right,” Meredith grumbled.

The silence was broken by a golden laugh. “I guess I did that to myself, but if it got you to remember my actual name, I guess it’s worth being called a protozoan. See you soon, Dr. Mckay.” Cohen patted Meredith’s foot in farewell and disappeared.

The next half-hour passed quickly. Cohen checked in every ten minutes but mostly left Meredith alone to work in comfortable silence. Meredith finished repairing the damaged wiring and lifted the panel cover back into place, arching her back to hold it in place with her leg. “Mckay here. I’m just finishing and closing the panel. How’s that cracked assembly housing coming along?” she asked through the radio as she screwed the cover back into place. The air was stuffy and hot in the tube. Sweat drenched her shirt, making it cling to her back and sides. At least she only had to smell herself and not an entire work team.

“It’ll be fully exposed by the time you get here. It should only take a couple of hours to fix as long as we don’t find anything unexpected.”

“Roger that, I’ll be there in less than ten.” Meredith took off her headlamp and tucked it into her bag along with as many little pieces of plastic and wire as she could find, grabbed the spool of wire, and began scooting out of the tube on her back. If she was prone to claustrophobia this would be miserable instead of just uncomfortably awkward. 

When Meredith’s heels hit open air she breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of standing, only to scream as someone grabbed her ankle and yanked hard. The back of Meredith’s head smacked into the tube, dislodging her radio as she fell out onto the floor and landed hard on her hip. Her toolbag dropped next to her, spilling wiring across the ground. 

Laughter filled her ringing ears.

Head and hip throbbing, Meredith looked up to see two people standing above her: a thickset woman and a skinny man. Their patches identified them as Hollis and Lewis, Airforce second lieutenants in environmental engineering. Meeting Meredith’s eyes, the woman—Hollis—took a juicy bite from the bright red redolla fruit in her hand and chewed with her mouth open, dripping juice down her chin and fingers. The Daedalus must’ve gotten some redolla shipped over from Atlantis. Hollis wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, smearing red juice over her sleeve.

Touching her temple with a wince, Meredith saw a smear of red on her fingertips. Definitely blood and not fruit juice. Feeling shaky, she pushed herself to her feet. Meredith hated pain. And blood. And bullies. If this was a school instead of a spaceship she’d expect to be crammed into a locker any minute now.

“Told you we’d make you pay, you backstabbing slut,” the skinny man sneered.

“When was this?” Meredith asked, touching her sore head again gingerly. “And why? Because slut seems a bit premature since I know I never slept with you. Either of you. Neither of you are my type. Are you sure you have the right person?”

Hollis had dark hair on her upper lip. There was a bit of fruit stuck in her mustache. Gross. 

“Don’t play dumb, Mckay,” the big woman snapped.

“I’m a genius, I never play dumb.” The two were blocking the door, leaving no escape unless she tried to run back into the tube, which Meredith rejected as it had a very low likelihood of success. The spool of wire sat on the edge of the tube. Feeling shaky, Meredith stood up.

“Seriously? Don’t you remember when we cornered you in the hall right before you beamed down to Atlantis?” Hollis shoved Meredith with the hand holding the redolla fruit, making her stumble into the edge of the tube and leaving a pulpy red glob on her shoulder. The redolla slid down Meredith’s chest before falling off to splat onto the floor.

Swallowing hard, Meredith cowered back from further violence and held up her hands. “Okay, wait, stop! No need to get handsy. It’s coming back to me… um, Laurel and Hardy, right? Bullies in the hall. Sure, I remember you now, alright?”

“Good.” Skinny man Lewis cracked his knuckles. “Then maybe you also remember screwing over our good friend Seward and getting him sent to Leavenworth with your lies.”

The air rushed from Meredith’s lungs at the mention of the man who’d tried to rape her. Her legs lost their strength and she found herself half-sitting on the spool of wire in the tube opening. It hurt but she didn’t have the energy to get up again. “Oh.” Sweat beaded on her upper lip, the edges of her vision went white, and her fingers started to shake. 

“Oh? Is that all you have to say? How about a sorry for starters for ruining the life and career of a man worth ten of you with your lies!?” bellowed Hollis, her chin quivering.

“No man’s worth ten of me,” Meredith said on automatic, focusing on her breathing.

“By the time we’re through, you’re going to be on your knees begging for forgiveness.” Eyes narrow, Lewis unbuckled his belt and yanked it out of his pant loops. He licked his lips, leaving them shiny and red.

Panic cut sharply through Meredith’s chest, making each breath feel like the stab of a blade. No. Not again. Please, not again. No. She shook her head. “No,” she panted, fighting for breath. Her heartbeat pounded loudly in her ears, almost drowning out their laughter. 

Sweat stung her eyes. Digging deep, Meredith lifted her chin and bared her teeth. “No! I bashed that bastard’s head in and I’ll do the same to you if you touch me. Stay back!” 

Expression twisted, Lewis wrapped the belt around his hand, leaving six inches loose with the metal buckle and tongue dangling. “I think a few lashes will teach you how to stay quiet. You obviously need to learn some humility and I’m just the man to do it.” 

“I think she needs more than just a few to cut that ego down to size, maybe you should scar up that pretty face along with her back.” Putting on a fake look of concern, Hollis put a hand to her barrel chest. “How lucky that we found Mckay so soon after her accident. Pity she was clumsy enough to hurt herself so badly, but what can you expect from a blond bimbo like her, am I right? Civilians,” she chortled.

Meredith’s heart was racing so fast it felt like it was going to jump out of her chest and burst across the floor. Her skin felt cold, as if she wasn’t wearing a shirt, as if someone had ripped it off. It was hard to see, as if her eye was swelling shut. Her trembling fingers closed around the spool of wire beneath her hip. No, not a spool, it was an ancient clock, the one John had figured out with his supergene. She clutched the clock in her fist and leaned against her desk, the edge of her computer monitor digging painfully into her bare back. She was alone with Seward in her lab at Cheyenne mountain and there were two of him attacking her. 

She swung the clock in her fist at the closest Seward. The shock of hitting reverberated up her arm. If she dropped it he’d keep hurting her. She clenched her fingers tight to keep from dropping it. Seward was trying to rape her but there were two of him so she hit them both, driving them back. 

She heard shouting in the distance but it didn’t seem real. Being attacked was real. She had to save herself. No one else would, not unless it was on accident. No one saved her on purpose. No one cared enough to try. She was alone. Always alone. She could only count on herself. Things went fuzzy and bad. 

Bad.

When Meredith came back to herself, she was crouched in a corner. Her fingers ached from clutching a spool of wire. Tears and snot covered her face. She glanced down, expecting to see skin speckled with blood and bruises, but a work uniform covered her body from ankle to neck. There was no bare skin, no blood, just a dark red smear of redolla fruit down her front. She blinked in confusion, feeling achy and slow.

“Please, Dr. Mckay, you’re safe. Security has your attackers in custody. You’re safe now. This is Lt. Roni Cohen, Cohen-protozoan, remember? We were joking about that just a bit ago. Come back, you’re safe, please Dr. Mckay.”

Eyes moving over, Meredith saw Lt. Cohen kneeling in the middle of the small room. She looked upset. A security officer stood in the doorway. He had brown hair buzzed tight to his skull and a crooked nose. His patch read Sgt. Lam. Someone else waited out in the hall but she couldn’t see the face. 

Meredith exhaled shakily and wiped a hand across her face. Her finger brushed over a wound on her temple and she sucked in a breath, fingers jerking away. Meredith sniffed to clear her nose and made her touch more gentle. The wound didn’t seem too deep. Memory coalesced. She’d been attacked by friends of Seward’s and had a flashback. A bad one.

Muscles turning to water, she moved from crouching to sitting down in her corner. Her mouth felt like dryer lint. She licked her lips and swallowed, trying to chase away the sensation. She needed to snap out of it. She couldn’t afford to be weak. “Cohen?”

“Yes Dr. Mckay, it’s me. You’re safe.”

“They attacked me. Two of them. You got them both, right? They sort of look like Laurel and Hardy, but the big one’s a woman. The SFs need to arrest them. They attacked me.” Meredith forced herself to put the spool of wire down on the floor. It was hard to get her fingers to unclench. “I—I  don’t remember much of the last few minutes.” She pressed her lips together tightly, not meaning to admit to that. 

Meredith wiped at her face and told herself to get a grip. Now wasn’t the time to act weak. She didn’t need someone to hug her and promise to take care of everything. She was the person who took care of problems. Schooling her expression to arrogance, she looked at Cohen. “Well?” 

Forehead wrinkling and mouth curving down, Cohen wrung her hands. “We caught both of them. I heard them bullying you over the radio and called in security. I’m so sorry.”

“Yes, well…” Meredith trailed off, wiping her palms on her thighs. She looked away and found her eyes caught by the SF in the doorway, Sgt. Lam.

He straightened his spine.. “I’m sorry it took so long for us to get here, ma’am. I mean, Doctor.” Lam bobbed his head. “This section is pretty isolated from the main corridors. We patched into your channel and came as fast as we could. When we got here you were doing a good job keeping Lewis and Hollis at bay by swinging around that wire. We took them into custody but when it became clear you were having a flashback and not responding to us, we sent most everyone away and waited.”

Heat crawled up the sweat-chilled skin of Meredith’s neck. How embarrassing. “Right.” Meredith put her hands on the floor to push herself to her feet and winced as she felt a squish. Sticky redolla pulp oozed up between her fingers sickeningly. It was one more indignity. Meredith grimaced and paused to surreptitiously shake her fingers clean.

“Here, let me help you up.” Cohen jumped lithely to her feet and reached out, grabbing Meredith’s hands in a strong grip and yanking her to her feet. Cohen’s nose wrinkled at the sliminess on Meredith’s skin but otherwise she didn’t react. Watching Meredith’s face closely as if expecting her to collapse at any second, she wrapped an arm around Meredith’s shoulder and took her weight as she moved them towards the door. As soon as Meredith recovered her balance she extricated herself from Cohen’s arms. She felt weak, but she couldn’t risk being seen that way so soon after her breakdown. She wished John was here. 

No. Not John. She couldn’t count on John anymore.

However, she would happily take Miko, Kindall, Carson, or even grumpy-faced McLean, someone she could fall apart on without worrying about saving face or having it come back to bite her later. It was a short list. She didn’t have many friends. Most people were idiots. Radek might be her friend too, but she wasn’t sure. He might just be the closest thing she had to a peer on Atlantis. Not that she cared how many friends she had. Intelligence was much more important than popularity anyway.

Cohen put a hand on her shoulder but Meredith shrugged it off. “I’m fine. I got a knock on the head from when they pulled me out of the tube, but I’m okay to walk on my own.” Besides, if there were more of Seward’s friends out there watching, she couldn’t let them think her vulnerable or they’d attack again the next time she was alone. That’s how bullies worked.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Looking down, Meredith scrubbed her hands down her pants, pleased when the trembling in her fingers subsided even if the stickiness from the Redolla proved to be a lot more stubborn. Bits of redolla pulp covered her skin and clothes liberally and had even transferred over to Cohen. The other woman didn’t seem to have noticed yet. 

Holding her head high, Meredith stepped forward. “I appreciate the rescue, of course.” 

Sgt. Lam moved out of the way so Meredith and Cohen could proceed him out of the room. “We’ll walk you to medical, Dr. Mckay, and take your statement there.” A bald medic waited in the hall but otherwise it was deserted.

“Of course, Sergeant, just let me grab my tool bag,” Meredith told him, remembering it at the last second. Leaning over to pick it up, she couldn’t suppress a gasp as a pulled muscle twinged. She hated pulled muscles. Her hip really hurt too. Feeling sorry for herself, Meredith tossed the spool of wire inside the bag and gingerly slung it over her shoulder.

“Please, let me carry it.” Cohen thrust out her hands. The skin along her wrists looked puffy and red. She must’ve spilled something on herself while working on taking the assembly apart. Meredith would have to make sure to remind the woman to use gloves next time.

Meredith passed the bag over. She may be proud, but that was more about her intelligence and not looking weak in front of people who had the power to deny her the things she wanted. She’d never had a problem letting other people carry her things. 

Moving out of the small room into a larger area full of large pipes and convex bulkheads, they worked their way towards the more populated hallways in the center of the ship where the infirmary was located. Feeling jittery, Meredith couldn’t stop rubbing her sticky fingers together. She had a headache. They better give her the good drugs in the infirmary and not try to make her stay there. 

Right now she felt a desperate urge to do something impressive. Barring that, she’d take useful, something to help her feel in control and safe again. She hated feeling powerless and she really regretted ever dating Seward. Hell, she regretted dating John, not to mention Troy. Dating had never worked out well for her.

If not for Troy she wouldn’t have had anything to lose on Manudia. Because of what he’d done, getting slapped around had been one of the smaller traumas she’d experienced there. There were much worse pains. Worst nightmares. But Meredith was not going to think about that, not about being powerless or what she’d lost on Manudia. She was NOT.

“How are you holding up, Mckay?” 

Meredith realized that she was breathing too fast and forced her lungs to slow. She scowled at Sgt. Lam and snapped, “I said I’m fine, no thanks to you.”

“Okay,” he huffed, holding up his hands. He moved up to the front of the group. The two men led the way through the halls with Meredith and Cohen in the rear. 

Meredith sort of wished she could send Cohen up to join them so she could walk by herself. Cohen was staring at Meredith with so much overt concern that it was quickly moving from flattering to annoying. With her eyes all puffy and wet, it looked like Cohen was about to start crying at any second. Weren’t soldiers supposed to be stoic? If she did start crying, Meredith was not allowing any of Cohen’s snot to get on her sleeves.

“I’m s-so s-sorry… you... got hurt,” Cohen slurred, her voice raspy and her breathing strained. 

It was strange enough that Meredith finally turned her full focus on something besides herself and looked at Cohen more closely. The rasp in Cohen’s normally silky smooth voice didn’t seem normal. In fact, her entire face looked abnormal, swollen and splotchy. Her breathing sounded rapid despite the slow walking pace. Red welts covered her hands and crawled up her neck from beneath her collar. Staring at Meredith with unfocused eyes, Cohen absently reached up to scratch at the hives on her neck.

Except for the hives, the combination of symptoms looked horribly familiar from when Meredith accidentally ingested something with lemon. Confidence surged through her. Meredith knew how to help with a problem like this.

“Cohen,” Meredith grabbed the other woman’s arm and pushed up her sleeve, revealing more welts. 

Cohen blinked wetly for a few seconds before following Meredith’s gaze down to her puffy red hand. Cohen gasped and then wheezed, almost doubling over as she pressed a trembling hand to her chest. “Oh... no.” She stumbled to a stop, leaning against the wall and letting the tool bag drop from her shoulder. Her face went a blotchy white as she fought for breath. 

Up ahead the two men kept walking, getting farther ahead of them, not noticing the problem at the rear.

Unsnapping her pocket, Meredith reached for her emergency epipen. “Cohen, do you have bad allergies?”

Wide-eyed, Cohen nodded her head. Her fingers fumbled at her collar, either searching for her dog tags and the engraved medical alerts or trying to pull her collar away from her swelling neck to get more air into her lungs. Meredith didn’t need to see the words. This was obviously an allergic reaction. The pulse at Cohen’s neck jumped beneath her skin. Legs giving out, Cohen began to slide down the wall, breath whistling as her airway closed.

Meredith caught Cohen under the arm and slowed her fall. “Don’t worry, I know what to do. You’re going to be fine.” She turned her head without looking away and called out, “A little help, guys! She’s going into anaphylaxis!” 

Pulling out the epipen from her side pocket, Meredith pulled the lid off with her teeth. 

Cohen’s eyes went wide. “No—don’t!” she gasped threadily, batting at Meredith with weak arms, obviously delusional. Hopefully the lack of oxygen wouldn’t make her more combative. Meredith already had enough bruises for today

“The medic’s coming!” called Sgt. Lam, racing to a stop just over Mckay’s shoulder. “Wait, Mckay. Stop!”

Meredith flinched away from the man. She couldn’t stand to have a man at her back like that, not after Seward’s attack, and especially not after just getting attacked again a few minutes ago. Right now she couldn’t afford another panic attack. She had to save Cohen. There was nothing like saving someone’s life to make them look up to you and like you.

Ignoring the objections—because after a lifetime dealing with a deadly citrus allergy she certainly knew what she was doing—Meredith plunged the epipen into Cohen’s thigh and depressed the trigger. 

Jerking her face to the side, Cohen gave a choked cry and slammed her fist down on the ground. Raised red hives covered every inch of her body. The edges of her shirt cut into the swelling skin. This was a bad allergic reaction. If it didn’t slow down soon, Cohen could die.

Starting to get scared, Meredith rubbed the injection site to get the medicine into Cohen’s bloodstream faster. “Try to calm down and focus on taking shallow breaths. The swelling should start going down soon.” 

Eyes falling to white slits, Cohen passed out and went limp. Her lips looked blue.

“That made it worse,” said Lam tightly, grabbing Cohen’s arm to keep her from falling over and loosening the top of her shirt.

“Cohen?” Meredith said urgently, tapping her face. Cohen didn’t respond. The epipen should’ve helped, but Lam was right. She did look worse, not better. Meredith started to panic.

The medic finally reached them—slower than a turtle, just as bald, and twice as useless—and did a quick assessment of Cohen, laying her down in the corridor instead of leaving her propped up against the wall. “You gave her an epipen?” he asked tightly.

“Yes, mine.” Meredith slid out of his way and wrung her hands. “The epipen should’ve helped. Maybe it just needs a little bit more time. I think she needs more but I don’t have another one on me. We should get her more help. Have you called for more help? You should do that.”

Ignoring her, the medic put his hand under Cohen’s chin to tip her head up and keep her airway clear. He pressed his fingers against her pulse and grimaced, muttering to himself, “Her heartbeat’s through the roof and climbing.” Leaning forward, he put his ear to Cohen’s mouth and listened to her breathing with a frown. 

Down the hall came the stomp of running feet. A voice bellowed, “Clear the way! Medical emergency! Move!”

The bald medic reached into Cohen’s shirt and fished out her dog tags, flicking away the Star of David ones with her name and serial number to reveal a medical dog tag embossed with allergies. Meredith leaned forward to see the details and felt the blood drain from her face. 

After ALLERGY STRWBRY, someone had written the word REDOLLA FRT in sharpie. The final stamped lines read:

HIVES ANGIOEDEMA

NO!! EPINEPHRINE 

The blood rushed in Meredith’s ears. “The lady with the mustache, Hollis, she was eating redolla fruit and smashed it on my shoulder,” Meredith told him hollowly. “Some got on Cohen. She should’ve said something.”

“And you shouldn’t have given her that epipen without my say so, you idiot!” The medic snarled, dropping the tags to check Cohen’s heartbeat again. “Now she’s on the verge of a heart attack!” 

The stretcher arrived and they quickly rolled Cohen onto it. The medic directed them to start a portable oxygen line. Someone clipped a heart monitor on Cohen’s finger. The red number was high. Too high. “Hurry!” As soon as the oxygen mask was secured over Cohen’s face two men lifted up the stretcher and sprinted away down the hall.

Pressing a hand to her stomach, Meredith watched as if from the bottom of a ballast tank as the medics turned a corner and disappeared with the kind woman that Meredith had probably just killed with her arrogant mistake. Maybe if she hadn’t insisted on working separately despite Cohen’s objections. Maybe if she’d talked her way out of being cornered by Laurel and Hardy instead of having a panic attack that sent Cohen running to the rescue and exposed her to the redolla fruit. Maybe if she’d looked first at Cohen’s medical dog tag or waited for the medic before jabbing Cohen with the epipen. Maybe if she was better, smarter, wiser, maybe then she’d know how to keep people safe. Maybe then she’d stop getting people killed. Maybe—

“Doctor?” Sgt. Lam touched her arm. 

Starting, Meredith looked up at him. “I was only trying to help,” she told him in a small voice. She was trying, she really was, but it all kept going wrong. There was a lesson there. Letting herself care about the opinions of others was a mistake. Trying to make a new friend had been a mistake. If she hadn’t cared so much about impressing a new friend, if she hadn’t been so emotional, she might’ve waited for the medic instead of giving Cohen the epipen herself. 

The voice of Meredith’s mother sounded in her mind, still clear despite over twenty years of distance. “If you’re so smart, Rodney, why can’t you get even the simplest of things right? No wonder no one wants you around. You’re like the mistake that never ends.”  

Meredith had grown up knowing she’d been an accidental pregnancy that had ruined her mother’s life. Her father’s too, since he’d been forced to marry her mother and settle down instead of going off to pursue his dreams. Nothing Meredith ever did was impressive enough to overcome that. Her best tries always ended in failure. 

Or disaster, since her best often meant big and splashy. Like today. This time she might’ve killed Cohen with her arrogance, just like her parents had always warned. 

Acid bubbled up Meredith’s throat. She swallowed against the burn. It hurt. She deserved it, deserved the pain. 

“We need to go, Doctor Mckay.” Face a professional mask, Lam gestured after the stretcher. He didn’t offer her a hand up.

Fisting her hands to hide any betraying tremble, Meredith couldn’t stop the corner of her mouth from pulling down as she rose to her feet. Mechanically she put one foot in front of the other. There was no hiding from bad consequences.

Chapter Text

“The thing I love about Rome is that it has so many layers. In it, you can follow anything that interests you: town planning, architecture, churches or culture. It’s a city rich in antiquity and early Christian treasures, and just endlessly fascinating. There’s nowhere else like it.”

CLAIRE TOMALIN

 

After a battle fought completely with words instead of guns or fists, John Sheppard won command of all military forces on Atlantis. It had been a long time since he’d fought so hard for something he cared about so much. Even longer since he’d won such a fight. 

He tried not to think about how or if his argument with Rome had influenced his actions. He didn’t want to give her that much credit when he was still so frustrated. However, he wasn’t so arrogant that he couldn’t acknowledge that it was the unflagging support of Elizabeth Weir that had really tipped the odds in his favor.

Even after his confirmation, he still spent several weeks in meetings, followed by the flight back on the Daedalus, which had flown back to Earth to pick them up as soon as it had completed repairs. He wished he could’ve just gone through the stargate straight back to Atlantis, but the SGC feared using up too much energy from the ZPMs by opening gates across galaxies too often. 

John had been away from Atlantis for too long. He had a lot of unfinished business he’d been forced to leave behind. The way he’d parted with Rome throbbed worse than a sore tooth. With distance, he could admit that he should probably say sorry for a few things, but she definitely owed him an apology first. 

The Daedalus finally arrived at Atlantis after an eighteen-day journey. 

On stepping into the gateroom, John’s muscles unclenched for what felt like the first time in months. It felt almost euphoric. He was returning triumphantly to Atlantis, the city he’d bled and nearly died for, a place and people that finally wanted and needed him as much as he wanted and needed them. The sour knot in his gut that he’d been carrying around for too long—and secretly begun to wonder if it might be an ulcer—disappeared. 

For once, he’d gotten exactly what he wanted. He was back on Atlantis, back as the appointed military commander and deferring in city matters only to Elizabeth Weir—a woman he both respected and liked. 

And Rome was here. 

The polished floor tiles, arranged in elegant patterns of circles and triangles, reflected the aquamarine arch of the stargate around Elizabeth and John as they moved into the heart of Atlantis. John soaked it all in —  the grand staircase covered in glowing Ancient writing, the vaulted ceiling leading to the jumpers, the balconies filled with scientists and soldiers welcoming them back (though missing the one scientist he couldn’t help but look for), and the stained glass windows decorated with what had become familiar and comforting silver, grey, and gold geometric shapes. 

Every cell in John’s body lit up as he was mentally mobbed by a dogpile of ecstatic Ancient programs. The abrasive silence in his head disappeared. The lights around the room brightened in greeting. Mathematical symbols licked across his mind. John took his first full breath in what felt like weeks. He was home.

John’s eyes glided around the room again, looking for one particular pair of blue eyes and still not finding it. Rome hadn’t come. He felt deflated, with a stirring of indignation. 

Then the crowd moved and he caught a flash of blond and a familiar stubborn chin up on the balcony in the back corner. Rome was talking to Radek Zelenka and a scientist he didn’t recognize. John’s plummeting spirits caught an updraft and soared.

John forced himself to focus on duty and began greeting the people rushing forward. He’d have time enough to track down Rome soon for a conversation that was best done in private anyway, considering how upset she’d been the last time they’d talked. She’d been mad, but she’d get over it. She always had in the past. 

Now that they were posted in the same place he wanted to give a romantic relationship another try. He’d missed her more than he was prepared to admit to anywhere outside the privacy of his thoughts. Avoiding her so thoroughly before he’d left for Earth had been a mistake. Yes, he’d been angry that she’d put herself in danger by leaving Earth, but she was correct in that it was her choice to make. Neither the incident with the Wraith in the corridor nor the bomb in Weir’s office had really been her fault either. John was ready to forget and just move on. Hopefully she wouldn’t be too difficult about forgiving and forgetting too.

John wanted Rome back in his life. He still might not be smart enough to keep a genius like Rome’s attention long-term, but John was going to try and let the future take care of itself. After all, he might die in a firefight next week or be transferred out again next year, both events that would kill the relationship just as thoroughly. They might as well try. She might never put him first in her priorities of knowledge and fame, but something was better than the nothing he currently had.

Moving into the main meeting room, John was greeted by Major Evan Lorne, the man assigned as John’s new 2IC. “Colonel, it’s great to have you back.” Dark-haired, tanned, and square-jawed with a sardonic sense of humor, Lorne had been transferred over right after the siege. He’d taken charge of the military while John was debriefing on Earth and fighting to retain his posting on Atlantis and proved himself dependable and hardworking. 

They exchanged a few words, but after a minute a tingle on the back of John’s neck had him excusing himself and turning around to search the crowd. He found Rome standing in the doorway staring at him. As soon as he tried to catch her eyes and gesture her over, she swiveled away and moved to where Elizabeth and her assistant were talking with Colonel Caldwell. 

It could’ve been a coincidence. 

John fought a frown as he watched Rome, followed by Radek Zelenka, move to greet Elizabeth. Radek seemed to be doing most of the talking. Maybe Rome was tired. Eyes tight, she crossed her arms and leaned back on one leg, hovering at the edge of the group instead of trying to make herself the center of attention.

Taking a breath for courage, John moved to stand next to Rome. She wore a short-sleeved shirt in blue-gray that made her blue eyes pop and hugged her curves loosely but delightfully. She looked beautiful. Goosebumps rose along her arms at his proximity and the space between them felt electrified. John felt like a shriveled houseplant given water and sunlight. Everything in him perked up at having her so close and urged him to get closer. She had to be feeling it too because her breathing hitched. 

So he felt confused as she turned until he faced her shoulder, putting him perpendicular to her body. She didn’t acknowledge him otherwise, just continued to watch Elizabeth talk to Radek and Colonel Caldwell. 

“What, no hello?” John tried to keep his tone light and teasing despite her unwelcoming body language. 

Rome turned her head toward him but kept her body angled away. Her cool eyes didn’t lift above his chin. “Welcome back, Colonel Sheppard.” 

Okay, so she was still mad. John took a breath and tried again. “It’s really good to be back. I missed you. You don’t seem surprised to see me return.”

“I’m not.” Her eyes flicked up to his for a split second, making him feel warm despite the curtness of her response.

John leaned closer until a too-deep breath would have them touching and lowered his voice, “Rome—”

“Colonel Sheppard,” she interrupted hastily, taking a step back and crossing her arms. “I’d prefer you to address me as Dr. Mckay during the course of our duties.” Her tone was arctic, extinguishing the warmth from her earlier reply.

“Dr. Mckay? Seriously?” he scoffed.

“Yes.” Turning her back on him, she strode to the table and sat down next to Carson Beckett. Within seconds Radek was sitting on her other side. Dr. Biro handed something to Carson and sat down across from her. 

Frowning, John realized that Rome hadn’t left a space for him. Before he’d left for Earth, she’d often reserved an empty seat for him during meetings, not that he’d ever taken her up on the silent offer. He’d been in a dark place and not willing to add the complications she brought into it. There had been too much going on already. Now that he was ready, she no longer seemed to be feeling so generous.

John had the sinking feeling that he’d screwed up more than he’d thought. He must’ve missed something during their last argument, something he’d dismissed as hyperbole. A lot of what Rome spouted when she got worked up was exaggeration. It had been a frustrating argument and they’d both said some harsh things, but he’d thought she’d have cooled down by now. 

John had. 

However, he would have to figure it out later because the meeting was starting. Work came first. There’d be time to figure out their personal relationships later. They were both on Atlantis now, so they had time.

The people who’d stayed on Atlantis gave a general report before officially returning command to Elizabeth and John. It was easy to get lost in catching up with the events and people he’d so desperately missed while gone, though there were a few things he didn’t mind missing, like Dr. Biro overly-detailed reporting about how they’d “—had a surprisingly bad outbreak of STDs the last few weeks, too much celebration over reconnecting to Earth and people not having enough sense to use prophylactics.”

The sciences didn’t have any problems to report, just advancements. Rome didn’t look in John’s direction once, always addressing her bragging comments to the people on either side. If it involved the military she spoke to Major Lorne. John tried not to grind his teeth too obviously when his eyes got caught on her obviously-ignoring-him face. It was tempting to call her out but he didn’t have a good enough reason to do it in a group meeting that wouldn’t come back to bite him in the long run.

Once the civilian side of the expedition finished reporting they happily left, leaving Elizabeth, John, Caldwell, and Lorne to discuss military and security matters in Atlantis. 

After all of the big issues had been mentioned, a lull occurred. Elizabeth looked out the window and gave a soft sigh. John looked too, admiring the gleaming, asymmetrical roofs and curving silver spires rising overhead while below the geometric piers were shaped like snowflakes clinging to the windowpane of the ocean. They’d both missed Atlantis. 

Elizabeth turned back to the room. “Thank you for the ride back, Colonel Caldwell. I know you must be eager to return to Earth, but your crew is welcome to enjoy a few days of shore leave first.”

“Thank you, Dr. Weir, but we won’t be staying too long this time,” Caldwell said, the corners of his mouth pinched. “Though we’ll be swinging back this way again soon, I’m sure.” The words sounded like a threat, but John didn’t let it bother him. No matter how many times Caldwell swung back, he’d always be a visitor, not a resident.

As grateful as John was for Calwell saving his life during the siege, he’d also come to quickly learn that the no-nonsense colonel disapproved of the current command style on Atlantis and would’ve been happy to replace both John and Elizabeth permanently, preferably with himself. Caldwell had no problem criticizing active procedures and past command decisions, but John was so happy to be back that he didn’t let it rattle him. He’d spent weeks on Earth having his every action deemed idiotic and dissected by disapproving generals and admirals. Colonel Caldwell’s disapproval felt like a tickle in comparison.

In fact, John could barely restrain his gloating. Atlantis was his, no sword of Damocles hanging over his head threatening to rip command away or exile him back to Earth. He’d earned his rank too, no one could argue about that anymore or claim it had been given to him just because he was a man. He, Colonel John Sheppard, was the officially sanctioned and unambiguous military commander of Atlantis.

After finishing the meeting, Caldwell stalked off back to the Daedalus while John and Elizabeth split up to meet with their respective deputies. John was proud of his restraint at saying goodbye to Caldwell, limiting himself to a smirk instead of a tempting verbal dig.

As Major Lorne fell in at his side, John quizzed him about a few specifics. So far Lorne looked like he’d done well with the military in John’s absence, but he’d made it clear that he was happy to have his CO back and that there were a few things he’d put off for John to deal with on his return. John didn’t mind. He was looking forward to getting back into the thick of things. 

Once John got up to speed the very next thing he planned on doing was tracking down Rome and making her see reason. He wasn’t going to act like a stranger and call her Mckay just because of one misunderstanding. He’d made some mistakes but he’d own up to that and then they’d be fine. 

They had to be fine.

All thoughts of how to win over Rome disappeared when John heard Lorne’s next piece of news. “Wait, go back. Are you sure they saw Lt. Ford?” 

Adrenaline surging, John pivoted away from where he’d been about to launch a surprise inspection of the gateroom guards and instead moved towards the transporter in the far corner that worked best to reach the tower holding his office. Some transporters worked better with certain locations than others. They were pretty sure that the transporters had all worked equally well for the Ancients, but Troy had given up on trying to fix it after the first month and shelved it in favor of other problems. 

Before John could take more than two steps toward the transporter, Lorne grabbed his arm. “Colonel Sheppard, we moved your office.” Lorne redirected John towards the storage room two doors down. 

John’s temper flared at the presumption of moving his office into a small, windowless closet, no matter how close to the gateroom. Seeing his expression, Lorne quickly opened the door. The boxes and metal shelving had all been removed from the room but no desk had taken its place. The storage closet was empty.

Biting back a growl, John stepped inside and pivoted to face his new subordinate to demand an explanation. Just before his lips opened, the back wall lit up with a panel for an active transporter. John blinked, the words dying in his throat. His eyebrows crept up his forehead. “I thought this transporter was too broken to repair, even with extra energy from a new ZPM? That’s why we kept using it as a closet.”

“Dr. Mckay fixed it, Colonel. Everyone says Mckay’s a bit of a wizard when it comes to figuring out Ancient tech, though she’s mostly persona non grata with the men after a few bad interactions culminated with an incident involving Lt. Cohen a few weeks ago.” 

“She offended Cohen? Cohen likes everybody.” Damn it, Rome. “And everybody likes Cohen.” Hence everybody now being mad at Rome.

Lorne touched the transporter controls to a tower John had rarely visited and opened his mouth to explain more, but John held up his hand. “Wait, we can get into Mckay later since it doesn’t sound urgent. First, tell me about Lt. Ford. Did he look okay? Can we get him back?”

“I have the details in your office,” Lorne said apologetically.

The transporter opened to a recently cleaned hallway. It had a series of offices and a few big planters with Pegasus-native trees just barely beginning to sprout with bright green, feathery leaves. Lorne directed John to the door at the end of the hall. John’s things were sitting on the desk inside. The office was larger than the previous room he and Sumner had often shared for military administration. John’s throat tightened at the thought of doing this without Marsha, but he forced the emotion down. 

Three dark blue chairs faced John’s new desk and a gray couch sat against the wall. Despite the sharp geometric lines making them appear as comfortable as rocks, the furniture in Atlantis had proved to be surprisingly comfortable. A sliding glass door led out to a long balcony facing out across the deep blue ocean. The pale sky was filled with wispy white clouds and a few gray alien birds. John wanted to go out on the balcony and breathe in the familiar salty smell, to let his eyes wander from the endless horizon of peaceful open waves to the crystalline towers stabbing defiantly at the sky, but he’d have to indulge later. 

First, John needed to find Ford and bring him back. He’d failed the last time, but he had to try again. John didn’t leave people behind. Ford had been a member of his team, his friend, subordinate, and responsibility. John refused to give up on the man. Lorne could hold down the fort for a little longer.

Moving around him, Lorne pulled up a report on John’s computer. “Major McLean saw Lt. Ford near the gate when his team got to the planet they were exploring. Although Major McLean arrived only recently, he knows Lt. Ford from the mountain. Ford ran off into the forest before McLean could stop him. We sent another team through to block the gate and help search, but they’ve had no luck finding him. There’s a lot of really strong radiation on the planet screwing up our sensors and making conditions inhospitable for searching.”

Mind racing, John glanced over the details of the planet, committing them to memory. During the siege, Lt. Aiden Ford had gotten a massive dose of Wraith enzyme and gone AWOL under the influence. Ford was a good man, he was just young and not thinking right. Maybe John could get through to him and bring him home. He had to try.

Snapping out a series of orders, John shrugged out of the formal uniform jacket he’d worn for arrival, hanging it up in a closet in the corner. “Is my field pack still in the same locker?”

“Yessir, we only moved offices to make room for all the new staff,” Lorne told him.

Turning to leave, John’s eyes passed over the window and noticed something out of the corner of his eye that jerked him to a halt. The strangely familiar shape sat out on one of the piers. It was impossible. John’s breath caught. Yet could it really be anything else?

Jerking open the sliding door, he stepped out onto the balcony and leaned over the railing to get a better look. He could only see about a third of the small structure on the far pier, but there really was no mistaking the shape: a metal wheel suspended in midair with seats hanging at regular intervals. 

“Is that a Ferris wheel?” John was almost afraid to blink lest it prove to be mere illusion. 

Lorne joined him on the balcony. “Yeah, crazy isn’t it? Doc Mckay’s building it. Why’d anyone build a Ferris wheel out here? And Mckay won’t let anyone down there. She tore a strip from me for even asking, didn’t think any of us would notice it, though admittedly you can’t even see it except from these office windows so most people have no idea it's even there. She’s locked down the transporter to that pier and works on it at night instead of sleeping. I think she’s having nightmares because the bags under her eyes are getting darker and her tongue more vicious.” John winced in sympathy for both Rome and her coworkers. 

“There are worse ways to exorcise demons, I suppose. Near as I can tell she scavenged the parts from pieces of Atlantis and the Daedalus damaged in the attack. No one’s caught her at it yet because she’s doing creative things with the sensors, but I’m pretty sure she’s borrowed a puddlejumper a few times to move parts around. We’ve found her down in the shuttle bay a few times repairing suspicious scratches and dents not reported on any forms filed by our pilots. I’ve been using her excursions as a test for our security forces. Considering she moves with as much stealth as a puppy, they’re failing miserably so far. That or she has someone on the inside looking the other direction. I’d suspect Major McLean or Sgt. Kindall, as they seemed pretty tight with her the first few weeks, but lately she seems to be on the outs with them too.” 

The Ferris wheel was small but beautiful. Using pieces from Atlantis made it alien and unique, unlike anything he’d seen on Earth. The self-righteous speech John had so carefully crafted on Earth crumbled to dust. His frustrations with Rome dissolved, leaving behind confusion and a strange breathlessness. He felt like he was in freefall. 

Rome had built him a Ferris wheel. 

She’d built it despite their argument and with no guarantee that he’d ever return to Atlantis and see it. Why? His line about wanting a Ferris wheel had been a throwaway comment, something he’d said to distract from painful subjects and not meant to be taken seriously, though her monologue about how much more important her work was than John would ever be had stung his pride and reinforced his hidden fears enough to make him complain about how he and the Ferris wheel would always come in last place with her.

Was this her response to that criticism? If so, what was she trying to tell him with it? Rome had gathered up his words like scattered pebbles and secretly built him a monument. Was this her Taj Mahal? (He pushed aside the fact that the Taj Mahal was a mausoleum.) 

Her actions had always spoken louder than her words, which was saying something since she had a lot of words and spoke them very loudly. Had anyone else ever loved John like this?

No.

What was he supposed to do with this? His eyes stung yet his belly hurt from wanting to laugh. His feet itched as if desperate to break into a run. His destination wavered between her office in the science labs to a far off planet on the other side of the Stargate. 

Unaware of his commander’s state, Lorne chuckled and shook his head. “I gave Mckay a few flying lessons out of fear for the jumpers, but she’s pretty awful. It doesn’t seem to be doing too much harm though and she repairs everything she breaks. Despite myself I sort of like her balls. She can be abrasive and arrogant, but she’s not cruel. She complains a lot, but if it's a problem she can fix she does it without prompting or much fanfare. Even when calling her bad names the scientists still all talk like she walks on water. Since her nighttime forays seem harmless enough, I decided to wait until you got back and let you decide on how to deal with it. Rumint says you two were friends.”

Clearing his throat, Lorne glanced over. “Unless you’d like me to just put a stop to it?”

“No.” Swallowing to wet his throat, John pushed away from the balcony. “Let Mckay do what she wants. It’s fine.” 

As always, Rome was a force of nature, not some middling summer breeze. John had to either run with the storm or run away. There was no middle ground. He didn’t like being backed against a wall like this, even by something good. Maybe especially by something good. Good things rarely happened to John Sheppard. He didn’t trust them to last. He didn’t trust himself not to screw them up.

Lorne’s eyes narrowed at the expression on John’s face but thankfully he kept his questions to himself.

Shaking his head sharply, John sucked in a breath and reminded himself that he was dealing with Ford first. He pushed everything else down and turned to leave his office. “I’m going to kit up and go through the gate to join the teams out searching for Ford. We’ll debrief more when I get back, but you’re still in charge until then. Is there anything you haven’t mentioned that can’t wait?”

Lorne padded along after him. “Nope, everything else is pretty standard here except for the secret Ferris wheel. Well, that, an unusually high incidence of STDs in our people and how the black market trading for redolla fruit’s heated up since you left. Redolla’s proven to be really popular but the kitchen is almost out and the main planet it came from, Biva, was culled. Other planets who grow it are all out of season right now or not willing to trade.”

John grunted, thoughts going dark. He didn’t need to be thinking about Biva right now and that little blond doll with the braided red cord, the one he’d tucked into bed and left with a glowing Ancient crystal for a night light because her owner had made him think of Rome. Too many children had never had the chance to grow up in Pegasus. John had to find a way to stop it. The Wraith had gone too long without a serious fight. Their days of feeding unchallenged were over.

Going to the locker room, he grabbed his off-world gear, suited up, and left Atlantis to join the search for Ford. 


Hours later, John returned to Atlantis gritty-eyed and empty-handed—well, mostly empty-handed. The tall man stalking by his side wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. Ronon Dex was late of the culled planet Sateda. After a bout of emergency field surgery by Dr. Beckett to remove a Wraith tracker from his back, Ronon had agreed to come to Atlantis to recover, so at least something good had come out of today. 

Ronon didn’t talk much. He was tall, with bronze skin and long dreads, a man honed to lethal sharpness by adversity. He’d been hunted by the Wraith for seven years and managed to not only stay alive but also kill a lot of Wraith in the process. He was a total badass and had a real live laser gun. John would love to get his hands on one for himself. He would also love to have an asset like Dex fighting for Atlantis. If the man proved trustworthy, John wanted to ask him to stay. 

The intel on Lt. Ford had been accurate. John had managed to talk to Ford, but he had refused to come back. The longer they’d talked the more conceit and paranoia fell from his lips, but deep down John believed that Ford was still the good man John had served with. Yet Ford had shot fellow Marines and almost shot John too. In the end, John had been forced to shoot Ford, but it hadn’t stopped him. Ford had thrown himself into a Wraith culling beam rather than allow John to take him in. Even now, John didn’t think Ford would betray Earth to the Wraith, but the next time they met, John would have to treat Ford as a hostile. He couldn’t afford not to.

John kept close to Ronon, just in case any of his Marines decided to make good on the angry looks they kept tossing Ronon’s way. The planet had been swelteringly hot and tracking first Ford and then Ronon extremely frustrating. One of the scientists was still hiccuping after being shot at and caught in a trap that hung him upside down, where he’d been threatened by first Ford and later Ronon, though the later had cut him down eventually. The Marines were frustrated and wanted to take it out on someone. Ronon was a convenient target. John understood but he wouldn’t let them hurt someone he’d promised protection.

Plus, even with a chunk of his back cut open, John wasn’t prepared to bet against Ronon in a fight. The man had a savage edge that said he’d not go down easily. John had a feeling he was protecting the Marines more than Ronon. John would have to wait and see if the man proved to be the ally John hoped for instead of an enemy to be feared.

Chapter Text

“Italy will never be a normal country. Because Italy is Italy. If we were a normal country, we wouldn’t have Rome.” 

MATTEO RENZI

 

Once in the infirmary, John realized he couldn’t just leave Ronon in a bed while he dealt with other duties. For one thing, the man probably hadn’t slept in a bed in years. For another, he didn’t want Ronon’s first impression of Atlantis to be of boredom or needle-happy nurses. Happily, John remembered that delegation was one of the joys of command. He called Teyla to take care of their new guest. 

Major McLean, who’d called in the sighting of Ford, seemed to be taking Ford’s escape personally. Reddish dirt still caked the inside of his ear as he sat on a bed scowling. A nurse cleaned and wrapped a deep scrape down the back of his arm. His bicep was twice the width of John’s, not that John felt inadequate or anything. McLean was only a Marine. Besides, John could still run faster and fit in a cockpit better. 

“I’m sorry I let him get away from me, sir,” McLean said on noticing John’s attention.

John waved away the apology. “Ford got away from all of us. I should’ve been more aggressive in my approach, but I was hoping I could convince him to come back on his own.” Stomach twisting at thoughts of Ford, John changed the subject. “You probably didn’t hear, but we got approval to bring Dr. Diaz back with us on the Daedalus.”

“That’s great! The team missed Rigo. He may be an anthropologist, but he’s ours, ya know?”

“Colonel Sheppard,” called Dr. Beckett, tapping an empty bed meaningfully. John had waited for everyone else to get looked over first before being seen to.

“That’s my cue. See ya around, Major.” Nodding farewell, John went over to the doctor. 

Since he was fine except for a few new bruises, Beckett quickly cleared John. “Thanks for coming out into the field,” John told the doctor as he strapped on his watch. Beckett mostly preferred staying in the city to going through the gate. “You did a great thing today.”

“What the Wraith did to that man was barbaric. I wish I could’ve removed the tracker without hurting him, but I’m glad I could help. Besides,” he sent John a wink, his Scottish accent thickening for a moment, “it certainly beats diagnosing another case of genital herpes or gonorrhea. It’s getting a little out o’ hand. Dr. Biro might’ve understated the problem during our meeting because almost every patient I’ve seen today is having trouble in their trousers.”

John snorted and rolled his eyes with a grimace. “Yeah, addressing that’s been made part of my welcome home speech to the troops tomorrow.” Since lectures from unit commanders weren’t working, Lorne had rather gleefully informed John that it was now his responsibility. If the idiots were going to force him to ream them out over unsafe sex, it was going to be a lesson to make grown men cry. If John had to suffer, they all had to suffer.

When Teyla arrived she came straight to John with a happy cry. John grinned. He’d missed Teyla. She’d become one of his closest friends on Atlantis, an oasis of calm strength and wisdom who always had a ready smile. By the time she reached his side, John had already bent down for the traditional Athosian greeting, the action no longer awkward after a year of practice. 

“Welcome back, John.” Teyla clasped him behind the neck and touched their foreheads for a long moment before pulling back with a soft smile.

“It’s good to be back,” John told her. Just seeing her made the weight on his shoulders feel a little less heavy. If anyone could make sure Ronon became a friend, it would be Teyla. John wanted to hook Ronon up with some of his tougher Marines to show him around the armory and gym, but for now, he asked Teyla to keep the man from bolting and left it in her more than capable hands. 

Before John could decide who he wanted to track down next, he almost ran into a Marine pacing just in front of the infirmary doors. The Marine didn’t acknowledge his recently returned commander or look up from scowling at his feet, just swerved to the side and kept stomping back and forth. John frowned and checked the man’s rank. 

“Is everything alright, Sgt. Phu-Phukun-tsi?” John stumbled over the pronunciation. The Marine didn’t seem to notice or care, transferring his sour frown from his feet to the infirmary doors and huffing. 

Sgt. Phukuntsi had only joined the SGC a few months before the siege, so John had never met him in the Mountain. The Marine had transferred over to Atlantis with Colonel Ellis. He was tv-star handsome, which gave weight to the rumors claiming Phukuntsi had been taking a grand tour of bedrooms on Atlantis and the Daedalus, hooking up with every woman he could. As long as it didn’t cause drama that affected the Mission, John didn’t care who people slept with. This, however, looked like drama.

“Sergeant?” John repeated, tired of being ignored. “Sergeant!”

Narrow eyes finally shot over to John and went wide. Jerking to a stop, Phukuntsi moved to attention and saluted. “Colonel Sheppard, sir. Welcome back to Atlantis, sir.” 

“At ease, sergeant.” John rocked back on his heels. “Is there a reason you’re pacing in front of the infirmary instead of going inside?” Abruptly remembering the current outbreak of STDs, John winced internally and hoped he wasn’t about to be given a graphic description.

Face scrunching as if tasting something sour, the sergeant’s shoulders went tight. “It’s that damned Mcka—” cutting himself off, he took a breath and transformed his expression to rueful “—sorry sir, I meant to say that that new girl running the sciences, Dr. Mckay, she called me over the radio and ordered me to get down to the infirmary. I was busy doing something more important, but my unit’s CO heard and ordered me to go check it out anyway even though Mckay’s not military and has no right to give me orders.” He lifted his hands and shrugged, then looked at John as if inviting his commiseration or a get out of jail free card. “I think the poor girl must be confused since she’s new.”

Phukuntsi obviously didn’t know Rome or her vicious reputation at all if he was calling her a ‘poor girl.’ She’d also been on Atlantis just as long as Phukuntsi had. And yeah, Rome shouldn’t be ordering anyone military around, but this guy was rubbing John the wrong way. 

John sent him a level stare. “Then you better stop stalling and get inside, Marine.” 

Dropping his eyes, though not before John caught a bit of attitude, Phukuntsi forcefully relaxed his posture and gave an easy shrug. “Of course, sir.” Turning, he strolled into medical.

John pivoted on his heel, stopping the door before it closed to keep watching the man. Thinking himself unobserved, the Marines hands tightened into white-knuckled fists and his easy stride returned to stomping. John didn’t like the idea of Rome having a private talk with Sgt. Phukuntsi. Not. One. Bit. 

John followed the man back inside. Phukuntsi didn’t seem to notice John’s presence at the doors as he asked a nurse for directions. The nurse directed him towards a curtained off alcove in the far corner.

On the opposite side of the room behind a partition, someone bellowed. A loud crash sounded, as if someone had overturned a cart. Multiple people started shouting. All of the medical staff in the vicinity dashed towards the noise, leaving Rome’s side of the room empty. Head tilting with curiosity, Phukuntsi followed the nurses to check out the commotion. 

If it was Ronon making a mess, Teyla and Beckett could deal with it or call for John directly. 

Until then, John was going to figure out what was going on with Rome. Why did she need to talk to Phukuntsi? Why in medical? Had she been hurt? If so, what did the oh-so-handsome Marine have to do with it? 

As John moved forward he began to make out two female voices coming from the corner where the nurse had gestured. He decided to do some reconnaissance. Moving to an empty cubicle with a direct line of sight to the corner, he carefully closed the privacy curtain enough to hide him while he eavesdropped. 

“I’m careful about everything! This is such a disaster,” said a woman’s voice.

“Are you sure there isn’t a friend I can call for you instead?” It was Rome’s voice. She sounded stressed and uncomfortable. 

“Please, Mckay, I don’t want to do this alone. You’re so strong, so fearless. I need that right now so I don’t freeze up. Please.”

The silence stretched until Rome broke it with a sigh. “Alright, I won’t leave you alone with him. I promise.”

“Thank you…. I just feel so stupid. I never forget my pills and always use condoms. What are the odds?” The woman sniffled.

“We said no crying!” Rome exclaimed with a thread of panic. “Okay listen, you wanna know bad odds? Every woman in my family for three generations has had an accidental pregnancy, despite the religious use of contraceptives. Every single one! Birth control is the only religion we follow and has proven just as reliable as traditional church-going, which is to say, not at all.”

John’s mouth dropped into an ‘o’ of understanding. Relief flooded him as he realized this wasn’t about Rome at all. The other woman must be pregnant.

The woman snorted. “I expected you to call me stupid and worse. Thanks for, you know, not.” After a pause, she wistfully added, “I used to go to church on Earth. I didn’t think I would miss it so much, but I do.”

“Well, you obviously have a lot of flaws but at least you’re a good engineer, so....” There was another awkward pause before Rome blurted, “Look, every woman’s been fooled by a man’s promises at least once in her lifetime. Men are selfish jerks but hormones override critical thinking to make us find them attractive. Evolution sucks.” John pursed his lips, hoping she wasn’t lumping him in with the rest of the jerks in her life. 

“Am I making the right choice? How am I going to get through this?”

“Look, you’ve solved some impressive problems during your career. You wouldn’t be on Atlantis otherwise. It stands to reason that you’re going to figure this out too. Sure, it’s a knock in the teeth for you and the kid, but when I think about it, it isn’t the end of the world. My grandma made it through with no support. My mom was a pill but she survived it and I turned out awesome. So did my sister with my niece Maddy—” Rome’s voice faltered and went thin “—and I have to believe that m—”

Sgt. Phukuntsi reappeared, striding over to grab the edge of the curtain and yank it open with a loud rattle, cutting Rome off mid-word and giving John sight of the two women. “Well?” Phukuntsi snapped.

John silently cursed the Marine. He’d wanted to hear how Rome planned on finishing that sentence. Had something happened to Maddy or Jean? Rome had sounded so wobbly, so unlike herself. She sounded like she needed a hug. Would she still let John give her one? Or would she snap at him for trying?

“Oh. You.” Curling her lip in distaste and tucking away any signs of vulnerability, Rome stood up from her seat on the edge of the bed. 

Her eyes looked almost electric blue against the red temper rapidly flushing over her face. Thoughts of hugging her in comfort rapidly slid into gutter thoughts of passionate clenches. He dragged his gaze from her eyes only to get caught on the swoop of her plump lower lip. He wanted to bite that lip. Moisture flooded his mouth. John’s fingers ached with the need to relearn the curves of her body, to trace the arch of her lower back and the swell of breast and hip, to finally learn the texture of her secret places that he’d not yet had the chance to explore. 

She’d twisted her golden hair up into a messy knot on the back of her head with a green pen. He wanted to take it down and run his fingers through it, to take a silky lock and run it across his lips. He wanted to trace the swoop of her nose and the stubborn line of her jaw, to bury his face in the crook of her neck and breathe in her scent like a lungful of oxygen when flying above 14,000 feet.

Before his imagination could get too carried away, John noticed the edge of sadness hovering at the edge of Rome’s mouth. It cooled his ardor. Beneath the temper she seemed tired, worn thin by something. She had shadows under her eyes and fine wrinkles at eyes and mouth. Lorne had mentioned that she hadn’t been sleeping well and that she’d distanced herself from friends like McLean and Kindall. At the meeting earlier, she’d seemed more curt than kind to Zelenka too, professional but not as easy as their relationship had seemed before he’d left for Earth. 

John didn’t like it. 

Shouldn’t Rome be happy now? She was on Atlantis. She was head of the sciences. She had everything she’d ever wanted. She should be sleeping like a baby.

“I’m here as requested ,” Phukuntsi sneered. “I know a pariah like you has to be desperate for physical contact, Mckay, but you should just transfer back to Earth. Doing you in medical in the middle of the day with only a curtain for privacy is a bit kinky, even for me. If you wanted me that badly, you could’ve just flashed me your tits again and invited me to your room. I would’ve taken you up on it as long as you kept your mouth busy doing something other than talking.”

Breathing in slowly through his teeth, John’s fingers tingled with the phantom sensation of slamming into Phukuntsi’s jaw. He was rather impressed that Rome didn’t start swearing and throwing things at the man. She’d had less restraint when she’d been younger, though admittedly John had also seen her reduce men to tears of rage and humiliation without lifting a finger or deigning to use a swear word. 

Rome’s eyes narrowed to frostbitten steel. A muscle in the corner of her jaw throbbed as she clenched her teeth. “If I had to touch you with my mouth I’d projectile vomit. The siege must’ve made everyone here desperate and too-willing to drink homemade moonshine. Being blind drunk is the only way anyone would ever fall for your dubious charms.” Rubbing the side of her nose, she sighed and looked down, “That or being lonely and too trusting.” She waved her hand. “Nevermind. We just have to tell you something and then you can crawl back into your sick den of delusions and disappear.”

“We?” As the Marine looked past Mckay to the back of the alcove, he paused and blinked, his aggressive stance shifted to something less threatening. “Rachel?” 

John followed his gaze, realizing he’d forgotten about the other woman. Sitting scrunched up on a chair wedged into the back corner sat Dr. Rachel Kushumba. John hadn’t interacted with the engineer much though she’d been with the expedition from the beginning. A bird-thin woman with delicate features, golden brown skin, and black hair slicked back into a tail, she’d always reminded John of a heron. Right now she looked startlingly pale. Her eyes were red and the hands tightly clasped in her lap were white-knuckled. 

Turning up the charm to eleven, Phukuntsi stepped around Rome as if she wasn’t even there. “Are you hurt? Forget Mckay, is that why I’m here? Baby, what’s this all about? Are they sending you back to Earth?”

“I’m not your baby but—but I am…I...I—I’m…I—I….” Opening and closing her mouth, Dr. Kushumba bit her lip and fell silent. She shrank down, almost disappearing into the chair before looking over at Rome with a face that had lost all color, eyes wide and mouth trembling. John worried she was about to throw up or pass out.

Rome’s head jerked back. “What, really? Me?” Her face screwed up.

Before Dr. Kushumba could crumple in on herself even further and release the tears filling her eyes, Rome winced and reached out to awkwardly pat the other woman on the back. “Right, okay, sure. No more crying. And don’t pass out again! It’s fine, I’m used to being mean. I’ll just say it and you correct me if I get anything wrong, okay? Okay. Have a tissue. In fact, take the whole box.” Rome shoved the tissue box into Kushumba’s chest, forcing the woman to grab it before it fell to the floor.

The sergeant clucked his tongue and kept his eyes locked on Dr. Kushumba. “Rachel, what’s all this about? You don’t need her, baby, just talk to me. Our time together might’ve been short—”

“I was desperate and drunk,” Kushumba mumbled into her tissue.

“—but you have to know I’m here for you,” he finished.

“And every other woman on base.” Kushumba wiped her eyes and glared up at the Marine who had to be three times her size, proving she had a little bit of spine after all. “I haven’t forgotten that you cheated on me the minute I turned my back. Bastard.”

He shrugged without a trace of remorse. “I took care of you when you were in my bed and I didn’t hear any regrets then, babe, only cries for more, but I know it’s hard for women not to confuse sex and love. You’re soft and ruled by emotion.” He sent her a condescending smile. ”I understand and don’t hold it against you. It’s why you all make me feel so protective. Now, what’s this really all about?”

Kushumba’s lip trembled. John didn’t know her well enough to tell if it was from anger or hurt. She swiped her face with the crumpled tissue in her hand and blew out a breath, turning to Mckay again.

Putting her hands on her hips, Rome huffed loudly. “Look, Sergeant, it’s like this. Kushumba feels morally bound to tell you she’s pregnant, she’s keeping it, and the sperm’s yours. That said, she regrets sleeping with you and wants nothing to do with you otherwise. She has no intention of ever letting you be a part of the child’s life since you can’t be trusted not to contaminate the kid with your stupidity and narcissism.” 

Glancing over, Rome arched one brow. “That’s the gist of it, right?” Dr. Kushumba pressed her lips tight and gave a single sharp nod.

John rocked forward onto the tips of his toes, ready in case he needed to intervene against an explosion of temper. The Marine was bigger than both women put together.

Rome turned back to Phukuntsi and said, “Great, now go away, you intestinal worm. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out—or wait, maybe do. A hard enough hit might improve your trash heap personality.”

Eyes locked on Kusumba, Phukuntsi didn’t seem to be listening. A wide grin split his face and he laughed. “I got you pregnant! That’s great, babe, really great.”

Beckett appeared unexpectedly next to John and pulled back the curtain John was hiding behind. Ears going hot, John expected to be scolded for eavesdropping. Instead, Beckett merely gave him an arch look before folding his arms and turning to join John in watching the drama unfold.

“You did get the part where you aren’t ever going to be a part of her life or the kid’s, right?” Rome said. 

Waving that away, Phukuntsi shot Rome an annoyed look. “I have no interest in kids, that’s women’s work.” He turned back to Kushumba, face going soft. “Now you can go back to Earth where you belong to raise the baby. You’ll be safe.” Grinning, he put his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Good good.”

Nostrils flaring, Kushumba set the box of tissues on the bed with tight motions and stood up next to Rome, back straight and neck extended to lift her chin. She had a really long neck. John was again reminded of a heron. “I have no intention of going back to Earth until I absolutely have to. My work is here on Atlantis. With the gate open and the Daedalus making regular trips, I can easily keep working until the end of the—” she stumbled for a moment, distress flashing across her face before she collected herself “—the pregnancy before returning. I’ve done my moral duty by telling you, so now you can leave and never bother me again.”

Lips going flat, Phukuntsi shook his head condescendingly. “That’s just the hormones talking, sugar. You need to listen to me. Go back to Earth where you’re safe from the Wraith. Women don’t belong in warzones, especially not pregnant women. There are rules about it. Go back to Earth, babe. It’s where you belong.”

“Stop calling me babe!” Kushumba crossed her trembling arms. “You have no say in my life.”

The Marine lowered his chin. “I gave you this gift to protect you. Don’t be stupid.”

Rolling her eyes, Rome put her hands on her hips. “You’re the stupid one. What gift? You had an accident with the birth control. It’s not like you bought her something thoughtful and wrapped it up in pretty paper and a shiny bow, so get lost.”

“Stay out of this!” Sucking in a breath through his teeth, the Marine looked away from Rome and took a step to loom over Kushumba. 

John and Beckett exchanged a worried look and moved closer to intervene. “Let’s all calm down,” Beckett called out. No one paid him any attention.

“Now you listen to me, you are going back to Earth!” Phukuntsi pointed a finger at Kushumba’s face.

Kushumba cowered away but then, after a quick glance at Mckay, bravely looked back up at him and cleared her throat, enunciating softly but clearly, “No. I’m. Not.” 

“Yes, you all are because this proves it worked.”

Rome’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean by all ?” She looked back and forth between him and Kushumba before reaching out to poke the Marine’s shoulder. “And what worked?”

A muscle started to tic in Phukuntsi’s jaw. He turned his shoulder to Rome to try and isolate Kushumba. “I’m going to keep you all safe whether you like it or not. You’re soft. Fragile. You don’t belong here. You need to do what I say.”

“Hey, I asked you what worked?” Rome repeated loudly, poking him in the back. “What do you mean by all?”

“Everyone I’ve gotten pregnant, now I said stay out of this!” he snapped over his shoulder, slapping away her hand. “You shouldn’t be here either.”

Eyes going wide, Rome grabbed his arm and dug in her fingers. “Wait, are you saying you got her pregnant on purpose?” Her voice went shrill.

“Of course I did, her and the others.” Grimacing, he flung Rome’s hand off. “It’s for your own good. The SGC may be corrupt enough to allow girls in a warzone but even they have to draw the line at endangering a baby.  Now you’ll be returned to Earth where you should’ve stayed, where it’s safe. Women shouldn’t be put in danger.”

The more he said, the more Rome’s expression went flat and eerie. It looked like she’d even stopped breathing. Her eyes dilated and the blood drained from her face, leaving it a ghostly white. 

Abruptly sitting down on the edge of the bed, Kushumba’s voice went tiny. “You did what?”

“Protected you,” Phukuntsi snapped. 

“How?” Kushumba shook her head and clutched the bed sheets. “And what about our baby?” 

Phukunsti rubbed a hand roughly over the scruff shadowing his cheeks and blew out a breath. “Look, I only did what was necessary, sabotaging birth control and spreading my seed around to get as many girls pregnant as possible. You were just one among many. I don’t care about your baby. I care about making you safe. You should be thanking me, Rachel.”

As John processed the magnitude of Phukuntsi’s confession, disgust and anger filled him. The man didn’t care about how an unwanted pregnancy could impact a woman’s health and sanity or how losing experienced women would affect the success of the mission and the safety of Atlantis and Earth. John was tempted to tie the man up on an isolated pier and walk away, let the women on base rip off his dick and stuff it down his throat until he choked. It was no less than he deserved. John didn’t trust himself to touch the man at that moment for fear he’d go too far.

“How dare you!” Carson growled, stomping forward to grab Phukuntsi’s arm and wrench him around for a scolding. 

It left the Marine distracted and wide open, which shouldn’t have mattered except Rome suddenly went ABSOLUTELY CRAZY.

Chapter Text

“Rome is a city that doesn't always follow the rules or live by definition….”

ERICA FIRPO

 

Lips peeling back from her teeth, Rome leapt up and slammed her elbow into Phukuntsi’s face. 

John’s jaw dropped. 

It wasn’t a move he’d ever taught her, but someone must’ve drilled it into her repeatedly because she executed it perfectly. 

The hit would’ve felled Phukuntsi like a tree if he hadn’t turned his head at the last second. Instead of knocking him out, the bone of her elbow sliced across his skin like a knife, splitting open his cheek and the ridge of his nose. Phukuntsi bled like a stuck pig, drops of scarlet blood splattering across the pale curtains and floor. He jerked back with a cry and slipped loose from Carson’s grip on his arm. 

Shrieking, Rome followed up with a flurry of berzerker punches and kicks. The initial hit had caught Phukuntsi by surprise, but Rome was a barely-trained civilian attacking a combat-tested Marine twice her size. He quickly turned angry and mean. She didn’t stand a chance. 

Before John could intervene, Phukuntsi lashed out with a massive fist, backhanding Rome in the chest. Her screams cut off like the flip of a switch. The hit lifted her up into the air and sent her flying as if she weighed no more than a rag doll.

Already racing forward, John lunged, catching Rome’s arm just before her head slammed into the tiled floor. He spun her up and around to bleed off momentum. Slinging an arm around her waist, he yanked her to his body and dragged her away. 

Expecting her to be limp in his arms, terrified she’d broken a rib and punctured a lung, John was caught off guard when Rome twisted in his grip, slamming her boots against his shins as she tried to get loose. Her eyes rolled wildly as she struggled to catch her breath, yet she still strained to throw herself back at Phukuntsi in attack. Her nails clawed John’s arms, stinging even through the cloth. 

“Rome! Mckay!” John shook her roughly, trying to snap her out of it and keep a wary eye on the angry Marine at the same time. “Stop it!” Rearing back, she slammed her head into his chin, making John bite the edge of his tongue. “Ow! Dammit, Rome!” Tart, coppery blood flooded his mouth. John tossed Rome onto the nearest bed. Before she could scramble over the side and throw herself back into danger he pinned her. “Snap out of it, Mckay! Meredith!” 

Eyes focused on where Phukuntsi struggled beneath Beckett and a nurse drawn by the noise, Rome swung a clumsy fist at John’s face, clipping his ear. Grunting, John dropped his head to her neck. She arched her body trying to get him off, her knee missing his balls by mere inches. 

Snarling, John flattened Rome’s legs with his thigh and caught her wrists in a tight grip, transferring them to one hand and completely immobilizing her. When he’d pictured the two of them lying sweaty and intertwined in a bed together on his return to Atlantis, this was not what he’d expected. Using his free hand, he felt around the frame of the bed until he found the medical restraints meant for difficult and delusional patients and grimly lashed her wrists to the bed so she couldn’t escape. Every time he shifted she tried to squirm away.

“Stop it!” Pressing her flat with his body, John grabbed her chin and got into her face. “Dr. Rodney Meredith Mckay, stop it right now! You’re being stupid. Rome, wake up and think!” 

She froze beneath him, eyes dazed. Her pale hair had come undone, spreading across the sheets like a tangled corona, and her labored breathing fluttered across his cheeks. She tugged at her bound wrists and tried to look over at them unsuccessfully, stopped by his hand on her chin holding her head in place. 

Subsiding, she focused her eyes on John and blinked. Recognition finally sparked. She sighed, a long hot puff of air. Her muscles went liquid as she surrendered beneath the dominant press of his body. Confusion lingering, she nevertheless blinked up at him trustingly, submitting to his will.

Something twisted in John’s chest. Fire raced through his veins. He noticed the small triangle of lavender in her left eye, the musky scent of the sweat pooling in the hollow of her throat, and the scorching alignment of their hips. Pale pink lips soundlessly shaped his name as her eyes became heavy-lidded. Panting, her gaze drifted down to his mouth.

Although sorely tempted to drop his head that final inch, John couldn’t forget where they were or what he was doing. Besides, Rome wasn’t firing on all cylinders yet and couldn’t really consent to anything. John allowed himself to glide his thumb across the sweat-slick skin of her throat just once. Then he firmed his expression, tightened his fingers on her jaw, and forced her to meet his eyes. “Stay!” 

Not waiting for a response, John rolled off the bed. The front of his body felt painfully cold. He ignored the sensation.

Beckett and the nurse were struggling to restrain Sgt. Phukuntsi. Despite the blood dripping down his face and a person on each arm, Phukuntsi still managed to inch forward towards the bed holding Rome. Roaring, Phukuntsi abruptly flung off the nurse and almost dislodged Beckett. The Marine stumbled sideways into a rolling cart, kicking it out of his way as he steamrolled forward. Beckett hung onto his upper arm doggedly, but no longer seemed to be slowing him down. 

“You’re gonna pay for that, you bitch!” Phukuntsi yelled, angry eyes focused on the woman strapped to the bed.

“Stand down, Sergeant!” John barked, getting in his face. When Phukuntsi refused to listen, still trying to shake off Beckett and get around John to attack Rome, John gut-punched him. Hard.

Breath and saliva exploded from Phukuntsi mouth as he folded over John’s fist. John grabbed Phukuntsi’s arm and twisted it back, riding him down to slam his body into the floor. Cheek flattened against the ground, Phukuntsi whined. He tried to roll free but John knelt on the man’s back to keep him down. “Submit!” John snarled. Phukuntis bucked. John ground his kneecap into the man’s kidneys, making Phukuntsi cry out in pain.

Security finally caught a clue that something was amiss and came running over from where they’d been distracted on the other side of the room. They secured Phukuntsi’s arms with cable ties. The sound of the plastic clicking into place finally cut through the Marine’s mental haze.  He slumped and gave a pained groan. “I submit,” he gurgled against the floor, pausing to spit out a glob of pink saliva from split lips. John eased his knee off Phukuntsi’s back and shoved him at security. 

A quick glance to the side showed that Rome was still locked safely on the bed, face wan and body now listless. John had no idea what had made her snap like that. She was violent with words and occasionally threw pens, but the closest she ever got to assault was a hard poke. She didn’t attack people. 

Dr. Kushumba cried loudly in the corner. 

In worrisome contrast, Rome stayed uncharacteristically silent and avoided looking at anyone. John hadn’t noticed any ribs obviously broken or cracked, so hopefully she was only bruised from the fight. She’d never been one to suffer physical discomfort in silence, so she was probably fine. The thought of her not being fine made John want to turn and slam his foot into Phukuntsi. The memory of her getting punched and flying across the room leeched any slight remorse John might’ve had for slamming the already injured man face-first onto the floor.

“I was trying to help them,” Phukuntsi muttered nasally as he sat up, pausing to spit out another mouthful of blood and saliva. “I was protecting and looking out for those girls.” Security pulled him to his feet. “A good man is supposed to protect the weaker sex,” he argued stubbornly.

“You aren’t a good man, don’t kid yourself. You’re disrespectful, manipulative, and arrogant beyond belief. I have nothing but contempt for you and the way you abused the trust of the women on this base and the honor of the uniform you wear.” John stepped back before he did something against regs and gritted through his teeth, “You disgust me.” Turning to security, he ordered the man treated and then escorted to the brig. 

While he’d been distracted, a pair of nurses had gone over to Rome. Although clearly unhappy, she was cooperating with their examination. They warily unstrapped her hands and sat her up. One of them had his stethoscope pressed to her back while he checked her ribs with a gloved hand. 

As the privacy curtain started to close Rome’s eyes looked up at John. He instinctively took a step forward. Flattening her lips, she looked away just before the curtain shut and hid her from view. The message was clear. Exhaling slowly, John forced himself to respect her wishes and leave her alone. For now.


After updating Elizabeth, John spent the next few hours overseeing an investigation into Phukuntsi’s actions. Carson followed a hunch and examined the stock of prophylactics on base. The number of sabotaged condom packages he found was shocking. It turned out that Phukuntsi had been on the team assigned to help rearrange boxes in the infirmary. He’d also volunteered to help stock the medical closets and prophylactic supplies in all the bathrooms and lounges, using the opportunity to sabotage birth control for not just his own partners but for everyone. 

They’d found the cause of the STD outbreak in the men and women on base, a side effect Phukuntsi hadn’t seemed to care about in his quest to impregnate women and get them sent home. A bad STD could lead to organ infection or permanent infertility. Even a mild case could be distracting during a fight where the cost of losing focus was injury or death. A distracted soldier could easily become lunch for a Wraith, that or to be captured for interrogation by the Genii, other hostile societies, or the Wraith themselves, which could lead to the invasion of Atlantis or the Milky Way Galaxy and an untold number of deaths. It was a betrayal of Phukuntis’s military oaths, of his comrades, mission, country, and planet.

In Phukuntsi’s quarters, they found more sabotaged condoms full of pinpricks and a stash of fake birth control pills packaged to look like the real thing, showing that he’d prepared for this scheme while still on Earth and may have done the same thing to women in other combat postings. Two packages of seemingly legitimate birth control pills were found in his trash, probably stolen from some poor woman and switched for fakes. 

Lorne’s report on Sgt. Phukuntsi’s background revealed that the man had lost his mother young and grown up in an extremely conservative household as the oldest of three siblings. In the course of his last deployment before joining the SGC, Phukuntsi had witnessed two women he’d worked with closely die from combat-related injuries, including a girlfriend. A third woman had transferred back stateside due to an accidental pregnancy the week before most of her squad died in a roadside bombing. During Phukuntsi’s first month in the Mountain, a female civilian he was guarding almost lost a leg in an accident off-world. Dr. Heightmeyer, Atlantis’s head psychologist, suggested that those experiences had probably seeded the idea for his future actions in trying to keep women safe by forcing them out of combat areas. 

It might explain it, but it certainly didn’t excuse it. 

Everyone on the command staff was livid. Elizabeth’s face looked carved from marble. Colonel Caldwell had canceled leave on Atlantis and recalled his people to the Daedalus. Carson was having emergency meetings with his staff to institute base-wide blood testing for STDs and ordering new supplies from Earth ASAP. 

As part of the command staff, Rome attended the meeting. However, on the subject of Phukuntsi, she stayed quiet. Too quiet. When she moved it was gingerly, so she had to be bruised from the fight with the Marine. Attacking him had been extremely stupid. She was lucky he hadn’t put her in traction or worse. John still didn’t know what had possessed her to jump the man. She was lucky Phukuntsi hadn’t thought to press charges. 

When Elizabeth asked Rome why, she just shrugged and said in a flat voice, “What he did made me really mad.” As if she didn’t get mad at people on a daily basis without ever resorting to physical violence. John didn’t know why this incident in particular had gotten to her so badly, but he feared she was going to do something unwise. More unwise. John doubled the security on Phukuntsi just in case anyone, Rome included, decided to arrange an “accident.” 

John tried to corner her in the hall after the meeting. “Rome—”

“No.” Eyes snapping, she smothered his words with her hand over his mouth. “You call me Mckay . We’re strangers now, remember?” Removing her hand and wiping it down her shirt, she stepped sideways and backward into the newly repaired transporter and shut the door in his face, whisking herself away.

“For crying out loud,” he muttered, unconsciously echoing General O’Neill as he rubbed at the stubble on his face. That woman drove him crazy. She couldn’t just go around assaulting everyone that pissed her off. That was more than half the base. However, he’d have to try talking to Mckay again later. He was too busy right now to chase her down. 

Shoving a hand into his pocket, he bumped into the green pen he’d picked up from the floor of the infirmary earlier. He’d meant to give it back but she hadn’t given him the chance. Just like she hadn’t given him a chance to talk to her. John scowled. Fine. Mckay was a grown woman who could make her own bad choices. 

John stalked back to his office, glanced out the window, and deflated at seeing the Ferris wheel. Strangers didn’t build you Ferris wheels. Rome might not want to talk to him right now, but she needed to talk to somebody. Sitting down at his desk, John dashed off an email to both Major McLean and Dr. Kusanagi asking them to privately check-in on Mckay. 

That done, he activated his radio and told Sgt. Bates to come over for their scheduled meeting. John wanted everything Phukuntsi had touched on Atlantis checked for signs of sabotage. He was grateful the man hadn’t been rated to fly the jumpers.


Later that evening when John and Elizabeth gathered the entire expedition, instead of a rousing speech on the joys of being back, they got to inform the base that everyone needed to stop having sex for the next forty-eight hours and make an appointment with the infirmary for mandatory testing. Everyone was ordered to turn in their birth control and get new supplies, just in case they were compromised. It was horribly awkward and invasive. 

Despite John’s best efforts at questioning him, Phukuntsi had become tight-lipped except for his name, rank and serial number, as if he was captured by enemy combatants instead of his own military. He refused to share what other actions he’d taken to get women sent home or the names of his sexual partners so they could be taken aside privately and tested. Colonel Caldwell insisted on interrogating him as well (as if he could do a better job than John) but also got nowhere (surprise surprise). Torture was illegal according to the expedition charter or else they would’ve had a line of volunteers stretching around all six piers. 

The man wouldn’t be John’s problem much longer. He was going back to Earth on the Daedalus for trial. John wasn’t sure what exactly they would charge him with, but he’d been assured that they’d find something and that what Phukuntsi had done wouldn’t just be swept under the rug. At the least, the man was effectively barred from further Marine corp service and would be dishonorably discharged. 

Because of all of the unrest, John and Lorne spent the next few hours walking around base and making themselves available to anyone who wanted to ask questions, talk, or just gripe. There were a lot of crass sex jokes going around and speculation about who may or may not be infected. John did his best to give his people room to let off steam safely.


When John finally found time to sneak away to check on Rome, he found that another man had already beaten him to the punch. It was probably his own fault but that didn’t help the jealousy twisting his gut when he stumbled across the sight unexpectedly. There was a reason John had emailed Major McLean and not Sgt. Kindall, even if it had been unconscious. 

When John had first joined the SGC, he’d often noticed Kindall and Rome sneaking off together for private talks. It was later revealed that they were both just too proud to let everyone know that they were obsessively planning gifts and strategies to win over the hearts of their young nieces, who were both named Madison. Their scheming had come to light with a set of designer dolls. 

John was mostly sure they were only friends. Mostly. John had left Rome behind and Kindall had stayed. A lot could change in a year. He’d suspected that Kindall was the man most likely to replace John in her affections if he ever really blew it. 

Today, he felt like he’d really blown it. 

Rome and Kindall stood in a small room down the hall from Rome’s office. The Marine’s broad back sheltered Rome almost completely from view. They were engaged in an intense discussion and hadn’t noticed his approach. 

Since coming to Atlantis, John had spent more time than he’d ever expected sneaking up and spying on people. He’d noticed that something about Atlantis made people much less likely to see him when he was trying to be stealthy. Lights dimmed around him while the nearby ambient noises of the city increased, though it seemed less distracting for people with strong natural expressions of the ATA gene, as if they sensed the change and got suspicious. John rarely used it on purpose, but he did take advantage of it. 

Standing in a dimly lit section of corridor, John leaned against the wall and watched as Kindall tucked a strand of hair behind Rome’s ear. Her eyes went big, glistening wetly in the overhead light. A second later she looked down and cleared her throat, giving an obviously forced frown. “I said I’m fine. You can leave.”

Kindall tilted his head to the side and sighed. “Mckay, you’re not fine. You haven’t been fine for a while and coming to Atlantis has somehow made it worse instead of better. I barely even see you eat, probably because you’re avoiding running into people by not going to the dining hall. What gives?” He tried to put his arm around her and she stepped back to avoid it.

“Nothing, so you don’t have to worry. You checked on me. Your duty is done.” Waving him off, Rome turned away and walked deeper into the room. She stopped before a bubbling column, hands clasped behind her back. 

Kindall huffed and pivoted to watch her. “You’re not a duty, you’re one of my best friends and I’m not leaving you alone until I know you’re fine.” Sucking in a breath, she dropped her head and rounded her shoulders. 

Brow creasing, Kindall closed the distance between them. “Look, we all know that thing with Cohen was an accident even though you moved onto the Daedalus afterward and didn’t come back until the ship was fixed up enough to leave. You don’t need to keep pushing us away or punishing yourself. That stuff with Phukuntsi is messed up but none of it’s your fault. You’re acting like you did just before we visited Manudia, not that you ever explained that either.” His voice had dropped so low by the end that John could barely make it out. “Mckay, I just want to help. Talk to me.”

What was Manudia? It sounded vaguely familiar to John, maybe from a mission report he’d read? No, wait, Troy had mentioned it in his video farewell, something about Rome being kidnapped. With everything that had happened, John had forgotten about it. He’d have to fix that ASAP.

Rome glanced over her shoulder and away again, rubbing her forehead and hiding the brittleness of her expression. “I won’t talk about Manudia. Not ever.” 

Exhaling slowly, Kindall rolled his shoulders. “Okay.” Stepping up to her side, Kindall pretended to watch the bubbles. “So let’s talk about something else. I know 80s power ballads are out. You’re avoiding the DFAC so we can’t talk about local food. What about mutual friends? Major McLean’s in a bad mood. I think it’s because that last mission went badly but King says he has a hopeless crush on somebody civilian. She thinks his chances were already bad and then today happened and scared the woman off men completely.” 

Giving him a side-eye, Rome snorted skeptically.

A dimple appeared in Kindall’s cheek. “Unless you’re jealous he’s not mooning after you instead, spending his nights staring mournfully up at an alien sky and composing bad poetry rhyming McLean the Marine with McKay the Smart-ay.” 

Snorting again, this time with amusement, she stuck her tongue out and wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, no! Change of subject. How’s Atlantis treating you? Or have you seen Rigo yet? I know he only arrived this morning, but I bet he already has an STD.”

Chuckling, Kindall wrapped one arm around her shoulders and squeezed. “With Rigo I wouldn’t even be surprised.” 

This time Rome leaned into Kindall’s hug. She slowly and carefully rested her temple against his shoulder, as if she were a bubble that might pop at any moment. The corner of her mouth drooped down. She looked so sad. Her breath hiccupped once before she winced, rubbing a hand in careful circles over her bruised chest. Her eyes slid shut, as if the weight of the world was more than she could bear. 

John felt petty for his earlier jealousy. The expression on Rome’s face made him hurt . At least she let Kindall hug her, even if she wouldn’t take a hug from John. He was glad she had a friend like Kindall. She deserved good friends who cared. Deciding to leave them alone, John slid backward.

Arm over her shoulder, Kindall steered Rome into the hall and turned in the opposite direction from John, helping him stay hidden. “As for Atlantis, it’s certainly never boring, I’ll give you that,” Kindall said. “Though the high-tech toilets take a little getting used to. I’ve certainly never felt fresher in my pants, if you know what I mean, not even using those bidets in fancy Japanese hotels.”

Looking up at him, the corner of Rome’s mouth curled for a moment before drooping back down. “Yeah?”

“And you can’t beat the scenery. Most bases I’ve been stationed at are ugly, like WWI and Vietnam married, chugged a cement truck at a kegger, and vomited them into being. Atlantis is like some fancy cathedral, with all of the stained glass and mosaic floor tiles everywhere.” The two disappeared down the hall, voices fading a few seconds later.

Straightening his shoulders, John ignored the itch of feet wanting to break into a punishing run. He didn’t have time to indulge himself. Seconding that thought, his radio beeped a reminder that break time was over. He needed to be seen around base, to visit with his people and soothe tempers. He’d trust Kindall to watch over Rome for now. He had no other choice.


By midnight, John bravely convinced himself to return to his quarters for sleep instead of stealing a jumper and fleeing to the mainland. 

As the sun had set, tempers rose. Small fights broke out in public areas across Atlantis and at least two relationships dissolved when supposedly monogamous couples discovered their partner infected with an STD from an outside source. This was not the day he’d imagined having when he’d been queuing up on the Daedalus to return from Earth.

Back in his quarters, John took a hot shower. He was about to go to bed when he remembered that he still needed to look up what had happened to Rome on Manudia. Snagging his tablet, he lay down stomach-first on his bed and did a search through the mission files. Two reports popped up, but neither were very enlightening. A lot of things were redacted or seemed outright missing, even with his level of clearance. There was no first-contact mission summary, for one. 

Manudia was a city-state in the Milky Way Galaxy with technology comparable to Earth’s in the early 20th century, though there were a few anomalies such as rudimentary computers. It regularly warred with another city on the same continent but was currently at peace. Lower down he found mention that the Ancients had once conducted ascension experiments on the planet, but what details weren’t redacted only stated that the technology was currently inactive and of no use to the SGC. There was also a mention that naquadah had once been mined there but that existing veins seemed to be mostly tapped out. 

Despite Troy’s comment, John couldn’t find any mention of Mckay or anyone else getting kidnapped to Manudia. However, Manudia had asked the SGC to install a defense screen to protect the population from space attacks. After the expedition left for Atlantis, Dr. R.M. Mckay had gone to Manudia and done the work. She’d been guarded by Major McLean’s team. The installation had reportedly gone without a hitch. John couldn’t find Mckay’s name anywhere else. When he cross-referenced Mckay’s other off-world missions, he found that she rarely went off-world—most of her missions dated within the last year—and only visited Earth’s biggest allies when she did. 

Why had Mckay installed a state of the art defense screen on a backwater like Manudia? The file stated that any requests by Manudia were to be immediately forwarded to General O’Neill, bypassing the middlemen at the office of Homeworld Security and even General Hammond and his people at Cheyenne Mountain. It made John wonder if Manudia was more personally important to Jack O’Neill than strategically important to the SGC. But once again, why?

Manudia was an anomaly. It seemed to be getting expensive help for somewhere of mid to low importance. The one complaint from a low-level staffer doing an audit had been ignored. There were secrets on Manudia, but not ones John would find in these reports. The real secrets looked to never have been written down. 

John’s eyes burned from exhaustion. Tossing away his tablet, he moved under the bed covers, saying, “Lights off,” and plunging the room into darkness. Programs rubbed affectionately against the edges of his mind. It had been a rotten day, but at least he was in Atlantis again and posted in the same place as Rome for the foreseeable future. He had time to work things out. That thought, along with the purr and hum of Atlantis, soothed him enough to fall into a fast and dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

“A fool is one who admires other cities without visiting Rome.”

FRANCESCO PETRARCA

 

It didn’t matter that he’d stayed up late the night before, John still woke up early to go running. He’d always loved running, but there was something special about Atlantis and racing through dark corridors untouched for millennia, breaking out into the open sky paling to mellow dawn, alone and yet supported by crowds of programs, the sweet burn of exertion taking him to a place of euphoria and peace. After Atlantis, running anywhere else felt lacking. Indulging himself, John took the long route, soaking in the soft light of predawn gleaming off ocean swells and metal towers while ocean breezes dried his sweat and filled his lungs sweetly.

Suddenly out of a shadowy doorway something lunged at John. Pulse skyrocketing, John twisted to meet the attack. Dodging easily, the man passed with a pale flash of teeth and raced down the pier. Ronon. The man they’d rescued yesterday. It was just the Runner.

John was trying to tell his surging adrenalin to chill out when Ronon tossed his dark dreads over his shoulder and called back, “I thought I’d come running with you, Sheppard, but I didn’t realize how slow and old you were.”

Eyes narrowing, John lengthened his stride and went fast and hard, taking a shortcut through a side corridor and jumping down a short staircase to appear in front of the runner down the pier. Ronon barked out a laugh and caught up a few seconds later. John kept pace with Ronon but the younger and taller man made him work for it. 

That’s alright, John liked a challenge. 

Sharing grins, they raced each other through the twists and turns of Atlantis. Eventually, the sun rose in a blaze of bright yellow-white that made tears prick John’s eyes when he stared too long. In accord, the two men turned back towards the central areas of Atlantis and slowed for a cool down.

“So Sheppard,” Ronon said, the first words he’d spoken since challenging John over an hour ago. His voice showed no indication of the hard pace they’d set during their run, “let’s talk sex.”

John stumbled and almost fell headfirst over the railing into the ocean. “What?” he wheezed, righting himself and putting on a burst of speed to catch back up to Ronon. The burning in his leg muscles bit like angry rattlers but John refused to let the pain show. 

Ronon looked at John from the corner of his eye. “Sex. Is the current ban a requirement of fighting with you? If so, how long is it expected to last? Does getting sex off-world violate the agreement? I’m not sure I’m going to stay here so I need to know.” Despite his deadpan expression, there was a suspicious twitch at the corner of his mouth.

Wondering if he was being hazed, John repeated the same things he’d been telling his people the night before and then referred the rest of Ronon’s questions on safe sex to Teyla, which made the big man’s pace finally falter. 

Ha!   

They separated with a wave at the next corner. John kept up a smooth pace until he reached his quarters just in case Ronon was watching, but as soon as his door closed he staggered to a stop and groaned in pain. He limped a few circles to finish his cooldown and then dragged himself into the bathroom and stuck his head under the sink, gulping down water like a beached fish. The tile beneath his feet spattered with water. It looked cool and inviting. John didn’t need an engraved invitation. He carefully lowered himself down and sprawled out on his back. He hadn’t run that hard for that long in years. 

Ronon would probably expect to do it again tomorrow. If John chickened out, he’d lose Ronon’s respect and the man might leave Atlantis. John had no intention of being chicken. The run had been hard but fun. He spent too much time sitting at a desk now anyway. Rolling to his feet and ignoring the crack of his back and left ankle, John started the shower with a thought and stripped off his sweaty clothes. There were worse ways to start a morning, but not many better.


Later on his way to get breakfast, John ran into Dr. Beckett in the hall. “Morning,” he nodded. 

“Good morning, Colonel.” Beckett opened his mouth to say more but got distracted by something over John’s shoulder. “Ah, Lt. Cohen. A moment, lass.”

Greeting them with a smile, the young Air Force officer folded her hands behind her back. “Colonel Sheppard, Doctor Beckett, what can I do for you this morning?” 

Hadn’t people mentioned a problem between Cohen and Mckay? John needed to find out what had happened there and if it was something he needed to do something about. Most of the time he found it wiser to let Rome fight her own battles, but sometimes she got in over her head or was too oblivious to realize a battle was happening at all.

“Since I just got back I wanted to check in on you. Have you had any troubles lately? No more hives or swelling?” Beckett’s eyes flitted over her, examining the lightly tanned skin of Cohen’s arms and face. “No difficulty breathing or swallowing, no chest pains?”

“No, Doctor, not since the first few days.” Cohen bit her lip and went pink. “Actually, I wanted to talk to someone about that, but I’m not sure who. I tried a nurse but she couldn’t find the information on my chart. While I am very very grateful for the nice lotion and allergen-safe prepackaged foods your people have been delivering to my quarters, I really am fine now. They can stop.” 

Reaching into her pocket, Cohen pulled out a white container about four inches in diameter with a handwritten label reading Hypoallergenic Lotion . “I’ve barely gone through two of these in the last month but they’re getting dropped off at my door every five days. I’m also running out of space for the extra food in my storage locker. I really don’t need any more special treatment or deliveries.”

Head tilting, Beckett hummed. “I’m glad you’re doing so well, but I have to tell you, lass, that lotion didn’t come from my infirmary. We print our labels. It looks like something made privately by one of the chemists.” He gave a small grin. “This is a mystery. We also don’t drop off prescriptions or food at personal quarters, that all goes through the dispensary and kitchens. It looks like you have a secret admirer, lass.” He sent Cohen a wink.

Forehead scrunching, Cohen looked down at the jar in her hand. “But who…?”

“Can I see that for a moment?” John asked. He knew for a fact that Lt. Cohen had multiple admirers on base, but he’d gotten an itch at the base of his brain that it was something less obvious.

“Of course, Colonel Sheppard.” Looking up at him, Cohen handed over the jar, blushing pink and biting her lip when her fingers brushed across his palm. 

John hoped that she’d get more comfortable with superior officers as she gained more experience, but until then he pretended not to notice her discomfort. She was a sweet girl and a good officer. He didn’t want to scare her away from Atlantis. 

Looking at the label, John noted that the words were handwritten in green ink with a mix of print and cursive letters. The style looked very familiar. “I could be wrong,” he said slowly, “but this looks like Dr. Meredith Mckay’s handwriting.” 

Cohen’s eyes went wide.

“Huh, perhaps,” Beckett peered at the jar, “but gift-giving isn’t really her style.” A second later his mouth rounded in an O but he kept the thought to himself. John really needed to go back and interrogate Lorne about what had happened.

Passing the lotion back to Cohen, John shrugged. “When it comes to the really important things, Mckay’s always been an ‘actions speak louder than words’ kind of woman. If she’s not claiming credit loudly for her generosity, it’s probably because she feels either stupid or sorry about something. If you really want to know why you’ll have to ask her.”

“Oh.” Looking subdued, Cohen flipped the jar in her hands a few times before slipping it back into her pocket. 

John abruptly wondered what message had his actions been sending to Rome. He thought he’d been a good friend and boyfriend, but admittedly he wasn’t great at initiating things or doing the heavy lifting when it came to emotions. Had he been making Rome do most of the work? 

When they’d first met, Rome was the one who’d unilaterally decided they were friends and started requesting him for her test flights, following him around, and sitting with him at meals talking a mile a minute until he couldn’t help but respond. She’s the one who coordinated their leave so they could go on vacation together and first invited him home to meet her sister. She hacked his file to keep track of his postings over the years and called in favors to get him transferred from Antarctica to California when she suspected he was miserable. He had to wonder if she’d helped him with other transfers too. She always seemed happy to see him, while he sometimes greeted her presence with grumpiness over the changes to life and routine that always came in her wake. Shameful as it was to admit, he hadn’t even been able to work up the spine to ever do anything about loving her. She was the one who instigated their first kiss and first I love you. 

John tried, but maybe he needed to try harder. He’d broken up with her over video (maybe bad but for good reasons) and then the second he saw her again he’d kissed her (good) like she was his last meal before dying (hard to regret but maybe not good). However, when he’d realized that she’d just almost died in his city, he’d panicked and tried to scare her back to safety using the freshly killed body of her ex-husband (rather bad and not his finest moment). When she’d stood her ground and refused to leave, he’d gotten scared of failing to protect her and losing her, and avoided her for weeks (probably bad, but a needed tactical retreat to get his head screwed on straight). On what might’ve been his last night on Atlantis he’d gone to see her (good), but then they’d argued and she’d been unreasonable and he’d hurt her feelings (bad) and he hadn’t gotten a hug or a goodbye kiss (very bad) and also misunderstood or misstated something because now that he was back she was trying to treat him like a stranger (extremely bad). 

On his first day back he’d also ended up tying her to a bed and ordering her to stay like a pet dog (once again for good reasons but perhaps bad in execution). It definitely wasn’t as kinky as it sounded. Though he wouldn’t mind tying her to his bed in different circumstances and seeing how well she took to obedience. Once or twice when they’d been dating he’d gotten a little too dominant while they’d been making out—something that had scared or turned off other partners—and she’d responded by melting into his touch and offering the sweetest submission that had practically killed him to keep from following through on. Only the knowledge of her lingering trauma from being assaulted and his oath to stay out of her panties without an explicit invitation had kept him from taking advantage and being a very, very bad man.

A-a-a-nd that was not something he should be thinking about in the middle of the hallway while talking to a female subordinate. 

Crossing his arms in front of his waist, John saw that Cohen was too busy listening to Dr. Beckett’s rambling words of wisdom to notice anything inappropriate. What had John been thinking about again that had led to kinky sex? Rome, obviously , but—oh, right, he’d been wondering what message Rome was hearing with his actions. John didn’t like the answer his thoughts led him to: not the message he wanted to send. 

John rubbed a hand over his mouth to hide a grimace. He needed to fix this and it had to be something big, a gesture that declared without words that he both cared for and respected Rome. It also had to be honest. She’d probably want words too, but he had to create a solid base of actions first. Besides, he was bad with words.

As if in response to John’s thoughts, Beckett finally ended his homily with, “Sometimes talking is the best medicine, lass. Good luck to ye.” He patted Cohen on the shoulder.

Thanking them, Cohen turned and slowly walked away, obviously chewing over what she’d heard.


After breakfast, most of John’s morning was spent creating a new roster of gate teams. There’d been many personnel gains and losses since the Siege and reconnecting to Earth. It required a lot of reorganization, including John’s gate team SGA-1. John knew he definitely wanted to keep Teyla, but he needed to find a new soldier and preferably a scientist. 

No matter how John personally felt about him, Lt. Ford was gone and needed to be replaced. Lorne had put forth a few good suggestions, but John’s thoughts kept returning to their newest visitor. If Ronon stayed on Atlantis, he would be an amazing asset on a team. Working directly with Ronon would also give John the chance to evaluate him firsthand and deal with any negative fallout, if necessary. Not only was Ronon an amazing fighter, but he could also be a font of information on both the Wraith and different cultures in the Pegasus Galaxy that Teyla may or may not be as familiar with. The more John thought about it, the more he felt certain Ronon was the right choice.

As for the scientist slot, John had always rotated people through on an as-needed basis. It had been from necessity more than desire. After working with so many he knew exactly what he didn’t want: no one who was timid, buckled under pressure, or couldn’t think fast on their feet. His team did a lot of exploration, so he needed someone who could help them discover and retrieve Ancient technology while not offending the locals. Zelenka had come the closest to working out, but he was very vocal about how much he didn’t like going on missions and sometimes he froze up when confronted by a threat and took a while to calm down enough to function again. John resigned himself to auditioning several of the new scientists to see if any of them would work out better.

Taking a break from assigning gate teams, Lorne and John decided to walk around and do a few surprise visits to the training rooms. Luckily the hysteria over Phukuntsi’s actions and the sex ban had mostly died down after a good night’s sleep and a grueling morning in PT.

On their way back, they walked past one of the main social lounges. It was located between the military training areas and the largest science lab and was rarely deserted during the day. Located in the corner of the tower, the open lounge had a soaring ceiling encompassing three floors and two stained glass walls, filling the room with sunlight, pastel geometric shapes, and soothing ocean views. Clusters of blue-grey chairs, silver tables, and leafy green and gold plants created pockets of privacy on the floor and surrounding balconies despite the size of the room. Walkways and staircases surrounded the open space like curling vines. 

They were on the second-floor walkway when Lorne arched a brow and pointed a thumb over the railing “Look at that.” 

Glancing down, John saw Lt. Cohen standing stiffly above a seated individual. “What?” he asked, not sure Lorne meant her. Cohen shifted, revealing Rome sitting on the couch. 

Lorne had finally filled John in about the debacle on the Daedalus. Rumors on base said that Rome had insisted on treating Cohen’s allergies by herself and sent Cohen into cardiac arrest, almost killing her. That Rome had been attacked just a few minutes before was information that had somehow never made its way into the rumor mill or the weekly briefings he’d read while on Earth. It made John angry. He wished he’d have been here to help Rome and beat the crap out of her attackers. They were lucky they’d been shuffled off to the MPs for trial out of his sight while he’d been on Earth. However, he felt sympathy for Cohen too. He knew personally how bullheaded Rome could be when she thought she was right. John was just grateful both women were alright. 

Rome sat on the edge of her seat with a tablet and stylus clutched gingerly to her chest, which was probably still painfully bruised from yesterday. She didn’t look like she’d slept well, watching Cohen as if bracing for unpleasantness. John was too high up to hear anything, so all his cues came from body language. Rome nodded warily and Cohen sat down across from her and started talking. Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, Rome turned pink and looked away, shrugging one shoulder and mumbling something. Cohen leaned forward with an earnest expression and gestured. 

John really wished he could hear what was being said. 

Rome’s head jerked up to stare at Cohen with wide eyes. Cohen said something else and Rome laughed as if she couldn’t quite help herself, putting her tablet down and turning to face Cohen fully. Both women’s body language relaxed and opened up as they continued talking. 

“Good for them,” Lorne said quietly, reminding John he was there.

Looking around, John realized that they weren’t the only interested observers. Down below, Sgt. Kindall watched the women with a pleased smile, looking like he was thinking of going over to join them. Pushing back from the railing, John reminded himself that he wasn’t going to be jealous of Kindall anymore. “C’mon Major, let’s continue our rounds.”


Despite John’s best intentions, a full week passed without him finding a private moment to talk to Rome or do anything to prove himself. Not to say he hadn’t talked to her. Work kept throwing them together, so it was impossible to avoid it. In meetings, he compromised and called her Mckay, but when speaking unobserved he defaulted to Rome. 

When distracted she slipped into bantering with him as if nothing was wrong. Even her mocking was more humorous than cutting half the time and so not that bad, but when she remembered she was mad at him she went cold and formal. John hated that. He could tell he was wearing her down, but not as fast as he’d hoped. 

John spent most of his waking hours trying to get Ronan to stay on Atlantis and join his gate team or catching up on administration and logistical work. Just when he’d finally gotten caught up at work and gotten Ronon to agree—along with Elizabeth a bit after the fact because she had to approve new people too, whoops—a gateteam missed a check-in. 

Jumping at the chance to get out in the field again, John grabbed a jumper along with Teyla, Ronon, and a few Marines and flew through the gate to the rescue. 

It was a good thing they’d cloaked the jumper because it looked like the two towns on either side of the gate had descended into war. The missing team didn’t respond to radio hails so John sent Teyla and Ronon as natives who blended in to gather intel inside the towns and check the jails. 

Meanwhile, John and his Marines scouted the surrounding countryside in case the team had tried to escape the fighting by going into the woods. Unfortunately, they didn’t find anything but a few farmboys sneaking off to join the fighting on the hillside behind the two towns. 

There was a moment of excitement when Lt. Tolman shouted over the radio, “Ambush!” Seconds later he squeaked out an embarrassed, “Nevermind! False alarm.” John got there just in time to see Tolman sprawled on his hands and knees. He was covered in a flock of reddish-brown kobas. Most of the animals were running away, but as John watched two more glided down from the overhanging trees and bounced off Tolman’s head and back, sending him sprawling again before scampering away into the underbrush after the rest.

Kobas were a popular pet in the Pegasus galaxy. They were small, could eat almost anything, and were low maintenance. They looked sort of like chickens but with fur instead of feathers and the faces of kittens, though the biologists claimed kobas were closer to flying squirrels than birds or cats. 

Rome would love them. Should he get her one as a pet? Would Elizabeth care? Maybe he should ask forgiveness instead of permission on that one, perhaps bribing Elizabeth with a pet of her own at the same time? Hmm….

“The missing team is not in either town,” Teyla said, melting out of the trees with Ronon. John hid his jump, pretending he’d seen her before she’d spoken. “Also, Colonel, someone has been asking after you again with the usual question. The woman I spoke to said she saw a dark-haired trader wearing red ornaments in his hair meet with our people in Gur, the leftmost town, asking if they knew a traveler named Colonel John Sheppard who carries high-tech weapons, makes the Ancestor’s machines glow at his touch, and shows up around cullings.”

“Sounds like someone wants you dead,” Ronon said, pulling a knife out of nowhere and starting to sharpen it.

John scowled, wishing he knew if it was the Genii or someone else who had it out for him. This was at least the fourth time one of his teams had been specifically questioned about him over the last six months. He was a charming guy! Hadn’t he won Teyla over on their first meeting? This level of animosity was clearly unfair.

“Supposedly, someone on the team answered yes to knowing you. The trader then insisted on taking the team to see the local temple. My source knows not what happened there, but the trader came running back alone and disappeared through the ring of the ancestors. Soon after, black smoke was seen rising from the temple. A holy man from Ruga, the other town, led a group of men to attack Gur with cries of blasphemy and treachery, obviously blaming Gur for whatever happened.”

“They sparked a holy war. Great.” John scrubbed his face and tried to raise the team on the radio again. Once rescued, that entire team was going in for retraining. Standard orders were to not answer questions about the expedition and its members without permission. And not to spark any wars!

Flying up to the temple in the jumper, John scanned the temple and discovered an Ancient structure hidden beneath the walls. Black smoke rose from the lower window on the north side. There were only four life-signs inside, hopefully his missing team. Unfortunately, the people of Ruga and Gur were scattered across the hillside killing each other with arrows and spears, making it unsafe to land. John finally had to set down the jumper in a precariously small spot in the temple courtyard as the only area clear of fighting. It barely fit and they couldn’t open the ramp all of the way so everyone had to squeeze out the crack and then hop down.

Once inside the structure, they discovered that the trapped team had outdone themselves. They’d tripped both an Ancient security measure and a more modern boobytrap that must’ve been set up before an earlier culling cycle when this world had a higher level of technology. Using his genes to interface with the Ancient technology, John managed to suppress the fire causing the black smoke and unblock the signal jamming the radios, confirming that the team inside wasn’t injured, just trapped. 

However, before John could congratulate himself too much, he tripped something that made the wall Ronon was leaning against try to swallow him. It would’ve succeeded if Ronon hadn’t had the reflexes of a feral cat. He dived across the floor and rolled back to his feet next to John with a knife and gun in either hand. John’s attempt to fix whatever he’d done made the floor start rumbling, so he decided to stop and call in the experts.

It took almost two days of non-stop work and the combined technical might of Drs. Mckay, Zelenka, Kusanagi, and four assistants with names John couldn’t remember to disarm the traps and get the team free. When the locals noticed their temple wasn’t as deserted as they’d expected, John had needed four teams and two jumpers to keep everyone safe from the attacking locals. Both sides hated each other but had decided that they hated the Lanteans more and that killing them had the weight of a holy quest. Getting the necessary people and equipment in and everyone out safely had been exhausting and pushed them all to their limits. 

While Mckay had complained at almost every inconvenience, she’d also worked harder than anyone to get the team out, barely sleeping until the last trap was dismantled. As many times as they’d worked together over the years, they’d never been out in the field together. John had been impressed. 

John knew he could be a pushy bastard when tensions ran high, but Rome surprised him by obeying when it counted, making helpful observations, and blooming instead of crumpling under the danger and demands. When the pressure was highest, she stayed focused and let the fractures in their relationship fall to the wayside. She was completely professional and extremely helpful.

John felt responsible for Rome’s safety and so had assigned Major McLean’s team specifically to guard her and the scientists while other teams patrolled the perimeter. Despite that, he didn’t find himself more distracted than usual on a mission. In fact, he felt less. John didn’t feel the urge to micromanage Rome’s work the way he had with other scientists. He surprised himself with how easy it was to trust her in the field. It freed him up to focus on his real job. Working with Rome had been easy and, despite the high stakes, fun. 

That revelation made certain things crystallize in John’s mind. He should have trusted her more. He needed to trust her more. Having Rome on Atlantis made everything better and easier. 

Chapter Text

“In Rome, I particularly love the history, churches, sculptures and architecture and the fact that you can walk along a tiny cobbled street and turn the corner to find the Trevi Fountain.” 

PHILIP TREACY

 

Late one night about a week later, John walked past an open door and saw Rome working inside. She was alone. Things had improved since their mission together and she was acting almost normal towards him in meetings. Before he could second-guess himself, he stepped inside. “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Huh?” Rome looked up from her screen to blink at him like a sleepy owl. It was adorable. Next to her keyboard sat a notebook full of green equations and blue diagrams. Notations in pink were crammed between the lines and up the margins. Mugs, markers, Ancient crystals, screwdrivers, and wires littered her desktop.

John didn’t fight the smile curling his lips. He leaned a hip against her desk, putting his hands in his pockets to stop them from reaching out and brushing across the ink smudged on her cheek. “Can we talk?”

Leaning back in her chair, Rome yawned and stretched. She looked up at him and wrinkled her nose. “All evidence points to yes, as both of us are demonstrating an obvious capacity for speech.”

“Cute.” John rolled his eyes and her lips twitched at getting a rise out of him. They’d always had fun teasing each other. “I have a proposition for you,” he wagged his eyebrows and smirked.

Rome started to grin back but then a thought flickered through her eyes and it was like the gates slammed closed. Her expression went tight and the twist of her lips became dark and jagged. “Nope, not happening Colonel.”

“What do you mean, nope? You haven’t even heard me out yet,” John said incredulously.

“You’re not allowed to proposition me since you broke up with me. You don’t even want me here, remember?” 

John gave an exasperated growl. He was so sick of her prickliness, sick of her pushing him away and blatantly misunderstanding.

Rolling back her chair, she crossed her arms, raised her chin, and narrowed her eyes. “You don’t even know what you want, you just know you don’t want me anymore. You probably never even saw the real me. I was just one more notch on your belt of conquests, a way to prop up your fragile ego.”

“Give me a break. You’re the one with the fragile ego who doesn’t know what she wants and is never satisfied with what she gets. I’m not the one who keeps bringing up that message—which I already explained and apologized for!—and treating you hot and cold.” With effort, John swallowed down the rest of the angry words hovering on the tip of his tongue. He didn’t want this to turn into another argument where they spoke in circles and tore chunks out of each other. He was going to be calm. 

John took a deep breath and stated evenly, “I just want to talk to you.”

Unimpressed, Rome somehow looked down her nose at him despite the fact that she was sitting and he was standing and sneered. “It’s obvious you can’t handle all of me, John Sheppard, so you might as well say what you came to say and then run away, as usual.” She flapped her hand at him dismissively. “That’s all you’ve done since I got here.”

John’s restraint broke. SNAP . Everything became sharp and crystal clear like he was in the middle of a firefight. “Let’s clarify a few things,” John enunciated. 

BAM ! He slammed a hand down on the corner of her desk. 

Rome jumped. 

Eyes narrow, John leaned over her. “I pick and choose my battles to balance the demands of duty and honor. I don’t run away from a fight.”

Paling at his expression, Rome pressed back into her seat and swallowed hard.

“So our reunion here sucked. That happens. I’m sorry. I was a little messed up after getting cut off from Earth for a year, having my CO turned into an octogenarian dying of organ failure, unexpectedly being put in charge of keeping everyone safe from aliens who eat people, and fighting a slow and suffocating siege where despite my best efforts every day brought my people closer to death and proved just how powerless I was to save everyone even though I almost killed myself trying. I wasn’t at my best. I’m sorry.” 

Shoulders hunching, Rome met his eyes and he saw her resentment at being lectured. He wasn’t getting through.

Putting his hands on the arms of her chair, not touching but definitely looming, John got up into her face and willed her to listen . When she didn’t shove him back he took that as tacit permission to continue. “I’m not running right now, Rome. You are. I’m here, trying to fix this, fix us. I don’t pick and choose what parts of you to jettison and what to keep. There’s a reason that out of everyone, only I call you a name encompassing both Rodney and Meredith. I don’t see just one or the other. I don’t see someone small or insignificant. You’re my Rome. ” 

Breathing heavily, John met her wide eyes. “Nothing can change that… even as life has thrown us together and ripped us apart, duty and career superseding personal desires. For both of us.” Inhaling against the tight band that felt like it was squeezing his chest, he stopped caging her in and took a slow step back.

Eyes dropping, Rome’s lips pressed tight before she gave a nod of acknowledgment. 

His next breath came easier and John’s voice softened. “No matter how much we fight each other, I always see through to the real you. This is difficult because it's worth it. You know it’s worth it.” Rome’s shoulders uncurled and her head tipped to the side as if she was finally really and truly listening. “I see you and what I see I want. I want you in my life, all of you, every difficult and magnificent inch of you, mind, body, and soul. I will always want you.” 

Swallowing hard, she glanced up, her eyes like a distant pool of water in the shadow of a dune. Thoughts battled beneath that inscrutable blue but she kept them hidden.

Undaunted, John slid his gaze down her body before snapping them back up in challenge like a fighter jet suddenly appearing above of the clouds. “I want to handle all of you and someday soon I will. I can handle anything you’ve got, Rodney Meredith Mckay, and I’m not going anywhere.” 

A choked sound burst from her mouth, half laugh and half sob. Eyes closing, she turned her face away and rubbed shaking fingers against her mouth, pressing hard until her wrist bent at a painful-looking angle. Her hair fell forward, hiding the smudge of ink on her cheek. After a moment her hand slid down to press against her chest and she opened her eyes. “I can’t trust in that. I don’t.” A single tear ran down her cheek.

The words felt like he’d broken his leg again. Sudden. Unexpected. Excruciatingly painful. Almost impossible to get up from.

Locking his knees, John swallowed twice to get enough moisture into his mouth. “You can.” 

Two more tears joined the first as she shook her head.

Abruptly the tension in the room was interrupted by the sound of a basketball bouncing past the open door, followed by laughter and talking as a boisterous group walked past on the way to the nearest transporter after a late-night game.

John stepped back with a slow inhale and turned away. Whomever she wanted him to be, he wasn’t measuring up. He didn’t know what more he could say or do. He paced through the lab and tried to keep his mind from replaying what had just been said on loop. He wanted to hit something, maybe track down Ronon and pick a fight, something to channel the emotion burning up his insides.  

This wasn’t even what he’d intended to talk about when he’d come in here.

A chair creaked, but he didn’t turn to look. Instead, he examined an equation scrawled on a nearby whiteboard in black ink. He pursed his lips and read over the equation again, letting his mind churn through the numbers. “This is wrong.”

Arms crossed and face dry, Rome stepped up next to John, not looking at him directly but instead focusing on the whiteboard. “Jorgensen was working on it before he left. Which part?”

Pointing, John followed her lead and kept his eyes focused forward. “He miscalculated the integer for resistance and down here raised the variable to the fifth instead of the sixth power.” Looking at her from the corner of his eye, he nudged her gently with his elbow. “Please say I can fix it. It’s literally making my teeth hurt.”

Rome snuck a look in his direction and then dropped her gaze. The line of her lips softened. Reaching out, she plucked a blue marker off of the tray. “Go ahead, but do it in blue instead of black so he knows someone else had to fix it. I won’t tell him you did it. I know you like to pretend you’re dumb.”

“Shouldn’t that be as dumb as I look?” John plucked the marker from her hand and started making corrections. “That’s what you usually say.” He said it lightly, aching to get back to some kind of normal. 

They’d been friends. The best of friends. Couldn’t he at least have that?

Rome moved her hands to her pockets and rocked back on her heels, keeping her eyes on his writing. “I only say that because you spend a lot of time styling your hair every morning and it pricks your ego.” Her voice softened and went almost husky. “You have to know I don’t really think you look dumb.” She cleared her throat and looked down to examine her shoes.

Capping the blue marker with an irrepressible smile, John put it back on the tray. “Now you’ve done it. You’ve complimented my hair. My ego might not fit through the door after this.”

“That just means you’ll be stuck in here with me forever.” 

“Perfect.” 

Rome moved.

John’s head shot up and his body turned, preparing to catch her in his arms and crush her to his chest for a kiss, but this wasn’t that kind of movie. His brain still hadn’t caught up. She’d turned away from him. 

“Stuck with me in my lab, I mean. Doing work. Lightswitch stuff.” Her voice sounded jittery as she returned to her desk and started tidying the surface, throwing out crumpled pages, stacking a mug on an empty plate, and gathering loose pens and pencils back into her desk drawer. 

A pen escaped her hand and rolled off onto the floor in John’s direction. He stopped it with his foot and picked it up. “You better not lose this, it’s one of your favorites.” He held it out to her with a forced smile. “Green.”

Rome took the pen without touching his hand but didn’t immediately turn and drop it into her desk drawer. Instead she looked down and twirled it in her fingers. A complicated look crossed her face. Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders. “So I’ve been mad at you off and on for a while because you hurt my feelings and avoided me and it made me say some things that I shouldn’t have and I’m sorry.” She sucked in a quick breath and kept going, “I know you’re honorable and brave and not like your dad at his worst, only like him at his best, so yeah, sorry.” 

Something turned over in his chest. He quietly responded, “Thank you. I’m sorry too.” 

John wasn’t ready to give up on this woman. Over a decade of friendship wasn’t so easily dissolved. He’d lost a battle, not the war. She’d trusted him once. She could trust him again. He just had to be patient and keep fighting even when things got hard. Maybe it was lucky that John had a lot of experience with that.

Rome’s computer chimed softly. She hurried over. “My simulation finished.” Leaning over the screen, she scrolled through the results. Her shoulders drooped. 

“No luck?” John looked at the lines of Ancient computer code on the screen but had no idea what most of it meant. He’d learned the Ancient alphabet and some relevant words, but honestly most of it still looked like a big game of eight-bit Tetris to him.

Rome sighed. “No, another dead end.”

“What’s it for?”

“I’ve been working on trying to create a program for a small and portable device to dial a stargate.” Mckay gestured to her screen. “I’ve been working on it for a couple of years, but still haven’t cracked it.”

Interest sharpening, John stepped forward. “That would be huge. Right now it's either dial at the exposed DHD or use a puddlejumper. Getting hit while dialing the DHD during a retreat isn’t uncommon. I’ve been hit by bullets, arrows, Goa'uld and Wraith stunners, and on one memorable occasion, both a spear and a stunner simultaneously. It delayed the initial pain, but having painful tingles as everything wakes up combined with a puncture wound is a special kind of hell.”

Rome’s lips thinned. “I’m going to keep working on it until I figure it out.” Turning back to the computer, she scowled. “I don’t have it yet, but if you ever need to disable a DHD during a retreat to permanently cut a planet off from the gate system, I’m your woman. Just make sure we really hate them first because it’s not reversible.”

“Right.” Licking his lips, John remembered his purpose for coming in. “Speaking of gate travel, I didn’t actually come in here to argue with you. I wanted to ask you something, remember?” And maybe this would help her to start trusting him again.

Rome tore herself away from her computer screen with reluctance. “If it’s about replicating Ronon’s laser rifle, I can’t help you. He won’t let me disassemble it to figure out how it works and the one time I asked he looked at me like he’d tear off my legs and eat them like chicken wings at a barbeque if I kept pushing it. He’s scary.”

Although he hadn’t been going to ask about Ronon’s gun, it was still disappointing news. “Ronon’s going to be on my gateteam with Teyla, but we still need a fourth and I want someone from the hard sciences.”

Nodding slowly, Rome tapped a finger on the edge of her desk. “Radek said he’s gone out with you a lot but would prefer not to anymore if at all possible and the look on his face made even me feel sorry for him. I have either an engineer or a biochemist that might work. Both have gate experience.” She turned back to her computer and started typing. “I’ll send you the files.”

“Actually, I already have somebody in mind, but if she refuses you can forward them to me. I only want the best.” He found the energy to smirk.

“She?” Straightening, Rome looked at him narrowly and tilted her head to the side. “I hope you don’t mean Miko Kusanagi. She’s brilliant but too timid and nice for fieldwork. Since she’s also too polite to say no I’ll do it for her. No. Her skills would be wasted tromping through the mud meeting with village headmen instead of unlocking the secrets of Atlantis’s database.”

“Actually I was thinking of asking you, Dr. Mckay.” 

“Me?” She blinked.

“We’ve never worked together in the field before last week, so seeing you out there was a revelation. You impressed me. I think you’re exactly what I need to help me explore Pegasus and discover new technologies. Your problem-solving skills under pressure are nothing short of spectacular and I know I can trust you to get the job done.” He wasn’t going to pussyfoot around what she’d said about trust. He was going to get to the bottom of it and make her change her mind. 

“This is a professional offer. If you don’t trust me to be your team leader, you can say no, but I respect your skills and think you’d be a good fit on my team. I want you. Think about it and get back to me.” 

“Okay.” She bit her lip and rocked on her heels for a few seconds before sucking in a loud breath. “I want to tell you something.” Lifting her chin, Rome crossed and uncrossed her arms before finally meeting his eyes. “Okay, look. I built you a Ferris wheel. You can use it if you want. Or not.” Spinning around before he could respond, she began saving and shutting down the simulation on her computer.

“I know, thank you,” John said, patiently waiting for her to turn and look at him again. He didn’t have to wait long.

Rome jerked around, eyes wide and hands flying through the air accusingly. “What do you mean, you know? You couldn’t possibly know. It’s hidden on an isolated pier with no transporter access because I locked it down. Did you hack the transporter? I know that when you crook your finger Ancient programs roll over and start begging.” She poked him in the chest and frowned like a ferocious kitten. 

“I didn’t have to hack anything. You can see the corner of the Ferris wheel from the balcony of my new office, genius.” John smirked and captured her finger, raising it to his lips to kiss the tip. Since words had failed him he’d have to rely more on actions to win her over. He preferred to be a man of action anyway.

“Oh.” Fingers going limp in his hold, Rome’s cheeks flooded a beguiling pink. “They hadn’t opened up that tower yet when I first started construction. A miscalculation.”

Lorne had told John that they’d opened the tower and started moving offices less than a week after the command staff left for Earth. That meant she must’ve started construction almost immediately after their argument. It gave him hope. John felt his smile widening. He cradled her hand to his chest and stroked his thumb down the center of her palm. “I love my Ferris wheel. I’ve been fantasizing about taking it for a ride ever since I saw it.” His voice went from innocent to husky as he dropped his chin and watched her through his lashes. 

Rome’s breath stuttered and her hand twitched inside his fingers. The pink on her face darkened to red. “You are trouble, John Sheppard.” She gently tugged her fingers free and stepped back. “You lost your ticket to ride.”

“I’ll earn it back.”

“Ferris wheels can be dangerous.” 

“That’s part of the fun. The ride is worth the danger.”

“You can’t get off once the ride starts.”

“I won’t want to.”

“Expectations don’t always match reality.”

For the first time John faltered, not sure which of them she was referring to. He’d spent most of his life failing to live up to his family’s expectations. He didn’t want to add her to the list of people he perpetually disappointed. Unfortunately, he wasn’t good enough to hide his reaction. 

Her expression shuttered and any points he’d gained during their banter disappeared. She turned back to her computer and brought up a new program.

“Rome—” 

“I don’t need to think about the offer to join your team.” She bent over to write something down on her notepad, strands of golden hair falling forward to hide her face. 

There was a beat of silence before John’s paralyzed lungs found the breath to respond. “Yeah, sure. Okay.” Heart sinking, he shoved his disappointment down deep. “Then I—I guess you can send me those names and files to look over.” At least evaluating them would give him another excuse to talk to her, another chance to mend things. Feeling hollow and bruised, he reminded himself that tonight was only a temporary defeat. He’d make sure to win the next skirmish. 

Standing back up, she looked over at him. “Don’t look at me like that,” she rolled her eyes. “Seriously, John, you’re not a kicked puppy. I don’t need to think about it because the answer’s yes.” 

John blinked and stopped breathing again.

Snorting, Rome put a hand on her hip. “If you want the best of course you have to have me. I can figure out technology in situ instead of the knuckleheads you have tripping traps and breaking things. The stuff they bring back is barely useful half the time. Of course you want me. I’m a genius.”

Chest filling with helium instead of normal air, John’s heart flew up above the clouds. “I know.” He grinned. Knocking on the corner of her desk, he turned to go before he lost all restraint and messed things up by taking her into his arms, swinging her around in the air, and licking inside the seam of her lips like he was searching for the center of a Tootsie Pop. “I’ll see you for team training tomorrow at eight. I’ll send you the schedule.”

“Now wait a minute, I don’t want to do more training. Major McLean already frogmarches me into sweaty rooms way too often as-is. He never takes no for an answer. I don’t want more of that.”

“Too late. You’re mine now, Mckay.” Reaching the doorway, John sent her a cocky grin over his shoulder. “See you tomorrow for team training?”

“Oh, fine.” Rome gave a loud, put-upon sigh, but he could tell it was fake from the glimmer of excitement in her eyes. “See you tomorrow, Colonel.”

“Tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

“Rome was great in arms, in government, in law.”

GOLDWIN SMITH

 

Meredith’s life gets turned topsy-turvy after that, though a yo-yo might be a better analogy. She spends the next few months going on missions with Atlantis’s premier gate team. It turns out that going on missions as a permanent team member in Pegasus was completely different than the occasional trip through the gate to fix something in the Milky Way. Thank goodness for the experience Meredith had going out with Major McLean’s team because without that she’d have given up the first week. 

Along with blisters, she found herself enduring more boredom than she’d been subjected to in years. She’s not the star on these trips, she’s the accessory. Does she care about friendship rituals or the price of that pink corn that tastes like peach perfume? No, no she does not.

And yet.

Meredith is happier than she’s been in years. All that walking and fresh air (despite the potential allergens) has made her healthier than she’s been since getting her second Ph.D. And she’s lucky enough to live in Atlantis, the city of the Ancients, and regularly visits alien worlds. When not bored she’s feeling both exhilarated and challenged, discovering new things about technology, people, the universe, and herself. 

Her attempt to socially isolate herself with only knowledge for company has failed, but she can’t bring herself to regret it. She’s almost never alone anymore. It’s odd, but not bad.

First and most importantly there’s John and… well, she’s not sure what to think about John and how he’s upended her plans. She’s completely failed to hold onto her grudge. They see each other every day both for work and socially. She spends more time with John than she ever did with Troy even during the height of their marriage. It feels like she’s seriously dating John, almost like they’re an old married couple, only without any kissing or cuddling, much less more intimate contact. Not that there isn’t contact.

There’s a LOT of contact.

John never seems to realize how much and how often he casually touches her. The touching is something he’s done since he first surrendered to their friendship years ago and she’d missed it when they’d been separated and then fighting, but now he does it way more often than ever before. It’s hard to believe he’s completely oblivious to how often he takes her arm, puts a hand on her back, or touches her knee, but John has strange blindspots. He’d somehow overlooked her being in love with him for years, after all. She wants to demand he tell her what he’s doing with all the touching because it’s driving her crazy, but in the end, she keeps quiet. She doesn’t want him to stop. 

It’s safer not to think too much about what she's doing with John.

Instead, she thinks about how quickly her teammates, Teyla and Ronon, accepted her. Sure, they’re strange and deadly friends who sometimes seem to like her and other times seem to want to twist her into a pretzel with one hand while sharpening a knife with the other, but they’re still people who defend her and hang around her even when they don't have to, like in the DFAC or social lounges or harvest festivals on that planet with the blue roast beef and green potatoes. 

Man, she loves eating that stuff.

Anyway, for the first time in her life, Meredith feels like she has a community. The scientists have adapted to her command style and have mostly learned not to flinch during instructional tirades. She’s included in the gossip, betting pools, and weekend experiments to blow things up just for fun. 

Since Cohen forgave her mistake with the EpiPen, she rescued that team from the middle of a holy war on that planet, and then joined SGA-1, everyone’s gotten easier to get along with. Most of the military personnel either greet her by name or ignore her, which is a big step up from when they’d been actively unpleasant. 

People respect her and even, dare she say, like her. Some of them at least. The important ones. 

The naysayers aren’t worth her time. Most of the men probably have crushes on her and feel threatened by her intellect, leading them to pull her pigtails by acting insulting, but she can’t be bothered to learn their names so who really cares. Many of the women are jealous, but she can’t blame them for feeling inferior to her genius. 

Whatever the case, Meredith fits in here on Atlantis. Enough people are pleasant to make her happy. She hadn’t realized how long it’s been since she was happy.

And she’s not sure why she’s surprised, but Elizabeth Weir is wonderful to work with. Elizabeth’s neither harder or softer on other women, making you earn her respect but setting reasonable goals. Although not always happy about the crazy things John and Meredith have started getting up to both on and off the clock, she genuinely cares and can be persuaded to leniency and even support of a wild scheme with enough logical arguments. It’s refreshing.

Meredith has more than one friend here, which is extremely unusual for her. On the civilian side, she’s closest to Carson, Miko, and Radek, but there are others she finds herself talking to with pleasure instead of disdain or impatience, like the very pregnant Rachel Kushumba. Rachel’s never mentioned Meredith’s bout of uncharacteristic violence towards her baby’s sperm donor beyond a simple thank you for the help that day. Rachel’s headed back to Earth soon and Meredith knows she’ll miss their talks on Ancient engineering and life on Atlantis. 

There’s also the friendships she’s building with Ronon and Teyla and, in the military, there’s John—a very close friend again albeit a complicated one—and, of course, Kindall, who tracks her down regularly just to hang out. Even Lt. Cohen has become determinedly friendly despite their rocky start. Meredith will probably never be bosom beaus with King or Rigo (he is an anthropologist, after all), but they’re definitely allies instead of enemies and superior to the rest of the grunts on Atlantis.

Major McLean would never seek her out for social time—it isn’t the way their relationship works—but he takes her safety seriously. She’s stopped trying to avoid him since it never really works anyway. Once a week like clockwork they have a standing appointment in the gun range to practice her shooting. McLean secretly likes and respects her. Very secretly. He just doesn’t like to talk about his feelings out loud or smile. She suspects he thinks it might tarnish his big bad Marine reputation. 

When she’d first joined John’s team, McLean would randomly drop by training sessions with her new teammates. At first, she thought he was there to criticize her ability to pull her weight as a full member of a gateteam without him there to ride herd, but then John made a passing remark that made her realize that McLean was actually trying to make sure they were treating her right. It was sweet. Of course, McLean denied that that was what he was doing, but even after he’d stopped lurking, during gun practice he always asked probing questions to check if her team was looking out for her in the field or if he needed to readjust anyone’s attitude. It felt good to know he cared.

Taking time away from her research to go on missions hadn’t made Meredith less productive either, one of her fears. She’d learned to spend the hours traveling to villages and sitting in boring trade meetings mentally churning over theories. Since she’s a genius she can multitask, pondering the mysteries of the universe while still keeping up with the bantering of her teammates. When she gets back to Atlantis, it lets her dive right into the practical applications. 

Out in the field, she also gets to interact with bizarre and interesting technology that pushes her to the limit. It’s exhilarating. Solving problems isn’t just an intellectual exercise anymore, it’s a matter of life and death. John has complete confidence in her ability, which should be a good thing but also means he expects miracles as a matter of course and pushes and pushes until she delivers. He can be a complete bastard about it, which she should’ve expected but hadn’t. He dives headfirst into dangerous situations and just assumes she’ll be able to get them all out if there’s even a hint of technology nearby. It’s the downside to always bragging about being a genius. People believe you can do anything. But when she succeeds, John gives her this look of pride, gratitude, and awe with sparkling eyes and small smiles and squeezes her shoulder and it’s like a drug. She’s become addicted to it.

Meredith finds that she likes being believed in. She likes going out on missions with her team and even, secretly, sort of likes the adrenaline rush of danger and saving people. Several planets have called her a hero. There’s probably paintings and statues by now. They love her. And John, Teyla, and Ronon too, of course, but the point is, she’s a part of that. She’s not on the outside, she’s in the middle of it all.

Everything is going great. 

Except for the wooden box of letters in her bottom drawer that she still hasn’t read. Sometimes in the middle of the night she sits out on the balcony with the box cradled to her chest and watches the moonlight skipping over the waves. She listens to the mournful cry of nocturnal seabirds and feels guilty for not being more miserable. Even the nightmares about Manudia have become less regular, though they haven’t stopped. She thinks about reading the letters. Doesn’t. Eventually, she hides the box away again and goes back to pretending nothing bad had ever happened. Most of the time she’s good at pretending. 

And mostly her life is extremely satisfying.

But then there’s her love life. It currently has no life, or rather, is stuck in neutral no matter how she presses on the gas pedal or yanks at the stick shift. 

Sure, there’s that cute Dr. Kit Brown who, after a citywide lockdown trapped them in the botany lab together for hours, now openly flirts with her and has offered to cook her a meal in his quarters. It’s tempting to say yes just to prove to herself that she isn’t holding back for fear of another two-faced jerk like Seward, but she can’t relax into flirting seriously with Kit when she’s confronted with the sumptuous reality of John Sheppard every day. 

John put his heart out there for her to take and she choked. Meredith isn’t a coward, she’s just cautious. Despite how they’ve repaired their friendship and become joined at the hip, she isn’t sure John would make different choices if he had to do it all over again. If he got transferred out, would it be with another “So long” or “Good luck and goodbye” and no looking back? 

John had really hurt her with that video and his actions afterward. She’s forgiven him, but the fact remains that he could hurt her again. Sure, he was trying to keep her from being a miserable and lonely Army wife waiting for months or years for her man to sail into port, which was actually rather thoughtful even if, once again—it was her choice to make. Though John was Air Force, not Army or Navy, and they weren’t married, so it would be more like an Air Force Girlfriend, which sounded lame when she said it in her head. The point was, her first marriage had scored bloody furrows in her heart and she didn’t want to be hurt like that ever again. 

Having Troy try to convince her to give him another try had been flattering yet almost comical in how infinitesimally low his chances of success had been. However, having him betray her all over again by leaving her behind to be killed by the Wraith had been the opposite of funny. It had reawakened the pain and memories of how he’d fooled her so badly before and how stupid she’d been to ever trust him. Troy’s betrayal and the consequences of what she’d lost on Manudia had damaged her in ways she’d never get over. 

If that could happen with a husband, what could John do to her, whom she loved twice as much with fewer promises exchanged? And could she trust in John’s promises? She didn’t know anymore.

She’d never wanted to be one of those women who let loving a man interfere with her career or turn her into a bon-bon eating waterpot, but she could see it happening with John Sheppard. He made her feel irrational. He could destroy her. It was giving Meredith new nightmares on top of the usual line-up of Manudia, Seward, and the Wraith.

Nevertheless, John would never do to her what Troy had. Not in a million years. John didn’t feel threatened by her intelligence or title, and by having her join his team, he’d shown her that he didn’t want to control her or make her less. He admired her and encouraged her to push herself to be better and do more. He might argue with her until they were blue in the face, but in the end he supported and respected her decisions. John had a deep-seated need to protect her—which she heartily approved of up to a certain point—but he’d also asked her to be on his gate team and put her into danger because he trusted her to handle it. 

No, if John hurt her now, it would be because of new mistakes, not old ones.

Meredith loved John. Was she being too greedy in her demands for more commitment? Was she committing the sin of being clingy? But he might only want her now because it was convenient. Frustratingly, there was no way to know until she said yes to his kisses and something bad happened and then it might be too late to keep her heart from being crushed to a pulp. Unfortunately there was no way to only dip her toes in the water with John. At this point, John wouldn’t accept less than a complete surrender. She’d have to bare all her secrets. What if it made him think less of her? What if he reacted in the worst way instead of the best? What if he got her kicked off Atlantis? Or decided to leave her alone to find a better posting or better relationship elsewhere?

She didn't like being hurt. She didn’t like pain. Another betrayal like Troy’s could destroy her completely. How many times could she piece herself back together before there weren’t enough pieces left to find?

However, if she refused to compromise and waited too long she might lose out on John completely. Some other woman would snatch him up and kick Meredith to the curb, just like his first wife had, removing even the possibility of friendship. Then what would she do? Meredith wouldn’t be this attractive forever and she knew her personality was difficult. The power of positive thinking couldn’t override biology and physics.

It would help if John stopped flirting with her and made her feel secure with a platonic friendship, but it was looking more and more like platonic friendship might be impossible in the long-term. John kept touching her and laughing with her and dragging her around on his adventures and even putting her in danger where she was trusted to help out and she got to see him being all protective, demanding, and dominant and that intense version of John was extremely hot once she got past her intense fear of dying. John tempted her even when he was driving her up a wall. Her resolve was starting to crack.

Meredith didn’t want to compromise, but she was starting to wonder if the inevitable pain might be worth all she’d get to enjoy before everything came crashing down. She couldn’t help but daydream about falling asleep next to John in a comfy bed instead of the occasional couch, bunkhouse, barn, or wooded clearing. She’d love to have the right to wake him up with soft kisses, to slide into bed in winter to find the sheets already warmed by his body, to join him in the shower every morning after his daily run. 

Several times over the last couple of months she’d had to wake up early to deal with work or some repair crisis out in the city. If John caught sight of her on his morning run, he always swung by to check in on her. Seeing him flushed and sheened in sweat, smelling musky but not unpleasant, and feeling the heat he radiated like a furnace had made her temperature skyrocket, her pulse elevate, and things down low clench hard. 

It almost got her over her aversion to having people leaning over her shoulder, though John was careful to always announce his presence and never make her too uncomfortable, at least not in that way. He certainly made her uncomfortable in other ways. His eyes would linger on her lips when she talked and become heavy-lidded. It made her drop her tools and when she bent over to pick them up, his eyes would drag heavily down her body to focus on her legs and hips. She found herself picking things up very slowly. The look in his eyes was scorching. Hungry. They both knew what they were doing, but it was like a game of chicken where neither of them was willing to break first. Sometimes he left with a bit of a limp that made her feel both smug and wistful. Her breathing always took too long to slow down on mornings like that. 

The sexual tension was so thick that even Ronon sometimes said something and Ronon rationed his words like food in wartime. Showering had become dangerous because when she closed her eyes to rinse out the soap she thought about sharing the shower with John and the slide of soapy fingers over slick skin and started calculating if the size of the shower stall was really large enough for everything she wanted to try in there and if she’d have to take up yoga to improve her flexibility. Such imaginings made her complain less when Teyla forced her body into strange shapes during workouts. She already knew how amazing kissing him felt. She knew the feeling of his clenching shoulders beneath her hands, the slide of his soft lips and rasp of his scruff, of his hot breath fanning her the skin of her neck. She knew the sweet syrup of his seduction and the demanding nature of his passion. Making out with John Sheppard was practically a religious experience. Just thinking about it made her squirm. Naked kissing would be even hotter. She had no doubt that sex with John would make her neverending stream of thoughts turn into blissed-out static. 

However, it wasn’t just sex. If it was just physical she could take care of it by herself. She had a great imagination and the ability to fabricate toys to her exacting specifications. She didn’t need a man for that. 

This was more. She missed holding John’s hand when they walked side by side, the clasp of his fingers and bump of his hip when they drifted close. She missed snuggling under his arm while reading or watching a show. She missed how he’d lay his head on her lap during rambling conversations and she’d run her fingers through his hair. 

Meredith wanted more of John. She wanted to trust in John’s promises. But when she thought about going to John and telling him yes to everything (because at this point John had made it clear that he would accept nothing less than everything she had to offer), she flashed on her mistakes with Troy, the things she’d missed, the compromises she’d made, the stupid things she’d said and done in response, so many moments that she felt ashamed of and… she choked. 

Meredith had a track record of being bad at personal relationships, romantic and otherwise. Her thoughts kept circling back to the fact that she didn’t trust herself enough to not screw it all up and didn’t trust him to stay with her when things got difficult. It was easier to just do everything on your own than to be abandoned at the worst possible moment. Even if he didn’t want to abandon her, he’d still probably do it. After all, even Meredith had abandoned her most important person after swearing to put them first and stick around forever. 

Life wasn’t fair. Usually, that was a complaint, but there was always the chance it could get turned to her advantage. Maybe despite all her horrible mistakes and many justifiable fears, she could have good things whether she deserved them or not. Maybe her luck was turning around and she’d get to keep the job, the community, and the man of her dreams. Maybe she should just let herself be happy in the now and let the future take care of itself.

Chapter Text

“If I’m in Rome for only 48 hours, I would consider it a sin against God to not eat cacio e pepe , the most uniquely Roman of pastas, in some crummy little joint where Romans eat. I’d much rather do that than go to the Vatican. That’s Rome to me.”

ANTHONY BOURDAIN

 

“The meeting’s about to start,” John said from her elbow.

“Hm?”

“Rome, shut it down and get moving. C’mon. We have a mission briefing.”

“Just a moment,” she mumbled, trying to type out her final idea before she forgot it.

“I have plans for after this mission. You and me plans, but you’ll never get to see them if we don’t get going now,” John murmured cajolingly, shattering her focus and exiling her most recent thought into oblivion. 

Blinking up at him, she took her hands from the keyboard. “What?”

Smiling a secretive smile, John put his hand under her elbow, pulled her up, and closed her laptop, putting it to sleep. “Mission briefing. Starting now. Remember?”

Keeping hold of her elbow, John dragged her away to the briefing room, refusing to answer any more questions. When Meredith followed John inside, she looked around to see that they were the last ones to arrive. Teyla, Ronon, McLean, Kindall, King, Rigo, and Lt. Cohen sat impatiently around the table. Meredith sent everyone a wave. 

King was eating a handful of yellow and blue striped grape things, pulling them closer to her chest with a warning look when she saw Meredith looking. Kindall would always share his food but King was stingy and had to be in the right mood. Just in case, Meredith examined Cohen’s skin to make sure she wasn’t reacting badly to the alien fruit. Not seeing any hives or swelling, Meredith flopped down at the table.

“Why am I here for this? The reports said there wasn’t any advanced tech. You’ve already visited Biva twice and now that it’s been completely culled there’s no people or supplies left. Why do we have to go back?” Meredith patted her empty belly sympathetically and stared longingly at King’s striped grape things. “Except for that crashed jumper, there wasn’t anything interesting. My presence is pointless. I skimmed over the reports a few minutes ago, even the boring religious stuff about the cult of the mother goddess and how they put red braids on everything to represent the blood of childbirth and transformative nature of blah blah blah.”

John shrugged, his way of agreeing it was boring without actually agreeing and risking annoying Teyla or the soft-hearted types in the soft sciences like Rigo. “We did a cursory search, but we never checked out the route of their holy pilgrimage, which is a two- to four-day walk culminating at a sacred stone hiding their temple. It was early days then when Sumner was still in charge, so things were run differently. We hadn’t yet seen how many Ancient structures had been co-opted into religious sites by the locals. Lt. Cohen went on both trips to Biva with me.”

Lt. Cohen nodded as all eyes turned her way. “That’s right. On our first visit, we bargained away a box of spices in exchange for redolla fruit and information. That’s how we discovered the crashed jumper. The villagers kept bits of debris as religious relics and decorations in their local church. On our second visit, we came back for the promised redolla fruit and brought Dr. Forrester with us,” Meredith barely kept herself from reacting at the mention of Troy, “but since we got there right after the culling, we didn’t search much beyond the village itself and the focus was on finding survivors, not tech. I helped guard Dr. Forrester. He was only able to search the village and didn’t notice anything of interest beyond a few pieces of the crashed jumper.”

“Wait, you took Cohen to a planet full of redolla? Were you trying to kill her!” Incensed, Meredith glared at John.”What were you thinking?!”

Turning red, Cohen looked down. “None of us knew about the allergy then. Biva is where I first discovered I had it. I’m fine.”

Scrolling through the file on his tablet, Major McLean pursed his lips. “Mckay, if you’d read the file thoroughly before the meeting like you’re supposed to, you should already know Biva’s the place the expedition first encountered the redolla fruit. It says it right here.” He looked over at John. “What makes you think there’s something else there worth looking for?” 

“One of Elizabeth’s people just translated something in the database about there being a research lab on Biva,” John told them, making Meredith start in her chair and thumb on her tablet to check the files again. She hadn’t seen anything about that. 

Scrolling down, she scowled. Of course it had been the last file on the list and appended in a secondary directory. She’d been busy today and hadn’t skimmed more than the initial mission files. They should’ve put it first since it was the most interesting and relevant news. Meredith began reading the report.  

John continued. “The lab wasn’t located right next to the gate for security reasons. It supposedly focused on ascension research instead of weapons development, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be dangerous.”

Meredith nodded absently as she read. “Yeah, the Ancients had some pretty twisted experiments. They treated ethics and morals as mere inconveniences in the pursuit of knowledge.” She could sympathize with that urge but even she had limits.

Rigo cocked his head to the side. “So we’re going because there’s something interesting and relevant to us in the research they were conducting? Or because we hope they left a ZPM behind for us to take?” Rigo was an anthropologist and linguist trained by Daniel Jackson. He was gorgeous but just a little bit too slick and cocky for Meredith to trust. He couldn’t help but flirt with every woman he met. Case in point. “And is the lovely Lt. Cohen joining us? Because I know I’d feel safer with her guarding my backside.” He sent Cohen a wink and a dimpled smile.

Charmed, Cohen laughed but shook her head. “I’m just here to add any details the Colonel might’ve forgotten. I won’t be going.”

Leaning back in his chair, John nodded. “Our primary objective is the ZPM. Your job, Dr. Diaz, is to interpret anything we can’t and help us figure out how the people who designed the place think so we can get in and out safely. We’re going to take a jumper this time and two teams for the search. The facility is located in the mountains, so we could encounter cougar-crabs or other dangerous predators. We might also have to hike depending on where we end up landing.” 

“Please no hiking,” Meredith begged the universe. She knew the people in this room would have no sympathy. They were all obsessed with exercise.

“You should bring extra socks,” Kindall told her.

“And tampons in case Kindall wants a drink from a mountain stream,” King added, making Kindall heave a beleaguered sigh as the rest of his team laughed—including the usually stern-faced McLean. Meredith had once boasted about how she and Kindall had survived getting stranded in a jungle together by drinking muddy water filtered through her tampons. The rest of his team found it hilarious and teased him about it ever since. She didn’t think it silly. She was proud of her ingenuity.

Meredith decided to give them something else to focus on as she read the extra report. “So get this. The lab was built by a female scientist that—reading between the lines—wanted to help other women ascend but not necessarily her male counterparts.”

“That’s because Myshla, the scientist in question, felt that men were too ruled by their passions, especially her dirtbag ex-husband who spent all his time sleeping around with her nubile young research assistants before she divorced him,” said Rigo, wagging his brows. 

“That would do it.” King’s lips quirked.

Dimples out in full force, Rigo grinned back. “The entry about Myshla’s lab is actually a letter to her sister boasting about her work and begging the sister to get rid of her own deadbeat husband and come and join her. It also mentions that all of the research assistants are young and childless, though she doesn’t go quite as far as saying virginal, probably since her ex-husband took care of that for them.” He wagged his brows again.

McLean snorted. “Something you’re familiar with yourself.”

Rigo shrugged unrepentantly and lifted his hands in a what-can-you-do gesture. “There are so many lovely ladies out there, how can I deny them the pleasure?”

“Or yourself,” Meredith sniffed. “Anyway, the details on the lab are vague, but the letter mentions a door that keeps the unblessed out—whatever unblessed means considering this is a scientist and not a religious leader—and recalls the minds of the blessed to a selfless state only a step away from ascension, so we might need to be on the lookout for some kind of shield or energy field.” 

“Any other questions or intel on the lab or Biva?” John looked around. “Teyla, Ronon?”

Teyla shook her head but Ronon looked up from where he’d been twirling one of his many knives across his knuckles. “My grandmother told me stories of Biva’s mountain temple. Women who lost their children to the Wraith or sickness could go there to commune with the Ancestors and find peace in the memory of their lost little ones.”

“Oh, yes,” Teyla said. “I’d heard that story, but the location wasn’t mentioned by name. By the time I knew the people of Biva, the tradition must’ve been lost or become a secret. It was never shared with me.”

While everyone was distracted looking at Ronon and Teyla, Meredith managed to snag the final striped grape from King’s plate. Popping it in her mouth with a juicy crunch, Meredith quickly chewed and swallowed. Yum.

“Here, have this too.” King threw the stem at Meredith, hitting her right between the eyes and leaving a sticky residue down her nose. 

“Yuck.” Meredith wiped her nose on her sleeve. Picking up the stem, she tossed it at the trashcan. It missed and rolled to a stop by John’s foot. 

Raising her brows, she looked between John and the stem in a silent order. He raised his brow back and didn’t pick it up. His look clearly stated - I’m not your maid

John stood up and glanced around the room. “That’s everything then. Cohen, you’re dismissed. The rest of you, gear up and meet me in the jumper bay in twenty minutes.” Arching his brow, John looked at Meredith and then down at the grape stem before turning to leave.

Heaving a sigh as everyone filed out, Meredith picked up the stem and dropped it in the trash before following. Just outside the doors, John waited for her. He fell into step by her side. 

“You really think we’ll find a ZPM?” she asked.

Shrugging, John put his hand on her lower back and guided her out of the way of a squad jogging through the corridors. He kept his hand in place even after they’d passed. She thought of saying something out of principle since friends didn’t really touch like this, but the warmth and weight felt too good. Just like the other twenty times, she kept her questions to herself.

“It’s the best lead we’ve had in a while. We’re not as desperate as we were last year, but more power would still be better. Someone once teased me with the idea that Atlantis was originally made to fly. We have me to pilot, but she doesn’t have enough power to run the stardrive, at least not yet.”

Looking at the boyish glee on his face, the sarcastic retort on Meredith’s lips died. “I suppose that if anyone could fly Atlantis, it would be you.” 

Green eyes creasing at the corners with his grin, John’s hand tightened at her back. The expression lit up his entire face and made her feel a little stupid. Breathless, Meredith looked away. “When you say cougar-crabs, are we talking about cats the size of crabs? Because I like cats but not so much the crustaceans unless I’m eating them dipped in melted butter.” 

“Unfortunately not.” 

The thumb on Meredith’s back slid up and down, back and forth in a maddening caress. Since when was that area of her back such a big erogenous zone? The tingles emanating from his touch made her forget what they were talking about. “Not what?” she asked breathily, about five seconds away from hip checking him into the nearest closet and wrenching his face down to her mouth for some serious makeout time. 

“They’re not housecat small. They’re actually larger than an Earth cougar, about ten feet long tail to teeth and four feet high with large crab claws hidden in cheek pouches that shoot out when they attack to hold prey in place for feeding. They look like an ugly cousin to the Predator.” 

Mouth dry and knees wobbly for reasons no longer relating to lust, Meredith was grateful for John’s hand at her back keeping her steady. “And you think we might run into some out there?”

John guided her through the doors into the locker room. “I hope not, but we’ve seen them on multiple worlds with mountain terrain like that found on Biva. That’s why I’m bringing two teams even though we’re flying for most of the trip.” Seeing her expression, John gave her a small push and left for his locker. “We should be fine, don’t worry. Everyone’s got a gun and worse comes to worst, cats love you.”


It would be more accurate to say that Meredith loved cats. 

Most cats, that is. 

She did not love cougar-crabs, especially when they jumped off of an overhanging ledge, made her drop the first redolla fruit she’d eaten in months, flattened both Teyla and Kindall while knocking everyone else out of the way like bowling pins, and dragged her away kicking and screaming into the bushes. 

It might be love on the cat’s part, but much more likely it was just hunger. She did not want to die as some animal’s lunch. And what was it about Pegasus that made things want to eat her?

Meredith grabbed at a sapling and locked her arms around it as if her life depended on it, which it did. She jerked to a stop. She felt victorious for three to five seconds, taking into account skewed perception due to terror. 

Then the cougar-crab’s face pincers shot out from its cheek pouches and grabbed onto her tac vest, pulling the vest tight as the cougar-crab opened its maw and tried to gnaw through to her soft innards. Crying out, Meredith let go of the tree and tried to pry the pincers off but they were too slippery with spit. She was having trouble taking a full breath beneath the animal’s massive weight. 

If she got out of this she promised to never eat crab legs again. Or better yet, the next time she was on Earth she’d order tons and devour them viciously in celebration of outliving her foe. 

Please let her outlive her foe.

Sobbing, Meredith fisted her hands and slammed them down on the cat’s ears while kicking her steel-toed boots up into its underbelly and privates. The cougar-crab flinched, but it didn’t let go. It snarled and shook her using teeth and pincers while the front claws dug furrows on either side of her body. She was barely narrow enough to avoid being turned into noodles. 

She kicked again and tried punching the animal in the eyes. This time it didn’t even seem to notice. 

She was going to die.

Gunshots echoed through the trees. “Rome! Where are you? Rome!?” shouted John.

“Mckay!?” someone else bellowed.

“Here! John, I’m here, help!” she cried as loudly as she could with a ton of kitty-crab pressing her down. “Help!” She wanted to get to her gun but was scared she’d lose a finger or even the entire hand reaching past the head and claws to get to the straps on her thigh. Meredith’s torso was one big throbbing zone of pain but, miracle of miracles, the tac vest was still intact. 

The cougar-crab began dragging her away from the noise and down the mountainside. Movement meant she could finally take a full breath of air. “Help!” Meredith shrieked. She sucked in another lungful of air. “John!” Something tore at her waist. Her head cracked into a rock and made her eyes water.

Gunfire abruptly tore into the side of the cougar-cat. It jerked and spasmed over her legs, wringing another shriek out of Meredith.

 “Don’t shoot me!” 

Someone leaped down from overhead. Ronon. His boot slammed into the cat’s face, snapping one of the pincers off with a sound she’d heard at countless seafood buffets and ruining her enjoyment of such buffets forever. The boot kicked again and the cougar-cat’s other pincer and teeth finally detached from Meredith’s vest in a spray of saliva and blood. 

Please let it not be her blood. Stomach wounds had high rates of infection and pain. She was afraid to look down.

The cougar-cat screamed and rolled sideways, knocking Ronon down on top of Meredith and expelling all of the recently-regained breath from her body in a pained wheeze. Multiple guns fired. A knife flashed. Voices shouted, followed by a lot of creative swearing as the animal bolted into the trees. Gun leading, Ronon rolled off of her and disappeared into the trees. 

Meredith stayed flat on the ground and tried to remember how to breathe. She was in too much pain to really be dead. Her fingers bravely probed the spot over her belly. She felt torn fabric and globs of saliva and other gross things. She didn’t feel her own skin or intestines, so that had to mean no sepsis, right? However, everything hurt. 

Meredith’s fingers drifted sideways along the vest and she brushed against a blood-slick pincer. “Ew ew ew!” Screwing up her face, she pried it loose and tossed it away.

“Rome!” Wild-eyed, John crouched by her side and cupped her face in one hand. He checked both her eyes before sweeping his hand down her body to check for injuries. “What’s your status?” 

Pulling in a ragged breath, she knuckled her eyes and squinted up at him. “What’s your status? Well that’s nice considering I just almost—almost died!” She hiccuped. “I’m one massive bruise with a side of road rash. I just almost died, that’s my status.” 

Despite her crabby—er—irritated response, she couldn’t help the way her hand grabbed convulsively at John’s wrist and refused to let go. John rubbed his thumb across her chin and over her lower lip like a secondhand kiss. Her heartbeat kicked, despite barely starting to go down after the attack.

John shifted on his heels, shielding her eyes from the sun. “If you can complain, you’re fine. You’re safe now. Calm down.” 

Snatching her hand off his wrist, she hit him in the chest and grumbled, “You calm down.”

Snorting, John ran his hands over her face, tucking stray bits of hair sticky with sap back behind her ears and palpitating her skull. He moved down, gently examining and straightening her shredded tac vest with a hitch in his breathing but otherwise keeping his expression calm. His hands slid over her hips and down each leg, flexing them to check for injury while caressing her at the same time. Meredith appreciated the help and the touching, but it wasn’t helping her calm down or slow her breathing any. 

Finally done with his inspection, John slid his arm under her shoulder. “Let’s try sitting up. You said bruising, but does anything feel broken or do you have any organ pain?” 

Meredith whimpered as John raised her up. “My entire torso is in pain and I just almost got eaten by a cat that belongs in the movie Predator . Since we’ve been searching for hours on this cursed mountainside and not found anything, I think we should, in the words of Arnold, ‘Get to the choppa!’ Or the jumper. You know what I mean. Let’s go.” 

Cocking one eyebrow silently, John asked if she was ready to move. She grimaced but nodded, taking John’s hand and letting him pull her to her feet. She swayed but didn’t go down again. Her body throbbed with scrapes and bruises. “When we get back I want drugs, all the drugs.”

John kept one hand on his gun while wrapping the other around Meredith. She might be a proudly independent woman, but right now she was not complaining. John made her feel safe.

Ronon appeared silently out of the trees, making Meredith jump and almost pull one of the few muscles that wasn’t already screaming at her. “It got away,” he told them briskly. “I’m glad you weren’t eaten, Mckay.” Ronon clapped her on the back, making her gasp and stagger. She sent him a dirty look which he ignored. “But we should get back to the others. They’re too quiet.”

“Trouble?” John’s support turned into shoving as they pushed back up the mountainside to the trail they’d been following. Scraggly bushes and trees fought their climb. It had gone much faster when she’d been dragged down this same mountainside on her back.

Had it really only been a few minutes ago that everyone had stopped at an excited shout from Rigo? He’d supposedly found something interesting at the front of the group and crouched down to examine the cliff face. It could’ve been evidence of Myshla’s Ancient lab or it could’ve been some useless primitive tool mark. Rigo was an anthropologist after all. 

It was while everyone had been distracted watching Rigo that they’d gotten ambushed by the cougar-crab.

As they finally broke free of the bush and regained the trail, Teyla appeared out of the trees only a few feet away and moved onto the trail to meet them. Her hair stuck out untidily on one side and she had a rapidly forming bruise across her jaw. The gun in her hand lowered in relief. “Thank the ancestors you got to Meredith in time. The cougar-crab?”

“Escaped,” John growled.

Teyla frowned and Ronon grunted.

Meredith scoffed. “It got shot a bunch of times and Ronon kicked it in the face twice with his mammoth feet, breaking off a crab claw and causing who knows what kind of brain damage. If it’s not dead yet it should be soon.”

“They’re tough. I’ve seen one survive worse,” Ronon said.

Meredith stared at him for a moment before fumbling for the snaps holding her gun in place, finally getting them open so she could pull the pistol and hold it down by her leg. “Great, that’s just great. If it comes back, I’m going to shoot it.”

John grunted and squeezed Meredith’s shoulder. He moved up to Teyla, saying over his shoulder, “Good idea, just don’t shoot any of us in the process, Mckay.” 

She stuck her tongue out but he’d already turned away. 

“Where’s McLean’s team?” John’s eyes roved across the landscape suspiciously, rocky trail, cliff face, cloudy blue sky, and dark green forest. 

The air smelled of dirt and pollen and distant rain. Right now Meredith would welcome a hint of smog. The only animals who attacked from above in smog-filled streets were pigeons.

John activated his radio. “Major, this is the Colonel. Report, over.” Jaw clenching when there was no response, John tried again. “Is anyone there? Over.” Covering his mike, he released it and tapped it in a 3-1-2-1 pattern in case they couldn’t risk talking. He waited and then tried the tapping again.

Only silence answered him.

John reached for his LSD and then scowled at finding it gone. He’d passed it over to McLean to show him how to read some of the more unusual settings just before they’d been ambushed. The other Marine still had it.

Meredith looked around too but didn’t see anything. “Their radios could’ve been damaged in the attack. Maybe they’re around the bend in the trail? Though they should’ve come running to rescue me with the rest of you. I almost died!” Crossing her arms, careful to keep her gun aimed away from her teammates and her feet, she scowled.

Teyla cast her eyes around cautiously as she spoke. “When I got to my feet after the attack, Kindall lay unmoving on the ground. He was unconscious and bleeding. Captain King rushed over to him so I ran into the trees to help rescue Meredith. I shot off my gun in hope that the sound would distract it from the two of you. Cougar-cats don’t like loud noises.” 

“Smart.” 

Meredith jumped at Ronon’s voice directly over her shoulder and sidled sideways with a silent ouch as muscles and bruises twinged in protest. Despite being a big man, Ronon moved so quietly that she sometimes forgot he was even there. She’d actually gone to pee behind a tree a few times only to look up and find him standing right next to her about to whip it out. So awkward.

“I heard the others open fire and assumed, perhaps wrongly, that they were doing the same thing I was. I couldn’t see as I’d moved farther down the trail,” Teyla said.

John gestured at Meredith to stay close to Ronon as he stalked forward, the creases around his mouth deepening. “Something’s wrong. I could see the attack knocking out one or even two radios, but not all four.”  

Frowning, Teyla pointed to something on the ground and John gave a curt nod. “I see it.”

“See what?” Meredith demanded, trying to keep her voice low.

Coming up next to her, Ronon pointed to two parallel lines in the ground. “A big man was dragged away, probably Kindall based on what Teyla said, and there are Earth-made boot prints on either side, so it was his team dragging him. The real question is, who has his team and why aren’t they responding to the radio?” 

Scalp prickling, Meredith wiped a sweaty palm down her thigh and took her gun in a two-handed grip. “Maybe it has to do with whatever Rigo found just before the attack. Did you see?”

Ronon shook his head.

As they moved around the bend in the trail, they came across a scene of violence and a second, even larger cougar-crab laying on the trail facing away from them. Meredith squeaked and jumped behind Ronon. Blood spattered the ground. Claws and gunfire had gouged the dirt of the trail. The cougar-crab wasn’t moving. In fact, it looked dead, as if it had tried to drag itself off but died before it could get very far. A puddle of dark blood muddied the earth beneath its body. It was probably still warm, but she was not touching it to check. Remembering her gun, she flushed and brought it around, realizing that if it had actually been alive she probably should have tried to shoot it instead of just staring at it in fear. 

Gun extended, John nudged the cougar-crab with his boot to make sure it was really dead before stepping past and gesturing to the rest of them to follow him. 

Only a few feet away from the dead cougar-crab was the place where Rigo had been examining something on the rocky wall bordering the trail. The tracks led straight into the cliff face. John poked at the wall with his finger. “This bit isn’t rock. It’s some sort of metal. The scratches on the left edge look like they could be Ancient runes that’ve been plastered over. Some of the plaster has flaked away. Rome?”

Skirting around the cougar-crab’s body, huge and scary even in death, Meredith tucked away her gun and pulled out her tool kit. Teyla and Ronon fanned out on guard.

“Well? Can you open it? What does the secret door say,” John asked before she’d even finished kneeling down.

Speak friend and enter ,” she snapped crankily. “I just got here. Give me a minute to figure it out.” 

“You’re not Gandalf and I don’t have that much patience, especially if our people are in trouble. Hurry.” 

Cleaning dirt and plaster off the panel with a file and a stiff brush to make sure she was seeing all of the symbols, Meredith hummed thoughtfully. “Your ears are strangely pointed, Legolas. I’ve always thought so.”

John snorted. “I’m more of an Aragorn. You’d probably be one of the hobbits.”

“Except I’m not sweet, silly, or foolish.” 

“In the right circumstances you can be very sweet,” John said, voice dropping to a rumble that made tingles slide down her skin.

Maybe he was right about the foolish thing too because she’d just almost died and it made her think that being cautious was silly. She should just jump John Sheppard, take whatever promises he had to offer, and let the future take care of itself.

But right now really wasn’t the time to be thinking about that. 

Clearing her throat, she mentally ran through the translation again before sitting back and looking up at him. “It starts with a greeting to the blessed mother seeker. That could mean a seeker of mothers, a mother of seekers, or a seeker who is a mother. That last one fits what Ronon said about this place. You’d have to ask a linguist for a better translation. It then asks for the blessed one to show the beginning of the never-ending path to ascension.” 

John pointed to two symbols. “Zero and infinity?”

Shrugging, Meredith used her finger to trace the Ancient symbols on the panel. “That’s the most obvious answer, but it isn’t very clever.”

The cliff face shimmered and made a buzzing sound more felt in the bones than heard before it disappeared, revealing a dimly lit anteroom of polished stone. She didn’t see Major McLean’s team but that didn’t mean it was time to start worrying. She was pretty sure they were just somewhere deeper inside. Meredith felt the faint tug of Ancient technology at the edges of her thoughts. “I expected more from a scientist like Myshla. Let’s just hope she’s not as crazy as what I’ve heard about Janus.”

“Is it safe to enter?” John swept his gun around the room.

“Of course not.” At his look, she sighed and rephrased. “Probably?” she shrugged. “I mean, I don’t see anything obviously bad like the mangled bodies of our friends and you’re like a cat with nine lives who always lands on his feet, but not a crab-cat because we hate those now, so sure, go ahead.” 

Opening his mouth to answer, John stopped, huffed, and stepped forward into the room. Nothing happened. 

Meredith’s shoulders unclenched even as a drop of sweat slid down her temple. “See? It’s fine. Why don’t you try and turn on the lights?” 

“Why don’t you come in here and turn them on for me?” 

Swallowing hard, Meredith licked her lips and moved a single foot into the room. When nothing happened she moved the other inside. Walking over to the central pedestal, she circled it. “The light switch button has to be on here somewhere.”

“Isn’t that the symbol for light?” John pointed from just over her shoulder. 

Meredith jumped, flinching down and scuttling away, not expecting him to be there. Her heart pounded in her throat and cotton filled her mouth, making it hard to breathe. Her arms tingled.

Wincing an apology, John moved to the side of the room where she could see him clearly.

Sucking in a trembling breath, Meredith tapped the light symbol with shaking fingers and pretended to be fine. 

The ceiling lit in slow motion as if experiencing a sunrise. Like many Ancient structures, the room seemed unnaturally pristine after being abandoned for millennia. It was made of polished brown stone and about twenty feet in diameter, the size of a large master bedroom. The only structure in the room was a central pedestal. Columns of horizontal stripe lights lined the walls, similar to the labs in Atlantis. They always made her think of the PCR gels used by the chemistry and biology departments. As the light brightened she noticed that the brown floor was covered in bronze circles, triangles, and swooping lines in a pattern that led to the brightening archway across the room. The archway was made of stained glass in gold, copper, and cream. Instead of doors, the archway was filled by an energy field that reflected onto the floor like a shimmering puddle of honey.

Head tilting, John stepped forward to examine the energy field over the door. “Can you get this down?”

That’s when Meredith realized that the shimmering puddle on the floor wasn’t reflected from the door. It was actually shifting and glowing by itself and John was about to step right on top of it.

Hands shooting out, she grabbed the back of John’s tac vest and yanked. He choked and fell back on top of her, slamming her between his body and the central console before they dropped to the floor. Meredith wheezed. 

Being pressed that hard against John’s body was painful, not sexy. There went those daydreams. A barely scabbed over scratch on her thigh broke open with a stinging rush of pain. Adding insult to injury, as John rolled off his bony knee dug painfully into her calf. As if she didn’t have enough scrapes and bruises already today. “Ouch!” she cried.

“What was that?” John snapped.

“Me saving you, so how about a thank you? The floor isn’t solid. Aren’t pilots supposed to have 20/20 vision?” Meredith pushed herself upright with a whimper of abused muscles and pointed. “See the shimmer?”

Understanding dawned on John’s face. Taking her arm, he helped her up. “Thanks. Can you disarm it? Maybe McLean’s team ran in here to hide from the cougar-cat and fell into a trap.”

“Let me take a look.” Limping around the console to the side away from the shifting floor, Meredith popped a panel, pulled out her tablet, and connected it to the console before hitting the power button. The screen stayed dark. Shaking her tablet, she heard a rattling sound and noticed a fine crack along the edge of the screen. “Great, getting dragged through the forest and almost eaten broke my tablet.”

“Maybe I should try out the floor and the field on the door,” John said, eyes examining the other side of the room with laser focus. “My stronger Ancient genes might keep me safe.”

“Or the field might vaporize you into goo. Don’t you dare! I’ve got a secondary.” She pulled out another tablet, in the process discovering more broken and bent tools in her pack and vest pockets. Lips tight and unhappy, she laid them out next to her on the floor. She might have to try and use them anyway, depending on what happened next. 

“This tablet is smaller and lacking some functionality, but it should still interface and give me a look at the directory and base code.” Meredith pushed the power button and tried to hide how she held her breath until the screen lit up. She connected it to the Ancient console and began working her way in. She’d found that using the Ancient consoles directly was a lot slower and less intuitive than interfacing with an Earth-made tablet.

While she worked, John moved to the door to consult with Teyla and Ronon and then searched the room for more clues. At one point he crouched down, brows beetled, and dragged his fingers across the floor, drawing her attention. Looking down at his fingertips, he frowned.

“Did you find something?” she asked.

“Blood. They definitely came in here at some point.” Dark emotions churning behind his eyes, he stood and wiped his fingers off on his pants. “Hurry.”

Gulping, she returned to her screen.

Chapter Text

“I wanted to get across the idea that underneath Rome today is ancient Rome. So close. I am always conscious of that.”

FEDERICO FELLINI

 

Lips thinning, Meredith lowered her tablet and looked over at John. “Okay, there are several active programs right now. They’re interconnected and the biggest one is stuck in a loop, I’m trying to pick them apart to shut them down but the little programs keep resetting when the main program loops back again.”

“Are you saying you’re not smart enough to figure it out?” John sent her a skeptical and challenging look.

“No, I’m the smartest person in two galaxies! Of course I can figure this out. I’m just saying that it’s broken so I have to not only figure out what each program is trying to do but also fix what went wrong and turn off the ones we don’t want without disabling something that might be keeping us alive or containing something dangerous.”

Moving to stand next to her, John examined the symbols racing across her tablet and the Ancient console. “Then do it. Our people need you so figure it out.”  

“I am! If you would just leave me alone to—” ideas sparking, Meredith snapped her fingers and stopped messing with the loop to focus on isolating the floor program she’d already identified instead. If she could get the looping program to leave that alone, she could disable it and make the rest of the workload more manageable. “Okay, this might work. Let’s see what it does.” 

Squeezing her shoulder, John stood sentinel by her side and waited for his miracle. He had no idea how difficult this really was. Years of boasting had certainly come back to bite her here in Pegasus. Though when not abjectly terrified of failure, she rather liked being John’s miracle worker.

“Aha, so the floor program has two layers, not just one. I can only get to one right now.” Meredith wrote a bit of code and slid it in just before the main program looped, managing to shift the program she wanted into a new directory. “I just need to write a few… more… tweaks and… there. That part of the program should be deactivating in 3, 2, 1, now.” 

Meredith looked up. John stood with his feet apart and P-90 at the ready. The subtly rippling floor in front of the archway transitioned from opaque to a patchwork of translucent pale gold and clear geometric tiles. 

The area beneath the now-translucent tiles revealed an underground cell sheathed in white walls. All of their missing people were inside. About to sigh in relief, Meredith’s eyes shot to Kindall and she felt her lungs seize. Her friend was lying unconscious in the middle of the floor on his side with a knee and arm bent in the recovery position. A blood-stained bandage wrapped around his head and a thin emergency blanket covered his body. 

Both sight and sound now escaped, as they could hear Captain King talking. “—has to be a door here somewhere, there has to be.” She ran her fingers along the seam where the floor met the wall.

“We heard you the first four times you said that and no, there actually doesn’t have to be,” Rigo answered with stress and irritation from where he was crouched over searching the opposite corner. “This could be a death pit.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” John told them, kneeling down at the edge of the tiled energy field. 

Only three pairs of eyes snapped up to look at John and Meredith felt her stomach sink when Kindall didn’t even twitch in interest. 

“Sheppard!” Rigo fell back onto his heels and rubbed his face with shaking hands. “ Gracias a Dios!

“What’s your status?” John reached out to touch a flickering gold tile on the edge of the pit, immediately yanking his fingers back with a hiss and shake.

“You idiot, that could’ve killed you!” Meredith went back to working on isolating the floor program that had just shocked John. “Don’t do that again.”

“What’s your SITREP?” John called down, ignoring her.

McLean moved to stand beneath where John crouched. The underground cell didn’t look more than eight or nine feet deep. “We’re stuck. We got attacked by a second cougar-crab just after you disappeared after Mckay. Was that her berating you? Is she alright?” He went up on his toes and craned his neck to see around John, the energy shield’s gold tiles reflecting in his dark eyes.

Warmth filling her chest, Meredith lifted a hand off her keyboard to lean over and wave. “I’m here! I’m working on getting you out.” Seeing McLean’s concern made her renew her efforts at cracking the code. It was proving surprisingly and frustratingly slippery.

“Good.” McLean relaxed back onto his heels and turned back to John. “When you and Ronon ran after Mckay, we picked ourselves up and checked on the downed Kindall and Emmagen. She escaped with no more than a few bumps and bruises and jumped up to assist you with Mckay, but Kindall wasn’t so lucky.” 

Meredith’s heart skipped a beat and her breathing grew tight. Kindall was like a brother but much too nice and not neurotic enough to be a true Mckay. He had to be fine. “How bad is he?” She didn’t take her eyes off her screen, trying attack after attack that slid off the code in front of her like water off a pane of oiled glass. 

“Head injury with potential rib fractures and internal damage. He hasn’t woken up yet,” McLean reported tightly. “The second ‘cat attacked and since Rigo had opened the door to this place we retreated inside in case there were more of them. We were firing through the door and dragging Kindall back at the same time when the floor dropped out from underneath us. We landed in this cell. The ceiling reformed overhead, some sort of energy shield, and shocked us whenever we touched it, as the Colonel discovered for himself.” McLean tilted his head at John. “Our radios wouldn’t work and there’s no door that we could find.” 

John walked the edges of the energy field. When he paused in the center, the tiles shuffled, forming a golden path to the archway with clear sections on either side. John’s fingers struck out like a snake into the clear section. He jerked it back just as fast, obviously hurt, and fisted his hand with a grimace and slow exhale. “Any other injuries, Major?” 

“Nothing that won’t keep except for Kindall. He needs some serious medical care ASAP. His vitals are dropping and we’re not sure if it's shock or internal bleeding.”

“Right.” Turning, John strode back to where Meredith was feverishly working. “Where are you at on getting them out?”

“Stalled,” Meredith grimaced, hating to admit it. “I have it so the floor won’t pull ‘unworthy,’” she made finger quotes, “visitors in anymore and won’t go opaque and block sound, but that’s it. It would take me days or even weeks to brute force the rest of the programs, even with Miko and her entire department.”

“They don’t have that kind of time,” John told her evenly, staring at the side of her face expectantly.

“I know.” Abandoning her current efforts, and cursing the labyrinthine Ancient filing system, Meredith moved over into a completely different program directory and called out, “Hey Rigo?” 

“I’m here, Mckay. What do you need?” he answered.

“Although it's a waste of my talents, I’m going to read out some of the historical logs to try and figure out the purpose of this place. If you’re in a trap for the unworthy, what makes someone worthy enough to get through that door? I think that the door program is the one malfunctioning and glitching the rest. If we can get it to run to completion instead of looping when it hits the error, I think the other programs will turn off and let you all out of there. Let me know if anything I read makes sense to you.”

“Will do, Mckay,” Rigo confirmed.

Moving to the doorway, John called Teyla and Ronon and told them to listen in case they had any ideas.

Meredith’s muscles were stiffening up from the earlier attack and vociferously protesting at how she now stood hunched over her tablet and the console, but Kindall’s still, waxy features reminded her that she didn’t have much choice but to endure the discomfort. Not if she wanted to save him.

Over the next hour, Meredith read and debated the meaning and translation of a mind-numbing number of entries saved in the archives. Myshla’s lab assistants really were immature idiots. In the end, one idea stood out over the others: the mother seeker.

“I’ll say it again,” Rigo said doggedly, “you have to be a literal mother to get through. That’s what they’re talking about. Actual childbirth.”

“What if it’s a mental thing? There are women who adopt kids that are way more mothers than the person who gave birth to them.” King sounded like this wasn’t a purely theoretical remark on her part and like she was angry at her birth mother. Meredith didn’t want to know why. Thinking about King’s anger made her stomach burn with acid.

Rigo heaved a loud sigh. “Look, those records say that the mother seeker readies herself and goes through the door, remembers the sacrifice of mother-becoming— which uses concepts that are much closer in translation to childbirth than child-rearing—and then uses the lessons learned to break through to the next station of enlightenment, each step lifting her to ascension. All of Myshla’s assistants were screened to be virginal and unattached because Myshla’s research was about using motherhood to reach ascension and she didn’t want any of them to ascend before she did or disappear before she was done getting her use of them. We need a woman who’s given childbirth, thus physically and spiritually changing to become a mother, a mother seeking ascension.” He turned his frustration from King to Meredith. “You know I’m right, Mckay!”

Lips pressing tight, Meredith kept her gaze locked on her tablet. She couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes. “Maybe.” Her fingers hurt from how hard she was holding onto the edge of her tablet. She needed to be careful or she’d break this one too and be forced to type on the Ancient console directly.

John paced between the door and the prison cell. “I don’t think we have any mothers in Atlantis considering that the SGC screened this posting for the unattached and that sort of thing turns up during background checks. Well, except for the pregnant Dr. Kushumba.” Meredith opened her mouth to eagerly agree but John continued. “That might not count because childbirth hasn’t happened yet but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. I know Mckay said she thinks walking through the doorway and being recognized as worthy will short-circuit the loop, but I can’t authorize asking Kushumba to put both herself and her baby at risk if something goes wrong, even if she was willing to volunteer. There has to be another way.”

Sagging, Meredith tried for the thousandth time to turn off the force field over the holding cell. She failed. She tried to hack the looping door program. That failed too. It felt like she was hanging off a cliff over a turbulent and unforgiving ocean by her fingernails. Even if the fall didn’t kill her, she’d drown.

“If childbirth isn’t required, maybe being female with the potential for motherhood is enough,” Teyla suggested. 

“But I got trapped and I’m female,” King argued.

Ronon spoke up from the entrance to the room where he stood keeping watch. “King might’ve just been caught up with the rest of the men on her team.”

“Good idea,” Meredith said quickly, licking her lips. “Yeah, Teyla should try.” Meredith desperately hoped it would work. 

“I’m willing to try.” A few seconds later Teyla moved past Ronon to enter the anteroom. Looking around, she moved to stand in front of the cell below. The shifting energy field solidified at Teyla’s feet into a golden path leading straight to the stained glass archway. The lights on the arch brightened, casting gold, copper, and cream shapes across the ceiling and floor. Teyla looked over at John.

Lips pursing, he gave a curt nod. “Go ahead and good luck.”

The door program on Meredith’s tablet activated and started to run. New programs appeared out of sub-directories she hadn’t previously been able to access. Meredith dived through as many new areas as she could, trying to figure out the purpose of each program and how to inactivate them if necessary, but there were so many, too many. Despite that, Meredith found her attention split between Teyla and the symbols scrolling across her screen.

Shoulders straight and head held tall, Teyla carefully placed one foot onto the golden path. Meredith wasn’t the only one to breathe a sigh of relief when it solidified under Teyla’s foot and held, neither shocking nor dropping her. Teyla stepped out onto the pathway with both feet. Below her, McLean and Rigo had their arms extended to catch her if she fell and King crouched protectively over Kindall’s body. Slowly, step by measured step, Teyla made her way across the pit until she reached the stained glass archway. 

Reaching out, Teyla touched the honey-colored field filling the doorway. Her fingers glided over it, sending out a mental ripple felt only by those with the Ancient gene. The golden light made her hair and skin luminous as if she was a central figure of worship in a Catholic frieze. Teyla pushed her hand in to the wrist. 

Multiple programs activated on Meredith’s screen, but nothing obvious happened at the doorway. 

Taking a deep breath, Teyla stepped forward. Honeyed light coated her from head to foot. The golden light pulsed once, then twice, brighter and brighter until… something went wrong. 

The program on Meredith’s screen flashed an error and then a new subdirectory opened and activated more programs. “No no no, that’s bad.” Meredith frantically tried to shut them off, but electronic defenses stopped her every attempt.

The golden light dripped down Teyla’s body and seeped away into minute cracks in the floor, a flood of nanobots, leaving a grayish-green film over the once-honeyed doorway like rapidly spreading decay. Teyla went from looking like a goddess to looking like a corpse. 

Abruptly the light crackled and flung her backward out of the doorway. Teyla gave a shocked cry as she flew through the air. 

“Teyla!” John shouted as Teyla landed on her back on the glowing golden tiles in a sprawl of limbs. McLean and Rigo tensed to catch her but she didn’t sink through. Instead, the patch of gold energy under Teyla snapped up like a bucking bronco, flinging her towards the door. She hit the ground and rolled until stopped by the back wall. 

Teyla pushed herself to her feet with a hand on the wall, rubbing her hip. If she’d been a cat her ears would’ve been pressed flat and she’d have slitted eyes and fur standing on end. Tangled hair covered her face. Teyla flung it back with a snarl, her breathing rapid. 

The door program had resumed looping and all of the extra directories had disappeared, once more locking Meredith out. The golden path over the prison cell had disappeared too. Meredith shoved her tablet onto the console in frustration and turned to Teyla. “Are you okay? I wouldn’t be okay. That looked like it hurt.”

“Teyla?” John asked.

“It deemed me unworthy,” Teyla said, bringing her breathing under control as she glared at the once more honeyed door.

“Yeah, we got that message loud and clear. Did it hurt you?” Although part of Meredith was genuinely worried about Teyla since the other woman was her teammate and friend, it wasn’t a purely altruistic question. Meredith had a personal stake in the answer.

Rolling her shoulders, Teyla turned away from the door to look at Meredith and brought her expression under control. “No, I am well. I could feel the program reject me but it didn’t physically or mentally hurt me beyond throwing me around and even then, the energy field cushioned my impact with the floor.”

“That settles it,” John said. Movements jerky, he ripped off his tac vest and jacket, placing the jacket on his pack against the wall before buckling his vest back on over his black shirt. “I’m going to do what I should’ve done an hour ago and make a run for the jumper. I’ll call for help from Atlantis and see if I can’t find a closer landing site. Maybe we can get a mother to volunteer from one of our allies like Athos. The rest of you stay here while Mckay keeps trying things to get you out. Teyla’s in charge until I get back.”

Meredith hadn’t thought of getting a mother from somewhere else. Hope filled her chest.

“Kindall’s vitals are crashing. He can’t wait that long,” Rigo cried, reminding her of what was at stake.

“He’s going to have to. Just do your best. I’ll be fast.” John turned to go.

“Mckay hasn’t tried yet.” McLean’s deep bass voice filled the room like a peal of thunder.

Or maybe it had been lightning because Meredith felt for a moment like an afterimage—pale and insubstantial.

Distantly she heard John respond. “There’s no point. She’s not a mother and Teyla already proved that just being female isn’t enough. If Mckay breaks something being flung across the room like that, we lose what little chance we have of eventually cracking the program.”

“Mckay.” Just that one word in command, her name and nothing else, but Meredith’s body jerked like a puppet on a string. “I don’t know why they called you a Matriarch on Manudia, but they believed it. You believed it. Maybe that mental component is enough for this to work.”

Meredith couldn’t breathe. McLean had gone back to Manudia with her but he still didn’t understand. No one did.

John’s eyes shot to the side of her face. The weight of his interest was too much, like being thrust out into a blast of noonday sun with ninety-percent humidity pressing her down. Sweat prickled in the small of her back and beaded on her upper lip. The air dragged roughly over her tongue and caught in her throat. She shifted away from John to escape his eyes, but McLean’s implacable stare caught her instead. It felt like a trap closing. 

“Rome? What’s he talking about?” John’s voice sounded muffled in her ears. “What’s so special about Manudia?”

Meredith ignored him. She did not want to do this. 

She. Did. Not. 

There had to be another way, but… she’d tried. All of her genius had proved useless. She couldn’t find another way.

Like Meredith, McLean ignored John, speaking only to Meredith. “I know it’s uncomfortable but—”

A bark of sharp laughter escaped her throat. “You know nothing!” Meredith clenched and unclenched her hands by her sides, the pinpricks of pain as fingernails broke the skin making her feel more jittery, not less. Her voice turned pleading. “You don’t know what you’re asking.” 

She’d gotten a glimpse of the door program when Teyla had tested it. It didn’t just test for worthiness, it forced you to prove it by reliving your memories. Muscles shivered up her legs and back, prickling over her scalp, reawakening bumps, scrapes, and bruises. They hurt but nowhere near as much as the memories flooding her brain. Gibbering spectors clawed up from the abyss of her nightmares. She turned away from the memories, trying not to see, but there was no escaping her sins.

“Just what happened on Manudia?!” John demanded. “If there’s a way to save them I need to know!”

McLean kept his eyes locked on Meredith. “Maybe I don’t know everything, but you’re killing Kindall with inaction and cowardice. I know you care about him. Stop being useless, Mckay, and do your job. You have to at least try.”

His words landed like a sucker punch, the soft tone doing nothing to dull the pain or make it easier to breathe. She’d heard that exact challenge before—to stop being useless and do her job—just before the worst experience of her life. The experience they wanted her to relive. Meredith felt a hot tear escape to slide down her icy cheek. She hiccuped. She hadn’t even realized her eyes were welling. A bitter laugh fell from her lips, cutting like shards of glass. 

Rodney Meredith Mckay wasn’t allowed to be useless. Her mother had taught her well, followed by every other authority figure in her life. Her job was the evidence of her value. She should be used to chopping off pieces of herself and flinging them on the altar of work. What was one more piece?

And she was killing Kindall, the one man who’d never let her down. Even John had let her down. Why couldn’t she fall in love with Kindall instead? That would be more logical. Safer and smarter.

“Mckay—” 

“Rome—” 

Two voices in stereo, but she heard only one message: do your job , Mckay. Prove you’re not useless. Give us a reason not to throw you away, a reason to keep you around. Meredith tightened her lips to still their trembling but she couldn’t stop one corner from drooping down. The rapid beat of her heart fluttered like a trapped bird clawing to burst free from the cage of her skin. 

That last day on Manudia, her heart had raced even harder, but then again, being electrocuted would do that to you. She’d been lucky to survive. No one else she knew had. They’d died because of her hubris. 

She couldn’t let that happen to Kindall.

The scent of her sweat became nauseating. Her scalp prickled painfully. Breath rasped through dry lips. Nerves buzzed across her body and her fingers and toes started going numb.

Now or never.

She’d tried for never, but the universe had other plans. No matter how often she saved others, no one ever saved Meredith, not really. They took but never gave anything back. She always had to go it alone.

(—but what about—)

Always. Just like now.

John’s fingertips left a fleeting line of fire across her shoulder as he reached for her, just a shade too slow as she flung herself with grim determination across the golden path above McLean and Kindall’s too-pale body. She would do her job and she would save them. They would see her worth. 

(And her worthlessness.)

Damn them! Damn them all for forcing her to do this! And damn herself for being too smart to fool herself into thinking that the person to blame for the pain to come was anyone but herself.

Tiles of gold formed beneath Meredith’s feet as she ran across the pit and threw herself through the stained glass archway, one arm raised protectively in front of her face. She knew it was a useless gesture but couldn’t stop herself. The honeyed light caught her like a bug in amber and examined her with as much thoroughness as any scientist with a microscope, tweezers, and a burning question. 

She’d seen the program running when Teyla had tried earlier so she knew what to expect. The golden light surrounding her body blinked. Nanobots cascaded from the archway overhead to invade her body, scanning for signs of childbirth such as fetal microchimerism—fetal cells that lingered in the bone and blood for decades after giving birth. They transmitted their findings and deactivated. What didn’t slough onto the floor would be harmlessly flushed from her system within twenty-four hours. If she was still alive then.

The golden light surrounding her body blinked a second time, an unnecessary affectation that had nothing to do with the function of the program. Meredith disapproved. She didn’t have a lot of respect left for the Ancient scientist Myshla, though despite the silly dramatics the Ancient’s coding had certainly forced Meredith to participate in this experiment against her will. Ancients never did care much for getting permission for experimentation. Myshla’s style may not be sleek or sophisticated, but it was certainly effective. 

Just as well the woman was already dead. Meredith had a feeling she’d be wanting to kill someone for putting her through this again once it was finally over. She’d survived this once. She just hoped a second time wouldn’t make killing herself feel like a viable alternative.

The light blinked a third time. A feeling of crisp acceptance filled her mind. Meredith’s status as a mother seeker was confirmed. Check.

Everything flared to a blinding white. Meredith shut her eyes, but there was no escaping it. She drowned in the taste and sound of white light. The Ancient program knifed into her mind and cracked her open as easily and mercilessly as a diver shucking open a clam to extract a pearl. The next phase of the program activated, forcing her to fall back and through her memories.

Bitterness and fear dissolved. Into the mental opening a small and quiet part of Meredith bobbed to the surface, rejoicing at the chance to see her daughter alive again, to hold and smell her one more time. Then that too dissolved into the white. 

She was lost.

Chapter Text

“Only in Rome is it possible to understand Rome.”

GOETHE

 

Seven lights flared against the white, casting heat like bare lightbulbs near naked skin. One burned hotter and brighter than the rest, but the difference was irrelevant. Her light consumed all. All became white—a white that swallowed her down.

Meredith opened her eyes. She must’ve zoned out, she realized. She was sitting on the closed toilet seat in her apartment bathroom with a cellphone clutched to her ear, staring at the elaborately framed painting above the towel rack. It was a fox hunt by some famous British painter she didn’t care about. Men in bright red jackets and tall black hats sat on horses while hordes of brown and white hunting dogs teamed about their feet. 

It was a stupid painting for a bathroom, but Troy did all the decorating now that they were married because she didn’t care to go to the effort. Troy didn’t like his taste being criticized. It hurt his feelings. Since he was her husband and she was determined to have her marriage succeed, she tried to be a good wife and keep her criticisms to a minimum, though some days it was easier to bite her tongue than others. She didn’t have a lot of experience in biting her tongue. 

If it had been John, she’d have openly mocked the painting until they either took it down or only kept it up as a running joke. Not that she’d ever be in such a situation with John, who’d gotten married to someone else and stopped speaking to her because his new wife was more important than his old best friend. 

A-a-nd she’d promised herself that she’d stop thinking about John. Not only was it painful but it felt a little like cheating on the vows she’d made to put Troy first. She tried to keep that promise. Then again, what was one more mistake on a day like today? Feeling pitiful, she let herself wish John was here. Just for a moment. 

Stupid, useless Rodney. 

Just outside the locked bathroom door waited Troy, sitting impatiently at the table watching dinner go cold. How long had she been in here? She couldn’t remember. He’d probably given up on his proper British restraint at this point and returned to eating his food. Sometimes his idea of manners felt more like a caricature of what a well-to-do English nobleman was supposed to be than anything like reality. She’d known several Brits fond of talking with their mouths full while devouring a pub burger and whose idea of politeness was only flipping you off instead of cursing you out, but try telling Troy that.

“Hello? Hello?” The cellphone snapped her out of her dazed rambling. “Are you still there, Dr. Mckay?”

Meredith flinched, returned to the painful present, and pressed a hand over her eyes as if hiding from the light would hide her from this unwanted truth. “Can you repeat that?” Maybe she’d misheard the first time. She’d been under a lot of stress lately. That had to be why she’d missed so many periods. Not… this.

“You’re pregnant, Dr. Mckay. We ran the test a second time to confirm. You should schedule a follow-up visit with your primary physician or I can recommend a doctor. If you need to talk to a counselor, I have several we recommend,” the nurse said. 

“Okay.” Lips feeling numb, Meredith fought the tightness in her chest. “I need to think.” Dropping the phone to her lap, Meredith’s fingers fumbled across the keys for the hangup button before she remembered she could just flip the phone shut to turn it off. She closed it and dropped it into her pocket. The only sound left in the room was the whirr of the bathroom fan.

The phone buzzed with a message. She fumbled it out again. Maybe it was the doctor’s office calling back again saying it had all been a mistake, that they’d called the wrong woman.

Flipping open her phone, she found instead a priority email about an urgent gate mission scheduled for first thing tomorrow morning. They needed an engineer from her department to come along and fix something complicated, which narrowed the field to a double handful of qualified scientists. She’d probably send Blakestone or Hulinth. They’d been the stupidest lately and most deserved a crap assignment. 

She’d call them with the bad news. Later. Right now she didn’t think she could talk to anyone without crying and the last thing she needed added on to her reputation were rumors about her having emotional breakdowns on subordinates.

Standing up, she went to the sink and washed her hands. The harsh yellow light above the bathroom mirror was unforgiving. She looked like her mother. Her hands went white-knuckled around the edge of the sink, the only solid thing in her rapidly shifting world. 

Although she’d been feeling off for months, she hadn’t suspected pregnancy until she overheard a random conversation between two female scientists that morning in the Mountain. In a panic, she’d gone to her car and driven to the next town over. Her womb wasn’t the military’s business, at least, not yet. However, the blood test had just put the nail in the coffin. 

The woman in the mirror looked lost and scared, the confident mask she wore shattered in one blow. “It’s just as bad as you feared. The family’s accidental pregnancy curse strikes again, leaving no one unscathed: Grandma, Mom, Aunt whatsername, Jeannie’s call out of the blue, and now you, Rodney the useless idiot. What good are brains right now?”

Fingers trembling, she rubbed at her face and tried not to fall apart. Her panting breaths scalded her palms. What was she going to do?

A knock sounded at the door. Troy. She didn’t want to see him. Things in the bedroom were okay but as soon as they moved outside of that space things had been feeling brittle. She’d thought that their being in the same field would make things easier and it had at first. But after her promotion a couple of months after the wedding and their move to the United States, things had changed. 

Maybe she’d bragged a little too much. Maybe she’d picked at his insecurities when he’d failed to soothe hers. It seemed like everything she did was just slightly wrong and they were always competing instead of cooperating. She’d hoped a made family would be different from the one she’d been born into, that it would be a refuge instead of the same old battlefield. It wasn’t a comparison she liked to think about, so she shoved it down. She wasn’t going to fail at her marriage. Meredith was a winner. She should be grateful to have someone who wanted to be with her, to not be alone anymore. Things would be fine. 

Troy impatiently knocked again. “Meredith? You’ve been in there a long time and I need to use the loo.”

Feeling like her bones were creaking in protest, Meredith straightened up from the sink and turned to unlock the door. “Go ahead.” She brushed past Troy on his way into the bathroom. There was no tingle at his touch, hadn’t been for ages.

Sighing, Troy patted her on the head. “Go eat.” He ducked into the bathroom. He was only three inches taller than her, so she didn’t know why he always insisted on acting like she was so short. When he’d first started the habit she’d just shrugged it off, but they’d been recently married. She’d been willing to forgive a lot then, so determined to make her marriage succeed where every other relationship in her life had failed spectacularly.

Troy didn’t bother shutting the bathroom door all of the way, forcing her to listen to the splash of urine as he relieved himself. It grated on her nerves. The toilet flushed and the sound of handwashing followed. Also irritating.

Pacing the living room, Meredith clutched her hands behind her back and tried to marshall her thoughts. She could be rational about this. It wasn’t the end of the world. Sure it was an unexpected problem, but being a scientist was all about problem-solving. “You can do this and at least you’re not alone,” she told herself, trying to short-circuit the panicked flailing in her thoughts. Maybe a baby would actually improve her marriage. Wasn’t that what people always said? 

“What are you mumbling about?” Troy walked out, rolling down and buttoning his cuffs.

Planting her feet, Meredith sucked in a deep breath. She wiped sweaty palms down her sides and raised her chin. “I know we agreed we didn’t want any, but somehow there was an accident with the birth control and now I’m pregnant.”

Eyes widening, Troy’s eyes darted down to her perfectly adequate except for maybe a bit too much hot-chocolate and too little cardio belly. There was no baby bump. A second later his eyes narrowed and something flashed within their depths. A crooked smile grew on his lips.

“What does that smile mean?” she demanded. “Good, bad, indigestion?”

Clearing his throat, Troy turned away to fuss with the angle of the blinds. When he turned back, he wore a cool expression. “Well, even you aren’t perfect, darling.” The corner of his lip twitched up again until he flattened it. “We’ll just have to make do. At least that explains all of the complaining you’ve been doing lately about not feeling up to snuff. I’ve told you over and over that you’ve been working too much. This will give you a reason to slow down, finally start sharing all of those big projects with the rest of us, and focus on something besides yourself.”

Confused and stung, Meredith crossed her arms and resumed her restless pacing, kicking his house slippers out of her way so she didn’t trip. “I’m not going to slow down or give away my projects, don’t be stupid, and why is your housecoat crumpled on the floor again? I always trip on it.” Picking the housecoat up, she threw it into his favorite armchair.

Tutting, Troy shook his head. “Meredith, pregnancy isn’t some little cold that you can ignore. Your hormones are going to surge, making you think and act irrationally. In retrospect, I can see that it’s already starting. Decisions made based on hormones instead of logic can be deadly in our line of high-risk work. Not to mention that your body is going to rebel against the pace you’ve been setting yourself. You need to slow down.”

Meredith scoffed and kept pacing the apartment from couch to chair to kitchen window and back again to keep from screaming. The walls were paper thin and she did not need the cops called for a domestic argument that got out of hand. Once was enough. The next door neighbors hated them and were just itching for an excuse to get them evicted.

“Darling, this is a good thing for you. You need to take a break before you work yourself into an early grave. A baby is just what you need. It will make you happier and help you feel less anxious and insecure.”

“Why’s all this about me? What about you?” Stopping behind the couch, Meredith fisted her hands in the top cushion so tightly that her fingers sent out little shocks of pain. “And why are you being so patronizing? I thought you supported my work. I’m at the top of our field!” 

“As am I,” he shot back.

“Below me.” Glaring, she added, “And I didn’t make this baby by myself.”

“Of course not. I remember the process. I worked quite hard for it.” The corner of his mouth lifted, even though Troy usually wasn’t one for dirty jokes.

“You’re being weird about this,” she told him, removing her aching fingers from the couch and going over to the mail table to start pulling out the grocery and insurance flyers to chuck straight into the garbage. “I thought you didn’t want to be a father? You told me that over and over when we first got together. Was that a lie?”

“Of course not,” Troy said in a stilted tone. He adjusted the edge of his glasses. “But we all do what we have to do in pursuit of a greater goal. Now that you’re pregnant, you’ll have to stop working so much and devote time to being a mother.”

Meredith’s stomach twisted. “No I don’t.” Her head throbbed with a truly massive headache, maybe a migraine. It could be a migraine. She hadn’t thrown up yet with this pregnancy, but she might tonight. 

On TV, this was not how a husband reacted to learning he was pregnant. She wanted him to give her a hug and tell her everything was going to be okay, that they would make this work… together. She wanted her husband to make her feel better. Instead, Troy’s words were making her feel even more alone and panicky.

Shuffling through the mail, she roughly yanked out a lawn care flyer from underneath the water bill—as if people who lived in apartments needed lawn care! The thick cardstock sliced into her index finger. “Dammit!” Sticking the papercut into her mouth, the sharp copper taste making her stomach turn even worse, she crumpled the flyer, threw it onto the floor, and kicked it, almost slipping and falling in the process.

“Oh, now that’s mature,” Troy rolled his eyes. “You’re a mother now, not a big child. You better start changing fast.” He tutted and fidgeted with his glasses again. He always did the glasses thing when he was nervous or hiding something.

“What is your problem?” She rounded on him and stomped forward. “Just say it. Are you mad at me for getting pregnant?” She poked him with her wet finger. Ow. She hoped it hurt him worse.

“Of course not, darling. Calm down.”

“What then? Are you trying to hide that you wanted to get me pregnant?” she flung up her hands at the ridiculous idea, waiting for him to scoff and finally admit to whatever he was hiding. 

Instead Troy jerked his head down and fiddled with the edge of his glasses again. “Of course not.” He gave a fake laugh.

He’d just lied.

The ground became as unstable as a rowboat in the middle of a hurricane. She felt like she was on the cusp of drowning. “You wanted me to get pregnant.” Her voice came out wobbly. She rubbed her chest and shook her head. No. She had to be wrong. “But you’re the one who convinced me to switch to that new, stronger birth-control pill when I got the promotion. You even insist on picking it up for me each month because you complained that I always stay too late at work and miss the pharmacy closing. We agreed that kids are a bad idea with the type of work we do. When did that change?”

Troy took off his glasses, folding and unfolding them before putting them back on his face with a sigh. “It isn’t that I changed my mind about not wanting a child, Meredith, but more that I think you would benefit from having one. I love having you as my wife, but this obsession you have with always being number one is only making the both of us unhappy.”

“What?” Meredith shook her head. “I mean, yeah, we seem to be getting on each other’s nerves a lot lately, but that has nothing to do with me being number one. I’ve always worked this many hours and I had seniority over you when you married me. I’m the one who hired you into the SGC, remember? If you’re jealous of my genius, that’s your problem, not mine.”

Lips tightening, Troy’s nostrils flared. “I am not jealous of you. I am a genius in my own right and just as accomplished. If I’d had access to Ancient technology for as long as you have, I’d be the one in charge and my theories the ones in practice. You’re only senior because of luck and America’s dominance over the Stargate versus Britain’s.”

Meredith didn’t bother holding back the derisive snort and arch of her brow. If he wasn’t going to be nice then neither was she. “I’m on top, Troy, because I’ve always been smarter and better than you are and everyone can see that.” She narrowed her eyes. “And what can you do about that? Nothing, that’s wha—” 

“I got you pregnant, didn’t I?!” Troy shouted, features twisting. “You think you’re so smart but you never pay attention to what you put in your mouth unless it’s about your stupid citrus allergy!”

Her hands started to shake as a horrible idea popped into her mind. “What did you do, Troy? Just what pills have I been taking all these months?”

“Clomid.” Seeing her incomprehension, his eyes narrowed and everything about his expression went mean. “It’s a fertility supplement that also increases the chance of having twins. Try juggling that and making sure everyone still sees you as worthy of a Nobel Prize or Field Medal.”

Meredith barely swallowed back a whimper as her knees turned to water. She fell back against the wall. She really was going to vomit. The room spun like she was sinking into a whirlpool. “You got me pregnant to sabotage my career?” She shook her head back and forth, trying to process what was happening. She’d had no idea that Troy resented her that much. No idea. “You’re my husband. You’re supposed to love me, not betray me.” It hurt to breathe.

Straightening his cuffs, Troy looked away. “You’ll be better off this way. Happier. I did it for your own good as much as my own and I’m sure on our golden anniversary you’ll thank me for my foresight.” 

Pushing away from the wall, steaming with outrage, everything in Meredith’s world shifted and realigned. “You delusional dirtbag,” clenching her fists, she forced her lungs to draw in air. She needed the breath to set fire to the explosive words hissing from deep inside like oxygen from a gas tank. “You stupid bastard. I hate you.” 

Troy flinched. 

Good.

“You plotted and schemed against me for months, but in all that you were just as stupid and useless as ever, making huge and erroneous assumptions while betraying everything we had! I. Hate. You. Our marriage is over. Done!” Now they were both shouting but the neighbors could go and hang. “We aren’t going to make our first anniversary, much less our fiftieth! I’m going to ruin you and your career, the career you only got from riding on my coattails. You’re second-rate and everyone knows it and now you’re done. We’re done!” She bared her teeth at him.

“No we’re not!” Anger tightening his frame, mouth a cruel slash in his face, Troy forced his voice level. “We’re not done until I say we’re done. You’re mine, Meredith darling. You don’t get to leave. You’re upset about this, I understand, but that’s just shock and your hormones talking. You’re getting hysterical. Once you calm down and look at it logically, you’ll see that I’m right. Children are a normal part of marriage. The one at fault here is you for overreacting. Everyone we know thinks I’m a saint for putting up with you. Certainly no one else wants you. You know you’re useless and barmy. You need me and that baby gives me the right to be a part of your life forever, so sit down and get ahold of yourself.”

Tears stung her eyes but she refused to let them fall. “I don’t need you! I don’t need anyone! I never want to see you again!” 

Meredith grabbed her untouched dinner plate and threw it at Troy. CRASH! It hit the wall. Porcelain shattered and chicken and corn flew everywhere. Troy ducked with his arms up over his head. Undeterred, Meredith grabbed more projectiles. She missed with Troy’s empty plate and her plastic cup, though Troy’s cup bounced off his arm and splashed over his legs and chest. He dodged her fork but she hit him dead on with her spoon, smacking him square in the mouth and bloodying his lip.

Troy yelled in pain and stopped cowering. He grabbed the newspaper off the side table and threw it, hitting her left shoulder and sending her careening back from the table. “Stop it, you lunatic!” he shouted.

Snarling, she responded by scooping up his slippers. The first one she threw slapped against his neck, making him choke and cough. “You’re a second-place loser, Troy! You don’t have any right to me or my time! Nor the baby’s either! Besides, haven’t you heard of abortion, moron? I don’t have to let any baby ruin my career. I’m a modern woman!” 

“You’re my wife and you’ll do what you’re told! If you insist on acting like a nutter I’ll have you committed!”

“I’d like to see you try!” she shrieked, jumping forward and backhanding him with the other slipper. Troy’s glasses went flying. He cried out and stumbled back against the couch. He whimpered and clutched his face in his hands.

Dropping the slipper, Meredith gulped and moved back until her back hit the wall. “I—I’m...are—are you alright?”

Troy lowered his hands. A thin red line appeared on his cheek and began seeping blood. He gingerly touched his face and looked down. Seeing red on his fingertips, his head snapped up and he skewered her with an angry glare. “You bitch!” Troy raised his fist and lunged at her. 

Trapped against the wall with nowhere to go, Meredith dropped down, wrapping her arms around her stomach, hunching her shoulders, and slamming her eyes shut to make herself as small a target as possible. 

Troy’s fist just barely missed her. It sliced over the top of her head, his cufflink snagging her hair and ripping some loose just before his hand hit the wall. BANG!  

Eyes tearing at the pain in her scalp, Meredith looked up fearfully. Troy loomed above her, red-faced and wild-eyed. His fist was planted in a crater on the wall inches above her head. Bits of pale drywall speckled her face and chest. 

She looked at the crater and back to Troy’s face. That could’ve been her skull. She didn’t think he’d missed on purpose.

Troy followed her look and sucked in a breath. Stepping back, he moved unsteadily to the other side of the room and started to pace. “I didn’t mean… that. I’m not a violent man. You’re the violent one! You just make me so angry.” Cutting himself off, he dropped his hand to his side and flexed his fingers with a wince. They were flecked with white.

“I hope you broke something,” she told him threadily, rising to her feet and trying to hide her fear. She moved to put the couch between them, just in case. She wished she had a gun, not that she really knew how to accurately aim a gun despite the fact that she’d spent most of her adult life surrounded by soldiers. Her aim with tableware was probably better. 

John would be so disappointed in her for forgetting all his lessons. Thinking about how he didn’t want her around on top of everything else happening felt like being stabbed with a red hot poker, so she shoved him from her mind. She had enough pain with the current situation without adding to it.

Pushing hair off his sweaty face, Troy dropped into a crouch and began running his hands across the floor. “Look, let’s calm down. Don’t do anything else you’ll regret.” Picking up his glasses, he held them up to the light to examine them for cracks before sliding them on. They sat crooked on his face. His lips twisted with irritation. He tried bending the frame but couldn’t get them to sit straight.

“I won’t let you use this baby to manipulate me or make me less than I am. And the only thing I regret is marrying you and having you impregnate me, things I intend to rectify first thing in the morning.”

Troy took his time dusting bits of the drywall off his arm before looking up to acknowledge her words. “I won’t let you go, Meredith, and I won’t sign any paperwork ending our marriage. You need to accept how things are going to change. I took you as my wife and when the baby comes, I’ll take over your job so you can stay at home for a few years raising it. When you come back to work with me, things will be better. You’ll be happier. Be smart and don’t fight me on this.”

If Meredith ground her teeth any harder she’d pull a muscle in her jaw. “You haven’t even begun to see me fight.” 

Going to his armchair, Troy pulled on his housecoat, acting as if things were suddenly normal. He moved to the couch and sat down, leaning back to cross his legs. “Your threats are empty. You talk a big game, but inside you’re still that insecure little Rodney Mckay, unwanted even by her parents and desperate to be loved, desperate to even just be liked, begging for a place to belong and someone to recognize you.” 

Meredith felt like she’d been knifed. He hit upon all of her worst vulnerabilities. She tightened the arms wrapped around her middle, but they offered no protection from Troy’s cutting words.

Propping his chin on his hand, he arched his eyebrows at her and tutted, shaking his head. “Newsflash, little Rodney, no one likes you. No one wants you. No one but me. You belong here as my wife. To everyone else, you’re a disposable tissue, something they use and throw away. Think about your family and so-called friends, even your bosses and coworkers. Can you name one person who actually wants to be around you besides me? I’ll wait.”

She had to swallow twice before she could speak. “You’re full of shit.” She had to resort to crudites because all of her witty rebuttals had leaked out of the stab wounds in her heart before they could reach the tip of her tongue.

Troy tutted again. “You have no other option but to stay here, with me. As for your threat of abortion, you’d never do it because although you put on a tough front, inside you’re a bleeding heart for anyone close to you and it doesn't get closer than your own child. Just look at how you’re standing. As soon as you felt threatened, you wrapped your arms protectively around your middle and haven’t let go since.” 

Rubbing a finger over his lips, he smirked. “After a little thought, you might even find you like things better this way. I’m doing what’s best for us, for our family. Accept it gracefully. I’ve won and you’ve lost, darling. Now come and sit down.” He patted the spot next to him on the couch.

Her breath rasped in and out of her lungs. Painful. Grounding. Dropping her hands to her sides, Meredith walked at an even pace to the table by the front door. 

Troy tracked her with his eyes. The smugness drained from his expression, replaced by tension. 

Troy didn’t matter. She would survive this without him. Rodney Meredith Mckay might be many of the things he’d said, but one thing she was not and never would be was a stupid, worthless, loser

“You’re right in that I could never have an abortion,” pulling her shoes out from beneath the side table with her toes, she slid them onto her feet, “but there's always adoption or a live-in nanny or a hundred other options.” Picking up her purse, she slung it over her shoulder. She grabbed her coat off the hook on the wall, bumping into another one of Troy’s stupid British paintings—a ghostly warship being towed to retirement by a small coal-powered tug—and sending it swinging. She didn’t bother straightening it. “A woman being lost without a man is an old-fashioned and obsolete idea.” 

Troy jumped up from his chair. Meredith tried to hide her jolt of fear when he clenched his fists. He may be bigger than her but she wasn’t defenseless. If he tried to punch her again she’d hit him with her purse and go after his eyes with her nails. “Just where do you think you’re going?” he demanded.

She yanked open the door and stuck a foot out to make sure he couldn’t trap her inside the apartment while she got the last word. “Away from you, Troy. What is not and never has been an option is me becoming your servile little housewife. We were partners but that’s over. Forever.”

Straightening her shoulders, she felt her mouth twist with bitterness. “I guess you didn’t know that I’ve been working to get the SGC to create an independent department for you exactly like the one you were denied last year. It’s in the final stages of approval. I was going to take you out to your favorite restaurant to surprise you with the news, but I think I’ll just cancel all of those favors I promised people and tell them to nevermind instead.” She gave a hiccuping laugh at the look on his face. “I guess that’s the difference between the kind of surprises we give the people we love.” Her eyes stung with tears that she fought back with all of her might. She would not give him the satisfaction. She wished she’d never let herself love him.

A door down the hall opened a crack. “If you don’t shut up, I’m calling the cops!”

“Go ahead!” she shouted back.

“Meredith, wait!” Troy lifted an open hand and took a step forward. “Please, let’s talk about this.”

“It’s too late for talking. You should’ve thought of that before giving me those pills and trying to smash my head in with your fist.” She stabbed a finger at the dent in the wall. “We’re through. The only thing you’ve won with this stunt is my hatred because you’ll never have my job or my intelligence, no matter how much you try to handicap me. You’ve just lost the best thing you ever had, me!” 

“Meredith, come back inside,” Troy raised his voice and started forward with his hands raised.

“That’s Dr. Mckay to you.” She moved back into the hall, door in one hand. “And this is your boss giving you a twelve-hour emergency notice of a mission. Prepare to leave first thing in the morning to somewhere very far away and very unpleasant.” She slammed the door and took off running down the hall.

Troy wrenched the door open. “You can’t do that! You’re overreacting. Come back and let’s talk more about this. Meredith!”

Meredith quickened her pace and shoved out of the exit door. “I’m your boss, I can do whatever I want!” she shouted back as she raced down the sidewalk. “And if you don’t show up tomorrow morning, you’re fired!

“Meredith!” He shouted, popping out of the door.

Sprinting, she jumped into her car and slammed the door, hitting the lock button mere seconds before Troy grabbed the handle. He banged on the car, trying to get inside. Half-laughing and half-crying, she shoved in the key, hit the gas, and took off with a screech, leaving Troy behind the parking lot in his flapping housecoat. She was tempted to hit reverse and run him over, but getting away felt more important right now.

Just as well since a black and white passed her seconds later and pulled into the parking lot. The neighbors must’ve called the cops after all. Meredith tried to laugh about her triumphant escape, but all that came out of her throat were sobs. She drove to the Mountain through a layer of tears, almost crashing four different times and earning herself a near-constant symphony of car horns. She was probably lucky that the cops never reappeared. 

When she finally arrived at the front gate of Cheyenne Mountain, the baby-faced SF on duty asked if she was drunk and needed someone to take over the car and call her husband for a pickup. 

“I’m not drunk, I’m getting a divorce! Now let me in!” she shrieked, not caring that the gossip would be all over the mountain by breakfast. “And if you call my soon-to-be ex-husband to come over, I’ll kill him and make you wish you’d never been born!”

The SF stared at her with wide eyes before going back inside his booth and hitting the button to lift the gate. “Right, okay. Sorry.”

“I’m not.”

“Just make sure you go straight to the guest quarters. I don’t think you should be working with volatile equipment in your current state, begging your pardon, Dr. Mckay.”

Her current state. She gave a broken giggle and slowly pulled through the open gate, blinking back more tears as she carefully drove into the employee parking lot. She had a lot of work to do before she went to bed, rearranging mission schedules for the foreseeable future and switching people around to make sure Troy was kept far away. She’d probably owe a lot of irritating people favors tomorrow morning, but she didn’t care right now.

Hours later she finally gave in to the compulsion to call her sister Jeannie. They’d had a big blowout two years earlier and stopped talking to each other until only a few weeks ago when Jeannie asked for a detente because she needed to talk to her big sister. Jeannie had fallen to the family curse, discovering she was accidentally pregnant even though the English professor husband had wanted to wait longer before having kids. At the time, Meredith had been quite proud of how she’d nobly put aside a turbulent history of melodrama and pettiness to commiserate with her sister’s plight, though she might’ve mentioned once or twice or twenty times that she would never be so careless with her own uterus. It was rather embarrassing to think that she might’ve already been pregnant while saying that. Jeannie was sure to make a dig.

Yet no matter how much they fought over the years, her sister cared about her, just like she cared about Jeannie. Right? Meredith needed to know that someone out there honestly cared about her after Troy’s lies and betrayals. She needed one person on her side.

The phone rang and rang and rang. The answering machine picked up. Meredith hung up and called again. Finally it picked up. “Whu… Rodney? Do you know what time it is?” Jeannie rasped. 

“Jeannie?” Meredith’s voice dried up. She didn’t even know where to start. What if Troy had been right and Jeannie really didn’t care about her after all? “Um.” She swallowed hard and her vision swam. Maybe this phone call had been a mistake. “Nevermind.”

Pressing a hand hard to her eyes to try and trap the tears, Meredith went to hang up when she heard Jeannie’s voice through the phone, “What’s wrong? Don’t hang up.” Jeannie took a moment to murmur to her husband to go back to sleep. “I’m walking out to the living room. Okay, talk to me, Neyney, I’m here.”

The childish nickname for Rodney made a sob break from Meredith’s mouth. Tears trickled past her palm and onto her lips. It had been more than twenty years since she’d last heard Jeannie say that name. 

“You’re crying. You never cry. Do I need to kill somebody? I still have great-grandmother Madison’s rifle up in the attic somewhere and they’ll never suspect me because we’ve barely talked in years,” Jeannie sounded dead serious. 

Meredith hiccuped. The death threat was enough to jerk her from self-pity to amusement. Wiping her face, Meredith found a half-smile twisting her lips. “I’m claiming the name Madison first,” she told her sister abruptly.

“What?”

Opening up the floodgate, Meredith let it all come out. “The baby. My baby—or babies—there could be twins but I haven’t had an ultrasound yet. I just found out tonight. Troy switched out my birth control for Clomid and got me pregnant so I would quit working and promote him into my position. He expects me to stay home barefoot and pregnant and let him take over all my projects and research. He doesn’t want kids, but he wants to be better than me more so he’s willing to put up with them as long as they keep me distracted. I guess I wasn’t paying attention because I had no idea things had gotten so bad between us, not that it matters now. I’m divorcing him as soon as I can file the paperwork tomorrow morning and assigning him to a project as far away from me as possible. He says he loves me but he loves the thought of being in charge at work more, so he can sleep with his ambition and regret instead.” She hiccuped.

Jeannie hissed. “That rat-bastard. I’m definitely bringing the gun now, but even Troy being a backstabbing asshole isn’t enough to get me to give up the name Madison. I was her favorite granddaughter and the name is mine by right. You can have Jehosephat. I don’t want that one.”

Meredith snorted. “No one liked the name Jehosephat, not even Jehosephat. I’m not going to do to my kid what was done to me. That tradition ends here” She wiped her running nose and relaxed back in her chair. “We can fight about the name thing later. You don’t need to come. I just—I just needed to hear your voice.”

“You should come up here to visit. We can hang out and plot revenge together. I’m working on some theoretical work on subspace in my spare bedroom. You could look over my math. It’ll be fun until we start to drive each other crazy.” Jeannie sounded very accepting of their mutual prickliness, a sign of maturity.

“Maybe. Not now, but thanks. I have to figure out what I’m doing first. Soon, though. I think… I think I’d like that.” Meredith swallowed. “I wish you had the clearance to look at my stuff. You’d love it. Anyways, are you at the congratulations stage with your own accidental pregnancy yet? Should I say congratulations? I’m still at the raging stage and bitter at succumbing to the family curse, so don’t bother using platitudes with me.”

Jeannie sighed through the phone. “You can say congratulations. It’s not what we planned, but Caleb said he’s happy anyway and I did want to have children someday. I was thinking more like in three years, but kids were in the cards. So thank you for your congratulations and I’m sorry the curse hit you too. On a positive note, my Madison and your Rodney Jr. can now be best friends and complain about us to each other.”

“Or they’ll be mortal enemies,” Meredith said pessimistically. “But at least they’ll have a lifelong companion, so that’s something.” Glancing at the clock through burning eyes, Meredith noticed the late hour. “And on that note I’ll let you get back to sleep. Since I’m claiming the name Madison, I can only say that it’s very astute of you to want to name your daughter after a genius like me, but I beg you to name her Meredith instead of Rodney Jr. unless you want her to resent you forever.”

Jeannie snorted. “Don’t be silly. She won’t resent me because I’m going to name her Madison. Goodnight, Rodney. Come visit when you can. It’s an open invitation. As is my offer of great-grandmother’s rifle.”

Saying goodbye, Rodney flipped her phone shut, released a steady stream of air, and went to bed. She tossed and turned for the rest of the night, but if she dreamed at all during that, she didn’t remember it.

Chapter Text

“Rome is a place almost worn out by being looked at, a city collapsing under the weight of reference.”

GRAHAM JOYCE

 

“This is an abuse of power and you know it!” Loud and unpleasant, Troy glared at her from the other side of her desk, his arms crossed and hair unusually disheveled since he’d been too busy lately to get his usual two-hundred-dollar haircut, too busy going on back-to-back missions through the gate or fixing minor problems at the research station in Antarctica. 

It was good to be the boss.

Meredith didn’t bother giving him more than a dismissive glance before returning to her computer screen. Just looking at him too long made her temper flare and her head hurt. “As a senior scientist, you are fully qualified to examine and retrieve the Ancient device in question. If you don’t feel up to doing your job, you are of course free to quit and seek work outside of the program.” She chomped hard on her ginger gum, fighting the low-level nausea that was her regular companion these days. Being pregnant sucked. “In fact, I highly encourage it.”

Troy’s heavy breathing filled the lab. “You won’t get rid of me that easily, Meredith, but this is the last one. No more overnight missions after this. I have allies in the program and I am done with your little temper tantrum and abuses of power. When I get back we are going to talk.”

“Don’t count on it,” she said airily, not moving her gaze from her computer screen. He didn’t deserve her attention and she knew he found being ignored while talking unbearably rude because he’d complained about it often during their marriage. Ex-marriage. 

Her stomach clenched hard and Meredith froze. Acid sloshed up her esophagus.

“At least look at me while I’m talking to you,” Troy snapped.

When she spun her chair towards him, Troy nodded and crossed his arms. “Good, now let’s—”  

Meredith ignored him, reaching out to snag the trash can by his leg and yank it into her lap. 

“—just—”

Breathing through her nose wasn’t helping. Gut heaving, she leaned over and spewed the ginger gum and her breakfast into the garbage can. She gagged and spit again. After a minute of just breathing she finally felt stable again. Reaching for the box on her desk, she grabbed a tissue and wiped off her mouth and watering eyes. 

“This sucks. You suck.” Looking up to glare at Troy, she found herself alone in the room. He’d fled while she’d been distracted vomiting. “Who needs him anyway, right? Not us.” Wiping the moisture from her eyes again—merely water from throwing up and not tears, she assured herself—she popped in another piece of ginger gum even though it was probably useless. Tying off the garbage bag, she put in a new one just in case and pushed the whole thing to the back corner of her desk with her foot. 

Then she returned to work.

The next day, Meredith got an urgent order to report to O’Neill’s office asap, so she closed her computer and went over. “Dr. Mckay, take a seat.” He gestured to the chair in front of his desk. “This’ll be quick.” He was pecking at his keyboard with two fingers. 

Cringing at his glacial typing skills, Meredith sat down and shifted from side to side and front to back, trying and failing to find a good position on the chair, which was horribly uncomfortable. Knowing O’Neill, probably on purpose. “What can I do for you, Colonel?” 

“We have a gate team stuck in a foreign structure. They left their geek outside exploring and wandered inside, tripping a trap that slammed down the door, and trapped them inside. The trap seems to have used up the last of the power in the complex. Luckily they’re not hurt. The geek’s out of ideas to get them out and the natives have started rubbernecking so I need one of your people to get the door open.” He pecked at his keyboard twice more and leaned back. “I sent you the reports on what we know about the place.”

“I’ll get one of my minions to go fix it.” Meredith pulled up the reports on her tablet and started skimming. When she got to the pictures of the panels they’d found inside the structure before getting trapped, she zoomed in and felt her stomach drop. “This is a mess. Some other civilization has integrated their primitive tech into Ancient tech, adding and taking away parts willy-nilly. I’m surprised any of it worked.” Her mind spun over her available people and their skillsets, discarding person after person. “We’re going to have to splice in a generator and wade through two sets of technology just to fix it up enough to get the door open again.”

Looking up at O’Neill, she bit her lip. “Can’t you just blow the door down?”

He gave her a sardonic look. “I’m not the big bad wolf and that door isn’t made of straw. We can’t bust it open without risking killing the people inside.” 

The pictures were more helpful than the words in the report. What they showed wasn’t good. “There’s only a handful of people who could fix this mess. Is Carter available? She could do it.”

O’Neill shook his head. “She’s elbow deep in another mess right now. What about you?”

“Bad idea.” Meredith shrunk back in her seat and crossed her arms surreptitiously over her middle, fluffing the muumuu she’d taken to wearing under her lab coat. She felt the sensation of a bubble of gas moving in her intestines. She’d read that that meant that the baby was moving, but she had one more week to pretend it was only gas before she hit the deadline for when she’d promised herself to suck it up, report the pregnancy at work, and take the career consequences. “Troy—Dr. Forrester’s already out there. He can gate over from his current job.” 

“Why can’t you just go, Mckay?” O’Neill tapped his desk and raised a brow at her. “Aren’t you smart enough to fix it?”

“Of course I’m smart enough to fix it.” Stung, she shut down her tablet and shoved it into her bag. “That isn’t the issue.”

“Then what is? Because my people aren’t getting any younger in there and it's your job to fix that.” He stood up and looked down his nose at her. 

Since looking up his nose was just as unpleasant as the chair she was sitting in, Meredith popped to her feet. Seeing his implacable expression, she started gesturing. “Okay, look, this isn’t something I want getting around, but I guess I have to tell you but I don’t want you gossiping about it, you hear me?” She pointed her finger at his chest threateningly. 

O’Neill pursed his lips, looking unimpressed. “I’m waiting for you to make sense.”

Growling under her breath, Meredith started to pace. “You probably heard that Troy and I separated, but the reason is that he sabotaged my birth control and got me pregnant to tank my career and usurp my job. I was going to report to medical next week but I guess you get to find out early, so surprise!”

“You’re—” Eyes wide, his gaze jerked down to her stomach, which was bigger but mostly hidden by the muumuu.

Nodding jerkily, she swallowed. “Yeah. And I’m an anxious person already so this just adds to it by a factor of ten. I don’t want to go through the stargate like this. I mean, I know other cultures do it all the time, but I’d rather not if I don’t have to. So I want to send Troy, okay?”

“For crying out loud, Mckay.” Looking uncomfortable, O’Neill threw up his hands. “I don’t care about your relationship details but you need to tell medical about stuff like this. But fine, okay, let’s go call Forrester for this one.” He walked around her like she was now carrying a bomb instead of a baby and opened the door for her, a courtesy he usually ignored. 

Up in the command center, O’Neill got Sgt. Siler to open a wormhole to Troy’s location. 

The whoosh of blue light made her feel vertigo for a moment, so she looked down and counted the buttons on the panel in front of her, reciting the function of each, until her body settled. Stupid pregnancy. This kid better be a genius like her mommy. Meredith was never doing this again (and wouldn’t have done it the first time if she’d had a choice).

Sgt. Siler called through the open wormhole on the radio. The woman who answered had to go and locate Troy, who was down the valley and inside the Ancient structure. After a minute, a knock came at the door. Sgt. Siler excused himself and stepped out into the hall to deal with it, so when Troy finally got on the radio it was just her and O’Neill in the booth.

“This is Dr. Forrester.” 

Just hearing his voice made her fists clench. 

O’Neill leaned forward towards the microphone. “This is Colonel O’Neill and Dr. Mckay. We want you to pack up and go to P4X-542. There’s a team trapped in an Ancient building that needs extraction.”

“If it’s urgent, why can’t Meredith go? Dr. Mckay should be qualified for such a situation and I’m a four-hour hike from the gate here. Besides, I’m halfway through opening a console and can’t just leave it like this.” Troy sounded frustrated and impatient.

Putting her hand on the console, Meredith leaned towards the microphone. “Look, Troy, you know full well why I can’t go. Take some responsibility and go and get those people out.”

Troy’s voice went sharp. “You can’t do something because you’re pregnant? So you admit that I was right. Are you ready to quit working and take care of yourself and the baby then?”

Grinding her teeth, Meredith breathed through her nose. “Of course not, but this pregnancy is your fault. As this baby’s sperm donor, make things easier for us and go on the mission.”

“Easy? I switched out your birth control because I wanted you to get pregnant and take it easy and you thanked me by sending me on every crap mission and serving me divorce papers.” His outraged voice abruptly softened, turning almost sweet. “If you want it easy, darling, then you can have it. Just take a sabbatical from your position when the baby’s born, recommend me as your replacement, and withdraw the divorce. As soon as you agree, I’ll grab my pack and leave.”

Meredith’s blood pressure skyrocketed.

Eyebrows lowering, O’Neill gave Mckay a grim, sideways look. “So you weren’t exaggerating,” he muttered.

“Of course not.” Glaring at O’Neill in lieu of Troy on the other side of the galaxy, she huffed and wrenched the microphone to her lips to growl, “You manipulative little gremlin, I’m not agreeing to anything. Do your job and get going.”

Troy’s tone became clipped. “If you aren’t going to be reasonable, Meredith, and if you value your position over fixing our relationship, then you can make your bed and lie in it. You want to be the job? Then go and be the job, since you’re useless at anything involving actual human emotion.”

“You’re the one who destroyed our relationship so you could get ahead at work, not me!” She was so mad she could barely see the blue-white glow of the active stargate through the window.

“Doctors!” O’Neill barked, reminding them of his presence. “This isn’t Divorce Court on TV. You can fight later. Right now, I need one of you to go and save my people.”

Troy cleared his throat. “Of course, Colonel. You heard the man, Meredith. Stop being useless and Do. Your. Job.”

“Fine.” Chest heaving, fingers shaking, and rage and fear see-sawing along her spine, Meredith gave a curt nod. “Fine. Stay there and rot. Mckay out.” Leaning forward, she stabbed the button to hang up the radio and then typed in the sequence to disengage the stargate. “Fine.”

O’Neill frowned at her. “You sure you’re up to this?”

“Of course, I’m a genius. I’m sure I can figure out that door without too much difficulty.” Standing up, she shoved her still shaking hands into her pockets. “But if I decide to corner him in a dark alley when the two of us get back to Earth, I hope you’ll agree to look the other way.”

Huffing once, O’Neill grimaced. “I won’t look away. I’ll join you in the alley and help you teach him a lesson. What a piece of work….” Shaking his head, he trailed off and joined her at the door.

As they left the room, Meredith thought about what she’d just agreed to do and scrubbed a hand over her face. She’d only been through the gate less than a handful of times and not for anything even remotely dangerous. “How do you want me to do this?” At least her voice sounded in control instead of on the verge of panic.

“Grab whatever supplies you might need and then suit up in the locker room. I’ll requisition a uniform for you. A team will be coming along for protection, so just focus on doing your job and they’ll do theirs.” They reached the elevator and he punched the button, keeping his eyes on the doors straight ahead. “Do you want me to send a doctor along? I can, though gate travel should be safe for—ya’ know.” He gestured at her middle awkwardly.

Rolling her eyes in scorn to keep from screaming at the unfairness of the universe and soon-to-be ex-husbands, Meredith made herself scoff. “No thanks. I know how the gate technology works and it should be safe. I am the resident expert, after all. Genius here! I’ll go and rescue your people from their stupidity on my own, but you’ll owe me one for this. They should’ve known better than to ignore their so-called geek and go wandering in abandoned structures like pimply boy scouts.”

O’Neill snorted, following along until a stern-faced captain came trotting up to join them. His darkly tanned skin and the slant of his dark eyes made her think he had Polynesian ancestry. “Mckay, this is Captain Mena. His team will take care of you and get you to the trapped team. Do what he says.” 

Transferring his stern look to Mena, O’Neill ordered, “Captain, I want to see her back here without so much as a scratch, understood?”

Captain Mena saluted. “Yessir!”

“Good.” As O’Neill walked past Meredith, he touched her arm fleetingly. “Be careful, thanks, and good luck.”

Lifting her chin, she curved her lips up confidently. “Who needs luck when you have skill? I’ll see you soon. This shouldn’t take too long.”

The next few hours passed quickly. 

Meredith changed into an off-world uniform that bit in at her rounding waist—so much so that she had to secure the top pants button with a rubber band, which was luckily hidden by the utility vest that went on top. She and a group of Marines then went through the gate, met the waiting Dr. James who’d been left outside, and trudged up to the Ancient structure, settling in to work. 

The structure had a large antechamber with a central door flanked by two large openings high on the wall that must’ve been windows at some point. The place seemed more like an Ancient trading outpost than a science lab, explaining why the technology didn’t require the Ancient gene sequence to operate and how another civilization had managed to integrate their tech into it, though their tech felt like preschoolers with building blocks in comparison to the Ancients’ elegant construction.

Captain Mena kept to her like a second shadow, keeping back with a stern glare the group of locals who hung around watching her take apart the mysterious machinery in the abandoned building above their village. 

After the first couple of hours, the spectators got even larger when a group of four traders came through the gate and joined the rubbernecking, pulling out playing cards and bags of nuts that smelled like candied pecans to snack on. It made her hungry. The watchers showed a rudimentary grasp of engineering as they took bets on what she was doing or would do next. If she didn’t need her hands to be completely clean as she pulled apart the hundreds of filaments in the walls, she’d have demanded a bag for herself as a pay-per-view fee.

One of the traders, in particular, kept catching her eye. Moving in as close as Captain Mena would let him, the exotically handsome and distinguished-looking man watched her with a steady intensity. When she switched from patching the corroded gears, valves, and hydraulics to confidently dive into the hundreds of delicate wire filaments connected to a lattice of Ancient crystals, he jumped forward, only stopped by Captain Mena’s firm hand on his chest shoving him back. 

Stumbling into his friends, he grabbed the nearest one’s arm and shook it vigorously. “She understands the God machines!”

After that, whenever she glanced up from her work he’d catch her eyes and grin, a look of appreciation and even, dare she think it, desire on his face. It made her want to show off even more than usual. He seemed intelligent, explaining in impressed tones to his companions as they chomped nuts what she was doing with the secondary hydraulics system, which had been added by some idiot at some point in the past. He sounded lost but even more admiring and excited when she spliced together the Earth generator and the Ancient equipment. It also helped that he was easy on the eyes, with thick black hair trailing past the high collar of his tunic, golden skin, magnetic dark eyes, and a plush bottom lip that looked soft and inviting inside the frame of his neatly trimmed mustache and beard. 

After the stress of recent months, soft and inviting was exactly what her life needed. 

It was the first time she’d found a man attractive since her marriage to Troy imploded. Not that she’d ever see the handsome trader again after she got the door open and returned to Earth, but it was fun letting a small thread of her consciousness contemplate giving him a private moment to fully express his admiration of her talents while the rest of her brain worked on the problem of combining into a working whole the technological components from three vastly different civilizations.

After soldering a small bit of wire, she raised her aching eyes and blinked around the room. The light had gone dim. Cracking her sore back, Meredith looked at the nearest Marine. “Did you somehow not notice the big bright ball in the sky disappearing? Sun go down, room go dark? If you want me to keep working you need to get some electrical lights set up.” Her bladder chose that moment to shoot out an S.O.S. and she stood up “You have until I get back.” 

Striding to the exit with Captain Mena as a shadow, she practically ran down the hill to the bathroom. It wasn’t like she’d been drinking much, but her bladder had become much more demanding as her belly grew larger, forcing her to take more frequent breaks. The pregnancy was already impacting her work. She tried not to think about what she’d have to put up with after the birth. She knew she’d have to do research and face facts on that, but only in the final trimester when it became unavoidable.

When she finished using the primitive toilet and cleaned her hands, Captain Mena tossed her a lemon PowerBar. “Eat something, Doc.”

Recoiling, she let the yellow bar hit her chest and fall to the ground instead of catching it, sending the man a scathing glare. “Do you want me to swell up and die! Causing that trapped team to die? Because I’m allergic to lemon!!” She stomped back to her worksite.

Mena easily caught up to her, a muscle ticking in his jaw. He held out another bar, brown this time. “Sorry, Dr. Mckay, I didn’t know, but you should still eat something. How about chocolate?”

“I’ll take it.” Ripping the bar open, she crammed half into her mouth and gave him a thumbs-up without looking over. She really was hungry. Her belly growled, demanding more sacrifices. She took another bite. After taking a swig of water from her canteen to wash it down, she looked around at the electrical lights the rest of Mena’s team had now strung up around the room she’d been working in and frowned. 

The handsome trader had disappeared along with most of his friends. The one trader that had stayed perked up at seeing her return, but she didn’t care about him. All of the townspeople who’d been watching had taken off too, probably going home for dinner or getting bored because their small minds couldn’t understand her awesomeness.

Yawning, she closed her eyes for just a second. Behind her eyes everything was white. The other lights surrounded her and watched, a part of her but not her. One of the lights fought the meld and tried to pull her out, tried to get himself out. He failed. 

Opening her eyes, she found Dr. James standing only a couple of feet away staring at her with hands clasped beneath her chin like a wide-eyed orphan outside a bakery window. It was creepy. “What?” Meredith took a step back. 

Dr. James was the geek who’d been left outside while her team tromped into a trap. She seemed soft, overly anxious, and a little too eager to please, so much so that Meredith had stopped letting her help after the first half-hour because the woman agreed to do everything Meredith asked of her even when she didn’t know how to do it, creating new and annoying problems to fix in the process. Her team leaving her outside collecting samples while they went in alone made a lot more sense after having met her. Meredith wanted to get away from the woman too.

“How much longer do you think this is going to take? I’d like to update my team through the radio.” Dr. James had a very breathy voice. Meredith found it really annoying. 

“I’m close, probably not more than an hour as long as nothing else goes wrong.” Meredith’s stomach lurched unhappily, informing her it didn’t like the chocolate power bar anymore. Turning her face away, she swallowed hard and stuffed the last piece into her pocket. Her stomach gurgled and settled.

Meredith returned to the exposed machinery, which now resembled an eviscerated robot from a horror movie with the metal ribs of hydraulics above and the milky-white cords of bundled ancient filaments pulled out below like a spill of intestines. John would mockingly scold her for torturing poor Bishop, but as long as there wasn’t any Alien queen trapped behind the doors with their space marines she wasn’t too worried. 

Once power was restored to the room, the filaments should have a pale blue glow. 

That’s what she needed to focus on, and not what John would theoretically say if he was theoretically here instead of doing hot yoga with his hot wife or flying helicopters in the Middle East having forgotten all about Rome. John didn’t need or want their friendship anymore, didn’t need or want Meredith. For a genius, she sure was dumb when it came to men. They never prioritized staying with her. Their career, comfort, and other relationships always came first. Always.

Handsome trader came back into the room with twice as many friends as before, distracting her from things she shouldn’t be thinking about. The large group of traders seemed to make Sgt. Mena unhappy, but Meredith sent them and handsome trader a welcoming smile. She didn’t mind having an audience to her greatness. Handsome trader tossed his hair over his shoulder and smiled back toothily. It was a little intense, but maybe he’d developed a crush on her. 

Splicing the final wire in less than an hour later, she turned to the Earth generator, took a deep breath, and turned it on. The hum built slowly. Meredith watched the energy readings on her tablet. When the connection held steady and the wires in the walls turned from milky white to translucent blue as predicted, she grinned. The resistance on one of the hydraulics looked a little high, so she pulled out her third and last can of lubricant and greased the area again, leaving the can out in case she needed it again. 

She ran the system through a test. The readings hovered on the edge of yellow, but it only needed to work long enough to get the door up and the team out. Everyone just needed to move fast.

“Here we go,” she told everyone. Activating her radio’s all-call channel to include the team trapped inside, she started typing commands. “I’ve powered up the area to open the door. Wait five seconds before going through to make sure it doesn’t immediately slam shut on one of you. If it stays up, immediately start running through since those ancient hydraulics won’t last more than a minute at most. That means sixty seconds. Understand?”

The team leader inside instantly responded. “Yes, ma’am, wilco.”

“You only got them a minute?” Dr. James stared at Meredith with dismay. “That’s all you can do? I thought you were the best?!”

“I am the best!” Meredith scowled and felt a vein in her temple throb. “Did you see what I had to work with? You couldn’t even get the wall panel open without me. A full minute is a miracle.” Huffing she turned her back. “Here we go, initiating the program in three-two-one-go.”

The gears and hydraulics inside the wall began turning with a loud squeal, even with the two and a half cans of industrial-grade lubricant she’d cleaned and coated them with. The door cracked away from the wall. With a spurt of panic, she saw the third gear on the lower left developing a hairline crack. Before she could get too wound up about that, one of the ancient crystals flashed a bright, painful white. Blinking away the afterimages, she saw it develop a shadow and turn cloudy. 

The readings on her tablet spiked and the door ground to a stop with only a few inches of gap. Pressing her lips tight, Meredith typed in a new string of code, rerouting power, forcing the other crystals to take the extra load, knowing that if even one more of them went out the doors would slam shut again and make the next repair even longer and more difficult, if not impossible. 

But that didn’t matter because this was going to work! Meredith would make it work. Failure wasn’t an option when lives and her reputation were at stake. She finished typing in the new program and hit execute

The door started moving again with the wheeze of an overweight asthmatic forced to take the stairs, revealing the three waiting Marines leaning forward on the tip of their toes. The big one in the back stood almost a full head above the rest with the body of a rhino. The gap widened to about a foot wide and stalled again, the whining pitch of the machinery stabbing at Meredith’s ears. Power readings arched into the red.

“One, two, three, four—” Meredith counted out loud even as her fingers typed in new commands. She couldn’t risk opening the door any wider without breaking something. They’d have to make do. She locked the current door settings into a holding pattern. Glancing over, she saw that the crack in the third gear had grown, moving towards the interlocking tooth holding the door open. The readings on her tablet jumped to the edge of yellow and red. “Five! Go! Go!”

“Strip!” the trapped team’s leader called after evaluating the narrow gap. The Marines slid out of their packs and vests, using up precious seconds. Sucking in, the first Marine began squeezing out of the door. He got through with only a little trouble but then the second one got stuck. 

“This is taking too long,” Meredith called, checking the countdown.

Two of Mena’s Marines jumped forward, grabbing the trapped man’s arm and leg and yanking hard until he slipped out, ripping his shirt and scraping red welts across his chest in the process. Meredith winced, but better hurt than dead. 

The readings on her tablet jumped into the red and the Earth generator began making unhappy crackling noises. “Go faster! Faster!” Meredith yelled. The door groaned and narrowed by an inch. 

She felt herself start to hyperventilate as the final Marine—the rhinoceros—tried to go through and instantly got stuck. The crack on the third cog had reached the tooth and she could see the metal starting to bend. If it snapped, the Marine would be crushed to death right in front of her, but there was nothing more Meredith could do. She was powerless.

Noticing Captain Mena standing taut as a violin bow by her side, Meredith pointed at the rhino and cried, “Help him!” 

Mena jolted, looking at her wildly before glancing down and snatching up the bottle of lubricant at Meredith’s elbow. He ran forward with the bottle extended and began spraying down the trapped Marine’s chest and back as soon as he got close enough. The rest of the men pulled frantically at arms and legs. 

Beneath the terrified cries of the trapped Marine and the shouting of everyone else she couldn’t hear the gear snap, but she saw it break into three pieces with crystal clear clarity.

Expecting a spray of blood and viscera as the Marine was crushed, she instead saw the handsome trader lunge past, pull a thin piece of metal out of his pocket, and jam it in next to the gear before it could shift more than a few millimeters. It slowly bent. He pulled out a second piece of metal and jammed that in too in a different place, exactly where it would do the most good. Her mind hiccuped when she categorized the metal as of Ancient make and not iron or steel like she’d expected based on the trader’s clothing. 

The big Marine finally popped free just in time. A second later the first metal shim snapped—revealing Ancient internal circuitry—followed closely by the second. Crystals overloaded with pops and clouding and gears and hydraulics cracked. The door slammed shut, locks automatically clunking into place. Steam and the scent of scorched lubricant clouded the air. That door wasn’t opening again anytime soon. 

The rhino lay twisted on his side with one foot hanging in midair from where the door still had hold of his boot laces. Blood and lubricant coated his hairy chest, his shirt hung off one shoulder, and the waist of his pants was twisted and ripped. The other soldiers sprawled around him like knocked-over bowling pins. With a loud sob, the rhino dropped his head onto the shoulder of his nearest rescuer, threw an arm around his neck, and started to bawl. 

Everyone was laughing and shouting and Meredith was so, so relieved. Typing a few quick commands, she shut down the Earth generator and any systems that hadn’t already broken. She’d done it.

Abruptly feeling lightheaded, she sagged sideways and found herself caught in the strong arms of handsome trader. He pulled her firmly against his body. Beaming up at him, she patted his chest. “I did it! I saved them!”

“Yes, just as you will save us.” Eyes as sharp and opaque as obsidian, the handsome trader pulled her back towards the exit. Something sharp pricked the side of her neck. 

“Ow!” She tried and failed to jerk away. The grip around her waist tightened and he forced her arms down by her sides. Their pace quickened and her toes dragged helplessly across the floor. The group of traders surrounded Meredith, hiding the celebrating Marines from her sight.

“Stop! What are you doing? Let me go-oh….” The world turned woozy. “Help!” she gasped as the man and his friends dragged her away into the night. The stars smeared into spaghetti noodles overhead. She was released for a second only to be slung over a shoulder. It dug into her stomach. A distant corner of her mind felt panic that they’d hurt the baby, that they’d take her somewhere and kill her, but soon coherent thought slid through her fingers and scattered like ball bearings. Through slitted eyelids she saw the bright, white-blue wash of an open stargate and then everything went dark.

Chapter Text

“I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”

AUGUSTUS CAESAR

 

Meredith woke up in the middle of an argument. 

“Ava—”

“No, Julian! This is wrong! I know things are looking grim, but you can’t just go around kidnapping people.” It was a woman’s voice. Something clinked, sounding like a cup set down too hard. “Mother would be ashamed of you.”

“I wish to God that she was around to be ashamed, but she’s not!” A man’s heavy breathing filled the room. “She’s dead. Just like the rest of us will be if we don’t get the God machine fixed.”   

Meredith opened gummy eyes and blinked at a pale green ceiling. The bright glass globe in the center looked like an electrical light. Her mouth felt more disgusting than a seventies shag carpet in a bathroom. She needed to vomit and pee at the same time. 

Gently turning her head, she saw the no-longer-handsome trader and a dark-haired woman that looked similar enough to be his sister. The trader had exchanged his clothes for a severe-looking suit and jacket. 

“Ava, this woman is our last hope. The council has agreed with me. It’s done.” Noticing Meredith’s open eyes, he turned away from his sister. 

Voice going from sharp to soft, he knelt down next to Meredith’s bed like some concerned boyfriend instead of a crazy kidnapper and gave her a smile. “Good, I’m so glad you’re awake. I’m Julian, Dr. Julian Aquila, President of the AEC.” He tried to take her hand but she moved it away.

“And her? The nice one?” Meredith’s voice rasped painfully. She winced and swallowed, rubbing at her throat. 

Julian hesitated. “My sister. Ava.” Shifting closer, he forced a brighter smile onto his face. “Welcome to Manudia, Dr. Mckay. How do you feel? I’ve been worried.” Despite being forced, the smile made him look handsome and approachable. It invited trust.

What a snake. 

Glaring at his traitorous face, Meredith pushed herself up into a sitting position. “You kidnapped me. Next time I vomit, I’m aiming at you.”

He leaned back but otherwise didn’t move away, his smile turning into a concerned frown. “The effects of the sedative should wear off quickly. Nausea isn’t a common reaction, so if it persists you must tell me so I can take you to our doctors. Your health is important to me.” 

“I don’t need your witch doctors and the nausea won’t wear off because it’s a horrible side-effect of being pregnant!” Whoops, she hadn’t meant to say that. Well, here’s hoping the idea of torturing a pregnant woman gave him pause. “Now let me go home or else my people will come and blow your planet up! That is if I don’t do it first!” 

Meredith threw off the blanket and swung her feet off the bed. Unfortunately, she failed to hit Julian with her boots, though she did knock into the side table hard enough to send the glass of water there spinning onto the floor and under the bed. Ignoring the puddle beneath her boots, Meredith looked down to take stock of herself.  She felt a flutter of relief that they hadn’t undressed her while she’d been unconscious beyond taking off her tac vest.

“You’re pregnant?” 

Meredith glanced up to see the lines at the corners of Julian’s eyes deepening as he stared at her middle.

“Julian, this is too much, you must see that.” Ava held her hands out beseechingly.

Meredith felt a moment of hope when he hesitated, eyes going dark, but then he shook his head sharply and threw back his shoulders. “That doesn’t change anything. She’s obviously not that far along. My plans and orders remain the same.” 

Ava’s shoulders rounded as she looked away.

Meredith’s heart dropped when Julian met her eyes implacably. “Let the pregnancy inspire you to work quickly, Dr. Mckay. I’ll get you regular doctor visits while you’re with us, but the sooner you fix the God machine, the sooner we let you go home to your husband.”

“Ex-husband, not that it matters, because you can’t just keep me here!” she cried. The sharp stab of pain from her bladder distracted Meredith from the panicked circling of her thoughts. She jumped up and shifted from foot to foot. 

“You’ll find that I can.” Julian’s lips went thin and pale like prison bars.

Meredith would’ve argued more, but she was about to burst. She turned to Ava, who at least seemed sympathetic. “I have to go pee. Now.”

Casting a quick look at her brother, Ava gestured to a small door on the left. “The toilet’s in there.”

Rushing, Meredith slammed the door and locked it, pivoting to the toilet even as she frantically undid the rubber band and buttons at her waist. When she dropped onto the toilet, it felt like a dam had burst and the pee would never end. She clenched her hands on her knees and looked around. 

Any hopes she had of escaping from in here were quickly dashed. The small room was only the size of her car. It held a toilet, sink, and a tiny shower stall.  The level of technology and construction could’ve been a bathroom somewhere on Earth in the mid-1900s. There was no window to climb out of, no big vent in the ceiling to wiggle through to the outside, just four solid walls. Action movies had totally lied to her about how easy it was to escape the bad guys.

After flushing and washing her hands, she gulped down some water from the sink and looked at herself in the mirror. Her face looked pale but surprisingly normal. Inside she was a jittering, panicking mess. Her mind spun like a hamster on a wheel, trying and failing to figure out how to escape from this situation. Trying not to think about things like torture and pain. She needed more information and she wasn’t going to get it in here.

Opening the door, she forced herself to rejoin Julian. Not seeing Ava anymore, Meredith swallowed hard and looked around. “Where’d your sister go?” 

“She is not needed for this discussion.” 

That felt ominous. Julian held out Meredith’s tac vest and waited while she shrugged it on. They’d probably taken out anything that might be used as a weapon or for communication. She’d just have to get creative. She was a genius, wasn’t she? There had to be a way to outsmart these guys and get away.

“Come, Dr. Mckay, and I will show you why you were brought here. I am not a cruel man, merely desperate. I’m an engineer, like yourself. Help us and no harm will come to you, I promise.” 

Unspoken was the threat of what would happen if she didn’t cooperate. She was really better off not knowing specifics. Desperate people did desperate and very bad things. She could imagine too many horrors.

Wrapping her arms around herself, Meredith followed Julian out the door. Two more men she vaguely recognized from her kidnapping stood just outside the room in a pale gray corridor. They now wore navy blue uniforms and some sort of gun in holsters at their waists. They fell in on either side of Meredith, blocking any attempt to escape.

“Just what are you asking of me? You still haven’t said.” Meredith reached into her vest pocket and pulled out the stub of chocolate PowerBar she’d stashed there earlier. Her body needed fuel if she was going to think up a way out of this. 

One of the guards turned and began to snatch for the package in her hand, but Julian held up his hand, waving the man back. “It’s food. Let her keep it.”

Before they could change their minds she shoved it into her mouth, chewing and swallowing quickly. It tasted amazing and scraped away the film of unconsciousness and drugs from her tongue. The faint nausea in her stomach settled, appeased by her offering.

They hustled her outside onto what looked like a streetcar, empty except for another man in the same navy uniform. She was in a city that looked similar to pictures of Vancouver at the turn of the twentieth century except for a few startlingly out of place touches like the display in a store window that looked like an early LCD screen in an elaborate frame displaying a still image and the man talking in front of the store to a customer while using a digital calculator. Brick buildings and powerlines stood on either side of the wide street. Water towers and makeshift wooden warehouses crowded between the brick buildings and looked recently added. 

Overhead the sky seethed with dark, low-hanging clouds threatening rain, making the world seem dark and grim. She couldn’t tell the time of day. A break in the clouds on the far horizon revealed three faint moons against a pale lavender-blue sky. Definitely not Earth, not that she’d expected otherwise. Unfortunately, there were too many planets with three moons for her to identify this place from that alone. She took note of it just in case it was a clue to the planet’s gate address or origin symbol. If she had to rescue herself, she’d need the origin symbol to dial out.

Julian pressed her down into a seat on the trolley. “We need you to fix the God machine left by our Ancestors. Just a few minutes more and all will become clear,” He sat across from her while the guards sat down on either side, boxing her in. 

“Is it by the stargate?” she asked hopefully. No one answered.

As the trolley passed through the city, she saw people out on the streets. Many wore tunic-like tops and flat-cap hats, though the people without hats wore their hair long or in a braid or elaborate series of buns. Short hair was the exception. Most people were moving fast and had their heads down. Meredith thought about calling out for help, screaming that she was being kidnapped, but the one person whose eye she caught looked at the guards surrounding her and immediately ducked their head and disappeared inside the nearest door. 

The cloud-backed skyline was dominated by a building with a tall golden spire with irregular bumps down its length. It seemed to be their destination. As they traveled closer, she saw that the spire topped an elaborately carved stone building. The large slabs of stone were a pale gray veined with white versus the small red and yellow bricks she’d seen everywhere else. The overlapping series of roofs were gold trimmed in scarlet. A staircase rose from the street to the front gate. It reminded her of temples in Thailand except it was missing the lion dog by the door, or were those only Chinese? Not that it mattered. “What’s that big building, a temple?” 

One of the guards made a superstitious gesture with his hand and then touched his lips and brow, flicking his fingers towards the building. 

Julian inclined his head towards the spire and touched his brow, but didn’t echo the rest of the gestures. “Yes, the Temple of Enlightenment. Only the most pious are allowed inside past the chapel. However, our destination is the AEC, the building across the street.” He pointed to a long yellow brick building that took up the entire block across from the temple.

The trolley slowed to a stop and they exited. The words Aquila Engineering College were carved about the doors of the yellow building. Hadn’t Julian said he was the president? That meant she probably wouldn’t find many allies inside unless she got lucky and he turned out to be unpopular. Unfortunately, handsome men were rarely unpopular.

A crack of thunder was her only warning before the sky opened up with a deluge of rain. The guards jumped and the one on her right grabbed her arm hard and pulled, almost tripping her. Meredith raced forward, blinded by the wet hair covering her face. They ran up the steps and through the double doors to get inside, barely slowing as they dragged her over to a guarded elevator. The walls were the same yellow brick with soot stains showing that the building had been around before the installation of electricity.

“What, no towel?” She griped, trying to wring out the hem of her shirt and smooth back the cold clumps of her dripping hair while still being held by the upper arm. “If I get sick I won’t be able to fix anything.”

“You already have a doctor’s appointment,” Julian said dismissively. “This is more important.”

Meredith did not find that comforting.

They got out several floors down and passed through a series of guarded doors that led them deep into the heart of the building. “Almost there,” Julian said, leading her down a short series of steps to an open metal door that was ten feet tall and more than a foot thick. The two guards peeled off and took up station on either side.

There were too many guards in this place. If she was going to escape, it would have to be from somewhere else.

On the right of the metal door was a series of pegs holding coats and robes. Leading her over, Julian grabbed a pale blue robe and pulled it on, handing another to Meredith. She crisscrossed the fabric and secured it slightly above her rounded waist with a bright red belt tie. She may be wearing a fancy bathrobe but at least it made her look more official and helped her blend in. If she did get a chance to escape, she needed to not stand out so obviously in her SGC uniform.

“Come, Dr. Mckay, and see the reason we need you.” They walked through the metal door to where a bronze, red, and gold patterned curtain hung from the ceiling about six feet in. Reaching out, Julian pulled the curtain aside and gestured her forward. 

Stepping through, she saw a carved archway made of the same gray stone as the temple but she recognized the design as Ancient. Curious, she went inside and found two young men typing on what looked like strange and primitive computers. They had curling shoulder-length hair like Julian’s and wore navy-blue robes with gold sashes instead of red. They stopped working and jumped to their feet at Julian’s entrance. 

“These are distant cousins of mine. They are newly trained but show great promise in keeping the blessed record,” Julian told her, waving them back to their seats without offering any names.

Meredith didn’t care. They weren’t important. When they sat down she saw the rest of the room stretching out behind them. The important thing here was the pair of Ancient consoles: one a squat octagon hitting her about mid-thigh and the other a narrow rectangle reaching the top of her belly. Above the squat console she saw a translucent orange-gold projection of the city with the AEC and Temple in the central square. The projection looked patchy, but she had no idea if that was significant. 

“So are these your so-called God machines? The ones you want me to fix?” 

“Yes, Dr. Mckay.” 

Meredith circled the consoles, trying to see if the repair was something easy. No obviously broken wires or cloudy crystals popped out at her, though there were a few scorch marks here and there. Hopefully, they didn’t expect her to access the console programming because she didn’t have the right DNA. “What do they do? Do you even know?”

Back going straight, Julian’s mouth became a thin slash. “I am the President of the AEC and an Aquila.”

“So... what?”

Julian grimaced. “I suppose you are an outsider and couldn’t possibly understand. Very well, I will explain. Our ancestors were once enslaved by a powerful alien who pretended to be a god. They rebelled and gained freedom, but there were more powers in the universe with armies and weapons too powerful to resist. Our Most Holy One fasted and prayed to the One True God before sending his sister, most revered Matriarch Aquila, on a divine mission to save our people. Matriarch Aquila found the God Machine, a shield for the faithful who covenant to always keep a record of God’s blessings. Whenever our city has been attacked, whether from the stars, through the stargate, or across the land, a faithful Aquila has been blessed with the power to activate the God Machine and shield us until the threat is passed.”

Studying the symbols on the taller console, Meredith wrinkled her nose. “Let’s cut through the religious mumbo jumbo. You have an Ancient machine that creates a shield over your city that needs the Aquila family’s bloodline to control. My people would love to trade for more information about this machine and get a blood sample from your family, so kidnapping was really unnecessary and rather idiotic. That aside, what seems to be the problem?” 

Dropping to a crouch, she tried to pop open the panel holding the crystal matrix and found it sealed shut by some bulky locking mechanism obviously added by the locals. “Open this. And give me tools.” She held out her hand and wiggled her fingers impatiently. “And get to the point.” 

Exhaling a quick breath through his nose, Julian moved forward and undid the catch on the door, twisting and turning several pieces that hadn’t looked like they were supposed to move. She watched his fingers carefully so she could replicate it all later. 

“The problem is that in our most recent war with the neighboring city of Albissia—a group of unbelievers who splintered off from us generations ago—we were forced to activate the shield to protect ourselves from attack.” His throat bobbed as he swallowed.

“And? It’s down now. I still don’t see the point.”

“Three years ago, my most honored mother the Matriarch Aquila, the woman blessed to operate the God machine, went to lower the shield so our leaders might sue for peace. However, during the process, a dissenter broke in and—” Julian’s voice wavered “—set off a bomb. She and all the blessed recorders died. The shield hasn’t worked right since.”

Looking over the placement of crystals in the console, Meredith frowned. There’d obviously been attempts to insert more of the clunky local tech inside. One of the pieces looked like it might be made of naquada, but its placement wasn’t ideal, making her think they didn’t really know how to use it to its full potential. Some of the crystals seemed slightly cloudy and two had hairline fractures. “I’m going to need my tablet. Did you grab it when you grabbed me?”

Huffing, Julian pounded his hand on his thigh. “No, I didn’t think to take it, just you. You’ll have to work with our equipment.”

“Well that was stupid. It’s going to take me twice as long to do anything without my own tools.”

“I’m sure you’ll adapt. Now, I’ve nominated your name to the God machine as a blessed recorder. Usually, a blessed one has to be present to nominate new members, but thankfully I’ve been in the system for so long that it designated me as a senior recorder and let me add you myself so you can access the programming on this console.”

“That won’t work. I don’t have the right genes.” Standing up, Meredith rubbed a hand over her aching back before moving over to the taller console. She keyed in a query, not expecting a response. 

A box popped up on the screen in Ancient inviting her to record her observations. Eyebrows rising, it took her a second to get over her shock. She typed in a few sentences about the room she stood in and hit submit. A menu popped up. Grinning with excitement at the chance to personally interact with an Ancient system, she dived into the menu. She’d definitely have to figure out how this blessed recorder business worked so she could access Ancient tech back on Earth. Certain areas stayed frustratingly off-limits but it was amazing to have access at all. 

Maybe something good would come out of this kidnapping business.