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The past is prologue...

Earth: Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado - 1999

The seasoned and enthusiastic members of SG-1 had never been quite so happy to see General George Hammond’s frowning face. The team was quick to march down the ramp, the celebration of surviving their latest mission sneaking out in their smiles.

Well, Samantha Carter and Daniel Jackson wore bright smiles. Jack O’Neill kind of squinted distrustfully around the gate room. And Teal’c was an enigma in sunglasses and an overly colorful bandanna. But Sam knew they were in the right place.

“General! We are going to have some interesting reports for you this week,” Sam told him. She somehow refrained from hugging him. “And I wanted to say, too... Thank you for the assist.”

The General’s eyebrow crawled up a little higher as the frown tugged lower. “I take it there was good news on P3W-451?”

The lightened mood from his lead team disappeared. O’Neill gave a strangled cough.

“Scuse me, sir. But... where was that?” asked Jack.

“P3W-451. Your mission? You’re back early.” The General didn’t seem keen on the sudden mutual confusion all around. It compounded with the confusion he himself felt at seeing his team in neon-accented clothes with fringe and paisley prints right out of the 1960s.

Jack O’Neill nodded his head and took a deep breath. Then he kept walking away from the gate. The Wrong Gate.

“Well, there’s that,” he said, resignation in his tone. Samantha glanced at Daniel, the two exchanging a look after the crushing blow. This wasn’t what was supposed to have happened.

“General. There’s something you need to know,” she began. The man nodded his head.

“A few things, I’m sure. For starters, what happened to your uniforms.”

“1969, uh, happened to them,” offered Daniel. He shuffled uneasily and dragged the bandanna off his head.

“When we last left this room, we were headed to a mission on P2X-555, sir,” Samantha said. “The gate... connected us to the wrong place in time.”

“P3W-451 was the mission quite a while ago, for us,” said O’Neill. He gave a slight shrug as he looked over at Daniel. “Can’t say I’m not glad I don’t have to do that one all over again, though. At least we timed that one right.”

General Hammond seemed to understand the gravity of the mistake even if he didn’t know the full story yet. He motioned toward one of the majors at the door as he took a step back from the group.

“Get yourselves to med bay. Full work ups. And I want individual reports. From everyone. Understood?” It wasn’t really a question, and it was accented by a wave to the ranking officer behind him. And just like that, each member of SG-1 picked up their own armed military escort.

“General-” Jack began, not liking the new shadow already.

“I understand the situation, Colonel, but until I’m certain I have my own people back, your access is restricted,” the General said.

“Sir, I think we are your people, but... something is definitely very wrong,” said Samantha. The General nodded his agreement.

“I have faith you’ll figure it out. And if my team shows up between now and then, we’ll have yet a few more answers,” said Hammond. “In the meantime. After you.”

The General waved toward the doors in open invitation.

“Fall in,” Jack ordered, voice quiet as he moved to keep the General happy. He wasn’t gambling on the existence of another Jack O’Neill queued up just past the gate, one who belonged there after having completed the mission to P3W-451.

“What happened?” Daniel asked, a whisper in the hallway as he walked beside Samantha.

“I - I don’t know. It was supposed to work,” said Sam.

“Alternate reality?” Daniel was thinking out loud. “Or is this another time glitch? At least we’re in the right place to get some answers this time.”

“I’ll run some tests. It just - I don’t know why it didn’t work, so I don’t know where - or when - we are,” she said. The exhaustion pulled on her shoulders and her spirit. Daniel set a hand to her arm, a simple reminder the team was still in it together.

“P3W-451,” said Jack just ahead of them. “The whole gravity-sucking time-glitching Mercury Retrograde on steroids fiasco is the when, folks.” He didn’t sound exactly happy to have gotten a few weeks added back to the lifespan. “We missed our window. That’s all.”

Sam nodded absently. “We’ll figure it out later.”

General Hammond kept them under guard when on base for a month after their arrival. They could wander between certain areas, as long as they had their appointed shadow guard with them, and Sam was allowed in the labs to continue certain time-sensitive projects, but never past the front gates. The SG1 team wasn't allowed out among the American people again for two months, even though Hammond permitted them to go on off-world missions, as tests.

It curbed their scheduled missions and set them as a back-up team until Hammond was positive they were, in fact, his team. Hammond had no recollection of events in 1969, but other pieces lined up. Other pieces, like the SG1 mission reports, were in the wrong place, or in some cases, missing entirely, even though Carter and her team still remembered writing them.

And through all of her tests and simulations and computer modules with the extra lab time, Sam Carter was certain they had ended up mostly where they wanted to be. They were in the right timeline. But despite their best efforts, something had changed before they could get back.

Somewhere on P3W-451, a butterfly had flapped its wings at a stargate and that simple draft managed to rewrite thirty years of human history back on Earth.

 

*~*~*

 

Earth: Cascade, Washington - 1999

The body lying in the fountain had to be some kind of joke. It was too public. It was too noisy. The glare off the water was too bright. It couldn’t be legit.

But no matter how much Jim Ellison tried to assure himself that his senses had found a new way to go haywire after so long, the body in the fountain was very real.

And very much Jim’s fault.

He would later remember very little about crossing the courtyard, or how exactly his friend had been pulled from the water. It would be the barely 30 year old face of his annoying best friend staring up at him, not breathing, eyes half closed, mouth half open. That would stick out in his memory forever. Blair Sandburg wasn’t supposed to bail on Jim, and instead, Jim had bailed on him. And he got the kid killed.

No amount of military training could make it past the shock Jim had felt then. He zoned on listening for a heartbeat that was so familiar, and yet it wasn’t there now even when he could see the face of the man it belonged to. Precious seconds were lost. Maybe minutes, Jim couldn’t tell and would never remember.

He made it through the zone to bright white. Flashes of blue broke through in streaks, like water blasted away by wind. The blue and white framed the watchful eyes of a familiar timber wolf as the split-second of awareness returned. Blair’s face showed up, still dead, and the wolf’s eyes blazed through him.

The roaring hiss of a panther added to the sensory overload. Jim saw the jaguar a heartbeat before it pounced. He felt it jump through him, felt it take his breath, felt it push him to turn, unsteady on his feet. Jim watched as the jaguar and the wolf collided in midair, brilliant light spilling everywhere over the dead body of Blair Sandburg.

“Ellison!”

The shout brought Jim back to life, his senses faded to something more like normal as the shock traded off for adrenaline.

“Let them work, damnit, Jim...”

The rumbling voice of his captain, Simon Banks, was close and Jim realized Simon was holding him back. Keeping him away from Blair because the EMT’s were doing their best to bring him back.

“He’s dead, Simon. I - He’s dead,” said Jim.

“Let them work,” Simon said again. It was an order through clenched teeth. The command made it through and Jim went still, waiting, watching, and listening. He eased away from Simon, holding his own again. Simon kept a firm hold on his arm, just in case.

A small sound kept him back, too. Something he wasn’t sure he had heard. With the distance, he saw it. There, between breaths from the EMT providing CPR, was the smallest natural movement.

When the EMT went to resume compressions, Jim pulled away from Simon to stop the medics. Simon scrambled to keep his hold.

“Wait! He’s breathing! Look!” Jim pointed at Blair, because that was the only useful action he could take.

He saw Blair’s chest rise and fall again as the EMTs checked again to verify their patient was breathing. It took them a moment to find the heartbeat, but Jim could already hear it.

Blair was barely there, but he was alive.

The EMTs rolled Blair to his side as the water came back up. Jim watched and listened as the heartbeat raced back to life.

Later, the estimate came in that Blair had been without oxygen for over five minutes. They didn’t have an exact time frame to work with, only the time of the calls into the 911 switchboard and the response logs from the closest ambulance station.

And Jim marveled that his friend made it through, even as he cursed the fact that Blair Sandburg used his brilliant brain to make Jim’s life hell, with all the dumb jokes and bad ideas that Blair would ramble on about, day in and day out.

And the day Blair’s Sentinel research became public, Jim saw a shade of the same lifelessness take over Sandburg again. Something bigger than either of them hit the entire Cascade Police Department as journalists from around the country called in to ask Simon Banks what kind of nutjobs he had patrolling the city. As Jim’s arrest and conviction record became more widely known, the questions changed.

What kind of threat does this sentinel genetic trait pose to everyday citizens?

And Jim watched from the sidelines as Internal Affairs spent the next two years reopening every case. He was put on desk duty just so they could always reach him. Blair’s expected semester with the police academy was dead in the water. No one wanted to work with a crazy kid pushing science fiction, and no one wanted spied on if the stuff in the thesis about Jim Ellison turned out to be true.

But when all the shouting was done, Jim’s friend, brother, and Guide was at least safe. He was alive and breathing. He could still teach. Maybe the pair of them were a little strapped for cash under the lawyers’ bills, but life went on.

1999 was one hell of a year.

 

*~*~*

 

Earth: Cascade, Washington - 2003

The new class was sharp. It was nice to have a group of people who wanted to show up to lectures again. Sure, some of the questions were dumb, but they came from kids who didn’t know any better. Some of those kids were maybe only five years younger than their instructor, but Blair Sandburg still gave them the benefit of the doubt.

Anthropology wasn’t exactly an easy subject, and Blair was teaching the beginning course load again. Most of his students now would never go out on a dig, had no interest in the real world experience of the study, but they could make the connections to the results in the process. It made lectures a lot easier, even if he ended up fielding a lot of questions about statistics.

Come to think of it, there were a lot of math majors this semester.

Blair collected the stack of term papers off the corner of the desk and made room for the batch at the back of his overburdened backpack. He followed the last student out of the hall, hitting the light switch as he passed. He walked off in the vague direction of his office, not fully paying attention as he fished in his backpack pockets for his Blackberry. Even as he did, he felt the phone start to vibrate from an incoming call, which made it much easier to find.

“Sandburg,” he said in greeting. He realized idly that he had spent too much time around his roommate.

“Yeah, I know,” came Jim’s voice over the line. He didn’t sound quite normal, but Blair couldn’t tell if the flat sarcasm was from anger or stress. Probably both. His roommate wasn’t the best at playing nice.

“Jim? What’s wrong, man?” asked Blair.

“Look, when are you home?” Jim replied. He didn’t seem interested in the answer. “Can you cut out the rest of the day?”

Blair glanced at the phone to make sure he knew the time. Just after noon on a Tuesday.

“Sure. I mean, I’ve got another class at four, but I can - What’s going on? Why?” he asked.

“Somebody just - A Colonel Glass just showed up here. I’ve been reassigned to active duty.”

Blair tripped over his feet as he walked, surprised at the news. “Reactivated? What? Jim, man, don’t take this the wrong way, but you are too old...”

“Trust me, I know, Chief. But he handed me the paperwork personally. Face to face. Glass knows how old I am,” Jim assured him.

“Well, did he say why?”

“Yeah. That’s why you need to wrap it up and get home,” said Jim. He wasn’t messing around.

“What? You were the one to get the papers. I have never and will never sign up for that shit,” Blair said.

“Sandburg. They classified your research. The Sentinel stuff. It didn’t go away like we thought it did. It just... disappeared.”

At that, Blair stopped dead in his tracks. He stared blankly at the campus bell tower, mentally stuck. “What.”

“Glass said I was on medical release after the stuff in Peru. Not discharged. Says that’s why I’ve had all the trouble with the VA the last ten years,” said Jim. The report was not a welcome one and everything about his friend’s voice told Blair it was all bullshit. A made-up paper-trail to snare Jim back into the fold.

“Okay. So... I need to call the Dean. Let him know all the stuff from my thesis is going to hit the school again,” said Blair, thinking out loud as he tried to figure out how to minimize the damage that was on the way. If they had reached out to Jim after all this time, there was something big coming.

“No,” said Jim firmly. “You need to get your ass back home so I know where you are. Until something about this makes some kind of sense, you need to keep your head down.”

Blair slowly registered the order and changed course. He turned away from the campus to head back to his car instead. “Right. I’m going to my car. I’ll... call the Dean later.”

“Good. If you’re not back here in ten, I call Simon,” said Jim.

“Should I just wait for an escort home then?” Blair was only half-joking.

“No. Take 4th and Highland, it’ll be faster. And you’ll be fine.”

Being distracted by the phone was making Blair nervous, so he promised to take the right route home and hurried to put the Blackberry back in his bag. He kept his eyes open on the walk back to his car, searched every face, even checked rooftops for watchers or snipers. Everything seemed like a normal, semi-sunny day in Cascade. Maybe Jim Ellison was just a paranoid cop. The theory didn’t make Blair feel any better.

Sandburg had his keys in hand as he approached his car. He was almost to the safe zone. As long as he ignored the number of times his car had been wired to explode. He was just three steps from home-free.

“Dr. Sandburg?” someone asked as Blair tried to open his car door. Blair looked over at the source, a younger man standing between his car and the next, blocking the aisle. Not a good sign. He also wore a uniform, with an MP badge on the arm. Definitely not a good sign.

“Yeah, that’s me,” said Blair, cautious. Like magic, three other military uniforms showed up at various places around his car as Blair looked around. “What’s up?”

“Dr. Sandburg, please leave your keys in the car door, and place your bag on the roof,” said the MP. This was definitely not anything protocol.

“Why?” asked Blair.

“We’ve been tasked to bring you to the base, Dr. For your safety and ours, do as you are asked. Everything will be returned to you later.”

The young man knew he was out of his jurisdiction and was being polite. Following orders, but still a polite, human response to the impossibility of the request. Blair could have jumped the hood of his car and made a run for the train station, and he would probably be allowed to survive calling them on their bullshit. In theory.

But he wasn’t sure what would happen if he got away, either. Blair had a life he wanted to get back to, as quickly and carefully as possible.

Instead, Sandburg held up his hands and shrugged his backpack up onto the car hood. “Am I under arrest?”

The MP nodded slightly.

“For what?” Blair pressed.

“Selling state secrets. The full charges will be handled on base, sir, but that is what I have been authorized to report,” said the young officer. He was very polite about checking Blair for weapons. The worst Blair carried on him was a Swiss Army Knife in his backpack, and Blair cautiously advised the MPs of it, just to be sure he wasn’t accused of hiding it from them later. And he didn’t want to be handcuffed on campus, so maybe they would work with him if he cooperated.

When the big, black, state-exempt SUV rolled up behind Blair’s car, he was loaded into the backseat. In handcuffs. Under the watchful eye of at least twenty current and former students. Someone from the group yelled out, “But when do we get our term papers back?”

Oh yeah. There was no way the university would ever let Blair teach again. The Sentinel problem was definitely going to leave a mark this time.

Chapter Text

And thus it begins...


Pegasus Galaxy: Atlantis - 2012

There was nothing redeemable about prison planets. Even the most innocent people among their population became the problem eventually, and John Sheppard had lost all tolerance and hope after nearly two weeks of high school level politics being used to determine the fate, health, and sanity of his team.

He had long ago decided that, given the chance to rule a galaxy, any galaxy, should the opportunity ever arrive, every prison planet would be sucked into a black hole. Boom. Problem solved.

It got a little sketchy around the topic of Earth, but it was John’s revenge fantasy, and he didn’t have to make it logical or morally sound just yet. He could worry about that when he got home. Or sooner, if an ascended ancient felt in the mood to grant him galaxy-destroying powers before Sheppard could get to the gate. He wasn’t gonna be picky about it, anyway.

For now, Sheppard was only responsible for three people, and one of them was himself, so prison planets everywhere could all breathe easy. He couldn’t, but they could.

“What’s happened? What’s wrong?” came Rodney’s voice to interrupt his contemplation of the fate of the universe. McKay probably thought he was whispering, but it sounded like he was talking loudly. John looked over, surprised to see the scientist still across the room from him.

“Nothing happened. Everything is wrong,” he replied easily.

“Well, I know that,” complained McKay.

“He means your breathing,” said Ronon. “Your chest is... whistling.”

Sheppard coughed and shrugged it off. “I’m fine. It just reeks in here.”

“Dust. I smell dust,” said McKay. “Rock dust. And mold. Which, of course, I’m allergic to.” McKay’s observation was accented by an appropriately timed sneeze.

“I smell mold and rotted... something. That I won’t be contemplating anymore, so give it up,” said Sheppard. He grudgingly admitted that breathing hurt, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it. “Let’s just find our stuff and get the hell out of here.”

Their stuff was somewhere in a walled off section of the cave that served as the hidden and secure base of operations for the people in charge of the mines. The locals called them the Daturan, Sheppard just called them assholes. But he couldn’t breathe quite right, so he was a little cranky.

Either way, the Daturan weren’t there to babysit their stuff at the moment, their attention diverted by a riot currently taking up at least half a continent. It had taken nearly all day to get this far, and now John was staring at a small mountain of stolen belongings, with his team’s gear somewhere in the mix.

“Is anyone else hungry?” McKay asked. He answered himself like an echo. “I’m hungry.”

“Find our gear and I’ll share my MREs,” Sheppard promised. He picked a random point in the pile and started carefully moving things aside, one by one. Ronon found another spot to do the same.

“Can I still eat if I just... Stand here and hold the torch as you both look?” Rodney asked. He wasn’t trying to whine for once, but there was a timidness that was hard to ignore. “My shoulder -”

John swore under his ragged breath. He had forgotten about the burn from the fight the day before. Either Rodeny had been amazingly quiet on the topic, or Sheppard was way too distracted to have missed hearing the complaining that had probably been happening all day.

“Yeah, Rodney. That works. Help Ronon. I can see fine over here,” said Sheppard.

“How?” McKay asked. John paused, looked over his shoulder at Rodney.

“You’re worse than a five-year old sometimes, you know that? Can we do less with the science questions and more with the finding our GDOs?”

McKay seemed to get on board with the plan again, refocused on his task rather than the exhausted insult from Sheppard. It somehow wasn’t surprising and John returned to the search.

If it looked like a weapon, he set it aside so they could carry it out with them.

If it looked like a shirt or a jacket in reasonable condition, he checked it over before dismissing it. His shirt had more holes in it than swiss cheese after the first week in the labor camp and the cave was cold. Ronon and Rodney seemed fine, but McKay was damaged and Ronon was... well, Ronon.

If it looked technological, organic, or alive, John left it where it was. On this planet, there were a few things that looked like all three at once.

“When we get home, I’m gonna send a nuke back through to destroy that gate,” he announced as he sidestepped a particularly nasty looking chunk of slimy metal that seemed to be breathing. McKay seemed to be thinking it over a short time before he finally nodded.

“Yeah. I’m okay with that.”

“And from now on, we scout with a jumper before we send in teams. Anywhere. At all,” Sheppard added. “Cloaked jumpers.”

McKay nodded ready agreement again and then winced at an unfortunate memory. “I miss the jumpers. Zelenka better not have screwed with the mainframe while I was gone. He said he wanted to get more speed, but I refused. The coding never worked out. Elizabeth wouldn’t have let him go around me while I was gone, right? How long-”

“Found it!” Sheppard didn’t bother to wait out McKay rambling because it would have gone on forever. It was actually kind of helpful, giving him something to focus on besides the dark as they searched. And, at least this one time, it worked.

John held up his jacket to show what he had found. Ronon took a few long strides and was soon helping to unbury the rest of the gear. Rodney was a little slower with the torch, and it wasn’t until the light got closer that John realized how dark it had been. He looked down at the light splashed over his boots, surprised by the suddenly obvious shadows.

Huh.

He let it go and hauled a pack up from the floor with a Canadian flag patch. He held it out toward McKay. “This yours?”

Rodney didn’t usually have a lot of color to him, but the man went suddenly very pale.

“Uh. No. That’s... well, that’s Hart’s.”

John’s good mood faded. He shouldered the pack and dug around for the next one. A few feet away, Ronon found his favorite gun and holster. He came up beaming, a satisfied sigh escaping before he got back to work.

It did feel good to have his own stuff back, but Lt. Col. Sheppard felt the extra weight of Aubrey Hart’s gear as they made their way back out of the Daturan storage caves. He could breathe a little easier, less burning in his lungs. Maybe things were looking up, but he still had two men to get back to the gate. And that was at least three klicks away. They had been at the caves for the day, so who knew where the fighting had gone.

Before they reached the way out, Sheppard stopped and transferred his MREs and weapons, a few other maybe-needed things out of his bag to the front pockets of Hart’s gear bag. He left the extra pack at the cave gates, the American flag from his pack ripped off and shoved in his inside jacket pocket.

 

*~*~*

 

The DHD was fortified by a team of Daturans. Because it was a prison planet, and they who control the gate control the prisoners. And that? That was what made them assholes.

The Daturan didn’t even live on the planet, they just found the gate a thousand years earlier, knew how to use it, and have ever since used it for the mines and the open land for dumping prisoners. There were more Daturan prisoners on the small continent with the gate than there were people native to the planet. See? Assholes. It was going in Sheppard’s report.

Between the lucky existence of Ronon Dex and the small armory of weapons they had found in the storage cave, it wasn’t that difficult to get to the walled off perimeter of the blockade that surrounded the stargate. The hardest part was the terrain after the last two weeks on their feet. It was a long walk through a half-burned valley.

There weren't a lot of other stragglers headed for the gate yet. Most of the area had been burned out, and the only bodies they found were dead fighters who hadn’t escaped the fire. The fire stopped at the stone walls of the blockade, and from the looks of it, the Daturans had left behind a team to defend the gate inside.

The riot had started days earlier, and the aimless fighting had driven many of the Daturan taskmasters and fighters to safer ground, toward the ocean, from what Sheppard had picked up. The prisoners didn’t care who they fought, so long as they made noise, stole weapons, and set fire to anything that could hide a Daturan. It was unpredictable and unorganized, the last rage of desperate men more than a rebellion, with little planning beyond a coordinated day to start the fighting passed from camp to camp, mine to mine.

Sheppard and his men had stayed out of the rumored plans for rebellion. They had already lost Hart by then, and Sheppard saw a rebellion as nothing more than a chance to get back to the gate.

Sheppard, Dex, and McKay had gotten too close to it the night before, getting only momentarily caught up in a skirmish that hadn’t moved on yet. In the smoke and the dark, McKay had run into someone, seeing a shadow he thought was Ronon. It got him shoved against a burning tree, held there until Ronon did find him. The only killing Ronon did for the rebellion’s favor was in defense of his teammate. Not bad for two days of traveling the wrong direction against a fight.

Now the small team faced an eight man Daturan resistance inside the stone walls that surrounded the stargate. Rodney wasn’t exactly in fighting shape, so he waited on the hill above the blockade that they had used to scout for intel. That put their current odds at two against eight.

Sheppard had a recently-renewed hate-rage going, and Ronon had his own anger issues to work out, so John figured it was hardly fair. They would burn through the Daturans like jet fuel. They just needed a solid plan to light the match. Or luck.

Luck would do the trick.

The gates opened to let the Daturans out while Sheppard and Ronon crouched alongside. Until the doors opened, they had been looking for handholds on the stone to climb. Now they were perfectly hidden as the Daturans marched forth, and a far better opportunity presented itself.

Sheppard exchanged a look with Ronon, smug disbelief on their faces. The Lt. Colonel motioned for his field second to wait on his signal. They moved to get a better view around the swing of the open doors. John had counted eight soldiers from their recon up on the hill, so they would wait for all eight soldiers to leave. Sheppard was not above the opportunity for a shooting gallery.

“Hey!”

The shout came from the rise of the hill, straight ahead of the doors into the Daturan blockade. Not far from where they had left Rodney McKay. And of course, there on the hill, stood the ragged scientist, using burned out trees as potential concealment, stripes of charcoal and ash all over what wasn’t already bloody. He had probably fallen a few times since Sheppard had seen him last.

It had the Daturans’ attention. The troops went from moving out for a hike to weapons raised and aimed. At Rodney. Shit. That wasn’t helpful.

Sheppard moved quickly to take aim, staying low as he hurried forward to the edge of the stone slab door he and Ronon were using for cover. Up on the hill, McKay waved his uninjured arm over his head, just to be sure he had the bad guys’ thorough attention.

“Now.” Sheppard’s quiet warning was enough and Ronon stepped out from the door. They fired simultaneous shots, taking down the men at the front of the small company first. Rodney hit the deck to remove himself as a target once the bullets started flying. Electric darts in the case of the weird Daturan weapons. Even from across the hillside clearing, Sheppard easily heard the clumsy “ow-ow-ow!” from McKay.

Another four men went down in short order. Sheppard had to divide his attention between the fight and the hill. Rodney had a weapon, but there was no guarantee he was in condition to use it, and Sheppard’s only other backup was happily making enough noise to raise the dead as he put a few more men down. They were going to be noticed, if there was anyone in the area to notice them.

“You want the last two?” Sheppard shouted at Ronon.

“My pleasure,” the big man said, offering a wide smile to prove it. He held his gun in one hand and a knife in the other as he moved to attack the coward Daturans who had retreated back inside the blockade walls.

Sheppard waved up at McKay, calling him down from the hillside. Then he moved to the inside edge of the door so he could check on Ronon’s fight while keeping an eye on their teammate.

There was a lot of information to process, splitting his attention like that. Six men sprawled out, not twenty yards away from him, all in various stages of dying, or already dead. Sheppard tried to point McKay away from taking the direct route, but he didn’t seem to understand. As long as he didn’t run through the group and try walking on bodies, they would all be okay.

The squawk of a bird sounded loud in his ears, like the bird had yelled at him from no further away than his shoulder. Sheppard turned to look and nothing was there. A shape out in the sky looked like it might be a bird, he just couldn’t get a good look at it. When he tried to focus, he instead saw black.

John froze up. He was aware that he couldn’t move, could hardly think. But he could count the follicles on the shaft of the bird’s feathers. Found the bird. Definitely found the bird. Now he just had to figure out how to get the hell away from it.

“What? What do you see?”

Rodney’s voice interrupted an eerie silence that made no sense. There had been noise. Sheppard had been watching a fight, fights had noise. Now all he heard was McKay. That had to be an improvement over nothing. Sheppard moved his head and he could even see again. Everything was back to normal.

And McKay was suddenly right in front of him, no longer somewhere up the hill. When did that happen? Why were they still standing there? McKay frowned at him.

“You just did the breathing thing-” he began. Sheppard cut him off by catching his uninjured shoulder and pushing him back toward the stargate.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Let’s close the doors and get the hell out of here, huh?”

Sheppard tugged one of the stone doors closed as Ronon dragged the two Daturans he had dispatched out into the clearing through the other. Rodney moved to the DHD and started dialing out as Sheppard helped Ronon close and brace the door. It wasn’t much, the walls were climbable, but it bought them a few minutes breathing room in case they needed it. As Sheppard dug into the pack for a radio mic, the stargate whooshed to life in front of Rodney. Two weeks out and the damn radio still had battery life. It crackled and snapped as he set the unit over his ear.

“Command, come in,” he called into the mic.

“Lt. Colonel Sheppard? Is that you?” came Elizabeth Weir’s suspicious voice through the comm.

“Yeah. I’ve got three to come home, Director. Please,” he replied. For the first time in his career, he found it a little hard to control his voice. It had been a hard few works.

“Granted. Home is waiting, Colonel.”

McKay and Dex hadn’t bothered with their radios, they just stood in front of the gate, waiting for Sheppard to give the all-clear. He waved them on and watched to be sure they both disappeared over the horizon before stepping through himself.

He would assemble the nuke himself, the second he got back to Atlantis.

*~*~*

Chapter Text

Earth: Beacon Hills, California

After the blow up at the sheriff's station, it took Stiles Stilinski three days to get the combination of kanima poison and the hunters’ drugs out of his system. He was able to talk and walk and think, but he was tired, he was in a major state of shock, and he felt basically none of it. Blood tests at the hospital said he was on enough ketamine to knock down a horse, and the techs couldn’t identify the other stuff in the mix, but he kept putting one foot in front of another. Hopefully it didn’t kill him. People talked to him, or about him, and he talked back.

Except when he couldn’t.

No one would believe him if he told them that his former best-friend conspired with the principal of the high school to lead a full-on assault of the sheriff’s department. No one would believe him if he said it was partially arranged by a group of fanatics who hunted people for fun and called it the family legacy.

And no one would believe that something Scott McCall was involved in would have left Stiles blissed out on a veterinarian-grade painkiller that should have killed him, or that the angelic son of an FBI agent could possibly have anything to do with the death of Sheriff Noah Stilinski.

Actual death.
Real death.
As in, the kind he wouldn’t be coming back from.

It took three full days for the weight of that to hit Stiles because of the werewolf drugs his scrawny non-werewolf ass had been shot with. His dad was gone. Just so Scott could try to outsmart some hunters. He got what he wanted, they got what they wanted, and Stiles’ lost his dad in trade.

When it all finally hit Stiles, he had been sitting on Melissa McCall’s couch, arguing with her about the hospital and social services and her taking guardianship of him for another two years, until he was eighteen. She had offered. But she didn’t know what Scott had done. She was barely even talking to Scott herself just then. And Stiles couldn’t tell her. He didn’t have words anyone would believe.

Instead, he walked out of her house, his former best friend’s house, and smashed his cell phone on the sidewalk. To bits and pieces. Because he knew he wasn’t strong enough to do that to Scott’s face. And he wouldn’t be capable of explaining that to Scott’s mom, either.

It didn’t help that he then spent the next twenty four hours locked up in the Argents’ basement because Gerard Argent was an asshole and a psychopath who thought Stiles still knew anything at all about his friends, two of whom the old man had trussed up with jumper cables with him. Stiles knew less than they did. He told Gerard that. And then he got dumped in the woods at night to find his way home when he had no home to go to anymore at all.

So Stiles had gone to Derek Hale instead.

“Bite me,” he had demanded. Because he was stupid, and grieving, and even every part of his body hurt. Derek just stared at him. So Stiles pushed him, as hard as he could. “Come on. Bite me. I need to break Scott’s face. Help me.”

“That won’t help you, Stiles,” Derek said. He seemed to understand, but he didn’t like it when Stiles tried to push him again. He caught Stiles by the arm to hold him back and away, out of shoving distance.

“Then you break his face for me.”

Derek shook his head. “Also won’t help.”

“Well, do something!”

Derek stared at him again, anger edging under the confusion. “Why the hell would I? Scott’s spent the last year trying to hand me over to the hunters, or to the feds. I could have told you something like this would happen. I tried.”

“Yeah, but not like this, man,” Stiles said. He was probably crying, but he still couldn’t quite tell. “This was my dad. All I got left was him. I already buried my mom and now I gotta - I gotta bury what’s left of my dad. Wasn’t much.” Stiles knew there were tears happening and swiped at his face. “I think she said the service is on Wednesday.”

The damndest thing happened then. Derek, the tough alpha, cool guy werewolf, relaxed his hold on Stiles’ arm, no longer trying to hold him off. Instead he gave a barely noticeable tug, to let Stiles stand closer again.

And then he let the annoying, embarrassing, crying mess of a teenager lean sideways to claim comfort because he could suddenly feel all of the pain, after three days of nothing. Stiles probably would have killed Isaac or the others if they had showed up then to get on his case about it. But it helped for a minute.

Stupid Derek Hale wouldn’t bite him, or fight his battles for him, but he became Stiles’ new best friend just for trying to help keep Stiles alive. And he kept trying over the next few months as Stiles was kicked from foster shelter to foster home to former teachers’ houses for couch-surfing. Derek let him leave his stuff at the loft when Derek finally told him the place existed. He kept track of Stiles and gave him a place to run to, as long as none of the hunters caught him there. The hunters still wanted Derek Hale’s head on a pike, and Derek still had to deal with Scott and his new True Alpha super powers or whatever - Stiles didn’t even want to know anymore - so Stiles was very careful.

And it worked out okay, Stiles was trying to figure things out day by day on his own. He was mostly werewolf-free except for Derek’s treating him like an unofficial part of his struggling pack. Derek hadn’t seen Erica and Boyd in months, and Isaac was playing both sides with Scott, so Stiles stayed out of it.

No werewolf stuff shoved in his face every five minutes, no stupid Shakespearean girlfriend dramas, no death threats because he opened his mouth. Derek had a tough time with it, but he never made it Stiles’ problem like Scott did.

Everything almost worked by the time Stiles had to go back to school.

Until his new social worker decided she didn’t like Stiles’ habit of not showing up to classes, and not staying with the good people she found for him to stay with. Stiles was 90% certain two of them had been hunters, so hell no, he wasn’t staying where she wanted him to. But he couldn’t tell her that, either.

So three months after his dad died, the social worker packed him up and moved him from the place he found for himself. Again.

All suspicions were confirmed when the car pulled up to a familiar house in a familiar neighborhood.

“Here we go,” said his social worker. He was very intentionally trying not to remember her name because she was clearly not a real human. Just a hunter pawn in a social worker’s pantsuit.

“Nope,” Stiles said. “I can’t stay here.”

“Why not.”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Why not.”

“Because of reasons.”

The social worker sighed and thumped her head back against the headrest. “The same reasons you can’t stay at the McCall place?”

Stiles looked at her sharply. “Exact same fucking reasons,” he said. The woman snapped her fingers at him.

“Watch your language, Stiles,” she said. Stiles, for once in his recently miserable life, welcomed the order to stop talking. He slunk lower in the seat and wished for the hundredth time he still had his car. His dad died without a will, so it would be years before Stiles could access anything from the estate, and by then the Jeep would be long gone. Foster kids probably weren’t allowed to drive anyway, he reasoned miserably.

So Stiles sat outside the home of Chris and Victoria Argent, heirs-apparent to the Beacon Hills, California, Hunters Hobby Club.

Nope.

“Come on. Get out of the car,” said Social Worker Pantsuit. “The Argents asked to help. They said their daughter was a friend of yours.”

“No, Allison is a friend of Scott’s,” Stiles clarified, because that was a very important factor also.

“Well, maybe now she can be yours, too,” the woman said. She got out of the car and pulled the suitcases and Stiles’ pillow out of the trunk. Stiles sat up, panicked, as his pillow was hostaged behind enemy lines. Chris Argent stood in the driveway to accept Stiles’ stuff. He waited for Stiles to get out of the car.

Instead, Stiles slowly snuck his hand out to lock himself in the car. Pantsuit had left her keys in the ignition, so Stiles was proud of himself for the accomplishment.

After a minute or so, Chris Argent walked over and crouched in front of the door. He met Stiles eye to eye through the window.

Finally, he said, “If you want answers, you’ll have to go inside.”

Stiles’ smug attachment to his weak rebellion slowly faded as Argent lobbed the bait smack into his forehead.

What answers? To which questions?

It had been months since Stiles had been around Scott and the others. The only answer he needed had been provided for him by life: the people he thought were his friends really weren’t at all. Case closed. There were a lot fewer questions in general since then.

So what answers did Argent still have for him then?

Shit.

Nervous, paranoid curiosity got the best of him, and Stiles reached for the door handle to let himself out. He could stay until he had answers, and then he could just leave again. Problem solved, win/win.

Argent held the door open for him. Stiles felt like a dead man walking as he moved up to the front door. He remembered quite clearly being dragged through the garage and down the basement steps months earlier. This time, he walked himself through the front door. He helpfully handed Pantsuit the keys she had left in the car, but she didn’t seem impressed.

“You try this. And I’ll check in with you in a few days, to be sure you’re settled in. Alright?” she asked. Stiles nodded vaguely, looking around the house instead.

“Whatever.”

And then Pantsuit left him there. Stiles held on to his backpack strap for dear life, waited for the hunters to pounce. He watched Argent close for the warning signs.

“She said she’s going to check up on me,” he warned. “Means you can’t leave bruises this time.”

Chris Argent stood four feet away and frowned at him. “We’re trying to help, Stiles,” he said.

“I don’t need your help,” said Stiles.

“Why? You think Derek Hale will help you?” Chris Argent shook his head. “We still don’t know who killed my sister, and Hale nearly killed my wife three months ago. You need to pick your friends better, kid. They’re all gonna get you killed, too.”

“Yeah, and she’s fine now,” said Stiles, bitterly. “And Scott’s not the one who blew up my dad.”

That struck a nerve and Argent actually stepped closer. Stiles almost worried he was going to push the man into a fight, which became a problem considering Argent was a gun dealer and Stiles didn’t even carry a knife. His life would have been so much better if Derek had just bit him when he’d asked, damnit.

“It wasn’t me either. Otherwise, I promise you, you wouldn’t be standing here,” said Chris. Stiles didn’t have any trouble believing him on that admission at least. He stayed quiet rather than push further, not sure what to say or do to avoid becoming mince meat or werewolf bait, either one. The silence dragged on. Argent finally caught his arm and pushed him toward the stairs. “Your room is up there.”

“You promised me answers,” Stiles replied, tugging his arm free without trouble.

“Yes, and a roof over your head, and food. And supplies to switch your classes to online-only so you don’t drop out,” said Chris. “One thing at a time.”

“Is this some kind of apology or something?” Stiles asked, as bitter as he was confused now. “You think I’m gonna tell people what really happened or something? Is this a bribe?”

“No. This is just being human,” Chris told him. He stopped in front of a door and waved Stiles inside. It wasn’t a jail cell at least. That was promising. Stiles’ stuff was already waiting by the closet doors. At least, the stuff he didn’t have stashed at Derek’s place. The stuff he wouldn’t mind losing if he had to run for good. Stiles stared blankly around the room.

“You are welcome to stay with us, Stiles. This was Allison’s idea. She said you and Scott hadn’t talked in months and this... this isn’t a good time to be on your own. My family didn’t want to see anything happen to your dad, or you. This is the best we can do to keep you safe now,” Argent said. He probably meant it, too. Stiles didn’t exactly speak the same language as Allison Argent, but he had at least figured out she was a good person.

Stiles closed his fingers around the phone in his pocket. He was behind enemy lines. But maybe he was safer here for awhile. And maybe it would help him find where Erica and Boyd had been for the last few months since Argent had supposedly let them all out of the basement. Stiles was the last one to have seen them, and he hadn’t been in a good place then to realize it.

Maybe something could be salvaged out of it.

“Okay,” he said, resigned. He could plan his way out of it if he had to. But he was tired.

“Good. All we ask is that you come down for meals. Nobody’s going to be your maid service, either. But there’s food. You can eat. We can stay out of each other’s way,” said Chris. Stiles nodded agreement; it sounded good to him.

“Just... do me a favor? One thing,” said Stiles. Chris stopped in the doorway as he was closing it, waited for the request with obvious patience.

“Next time somebody decides they have to shoot me, make sure it’s not loaded with werewolf drugs. Social services thinks I’m some kinda drug addict, and I’m living in hell.”

Argent didn’t have anything to say to that. He just closed the door.

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

Pegasus Galaxy: Atlantis

It looked like the mission was going to follow them around awhile. McKay’s shoulder was messed up, but would be soon on the mend under Carson Beckett’s care, and Weir was on Sheppard’s back about wanting to know what went wrong.

What went wrong in a nutshell: The gate address wasn’t friendly, the bad guys took them back through the gate and dumped them on a prison planet, where a bunch of whackjobs killed a member of his team, nearly killed another, and got a few days free hard labor out of the other two. It was a gigantic new level of FUBAR. And Sheppard and Dex told her that. In a slightly larger nutshell, but Sheppard had a headache, so he still took a few shortcuts.

The Director didn’t want to let him send a nuke through the gate, she was clear about that. John excused himself early to get out of the meeting, was told to go see Carson and get checked out with McKay.

But Carson was going to have his hands full with Rodney’s shoulder, Sheppard knew for a fact because he and Dex had seen it when they had nothing with them to help. The fact that Rodney was still sane, given his usual tolerance level for pain and really any inconvenience at all, was a flat out miracle. Sheppard didn’t want to interfere with the doctor’s work.

“Detour,” he announced as he and Ronon left Elizabeth’s office. Teyla met them at the stairs, nothing but apologies for having been on the mainland with the Athosians when the others had left to the Daturan gate.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Teyla, but I’m glad you weren’t with us on this one,” said Sheppard honestly. He couldn’t have handled it. Losing Hart was bad enough, but if the locals had gone after Teyla for some similarly bullshit offense, none of the team would have survived at all. “Besides, you probably wouldn’t let me nuke that planet, either.”

“No, Colonel. That wouldn’t be my first inclination,” said Teyla with a small smile, taking the comment in the spirit it was meant. Ronon shrugged it off.

“Doesn’t matter. We burned the place down anyway,” said Ronon. And Sheppard was going to convince himself they had lit every match.

“Now you are going to the infirmary?” Teyla asked as she walked with them.

“Nope, detour,” said Sheppard. He lifted an arm and pulled the cuff of his jacket back to show her the primitive but effective remains of the Daturan handcuffs he and Ronon still wore.

They looked like just straps of leather wrapped around each wrist, and their damn necks, too, with a single chain link pierced through in a couple of places that the taskmasters would use to loop chains or sticks through when they wanted the workers to stay in one area, or when they were locked up in the Daturan brig. When they weren’t being threatened with knives, the straps felt like regular leather, smooth and soft, and overall were easy to forget existed until Sheppard had started getting the annoying rash from it the third day of wearing them.

“I want these damn things off,” said Sheppard. He itched at the irritated skin under the cuff. “Now, preferably.”

“That shouldn’t be too hard,” said Teyla. Her people used leather for their daily needs and livelihood, and her blissful ignorance showed.

“You would think,” said Ronon. Sheppard paused in front of the armory and waved them both inside. Teyla blinked, surprised, but she didn’t say anything.

Sheppard and Ronon had already attacked the cuffs with knives back on the planet, and now, with Teyla’s assist, they carefully worked their way through the weapons in the armory. It didn’t take long for them to have exhausted everything short of the blow torch.

“I want out of this bastard neck tie. I want this thing off. Now.” John openly complained as he threw another knife back on the table. It didn’t matter what they used, with everything they tried, something in the straps could fuse the leather back together as fast as it was cut. The strap on his wrist tightened in response to his work at cutting it, and if he kept it up it was going to start cutting off circulation.

Ronon tried stabbing the one on his wrist, right through - because the man was a little unstable when it came to things that caused pain - and nothing happened. The strap repelled the blade entirely when cut at, from the outside or the inside of the cuff it didn’t matter. The weakest point on the cuffs were the metal rings, because the metal could be cut, scratched, burned off, but the leather couldn’t be harmed.

“It’s got to be some kind of organic, but what the hell,” said John. Ronon nodded his agreement with the theory, sliced at a folded edge of the strap with a small, ultra-sharp throwing star. They stood in a room surrounded by some of the galaxy’s most advanced weaponry, and they couldn’t find anything capable of cutting through leather.

It would be laughable if Sheppard weren’t already pissed off.

Ronon seemed to accept it as a puzzle, but he was losing his curiosity. He put the knife down and cast a glance at one of the smaller pistols. Sheppard followed his gaze, considered it, and then self consciously tucked his wrists behind his back.

“Bad idea,” he concluded. Teyla seemed to agree, reaching across the table to grab Ronon’s wrist and derail his experiment before he could begin.

“If it’s organic, maybe Dr. Beckett has a solution for it,” she suggested. “He would have to deal with Rodney’s in order to treat him, from what you have said.”

“Fair enough,” said Ronon. He looked to Sheppard. “We go to the doctor’s?”

John frowned, resisted the urge to pout, or even throw something.

“Yeah, fine,” he said instead. “You go. Check it out. I need to get some food. And I want a damn shower. So I’ll... go later.”

Mostly John was just tired of fighting it. He would try again if Carson found something that worked, and in the meantime he would try to wrap his mind around the permanent reminders so they wouldn’t continue to bother him.

So John Sheppard opted to disobey an order (only kinda...) to go find food instead. Real food, that wasn’t some questionable form of vegetable in dirt-laced broth, and god-only-knows what kind of alien roadkill rodent as a main course. He might look a mess, but he could at least enjoy the benefits of civilization again. Kinda. Atlantis wasn’t exactly five-star dining. But Sheppard would never complain about the food again after the last few weeks.

There were only a few people wandering around at that hour, somewhere in the middle of the night. Sheppard hadn’t bothered to look up a clock yet. But the mess hall was still open, and he got a few relieved “Welcome back, Colonel!” greetings along the way to finding a seat. He mustered up a mild smile for them and waved them on their way.

Sheppard found a table to himself, far too aware of the fact that he hadn’t showered in weeks to even think about imposing his presence on anyone who wasn’t in the same proverbial boat. Covered in soot and sweat and rock dust, as Rodney called it, John reeked of weeks of labor and hated it, but he at least was used to it. He still took his food out to the patio for the fresh ocean air.

He could almost relax as he pulled a fork through recognizable mashed potatoes and cut up a decent sized chunk of steak. For a bit of flavor, a bowl of chili sat on the corner of the tray, and if he managed to make it through all of that without making himself sick, there was a cinnamon roll calling his name for desert. After weeks on minimal rations, a proper feast wasn’t smart and John knew it. Which was why he would report for a medical check up after he ate his fill. The internal thrashing he was about to bestow upon himself was what the gurus back on Earth called “self-care” and he was sticking to it.

The alien organic nuisance at his throat threatened to tighten up on him as he ate, apparently not used to the extra work required for John to swallow real food. The little bastard was some kind of alive alright, if it recognized the difference between proper bite-size pieces and the heaping helpings John was treating himself to just then. John was all for table manners, but he didn’t appreciate the policing from an alien parasite. Just one more offense the prison planet would have to pay for. And served as an excellent reminder that he still owed them a nuke.

After the chili. Not before. Self-care.

John tugged stubbornly at the strap around his neck, distracted by the thought that it itched, and tucked into the chili. It wasn’t hot, but it felt like fire on his tongue. Spicy, hot, cold fire. How much seasoning did they bake into that thing under those hot lamps? There was some alien jalapeno in there somewhere, maybe it was a ghost pepper. It had never hit John that hard before, in over a year of mess hall food.

But then again, he had never spent over two weeks living on weed broth and outer space rodents before, either. Another spoonful disappeared into his mouth out of sheer stubborn pride. He would not be beaten by buffet-style chili, damnit.

The flavors in the spices overwhelmed him. Sheppard tried to back it off with a chaser of potatoes, but his spork scraped loudly on the tray, startling him, jarring his arm right up to his spine like nails on a chalkboard. He glanced at the utensil and suddenly everything in his vision blurred silver-gray and shiny. Very shiny.

It was a sudden new world of pain as every sense in his body lit up in the same kind of ghost-pepper fire as the traitorous chili that started the domino effect.

John wasn’t aware of anything around him, at all, for who knew how long. He felt locked up, like he had at the gate. All he could hear was the whirring of the metal of the city and the roar of the ocean behind him. Voices echoed over each other, hundreds of them, until all the sounds were the same, loud, flat wall around him. He was stuck in a loud, silver, painful chaos, and it was all the chili’s fault.

An overlap of voices broke out of the batch. A few people talking words that made sense.

“What do you mean, they won’t come off?”

“I mean, we tried everything. Colonel Sheppard wouldn’t let me shoot him, but, I mean, we tried everything else.”

“Well, get it off!”

“I haven’t tried it yet, honestly. I am a bit more worried about your shoulder, Rodney.”

“The neck bone’s connected to the shoulder bone, Carson!”

Sheppard finally managed to wrench his eyes closed, took a deep breath that burned, like he had forgotten how to make his lungs work in the static that had locked him up. He managed to drop the spork. The chili would win this round. And maybe Sheppard needed to check in with Carson Beckett himself.

 

*~*~*

 

The nap helped. John had passed out in his own room, on his own bed, and all he experienced for what felt like hours was sleep. It was great. For him, anyway.

Less great for everyone else when Elizabeth Weir found out the Lt. Colonel had bucked protocol and had yet to report into the med bay. But still. Great for Sheppard.

When the Director finally tracked him down on the city’s sensors, and he was ordered to the infirmary, John stalled long enough to attempt a shower. His head was still a little buzzy from the chili incident, so he kept his eyes closed and didn’t look at anything silver, just in case.

A simple shower, less than two minutes under falling water, somehow left him more on edge than relaxed. He found a clean coat to layer on as extra padding against the world and hid behind sunglasses to cut back the shine of the many reflective surfaces between his quarters and the med bay. The sun was coming up out over the water and John wasn’t looking forward to the experience of witnessing it for once.

After taking all those extra precautions, Sheppard still made the mistake of taking a shortcut through the gate room.

“Colonel Sheppard?” Weir spotted him remarkably quickly. And there was no reason for her to be yelling, but it was her city so Sheppard didn’t tell her to knock it off like he wanted to.

“Elizabeth,” Sheppard replied, his own voice quiet and slow in a hint. He forced a smile and tried not to wince at her volume as she walked ever so briskly down to him. It was never a good sign when Elizabeth Weir crossed her arms at him.

“Planning a trip off-world already?” she asked. He frowned, confused.

“No ma’am. On my way to see Dr. Beckett,” he reported. Weir nodded, but she was still sizing him up.

“He’s going to actually need to see you, you know,” she said. “Not just the coat and sunglasses.”

“Yes, I am aware, thank you,” said John, mirroring her sarcasm back at her. He lifted the glasses off his face, but he refused to strip even one layer in the gate room. “That better?”

“Maybe. What’s going on? Level with me,” Elizabeth said. She didn’t relax much, but the superficial, smug tone to her voice dropped away. Real concern, not just a gotcha trap. “Carson said you weren’t in all night. I’m at fault for slipping on the escort from the gate, but I didn’t expect you to skip protocol.”

“I was hungry,” John said, catching the whine in the complaint and trying to change course for his own pride. “I wanted real food, not a patient diet.”

“The others reported in.”

“Yes, I know that.”

“John, I understand the last few weeks -”

Whatever she was about to say was cut short by the gate alert. Chuck called down to the director, “Lorne return IDC confirmed.”

“I’ll just go check in with Carson then,” John said, looking to skip whatever misguided lecture Elizabeth was loading up. He smiled his most winning smile as a little boost in charm to help dodge that bullet at least another few hours. “Avoid the rush hour traffic.”

He didn’t follow Elizabeth up the stairs to clear the gate, just moved to the lower level instead.

“Colonel Sheppard!” Weir called after him.

John looked back at her at just the wrong moment. There was a bright flash as the wormhole activated, then the dancing light of the event horizon held his attention on the stargate. All of his attention. Sight, sound, everything owned by the gate because he looked at it.

Just like a few hours before, Sheppard locked up. Everything stopped. Breathing hurt because he wasn’t doing it. And nothing he tried seemed to work to get himself out of it.

 

*~*~*

 

The medbay was decidedly not a good place to get work done. Rodney was drugged into a nice, cozy, numb feeling through his shoulder and back, and he had already taken a nap. He wanted to be working on something very important to redirect the busy churning of his brain that reminded him he had lost over two weeks of time on a prison planet.

A prison planet.

Rodney McKay on a nameless prison planet for so long was a waste of his natural talents, and he had a lot of missing time to make up for. It intruded on his sleep.

Rodney only had the gear from his pack at hand, otherwise he had to ask a nurse to go find something from somewhere, either a lab or the control room, or a dozen other places. Nurses weren’t scientists, of course, so they could never find anything that he asked for. He was aware that it wasn’t exactly in their job description, and it was kind of them to try anyway, but he would still acknowledge that they had failed both times he had asked. Twice was enough for that particular experiment, thank you.

Rather than do anything that was actually productive for the city, McKay went over the readings from the equipment that he and Aubrey Hart had carried on their disastrous away mission. It didn’t really matter what he found in the results because no one from Atlantis would ever again step foot on either of the planets they had collected the readings from. But there was a possibility he could find something useful on M5S-332 that they could use to justify making life hell for the Daturans who lived there.

Scientifically speaking, of course. Hypothetically.

Really, idle revenge theories were the best Rodney thought himself capable of at the moment, anyway. He was probably a little loopy in the head, if he was honest with himself. His shoulder had been badly burned from his arm and around to his shoulder blade on his back.

Burning trees hurt, a lot, as it turned out, and Rodney had a whole new respect for fire as a weapon. It turned out that, when one had brute strength on their side, burning things made a sizable dent in one’s opponent’s immediate life plans and provided an easy win in fights.

Personally, McKay thought Ronon Dex was a better way to win fights and fully intended to keep the man between himself and any hostile forces from now on. It wasn’t really a change in policy for him, just a painful reminder that Rodney should stick to his personal policies better.

It would have helped Aubrey if it had been an option. But Ronon had already been taken away by then. McKay had been paranoid about the team splitting up any time since, after that morning.

He remembered seeing Aubrey lose her hat while the locals on the planet sorted the Daturan prisoners into work groups for the day. She had been shoved too hard and stumbled, caught herself, and bumped her hat off her head. Her lovely short blonde hair saw daylight for the first time on the planet and it froze every one of the locals.

Apparently only the upper class of Daturan society were blonds. The soldiers that minded the prison planet, the key-keepers that played taskmaster to the prisoners and locals alike, all of them had the same yellow blond hair. And that was all it took to brand the poor girl a threat, a spy, alongside her foreigner teammates.

Rodney and Sheppard were still locked to the rock wall with the others who hadn’t been sorted, and Ronon Dex had already been moved to the mines with the first group of the morning. She was on her own. The kangaroo court of dirty peasants and prisoners didn’t even take five minutes. She was killed twenty feet away from them, left there half the day to be sure she was dead before they took the body away.

Sheppard had been murderous for days after that. None of the locals or prisoners would go near him to let him off the wall, and the Daturan guards didn’t like having to intervene. It got all three of the remaining Atlantean team drugged and moved to another camp to start over because the Daturans didn’t want to waste the manpower.

It sucked.

Taking a deep breath, Rodney wiped at his face and tossed his tablet down on the bed. The medbay was depressing. Maybe Carson could do the treatment from Rodney’s lab instead.

There was a commotion in the next room suddenly. Just what Rodney needed. Something to focus on. He sat up a little, straining to see what was going on without disturbing the patches covering his shoulder and back. It was only when he saw Carson sweep in that McKay remembered he was supposed to be lying down on his side and not straining his back at all.

Oops.

The medics rolled in a gurney, with Elizabeth Weir running in behind it. Nobody looked happy.

Lt. Colonel Sheppard lay on the bed when the medics moved aside and McKay startled. The man’s eyes were open and his face was blank.

“What-”

“Not now, Rodney,” Carson ordered. He took note of the fact that McKay was sitting up though, growled at him about it, before turning back to deal with Sheppard. Rodney took the hint and eased carefully back to the raised pillows.

“He’s dehydrated, like the others,” came the report. A nurse tapped away at a screen while Carson checked over Sheppard. “Covered in bruises. Just once it would be nice if they didn’t come back from Fight Club. Just once.”

“They were gone over two weeks, Carson,” offered Weir. Watching intently, Elizabeth lurked out of the way, obviously as anxious as Carson.

“Aye. Malnourished. Still human,” Carson rattled off different findings as he went. “Zero sensory response. Might as well be in a coma. What the hell-”

McKay stared from across the room, shocked. Sheppard had been healthy enough when they came through the gate five hours earlier. Maybe tired, sure. They all were. Now he lay in the medbay being strapped to life support by a nurse. Like he couldn’t breathe. Again. Oh.

Rodney remembered seeing Sheppard wheezing back on the planet a few times.

“I - I don’t know what this is. I’ll have to run some tests, see if it’s viral. Or some reaction to the -”

“Carson?”

“Bit busy,” came the tense reply. Rodney figured it was as much of an invitation as anything since the man had obviously heard him.

“He did this before though. On the planet,” Rodney said, insistent. Weir and Carson looked at each other, a different kind of concern on their faces as they looked back at Rodney. That made him nervous. “I’m fine though. I mean, aside from the shoulder.”

The doctor looked to Sheppard again after that. The room was still full of noise, as new machines lit up with heart rate, blood pressure, and brain activity monitors. Everything was too high, which didn’t track with the coma theory at all. The doctor’s team had peeled Sheppard out of his jacket and found no other injuries to explain anything. Bloodwork was going to take time.

“Sedate him,” said Weir. Rodney coughed into his pillow and started to sit up again, surprised by what he heard.

“Excuse me?” asked the actual medical doctor in charge of the room. Elizabeth pointed at the brain wave monitor.

“He’s awake. Put him to sleep,” she said. “Reset his system.”

“That man is the farthest person here from a computer! No rebooting!” Rodney pointed out. Carson set a hand to Rodney’s uninjured shoulder and pushed him carefully back down. There were a hundred reasons why that was a bad idea, but it was clear that Carson was considering it.

And then, without any apparent explanation, the numbers on the screens all dropped. Even with the oxygen mask on, Sheppard took a gasping breath and came up coughing. He swatted at his face to get the mask off as Carson and a nurse rushed forward to help. Sheppard swatted at them too until he seemed to recognize them. Only then did he calm down. The man still sat straight-backed upright on the bed as he got his bearings.

“How- I was on my way-” Sheppard seemed genuinely disoriented and concerned. He didn’t seem to have control of his voice, either, with the volume going up and then down like he was still remembering how to breathe. It was truly bizarre to witness, after years of watching the man in the field, taking on fights or assuming control of alien technologies far beyond anything he should have had the mental awareness to operate. John Sheppard was a confident man, and Rodney had never seen him actually helpless before.

Rodney didn’t like it in the medbay at all.

“You stopped responding after the gate activated,” Elizabeth told Sheppard. “You were barely breathing and fell over when someone touched you. So we moved you to the infirmary. Where you should have been to begin with.”

“I was on my way there,” Sheppard said, countering her passive-aggressive with his own open annoyance. “I needed food and hadn’t had a shower in weeks. It had to wait.”

“Well, it shouldn’t have. If you had been five feet closer to the gate when this happened, you’d be dead right now,” said Weir. She wasn’t messing around with the flyboy’s stubborn streak, a lieutenant colonel or not. “So now you’re here until Dr. Beckett releases you, with very explicitly clear answers to what caused this.”

Sheppard frowned. “I think there was something in the chili. Someone should look into that...”

“The... chili?” asked Carson, confused. “This was no allergic reaction, Colonel.”

“I didn’t say it was. I don’t have allergies,” said Sheppard. McKay rolled his eyes at the stupid military jock superiorority complex over the nerds with the allergies, right there in the colonel’s voice to insult him to his face.

“It wasn’t the chili, is what I’m saying,” said Carson. Sheppard shrugged it off, just as clueless as the doctor on the cause. “So I’d like to ask when these episodes started, and how many have ye had?”

“Just now, that’s one. And the chili this morning, that’s two,” said Sheppard. Like that was it. No more to list off. McKay waited in the awkward silence as Beckett and Weir both turned to look at him expectantly. Sheppard noticed and narrowed his eyes at Rodney from across the room.

“What’d I miss?” he asked.

“Well... just that I noticed you having problems breathing on at least two seperate instances on the planet,” Rodney told him. “Once when the Daturans sent our camp into the caves without Ronon, and once at-”

“The battle at the gate,” Sheppard said. He seemed to have forgotten the instances until they were mentioned and allowed McKay’s intrusion into his medical consultation. Sheppard looked up at Carson again. “Okay, four times. But the first two weren’t like the last two.”

“Not like them how, exactly?” asked Carson.

“Well, not like... not as intense, or quite as... weird. I could still move in the first two. I snapped out of it and got back to work,” said Sheppard. Words weren’t his strong suit and McKay found the explanation lacking, but it seemed to make sense to Beckett and Weir.

“So what you’re saying is they’re getting worse? These episodes of whatever they are,” said Carson. Weir wandered back over to McKay and picked up the tablet off the end of the bed, set right to work doing something on it without permission. When McKay started to complain, she silenced him with a look and he settled down reluctantly.

Sheppard carried on defending himself to the doctor. “I’m not saying it’s getting worse, I’m just saying-”

“Aye, you’re saying they’re increasing in severity and happening more often,” Carson interrupted the argument. “And that it wasn’t the chili, and that the cafe chefs did not attempt to poison the station’s ranking military officer.”

“Okay, fine, it wasn’t the chili,” said Sheppard. “But I’m fine in between. I feel fine now. I’m breathing now. I can see everything fine. I can hear you yelling at me about it just fine. I’m saying I don’t have to be removed from duty over it.”

“You weren’t breathing, Colonel. That’s not nothing,” said Carson. He frowned and then seemed to catch a new track. “What’s this about your vision now?”

Sheppard sighed. He wasn’t getting out of it. McKay knew the feeling.

“I don’t know. Everything gets very bright. I mean, very bright. And real colorful. I could see some crazy detail, back planet-side. Distance or up close, it didn’t seem to matter. I noticed that a few days ago.”

“And sounds, ye mentioned,” coached the doctor.

“Everybody’s yelling all the time now,” John complained. He waved a hand around the room. “And this city echoes. Like, a lot.”

McKay was used to being told to quiet down, but he knew that no one had been yelling in the room. He kept quiet as Elizabeth handed Carson the stolen tablet. John started tugging at the leather cuff from the prison planet, like it bothered him. Maybe it was an allergy after all, McKay wondered idly, like to the organic material that had yet to let go of any of the trio of former prisoners. McKay sat up again and reached for the scanner tablet in Hart’s duffle off the other side of his bed.

Carson read in silence off the tablet Weir had given him, silent and concerned.

“So then the chili. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it was hotter than usual? Too spicy?” Carson finally asked. He gave the tablet back to Weir and she returned it to Rodney just as he had left it. Sheppard sat, sulking now, across the room and shrugged.

“Well, yeah. I had my own one-man show of Goldilocks and the three bears on my dinner plate, and the only thing that was Just Right was the mashed potatoes,” said Sheppard.

“And you froze up, like in the gate room?” Carson asked. Sheppard didn’t answer at first. McKay looked up to see him scowling at his boots, angry about whatever Carson was getting at. It seemed innocent enough to McKay.

“I’m going to guess that ye did,” said Carson, gently about it.

“Yeah. The chili kicked my ass,” Sheppard reported.

There was a long silence from the other side of the room. It was distracting. Way too heavy. McKay found he couldn’t focus on the new Very Important Thing he was looking into because they were all being so quiet. But he couldn’t exactly complain about it, either.

“I’ll need to look into a few more things,” said Dr. Beckett finally. Doctor voice. Serious voice. Uhoh. “And do a full panel. Bloodwork will at least rule out anything from the planet. So you should stay here until we’re sure.”

“Sure of what, doc?” asked Sheppard. It sounded a lot like Carson was sitting on an unpleasant theory, and the man was worse at lying than Rodney was.

“I want to rule out the ProX gene. It could explain a few of your symptoms. And from what Rodney and Ronon have already told me, the conditions may have been sufficient to trigger the episodes,” said Carson.

“What the hell is the ProX gene?” asked Sheppard. Carson frowned, apparently stuck on the question.

“It was discovered some years ago now, but generally speaking it’s not something I’ve had to interact with. It’s not my area,” he said. Weir stood by, her arms crossed. The pair of them together looked like they were expecting a funeral.

“Have you heard of the Sentinel Project back home, Colonel?” she asked. Sheppard nodded.

“Sure. But like Carson said, it’s not exactly my area. I just know to avoid their agents,” he said.

“The Sentinel Project found the gene. It’s how they identify their candidates. Carriers are supposed to be reported to command once the gene is identified. The ProX gene activates the human sensory inputs, amplifies them to harmful levels. It’s a few fold more intense than someone having really good hearing or eyesight,” said Elizabeth. She seemed to uncurl a little and shook out some of the tension in her arms, like she was nervous. “Homeworld Security took over the program a few years ago when they found a link between the ProX and the ATA gene. It’s all pretty new, but it was enough to link the programs.”

“And the thing of it is, you’ve got an extraordinarily high percentage of the ATA in your code as it is,” added Carson. It wasn’t the politics of some program that made him paranoid about the subject. “So the ProX would make sense, if it’s there at all. And we’ll check. But I don’t know what the activated ProX will do in your system. Hence, you stay here until we know more.”

The heavy silence came back then. Rodney forgot what he was researching as he looked from face to face, vaguely aware he wasn’t supposed to be in the room for the conversation that had just happened. But the questions burned at his tongue. Rodney caught himself leaning to see better and managed not to fall on his face, and John looked over at him, just acknowledging his roommate’s presence. His attention then went back to Carson.

“So which is it? Do you think we’re ruling out this ProX activation? Or waiting to rule out something from the planet?” he asked.

Carson looked pained. Finally, he offered, “From what little I’ve got to go on, just now? We’re ruling out the viral interference. This looks much more like the ProX. And when you’re a little bit away from this most recent episode, there are some scales we can run you through. But... My resources are limited here. You’ll have to go back to Earth for the full work up.”

“Absofuckinlutely not,” replied Sheppard easily. “I’m not leaving Atlantis over this. Some damn prison planet will not be my last run.”

“John.” Elizabeth quieted from the look Sheppard aimed her way.

“No. Not up for discussion. Now, I will sit here for whatever tests you want me to. I will camp out until I can go back to active duty. Dr. Beckett will be sick of seeing my smiling face as we figure out what this is. Exactly what this is. And if it’s the gene, we’ll figure out how to turn the damn thing off. We’ve got plenty of experience with that now, haven’t we? But I will not be going back to Earth with this.”

It wasn’t the kind of tone a rational person would argue with, because every word said the man wouldn’t listen. He was set to argue and ignore, whatever the cost. And the cost would likely be another episode, which Carson Beckett was duty-bound to avoid. So the doctor gave an awkward cough, shuffled, and looked to Weir.

“I think that’s a plan to aim for. So, Director, if you’ll excuse us, Colonel Sheppard and I still have work to do before he sleeps.”

“I already had a nap,” said John.

“And it won’t take long for me to get sick of your smiling face at this rate, yet there’s still much to be done between now and then,” said Carson with forced sweetness to match John’s stubbornness. It was also terribly clear that Carson hadn’t had a nap himself in at least a good while.

“Oh, right,” Sheppard replied. He nodded acceptance and sat back against the pillows like a good patient. “I could use the quiet. Did anybody find my sunglasses?”

Weir dropped the winter jacket and sunglasses on his lap after retrieving them from a chair nearby. She was not happy about the doctor’s policy for placating a moody patient, but she wasn’t going to overstep.

Rodney watched it all play out, jaw slack. When the others left, he looked to Sheppard.

“So what exactly-”

“Rodney.”

“...Yes?”

“I want quiet. No talking.”

McKay frowned at the dismissal as John disappeared behind his sunglasses, in a room that already wasn’t very bright, and climbed into a heavy coat. The room wasn’t cold, either, but Rodney was half wrapped in bandages with weird magic-science-ointments because of a burn, so his internal temperature might not have tracked the room correctly.

“Are you cold?” he asked.

“Quiet, Rodney.”

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

Sheppard had been in the medbay for two days. He was well past tired of Doctor Beckett and it was probably mutual. Both of them were tired of Mckay, though, so their friendship remained through their mutual hardship.

Mostly John was just cranky. And he knew it, which made him all the more cranky because he couldn’t actually blame Carson and Rodney. Not really.

The doc’s tests hadn’t given him any good news. There hadn’t been any more lock ups while he was stuck in the medbay, but all signs still pointed to ProX.

Sheppard had to sleep with noise canceling headphones because the presence of another human in the room was too loud for him to rest otherwise. He heard everything. Heart beats, breathing, snoring, weird gurgles, and other human noises he didn’t want to think about mixed in with the whirr of machines and creaking of the metal walls entire stories above the rocking ocean waves. It was bad enough to feel the movement under his feet, just as clearly as if they had been on a fleet carrier back on Earth, but the sound could be nerve wracking. Everything was just so loud on Atlantis compared to how it had been planetside.

He spent enough time back in the city to realize that most of the conversations he heard were happening in another room, maybe another floor, but he couldn’t narrow it down. He could sort out the echoing sound of the ocean that rolled through the halls and the individual voices of Carson’s team. He knew the environmental controls had gone sideways on them and had to ask Carson to send Zalenka after it because there was no way the medbay chief was going to let John chase up to the control center to ask him about it himself. Carson wouldn’t even let John have a radio, he said to minimize the amount of sound he could lock up on, but it was probably to keep him from abandoning the enforced medical leave he had been placed on.

Beckett wasn’t playing with something he only knew about in vague theories, and Sheppard didn’t really want to argue since arguing, so far, had left him gasping for air. He liked breathing.

Rodney switched on and off at random when he wasn’t sleeping; he was either complaining about pain, muttering to himself about equations or code, or he was more loudly sharing about some genius named Rodney McKay who Sheppard had come to conclude lived in another plane of existence entirely because the other guy sounded a lot nicer than John knew Rodney to be.

The worst part of all of it was the sitting still. John got in a lot of naps between outbursts from his roommate, and actual sleep when Rodney slept, which was nice. He discovered that he really did need the sleep. But there was no wandering the station allowed, no going for runs, no trips to the cafeteria. There was a private bathroom down the hall, and that was as far as the off-duty Lt. Colonel was permitted to go unsupervised.

To make up for it, John tried sit ups, push ups, and some tai chi in his pursuit of playing the good patient. He even played chess with Rodney when he wasn’t otherwise inclined to add to the man’s injury list. He wasn’t letting some stupid gene ground him for life when he had another stupid gene that promised to show him other galaxies. That wasn’t going to work with John Sheppard at all.

The only hiccup to his perfect-patient, anti-ProX plan was the cuff at his wrists and neck. The damn things weren’t backing off and the rash was getting worse instead of better. Revenge for the times he had taken knives to them, probably. Every time Carson saw it, he told John to leave the things alone because he was obviously irritating them. Ronon and Rodney didn’t have rashes, and Rodney was the one with allergies, so it had to be something Sheppard was doing to it.

“But I’m not doing anything to them,” John insisted.

“Well, I suggest doing less of what you aren’t doing to it then,” said Carson. John was pretty sure at this point, the doctor needed to get more sleep. But he kept his mouth shut as Carson changed out the bandage under the cuffs in an effort to make it harder for the organic straps to touch skin. It didn’t work, but it was better than nothing.

“How about we just poison the bastards so they die without taking me with them,” John said.

“Trust me, John. I’ve been workin’ on it with Ronon. When we find something that works, we’ll let ye know,” promised the doctor. At least they were still on a first-name basis, so John figured maybe he still had a chance at escaping the ProX noose.

On day five, Rodney was sent home. The burn was healed just enough that he wouldn’t accidentally tear skin reaching for a data crystal, so he could return to whatever tasks he felt capable of without the help of the stronger pain medication. He still had regular visits for medicines, and strict orders to keep his arm in a sling to keep from overusing repairing muscles, but there was no reason for Carson to keep tormenting Rodney, himself, and Sheppard all three with the physicist's presence. He was not going to be the most pleasant to be around for a few days more, and John was glad to have his own space again in the back room of the medbay.

The weird part was that, after Rodney left, the room somehow got louder instead of quieter. John reverted to wearing the noise-cancelling headphones more often, even when doing his tai chi routine so he could focus on his own breathing without the interference of conversations from other rooms. He chalked it up to cabin fever and buried his head under his jacket, adding an extra sound dampener. But the ringing silence made his skin crawl. He could hear everything he didn’t want to, but it all sounded empty.

In the dark, under the jacket, behind the technological ear muffs, John found himself sorting through noises the same way he would sort through the voices in the medbay when he wanted to snoop in on if Carson had learned anything he hadn’t shared yet. The problem was that John didn’t know what he was sorting the sounds for, what he wanted to focus on in all the sounds he could hear. He just kept listening. And before he realized it, he was locked up.

John had no way to know how long he was under. He “woke up” the same as before, with Beckett and a nurse standing by the bed and monitors stuck to his head, chest, and fingers. This time the nurse was taking his blood and goddamn if it didn’t hurt like she was using a lead pipe in place of a needle. But John’s chest hurt. A lot. So he didn’t fight the oxygen mask or the blood draw and he lay still so it would kick in faster. Less pain was good. He was feeling those forty-three years a lot lately and he didn’t like it.

When he stabilized, he carefully reached for the mask and Carson helped move it away.

“So... what was that?” Carson asked, careful and concerned. “You’ve been three days without an episode. And this one, ye had the only failsafes we’ve got already in use.”

John shook his head, honestly without answers. Honestly, maybe, a little scared. “I don’t know. It was too quiet. I know... I mean, this sounds weird, but... I was sorting sounds, and then I... just got stuck.”

Carson sighed heavily and sat down in the chair beside the bed.

“This is the gene, I’m sure of it,” he said. He sounded distressed. “I’m sorry, John. But it’s the only thing we’ve found.”

John nodded, only grudgingly resigned to it.

“But it only just turned on, right? There’s got to be a way to turn it off. Just fit in a new bit of code, undo the Daturan mindfuck-”

“That’s not exactly how it works. Once it brought you online, it sets off a chain reaction. One tiny bit of code flips the switch on a dozen other bits of genetic code along the chain. And from what I can find? In all the research the last ten years, apparently no one’s ever looked into exactly which switches have to be flipped to turn the system off again. Going to the program, back on Earth - that’s the quickest way to get you back on your feet, John. I’m sorry, but it is.”

“And if I go back there, they won’t let me back here, so that’s not gonna happen,” Sheppard explained, a hard edge to his patience. Carson looked at him, frowning and unhappy in his sympathy for the spot John was in.

“Messing with this gene... it could mean messing with the ATA. You’ve got too much that could go wrong. Even if ye stay here, it... could still go very, very badly,” he said. Sheppard shrugged it off.

“So I need a third option. I can’t stay here like this, and I can’t go back to some training program wrapped up in red tape. Door number three, Carson. Gotta keep looking.”

The pep talk didn’t seem to work. Carson sagged a little in his chair.

 

*~*~*

 

“I got it! Ah ha!”

Rodney didn’t bother to curb the enthusiasm in his boast as he marched into the infirmary. Sheppard let out a yelp and covered his ears as everyone else just looked up at the scientist’s entrance. Carson noticed his patient’s reaction and belatedly shushed McKay.

“Ye got what, now?” he asked, just above a whisper. Rodney didn’t catch the hint. He held his right hand up to show Carson the organic strap still leashed there.

“These. I know how we get rid of them. And it’s so damn simple-” Rodney stopped talking as Sheppard appeared at his shoulder. “Should you be out here?”

“It’s too quiet in my room. I can be around people, Rodney,” said Sheppard. Apparently after six days in the infirmary, John Sheppard got to live there. Huh. McKay looked to Carson for confirmation.

“You’re sure he’s not contagious? Nothing viral?”

“Certain, at this point,” said Carson. Sheppard rolled an impatient hand in the air.

“Focus, people. How do we get the cuffs off?” he asked.

“Oh, right. So we need access to the Daedalus,” said McKay. That was met with confusion and some alarm.

“Is the Daedalus still here?” Sheppard asked, eyes wide. Rodney and Carson both nodded their heads.

“Uh. Doctor Weir asked Colonel Caldwell to wait, while ye were missing. And then, you with the ProX...” Carson trailed off to avoid the unwanted topic. John grimaced but also willingly left it alone. Before Rodney could carry on with his genius plan, the headset radio squawked in his ear.

“Dr. Beckett, please accompany Lt. Colonel Sheppard to the conference room,” announced Weir’s voice. Rodney frowned.

“Can that wait?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Sheppard. Rodney tilted his head, confused, since John didn’t have a radio on. Carson frowned disapprovingly at the both of them.

“No,” he said. He caught Sheppard by the arm to drag him toward the door and get him moving. “On our way, Director,” he said into his radio.

Sheppard went along with it, but he grabbed Rodney by the cuff around the neck, just a tug on the metal ring there to get him walking along with them.

“Talk, Rodney. Quickly,” he ordered.

“Alright! Jeeze...” McKay followed along, but he stayed out of grabbing range. “The transporters on the Daedalus. We raise the sensitivity on the-”

Rodney broke off on a yelp as he nearly ran into the doctor. Carson stopped so suddenly, pulled Sheppard to a stop to face him, making sure his patient looked him in the face. He even shook a finger at him to accentuate the severity of whatever had so quickly offended him.

“You. Cannot. Use. The transporters,” he said. He was very clear on that point, despite the ridiculous accent muddling up his words. Sheppard scoffed at it.

“I’ve used them dozens of times,” said John.

“Aye, but that was before. As far as I know, there’s never been a Sentinel through the transporters, and I’ll be damned if ye’ll be the first.”

“Not a Sentinel,” replied Sheppard. Carson leveled a glare at him for it. Rodney sighed loudly, annoyed that his genius was being undercut by Sheppard’s whatever-it-was.

“It’s perfectly safe, Carson.”

“Not for this one,” said the doctor, pointing at Sheppard’s face. He looked to McKay then. “If the Director and the Colonel okay it, ye can try it with Ronan. But Colonel Sheppard is limited to places he can physically walk to for the foreseeable future. And you, Rodney- too sensitive on those transporter scrubbers and you may ruin your shoulder before it’s healed. So it may be clever if it works, but only one of the three of ye are healthy enough to try it.”

Rodney blinked at the doctor, surprised. Carson took advantage of the pause and started them walking again. “Director’s expecting us.”

While the Director wasn’t exactly expecting him, McKay invited himself along in order to ask her about the transporter tests. He wasn’t expecting the sour faces he saw waiting at the conference room table when they got into the room, however, and it made him pause to consider.

“Dr. McKay? Can this wait?” Elizabeth asked him.

“I’ve - I found something...”

“No, it can’t,” said John as McKay looked uncertainly to Carson. The Lt. Colonel nodded at him, too, the one that usually meant Rodney was right, so he stayed where he was. Carson sighed and moved to dismiss the director’s concerns.

“It’s related, Director. He should probably be here,” said Carson. And again Sheppard nodded, so Weir dropped it. She pointed John to a center seat.

“Prefer to stand, Director,” said John from behind his sunglasses.

“Sit, Lt. Colonel,” said Colonel Steven Caldwell. The not so subtle pulling rank made Rodney reconsider his choice to stay in the room. The staring match that followed didn’t help. This was a military thing. He didn’t need to be there for that part of it. He was just a contractor, which allowed him the freedom to escape tense conversations that weren’t associated with the safety of the ship. This was not one of those.

Rodney backed up a step, only to hit the closed door. He was apparently in the room until he was released now, too. Great.

Carson nudged his elbow and scooted to grab a seat. Rodney followed his example out of scientific solidarity. The Lt. Colonel still stood behind them.

“I’m good, sir,” said Sheppard.

“It wasn’t a request. And lose the glasses. We’re indoors,” replied Caldwell.

Only under orders did John Sheppard sit at the conference table with the rest of them. Rodney was fairly certain they were all still friends, so the resistance was confusing. He watched John comply with the sunglasses orders, saw the man squint up at the lights briefly before seeming to adjust and looking back to the Colonel.

“Look, we all know what this is about,” John said. Rodney almost pointed out that he was still in the dark, but the look on Caldwell’s face at John’s announcement actually made it through McKay’s social blindness and he realized honesty was not appropriate in this situation. John continued on, regardless.

“And I’m working on it with the on-board physician. It is an ongoing situation, and we’re in the process of sorting it out. It’s just going to be a process. It won’t be a problem forever. We’ve got it well in hand.”

“That’s all well and good, but this city can’t be put on hold while you come to terms with your situation, Colonel Sheppard,” said Caldwell. “And we can’t ignore the fact that there are already policies in place for the situation you’ve found yourself in. They may be located back on Earth, but you are still beholden to them, another galaxy notwithstanding.”

“And if we can turn the gene off, I’m not out of compliance with Command’s policies,” said Sheppard. He was being very cautious. McKay stared at his friend, wondering for the first time very seriously what had happened to John on that planet that the military had policies about it.

“You are at least three days out of compliance. Dr. Beckett has responsibilities to this entire city that he can’t put aside because you don’t want to play by the rules. Rules you agreed to a long time ago, and under any other circumstances would have to enforce yourself, if you’re still capable of doing your job,” said Colonel Caldwell.

“That’s hardly fair, Colonel,” said Director Weir. “No one knows what’s in their genetic code when they sign up for military service. This is a special instance-”

Caldwell turned his attention to the Director on his side of the table. “And yet there are programs in place for special cases just like this one, Director. It’s almost like the ratio of Sentinel among the US military is only one in every six hundred troops and Command has seen this special case before.”

Elizabeth took the point and stared uncomfortably at the table as Caldwell turned back to Sheppard. “Assignment to Atlantis is no different than assignment to Afghanistan. You’re still subject to military command, which means we have to involve the Sentinel Project for consult. And any negotiations for turning the gene off should be handled through them, utilizing their medical units. Not Dr. Beckett’s.”

“But Carson’s literally among the best geneticists in two galaxies,” McKay interrupted, surprising even himself as he came to a better understanding of exactly what was being discussed. “If there’s a chance in hell at turning a gene off, especially one derivitave from the ATA, Carson needs to be involved. Especially considering Colonel Sheppard’s ATA status. That alone makes him too valuable to Atlantis, to exploration of Pegasus at all if we’re honest. Sheppard has to be here, and any scientist messing with the ATA genetics should have that at front of mind when they work with this.”

Whatever “this” actually was. Rodney was going to have to do some research. Assuming Caldwell didn’t kill him for speaking up. Rodney looked over at Carson, seeing the doctor had gone a shade whiter even as he nodded agreement.

“Manipulating the gene is too sensitive to be handled on the mainland. Not when John - Colonel Sheppard uses it out here,” Carson said.

That sounded like a win and Rodney relaxed, the knot of anxiety in his stomach loosening a little. He shuffled his arm uncomfortably in the sling and sat up a little. He was suddenly stressed. And hungry. Hopefully the meeting was over soon so he could ask Colonel Caldwell for permission to toy with the Daedalus transporter system before he tracked down lunch.

Oh. Damn.

Rodney realized he probably should have kept his mouth shut in the first place if he wanted to ask a favor from the colonel.

Caldwell took in a deep sigh, leaned forward to rest his arms on the table as he looked at each of them. “I understand the point you’re trying to make here. Contrary to Dr. Weir’s private complaints, this isn’t a military coup of Atlantis security. There is no question as to the Lt. Colonel’s value to the Atlantis mission. Are we clear?”

“Yes,” said McKay as the other two nodded. He was still slightly defensive, however, because Caldwell was not generally a Nice Guy about Atlantis and military operations lately, and Rodney wasn’t sure he would be able to argue about it with the man and still be granted permission to use the Daedalus computers. There was a marked conflict of interests potentially preventing him from getting his way on too many unknowns in this conversation.

“Good,” said Caldwell, not exactly unhappily. “Now, then you can understand me on this, too. That gene is online. Online is online. The position of the ranking officers above the Lt. Colonel and myself is that the known and established threat of the ProX gene is a matter for the Sentinel Program. The Sentinel training is a requirement for any member, of any branch of the US military or Command, once the gene activates. Period. Full stop. That makes it an order. One of those things that cannot be ignored because it creates an inconvenience for the officer or his crew. Is that also clear?”

There was a guilty quiet in the room after that. McKay shrank a little in his seat. Even Weir studied the table top under the stylus she toyed with. The point was apparently clear to the people at the table.

Sheppard wasn’t happy, but he sat up in his chair a little straighter. “Understood, Colonel.”

“Thank you,” said Caldwell. He seemed genuine enough about it. “Now, I can’t tell Dr. Beckett what to do with his time. But I can tell you what to do with yours, Lt. Colonel. Stop wasting the man’s time on the gene. The Sentinel Project isn’t a damn death sentence. Just save your questions for them. And the Daedalus and her crew will be escorting you to the program when we leave tomorrow.”

“And the Daedalus will escort you back from Earth upon completion of the program as well,” added Elizabeth. McKay felt his jaw go slack, a little shocked at the realization that Atlantis would be without Sheppard for months.

“Whenever that is,” said Sheppard. “Because from what I’ve seen, once you’re in that section, you stay there. They determine where you can be assigned for service.”

Caldwell nodded but shrugged it off. “I’m sure there are -”

“Exceptions to policy?” Sheppard interrupted the Colonel without hesitation. Caldwell stared back at him for the challenge.

“Yep,” said the Colonel. “Exceptions determined by the appropriate officials at the appropriate point along the chain of command.”

“The position will wait for your return,” Elizabeth promised. She didn’t exactly end the standoff, but she at least made Rodney feel a little better.

“Then I guess I’d better go pack,” said Sheppard. Next to the Lt. Colonel, Carson let out a breath and seemed to relax a little.

“Excellent idea,” replied Caldwell. “Thank you, Lt. Colonel.”

“Thank you, Colonel,” Sheppard said, but McKay was certain he didn’t mean it. Unless it was for not throwing Sheppard in the brig for being three days out of compliance with an order from the top. Maybe that. But rather than dismiss himself to go pack, Sheppard still sat at the table.

“So since we’re all here, Rodney has a science favor to ask, on behalf of myself, himself, and Ronon.”

Rodney wasn’t expecting the hard left turn the conversation had just taken back in his direction. “Well, Ronon doesn’t actually know about-”

“Not the point, Rodney.”

“Right.”

Elizabeth sat back in her chair, crossed her arms as she waited them out. “What’s that, Dr. McKay?”

“Well, see, these things-” McKay held up his own wrist, then grabbed Sheppard’s for added emphasis - mostly as revenge for grabbing his neck earlier - and tugged at the leather cuff. “These things are organic. And obviously unhealthy. And we can’t kill them, cut them, or scratch them. Doing so actually results in the opposite of anything useful.”

“He means the damn things strangle us,” offered Sheppard, protectively pulling his arm back and adjusting the bandages back over the rash they caused. “We need them gone.”

“Right. And the transporters can be tuned into-”

“You want to use the transporters to remove them?” asked Caldwell. Rodney bit his tongue on the annoyance at everyone interrupting his efforts at explaining his genius plans for them.

“Yes, sir. It doesn’t seem to be an extraordinarily complex entity. If we still had access to a Dart, that would separate the codes. The Daedalus sensors should be capable of it as well. With a much lower percentage risk of terminal failure than if I tried to put something together from scratch. I mean, I could, but the idea is to get them off sooner rather than later.”

“And that wouldn’t jive too well with the whole leaving tomorrow thing,” added Sheppard. Rodney looked over at him, annoyed.

“I remind you, I have been known to do more with less in far less time,” he replied. Sheppard waved his wrist in return.

“Focus, McKay.”

To Sheppard’s right, Dr. Beckett raised his hand. One, Rodney noted jealously, that did not have an organic leather monster on the wrist. But seeing as how he was the medical doctor and surgeon in the room, on second thought, Rodney was okay with the inequity.

“I have an opinion on this proposal,” said Carson. “A medical one.”

Nope, Rodney was annoyed at the injustice of the world again. Or galaxy. Whatever.

“A trip through the stargate, or through the transporters, either one, is a bad idea just now. Colonel Sheppard’s system may not react well to either of them,” said Carson.

“I’ve already been through the gate once since this thing activated. I’m fine,” said Sheppard quickly.

“You weren’t when you got here,” said Weir. “As I recall, you promptly abandoned protocol for a nap.”

“And some chili,” added Rodney. He felt more than noticed Sheppard glaring at him and looked up. “What? You said it kicked your ass. I think? It’s a little fuzzy. I think I was on drugs at the time.”

“Yes, Rodney. You very much were,” said Sheppard, jaw tense. “Now can we skip to the part where people get off my back and figure out how to get me out of these damn handcuffs? It’s been almost a week home now, and a few weeks before that, and I think I’ve put in my time.”

Rodney had been on plenty of missions with Sheppard where everything had gone wrong, and he had very rarely snapped quite like that. There was something more like hurt than anger to the quiet statement. Rodney heard the life-or-death demand for help that he was actually very, very familiar with from missions. And handcuffs had never triggered that before.

“It’s not about the handcuffs,” McKay realized quietly, surprisingly quiet considering who Rodney was as a person, generally. John looked over at him again and he did almost seem... scared.

“No, Dr. McKay. It’s not,” Sheppard said, much softer than before. Sheppard scrubbed at his face, messed up perpetually messy hair as he tossed the sunglasses on the table in front of himself. It was distress. Rodney could recognize it when he knew to look.

“I just... need help. I need something that works,” said Sheppard. Rodney looked from his friend to Colonel Caldwell.

“Gimmie... two hours on the Daedalus. I can create the capture system,” he said, looking to put tangible help in front of Sheppard. Caldwell nodded.

“You’ve got it,” the Colonel said.

“Colonel Sheppard, you should go pack. So you can get on board and try it out when it’s ready,” said Elizabeth. She looked from John to Carson, running interference from the doctor’s concern over McKay’s project proposal. “Dr. Beckett, I need a word before you go back to the infirmary.”

Taking that as a dismissal, Rodney scrambled out of his chair. He wanted to reassure Sheppard that the thing he could do to help would be done, successful, and under time. John still looked shaken up. The only reassurance Rodney thought might help just then was a hand on the shoulder as he passed by to open the doors. That was the stuff McKay would reluctantly admit he was bad at. But he could still try.

 

*~*~*

 

“Is this important? I only came back early to get Ronon- Oh. There you are.” McKay stopped talking as he saw the subject of his search camped out in the corner of the Director’s office. Well, that was easy, if slightly annoying. “I’ve been trying to get you on the Daedalus for the past fifteen minutes.”

Ronon Dex just shrugged. “Elizabeth called a meeting.”

“So you couldn’t answer a -”

“Rodney.” Elizabeth caught his attention and Rodney switched gears.

“Yes?”

“Can you sit a moment?” The director motioned toward the chair opposite hers, beside Teyla. McKay pointed back over his shoulder at the door.

“I promised Sheppard-”

“This is about Colonel Sheppard,” Elizabeth said. McKay slid into the directed chair to wait.

“Okay, but I’ve got an hour left,” he said, tapping his wrist where there should have been a watch face instead of a piece of annoying alien technology.

“You’ll make it,” offered Teyla. She believed what she said, so Rodney had no trouble believing her, too. The three of them looked to Dr. Weir then.

“The situation we find ourselves in with Jo-Colonel Sheppard is not a good one,” Elizabeth said, wringing her hands in front of herself as she leaned on the desktop. “But I’m hoping at least the timing will work in our favor. We seem to still be off the Wraith’s radar, which for the moment means Atlantis is more or less safe. If we’re going to be losing our security-”

“We’re not losing him. He’s coming back,” said Rodney, annoyed at the implication.

“Coming back?” echoed Teyla. She was confused. She didn’t know.

Oh. Right.

Weir gave a pointed look at Rodney - the one that usually meant shut up - before looking to the other two. Ronon detached himself from the wall to move over to the desk behind Teyla.

“Where’s he going? What’s wrong with Sheppard?” he asked.

“That’s a long story,” said Elizabeth. She nodded toward Rodney. “And he doesn’t have the time, because he promised to have Colonel Sheppard out of the cuffs inside of-”

“Another hour,” Rodney said helpfully because he was still mentally watching the clock.

“So let me get to the point,” the Director continued. “Colonel Sheppard has been ordered back to Earth. It absolutely can’t be avoided. We’ve looked into every possibility to keep him here. I’m frankly still trying to. But in the meantime, he has to go back. And I’m hoping he won’t be there more than a month.”

“Even so, that’s three months without him here,” said Rodney. He might have been whining.

“Why?” pressed Teyla.

“The last mission didn’t agree with him,” said Rodney, trying to fast-forward to the point. “Well, with any of us, but him especially.”

“It’s more complicated than that,” Elizabeth said.

“We’ve got an hour,” replied Ronon. He wasn’t going to budge any sooner than that and Rodney looked at Elizabeth in offended annoyance. Maybe Ronon had nothing better to do but-

“Actually, I’d like to give you more time than even that,” Elizabeth said, pouncing on the flustered delay from Rodney’s response. “Things are quiet here. They won’t be for John back on Earth. He’ll be there for training, and you are his team. You all work with him most often. You’ll have to be trained in how to work with him in the field. And Dr. Beckett will need to know how to care for him once he gets back to Atlantis. So I’d like you all to go back to Earth with Colonel Sheppard.”

Rodney stared at her, mouth hanging open in an undignified gape before he recovered, really processed what she was asking.

“Wait - are they going to let him come back?” he asked, remembering the mood in the conference room just an hour earlier. Something wasn’t adding up. Weir nodded. But she didn’t look confident.

“They should. But it will depend on the Sentinel Project directors. Unless I can stack the deck a little. And if I send a full team in for training alongside him, it might do it,” she said.

“And a few months away from Atlantis will be difficult for Colonel Sheppard, but we’re his team, as you said. We’ve worked dozens of off-world missions together. Maybe having friends there for this one will make it easier for him,” said Teyla. Weir shook her head.

“Teyla, I don’t know much about the Sentinel Project, but what I do know of it? It won’t be any kind of easy for someone like Colonel Sheppard. I think he’ll need his team at his back to help him get his head around the conditions he’ll be working under while he’s there. Because if he can’t, they won’t let him come back home.”

“I’m in,” said Ronon. Teyla nodded her second and Ronon tapped her chair. “And she’s in. And McKay’s in.”

“Excuse me?” asked the McKay in question. “I can’t just leave for three months or more at the drop of a hat! And there’s actual things I do here, believe it or not-”

Ronon smiled at him, moved to stand behind Rodney’s chair instead of Teyla’s. Big, oafish, barbarian hands clapped down on Rodney’s shoulders, only slightly accommodating the extra padding for the burn on one of them. His hands cinched right up next to Rodney’s neck and the leather cuff there. Rodney stayed very still because he was quite aware that Ronon knew exactly what the loops on the leather cuffs were used for, just like Sheppard did. The quiet lasted another beat.

“See? He’s in,” Ronon said. He patted Rodney’s shoulder again before letting up. Rodney sat up straight at the edge of his seat to escape the casual harassment. He shot a dirty look up at his teammate for it. Every project that Rodney hadn’t been able to work on for the last near a month screamed at him in his head as he looked guiltily at Weir’s desk blotter. His pride caught up and he shrugged it off.

“Of course I’m in. But I liked it better when Elizabeth was asking,” he said, indignant and annoyed. Behind him, Ronon easily reached out and patted him on the head.

“Oh, I wasn’t asking,” said Ronon. “We’re going.”

 

*~*~*

 

Sheppard had his bag packed inside of a half an hour. He couldn’t quite come to terms with having to give up Atlantis, but he could follow orders. That made the whole thing a little easier, maybe. Just following orders was easier than thinking about the odds that he wouldn’t see the city again. Bureaucratic red tape was great at strangling plans like that, but if Caldwell could order him back to Earth, maybe the Colonel would order him back to Atlantis, too.

With his senses all on overdrive, Sheppard couldn't really hear the city anymore. Usually there was an energy, a buzz he could feel in his system better than a double shot of espresso. It was the same kind of energy exchange he got from the city's chair, or when piloting a jumper. It was almost as if the city stayed tapped in and checking on him, even when he wasn't asking it to do things. Sheppard just figured he liked Atlantis, and it was her way of saying she called him a friend, too.

Rodney said he was stupidly assigning human characteristics to an entire city, and yeah, maybe he was right, but the big-brained idiot couldn't feel it. And now Sheppard knew what that felt like, that lack. All he felt was static, constant input, everything was fuzzy and mostly hurt. Atlantis couldn't seem to get through it. He walked in the halls, waved his hands over sensors, interacted blindly out of habit, and couldn't feel that very grounding feedback from her. He missed her already. It was like being somewhere else, even though he was already home.

All the same, just in case he couldn’t make it back, Sheppard found himself on one of the patios outside the mess hall again, risking another lock up for the last daylight view of the city.

A plate of food sat in front of him, but it was mostly just an excuse to sit at the table undisturbed. More mashed potatoes and unseasoned stew. Carson was either trying to help John stay out of trouble, or he was determined to make him starve to death on the bland diet, but Sheppard had kept his promise, never once complained. Making faces as the tray was handed over to him didn’t count as complaining.

He wasn’t exactly surprised when Ronon tracked him down. The big guy had a pack over his shoulder, and he helped himself to a chair across from Sheppard without explanation.

“So. When do we leave?” he asked. Sheppard raised an eyebrow at him.

“We’re leaving?” he asked, obvious emphasis on the ‘we’ part.

“Yep. Earth. For Training. With you,” said Ronon. He was thankfully being his quiet self, not the boisterous and loud that usually went along with the particular smug smile he was wearing. It was the one that tended to make Sheppard wonder what Dex knew. Because he usually knew something.

“What about the city? I think this place could use you while I’m out,” said Sheppard.

“I figure that’s just more incentive to go. We don’t get back until you learn whatever they say you have to know, so... you’ll learn it faster. You can’t count on me to clean up after you back here when I’m kicking ass on Earth,” said Ronon. His effort was amusing at least.

“It’s not that kind of training. If you want to get your ass kicked, stay here and spar with Teyla,” Sheppard returned.

“She’s on the team. She goes,” Ronon said. “And it’s Weir’s orders, so you can’t talk your way out of it.”

That figured. John had been running into that a lot. He scratched at the rash on his wrist, distracted again. That’s when he noticed the strap on Ronon’s wrist where he leaned on the table. The cuff was glowing. And then it disappeared. Gone. Sheppard looked from the missing cuff to Ronon.

“You saw that, right?” he asked, not for the first time that week questioning his own sanity. Ronon looked down at his wrist. He poked at his own skin, no leather strap running interference.

“Huh,” he said. Like he wasn’t terribly surprised by it. Sheppard reached across the table to take the man’s wrist and confirm for himself. Ronon thankfully allowed it, but he looked at Sheppard a little sideways for the intrusion. Sheppard let go of his wrist to snap fingers at him, expectantly.

“Let me see your radio. Carson’s still got mine,” he said. Ronon seemed confused but he handed it over. Sheppard kept it in front of his face, between them, as he triggered the mic.

“McKay... tell me you did that.”

“Captured an organic piece of indestructible alien hide in semi-permanent digital stasis until such time as we can figure out a way to properly analyze it and replicate it in the future? That, that? Yes. That, I just did,” came the smug reply from the tiny speaker.

“Great! Now do it again,” replied John.

“I’ve still got a half an hour,” said McKay, and Sheppard considered maybe someday personally killing the man. Maybe. Just a little bit.

“Rodney...”

The only answer he got was to witness the remaining cuffs disappear from Ronon’s person. Sheppard gave the radio back and waited, staring at his own wrists on the table. It took a minute, but the slight glow happened just before the organic alien tech disappeared, one by one. Then he stared at ragged bandages, poked at the edge of the rash, trying to confirm what was still there and what wasn’t. He tried willing the rashes away just as he had willed away the cuffs, but it didn’t have the same impact without Rodney’s help. He couldn’t win them all.

And that was a definite win. He was game for that trend to continue again.

“Now was that so damn difficult?” Sheppard muttered to himself, figuring Rodney expected it of him at this point. Something that had been bothering him for weeks had disappeared less than two hours after he lit a fire under the scientist’s ass, however accidental the minor breakdown had been. It was how McKay worked.

Sheppard scratched at the bandage, pretty sure the itch was more psychosomatic at this point, and not caring. It would be gone soon. Finally. He looked over the railing, out at the water, and squinted at the sun in his eyes. But he didn’t lock up, and he could enjoy it. Then he looked back to Ronon, a grateful smile on his face.

“Tomorrow,” he said, finally getting back to Ronon’s earlier question. “We leave on the Daedalus tomorrow.”

 

*~*~*

 

Earth: Beacon Hills, California

The Argents actually seemed to mean it when they said they wanted to help. At least, the ones that weren’t Gerard Argent; Stiles climbed out on the roof if he heard that old man’s voice in the house.

When Stiles tried to skip meal times at first, Victoria Argent personally retrieved him from his room, but that was the only time things ever got scary. Stiles was able to attend digital classes instead of leaving the house. Aside from the generalized existence of Gerard Argent, it was the safest he had felt in months.

The social worker checked up on him every week, and would randomly drop in to take him to the clinic for drug testing. Had to be sure there was no relapse to his mythical ketamine addiction. Stiles suffered through it just so that, eventually, they would have to either 1) apologize for labeling him an addict, or B) admit how much money they were wasting on a non-existent problem.

Neither were likely, but it was the best he could hope for from the system in Beacon Hills.

And somehow, against all logic, Stiles slept soundly under the Argent’s roof, something that hadn’t happened in a few months at least.

He took himself out for walks in the woods in broad daylight, when he knew his former friends would be busy in class. Derek Hale would meet him out there instead when he wasn’t stuck chasing werewolf-problems around since Boyd and Cora had shown up.

Stiles wanted to build a listening device and hide it in the Argent’s basement, but Derek wouldn’t let him risk it. He said Stiles could use his own eyes and ears to spy if he wanted to, but only because he would at least be able to use his mouth to talk himself out of trouble for it.

It highlighted part of the problem Stiles found himself in since his dad had been killed. Stiles had no money of his own. His credit cards and bank account all had his dad as a cosigner, so everything was frozen in probate. Which meant Stiles couldn’t even buy himself lunch if he were hungry, let alone the electronics required to build a bug.

On the days they met up, Derek usually brought him lunch, though. The guy was a lot nicer than Scott would ever give him credit for.

Stiles texted Derek daily, on the burner phone Derek had paid for, and if he forgot, Derek would check in first. Stiles had intentionally forgotten a few times, just to check, and Derek sent a text before eleven AM each time. Other times, Stiles would climb out onto the roof at night and call him. Derek never gave him any shit for being a dumb kid who didn’t know how to deal with being on his own.

The only time Derek called him, though, was when he absolutely needed help and had no other option. It was just like before, but there was decidedly less life-threatening commentary exchanged between them. Stiles actually wanted to help this time, because Derek had wanted to help him.

Stiles went out that night and lied to Chris Argent’s face when he told him that he wanted to go out to see a movie. It wasn’t that late, just after sunset, and Stiles had his bike. Instead of hit up the theater, however, he met Derek in a downtown alley a few blocks away from it.

The pair of them spent the next hour there, with Derek hiding and nursing a bloody shoulder, and Stiles digging through a dumpster for a handgun. The hunter who had shot him had dropped it when he fell off the fire escape above it, because hunters couldn’t do werewolf parkour even when their lives depended on it. It was enough to turn the odds on their cat-and-mouse game, and the hunter stopped chasing Derek after that to start running away instead. But Derek hadn’t been able to find the gun before his vision started blurring, and he and his sister already weren’t exactly talking.

Stiles Stilinski wasn't exactly a social genius, but Derek Hale really sucked at making new friends.

He was cranky and definitely shot, but at least they knew what to do with the aconite poisoning this time. It was just a matter of finding the extra bullets in the damn gun, and of course it was apparently another day or two until trash day for that particular dumpster.

“Maybe I should just go steal some from the house,” Stiles suggested. He wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about going looking in the basement for the hunters' particular personal blend of bullets, but digging through the dumpster wasn’t much better. All it would take was one bag ripping open and splattering on his clothes to bring up a bunch of questions he didn’t want to answer about a movie he obviously wasn’t sitting in a theater watching, with spending money he didn’t have. His odds of survival between the basement and the dumpster mess were probably about even.

“No, I know he dropped it in there,” said Derek. He was crouched in the shadows across the alley, staying out of sight in case anyone was following Stiles after the dumb lie.

So Stiles stayed in the dumpster until he found the gun. When he did, he knew enough to clear the weapon safely, and then stole the bullets out of the magazine. He left the empty gun at the bottom of the dumpster in the moldy, smelly slime he had found it in.

That night, they stashed six aconite-packed bullets at Derek’s place in case of future fights, and they got the bullet out of his arm again. Stiles managed not to faint this time, too. He didn’t want to go back to the Argents’ afterward, though, so he texted another lie to his benevolent foster-hunters. Argent didn’t bother calling bullshit about it, either.

“What’d you tell him?” Derek demanded, cranky but conscious. Stiles shrugged it off.

“Told him I was gonna stay at my girlfriend’s place and would be back in the daylight,” Stiles said. And Argent knew Stiles was more or less done with night time travel because of the odds of running into people he would rather avoid, so he thought the message had enough truth in it to fly under the radar.

“Shit, Stiles...”

Stiles resolutely ignored the sourwolf on the other end of the couch. “Whatever. My bike is up here with me. No one knows where I am.”

“Except Allison knows Lydia, and Lydia knows every girl-friend at the school. Learn to lie, damnit. No one will back you up on that,” said Derek. Stiles looked doubly insulted.

“You don’t know that,” he said. “And I can lie.”

“Not about getting laid,” replied Derek.

He wasn’t exactly wrong. But Stiles was confident in the wealth of internet-based knowledge he had on the subject and stuck to his story.

After that night, the Argents didn’t ask him where he went as often. Allison was the only one who pressed him for details, and Stiles lied again, said his new girl was the daughter of one of the dispatchers at the Sheriff’s department and she lived a few cities over in Corning. Sufficiently rural and none of the Argents went near the topic of the sheriff’s department with a ten foot pole anymore. All investigations into his story stopped for good.

Over the next few weeks, Stiles started staying with Derek on the weekends because nobody asked a question about it. They just wanted to make sure his school work was done before he could disappear for a few days.

Stiles made sure to spend the full moon out of the Argents’ place, too, just to make sure no one thought he was running around with the werewolves. He wasn’t. He was sitting on a werewolf’s couch, playing WoW on a werewolf’s high-speed internet, but he wasn’t running around in any danger on their happy-hunting nights. Instead, Stiles was on-call, babysitting the aconite bullets, eating all the chips and ice cream he could find in the kitchen, while Derek was out in the mess helping Scott keep the baby wolves from killing anyone.

When Derek got back, he looked like he had gone a few rounds with someone bigger than him, and he curled up on the couch and slept it off with his head in Stiles’ lap. It did terrible things to Stiles’ insides and he didn’t get any sleep at all until he went back to the Argents’ the next night.

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

Pegasus Galaxy: The Daedalus

Stocked, supplied, and burdened with five new crew for the trip, the Daedalus left on schedule the next day. Sheppard watched as Rodney and Carson took to their temporary assignment posts embedded on the ship, doing their science and medical genius things. Neither of them were military, but the Daedalus crew let them step up and pull rank when needed, or when Rodney got loud, whichever. It was a matter of pride for Lt. Colonel Sheppard that the Atlantis crew, for all it’s oddities, was welcome and important there.

Sheppard’s pride was otherwise pretty bruised up on the ship, turning some funny colors on him as the lightyears disappeared. The idle uselessness wasn’t something he was used to, and it wasn’t exactly a vacation.

Caldwell allowed Colonel Sheppard on the command deck at the start of the run. John would take short shifts, just as a consult, keeping aware of anything they encountered that might need flagged for Atlantis. There wasn’t much. As long as the city stayed off the Wraith’s radar, things would stay quiet, and Caldwell knew that. It was an unexpected courtesy.

The fourth day on the ship, Sheppard went into a sneezing fit on the command deck because someone walked in wearing too much cologne, or formaldehyde, or something. He left the room still coughing on whatever it was. Caldwell still ordered him to medbay for it.

It was the little things that added up to big problems, John learned as time went on. Walking around in sunglasses was necessary in some areas, overkill in others. Sometimes the glasses couldn’t cut the glare of ambient light in a room and he was left squinting through it. The only difference between success or failure was the brightness of the room, the sound saturation in the room, whether or not the environmental controls were consistent with the rest of the ship, what Sheppard had eaten for lunch that hour, how solid the shielding was on some of the more voodoo-looking ancient tech clinging to the walls... who the hell knew, but John sure didn’t.

He could tell by the feel of the ship under his feet and the sound of the engines, under all the beeps and swooshes and talking voices when hyperdrive was on point and when it had some bugs, which was weird. He asked Rodney what a particularly delayed catch in a particular pitch meant, just from idle curiosity, and the scientist nearly had a heart attack right in front of him.

“We have the most sensitive technology in existence working on this ship,” he went on to rant at a computer when he thought John wasn’t around. “I should not find out from an off-duty rent-a-cop that there’s an acceleration in the hyperdrive manifold, damnit.”

John thought about reminding him that he could hear him, but it wasn’t something he was comfortable with himself yet, and he wasn’t about to try to explain it to Rodney. Sheppard wasn’t even offended by it. He was little more than a rent-a-cop on the Daedalus, and an unarmed one at that. Earth policy was in effect on an Earth ship, and that meant that until he was cleared by the Sentinel Project, there would be No weapons, No radios, No assignments. Caldwell mostly stuck to it. Sheppard’s sneezing fits didn’t help his case any, and he knew it, so he didn’t argue with the orders.

There was one exception.

On day five, just shy of two weeks since Sheppard’s last prison planet experience, the Daedalus crossed paths with a Wraith transport ship. It showed up on sensors early, and the Daedalus had time to disappear.

“Can you handle the chair if we need it?” Colonel Caldwell asked.

“Yessir,” said Sheppard.

“Go,” Caldwell ordered. Then, as Sheppard was running toward the Ancients' control chair room, he heard Caldwell order Carson to meet Sheppard there, just in case something happened.

Sheppard didn’t even think to complain about the babysitter. He had been stuck with Carson telling him not to touch anything for weeks since getting back to Atlantis, so he was used to it. Carson met him at the chair, just to supervise, and nervous as hell from the looks of him.

John took a seat and the familiar Ancient tech did it’s thing, like usual. Blue lights, pop up display windows, cozy recliner features, everything perfectly normal. In the chair, with direct contact, he felt a tiny slice of the energy feedback he missed so much from Atlantis. Sheppard felt all warm and fuzzy inside at the thought that the ATA gene at least hadn’t abandoned him in the crazy noise of the last few weeks.

As the transport got closer, Sheppard could see the life signs on board. Only fifty souls, and those were pretty faint.

“Stasis?” he asked, more thinking out loud at Carson than anything. He glanced over and saw Rodney and his tablet had joined the doctor to babysit. Also not surprising.

“Well, that doesn’t make sense,” said Rodney. “A ship that size can store hundreds.”

“Aye. Ship functions must be damaged,” Carson added in.

They could all see very clearly what the pop up display was reporting, so Sheppard shrugged the oddity off. A vital blow to the Wraith’s life support functions could have reduced the numbers. A moment later, the display showed a heat map of the Wraith ship, with data scrolling on chemical compositions in reachable areas.

Rodney made a strangled noise. “What the hell-”

“Did you do that?” Carson asked Sheppard at the same time.

“We are still way too far out for that,” said McKay, already madly at work on his tablet. “There is no possible way...”

The readings moved deck by deck across the Wraith ship. Sheppard stared at the display, just as shocked as the other two.

“I just wanted to know if anyone was alive in there,” he said, the only explanation he had for the readout they were all seeing.

“Based on those numbers, no. Not for long,” said Carson.

“But those numbers can’t be accurate. The Daedalus is still too far out to collect those readings,” Rodney insisted. Sheppard made the mistake of wondering how the readings were possible, and the display took up over half the viewing area to show rows and lines of hybrid computer and DNA code.

“Colonel Sheppard, I think ye had enough time in the chair for the day...” Carson waved him out, his tone and expression showing open concern and suspicion.

“What the hell is going on?” came Caldwell’s voice over McKay and Beckett’s radios. Sheppard heard him just fine and cringed despite himself.

McKay didn’t have any solid answers but he was programmed to think out loud. “Colonel, I think Colonel Sheppard just tapped into the scanners on some kind of back door -”

“Or he’s amplifying them,” said Carson. “He’s not been immersed in Ancient technology since before the planet. If the Daedalus can interact with the ATA, it can interact with the ProX.”

Even McKay froze up at that, looking up at John in open surprise that was actually quite common from him when things went so badly sideways. The speechless part was new, though.

“All I want to know is if we’ve been detected,” said Caldwell over the radio.

“There’s no one alive to detect us,” Carson said, relaying the memo the command deck missed because Sheppard wasn’t allowed a radio.

The response from the command deck was to order a jump. John was still exploring in the command chair, not paying attention to the radio anymore. Carson and McKay both physically dragged him from the chair before the jump to hyperdrive could screw up whatever overload of input was being sent to the display and the Daedalus computer because of Sheppard’s augmented coding.

“I wasn’t going to break anything,” said John, annoyed.

“Aye, but I don’t want to know what happens when you lock up while in that chair,” Carson said. “Also? Medbay. Now.”

The order was offensive and, among other things, entirely unwarranted. “What?!”

“No, no - he’s right. Go with Carson,” said Rodney. “You were amplifying the sensors. It’s right here in the code you showed us.”

McKay turned the tablet so John could read it, but the jumble of symbols made no sense to him.

“That’s not possible,” said Sheppard. McKay nodded.

“Look, I’m with you on that. But... from what I’m seeing here, initial assessment? The Daedalus was just using you as a power source. You really should get checked out, Colonel.”

Until that point, funny senses aside, John Sheppard had felt as at home on the Daedalus as he did anywhere else. He was okay aside from the odd headache, or sneeze, or sudden, inexplicable cold flash giving him the creeps. But the Daedalus somehow tapping power from his genetic code changed Sheppard’s worldview just enough that he decided to stop arguing.

Caldwell, Beckett, and McKay came to the conclusion after that, that until they knew more about how the ProX-active ATA worked with the ship, Sheppard should avoid all essential areas of the ship. Which meant he could go to his quarters, the mess hall, and the infirmary. He had to ask permission to train with Ronon and Teyla because the gym area was near an engine mechanical control room.

It was less than ideal. In fact, it sucked.

John made it his mission to repress the boost to the senses that came with the Sentinel gene. It probably would have been smarter to have spent the time on the ship looking up more to read about the problem, really, but that still seemed too much like accepting a fate he didn’t want.

What Sheppard knew about the Sentinel Project couldn’t fill up a water bottle. The agents all had the gene, which boosted four or more senses, and it didn’t matter which senses. Some of them could see ghosts, or get a read on natural energy readings that were usually off the human visual spectrum.

And because of this super power, they could overhear conversations without bugs or listening devices. They could read file information from outside a room if someone left a window open. They could do almost all of the things that the US military especially didn’t want the average enlisted grunt to be doing. And they had the marksmanship skills that nobody wanted to argue with. They were a special class of elite, and the Sentinel Project existed to keep them on a leash.

If there was anything John knew about himself, it was that he didn’t live on leashes very well. And if the only thing he got in return from it was some kind of superhuman senses, he just didn’t have to use them how anyone wanted him to.

The sunglasses became a permanent fashion accessory, and Sheppard found that the dense ear plugs used by the scientists and crew who had to spend any time around the ship’s larger moving parts could helpfully cut down on the number of painful auditory surprises. It kept his senses quiet, and he didn’t get in trouble for locking up.

Except the time he tried the lemon meringue in the mess hall.
And he got severely motion sick once or twice, but only on the outer decks, with the big shielded windows that amplified and distorted the view.
And he learned the hard way that it was best to wear his jacket at all times.
And to avoid populated places with people who preferred to wear smelly things in tight spaces.

In general, Lt. Colonel Sheppard found his trip back to Earth informational, miserable, and long.
He was screwed.

 

*~*~*

 

Earth: Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado


There was no preamble when the Daedalus got back in Earth orbit. Sheppard was told to collect his things and meet with Caldwell at the first ready Jumper. The Colonel set him up with a pilot, and sent Carson along to make sure Sheppard didn’t try to talk his way into taking the cloaked ship on a joyride over Colorado. That meant that the rest of the Atlantis team went along, too, with Carson as their Atlantis-appointed babysitter.

“What about you?” Sheppard asked, somewhat surprised when Caldwell didn’t move to claim the co-pilot’s seat. The Colonel waved it off.

“I’ll meet you down there. I’ve got things to wrap up, so I’ll need the extra time. I’ll transport down when you get there,” he said.

Sheppard’s only complaint about the arrangement, once the shuttle doors were closed and everyone’s seats and trays were in their mandated upright and stashed position, was that no one would let him fly the jumper down himself. Carson even took the co-pilot’s chair so John couldn’t confuse the jumper.

A half an hour later, they were waved into an underground hangar, one with plenty of clearance for the Ancient’s cloaking tech to go unnoticed. They were met by Major General Landry’s aide, somebody John didn’t know and figured was unlikely to ever have to meet again, and the one and only Sam Carter to at least make it a welcoming committee.

Carter was her usual smiling self, but she seemed unsettled about something and not at all inclined to talk about it around any representation of the top brass. There was little elevator chatter on the way, which was a surprise to Sheppard at least. McKay stood two feet away from Sam Carter and somehow wasn’t taking the opportunity to tell her about any of his recent genius, or about the time a month earlier when he was almost a human s'more.

Sheppard wasn’t going to complain about the quiet, but it was damn awkward.

“This is just a trip to Landry’s office, right?” he finally asked. “Nobody died?”

The humor didn’t quite fall flat; the crowd got the message, but there wasn’t much more than a half-hearted smile for the effort.

“Well, this wasn’t the eventual homecoming anyone had in mind as a possibility for AR-1 when Jack bullied you into going to Atlantis a couple years ago,” Sam offered.

“O’Neill didn’t bully-” Sheppard paused at a look from Sam. “Okay, maybe a little. But still. It’s not like this is my fault. Or anybody else’s.”

From the back of the elevator, Rodney offered up, “Actually, we don’t know that. The ProX activation could have been influenced by one of your Ascended girlfriends. Some kind of... Alien STD. It actually could still be your fault.”

Sheppard took the hat off his own head, reached back over Teyla’s just enough to smack McKay in the side of the head with it. There were perks to being the unarmed, off-duty, rent-a-cop when it meant he could retaliate against McKay’s brand of petty with his own.

“Scuse me,” he muttered as a polite apology to everyone in the small room except Rodney. Samantha kindly pretended she hadn’t seen a thing.

“I was just saying, you don’t know,” Rodney complained. He moved a little further into the corner, shuffled around to put Carson between himself and Sheppard. The elevator slowed.

“Right. So. Rodney, Teyla, Ronon? You’re with me. I’ll show you to your guest quarters for now. And Colonel Sheppard... Dr. Beckett... Good luck with the General,” she said. She sounded like she meant it, too, which was less than heartening.

The team split up when the elevator stopped, with Sam leading her group to the left as Landry’s aid headed to the right. The SGC was still a maze that made Sheppard nervous, so he made sure to stay up with the class.

As promised, when they showed up at the conference room, Caldwell was already there. Landry, too, of course. Sheppard pasted on a smile and tried not to be a robot at a meeting he wanted no part in. He just sat down and took his sunglasses off without having to be ordered to first.

“Any updates?” Landry asked, getting right to work after the pleasantries had passed around. It was at least nice to see that no one was any happier about the pending reassignment than Sheppard himself. It made things easier.

“After a relaxed quarantine period, nothing has changed,” said Caldwell. “The other members of his team are fine. You’ve seen the lab results from all of them. All potential outside causes have been ruled out. The ProX has been confirmed.”

“Three times,” added Carson, still unhappy about it. Sheppard just kept his mouth shut.

“And Colonel Sheppard and Dr. Beckett worked with Dr. Stevens on board the Daedalus. The second opinion is the same as the first,” said Caldwell.

Landry accepted the report, thoughtful and quiet. He looked over a tablet that likely had John’s medical record printed on the screen with the same information. The meeting was a formality.

“Well. The percentages are within range for the Sentinel Project’s guidelines,” Major General Landry finally said. He looked up to include Sheppard in the conversation. “So it is down to you, Colonel. What do you want to do?”

The question surprised him, and Sheppard took a moment to be sure he heard it correctly. “Given the option, I want to go back to Atlantis and get on with the mission there, sir. If it means we go back in time a month, I’ll take it. I could put McKay on it and between him and Carter, I’m sure they’d have something actionable inside of a week.”

Landry laughed, quietly amused by what he thought was a joke, but Caldwell stared at the ceiling as Sheppard went back to a now familiar avoidance track. Carson seemed to be considering it as a possibility.

“At this point, all I can offer you is an opportunity to retire, with your rank and record intact, for a medical discharge, or start your transition to the Sentinel Project,” said Landry. The earlier humor faded to a cautious sobriety.

“Either way, given your record, I need to impress upon you the importance of the fact that this condition grounds you, civilian or military. You will have to register the Sentinel status with the FAA, the DMV, and local law enforcement wherever you settle if you choose to retire. You’ll need to update all licenses and identification, regardless of the path you choose. You can never fly a plane again.”

That wasn’t something John had fully considered until that point.

“Wait - what?” he asked. He looked to Carson, who looked very much like he wanted to ooze into a crevice in the linoleum floor and never been seen again. He had been sitting on that particular piece of info for weeks.

Caldwell and Landry both watched Sheppard, cautious and braced for an explosion. They knew what the impact of the words would be. They were pilots. They knew.

Sheppard should have done more research. He would have probably changed his name and moved in with the Genii if someone had told him he could never fly again at the start of everything.

Which was why no one from Atlantis had dared mention anything about it to him before they had the backing of the Major General. Telling a pilot he could never again operate a multi-million dollar toy capable of flight anywhere he wanted at well over his preferred 200mph minimum was about on par with telling the doctor next to him that he could never again pick up a stethoscope.

“That’s - Look, that is not... What am I supposed to do, then? Nobody will even give me a headset,” said Sheppard. It was the most rational, socially acceptable reaction he could muster. Logic. Follow the work. Focus. He had value that they would lose if they insisted on following some mythical policy, damnit. Somebody had to see that.

That was probably why the retirement offer was on the table.

“What about after training?” asked Carson.

“Depends on the Sentinel Project directors,” said Landry. “We can put in the request, but who knows what they’ll run with in the end.”

Sheppard wanted nothing more than to walk out of the room. It was stuffy suddenly, far too small in the conference room. The realization that he needed to hear the ocean only made the sensation worse.

“Colonel,” came Caldwell’s voice. He was trying to get John’s attention. Shit, was Sheppard starting to lock up? John looked to the Colonel sharply, trying to prove he was fine. Caldwell leaned back, tapped a hand on the table as a tell; he was anxious.

“Colonel, you were put on life support somewhere in the neighborhood of four times on the Daedalus alone,” Caldwell said, being very careful with the topic. “If you were looking at one of your team’s files, if they blacked out even twice on a mission... would you risk their lives, and maybe the lives of anyone with them, by letting them stay in the field? With even one of these risk factors, let alone the full list.”

Sheppard had to work to focus on a hypothetical. “That’s a hard call. I couldn’t replace Ronon Dex with the next in line, so I would have to assess the risks one on one...”

Caldwell sighed, the non-answer not what he was after. He tried again. “If Major Lorne started blacking out every time he walked through the gate, would you trust him to take McKay and Beckett off-world?”

“Hell no.”

Sheppard didn’t even have to think about it. And the silence that followed was telling. Everyone waited for it to sink in for John Sheppard. They weren’t overly pushy about it, either. He caught on only reluctantly. He leaned forward on the edge of his seat, arms on the table as he stared at the surface just below his fingertips. He tapped an anxious beat and tried not to get too focused on the fake wood grain under the resin.

Grounded.

He was only 43 years old, and that was too young to retire for anybody. And he wasn’t going to accept failure as his last mission report.

“Fine. What do I have to do for this Sentinel thing? The training will take care of it, right?” Sheppard asked, looking up at the General. “But I want to come back.”

Landry nodded. “Someone will be out this afternoon to get you set up. They’re based out in California, so you’ll be assigned there and relocated today.”

Carson coughed politely, raised a few fingers off the table in a quiet bid for an audience with the General. “Did Director Weir discuss her plans with you, General?” he asked. Landry leaned back in his chair rather than confirm or deny conversations with the Director to her men. Carson helpfully went on. “She wants Colonel Sheppard’s team training with him. So they’re all ready to go back to the field.”

“Not my call.”

“And I’ll need at least a primer on medical concerns associated with this. We’re a long way from home, I don’t want to be stumbling around blind if the Sentinel Project has answers here.”

“That’s all up to the project managers, Doctor,” the General replied.

“Aye. I just thought ye should know. That’s our orders. Rodney and I, we expect the team to leave when he does. Not before.”

Landry replied with a knowing smile. “Doctor, good luck keeping up with AR-1. I would not want to be in either yours or Weir’s shoes if SG-1 ever found their way into similar circumstances.”

“General, I wouldn’t wish this mess on an enemy,” said Carson on a reluctant sigh.

 

*~*~*

 

With the decision formally and officially made, John Sheppard was no longer a member of the SGC. Technically. He existed in this little Shroedinger pocket, pending some bureaucratic red tape finish line, and he would return to the Stargate program once the training was certified. In the meantime, it meant no wandering the base.

Sheppard had his own personal escort, and the lucky bastard got a radio and a gun. And Sheppard didn’t even own a cell phone anymore.

The whole Sentinel superpowers package came with a huge disabling blow to anything Sheppard had resembling a social life, as well as his career. Which probably said nothing good about his social life to start with.

Sitting in his assigned guest quarters, Sheppard finally - after a little over a month of stubborn refusal - asked for something to read about the Sentinel thing. Carson emailed him a file. At least Sheppard was still allowed to use a tablet.

When he got back to Atlantis, though, he was stealing a radio if he had to.

The file was essentially an operations guide to utilizing a Sentinel on a team, and it was not written from the perspective of anyone who actually had to live with augmented senses. None of the pages and pages of rules and regulations actually had anything useful to John.

They did highlight a few problems, though, and had him rather angrily reconsidering the offer of retirement.

John had worked special ops in his lifetime before Atlantis, and some of the teams he had worked with included Sentinels. He just hadn’t known that at the time.

The policies manual Carson sent him highlighted the requirement of a visual marker on Sentinel Project members. Legally, it had to be voluntary. But the agreement to the marker was buried in the fine print.

By agreeing to join the project, John had agreed to receive the same marking tattoo that he had seen on the Sentinels he had worked with in Special Ops. It was a large, black and red team logo on the back of the Sentinel’s right hand, easily seen whether in uniform or out, so anyone who saw it knew they were in the presence of a human lie detector and spy.

The tattoos had stood out at the time because Sheppard was young and stupid and thought they looked cool. He liked the interlocking, fragmented design of the eagle encircled by its own wings. Now that he knew it wasn’t a team tatt, that it was there as a warning to everyone on the chain of command, Sheppard was annoyed at his own ignorance. Someone should have told him.

At least McKay had been able to get rid of the handcuffs eventually. A tattoo was very permanent.

But if Sheppard couldn’t wrap his head around a stupid tattoo, Ronon Dex would call him all kinds of a coward.

Damn.

Fine. He would get the stupid tattoo. Nobody on Atlantis had to know what it meant, anyway.

The only other useful thing he learned from the Sentinel Project’s command manual was that Sentinel were considered unstable without the grounding presence of a permanent partner. What Sheppard called “locking up”, the Sentinel know-it-alls called a zone out. And zone outs were statistically more likely to happen without that partner, or the person they called the Sentinel’s Guide.

That was a problem for Sheppard. He had a team, and he had a whole city of people to keep track of. It so far didn’t matter if he was in the middle of a crowd or on his own, the zone outs happened. He was ungrounded and unstable. No guide.

He was okay with not being stuck to a partner, however, because the Sentinel Project had an entire section of rules that outlined the importance of the guide. A sentinel and guide team were stronger, more capable, and it amplified the sentinel’s senses. There was a huge priority placed on the guide. Where the guide went, the sentinel followed, not the other way around. The guide got the radios and the guns, and - incidentally - the sentinel’s Power of Attorney and all the same legal benefits of a spouse. All of them. DADT didn’t apply to anyone with the sentinel tattoo, because of the proven benefit of and reliance on a guide.

Sheppard called bullshit. He would rather be unstable and half-strength than sign his life over to somebody like that. John Sheppard relied on himself.

The other rules were similarly dismissive, in John’s opinion. The sentinel was treated like a problem, generally, that would eventually pay off for the project when handled appropriately. Managers with sentinel appointed to the team were advised to set the bar low, at the risk of wasting manpower on trips to the infirmary every time the overly sensitive sentinel sneezed.

“Exposure therapy” was the recommended standard, so if the sentinel had trouble with particular sounds or smells, the recommended course of action was to do nothing. The Sentinel Project trained autonomous teams. The sentinel and their guide, if a functioning team and trained correctly, would work out a solution without their supervisor’s intervention or interference with any non-gene carriers. The “NGC” were the protected class, according to the Sentinel Project’s policies.

For all the guidebook was a worthless rules and policy manual, it at least cleared up a few things for John. Carson and Elizabeth had read the file weeks ago. They had been negotiating for weeks to keep Sheppard - and Atlantis - out of the Project’s jurisdiction. Partly to prevent Sheppard being kicked to the sidelines like a weapon on a shelf that had to be left alone when it wasn’t in use, at the risk of explosion.

Sheppard was worth a hell of a lot to Atlantis. The Sentinel Project manual went to a lot of work to downplay a sentinel’s value to little more than tactical advantage in the political arena and certain policing capacities. For people who knew what Sheppard did on Atlantis, that dismissal wouldn’t track.

Nothing in the manual lined up for Sheppard. He wasn’t a fit candidate for their stupid program. The only reason he was being sent for training was because of a few percentage points on an arbitrary minimum table.

All John needed was for someone to show him how to not end up in a coma because of an “overloaded sensory episode” and maybe a few less headaches would be nice. He didn’t need a whole new set of rules and regs, or a new batch of bosses with new reports to write. It was an overreach that would just give this Sentinel Project access to the classified existence of Atlantis.

“This is bullshit,” Sheppard announced to his room, staring in disbelief at the tablet in front of him. “All of it.”

He didn’t know what to do about the fact that there was bullshit caked around his boots up to his ankles now that he had stepped in it, however.

As he sat on the edge of the desk and tried to make sense of the SGC’s caving to the Sentinel Project’s power-grab, someone pounded on his door. He set the tablet down to go open the door and stop the noise, but there was a “beep!” and then the door opened on its own.

Rodney McKay stood at the door a moment, adjusting to the dim lights, before he spotted Sheppard across the room. Then he shoved the door closed again and moved closer, waving a tablet at John.

“Did you see this? This... this is bullshit,” he said at what passed for his mid-level volume “angry” voice. John raised an eyebrow at the adamant intrusion, crossed his arms and leaned back to wait out whatever science failings had offended McKay so thoroughly. This had to be a whole new level for Rodney to track Sheppard down when Sam Carter was literally just down the hall.

“What is?” he asked, game to play.

“This. Carson said he sent it to you,” said McKay.

That was genuinely surprising. Sheppard had to process this news longer than he thought reasonable. Why was any member of his team reading that worthless policy crap? Especially McKay. He generally had more important things to do than to read up on Sheppard’s problems. Sheppard generally had more important things to do than that, too, until recently anyway.

But at the same time... the manual was bullshit.

Sheppard kicked the rolling chair beside him over to McKay in an invitation for him to take a seat and commiserate with him about the bullshit.

“It is beyond bullshit. It’s completely irrelevant to anything we’ve got going on in Atlantis,” Sheppard agreed. He kept his opinions on the power-grab angle to himself, however, until he could talk to Weir face to face again. Security and politics were neither of them safe topics for Rodney McKay’s poor poker face.

"You aren't really going along with this, are you?" McKay asked, slouched in the chair like he was exhausted.

"I haven't exactly gone along with it up till now anyway," Sheppard pointed out. He was frankly lucky he hadn't been brought back to face a court martial again. But he shrugged it off. "It's my only way back to Atlantis. And once I'm there, this stuff... won't be important, as long as I can figure out how to not zone out or whatever. Maybe that's in the training."

McKay didn't Like it. He tossed the tablet up onto the desk next to the one Sheppard had been reading on. "To be perfectly frank, I know computer AIs with more individual rights than that says you'll have in this program. If I were you, I'd get a lawyer."

"It's a military program, McKay. And I'm an officer, not a contractor. I signed my rights away almost twenty years ago. I can't sue my way out of it now," Sheppard reminded him. He crossed his ankles and stared at his boots, offered a shrug to dismiss it. "Besides, according to them, I'm a lousy Sentinel without a Guide. So I can keep at least half my rights until I power up and my senses stabilize. And statistically, according to their numbers, that's not likely, so I should be fine."

"Oh, good. Everything is fine then. It's not like you're ever gonna need to carry a radio or a gun again," said McKay dryly. Sheppard took his point but didn't have any perspective on how to fix the problem yet.

"Or fly a plane. Landry said no matter what I chose to do, the gene grounds me without the Sentinel Project's authority. I've been flying planes half my life and now-"

"I would just like to be clear, briefly," McKay interrupted. "Puddle Jumpers are not and never will be classifiable as planes. Nor is the Daedalus, nor is Atlantis. They are ships. So... if some political pissant decided to make a rule that you, personally, can't fly planes, that's all well and good. Because you don't fly planes. You pilot ships. And they probably don't have the necessary clearance level to know the difference, let alone care what you do when you're back home."

That was actually somewhat of a relief to hear, even if it was a very small loophole that McKay was only pointing out because he was mad. It was at least an amusing loophole that Sheppard could happily present to Elizabeth Weir later on and maybe actually get away with.

"Yeah," he agreed. "Things will get back to normal when we get back home."

"And Weir wouldn't have wasted weeks of my valuable time, or Carson's time, sending us back with you if she didn't think it would pay off. They'll have to sign you back over to the SGC eventually," McKay reasoned. He looked up at Sheppard again with a shrug and a frown. "It's just on you not to screw up training. That can't be that hard."

Was that supposed to be Rodney's version of a pep talk? Sheppard blinked at him, tried to process the spirit behind the words before the actual words themselves. Outside in the hall, the babysitter with a gun started adding to the headache by going back and forth on his radio. Distracted, Sheppard gave up. "Gee, thanks, Rodney. I think."

There was another knock at the door then, this one an actual polite one, where the person on the other side of it waited to be acknowledged rather than get the babysitter to buzz him in. McKay sighed and rolled his chair out of the way as Sheppard stood up off the desk to go oblige the custom. He had heard the call on the radio anyway.

"Colonel, they're ready for you in the infirmary," his babysitter reported when the door was opened.

"What's in the infirmary?" Sheppard asked. It wasn't a place he wanted to go, if he didn't absolutely have to.

"Forward preparations for the Sentinel Project, sir. They said Dr. Beckett wants the medical stuff done on-site, here, so he can still be involved," the young sergeant reported.

What the hell- Sheppard frowned and looked over his shoulder, toward Rodney and the tablets with the policy manual on them. He didn't remember any "medical stuff" being mentioned. Rodney gave a frustrated sound, held up his right hand to point out the lack of a tattoo there. Oh. Right. There would be blood involved, so it was medical. Sheppard grudgingly nodded.

"Let me get my jacket," he told the kid outside. Rodney stared at him.

"You're really going through with this?" McKay asked. Sheppard nodded.

"If it's my only way home, yes," said Sheppard as he grabbed his coat off the bed. He was only going to the infirmary, but John had learned on the Daedalus that the jacket made a good shield to buffer his senses. "Besides, it's not my first tattoo, Rodney. I'll be fine."

There was a beat of quiet before Rodney looked up at him, surprised. "You've got a tattoo?"

John saw himself out without answering, only waved for the sergeant to lead the way.

*~*~*

Chapter Text

Earth: Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado

There wasn't much Rodney could find through unofficial channels on the proper care and maintenance of a Sentinel. The internet, now that he was back on Earth, was strangely quiet about them.

A few online support groups, but that was mostly for holistic practices that were interested in treating it as a disability. Sheppard was a pain in the ass, but McKay couldn't call him any kind of disabled. A bunch of middle aged moms reaching out to each other about their sons' and daughters' chronic headaches and mood swings wasn't helpful. Neither was a bunch of bureaucratic BS in the form of a manager's operations manual.

The program had built in so much red tape and general static on the topic that the only way to get information was through the official training program. Their civilian program seemed entirely diversionary to funnel people into the government programs, which was essentially a gateway to any branch of the military and a big draw for law enforcement jobs. It was an American program, but they could probably put their hands on every stable Sentinel on the planet, at least long enough to do a threat assessment and then turn them loose on their own if they didn't warrant the interest.

It was irritating. And it technically wasn't McKay's business and Sheppard probably didn't appreciate the visit. McKay wasn't good with the moral support thing and everyone knew it, but Elizabeth had sent him anyway. John was still a friend and all Rodney saw, now that he was paying attention, was his friend being shoved around.

Even as far as a tattoo. Come on.

Rodney very clearly remembered Aubrey Hart's brief "trial" where a primitive society of prisoners and villagers declared her a threat over her unnatural blonde hair. What would the team run into on other planets if Sheppard's hand had an eagle on it? Red and black weren't exactly friendly, peaceful colors.

This was an inconvenience for the team, let alone for Sheppard.

But McKay saw very clearly that Sheppard - and his team - had to go through the training first, to find out if they could ever get out in the field again. If Sheppard could keep control of his senses, even to a fraction of what was implied in the Sentinel Project propaganda, that would be a huge asset to every mission. And if he couldn't, then the SGC would never let him through another gate. No third option.

So, to distract himself from the bureaucracy that Sheppard, Weir, and Carson had all been fighting for weeks, Rodney turned his attention to the things he could control. Like science. And physics. And wormhole technology.

Rodney dropped into the old pattern of bossing around Samantha Carter's lab team, arguing with her about math, correcting dry erase board equations, all fairly easily. She even asked for his help with something SG-1 had brought back. It was the wrong galaxy for him to be any use, but she tried.

And then Rodney realized he had been buried in the basement of the SGC for over eight hours, back on Earth nearly ten, and no one had stopped by to collect him. They were supposed to get moved to the Sentinel Project facilities with John, and they had been there nearly a day.

When he asked Carter about it, she frowned at him. "Rodney... Colonel Sheppard is still in the infirmary. I told you that, hours ago."

"Yes, for the tattoo, I know. It doesn't take this long for a tattoo," complained McKay. Then he looked up, considered it. "Does it? I've never been inclined..."

"Not in this instance, no," said Carter. "He was... well, I guess you could say admitted. He's been in a coma-state for hours now."

"What?! It's been days!"

"No, only a few hours," Carter tried to assure him. "He's got our team and Dr. Beckett-"

McKay shook his head, still annoyed at the news even though Carter softened the blow. "No, no... I mean days since he had one of those coma episodes. I thought he was better."

"Oh. This isn't something that just gets better, Rodney..."

McKay closed his laptop and tucked it away in his bag. "I'll go check with Carson."

And he did. He marched himself to the infirmary just like he had marched himself to John's guest quarters. He didn't have to knock that time. And he found Carson at a station right away, the doctor looking over numbers on a computer screen that likely had something to do with Sheppard.

"What happened to him?" McKay asked, rather than bother with hellos. Carson leaned on a tall chair, turned to look at Rodney like he somehow wasn't surprised.

"The tattoo caused more pain than he was expecting," said Carson. "He zoned out before the Project rep was half way through with it. So we got him on life support and we're monitoring him. Everything is alive and active, just as before. He's in there somewhere but... he can't seem to get back out of it."

"Well, what's the Sentinel Project representative say to do to get him out of it?" McKay asked, offended at the implication that the project's own experts didn't stick around to help.

"To do what we did," said Carson. He frowned, shook his head. "He said it's fairly common, especially when they're unstable as John is."

"John is stable," said Rodney, complaining and offended on Sheppard's behalf. "He just needs somebody to help him with more than some stupid tattoo-"

"Aye, not the kind I meant, but go see for yourself. He's as stable as I can make him until someone tells me something better," said Carson. He pointed around the corner, to another room, where Sheppard was half sat up on the bed, staring, eyes wide open and a grimace on his face under the oxygen mask.

"He's breathing?"

"Barely, but yes," replied Carson. He and Rodney both stepped closer to the door, enough to peek inside without disturbing anyone else in the sickbay. All of the monitors attached to John were silenced, and the lights were dimmed in his corner of the room, but McKay could plainly see the stress Sheppard's system was under that the silenced screens were desperately reporting.

"Why don't they have something better- why didn't they just transfer him to the experts now? Seems to me now would be a great time for some actual communication with these people," said McKay. Carson had no good answers to that question himself.

"We reported it, they said we can move him when he snaps out of it," said Carson. "General Landry was going to make some phone calls, try tae find someone with something more useful to contribute than a kid with a... a tattoo gun."

McKay crossed his arms, scowled at his watch instead of the doctor. "This is a new record, isn't it? Sam said it's been hours."

"He's never been under this long," confirmed Beckett. "Twenty minutes was the longest, and that was weeks ago. That first day he was in the infirmary after you left? He's gotten better about it since. Or at least, I thought."

"This is insulting," McKay said. "We crossed two galaxies to get help for this. Now it's no different, he's just not at home."

Carson nodded his agreement and sighed. There wasn't anything else he could do. He waved a hand toward Sheppard as he looked back at McKay. "Why don't ye go sit with him? Teyla and Ronon were already by an hour ago. According to everything we can tell, he can see and hear everyone. It may help."

McKay considered it. He finally pulled his bag from his shoulder and nodded, went in to claim the chair between the wall and Sheppard's bed. He noticed right away the plastic bandage wrapped around Sheppard's hand where it lay on the bed. It somehow seemed more insulting and yet par for the course that the Project representative had apparently finished the whole tattoo while Sheppard was zoned out. Maybe it made sense, maybe it was harmless. McKay didn't understand what caused the zone outs to know.

"This is not something I ever thought I would have to look into, you know," he told Sheppard, trying to convince himself that his friend could hear him. "And I haven't been able to find much. So if you get us kicked out of training before we even get there with this episode, we're all screwed. Lorne and Ronon don't get along well enough, the missions will suck."

McKay had just gotten settled, laptop out to resume the work he had been doing in the lab, when he noticed movement. He looked up to see Sheppard had moved the oxygen mask off his face on his own. None of the monitors had gone off because they had been silenced hours earlier when the readings were too high for the computers to accept.

"Hey... are you awake?" McKay asked, careful to be quiet. Sheppard didn't turn his head, but he looked over at him as confirmation. McKay looked to the door to call for Carson, surprised to see the doctor leaning in the doorway and watching them.

"Lorne doesn't get my team," said Sheppard. His voice sounded dry, like he had been yelling for hours instead of zoned out. McKay handed him a water bottle off the counter behind him. Sheppard gave him a thumbs up for the effort and downed half the bottle.

"You woke up just to put that on the record?" McKay asked, surprised.

"Sure," said Sheppard. "That's why I woke up. Nothing to do with the fact that those lock- zone outs hurt. I just gotta save Lorne from Ronon."

"I didn't know you could hear anything when you were under," said McKay.

"I hear everything," said Sheppard. "I just can't so much understand any of it."

"Well, you understood that," offered McKay. "I wasn't even being very loud."

Sheppard nodded sagely as he tested out if he could still move his limbs. "You're always loud."

"Aye, I'll second that," said Carson. He finally approached and stood on the other side of the bed as Sheppard came to fuller awareness, helping his patient untangle from the monitors. "Careful. You've been under for a few hours at this point. Don't be in any hurry."

"Everything hurts, doc. Like I just ran a marathon. While breathing through a straw," said Sheppard. He noticed the plastic bandage on his hand and poked at it. "It's done?"

"You dinnae seem to notice, so he finished it up rather than put you through finishing it later," Carson replied.

"I told you, I should have tracked down some whiskey first. I would have been fine," said Sheppard. He considered it another moment before shrugging it off. "I don't know. It worked the first time, anyway."

"I think you'd find things have changed a bit since ye were twenty-five," the doctor said. It was probably a fair point. Sheppard didn't seem to appreciate the reminder.

"So now that he's awake, when are we leaving?" McKay asked. "The sooner this training starts, supposedly the sooner we no longer have to do this again."

"We?" echoed Sheppard, surprised if not amused.

"I'll go see if I cannae find Carter or the General... maybe they'll know more about how things are going behind the scenes. As of this afternoon, Homeworld Security had taken interest. Everything got impossibly more complicated... It's not my area," Carson said with a frustrated sigh.

"I can take you to Sam," McKay offered. He started putting away his laptop again.

"No, you stay here with John. Help keep him steady till I'm back," said Carson. He backed toward the door, pointing at Rodney to keep him in the chair. That was confusing.

"Steady- what? What am I supposed to do?"

"Just you stay. I'll be right back."

McKay stayed where he was, not sure what the doctor was having a fit about. He looked to Sheppard and saw the man looked just as confused.

"You're okay now, right?" he asked. Sheppard seemed to take a mental inventory before he shrugged and nodded.

"Think so," he replied.

"Huh." McKay took a deep breath and buried his opinion rather than ramble. Sheppard sat on the bed, rubbing at the plastic over the inside of his palm as he looked up at the readings from the remaining monitors. He was still coming out of it, but he would be okay. McKay pulled his laptop back out of the bag again.

They sat in the relative quiet of the room and didn't bother each other. Sheppard watched the infirmary staff move in and out between sections, and McKay worked on editing an equation from Carter's team. He looked up every once in a while if Sheppard got too quiet, but he was always awake and aware.

"Hey... Rodney?" Sheppard asked after a few minutes. McKay only half looked up from the screen.

"Huh?" he said, admittedly distracted. Sheppard was quiet for a beat.

"Thanks for sticking around," he finally said. McKay hadn't been expecting that. He looked up then, saw that Sheppard had closed his eyes rather than stare at the ceiling. He didn't know what to say to it, muttered something he hoped was appropriately positive and reassuring. The math on the screen made infinitely more sense to Rodney than other humans did, though, so all he could do was guess.

 

*~*~*

 

Earth: Beacon Hills, California

 

The problem with lying, Stiles learned, was that eventually the lies always caught up with him.

After a little over a month of staying at the Argents, someone finally figured out that Stiles wasn't going to see his girlfriend every weekend. He was waylaid en route to Derek's loft just before sundown one Friday. Knocked off his bike by a dart to the arm and basically oblivious for at least an hour. He woke up in a dark box that couldn't be more than six by eight feet, but at least it had a high ceiling.

Someone kindly brought him food, eventually. A burly looking preppy kid with a shaved head and an annoying smile. Also, he had really big teeth that he liked to show off, which narrowed him down to definitely not-a-hunter. He taunted Stiles about his poor choice in boyfriends and made it sound very much like Derek wouldn't be alive much longer to miss him, but they still brought Stiles food every so often, and even let him out to use a bathroom. It was always too dark to see anything when he was let out, though.

That meant that the hunters Stiles lived with thought he was safe until he didn't come home. Three days later. It wasn't like Stiles’ phone had been left with him to call for help, or at least text the Argents to let them know he was going to miss Sunday dinner. The people who took him in to protect him from werewolves didn’t know for three days that he was in need of their help, because they believed him when he said he didn’t talk to any werewolves anymore. It was only one wolf he would talk to, really. But apparently that was enough.

It wasn't really a surprise that Stiles was taken down by werewolves rather than hunters, honestly. Hunters would never have figured it out. But after a month, Stiles smelled like Derek and Derek smelled like Stiles to the overly sensitive wolf-noses and their superhuman olfactory powers. The werewolves wanted bait and Stiles was a small, fleshy, breakable human that was easy to knock out when he wouldn’t shut up.

And because the assholes took him out with ketamine darts they had probably stolen from some hunters along the way, Stiles was almost glad to be locked up in a janitorial closet for God-knew how long. It had to be days. Either way, Social Worker Pantsuit was gonna be pissed. And Stiles didn’t want to start the blood tests all over again, so until it wore out of his system again, he could stay in his closet-box. Just a small black box that smelled like bleach and... why did he smell chocolate? He had to be losing it.

Stiles heard a lot of voices, locked up in the dark. There was a small line of light under the door, once he pulled the worn-out seal off the bottom, but not enough to see under it. The voices didn’t seem to be coming from the hall immediately outside the door. Some of them sounded like they were in the small room with him, which was mostly how Stiles knew when he was drugged and when the veterinarian-class medicines had faded.

He didn’t recognize some of the speakers. One of them sounded like his dad and Stiles spent at least a half an hour shouting at the door because of it. That was torture and it was against every law on every continent to use tricks like that against prisoners, war between werewolves or not. It wasn’t fair. Stiles had never done anything to whoever these people were to deserve that.

He heard Derek’s voice. He heard Scott’s voice. And Allison. He heard Chris Argent’s voice a few times, mostly saying some form of “I told you so.” Stiles really doubted his sanity by the time the door finally opened and stayed that way.

An entire group of the unknown werewolves stood around the door, a very effective deterrent against moving from the corner he had propped himself up in inside the room. With that many people crowded around, it wasn’t likely they were escorting him to a bathroom break.

It was dim light outside in the hall but he saw the leader wave him forward. She looked scary enough, with long claws on the end of her fingers that looked like they could do a fair amount of damage. Stiles was completely okay with staying where he was. At least the voices in the dark didn’t draw blood.

“What’s going on?” Stiles asked the werewolf that blocked the door. He had a hundred other questions, but he wasn’t sure even the simple one would be answered.

“It’s time for the reunions,” said the dark haired woman with the long nails and the creepy smile. She stepped into the room to make sure Stiles kept walking, pacing out after him and catching him by the arm to prevent him from wandering.

Stiles tried to pretend he didn’t squeak as the woman closed long claws over the back of his neck to steer him along where she wanted him to go. The building was huge, with marble floors that echoed as her claws clacked and scratched with every step. It looked half demolished, the only light in the building from the once impressive skylights. It looked like it used to be a bank, with a stately staircase that led down to a row of teller windows behind more marble countertops.

One of the younger, twin werewolves kicked a fallen chunk of a smashed desk down the stairs ahead of them over chipped stone and shattered glass. It caught Stiles’ attention and that hurt. Stiles tried to focus on keeping his neck from being sliced open by claws because he wasn’t going to heal as the werewolves could. His foggy brain couldn’t figure out where he was or what was going on, other than the fact that there were dangerous people shoving him around a dangerous place. The sharp claws sliced at his sides or at his neck if he stepped too far out of line or didn’t keep pace.

Stiles made a fist and started banging his hand against his thigh, anything to try clearing the medicine fog in his brain. He just needed to be able to focus and feel a little less floaty.

The group went in different directions when they hit the sidewalk. The sun was setting and there wasn’t much traffic on the street. They were definitely downtown. Only a block away from Derek’s place, as it turned out, because the werewolf bitch marched Stiles directly to the familiar territory. For the first time in months, Stiles didn’t want to be at Derek’s loft.

His werewolf kidnapper didn’t even knock on the door, just kicked it open. One of the werewolves had called the woman Kali, and Stiles figured that was as fitting a name as any for someone who was taking her time about deciding when to kill the small mortal pin-cushiony human in her grasp. She pushed Stiles into the loft and then started shoving furniture around, smashing things, making a mess, and intimidating the hell out of Stiles. A few pieces of broken boards and glass were hurled at him to make him dodge. There was a layer of water all over the floor and Stiles didn’t know where to find high ground in a loft.

He stood by the windows and tried to stay out of her way as Kali lay waste to everything in the loft, including the desk across the room where Stiles kept his stuff. He stared mutely as she dumped the desk and sent the box with his dad’s ashes in it flying into the mirrored wall. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that hurt, knew that was bad, but he couldn’t quite feel it. Whatever part of his brain wasn’t scared was numb, which was probably somewhat helpful. At least he wasn’t a crying mess in the corner of the room. He was too detached.

Gradually the empty, echoing loft became occupied, more of the group of red-eyed werewolves inviting themselves in, pacing and breaking things, like they were waiting for something. Stiles didn't really want to know what.

Then Derek showed up, with Isaac, and Boyd. Three of them, against three of the new, evil werewolves, didn't seem like terrible odds. Derek saw Stiles right away but didn't say anything to him, barely acknowledged him from across the big room as he instead assessed the threats in the room.

But then two more angry-faced werewolves showed up, seconds behind Derek, like they had been waiting to close the door on Derek’s arrival. The first one that caught Stiles' attention was a man walking in carefully, like he was blind. And the man who walked in with him, helped the blind one over the doorway, closed the door behind them, he caught Stiles' attention, too. He wore a hooded jacket that had seen better days, but the face under the hood was familiar.

Stiles bolted out into the water across the floor, confused, trying to get a better look at the new stranger's face. Derek moved to intercept and Stiles came up short.

"Dad?" he called out. Derek clamped a hand on Stiles' arm and pulled him back, turning to see who Stiles had been calling out to. They both saw Stiles' dad across the room when the man looked up at them. His eyes held the dangerous yellow glow of a werewolf following a pack.

Even Isaac fell back at the unexpected new wolf. The Sheriff of Beacon Hills had been declared dead months earlier, his remains scraped up from under the wall of a jail cell after a hunter had tossed in a homemade explosive where the sheriff had been pinned down. The whole city had shown up for the memorial. Everyone knew Stiles' dad's face, and everyone knew he was dead.

But Noah Stilinski stood across the room from Stiles, very much not dead. And very much a werewolf. Derek kept a vice-grip on Stiles' arm and wouldn't let him go over to see him. Stiles felt a panic attack breaking through the drugged numbness.

"What- what do I do?" he asked, his voice hardly working. Derek forced him around and behind himself, keeping hold of Stiles' wrist rather than trust him to stay back on his own. Stiles had a werewolf shield against other werewolves... but he wanted to go to his dad.

"Deucalion... you called us here. We’re here. What the hell is this..." Derek asked the blind man. Stiles' dad fell back behind the twin werewolves, like he wanted to hide in the shadows. He very clearly had a side, and it wasn't the one Stiles found himself on. Stiles pressed at Derek in a hint, trying to get his friend to make something make sense for him like he usually could, and Derek just kept hold of his wrist.

"We collected a beta, months ago," said the blind man. He stood near Kali, hands folded over the top of a cane. "He's still learning. Not having a lot of luck, really. But he came from a lucky line. From what we can tell, Scott McCall gifted the sheriff with the bite, when he tried to save his life. But, well, he didn't stick around to make sure he survived. Ennis did. Back before you killed him, of course."

At the mention of Ennis, Kali flashed fangs and flared her well-sharpened claws like an angry cat. She was a werewolf like the others, but she had a messed up sense of fashion, and not the best human hygiene practices in her quest to be scary. It certainly worked, but Stiles was drugged enough to judge her for it.

"I don't care who Ennis is," Stiles announced, not so much bold as stupid and safe behind a werewolf shield. "I just want my dad back!"

Derek tugged on his wrist to make him stay behind him, even as Kali started toward them. Boyd and Isaac helpfully closed ranks, but the overall odds weren't looking good.

"That won't be happening," said Deucalion mildly. "The sheriff prefers to stay dead. The unfortunate consequences of a law enforcement officer killing a teenage girl on an uncontrollable full moon are much worse than the inconvenience of being legally dead."

Boyd seemed to forget himself for a moment. He broke away from the defensive line with Derek and Isaac and started toward Stiles' dad instead.

"That was you!" he bellowed. "You killed Erica!"

"As a matter of fact, he did," Deucalion said. Derek let go of Stiles because the more pressing issue suddenly became keeping Boyd from going after the former sheriff. Stiles staggered backward, trying not to make himself too obvious a target as he tried to force himself to think through the drugged fog-brain.

A second later, Derek fell back to a defensive position as Boyd took on Kali. Stiles wasn't sure what to do other than stay out of the way. He just made sure to keep Derek between him and the bad guys. He couldn't fully process that his dad might actually be one of them, and every time he tried, his brain did a full reject and reboot, sending him a little further into his panic.

"Kali!" rumbled the blind werewolf suddenly, startling Stiles. "No!"

Stiles looked up to see Kali - small and wiry as she was by comparison to Boyd - standing over Boyd and poised to slice his neck. Boyd was down and he was hurt, in no position to defend himself. Derek stood feet away, locked out of the fight by the threat of one of the twins who mirrored his every move.

"That boy is not why we are here," Deucalion said. The woman flashed alpha-red eyes and glared up at Deucalion. She didn't let Boyd up, however, and stayed crouched over him. Awaiting a kill order.

"Then why are you here?" Derek asked, because apparently Derek was dumb and didn't know better than to feed the egos of evil psychopaths by giving them a chance to monologue and Stiles was a little too caught up trying to fend off panic from taking away his ability to breathe to pay attention to the evil plans of a werewolf just then, damnit.

There was a sudden shattering of glass that startled Stiles into ducking, knees soaking up water as he hit the floor. Derek stepped back toward him and half turned to defend him. Stiles looked up when Derek touched his shoulder.

"Gas!" Derek shouted at Boyd and Isaac, a distraction as all hell broke loose. Stiles saw the broken window then, the canister leaking smoke into the room. "Hunters!"

Kali let out an angry shriek as another window broke, more hunter arsenal breaking through Derek's loft. Bullets followed and Stiles ended up on his stomach in an inch of water as a flashbang went off across the room. People started shouting all around the room, but no one could see. Stiles' eyes stung.

"Up! Up!" Derek said in his ear as he pulled Stiles to his feet. Instead of heading for the door in the chaos, Derek cut across to the narrow, metal stairs. He shoved Stiles in front of him and made him run up the steps. There was a lot of random swearing as Stiles tried not to fall on his face, but they got up to the shallow false floor over the loft. It wasn't really good for much aside from storage, and Stiles wanted to know why Derek had just cornered them in a rat hole to die of toxic smoke inhalation, but Derek pointed him across to the exterior wall and the barely visible ladder there. The ladder meant rooftop access. Stiles caught on and followed at his heels. Once they made it to the roof, Derek slammed the door shut and broke the hinges to prevent anyone following them up.

"But my dad-" Stiles protested. Derek got between him and the hatch again, shoved toward the other side of the building.

"Your dad, and Boyd, and Isaac... they can defend themselves. Right now, you can't. We gonna argue about this and waste more time?" Derek replied. The building below them echoed from shouts and muffled gunfire. Stiles still felt like he needed to sit down, catch his breath. He needed to pass out and stop thinking entirely. Neither were an option just then. So he went with Derek.

*~*~*

Chapter Text

Earth: Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado

Carson preferred that his patient stay where there was a ready supply of oxygen in case Sheppard forgot to breathe again, so the Lieutenant Colonel stayed where he was told. The infirmary had only a skeleton crew on deck because Sheppard was their only patient at the moment, so John had new people on hand to talk to at random. The other members of his team got to sleep in their own private guest quarters, and Sheppard played chess with a computer tablet most of the night.

It kept him from eavesdropping or intruding on the strangers’ conversations in the next room, kept his mind busy as the clock ticked away on the wall, and the sounds echoing in the underground facility warbled around in his brain. The doctors went quiet at random stretches of time, and John would catnap in between. He finally got what felt like real sleep around 5am.

By 7am, Carson was back. He offered to keep John company, and Sheppard learned in short order that his doctor wasn’t much of a chess player. It made sense, tactics weren’t really a job requirement, but John felt a little badly about kicking the guy’s ass at the game after their last few weeks. Sheppard still won. Every time.

The third game was put off on purpose because Sheppard heard Sam Carter’s voice in the hallway, and his name had definitely been mentioned. John was now used to accidentally eavesdropping on people’s conversations in tight quarters with echoing hallways, it made for entertaining gossip with Carson because the man was a snoop, but Sheppard wasn’t comfortable being the subject of overheard conversation.

Sheppard stepped away from the table in the lab Carson had taken over for them and moved to poke his head out into the hall. Carter had just come around the far corner, keeping pace with Jack O’Neill. A moment later, they noticed him, too.

“Just the man we were looking for,” Jack said. He was probably still talking to Sam as they were still at the other end of the hall.

“Yeah, I know,” Sheppard said, his own voice pitched loud enough to be sure they heard him from that distance. It wasn’t the most polite intrusion, but he didn’t know how else to send the hint. Jack looked puzzled for a moment before the light bulb clicked on overhead.

“Right, got it,” the General said. “Fair to say nobody will sneak up on you any time soon.”

Sheppard nodded an affirmative and waited them out. He had nowhere else to be, anyway. Carson showed up at his shoulder then to investigate. A moment later, Carter and O’Neill were exchanging greetings with the doctor as he and Sheppard stepped aside to share the borrowed lab room.

“What’s with the digs,” said Jack, motioning to the room’s medical equipment and the general proximity to the infirmary. “You’re not still on quarantine, right?”

“No, sir. Doctors’ orders,” Sheppard said. Jack looked to the doctor in question, eyebrow raised in surprise. Carson shrugged, motioned toward Sheppard as though that explained it.

“Well, the last time he assured me he’d be fine, he dropped into a coma for some six hours or so. I’d rather not take his word on it again this close tae reassignment,” Carson said. Jack nodded his agreement and turned the frown on Sheppard.

“Don’t do that. Doc’s right. Coma bad,” he said.

“Yessir,” was all Sheppard could offer. O’Neill waved them toward their former chairs around the chess set as he pulled over wheeled stools for himself and Carter.

“So. I’m sure you’re all as shocked as I was to learn that Director Weir asked me to... step in, as it were, on this little project of yours,” said Jack. Nothing about his tone suggested any surprise. At all. Ever. And Sheppard actually felt a little better about the whole thing for it. Jack knew what it was like out in the field working for SGC, and the challenges they had at running Atlantis, far better than any bureaucrat or generic ladder climber within the military ranks, while also being a general. He was especially suited to push back at the Sentinel Project’s powergrab into the Stargate program.

“And I have spent the last three days in negotiations with the Director of the Sentinel Project. Lovely woman, let me assure you. That was fun,” Jack went on, again relying on his usual understated sarcasm. “The long and the short of it is that the Sentinel Project doesn’t have the necessary clearance to have the kind of access to the Atlantis Expedition that they want.”

That didn’t sound like good news to Sheppard. “Sir, I read some of their orders,” said John. “The whole project is just... one big power grab. Is there a way-”

Jack held up a hand to interrupt. “While I cannot personally argue against your theory, it is not in the division’s charter, so I must inform you that the Project is an important service for personnel throughout all branches. Including yourself. So no, there is no way around involving the Sentinel Project.”

“Understood,” said Sheppard.

“That being said...” cut in Carter. “Because of the potential problems associated with transferring you to the Sentinel Program, namely that they don’t have a system in place to protect the classified status of your work, you won’t be going to the Sentinel Project’s standard personnel tiers as originally planned.”

Sheppard sat back in his chair, arms crossed as he puzzled out the circular logic.

“Ah, excuse me for interruptin’ but... I still need to work with the Project’s medical team,” said Carson. He sounded equally confused. He pointed absently at Sheppard. “And he still needs to learn how to avoid putting himself in a coma every week.”

“Really? Every week?” asked Carter, surprised. Sheppard frowned, self-conscious about the zone-outs for a whole new reason now. Apparently he wasn’t hitting the expected average number of comas. Who even knew that was a thing?

“I’m... working on improving the ratios?” he replied half-heartedly.

As if summoned by the mere mention of a number, McKay showed up in the doorway then, a surprise mostly only because he had been very quiet on approach for once.

“What ratios? Since when do you do math?” he asked. The annoyance was almost welcome. Before Sheppard could tell him to go away, McKay had found another rolling chair to steal from a computer terminal and invited himself to the conversation. “If you need math, I’m your guy.”

“No, Rodney. I was asking about the zone outs,” Carter explained helpfully. “There’s no math.”

Rodney looked a little unhappy that he didn’t get to be the center of attention. Which was probably why Sheppard was okay with returning to it.

“So if I’m not part of the Sentinel Project-”

“Oh, no. You are. Technically. There’s just been a few... necessary changes in command structure above the division,” said Jack, quickly interrupting to make sure that John understood even less than he had before the conversation began. He waved it off. “All politics. Mostly.”

Sheppard stalled out for a moment, waiting for something to make sense.

“Okay...” he said, slowly dragging the word out as he struggled to follow what Carter and O’Neill were telling him. “So what does this mean for me then? As far as I know, I’m now 24 hours late for training. So should I be hauling ass to boot camp, or what?”

“It means - not to put too fine a point on it - that your ass is mine. Not theirs. And Carter is your SGC Liaison between your little Atlantean pocket of the Sentinel Project and myself. So you’ll report to her, she’ll report to me, and - as relevant - I’ll pass along to them. In exchange for them training you, and your team, and the good doctor here.”

Sheppard paused to consider the new chain of command. Even McKay and Carson were struck by the result of the General’s negotiations. They had all read the Sentinel Project’s User’s Manual, and they were all quite confident that what O’Neill had just outlined went against everything in it.

“Uh. And... they’re okay with this arrangement?” asked McKay. “Because... and maybe I’m wrong here, but I’m pretty sure I’m not... That pretty much leaves them with maybe 1% of what they’re used to getting in exchange for training a Sentinel team.”

“Basically,” Jack agreed. “They get to know John’s name, and vital stats, and copies of redacted medical records, as part of the program. But I’m bringing our Lieutenant Colonel on under Homeworld, so that is exactly all they will get.”

“What about the training?” asked Sheppard. Jack smiled, proud of himself for his negotiation prowess on behalf of Director Weir and her team. He held up a single index finger.

“One week here. Then, we’re assigning your training guide and captain to Atlantis with you for training there. Same classification, same command structure,” said Jack.

McKay looked about like his eyes might pop out of his head. Sheppard felt the surprise, but his eyes were behind sunglasses so he was safe. And he mostly felt relief. He was definitely going home.

“So Atlantis is back up and running in another month,” said McKay, looking to Sheppard and Carson like they had just collectively won the lotto.

“That’s the goal,” said Carter.

“Depends on our boy here passing the training team’s assessment,” added Jack, a pointed look cast at Sheppard. “Which means no more comas, or whatever. Zero. Aim for that ratio.”

“Yessir,” said Sheppard before McKay could try to correct the General’s math.

“And, maybe I’m not a doctor, but... I think you need to get out of quarantine,” Jack went on. The gloating tone faded to something more sober and General-like. “The training team will be here at some point in the next, oh, twelve hours or so, is my guess. And you’ll need to be ready to work, do your thing. Hit the gym. Take a nap. Something. But get the hell out of here.”

Carson looked very worried by the order. “That’s not a good way to keep him off oxygen thus far, General.”

“Then when the training team gets here, if he’s on oxygen, they’ll know what they’ve got to work with,” replied Jack. “And that’s probably the most important part of the next twenty four hours, is getting everyone caught up and... working on the same team... right?”

The logic wasn’t exactly flawed and Carson couldn’t argue with it. Sheppard scratched distractedly at the plastic wrap covering the fresh tattoo on the back of his hand. That was a whole new outlook on it for him, too. Not sitting at the table kicking the doc’s ass at chess for the rest of the day seemed like a great idea. But so did avoiding zone-outs at all possible costs. He wanted to hit the ground running, not face-first in an oxygen mask.

Carter stood up, drawing Sheppard’s attention back up from the tabletop. General O’Neill was already standing, too, and Sheppard had a brief moment of panic wondering if he had zoned out. But then again, if he had, he’d gotten away with it. Maybe the zone out thing could be beat.

He heard Carter ask graciously for McKay’s help again today, while the team was still there. McKay was all too happy to save the science-day at SGC and didn’t have to be invited twice. That meant there would be absolutely no kicking Rodney’s ass at chess to keep himself out of trouble.

When the others left, Carson waited to see what John wanted to do about the orders of no more zone outs.

“I’ve got cards in my bag, the mess’ll have toothpicks,” Carson offered. “We could... I dunno. Try poker?”

Sheppard cracked a smile at the genuine effort.

“Thanks, Carson. I’ll go get some breakfast. Then, depending on how that goes, I’ll let you know. Or someone will,” said Sheppard. “Assuming I don’t end up drowning in my wheaties.”

“You will not,” Carson replied, somewhere between a reassurance and an unspoken threat that the good doctor would personally murder him if he tried to drown in a bowl of cereal. And the doctor let Sheppard leave on his own to try to find his way to the mess hall.

It was actually a little bit amusing when Sheppard’s uniformed shadow stepped out into the hallway after him and fell into pace beside him.

“They could just give me a radio you know,” John informed the kid. The Sgt. smiled and shrugged it off.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“I think I know where they put the mess hall,” said Sheppard. “Don’t tell me. I want to try something.”

“Yessir, Colonel.”

John decided then that the kid could stick around. He wanted the ego boost that came with someone reminding him that he was a goddamned ranking officer in the Air Force. If there was anything that he could focus on to fend off a zone out, it was that.

 

*~*~*

 

There was something reassuring and peaceful about math. Man could cross two galaxies and find that the rules and laws of numbers in their orderly systems would hold up in both places. At the same time. Like a bridge. It was really very comforting. Even after spending hours arguing with a full team - some of whom were actually competent - about the intersections of science and math and their jobs, Rodney McKay felt comforted. He went back to his quarters ready to sleep. Apparently galaxial jet lag was a thing, and the normal Earth gravity was definitely not what he was used to anymore.

The first sign that there was something slightly amis was the uniformed Sergeant sleeping in the chair across the hall from Rodney’s door. It was a military base, uniforms were the expected norm, but napping... that was a new one. Choosing to ignore the lapse, Rodney let himself into his guest rooms.

It was dark, unexpectedly, and McKay felt very confused. He always left the light on in new places, rather than risk injury in the dark to his toes and knees. They were thirty floors below ground, so it wasn’t like he had planned to come back to daylight shining through the windows. Rodney fumbled for the switch on the wall as he dropped his pack on the floor.

The answers, of course, presented with the illumination of the room.

Colonel Sheppard was stretched out on McKay’s bed, boots on his blanket, and his head buried under the pillow. And McKay’s hearing wasn’t perfect, but it sounded from across the room like Sheppard was very much asleep, just short of snoring with a pillow over his face.

Well. That wasn’t fair.

“John?” McKay dropped into the desk chair rather than the bed he had been looking forward to for the past hour. John continued to not-snore into McKay’s pillow.

“John... Colonel Sheppard... Earth to Sheppard!” McKay tried changing volume as he went, trying to at least mostly-politely get through from the safe distance of five feet away.

John woke up, startled, and tossed the pillow at the wall. He blinked and then squinted around the room as he pushed himself up off his stomach.

“Rodney?” he asked, sounding just as confused as McKay was.

“Have a nice nap?” McKay asked. He moved the wheeled chair over to retrieve the pillow from the floor and put it back up on the bed by hitting Sheppard with it.

“Maybe,” said John, barely ducking the pillow. “Why are you in here?”

“Because I was told this was my room,” said Rodney. “That’s why my stuff is in here.”

He pointed out the PJs hanging over the open bathroom door across the room from them. Sheppard sat up quickly then, boots on the floor where they belonged as he tried to straighten the rumpled bed covers without yet standing.

“I’m - wow. I guess I got the rooms mixed up. I thought I was in mine,” said Sheppard.

“Obviously,” replied McKay.

“They all look the same...” Sheppard still tried to defend himself but McKay just stared at him. He pointed, again, at the signs of temporary ownership that had already taken over the room the night before. Sheppard waved it off. “Okay, I got it. I have a terrible sense of direction under ground. I can’t find anything. Except the mess hall. I did find that! I just got a little bit lost heading back...”

“It’s fine. But can I at least have my bed back? Before you put your boots on it again,” said McKay. Yes, he was whining. Sheppard started to comply but then stopped.

“Just for the record, there’s nothing on my shoes. I haven’t been anywhere with mud in over a month,” said Sheppard. He lifted a booted foot to his knee so he could more accurately prove his point. “I miss mud. There is no mud.”

“Mud isn’t the only thing that gets on boots,” replied McKay, still offended. “And! I have to sleep there, not you. Get your... dandruff off my bed.”

Sheppard rolled his eyes and stood up, offering the bed back with an elaborate bow. McKay moved to tuck the blankets back in and smooth the covers, and Sheppard stole the rolling chair. He slouched in good and made himself comfy as McKay glared at the ceiling.

“So how did today’s Science with McKay time go for the Earthlings?” Sheppard asked, still tired but also apparently bored. “I’m guessing the planet won’t be going supernova any time soon.”

McKay nodded his agreement as he sat himself down on his bed, frowning slightly. “I helped Carter with an equation she was translating wrong. She’s working on a bridge idea. My idea. Old one.”

“That sounds boring. You never do boring without a deadline. Like, the dead-deadline,” said Sheppard. He sounded unhappy about it. He frowned suddenly. “It’s been over a month since we were even shot at. How have you gotten anything done?”

“Believe it or not, my ideas are better when I’m not being shot at,” Rodney complained in return. But the point stuck in his head. Sheppard shrugged it off.

“It just feels weird,” he admitted.

“So go shoot something,” Rodney suggested. “It’s a military base. There’s a shooting range somewhere.”

“I’d bet a week’s wages Carson won’t let me have my weapons back until after training,” said Sheppard. He tapped at his elfy, pointed ear. “These are still a little too sensitive.”

“Well, what are you going to do when we get back out in the field and people start shooting at us again?” McKay asked. “Hide behind me or something for the extra sound barrier?”

Sheppard held his hands up, just as clueless as Rodney on how the future would work out for the team. A pensive quiet fell between them, and it didn’t bother McKay that his friend hadn’t left yet. John was right. It had been a very weird month, and after the conversation with Jack O'Neill that morning, maybe an end was in sight. John especially was probably left with a lot to process. McKay could at least work through it all; even when his shoulder hurt like hell, he could pop a pill and dive into math and science and star systems.

But Sheppard was just an adrenaline junkie working through withdrawals and isolation, in addition to the whole ‘hearing heartbeats’ thing that the Sentinel Project’s manual said he had going on now. That couldn’t even be a real thing.

It got stuck in McKay’s head.

“Can you really hear people’s heartbeats?” he asked. Sheppard lifted a shoulder in a lazy shrug.

“I guess? I mean, I hear something that sounds like that a lot, I’ve just... never bothered to track the sound down to the source. Usually try to block it out. It’s... creepy,” replied the man who had regular interactions with alien beings.

McKay stared, jaw slack.

“Wait. So me, right now. You can hear me, my heartbeat?”

Sheppard shrugged again. “Yeah. And you had chili for lunch. Can smell the stuff you spilled on your jacket.” He frowned at the door suddenly. “What time is it? I think I’m hungry.”

“There’s an extra power bar in the bag on the table,” McKay offered. Sheppard immediately turned to look for it. The companionable quiet took over again as McKay tried to mentally figure out the decibel range of Sheppard’s enhanced hearing, and Sheppard chowed down on a protein bar.

“Chess?” suggested Sheppard after the food was gone. Rodney agreed and started to look for the board he had brought along for the trip.

They got set up and had made two moves each before Sheppard stopped and frowned at the door.

"What?" McKay asked, not looking up. Sheppard wasn’t exactly above the dirty tricks of a ten year old at a chess board.

“I think we’re going to have to put this game on hold,” Sheppard said. A moment later he stood and started looking around for his jacket. McKay frowned, motioned to the game in front of him.

“We literally just started this one,” he complained. “You can’t be quitting already.”

“I’m not quitting, Rodney,” replied Sheppard. He shrugged into his jacket. He pointed toward the door. The sgt. outside the room knocked on the door as if to prove it. “I’ve got to go.”

“Now you’re just showing off,” muttered McKay. Sheppard rolled his eyes. He opened the door to the uniformed guard sent to babysit him.

“Sir, Colonel Carter -”

“Wants to see me in the conference room, yeah, I heard, thank you,” Sheppard said, a pointed look aimed at McKay. McKay dismissed it with a wave.

“Whatever. This counts as a forfeit though,” McKay replied. He pointed to the board in front of him. “I’m still here, I’m still ready to play. You quit, you lose.”

Sheppard stopped in the door to glare at him for the immature tactic. He actually seemed to have to think about it, came back into the room to stare down at the chess pieces on the board. They had only moved twice. There was no possible way he could check in a single move.

Rodney crossed his arms and grinned smugly up at him. It wasn’t cheating. It was in their agreed-upon House Rules, one that had been a valid win for two years.

“Uh uh,” said Sheppard. He grabbed McKay by the arm and hauled him up off his perch on the edge of the bed. “You’re coming, too.”

“What? I wasn’t called in-”

“You are now. She called me in to meet the new team. Might as well start now,” said Sheppard. Rodney only grudgingly allowed himself to be pulled away from the chess set and the bed he had so been looking forward to an hour earlier.

 

*~*~*

 

John wasn’t sure what he had expected to find in the meeting with the new Sentinel team, but it wasn’t an aging Army Ranger and a reforming hippie. The two men who had been assigned by the Sentinel Project were probably nice guys, to have some beer with, maybe play some golf, but if Sheppard was a betting man - which he was, just maybe less of a cash-flush betting guy than he wanted to be - he would not put five bucks on this expert Sentinel team against a Wraith.

He went along with the introductions anyway, glad he had dragged McKay along after all. He needed to get a better read on the pair, and Rodney was great at demanding other people’s attention while Sheppard ignored him.

“I’m sorry, but did you say you’re a doctor?” McKay asked the curly haired hippie named Sandburg. The man may have been in a uniform, but it was too big for him, had patches on it that were in no way regulation, he was wearing some sort of jade necklace, and pulled back or not, his hair was longer than Elizabeth’s. Blair Sandburg didn’t match up as any kind of military, let alone an Army captain like the bar patches on his jacket would indicate.

He was a high contrast to his partner, Jim Ellison, who kept his graying hair cropped close and looked like he had ironed his uniform after getting off the plane. Sheppard sat across the table, watching as Sandburg nodded and dug around in a backpack.

“Yeah, but not the medical kind of doctor,” Sandburg told McKay. Sheppard very clearly heard McKay mutter a relieved “Oh thank god,” under his breath and had to choke back a laugh. Sitting next to Sandburg, across from Sheppard, it was hard not to notice Ellison crack a grin.

“He gets that a lot,” Ellison said to Sheppard. His partner glanced up only briefly from his search in the backpack.

“Gets what?” asked Sandburg.

“Nothing,” replied Ellison and McKay both at once. John found his opinion softening on the team just slightly.

“Blair is an anthropologist, Rodney. Like Daniel Jackson,” said Sam Carter. She sat next to the Sentinel team, while General O’Neill sat beside Sheppard, probably to keep him on-script. The General had a lot riding on the two men on the other side of the table joining AR-1, too, after his days of negotiations.

“Anthropologists are great and all, but the cultural stuff... that’s what we’ve got Teyla and Ronon for,” McKay pointed out, a little defensive of his teammates’ territory.

“No, Dr. McKay - I’m not here as an anthropologist. That’s just my doctorate. Well, one of them. I’m here as a Guide,” said Sandburg. He seemed to be getting Rodney figured out alright. Blair set a hand to Jim’s arm as a visual anchor point to his words. “I’m his Guide. Where I go, he goes, so where we need Jim to go, I go. Package deal, kinda thing.”

McKay looked to Ellison then. “So you’re the one who can hear heartbeats?”

Ellison seemed to be judging the question but nodded an affirmative. Sheppard nudged McKay’s elbow and pointed his attention to where Ellison’s right hand rested on the table top.

“Tattoo. That makes him the Sentinel. We learned that one yesterday, remember,” he said helpful but no less taunting his friend for it. His own hands clasped in his lap, Sheppard scratched at the plastic over the back of his hand.

“Right,” McKay replied. He scrunched his face in what passed for an apology from him. “Still figuring this stuff out. The manual didn’t have much to go by.”

“I hear that,” said Sandburg, in a tone that sounded quite bitter to Sheppard’s ears. Blair slid a good old fashioned book across the table at Rodney. “This is a bit heavy on the science maybe, but it is a hundred times more useful than the manual. It will give you a better understanding of what they can do. How to help make the senses stuff... well, make sense.”

Sheppard sat up and took notice then.

“I like science,” McKay said. He opened the book even as Sheppard reached over and pulled the book from his friend’s science-greedy hands.

“That’s mine,” Sheppard informed McKay. He glanced up at Sandburg between flipping past the cover pages. “I’ve been needing one of these for the last month. Is it digital, or a shareable file or anything?”

“Sure, but the book format tends to be more portable,” said Sandburg.

“Not where we’re from,” replied Sheppard. He was already distracted, reading bits and pieces of the few hundred-page paperback in front of him. He looked from the book to the Sentinel team and then to O’Neill before his attention went back to the hippie at the table.

“Wait a minute. You wrote this? All of this?” he asked.

“Yeah. The Project adopted my initial research. I’ve been working with them to expand on it for the last ten years, so it’s gotten to be pretty comprehensive,” said Blair. “I mean, everyone is an individual, it’s always slightly different, but we’ve got the pretty universal stuff nailed down after fifteen-odd years of practice.”

Sheppard pulled the book a little closer to himself, protective of the treasure trove of coveted information. “Can I have this?”

Sandburg nodded. McKay was still trying to read the book over John’s shoulder. He raised a hand slightly to get Sandburg’s attention back.

“Uh... Two questions,” he began. “First, if this is all yours... how far have you gotten with the genetics involved with this Sentinel thing? And second, does that go into the gene at all?” McKay pointed at the book under Sheppard’s bandaged hand when the man shut him out of snooping. Before Sandburg could even answer one part, McKay was talking again. “Follow up - Can I have a copy of that?”

“And Carson,” added Sheppard. “He’ll want to read it.”

“Especially if it tells him how to stop the comas,” said McKay. He looked up at Sandburg again. “That’s in here, right?”

“What comas?” asked Sandburg, tuning into something he was much more concerned about than Rodney’s earlier questions. He seemed to be keeping up otherwise, which Sheppard took as a good sign overall for the team.

“The zone outs,” offered Carter. “The Lt. Colonel has ended up in the infirmary for the zone outs once or twice a week for the last month.”

“A month? What took so long to get us involved?” asked Sandburg, genuine enough in his surprise that Sheppard didn’t take offense to his implied support of the Project’s compliance rules.

“We’re not based local,” he replied. “It takes us a minute to get back here.”

“Yeah, just a minute,” said Blair. Wheels were obviously turning in his head, but he left it alone. He looked over at Ellison, a wordless baton pass to the resident expert on the topic. The Sentinel looked to Sheppard.

“Carson’s the doctor, right?” he asked. At Sheppard’s confirming nod, Ellison didn’t seem surprised. “We met him earlier. And I told him the same thing I’ll tell you. So listen up - It’s not on him to keep you breathing in a zone. That’s on you. You stick an oxygen mask on your face in a zone, it just means you can chase the senses farther out instead of worry about keeping yourself alive. The very worst thing you can do to yourself is train your senses into ignoring the most basic requirements of the body they are there to support. When your senses hijack your brain, you don’t hand them the keys and let them drive like that.”

Sheppard considered the very firm advice from someone who had obviously been there before. “Well... when you put it that way, it makes sense,” he said. He had gotten a little reliant on somebody else saving his ass. Maybe.

“It does,” agreed Sandburg. “Think about it this way. If someone loses their sight or their hearing, it doesn’t shut down their other vital organs of the body. The body, in one way or another, steps up everything else in order to make up for the loss. That’s how it’s supposed to work.”

“And by intervening with life support, Dr. Beckett has been accidentally suppressing that instinct,” realized Carter. She looked from Blair to Sheppard and back. “You said you told him this? He’s been looking for help for so long, but we didn’t have much to send him...”

“We told him,” said Sandburg. “I mean, I don’t know him, but he seemed fine with it. But that’s why, you know, a month out is kind of a record, really. We gotta keep a lot of this stuff close to the vest. It’s not a great idea to publicize how to completely disable a Sentinel, and the kind of medical info Dr. Beckett needs to know could be easily reverse engineered to do that.”

Again, a kernal of perspective shift made another puzzle piece fit into place for Sheppard. He got quickly hung up on Sandburg’s words, however.

“Disable-what now?” he asked.

Jim caught his attention. “Colonel, take your sunglasses off.”

Sheppard made no move to comply. “I’m not a fan of the fluorescents in here...”

Ellison gave a short nod. “I get it. But humor me.”

Jack O’Neill helpfully kicked Sheppard’s ankle in a not-so-subtle order to comply. The sunglasses grudgingly came off. Sheppard tried not to squint as he adjusted. Ellison probably noticed anyway, as he raised a hand to wave at the lights.

“If you’re this dialed up under fluorescent lights, what do you think a flashbang will do to you out in the field?” Ellison asked. Sheppard winced involuntarily at the mere thought.

“Nothing good,” he said unhappily. Ellison nodded his agreement with that assessment.

“Or even a laser pointer? Anybody in here got a laser pointer? We could find out what the reflections can do.”

Sheppard felt a repeated twinge of pain at the corner of his eye from the lights overhead and it was steadily bothering him more and more. He didn’t know exactly what was causing it, but he knew it hadn’t been happening when he had the sunglasses on his face. Rather than ask permission and be told no, he lowered his glasses back down over his eyes.

Instantly he noticed the reflection of a bright white flare of light flickering in his peripheral vision. He followed it to the source. Ellison had turned the bezel of his watch to the inside of his wrist where it rested on the table. The glass face caught the light from the lights overhead with even the slightest movement and glared right at Sheppard’s eyes. The man had done it on purpose. He certainly had Sheppard’s attention now, and he knew it.

“You can be blinded easier than anyone else at this table,” Ellison said. “Your vision is too sensitive. A pair of binoculars, or a rifle scope out in the brush, just has to catch the light the right way and you’re down for who knows how long. In the hands of someone who knows what the hell they’re doing, Colonel, that’s a teamkiller in the field. The idea is to limit the number of people who know how to do that.”

Sheppard sunk a little in his chair, unconsciously hanging on to territory as he realized the truth in the man’s words.

“And as a side note, I’ve gotta point out that it is entirely counter productive to zone out on the reflection of the bad guy’s rifle scope. So that’s something you are going to have to work on. I almost took you down in under ten seconds here. That’s a lifetime in the field,” Ellison continued.

Sheppard took the point, but he stayed hidden behind his sunglasses. He could feel McKay staring at him and it wasn’t helping.

“Wait. What just happened?” McKay asked.

“Nothing,” replied Sheppard and Ellison. It wasn’t likely to hold Rodney off for long, but Ellison at least seemed to intimidate him enough to let it pass for now. The Sentinel may have been in his early fifties, easily, but he was only an inch or two shorter than Ronon and even without the Army Ranger uniform could flatten McKay in any kind of spar.

Sheppard was definitely rethinking his initial impressions of the Sentinel team O’Neill had stolen from the Sentinel Project for Atlantis. The two men who had quite literally written the book on the whole Sentinel thing. Maybe they could catch on better than Sheppard could as he tried to figure his own mess out. He looked to O’Neill, motioned toward the men across the table.

“Did they pass clearance?” he asked. Jack nodded.

“They will.”

“So they’re on my team when I get back home?”

“That’s the idea.”

Sheppard looked back to Sandburg and Ellison. “Assuming you take the assignment -”

Sandburg interrupted quickly. “My understanding is that we’ve been reassigned. There’s no if on our end,” he said. He glanced at Ellison and then back to Sheppard with a shrug. “I’m still under contract, so. We go.”

Sheppard narrowed his eyes in confusion at the aloof view on dropping life as they knew it and relocating to another galaxy entirely. But maybe Sandburg and Ellison hadn’t been read in yet. “Contract?” he asked instead.

“Yeah. A little different than your average enlistment. But I get to use his rank and access still,” said Sandburg, motioning vaguely to the captain at his shoulder. “It’s the same in the ways that count. Military owns my soul until they say otherwise. So we go. And until further notice, I’ve been told that means we go with you. Get you and your team back to work.”

Something was off about the response and Sheppard looked to O’Neill. The General dismissed it with a nod.

“Remember I said there were some politics involved? Part of it was the contract. I’m handling it,” O’Neill said. He looked to their guests and new teammates. “I think in a way that is more mutually beneficial for everyone.”

Sheppard looked uncertainly between them again. There was a whole untold story under there that he wasn’t sure yet who he had to grill for it. Sandburg went back to his formerly chill and cheerful self and rolled a hand to wave Sheppard on.

“So. Go ahead and assume we take the assignment,” he prompted.

“Yeah,” said Sheppard. Moving on. “Then, factoring in the bit about us screwing me up from the start... how long do you figure before I can get back in the field with my team? And not get zoned by a rifle scope.”

“Oh, man. There’s too many factors there,” said Sandburg. “And there’s the whole thing with a Guide. Really, it could be months before you’re stable.”

“Realistically, yes,” agreed Ellison. “But it’s on you. Could be weeks.”

Sheppard wasn’t exactly comforted by the replies.

“Okay... how important is this Guide thing, really?” he asked Ellison directly. “Because I’m not even interested in going out looking for somebody here like some kind of dating game. I just want to get back to doing my job.”

“Important,” said Ellison without even taking a few seconds to think about it. “You get a baseline, you follow that baseline, where you are. It keeps everything else in a controllable range. As long as you know their normal, you’ve got something to tune in on when everything else gets too... loud.”

“Why can’t I just... use me as the baseline?” asked Sheppard. That’s what normal people did, like he used to before some damn prison planet got involved.

“Because you’re the one in sunglasses, in a conference room, underground,” said Ellison. “Your senses have no baseline.”

Sheppard scowled at the table top, drummed his hands over it.

“What about my team? I can get used to them. They’re consistent,” he said, looking for ideas. He shrugged and rolled a hand toward McKay. “Well, he’s not. Panics at bugs. But the other two are solid.”

“Excuse me. I’ve seen some pretty... life-altering bugs. I’m allowed to be... less than enthusiastic about bugs,” replied McKay. Sheppard nodded, rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses.

“I didn’t say that you weren’t. I said Ronon and Teyla are a lot more steady. Which is true, and you know it,” said Sheppard. McKay still looked offended, but he didn’t argue.

Across the table, Sandburg and Ellison exchanged a look that probably meant something in their private little Sentinel team way.

“We can work with you and the team, try to narrow down the Guide thing,” Sandburg said. “It’s just... easier with that one person, you know? You might be better off-”

“Look, I’ve been married and done the whole pairing off and it’s not my scene at work. I work with my team. I’m good there, I just... want to get back there. Not leave them all hanging like this,” said Sheppard.

“I’m kinda also getting the vibe you don’t do rule books,” said Sandburg. Sheppard actually smiled at that.

“Not in the job description,” he said, smug.

“Well, it is,” added O’Neill. “It’s just... down there on the list.”

“Entire light years,” said Sheppard.

“Indeed, Lieutenant Colonel,” O’Neill replied, just to dig at the rank.

Sandburg followed the back and forth with infinitely more patience than Rodney did. He seemed to think it over and crossed his arms as he leaned back in the chair.

“Right. So. We can work with the team. I’ll get with Jim on this tonight, see what we can do without a rule book,” said Blair. He didn’t seem bothered by the prospect of working without the manual for a while. “If nothing else, we’ll have a better idea by the end of tomorrow.”

“What’s tomorrow?” asked McKay. His tone suggested he was hoping for another Science Day with Carter’s team.

“Assessment,” said Ellison. He nodded toward Sheppard. “Put him through the crash course so we know what there is to work with.”

Sheppard looked from Ellison to the few hundred pages of homework he still had to do. He only just got the how-to manual and there was going to be a test already?

“That’s tomorrow?” he clarified.

“Yep. And you’re gonna need sleep,” said Blair.

“No reading up all night,” added Ellison. “It won’t do you any good without a baseline. Sleep will help more, and we can work on catching you up as we go in the morning.”

O’Neill pulled the book out from under Sheppard’s hand and slid it along the table to Sam. “Why don’t you keep tabs on that? Maybe get with Beckett to start going over it while the Lt. Colonel is busy tomorrow,” the General suggested in a tone that made it much more like an order than an idle idea.

Sheppard watched silently as the book disappeared under the table in the Colonel’s hands. He definitely couldn’t fight Sam for it.

Well. That could have gone better.

*~*~*

Chapter Text

Earth: Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado

The whole team was ordered to breakfast at 7am. Even Carter showed up. Teyla and Ronon met with the new guys - John still had a hard time wrapping his head around the fact that he had two new crew and teammates - and seemed to be okay with them.

Ronon looked at Ellison like a cat with a new plaything. Ellison and Sheppard stood shoulder to shoulder, but he was a brawny, sturdier build, like Ronon, and apparently that made him some kind of challenge. Dex wanted to spar, to test the big man in a fight, and Sheppard had to gently remind him that there was no fighting among their own team. At least, no real fights, and they could spar later. Much later.

“How do we know they’ll be able to handle the team if we don’t know they can fight?” Ronon pressed, not caring at all that Ellison and Sandburg were right there at the table with them.

“It’s one of those things we have the luxury to find out before we need to,” reasoned Teyla. John nodded and pointed toward the idea in support of it.

“And Ellison’s an Army Ranger, Ronon. I promise you, he is fully qualified to fight,” said Sheppard, paused over his plate of scrambled eggs and hashbrowns to deal with Ronon’s poking at bears. “I’m just saying, he doesn’t need to fight you, and not right now.”

To his credit, Ellison took it in stride, even seemed amused by the direct challenge. Sandburg looked concerned for their safety, however, which Sheppard figured wasn’t good for him personally or for the team generally.

“I’m just saying...”

“No fighting, Ronon. That’s an order,” said Sheppard. Ronon sighed with his quiet sense of the dramatic and agreed.

“Where are you from?” Sandburg hesitated to engage with Ronon but the question was obviously burning at him. Sheppard glanced down the table at Carter before looking at the watch he wasn’t wearing.

“They’re not local,” he said before Teyla could more honestly answer. “And I think somebody said we’ve got a plane to catch. So... let’s finish up and get going.”

It wasn’t his kindest moment as a team lead, but until Sandburg and Ellison were better read-in, officially, Sheppard wasn’t sure what the story was supposed to be. He could talk to Carter about it on the plane, as their new and shiny SGC Liaison, and handle things better on the other side. But things were fully capable of getting out of hand if Sandburg started up a conversation about alien planets and civilizations without realizing it. Once McKay finished waking up over his oatmeal and “real” coffee, there would be no peace for the rest of the day, and Sheppard was honestly just looking to stall the inevitable.

Sheppard noticed that Sandburg did that thing where he looked to Ellison like he was confirming the orders before accepting it. It was the noticeable tick of a team within a team, and a trap Sheppard really didn’t want to fall into himself with the whole Guide thing. He didn’t like cliques, and the Sentinel team was one by default; it had to be, according to how Sentinel senses apparently worked. He wasn’t sure how to navigate that without hurting his team in one way or another. The last thing he wanted was to see his tiny team split up by invisible walls, especially the kind he had to build himself.

Sheppard would have preferred to take the Jumper, but for various reasons relating to clearance and secrecy, it wasn’t possible. So they caught a C-21A and had to listen to McKay explain the “rudimentary” functionality of the Learjet to Teyla and Ronon for the next two and a half hours.

“I’m guessing they don’t fly much?” Blair asked Sheppard at one point as McKay tried to scribble out designs about the plane’s operation for Teyla while they were still somewhere around 35,000 feet in the air.

“Oh... they do...” said Sheppard, still uncertain on how to blend his team’s knowledge and clearance with Sandburg and Ellison’s experience of the world. Strange as it was, he had never found himself in the awkward position of having to explain to people from Earth that Atlantis was real and had been built by aliens without having something more tangible at hand to prove it. He wasn’t sure how to keep stalling on the issue, but Sheppard was more or less determined to. So he relied on good old fashioned political bullshit.

“We’re just... used to dealing with more advanced experimental craft. And Teyla and Ronon aren’t exactly up on the science stuff like McKay is. And once you get McKay going on anything math or science, you might as well clear your schedule,” said Sheppard. Teyla glanced over at him for it, the small grin on her face proof enough that she caught him bullshitting their new recruits. McKay didn’t look up at him, just scribbled some more on his paper.

“You know, this plane isn’t that big. I can hear you just fine,” Rodney announced from the other aisle. Sheppard considered that a win as it switched McKay onto talking about the difference between propulsion in Earth’s atmosphere versus space, and how nobody ever wanted to find out how a C-21 fared under water.

Once all the shouting was done and the plane back on the ground, Ronon liked the rough ride and the noise compared to the Jumpers he had gotten used to. Teyla informed Sheppard that she could better appreciate his love for flying faster than 200mph for the experience, but she certainly seemed happier once they landed at their destination.

“Now what?” Sheppard asked Sandburg as Carter dealt with the preparations with the local base. He had stepped foot on Beale AFB’s tarmac once or twice in his career, but Carter was the full bird Colonel who had set up the day’s excursions. He didn’t want to be involved if he didn’t have to be. Too many awkward questions, and his ears hurt like a sunovabitch after the plane ride. He had a headache but he didn’t want to admit it because Ellison seemed fine.

Sheppard was a pilot, damnit. He refused to be at all physically compromised by a simple plane ride.

“Now we run you out in the field and see what you can do,” said Blair, quite happy to make the report. “You’ll be with Jim for this round. Everybody else will split up.”

“Everybody else?” asked McKay. He was being overly loud, in Sheppard’s opinion, and John cringed. “Why everybody else?”

“It’s a sensory test, trying to get his range narrowed down,” said Sandburg.

“Yes, but the whole team has to be tested for this?” pressed McKay. He caught at Carson’s arm and presented him as evidence of his concerns. “Everyone? Is this thing going viral or something?”

“No... it’s pretty standard, really. We’re looking for the baseline, and without the Guide, that’s a pretty wide open territory. So we do it this way. No pass or fail, just teams of two, out in the woods, and we see how he does trying to track you all down,” said Blair.

Sheppard wasn’t really a fan of that. He wanted to ask if he could catch a nap or something first, at least go get another cup of coffee. When Carter started walking back toward him, he saw a human lifeline and pounced on the one opportunity he could see to get himself out of what was certain to be a mess.

“Are we cleared for this?” he asked her. He motioned toward Teyla and Ronon. “They have not been briefed for being out here...”

“I briefed them,” said Carter with a smile. Sheppard blinked, straightened up a little.

“Them? What about me? Who briefed me?”

“Me,” said Blair, helpfully. “Just now.”

Sheppard looked back to Carter, letting his irritation show as she just grinned at him.

“We got this, Lt. Colonel. You’ve got this. It’s just another mission. You wanted to get back in the field with your team, and we set it up,” Carter said.

“Yeah, but we normally end up shooting things on missions, and I don’t think we want that to happen here,” said Sheppard, forcing a smile through a very tense jaw. Carter took his point and nodded.

“Sure, but Ronon knows not to shoot anything. Teyla’s fully range qualified in her sidearm-”

“Why are we shooting things in California?” blurted McKay. He started searching to double check that he wasn’t wearing his uniform. “I... I am not dressed for a mission. Nobody said anything about a mission. My uniform’s in my stuff, my stuff is in Colorado...”

“There’s not going to be any shooting of any things,” said Carter. She took a deep breath and tried to calm them down, and Sheppard smugly guessed she was reconsidering her decision not to brief them before dragging them to another base in another part of the country. It was a bad call and he was sure as hell going to get on her case about it later, when Rodney wasn’t standing next to them and panicking about a mission.

“Look, it’s literally just a game of hide and seek,” said Ellison. The man had been quiet for most of the morning but he seemed to have a low tolerance for bullshit. Sheppard was suddenly reminded of the things the trash-manual had said about Sentinel being human lie detectors and was mildly regretting his pisspoor efforts at diplomacy so far. Ellison carried on, content to ignore him. “I’ll be with Sheppard and we’ll find the rest of you. The only thing you have to do is sit where you’re put, not get lost, and stay within range of radio contact with Colonel Carter.”

McKay calmed down at that. “Okay, so I can take a nap when I get there? I didn’t bring much to do. And I think my tablet needs charged.”

Carter chuckled to herself and patted him warmly on the shoulder, which seemed to make McKay’s morning at least. “Our ride’s over there,” she said, pointing toward a Black Hawk chopper across the tarmac that had a team working through pre-flight prep. “Let’s go.”

Sheppard stood and stared at the big helicopter, honestly not sure he could handle the ride after the way the plane out had hit his senses. His ears were ringing, everyone was talking normally - with the exception of McKay - and he felt like they were yelling, and his balance felt badly off. And that wasn’t even counting the headache.

“Hey... You okay, man?” Sandburg asked. He stood quietly at Sheppard’s shoulder as the others moved toward the chopper. Even Ellison followed after Carter, at the back of the group like he was herding them away. Sheppard frowned at the relief he felt by the implied permission he had been granted to just stand there in the shade of the hangar and get his bearings.

“Yeah, sure. I... don’t know, honestly,” he admitted, reluctantly not lying like he wanted to. Sandburg shifted to dig into his ever-present backpack. A moment later he handed over a small bag with ear plugs.

“You’re gonna need these. Use them. And grab a helmet, if they’ve got one,” said Sandburg. He kept his voice quiet, but Sheppard could hear him easily over the wind rattling the hangar and the sound of some of the plane engines inside still cooling down.

Sheppard had spent most of the last twenty years bouncing between field missions and air force bases, he knew the sounds that surrounded him now and used to be so familiar with them that he found them comforting. Now he missed the ocean. The mechanical grinding of the planes and choppers grated his senses all the way to his bones. It was a different kind of surreal.

“Give yourself a break, man,” Blair went on, blindly coaching someone he had just met and yet, Sheppard realized, hitting the mark. “You haven’t had to deal with this stuff in a while. You’ve been stuck indoors on a ship for a month. A ship has controlled environments. When’s the last time you were out in the fresh air at all?”

Sheppard actually had to think about that one. It had been a little under a month. He only had a few minutes at a time outside when he was back on Atlantis. “It’s been a while, yeah.”

“We get it, this isn’t going to be as easy as it sounds,” said Blair. “For your team, sure. No problem for them. But this is work. You’re gonna have to train yourself in a whole new way of even thinking, here. And it won’t work unless you back off and acknowledge that. It’s not easy, so stop expecting it to be. You can push yourself. But you’ve got to pay attention to where the limits are. Otherwise you’ll blow right past the line and end up zoned. And once you’re in a zone, you’re the only one who can get yourself out of it.”

The man made sense. Sheppard watched his team load up into the chopper across the tarmac and realized he still hadn’t moved. “Yeah... but I can’t exactly tap out on this one, either,” he said.

Blair shrugged. “If you think you have to, you can. You and Jim can stay here until you’re ready, Sam and I will get the others out there. The idea is to see what you can do, not put you under the first day you get back into the real world.”

The offer was appealing, but Sheppard saw all the man hours that had already been put into getting them this far. He had to get it together or waste entire teams’ time, from Colorado to California. He opened up the new sound-dampeners Sandburg had given him and tried to shrug off the hesitation.

John Sheppard could handle a chopper. He could fly them, he could ride them down, he could walk away. The rotors weren’t going to make him zone because he had a court martial record that said he could be a bigger pain in the ass than a Black Hawk. That was the only plan Sheppard would hold to.

Sandburg kept pace with him easily enough on the way over to the chopper. They were about the same age and build, though Sandburg was only about as tall as McKay, and he was apparently as used to keeping up with Ellison as Sheppard was at staying at least half a step ahead of Ronon. And Sandburg could give pretty good, well-targeted pep talks on the Sentinel thing. Sheppard decided he was liking the new team a little more by the minute and he ushered the new guy into the Black Hawk ahead of him.

When Sheppard climbed into the chopper, Sam handed him a helmet and they were ready to go. The ear plugs helped but he was still clenching his jaw and braced against the overload. He was determined to keep his feet under him, Black Hawk notwithstanding.

And that meant that maybe the Colonel had briefed at least part of Sheppard’s team on the current mission, but he was back to being the boss even if they were on Earth. Once he was hooked into the chopper’s com system, he caught Teyla and Ronon’s attention, leaned toward them to be sure they could see him despite the oddity of their first helicopter ride.

“I don’t care what Carter told you,” he said, speaking clearly and not at all minding that Sam was listening in on the same connection. “If anybody from around here stops you and chats you up, they want to know where you’re from? You tell them you’re from San Francisco. Understood?”

“San Francisco?” asked Teyla. Even Ronon was confused as he rolled the words around.

“San Francisco,” repeated Sheppard. “And you stick with that story until I say otherwise. That’s an order.”

“San Francisco it is,” said Ronon easily.

“And no shooting anybody,” Sheppard clarified. “Just for the record.”

“What if-” Ronon began but Sheppard cut him off.

“If you have to, use Teyla’s weapon. Let her do it,” Sheppard ordered. There would be a lot less paperwork waiting for them that way. He looked to Carter and she nodded her approval of the orders, but did a bad job at hiding her amusement.

 

*~*~*

Earth: Beacon Hills Preserve, California

Sheppard hadn’t taken a ride over birch, pines, and redwoods in a chopper in maybe... ever. It had been a long time since his days in school, and even then he didn’t spend a lot of time camping. It looked very different from the view over a desert, and was very close to some of the rainforest climates they had found traveling through the gate, but now he saw it from the jump seat in front of an open helicopter door. It was fun, even if he did have a headache.

There was no way to keep track of their location from where he was sitting, so he tried to just enjoy the ride. There was a lot to see and smell and hear, even with the extra padding he had employed for the trip. They were only in the air for a few minutes, but it was a challenge to keep his focus anywhere too long.

When the helicopter lowered to the ground and the pilots gave the clear, Sheppard and Ellison jumped from their seats and stayed low as they ran from the sweep of the rotors. It was odd to not have to seek cover, to simply get away from the helicopter as it lurched back into the air. The two men stood at the side of the clearing and watched as the chopper climbed and flew off.

Then everything was quiet. Long blessed minutes of quiet passed as Ellison checked his pack for a bottle of water, found a tree to sit down against, and made a very obvious effort at not going any damn place. And Sheppard wasn’t at all inclined to question the call.

He scouted out a shady spot of his own and set his gear down as a pillow before laying on the forest floor and staring up at way too many trees. He wanted the ocean, but he would take the substitute of the wind through the trees over the sounds of machines and people for a while.

“Where are we?” he asked eventually. He wasn’t sure how long he took to rest, but the chopper had faded from hearing a long time ago, and John had even chanced taking the ear plugs out by then.

“I don’t know,” Ellison replied. “Sandburg’s the one with the maps.”

That didn’t seem like a good idea. Slowly, reluctantly, Sheppard sat up to stare at the Sentinel.

“No maps?” he asked.

“No maps,” Ellison confirmed.

“Carter signed off on that part?” Sheppard wanted the clarification so he could add it to the conversation he planned to have with her later about briefing his team without including him in the same loop before any kind of mission, even friendly ones.

“The idea is to find the others,” replied Ellison. “If you can’t find them, I should be able to. This is a low-risk op in a no-risk location.”

Should?!” Sheppard stared at the trees around them and the sky, guessing that they weren’t much past ten AM yet. “All the same, this is my team, out in an area none of them know. And I’m guessing we’re somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas, which, okay, yeah, I went to Stanford, but all that taught me is that Sierra Nevada makes a damn good beer. And we were not packed for camping.” He consulted his own pack and frowned as he realized how useless it was for any kind of real survival training. “I mean... have you ever even heard of the Donner Party?”

Ellison shrugged it off, not apparently concerned. “I guess you’d better get working on looking for them then.”

Sheppard stared at him. “Wait. That’s it?” he asked. “I’m just supposed to pick a direction, hope for the best?”

“And avoid cliffs, hunting traps, and traffic, yeah,” said Ellison. “You want to be your own baseline, Colonel. That means working on your instincts. Training yourself how to trust the right information that your senses are giving you.”

“Yeah, but my sense of direction right now isn’t that great to start with,” Sheppard pointed out. “I got lost leaving the mess hall.”

“Underground, in a network of tunnels, that all look the same and are completely magnetically shielded and screw with any directional technology that’s not wired in,” pointed out Ellison. “You’re a pilot, which means you can navigate, which means your sense of direction is fine. Now we can find out if you can still tap into the overload that your senses are giving you. Which means you gotta find the team on your own. I’m just along for the ride.”

Mentally kicking himself for not having had the guts to retire when he’d been given the chance, Sheppard got to his feet and pulled his pack onto his shoulders again. He went from chill to cranky in 4.5 seconds and didn’t feel bad about it. On his team, he still outranked Ellison.

“Let’s get going then,” he ordered. Ellison didn’t complain as he stood. He waited, watching and probably way too smug about the whole mission.

“Where to, Boss?”

Sheppard had to work to ignore him. He looked around at the trees, out into the clearing they had been dropped off at, around to the other direction which seemed to slant ever so slightly upward. He didn’t know how he was supposed to just find people in the middle of nowhere. He could maybe try listening for McKay’s voice, because there was no way they were getting away with dumping McKay in the middle of nature and nothing without having to listen to him bitch the whole time about it.

Out of sheer frustration, Sheppard picked a direction and started walking. Ellison waited him out and then let him take the lead. After a few yards, however, something in his head said he was going the wrong way. So Sheppard changed course and started off again.

*~*~*

Chapter Text

It wasn’t that McKay didn’t like planes or Earth technology in general, but flying around in circles with the doors of the helicopter wide open seemed like excessive showing off. He watched unhappily as the chopper lowered yet again at another flat mountain top clearing and Carter gave Ronon and Teyla the basics on how to bail from a perfectly functional helicopter and his teammates disappeared into waist-high grasses and weeds. He saw them again when the Black Hawk took an unnecessarily sharp turn as it left the area and McKay was able to look down from the center seat to see them standing to watch the helicopter fly off.

Carson and Sam sat on either side of him, keeping Rodney safely in the vehicle, but it was only a small reassurance. They were being paired off. First Sheppard and the new guy Ellison, and then Teyla and Ronon, which left McKay on his own with either Carson or Carter, neither of whom were known for their hiking skills, and really McKay would much rather be back at the base than out in the sun. He hadn’t packed any SPF because for the last month he had been operating under the assumption that Sheppard wasn’t allowed in uncontrolled environments, such as... wherever they were.

There was a flicker of hope as the chopper circled its way back into what seemed like the edges of civilization. The trees turned into grass and the grass had breaks of roads, and then parking lots along what looked like an old highway. To McKay’s delight, the helicopter started to land again in a grassy field just past the parking lot of a familiar-enough looking coffee shop. He would definitely be able to charge his tablet in a Starbucks.

“Oh, perfect. Thank you,” he said, unable to contain the relief at the sight.

“This isn’t your stop,” said Carter. She patted Rodney on the shoulder as he looked at her, mildly horrified by the implication.

“Excuse me?” he asked, loud over the noise in the chopper. He couldn’t have heard her correctly. Carter pointed at Sandburg in the seat across from them.

“You’re with Blair! Carson and I will be here, reviewing the notes Dr. Sandburg gave us...” As she shouted back at him, her comm mic already disabled, she and Carson both traitorously started releasing their seat belts and harness straps. They were really leaving him. He looked over at Sandburg, who didn’t look at all flustered by the arrangement. Even Carson was smiling. That guilty smile he got when he knew something. Did he know he was going to get to sit at a coffee shop when they left that morning?

“Why did no one tell me-” but by the time the complaint was out, Sam and Carson were already running away from the chopper blades over their heads. McKay leaned forward and tried to yell after them, “At least bring me a coffee!”

Sam just waved and gave the pilot the thumbs up. The helicopter went back up into the air then. Rodney sat back in the seat and tried to tell himself he wasn’t surprised. Nor offended. Because he could have been sitting in a cafe drinking coffee all day and no one had even given him the option.

“This is not fair,” he said, staring out the open door as the Starbucks disappeared again. Across from him, Sandburg wasn’t quite laughing, but he was at least grinning the same way Carson and Sam had.

“Hey, man, it’ll be fine. We won’t be that far away,” Sandburg told him. McKay huffed a sigh at the offered reassurance. The chopper didn’t fly in circles this time, and in a few minutes, they started to land again. McKay noted they had flown over three different coffee shops and what looked like a university before setting down near a ravine above the small city.

“This is our stop,” said Blair. He took the headset off and then released the harness, which meant that the first thing he did was mute Rodney’s complaints. Reluctantly, McKay reminded himself that they were working to keep the team together and help Sheppard. He could deal with a day of being bored in the middle of nowhere if he had to.

McKay collected his gear and followed Sandburg out of the helicopter.

“Why couldn’t we have all gotten a nice coffee shop,” McKay complained at Sandburg once the chopper was gone.

“Because it’s not likely Colonel Sheppard would rely on his senses if they could just get in the car and check out the drive thrus between here and Beale,” replied the Guide.

“But it’s not likely he can find us here, either,” said McKay, confused and annoyed by the logic. He saw nothing wrong with the drive thru option. Blair smiled at him and waved him over to where the man stood on the edge of the cliff. He pointed McKay’s attention up along the valley it created that went eastward back into the lower foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.

“Sheppard is exactly five miles that way. Straight up the valley here. There’s no way he can miss any of us,” said Blair. McKay seemed confused, looked from the eastern view to the west. If he were to be able to figure out how to scale the cliff and walk another mile or two west, he could get himself to the coffee shop they had left Carson at. He crept to the edge and looked down, considering it, now that he knew the approximate lay of the land. Sandburg seemed to read his mind and pulled him back from the edge to steer him toward the treeline instead.

“Where are we?” McKay asked.

“Uh, Northern California,” replied Sandburg. He pointed down to the west and the coffee shops. “There’s a university down there somewhere, but it’s an ag school, so I’m betting Sheppard doesn’t know the area.”

“Of course he doesn’t know the area. None of us will know the area. This is mildly insane,” said McKay. “We’ll die of exposure before he can find us.”

Blair scoffed. “Seriously? How long can it take him to clear five miles of clear terrain?”

McKay paused to consider it. “Okay, maybe not die. But do you know how hot it gets in the summers in Northern California? Triple degree heat. And I didn’t bring my sunscreen. Because nobody told me-”

“Rodney. Literally all we have to do is sit right here. In the shade. And not die,” said Blair patiently. He settled himself down on a comfortable looking rock in the shade and shrugged out of his jacket. “We shouldn’t be here long enough to die, anyway.”

“Well, where’s the radio? Check and see where they are. I need food and sustenance and my bed. I don’t need to get lost in... wherever we are,” McKay suggested.

“Beacon Hills, I think,” said Blair. He pointed west, back behind the trees that surrounded them now. “Closest urban area.”

“With the coffee shops,” said McKay. Blair nodded.

“You’re catching on, this is good,” he said.

McKay wasn't as amused as Sandburg. "Still. Radio Sheppard. Make sure he's going the right way," McKay prompted again. He found a rock of his own and sat down to sort his available supplies, just to make sure he didn't have to hike himself to the coffee shop.

"Oh, I don't have the radio. Jim has it," said Sandburg. "He and Sheppard are the only ones on the move, the rest of us are supposed to stay where we were dropped off. I think the others have their radios though."

Surprised at the news, McKay looked up from his inventory project. "Wait... why don't you have a radio then?"

"Policy is not to leave a Sentinel with a radio," said Blair, shrugging at something he didn't seem to personally agree with. "The white noise from the static can... be a problem. So Jim has mine."

"That policy is a problem," said McKay. "Sheppard needs a radio if we're supposed to get back in the field."

"And when he gets stable, we can bend the rules a little. I gave my radio to Jim. He'll be fine with it. Colonel Sheppard is the unknown, currently, and he wasn't given a radio." Blair was very dedicated to his no-worries vibe on this mission and McKay just wasn't catching it.

"What about Teyla and Ronon? They don't know this planet, they could get very lost, very quickly, and-"

"They were told to stay put until they were found. That is literally the entire point in this mission," Blair interrupted. "Carter explained it to them this morning at breakfast, and they understood. They will either be found first and the chopper will be back to pick us up before rush hour traffic hits the coffee shop, or they'll be waiting exactly where we left them when we go to pick them up at the end of the day."

McKay scrunched up his jacket and stuffed it into his pack, too frustrated to form coherent words. "Nobody explained it to me at breakfast."

"Yeah, well, you and Sheppard slept in. We figured you'd catch on eventually," said Sandburg. He tossed something over to Rodney. He caught it and was surprised to discover the man had brought along sufficient SPF sunscreen to get McKay through what was undoubtedly going to be a miserable day.

"Thanks," he said.

"No problem," replied Sandburg easily. "You better now?"

"No. I'm anticipating baking in about an hour and there is still far too much Irish in my genetic code to handle California," said McKay. Not to mention the still healing burns on his shoulder that he was resolutely refusing to consider yet for the sake of his own sanity.

"How do you usually go on missions then?" said Blair. "It's the same sun wherever you go."

"That is not in fact true," replied McKay.

Sandburg waited a beat before he lined up a new question. "What did you mean about Teyla and Ronon not being from this planet?"

McKay was caught off guard by the question while he still had an undignified glob of sunscreen across his face. He stalled by rubbing at his face to clear it, mentally replaying the conversation to see where it went off the rails on him.

"I didn't say that," he finally concluded.

"Nope, but it was very definitely inferred by your comment and a few other things this morning," Sandburg said.

"I thought you were cleared to join the team and go back when we do?"

"We are. We locked up our place and gave the plants to the kid down the hall because we'll be gone," said the nosey and yet uninformed Guide. "And I was told that I've got Sheppard's clearance, because they wanted me to stick with him until he's on his feet again. Where he goes, I go, except for this so Jim can get him rated."

The answer only confused McKay more. "Then why haven't you been read in on what our mission actually is?"

"Well, first, we've been a little busy. We got the orders three days ago," said Blair with a shrug. "And my guess is a lot of the reason is that I've been with Jim. People get antsy talking about classified shit around Sentinel. I'm normally the messenger on that stuff."

"What? Why?” McKay asked. He viewed anything Sentinel through the lense of how it worked with life as he knew it for John Sheppard, and Sandburg’s theory didn’t track with any part of life on Atlantis. “People have to talk around John. Otherwise he can't do his job."

"I'm guessing you didn't get read in on Sheppard since his gene woke up, huh?"

McKay swatted at a fly buzzing around his head and felt impossibly put out by the whole trip. "I'm a scientist, I kinda have things to do. Taking care of John is what Carson is for."

"Well... This is all just what I’ve observed the last few years. It’s not that people don’t talk to them, I guess. It’s just that a room can get pretty quiet when they walk in,” Sandburg explained. “Maybe they don’t want to mess with Jim’s hearing... but I doubt that. I always figured people don't talk around Sentinel because they're walking human lie detectors. They can overhear conversations three rooms away, tune in to physiological responses to any given environment, and people who have to deal with politicians a lot will just shut up rather than talk. But a Sentinel spying on a room they happen to be standing in can offend a lot of important people in high places who have to lie for a living. That's why any trained Sentinel gets the tattoo in the first place. So the right people know to shut up."

"Which I believe is highly illegal and a violation and wrong and I don’t understand why he went along with it," said Rodney. It wasn’t like Sheppard needed a tattoo to look cool or something, with his permanently messed up hair and the whole shooting things without freaking out first. It was a huge overstep.

"That's the price to avoid a lifetime in the brig for stealing state secrets," said Blair. He found a small twig and started shredding leaves and bark. “If they overhear or see something they shouldn’t, and don’t know to keep their mouths shut, they’re the ones who get in trouble, not the actual leak. It can get pretty ugly.”

“Did I mention that I very much don’t like how the Sentinel Project chose to run things?” replied McKay. “Because I don’t. And I am very much looking forward to either getting John back to the... our post... where they can’t reach him, or - my personal preference - turning the genes off so they don’t care again.”

"You can't turn the genes off," said Blair. "That's not how it works."

"Oh, no, I assure you, we can turn them all off. We just haven't figured out which ones do what exactly, in this instance," replied McKay, shrugging it off. He didn't actually feel like explaining it to Sandburg because he didn't want to assume too much about the man's eventual clearance on all things Top Secret. It would be irresponsible at best.

"You can't though," insisted Sandburg. "Do you even understand what you're suggesting?" The question was mildly offensive but the man didn't give Rodney a chance to respond. He jumped off his rock perch and started pacing, shedding nervous energy unconsciously in a very familiar way.

"You're suggesting turning off all sensory input if you're talking about deactivating the ProX. Sight, smell, touch, hearing... all of it. Gone," said Sandburg. "The gene alters the body. It merges and replaces those command codes entirely. That's why it has to be activated. That trigger... well, whatever it is that activates the code, it triggers the system to replace it. It doesn't add a few lines as they grow. It replaces them under force of situational evolution and adaptation."

Rodney hesitated, working the suggestion over in his own genius brain rather than trust Sandburg. The hippie doctor just shook his head at him for it.

"The only way to deactivate the ProX, once it's been activated, is to disable the sense entirely. You would leave him blind, deaf, and with no pain receptors to keep him from hurting himself," said Sandburg. He paused and looked over at Rodney, an odd sort of frustration and maybe anger on his face and in his voice.

"Look, I read Beckett's notes. I know Sheppard wants to just turn it off and be done with it. I get it, trust me. You'd be hard pressed to find somebody who hates the Sentinel Project more than me, okay? But Sheppard doesn't even know what he can do yet. And once he gets a handle on it, he'll be fine. But if you go trying to turn it off... the adjustment is ten times worse, and the outcome... isn't great. It's the opposite of anything somebody like him would want, and the last thing you would ever want to see him go through."

"I said I'd try to look into it..." said Rodney. Admittedly, he hadn't tried very hard. He didn't really bother to take notice of what any of the Sentinel stuff really was until Carson had sent him the Project manual. Before then, it was some medical problem that McKay had been certain Carson would sort out. It didn't get real until somebody started shoehorning his team into a little red-tape box; that was a lot more than just Sheppard having weird headaches and fainting spells that messed with Ancient tech.

"Look into letting Sheppard try finding a baseline, so he can feel normal again with what he's got," said Sandburg. "You wanna help him figure this stuff out? Help him tell the difference between something five feet away, or something fifty. Don't raise your voice around him for a while, so he can figure out the difference between a whisper, or talking, or yelling. That stuff is all messed up on him right now. Those zone outs? That's his system trying to... reboot to the baseline when he can't tell what it is that he's sensing because he's picking up everything at once. He just needs stuff he can focus on without blocking out everything else."

"Oh," was all McKay managed to say as he processed the new information. It wasn't often that he met someone who could talk circles around him about anything, but Sandburg certainly had a lot of stored up facts to share. And McKay knew next to nothing. He frowned.

"Is all this in that book you gave us? I mean, him? That Sam took," he asked.

"Yeah, along with a bunch of studies and statistics and evidence to show these people aren't crazy, they just... have a whole new experience of the same old life," said Blair. "It takes a lot of work to convince the military not to throw out the whole baby when the bathwater just got a little cold."

Again, McKay considered the situation. If Sheppard could get the sensory baseline problem under control, there would be no need for altering any genetic structures. He could go back to Atlantis, and maybe open up a whole new avenue of exploration as the evolved ATA interacted with more of the Ancient tech.

McKay saw only an iceberg tip. "Well do you have another one of the books handy?" he asked. "What about the Cliff Notes version? Anything? We're apparently not going anywhere for a while."

 

*~*~*

 

Walking in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, in a particular section of nowhere that Sheppard had zero conceptual familiarity with to begin with, felt like an exercise in absolute futility. Not that John would usually side with the negative whining of one Rodney McKay, but he really, really wanted to start whining. Or shooting things. And he could do neither of those options. First because his pride wouldn’t let him, and second because he had no guns to shoot anything with anyway.

He had spent a few weeks in and out of the infirmary, so Sheppard was used to walking around without the weight of his service weapon when indoors. But out in the middle of growing forests, it was another story. He felt... twitchy. He didn’t have a gun, so John scratched at the fresh plastic bandage along his palm so he would stop checking the empty holster at his leg. The tattoo seemed to be healing okay, but he didn’t remember them being that annoying in general, and poking at the plastic gave him something to keep both hands occupied.

“You’re absolutely positive this is the entirety of this plan, right?” Sheppard finally asked Ellison. “Just... walk. Until we find somebody.”

“Well... how absolutely positive are you that you’re walking the right direction?” the Sentinel captain replied. He didn’t seem concerned at all. Sheppard reached out and caught him by the arm and pulled him up to a stop, facing him directly.

“I get that this is supposed to be some kind of test, or assessment, but it feels more like a game and a waste of time,” said John. “So let’s take a minute and cut through the red tape and bullshit of what goes on paperwork. Just a second here. What exactly is this supposed to get anybody, other than a day off in the park? I mean, Teyla and Ronon are probably fine with this, wherever they are. But McKay and Beckett aren’t exactly the outdoor type. You send them outside for an afternoon on their own and they come back with bugs and bitching. This isn’t... fun.”

“It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s like I told you, a test on your senses, to check your range, see how you handle it,” replied Ellison. The annoying thing was that he seemed perfectly serious with the answer, as if it solved the mystery.

Sheppard waved the man’s attention around at the woods they were surrounded by. “Unless you’re telling me that somewhere out here, somebody’s torturing a member of my team, and I should be hearing them screaming right now, I don’t see how I could be picking them up with my sense of hearing or sight.”

“That’s fair,” replied Ellison with a nod. He glanced briefly at the watch on his wrist. “We’ve been walking for about a half an hour. Why’d you pick this direction?”

Sheppard didn’t have an intelligent answer for that. “I guessed. Because you told me to.”

“Guess... instinct... your gut said walk west, so you walked west,” said Ellison. Sheppard nodded.

“Yeah, basically,” he said.

“Something to keep in mind, Colonel? What we call instinct is often informed by unconscious perception. We notice something that maybe we’re not processing. Maybe we hear something but we’re not right on top of it, so we can’t recognize what it is. We see something between some tree branches, but we don’t pay attention to it because there’s a few hundred other branches and tree trunks between us and it. Doesn’t mean we didn’t pick up on it. It means we weren’t consciously aware of it. That other stuff? Rattles around. Has to go somewhere. And sometimes, if we process something important, we call it instinct.”

It wasn’t exactly crazytalk. Sheppard was familiar enough with battlefield responses, turning to fire a weapon before even fully realizing he had seen a bad guy there. It was why they trained, from the military to cops, to firefighters, was to practice relying on the stuff that gets picked up in the peripheral, to make sure nothing important is missed that could cost anyone their lives. Sheppard crossed his arms and mulled it over.

“So you’re saying maybe we’re not going the wrong way and I’m not wasting everybody’s time,” he eventually concluded. Ellison shrugged at him, his expression behind the sunglasses looking more amused than annoyed.

“I’m saying this is your mission, and if you say we’re going the right way, then... we’re probably going the right way,” replied Ellison. Again, not the answer Sheppard was looking for.

“Okay. So. If he’s out there with my team, then check in with Sandburg,” he challenged. “Make sure we’re going the right way.”

“Can’t,” said Ellison. “I’ve got Blair’s radio. Only way to check in with him is to find him.”

“So can you find him then?” Sheppard asked, not so much testing as actually curious. “He’s the Guide, right? Is that, like, some kind of built-in feature? If the whole pairing off thing is so important, is that part of it?”

"Right now, I could track him. Because I was paying attention when the chopper left. I have a good idea of where to start looking," replied Ellison.

"Okay, well, first of all, that's not fair because I have been in the dark on this entire mission since the gene woke up," said Sheppard. "If I had known... anything at all, really, I could have taken a stab at following the chopper, too."

"It's not exactly a carnival for anybody, Colonel. We're all just out here trying to make stuff make sense, and sometimes that means we gotta waste a day in the woods, making sure we don't lose our senses," said Ellison. "The expectation that there's always a right answer and a tight timeline isn't going to help."

“Except that’s my life, on the clock and no room for error or somebody gets dead,” said Sheppard. If Ronon had been around, there probably would have been problems, because he wasn’t adjusting well to Ellison’s blunt manner and the Satedan would have gladly taken advantage of Sheppard’s attitude to angle for his spar. John at least was smart enough to stay back from the Sentinel, fully aware that the captain was the one carrying the gun. “And while maybe on this mission, my team is, I dunno, maybe they’re out here fishing somewhere, who knows. They might not be in danger right now, which I appreciate that, just for the record... but my gut says I’m wasting time.”

“There’s a difference between habit and fact,” replied Ellison. “Fact is that you are a liability to them until you can stand out here all day, see what you need to, hear what you need to, and not have to rely on sunglasses and ear plugs to keep from falling on your face. Fact is that you don’t do good in enclosed environments, either. And fact is that you’re great at getting in your own way trying to do things the way you used to. So we’ll start with the absolute crazy basics if we have to until you reset the habits. No maps. No radios. No team. Until you find them.”

“I haven’t zoned out once since we’ve been out here,” said Sheppard, annoyed that the man was right.

“I was wondering how long it would take you to notice that,” Ellison replied. “Pretty good since we haven’t even hiked a mile yet. Haven’t found anyone yet, either, but at least you’re paying attention.”

“We’re in the woods. There are trees. And... and Bambi. What else am I supposed to be paying attention to?” Sheppard asked.

“There’s a river about, I dunno, maybe not even a mile that way,” said Ellison, pointing north east. He shifted enough to point due west. “And a city there. Probably about three miles. And there’s a road not far from here. It probably gets us into town if you want food to take care of the Hangry you’re working on.”

Sheppard looked in each direction, surprised by the information.

“It’s a headache,” he muttered, clarifying the hangry even though he was loath to admit to either of the possibilities. Then he looked back at Ellison. “How’d you know all that? Did you see the maps?”

“Nope. I can hear them. I’m used to picking those sounds out of the static that’s giving you a headache,” the man replied. “I can smell the water. And there’s an animal trail right there, habitable areas, they’re getting around pretty regularly for something.”

“So... practice,” observed Sheppard. Ellison nodded.

“And time. I’ve been doing this longer than you. That’s all,” he said. Sheppard sighed, frustrated, and scrubbed at his face. He didn’t have years to get good. He had a week and then he wanted to go back home. He took a chance and shoved the glasses up to rest on top of his head, chanced looking around without the sunglasses. There was only one way to practice using his senses.

“Okay. Any pointers to the not falling on my face part?” he asked, squinting as the light through the trees stabbed at his eyes. Ellison watched him struggle with it for a moment before he shrugged.

“Yeah, there are a few,” he said finally. “But it’s just as much work to nail them as it is anything else. So the shortcuts don’t save you much effort yet. You’re too green.”

“Try me, Ellison,” said Sheppard. The big captain shrugged at the challenge.

“Okay, here’s the easy one,” Ellison said. “You can do this with anybody on the team, but it’s better when it’s off someone you know pretty well and have a good sense for. For now, you can fake it, just get the read off me like you would them.”

That was curious and Sheppard tilted his head and raised an eyebrow. “Okay... what’s that then?”

“You can hear me standing here talking to you. You can hear me breathing. Those change, not consistent patterns, so if you try to tune in too close, you can get in trouble if I change volume or hold my breath,” said Ellison. “So try to hear my heartbeat. Put the work into listening for that, and let the other noises sit in the background.”

Sheppard pulled a face. This was not his favorite part about the whole heightened senses thing. He had put active effort into blocking out the sound of other people’s bodily functions for the past month.

“Couldn’t I just try to listen for the river instead?” he asked.

“Sure, if you can find it. There’s also wind, there’s the highway, there’s birds and bugs... can you hear the river?” Ellison asked with feigned patience. Sheppard tried and failed. He heard a lot of static that made his head pound harder. Reluctantly he shook his head in an easily denied negative.

“Try it,” said Ellison. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. You’ve got nothing to lose.”

The only thing John had to lose at this point was probably his sanity because listening to random strangers’ insides was a whole new level of weird when CPR wasn’t involved, and Ellison was now seriously suggesting he make a habit of it. So, reluctantly, Sheppard closed his eyes and tried to listen for the predictable ‘thum-thump’ of a human heartbeat.

It presented itself among the static of forest sounds gradually and Sheppard found himself listening more intently. As the heartbeat got clearer, so did the sound of a bird. It sounded nearby, but not close enough to be worried about the two humans standing under the trees. A finch tweeted at them.

Sheppard hadn’t heard birds since... probably since the prison planet, really. Atlantis didn’t have many. He got distracted listening for other birds and heard a falcon cry somewhere far overhead. It was loud, stronger than the smaller bird calls under the trees, and John realized he had stopped listening for the human sounds. He found the heartbeat again and it didn’t sound... right. Then he heard an echo of a voice over it and realized the problem.

Sheppard opened his eyes and quickly realized that he hadn’t been breathing. He coughed to catch up again and soon noticed Ellison now stood at his shoulder, ready to catch him. Well, at least he hadn’t fallen on his face.

“I’m not sure that worked so good,” he told Ellison. “I zoned.”

“I saw. But what did you hear?”

“Birds,” replied Sheppard. He could faintly hear them under the static. And he could hear Ellison still, but it didn’t bother him so much. He squinted and looked around, trying to see things that he could at least kind-of still hear. Branches in the wind, even a small animal, maybe a hare or a squirrel somewhere close enough he could hear the tiny heartbeat as the paws scrambled around. And under it all, he could still hear Ellison.

“Okay... I think I got it now,” said Sheppard. Finally something about his existence felt familiar and he snapped his fingers as he caught on. “It’s like McKay and his complaining. When we were stuck in the mines, it was mostly too dark to see, so I focused on trying to find light, but I was still listening for McKay and Ronon. Kind of... splitting my attention as I tracked my team.”

“You were distracted and working on autopilot. The cave kept you out of your own way,” said Ellison.

“Not a cave. A mine. Noise and smoke everywhere, and dark. God damned prison planet with no electricity,” said John. He was distracted again, trying to listen to birds, and Ellison, and find the sound of the river Jim had mentioned. It was something that might actually work out.

“Prison planet?” asked Ellison. His tone held the kind of confusion that belied worry about someone’s sanity. Oh.

“It’s a long story,” said John. “I’ll have to get you the report when we get back to the base.”

Ellison seemed to accept it for a minute and Sheppard started walking again, trusting his gut that he was following the sound of the river he could almost hear. He wasn’t imagining it, it had to be really there if Ellison had heard it. The Sentinel followed after him without correcting his course.

“Colonel,” Ellison began after a little while. “Where is your team assigned?”

Sheppard pulled a face and stared up at the sky briefly. He couldn’t dodge it forever. “Classified, Captain. But we’re assigned to an exploration expedition. We actually do this-” Sheppard waved at their general surroundings, “Kinda stuff a lot, really. Pick a direction, go look for things. Run into bad guys and... take ‘em out. We stay pretty busy.”

“In between prison planets,” replied Ellison. Sheppard stopped walking and turned to wait for the Sentinel to catch up.

“Like I said. Classified. I’ll make sure you and Sandburg get read in when we get back to Colorado,” he said. He kept them walking but didn’t lead the way this time. “Sandburg said you’re in, so you’ll get briefed. Does your team have much field experience?”

“Sure, I do. Sandburg... none,” replied Jim. Sheppard was still only idly listening to Ellison’s heart rate as he tried to keep track of everything else around them, but it sounded like it had certainly elevated disproportionate to the walking they were doing. Sheppard tilted his head and looked over at the Sentinel, not sure how to read the observation but not sure he wanted to mention it, either.

“So how’s he handle himself?” John asked. “He’s cleared with weapons training, right?”

“Well, he took a semester of the police academy, but that was almost fifteen years ago. The Project made him do boot camp once. He’s a teacher who got stuck behind a desk, Colonel. He can handle himself when he has to, but that doesn’t make him qualified for it,” said Ellison with a shrug.

“Kinda like McKay,” replied Sheppard. “He’s the only one on my team who had to figure out military training along the way. Teyla and Ronon already knew how to fight before I brought them on. If McKay can catch on, I’m sure Sandburg will do fine.”

“He’ll handle it,” agreed Jim. He still seemed a little stressed, even as he tried to dismiss it. John hadn’t meant to leave the man hanging on such an ominous unknown, but there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room for discussing the Pegasus galaxy expedition in the middle of the woods. Sentinel or not, there was no guarantee they were the only two who could hear the briefing Ellison was certainly owed.

“Anyway, I got a line on that river,” Sheppard offered. He pointed to where the sounds of the river seemed to be coming from. “There.”

Ellison nodded. “Better. What about your team?”

“Still working on that,” said Sheppard. Even still, he stepped up the pace toward the river.

*~*~*

Chapter Text

Earth: Beacon Hills Preserve, California

It had been a few days since the blow up at the loft, but Stiles wasn’t sure exactly how many. Time kind of went wonky on him for a while because of the drugs he’d been fed by the bad guys. At least now he knew who they were: a pack of former Alpha psychopath werewolves who collected power by killing betas. Now they were after Scott, the True Alpha, whatever that meant.

All Stiles knew was that, thanks to Scott, they had his dad as a new recruit.

Stiles didn’t know how the fight at the loft had settled out because he had spent a couple of days passed out. He was afraid to go back to the Argents to find out. They would talk to social services, and social services would send Stiles to get tested, and he would fail. And then they’d lock him up in a group home for addicts, so every werewolf in the county could use him as a chew toy. No thanks, hard pass.

Instead, he stayed with Derek, camping out at what was left of the Hale house. Derek said it was just until the drugs were completely out of Stiles’ system, and that he still had to go back to the Argents. With the Alphas around, especially while they had Stiles’ dad, staying with the Argents was the safest alternative.

Thanks to Stiles’ disappearing from their home in the first place, the Argents and their hunter hobbyists now knew about the Alpha pack. And they knew that the presence of the Alpha pack had thrown all the local packs into survival mode. It was Open Season as far as the hunters were concerned, because there was no discernible difference between a regular werewolf pack like Scott's and the crazy psycho of Blind Deucalion and his Alphas. Stiles just hoped they didn’t know about his dad. That would somehow make everything worse.

When Stiles wasn’t as badly looped out and not as likely to hurt himself wandering the Hale house, Derek had gone back to try to find Boyd and Isaac and the others. The only safe place was the school for the other teens, because Principal Gerald couldn’t exactly take them out during Chem. Derek found hunter search parties using the Argents as a base of operations.

Considering the Argents’ favorite werewolf pack to use for target practice was the surviving members of the Hale pack, Derek’s old burned out hovel of a house in the woods wasn’t any safer for them than going back to the loft would be. They were chased out one night, into the woods, and hadn’t been able to go back. Derek found a place to hide in a bizarre root cellar under a tree, a place he said he and his cousins had played in when they were kids. He’d hidden a jar filled with rocks in one of the earthen shelves when he was 12, and he found it just as easily in the dark when he was 20. They moved their ‘camp out’ to the dark cellar, where Stiles fell asleep leaned against an underground tree trunk and Derek kept watch at the steps.

The next morning, very little light crept in between the wood slats of the cellar doors, but it was enough to see the large black wolf stretched out at the base of the stairs.

“Oh my god,” blurted Stiles. He blinked his eyes and tried to wake himself up. He hadn’t exactly been sleeping great, so alertness was a tall order, but under the circumstances he had appropriate incentive. Werewolves were werewolves. His werewolves didn’t turn into their four legged dog-cousin the wolf. They had always remained the two-legged gargantuan humanoids with long finger-claws and over-sized mouths to fit in over-sized fangs. And yet somehow Stiles found himself locked in a dug-out root cellar with an actual wolf between him and the only way out.

“Please tell me you’re Derek,” he said. Because talking to strange wolves was a perfectly normal thing to do. The wolf looked over at him and thumped his tail. Stiles almost jumped out of his skin.

“No way!” he yelped, stammering for a more intelligent, coherent response to the absolute awesome mystery in front of him. The wolf moved to stand, even stretched his back in that very-definitely-a-dog thing, and carried the backpack filled with food over to Stiles. It held the quickest things he could grab on their stop at the last gas station out of town: PopTarts and beef jerky. Stiles stared at the wolf even as he dug blindly in the bag for breakfast.

“Are you kidding me with this? No shit, you’re really a wolf now?” he asked. “I didn’t get drugged again or something, right?”

The wolf blinked at him with a very-definitely Hale-judgement face before shaking his head and going back to sitting by the stairs. Very definitely a judgey Hale wolf.

“Holy shit,” said Stiles. He chomped on a PopTart and tried to process the new werewolf revelation. It made sense. That’s how they had found Laura Hale months earlier, as a dead, partial wolf. But this was Derek. He was a clumsy idiot. Idiot werewolves couldn’t do cool things like change into a wolf and just chill out. It took a minute to get used to.

After that, Derek stayed a wolf. It was probably easier to keep track of the bad guys in the woods as a wolf. Stiles curled up that night on a fur pillow and actually got real sleep. Derek was a lot less grouchy as a wolf. Stiles pointed that out the next morning and got bit on the arm for it.

“You better have had your shots,” Stiles grumbled at him for it. Derek didn’t find it quite as funny and chased Stiles out of the cellar.

It was another summer day in Beacon Hills already, too hot for his jacket, so Stiles stuffed the hoodie in the food backpack. He followed the wolf to the creek channel that ran through the woods. Water was actually a really good idea. Stiles dropped the pack by a tree, even left his shirt on the stack. He was pretty rank and tired of it, now that he wasn’t sick all the time. Stiles wasn’t sure if it was safe to go back to the Argents' yet, so the only shower he had access to was the creek water to wash his face and dunk his head.

Stiles went out among the rocks and crouched over the edge of the water. It was colder than he expected, so he did more splashing his hands in it than anything else, just trying to get used to it. Derek the wolf walked out into the water until all four massive paws were covered, lapped at the running water he stood in. Clear blue eyes stared back at Stiles’ ginger efforts, adding excessive judgement to the obvious challenge. Stiles shrugged it off and edged a little more out into the water himself.

He really should have expected it, but Stiles was caught off guard when Derek pounced and toppled him face-first into the creek. There was no way to know if it was his way of playing or if he was just tired of Stiles’ unshowered stench after so long.

“Jerk,” Stiles complained at him, sitting on his ass on the creek bed, with icy water up to his ribs. If wolves could laugh, the expression on Derek’s face was probably as close as it could get.

Stiles spent the next few hours trying to dry off. The pair of them wandered further up into the woods than Stiles was used to going. He didn’t exactly have anywhere else to be, and he had some food left, though he wasn’t sure how long it would hold up. Derek the wolf could chow down on roadkill and raw squirrels, but Stiles wasn’t going to try cooking vermin for dinner any time soon.

It was probably around mid-afternoon that Derek disappeared. He wasn’t gone long, but it was a noticed absence. When he came back, the wolf caught Stiles by the edge of his shirt and started tugging, hard. Nothing about his body language said he was playing. So when Derek turned and ran, Stiles followed. They went higher into the foothills, and Derek led Stiles out onto one of the cliff overlooks. Stiles looked down toward where they had run from and saw an access road that wound off from the highway. Trucks were parked along the access road, not just one or two but a whole group. None of them were Park Ranger or Sheriffs trucks.

“You think it’s hunters?” he asked Derek. The response was a snort and slight head-toss, which seemed like an affirmative. Stiles backed off from the edge of the hill and picked his way back toward the trees, keeping his head down. Going back to the cellar would be a bad idea. It was too close to the Hale house.

Stiles was running low on ideas that made sense, and even lower on energy. Around sundown it was still too warm for a hoodie, but Stiles realized he could smell a fire. He looked to Derek, but the wolfy face was harder to read than the human one. Stiles decided to check it out. The worst case scenario was that he had to deal with hunters on his own, and Derek could get back to whatever he did with his life when he wasn’t babysitting Stiles. At least Stiles had the option of using the Argents as a get out of jail free space and would just have to pray the drugs were out of his system before Social Worker Pant Suit caught up to him.

Best case scenario was that he could beg a hot meal off a camper because no one else would be starting a fire when the temperature had barely made it back into the 70-degree range. All the same, Derek followed after him, so Stiles felt like he might survive his own curiosity for once.

He followed his nose to a campsite down the hillside along the creek, in the narrow valley ravine formed by the foothills. People lived down in the valley, though not very close to the creek since it flooded every spring. The campers with the fire were probably just day-campers, which significantly improved the odds of bumming free food.

“Are you sure it’s okay we came down here?” Stiles heard someone ask. There were two guys at the fire pit, one of them in a black and gray shirt and jeans, and the other in TACAM camo BDUs with a belt and empty holster, so probably some kind of military. Stiles didn’t recognize the patches on their backpacks, but they weren’t carrying weapons, so they weren’t hunters.

“Yeah, it’ll be fine. If you’d told me about your shoulder sooner, we could have started out down here so you didn’t get dehydrated,” came the reply. Stiles seemed satisfied that it wasn’t the conversation of psychopaths and stepped out to a more obvious path to disturb their attention.

“Honestly, if you’d just let me stay at the Starbucks, there would be a less than zero chance of dehydration,” the one in black was saying. He trailed off as he noticed Stiles walking up on them. “Uhm...”

“Hi... Are you okay?” asked the one in the urban camo BDUs and the black shirt. He was looking right at Stiles, the wolf following him only a minor side-note. From a few feet away, it was clear the man couldn’t actually be military because he had long curly hair pulled back in a frizzy ponytail, and what Stiles had originally thought were dog tags hanging around his neck was really a rock of some sort, like jade or something. Nothing about the guy really said he kept to regulation anything. The other guy didn’t look like he had enough hair on his head to remember what a comb was. Great. They were old guys. Better food selection, hopefully.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I think,” Stiles replied, confused by the concern. “Why?”

“Kid... when was the last time you saw a mirror?” asked the one who looked like a grown-up nerd. The question was mildly offensive, considering the source. “You look like you stepped out of a war zone. And there’s not supposed to be any of those around here.”

Oh.

Stiles looked down at his days-old muddy clothes and over at Derek, annoyed the man hadn’t told him he looked hurt. Just because he was hurt didn’t mean he wanted to advertise.

“I mean... we pissed off some guys who don’t like my dog. They’re out there, back on the ridge,” Stiles said, waving a hand toward the part of the forest where they had seen the trucks. “That was a few days ago, I guess.”

“A few days- you’ve been out here? Do you live out here?”

“I think what my friend is getting at is did we camp in your spot? It’s probably not easy finding a place out here,” asked the guy with the frizzy hair. He seemed calmer and less uptight in general.

“No, it’s cool. I’m... kinda between places, but I’ve got people in the city,” Stiles said.

“Beacon Hills?” the guy asked. Stiles nodded.

“My dad was the sheriff there,” he said.

“Cool,” said the hippie guy. “We’re out here just for the day, running some environmental tests for the Air Force, but I used to work with the PD when I lived in Washington. My name is Blair, and this is my teammate Rodney. Do you want to stick around for a meal with us?”

Blair hadn’t run the offer by Rodney first, but the man’s reaction was more surprise than offense. Stiles had never had to bum food from strangers before, but it went along pretty easy when he had a wolf leaning on his leg. He set his bag down and sat against a tree not far from the men.

“Thanks,” he said. “I’m Stiles. And... this is Derek.”

The wolf flopped down like he was tired, not so subtly putting himself between Stiles and the two strangers.

“What’s the story with the wolf?” asked Rodney, the nervous one. “Is he cool with strangers? Or no sudden movements? I’m... not tasty.”

“Yeah, Derek’s okay with you, or I would have kept walking,” said Stiles. It was weird to realize how long it had been since he had dealt with other people in general. He actually didn’t mind the questions because it meant he was around safe people. The other kind of people, the ones he had to look out for, didn’t usually ask questions.

“Right. Well. That’s good then,” said Rodney. He started digging in his backpack, pulled out a tablet computer and started poking at the screen. Stiles had never seen one like it, but Blair had said they were with the military, so it made sense.

“I was going to make some tea. It’s the closest thing I brought to coffee,” said Blair. Stiles pounced at the offer of caffeine.

“I don’t even remember what coffee tastes like,” Stiles realized, a little alarmed by how long it had been since he had any kind of normal in his life. He was probably at least two weeks out from the last time he had seen the Argent’s house, but the only thing “normal” about that was the coffee pot in the kitchen. Victoria didn’t like him drinking coffee, but Stiles didn’t like that she killed people, so he figured she could just deal with it.

“That’s terrible. I can assure you that tea won’t remind you,” Rodney said. The man stood up and walked the tablet over to hand to Stiles. “Here. Just... want to be sure you don’t need us to call in a medic.”

Stiles accepted the tablet, surprised to see it was in video mode and reflecting his own face back at him on the screen. With all the dirt scrubbed off that morning, every bruise and scrape from the week before stood out bright and high-contrast against his pale face. He still looked up, even though the bruises were fading. The Alphas’ claw marks still stood out at his neck.

“Shit.”

Next to him, lying down comfortably, Derek tucked his head down over his crossed paws and turned his nose to rest under Stiles’ knee. If a wolf could look guilty, that one did.

Rodney crouched over his heels not far away, waiting to take the tablet back when Stiles was done with it. He nodded.

“Look. You said your dad’s the sheriff. So if you need a medic who isn’t a local, my friend Carson’s a doctor. He can come out here,” Rodney offered.

“Well, we can’t call him until the others get here,” Blair said. “But once they get here with the radio...”

“It wasn’t my dad or something... He died a few months ago,” Stiles told them. He had accidentally screwed up and wasn’t sure how to lie his way out of it for once. He handed the tablet back to Rodney.

“Oh. I’m sorry...” The man didn’t seem comfortable with the word, even though he sounded very Canadian about it.

“It’s a long story. I just... don’t want to go back to my foster family yet. I’ll be fine. I’ll go back in a few days. They’re looking for me,” Stiles told the two men. They were strangers, military or not. He wanted free food, not more adults causing him trouble.

“Well, it’s not a few days, but... a chopper’s picking us up in a few hours. If you want a ride back into town tonight, we can make it happen,” said Blair.

“Chopper? Like... a helicopter?” Stiles asked.

“A Black Hawk dropped us off, if that’s your thing,” said Rodney. He looked a little green at the topic, probably wasn’t much of a flyer. Stiles had never been on a plane at all, let alone a Black Hawk helicopter. He would be crazy to pass up the free chance. Maybe.

“What do you do?” he asked. “I mean, I get the military part, but -”

“Civilian contractors,” said Blair helpfully as Rodney gaped like a confused fish. “I’m an anthropologist, and Rodney’s a scientist. We’re out here with our team looking at environmental influences on specific populations.”

Rodney shut his mouth and walked away to put the tablet back in his pack. Blair seemed pretty chill, like he could roll with the random surprise of a beat up kid interrupting his work day, but Rodney was jumpy.

“Where’s your team?” asked Stiles. “Were they the guys with the trucks up over the ridge?”

“Nope. Black Hawk, remember?” replied Blair. That wasn’t the best news for Stiles, since it meant he was still in hunter territory. And so were these two unsuspecting military nerds. Great.

“You guys will be out of here before dark though, right?”

“Hopefully. But unfortunately we don’t have a radio to check,” said Rodney.

“Why?” Blair asked Stiles, ignoring Rodney’s complaint.

“There’s hunters out here that get really territorial is all. So it’s better not to be out camping at night lately,” said Stiles.

“Is that what happened to you?” Blair wasn’t pushing, but Stiles had opened a door on the topic and he apparently wasn’t the kind of guy to ignore it. Stiles shrugged at it.

“Kinda? But you guys should probably not hang around all night is my point,” he replied.

“So when we meet back up with our team, we’ll leave when the chopper gets here, and give you and Derek there a lift back into town,” said Blair. He was decided on the matter anyway, even if Stiles wasn’t sure. Blair sat down not far from Stiles and passed over the mug-lid of a heavy-duty metal thermos. The water canteen had been sitting in the fire pit to boil, so Blair used his jacket as an oven-mitt to pour water into another canteen for Rodney.

“There. Cap it and drop it back in the creek for a minute, and you’ve got clean drinking water again,” Blair told his friend.

“This doesn’t take care of everything, you know that, right? It’s just boiled. It might not have reached temperature. And I... have a currently compromised system because I’m not used to this area...” Rodney rambled on, even as he did as he was told.

“You said you’re healing, you’re dehydrated, and it’s the best we’ve got this time,” Blair called after him.

“What happened to him?” Stiles asked, curious. The man was jumpy but looked normal otherwise, no outward signs of being unhealthy. Unlike Stiles, who apparently looked like he’d been in a war-zone.

“I’m not sure exactly,” said Blair. “But he said that about a month ago he got burned on the shoulder, really badly. So since he’s still healing, he gets dehydrated more easily. I’d guess it was probably third degree burn. So I don’t want to risk it. We can boil water for the day. It’s easy.”

“That creek comes from the snow-pack up in the mountains. It should be okay,” said Stiles.

“I have a very sensitive system. If there’s anything in this, trust me, I’ll find out,” Rodney said. The man liked to complain, but at least maybe he had an excuse. He definitely kept his distance from the fire pit.

“Here you go,” Blair said as he handed Stiles a bag of food. MRE packaged and still sealed. Neither Blair or Rodney reminded Stiles of any of the military vets he had met growing up around the sheriff’s station. They weren’t anything at all like his dad. But they seemed to be who they said they were. And they seemed like decent guys who actually had the capacity to care about the well-being of a strange kid who wandered up to them to beg for food. Now that he had the food in hand, Stiles didn’t feel suspicious that it might be drugged or poisoned.

The crazy thing was that Derek was so deep asleep at Stiles’ knees that he was snoring. Stiles sipped at the tea, something mild and sweet and herbal that probably did have caffeine in it. But Stiles felt relaxed and tired, like he was safe.

 

*~*~*

 

It took practice and a lot of getting used to, but Sheppard finally felt he had a handle on the trick Ellison had taught him. The important part was to have a steady sound to focus on as background noise, and John was all too happy to trade the sound of the creek in for the sound of another human. The headache was gradually letting up now that he could safely explore the sounds and break up the wall of static. Sheppard even chanced plodding through the cold water a few times, even though Ellison told him he’d regret it.

“It’s fine,” said John, spirits much lifted from the start of the hike. “See, ma, no zone outs.”

“I’d be more worried about the rash you’re gonna get walking around in wet socks because we aren’t stopping to let you dry off,” Jim replied. He had earned Sheppard’s attention again.

“Wait. Rash?”

Jim nodded. “You said you get cold easy now, right? Your sense of touch is dialed up, so your skin is picking up any changes in your immediate environment. Cold water? Big change. So... do the math.”

Sheppard stared down at the boots he had been so happy to get muddy. He still had trouble shaving because of the rash from the alien cuff at his neck weeks earlier. While the rash was gone enough to make Carson stop frowning every time he saw him, it still scratched and complained at any opportunity. It was like being a teenager and having to worry about angry skin every time he looked in a mirror, only now John was in his forties and it was just a single bizarre stripe around his neck. That was not allowed to happen anywhere else.

“It’ll be fine,” he said, stubbornly willing it into existence. “I’ll be fine.”

Rather than waste more time on warnings that might not be relevant, Ellison asked - again - if they were headed in the right direction. It was actually helpful because it made Sheppard mentally stop and check in with himself.

One of the exercises Ellison had given him to practice working on was to help isolate sounds, tastes, or other sensory input by assigning it an imaginary dial, and turning the knob up or down a notch as needed. The trick was to train the senses to respond to the dials. Sheppard had adjusted that idea slightly for this mission. If he was supposed to find his team, he needed a direction, so as he practiced working with the dials, he also checked in with a compass in his mind. If it wasn’t spinning in circles, he figured he was instinctively on the right track.

“Yeah. Still good,” Sheppard reported. Ellison nodded his acceptance and picked his way further up the bank to more solid ground. They walked on for another few minutes in quiet, moving at a good pace. John kept near the water, but was mindful of staying out of it.

There were a few reasons to be glad to be back on Earth, and a walk in the woods without worrying about aliens attacking, or crazy, nasty bugs were at least two of them. Sheppard still avoided the random potato bug he had seen so far, just in case, but it was overall a nice break from the norm. But he remembered being a kid, on camping trips with his grandpa, catching tadpoles in mason jars and smoking fresh caught fish over the campfire. It was a different place and time, but he was at least back on the same planet to enjoy the memories.

It was probably getting on toward three or four in the afternoon. For all Sheppard trusted himself, it had been hours since they had been dropped off and he still hadn’t come across his team. How far out where they supposed to be? Had he gone the wrong way after all?

When Sheppard turned back to check with Ellison, he found the man had stopped some fifty yards back and stood staring at the hillside, into the trees. Sheppard followed his gaze and saw a thin trail of smoke. Seeing the smoke made him realize that the smokey smell in the air wasn’t his imagination from a rogue memory he was chasing down in the forest, but it was really something in the air that he could smell. It was surprising, if not slightly unnerving how his senses had hijacked his brain. He had to watch that.

“Captain?” Sheppard called back at Ellison. The captain didn’t seem to head him. Had he zoned? Shit. John didn’t know what to do, and the man who did was somewhere lost in the woods. Sheppard jogged back to see if he could snap the Sentinel out of a zone.

“This whole thing would have been a lot easier if I wasn’t coming in blind, you know,” Sheppard complained mildly.

Ellison looked back at him suddenly, something both a relief and a surprise. Sheppard stopped in his tracks, startled.

“You aren’t blind. You know what you’re doing,” Ellison told him. It was beginning to sound like a platitude, honestly.

“Did you just zone out?” Sheppard asked, pointing toward the trees where Jim had been focused. Jim shook his head.

“No, I’m fine. Why?”

“Because Sandburg’s not here. I don’t know what to do with a body in the woods, believe it or not.”

Ellison seemed amused and shook his head. He moved to follow after Sheppard again. “I’ve been dealing with this longer than you, remember? If there’s something out here that puts me in a zone, the smartest thing for you to do is run. Just worry about you, Colonel.”

“Right,” said Sheppard, not at all on board with that course of action. He would have to ask Sandburg about it later. For now, he would drop it. “So what’d you find?”

“Nothing interesting. Looks like someone just put out a campfire. Was checking it out is all,” Ellison told him. They started hiking again, Sheppard in the lead and uncomfortable. The compass in his head wasn’t exactly spinning, but there was a definite wobble.

“Do you know the route?” he asked. “Seems like we should have found someone by now. I’m... maybe second guessing... the whole directional orientation thing I had going.”

Ellison shook his head. “I don’t know the route. But it’s not even sundown yet. You’re not on a clock.”

“How do I know I’m not just following the river? We’ve crossed it, what, three times? I’m at least certain we aren’t going in circles, but that’s about it,” said Sheppard. Ellison didn’t seem concerned.

“Do you think we should be going another direction?” he asked. That was at least something Sheppard could answer with some degree of confidence.

“No... it’s still that way. Definitely that way,” he said, pointing vaguely.

“Then we go that way. Practice trusting your senses, Colonel. Even if it doesn’t make sense just now,” said Ellison. “If you say we follow the channel, we go that way.”

Sheppard accepted it and went back to walking. Up ahead, the water turned left and he led the way as they climbed back up the bank into the treeline, heading north west rather than turn south with the water.

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

The Stiles kid was pretty smart. He was quick to smart off with sarcasm, which was a scientifically proven sign of intelligence, and one that McKay was quite familiar with. He seemed like a good kid and McKay didn’t like that he had been so badly hurt, that he was so exhausted that he could fall asleep within an hour of being offered even the most basic kindness from strangers.

McKay and his team had been shown better consideration by aliens in an another galaxy than the teenager who had wandered into their camp had been shown by whoever had been taking care of him since his dad had died. Stiles didn’t seem at all prepared for the world he was stuck in if he had resorted to wandering the woods rather than risk going to wherever home was supposed to be.

McKay and Sandburg kept quiet as Stiles snored next to the wolf, the both of them sprawled out on the emergency kit blanket Sandburg had given the kid. He slept for probably a half an hour before something startled him awake, a shout coming from the boy before he sat up. Stiles blinked over at Sandburg and then noted where McKay was before getting carefully to his feet. He moved like he hurt, but then, waking up off the ground wasn’t easy to bounce up from, Rodney knew.

“Be right back,” the kid announced, keeping his eyes down. It just wasn’t right. McKay waved half heartedly and made sure the kid walked away without tripping on his face before he looked over at Blair.

“Do you think the kid’ll be okay?” he asked, trying to be quiet. Blair noted where Stiles had wandered off, too, and after a moment nodded. He didn’t seem his usual level of cheerful.

“I’m sure he’ll be fine... eventually.”

McKay frowned at the frustrating answer. “I mean today. Tomorrow. He seems like an okay kid. We can’t just leave him in the woods.”

Taking a drink from his canteen, Blair shrugged. “I’m sure he’ll feel a lot better about life if you use his actual name instead of ‘kid’ all the time...”

“I’m bad with names, okay? Ask anybody. That’s not my point,” said Rodney, frustrated at what he knew was probably a valid point even if it wasn’t the one Rodney was getting at. Blair nodded and waved a hand to signal for McKay to calm down. He paused and put a little more thought into a real reply before he tried again.

“Look, it sucks,” Blair agreed, careful in his tone. “But someone has to be looking out for him. He’s a sheriff’s kid, you know? Law enforcement is a pretty tight knit community. It’s a ... modern village.”

McKay pointed vaguely toward where Blair had told him Beacon Hills would be found. “And somebody in that village put the kid through a shredder and then kicked him out into the woods. He’s not safe.”

“I’m with you there, Rodney. But there’s not much we can do about it. He didn’t ask for help. We can’t exactly take him with us.”

“Why not?” McKay asked, bluntly surprised by the concept. It hadn’t actually occurred to him as a possibility until Sandburg had said it wasn’t one. It made a lot of sense to Rodney though suddenly. A lot more than just leaving a kid to get beat up by a foster family.

Blair looked at him, blinking as he tried to catch up with the logic. “Excuse me?”

McKay pointed back over his shoulder toward where Stiles had wandered off. “Why not take him with us? We do it all the time. Teyla is always asking us to... re-home strays.”

Blair shifted slightly where he sat, turning to face Rodney more directly to be sure he was being understood. Plus Sandburg talked with his hands a lot and it tended to work better to yell at people with both hands instead of just the one on the side they could see. “Okay... let me clarify... that’s not how it’s done here on Earth. There’s a process. A system. And it sucks. But Stiles is already in that system. We can’t just... take him from it. So unless you’re making a pretty drastic career change, man...”

“Are you kidding me? I am not good with kids. At all.” McKay shook his head at what was definitely a dumb idea.

Blair watched him carefully, eyes narrowed for a moment. He finally seemed to relax and nodded his head. “Right. So then maybe when the kid says he’s okay, we should listen, and hope he means it.”

McKay couldn’t dismiss it that easily. “He’s not though. I’m just saying.”

Rather than go another round on the topic, Blair reached over and tapped another MRE against Rodney’s arm. He had apparently figured out that McKay could be easily bought off with offerings of food. McKay felt disinclined to argue and investigated the food contents.

Seconds later he heard a ‘Snap!’ from the woods ahead of them, coming from the opposite direction from where Stiles had disappeared. The wolf who had been happily dozing across the fire pit from Blair and Rodney sat up, ears perked and swiveling toward the noise. Rodney startled as the wolf growled and stood up. It moved toward them even while it watched the trees around them.

“Ac- why didn’t he go with Stiles?” Rodney muttered. The wolf reacting to the noise wasn’t making him feel any better about being on a mission without Ronon and Sheppard or any other way of defending himself. Except maybe a stick in the fire, and that was obviously Rodney’s last choice of resources.

“When’s the last time you voluntarily took your dog to go find a bathroom in the woods,” replied Sandburg quietly. He wasn’t ignoring the noise, either, but he was very intentionally downplaying it.

“I have a cat. A fat one. I just close the door,” said Rodney. Blair nodded.

“And now you know why Derek stayed with us.”

“I still heard something. Crap. Was it Sheppard? Don’t kill Sheppard, okay, wo- Derek? John's the good guy.” Rodney stood up, food forgotten as he decided to go look for his team. The sun was on the way down but it wouldn’t be dark for another few hours yet, and maybe the others were close.

“Sheppard?” he called out, dusting himself off. Sandburg stood up too. The wolf, however, snapped toothy jaws at them to keep them from moving anywhere, keeping them herded behind him.

“Hey!” yelped McKay.

The wolf continued to growl, but he had turned his back on McKay and Sandburg, instead intent on the trees toward the darker sky as the sun sank lower in the west. That wasn’t a good sign.

“Where’s Stiles?” asked Sandburg. “Stiles!”

Suddenly there was a sickening noise just in front of them, one McKay knew well enough. The wolf let out something that sounded more like an angry roar than anything a dog would ever make. He took a few steps before he fell over, allowing McKay to see the arrow lodged in the front of the wolf’s chest, embedded just at the shoulder.

“Arrows! Oh god. Not arrows. Not here, too.”

“What- Derek? Shit shit shit...” Blair moved a step toward the wolf but it thrashed and shoved itself to four paws again. Sandburg jumped back and McKay grabbed his arm to keep him from doing anything so stupid again.

“Stiles!” they both shouted at once.

Another arrow ricocheted off the rocks near the fire.

“Who’s idea was it to go on a mission without guns?” McKay demanded, falling back to duck behind a tree. Blair tried again to get to the wolf, got to kneel next to him, and then got shot at for the effort. He fell back as an arrow grazed his arm and cut the black sleeve of his t-shirt.

“Back off!” The order came from a voice that definitely did not belong to Sheppard or Stiles, either one. McKay saw a shadow dressed in hunting camouflage step out from the trees, carrying what looked like a crossbow. Another stranger showed up from the flare of the sunset, a good, old fashioned gun in hand. Oh great.

Two more showed up from the north, behind McKay, to shove him away from the tree and toward the fire. Another one dragged Stiles into view. The kid had a new black eye and Rodney took further offense to the group of strangers’ existence.

“Hey! Knock it off!” he tried, but it was mostly ignored.

“You’re Stiles?” the man with the crossbow asked of their new friend. When the teen confirmed it with a nod, he was let go. Stiles instantly collected the blanket he had been napping on earlier and moved to drape it over the wolf, checking on the wound around the arrow bolt. Blair had taken a knee and, like McKay, watched everyone while keeping his hands harmlessly in the air and in easy sight. His arm was bleeding, which made McKay more nervous about the entire situation.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on here,” Blair began, trying to play peacekeeper. “But our team is on the way here and-”

“Team?” asked one of the armed strangers. “That’s what they’re trying to call it now? Don’t you mean a pack?”

“Call it what you want,” Interrupted Rodney. “But the point is, our guys are better armed, so now you’ve had your fun, you should leave before things get ugly.”

“I’m sure they’ll get real ugly,” returned the one with the crossbow. He aimed it at him and Rodney had to have a rethink on the effectiveness of his tactics. This wasn’t his arena. This was why he only went places with a team.

“Hey! Shit for brains! They’re human, okay?” Stiles made the declaration with a fully rational confidence and genuine anger, no matter how confused it left McKay. “And you just shot their dog. So before you make this any worse than it already is, get Chris Argent on the phone. He can come sort this out. He’s looking for me.”

“Yeah, we know he is. And he’s looking for the werewolf pack that took you, too,” said the one with the gun. “So don’t try to tell us that’s their damn dog.”

“What the hell are you even talking about?” Sandburg asked.

“Don’t play dumb,” came the annoyed reply from the angry stranger.

Stiles still tried to help his dog but he glared up at the strangers. “They’re not playing! I told you!”

“Dumb? You’re talking about werewolves and you’re calling us dumb?” Rodney said, talking over Stiles’ mild insult. “You shot at us! And you’re mad about werewolves?”

“I can shoot you and we’ll find out,” the stranger challenged.

“How do you figure that’ll prove anything at all?” returned McKay. The man obviously had no grasp of how scientific proof worked, either.

Blair was getting frustrated, too. “Rodney! Stop-”

“No! I don’t like getting shot at! Arrows hurt. A lot. They are not toys. And anyone raving about werewolves is not mentally competent to be handling weapons.” McKay was only just getting started. “I have personally worked on dozens of genetic coding modules in my career and I can confidently guarantee you, with my word as a mathematician and a scientist, that humans changing their physical form to that of any other animal - let alone a quadruped - and then shifting back at will is an actual scientific impossibility. Every simulation failed. The human genome isn’t capable of it.”

“That’s right. Because the monsters aren’t human,” came the snide answer from the dumb hick hiding behind the gun.

“Yes, they are!” countered Stiles angrily. “Now call Argent, and let them go. They aren’t who you think.”

The kid could pull an authoritative tone when he wanted to, but the men with the weapons didn’t seem inclined to care.

“No. Now, you get away from the wolf,” ordered the man with the crossbow. Sandburg got cautiously to his feet, offered to help Stiles, but Stiles wasn’t going to move. As he started to show signs of resisting the order, Sandburg was hauled away from him by two strangers. Another two grabbed Rodney and shoved him to his knees.

“Oh come on...” McKay complained. This was not how life was supposed to go back on Earth, too. He felt cold metal click on his wrist and startled. “Where the hell did you idiots get handcuffs?”

“Pretty sure you are not helping, Rodney,” Sandburg hissed at him as he was shoved to his knees beside him.

“Did you miss the memo that I’m kinda pissed off?” McKay replied. “Every time this shit happens, I’m in the infirmary for days. Days.”

Whatever stalling complaints Rodney had lined up to buy time for his team to show up and save the day with suddenly disappeared. The blanket-wrapped wolf next to Stiles started convulsing, at first small tremors working up to a full seizure. Stiles put hands on the wolf again, bracing in a misguided effort to hold it still.

“No, no, no... don’t do this...” Stiles muttered.

The wolf under the blanket inexplicably started to glow, first white and then blue, and back to a blinding white. And just like that, the wolf was gone. In its place was another young man, under the blanket, with Stiles’ hands now on his very naked chest, flat around an arrow wound to his right shoulder. All through the area around the arrow, blue and purple lines wove under the skin, like poisoned veins. Stiles did not look nearly as surprised as Rodney felt. The teen looked up at Crossbow Man.

“The arrows- There’s aconite on the arrows, too?” he asked, sounding more angry than anything else.

“Of course. Works great, so why the hell not?” came the reply.

Stiles wasn’t a very big kid. He was taller than he was coordinated really, and he wasn’t all that tall compared to, say, Ronon or Sheppard. But he was angry. The teenager launched himself toward the man with the crossbow, kicking ash from the fire pit edge at him and just barely avoiding the flames. The kid was pretty scrappy. But he was still a kid. And he was already pretty beat up.

When one of the strangers took an electrified cattle prod to Stiles’ side to get him to back off, the teen went down like a rock.

McKay could only stare in stupefied shock. Reality as he knew it just shifted, and hard. And it was probably about to hit him in the face, too.

“Oh boy.”

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

The next time Sheppard stopped and checked in with Ellison, it wasn’t because of a wobbly compass. The sun was on its way down and John knew it would be getting dark in a few hours, but even with the shadows in the trees, he could see fine. He took his sunglasses off his face so he could look around more clearly, trying to settle the anxious feeling that had attacked his spine like needles. Something was bugging him.

“Look... this is going to sound really, really stupid,” Sheppard began. Even the plastic wrap over his palm was bothering him again and he scratched at it in a vain effort to stop the new distractions.

“Probably not,” replied Ellison. The collected calm the man had shown over the day since they had been dropped off wasn’t there now. He was finally showing outward signs of feeling the pressure of the non-existent clock that had been ticking on Sheppard all day long. “Try me.”

“Okay... does this instinct thing come with the feeling like somebody just pulled the fire alarm? Because I’m pretty sure there’s a problem and we just haven’t found it yet,” Sheppard said. Ellison grimaced, which Sheppard noticed happened when he asked the hard questions that didn’t have a military-approved answer. “So that’s a yes, then...” said Sheppard.

“Kinda,” said Ellison. “We gotta rule out something first.”

“What?”

“You’ve been looking forward this whole time,” Ellison began. “Which is fine. I’m on the six. But it does mean you missed something. So it might be that you’re just now picking up on them.”

Sheppard didn’t like the sound of that. He looked around, turning to face Ellison more directly and check the creek channel behind them. “What, then?”

Jim turned and waved to the trees to Sheppard’s left.

“Teyla! Ronon!” he called out, not very loudly but enough to carry. Sheppard turned to see his team step out onto the banks of the creek bed to start toward them.

“What the hell-”

“Yeah. You were close, you walked us right up to them, but then you changed directions,” said Ellison.

Well... that didn't sound like a passing grade.

“Do you think that fire-alarm feeling is them?” asked Jim.

Sheppard considered it but shook his head. “No. This... this is something wrong,” he said.

Ellison nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I got that.”

“So trust it?” Sheppard asked. Again, a reluctant nod from the Sentinel.

“Trust it.”

Sheppard looked to Teyla and Ronon, glad to see them safe at least, even if they had succeeded in winning the game that was supposed to have been a test for him. One he had obviously failed.

“So where were you two hiding?” he asked, loud enough for them to hear even though they weren’t quite conversationally close. Ronon pointed back over his shoulder into the trees.

“Probably about two miles back,” he reported. He seemed calm and relaxed, not at all on alert. “I caught some fish for lunch. S’alright here. Good eats.”

Teyla nodded as she approached. “Captain Ellison saw us. When you didn’t approach, we assumed we were to follow. We doused the fire and have kept up.”

John looked at Ellison, squinting and mildly annoyed. “Really? Back there? You said it was nothing.”

Jim shrugged. “Needed to see if you’d notice them. This time, you’re green, so it’s fine. Any other test? They got the drop on you. Bang, you’re dead, game over, boss.”

“So much for sharpened instinct, huh?” Sheppard said. He was annoyed with himself. Even now, facing two of his missing team, he still had a mental compass pointing very clearly away from them. Sheppard looked to the Sentinel. “So how do we know if we’re even going the right direction now? If I walked away from them-”

“What’s your gut say?” Ellison interrupted.

John turned to point the way he had been hiking before he got hit by the bad vibes. “My gut says what it’s been saying. That McKay is out there, that way. I figured that’s where everyone was.”

There was a moment of quiet, aside from the sounds of the forest, the creek, and Teyla jumping up onto a rock near Sheppard. She looked over at him curiously.

“Why are you looking for Rodney, John?” she asked in her usual, unassuming way. Sheppard hadn’t been expecting the question and he blinked, trying to sort that one out for himself. He had no answers.

“I don’t know,” he finally said. “All I got is he’s that way.”

Ellison nodded and reached out to steer Sheppard back to their original path. “So’s Sandburg. So let’s go, please.”

The man wasn’t in a patient mood anymore and the please was only tacked on because he was new to the team and John outranked him. But Sheppard didn’t mind. He felt himself getting cranky again, this time because something was wrong and not because of a headache.

The newly formed team hadn’t gone five yards before a gunshot rang out. It was still some distance away, but the sound of it echoing along the open creek bed nearly sent Sheppard to his knees. Ellison grabbed him by the arm and the back of the belt to get him standing and keep them all moving.

“Dial it back,” he said, quiet, even as he pushed Sheppard to run. “Keep the sound down and your eyes open.”

They were probably running toward the trouble that Sheppard had asked about, but he had to trust Ellison’s senses on it because Sheppard’s hearing wouldn’t level out after the gunshot. He saw Ronon darting ahead, the particle magnum in hand.

“Ronon! Stun!” he ordered, trying to keep his voice quiet. The man glanced back at him and Sheppard pointed at the gun.

“No way-”

“Ronon!” Sheppard tried to put as much authority into it as he could, considering he was the only one on the team currently without a weapon at all. “Earth! Stun.”

Ronon didn’t approve, but he complied. It was unnerving to hear the gun switch modes, the alien tech making a high pitched, warped sound. Sheppard rubbed at his ears, trying to get them to cooperate again. He nearly tripped when he thought he heard McKay’s voice.

Okay! Just don’t shoot at anybody again!

No, you’re next,” came another voice, one Sheppard didn’t recognize through the distortion of noise he was hearing. They were still far away behind a lot of static. Trying to listen slowed Sheppard down, but he was trying to shift course to find them through the sounds he could hear.

Damnit. Did he heal yet?” Sheppard heard another unknown voice ask.

No! He did not!” yelped McKay.

This is not how people heal!” added what sounded like Blair Sandburg’s voice.

So we go bigger this time-

There was a clatter of rocks nearby and Sheppard wasn’t expecting it, crashing his hearing again just as effectively as the gunshot. He looked to Ellison, saw him racing Ronon to lead the way out of the channel into the forest again. Teyla was working with the radio, paging Carter to send the helicopter.

“Tell Carter we’re gonna need Carson,” Sheppard said as he caught up to her. “They’re gonna have to come in hot. On our transmitters. We’ve got injured.”

 

*~*~*

 

Sheppard was a little off his game because his ears were ringing so badly, but he was able to keep up with Ellison. Teyla and Ronon had trouble as the forest floor got darker, which slowed them down. Ellison led the way around the higher side before approaching the day-camp. He stayed hidden behind denser tree cover rather than approach from the open and noisy creekside with the loose rocks and water.

Ellison and Sheppard stood behind an outcrop of rock off the hillside that was half covered in ivy and twisted mangrove. They could see clearly, but Ronon wanted to get closer to assess for himself. Sheppard caught him by the arm before he could get far.

“You have your knife, right?” he asked, hardly a whisper.

“Yeah.” Ronon held it up.

“Use it. Let me use the other,” said Sheppard, pointing to the gun. Ronon looked back at him, annoyed.

“Where’s yours?”

“Probably still sitting on Weir’s desk.”

The big Satedan hesitated, annoyance fading. He almost looked concerned. “This a Sentinel thing? Maybe me and Teyla should take this-”

“No. I can handle the that one. We’re wasting time,” Sheppard replied. Ronon didn’t look so sure. He even glanced at Ellison as if to confirm it. Sheppard stood a little taller. “I’ll make it an order,” he warned. Ronon handed over the weapon.

“No comas,” he said, a threat of his own built in to his tone. Sheppard nodded and turned to take aim on the camp through the trees. He couldn’t take the time to explain it to his team, but Sheppard wanted the alien magnum because he figured it was the safer option after the gunshots earlier. He had tried the dial trick but he didn’t have enough practice with it yet. He'd have to fake it, but he wouldn’t go in unarmed.

Next to him, Ellison was trying to line up a shot over the top of the rock. If they got much closer as a group, they could risk being seen, and with Sandburg and McKay on the ground near the fire, any approach would be reliant on surprise.

“Two bodies on the ground,” Ellison reported, still quiet. “Our guys are still breathing.”

“And complaining,” added Sheppard, for once glad to hear Rodney McKay rambling about inhumane conditions. He moved enough to get a better sightline on one of the men in hunters’ camo threatening his team. He could see four men easily, and saw the shadows of movement from two others.

“Looks like six threats. Should be a cakewalk, right, guys?” he asked Ronon and Teyla. Ronon nodded, accepting that as his mark to get ready. He stalked wide to the left while Teyla mirrored him off to the right, creeping like a cat along the uneven terrain to stay behind the cover of the summer-dried birches and bare pines.

Sheppard’s hearing easily picked up voices from the camp again, way too loud. He hoped that meant even Ronon and Teyla could hear, but he wasn’t certain.

“Still bleeding,” came a report from one of the men lurking around McKay.

“Still human!” McKay returned. He sounded angry and Sheppard figured that was a good sign.

“Either way, it’s annoying,” said the obvious bad guy with the gun. He raised the weapon, either to hit Rodney with it or shoot him, but Sheppard didn’t care to find out which. He adjusted the borrowed weapon just enough and fired, once on stun and then a second blast that would be more effective. The hunter he was aiming for convulsed from the first shot and the second sent him tumbling into the fire pit.

“Make that five threats,” he announced. Ronon and Teyla took that as their sign to move and Sheppard pulled at Ellison to urge him from their cover while the men at the fire pit were distracted. They had a chance to take care of things from up close and they were going to use every second.

The hunter dampened the fire when he fell on it, just for a moment. Sandburg and McKay scrambled out of the way, unsteady getting to their feet thanks to their arms locked behind their backs. Two of the hunters tried to haul their man off the fire while the others fired random shots into the trees around them.

Sheppard got off another stun shot and watched his target fall. A man with a crossbow went down and Sheppard looked over to see Ellison advancing with his weapon aimed and freshly fired. He could see the heat smoke and smell the proof of it, but he couldn’t hear a damn thing. It didn’t bother him, especially when he saw the flash of Teyla’s weapon. John didn’t need the noise overload so he would deal with the silence when they were out of the situation.

The two men who had pulled the body from the fire pit and beat down the flames from their compatriot’s clothes were surprised shortly thereafter by a sneak attack from Ronon while they were distracted. He slashed with the knife and dumped them over his shoulder. Sheppard guessed the men had both suffered their ACL’s being sliced as Ronon neutralized the threat without killing them. He was mildly pleased to know that Ronon had a ‘stun’ setting available without the gun, but it still meant a whole bunch of problems on the paperwork side. It was still nice when the man remembered an order.

Sheppard and Teyla pulled weapons away from dead and not-so-dead bodies as Ronon moved them all to one place. Ellison saw to Sandburg and McKay. The only two dead hunters had been dispatched by Sheppard and Ellison. Teyla and Ronon thankfully weren’t as willing to break laws on Earth soil. Sheppard wasn’t yet sure how to explain to Carter and O’Neill that a simple day of hiking with the new team had still resulted in a war-zone. Carson was definitely gonna kill him. Especially since John still couldn’t hear what any of his team was saying to each other.

Once he had the four bad guys locked up and harmless, Ronon went to check on the two bodies that weren’t Sheppard’s team’s fault. That’s when the entire silent-movie experience of the fight was shattered.

“Leave them there,” shouted Rodney. “They’re alive! Good guys!”

Sheppard ducked and tried to hide his ears under his arms. “Jesus, McKay! Don’t yell!”

Ellison got McKay out of the handcuffs, shaking his head at Sheppard for it. “Check the dials, boss.”

Blair Sandburg moved to set a hand on Sheppard’s arm. “He wasn’t yelling. Try tuning out the sounds for a minute.”

John at least heard Sandburg, even though he was being quiet, and they didn’t exactly have a lot of time to spend on his whacked out senses, so Sheppard didn’t argue with the coaching. He tried to listen for the nearest heartbeat, quiet and close sounds to pick out of the static. He assumed it would be Sandburg’s, but the one he found was loud and way too fast. After that, the other sounds around him came back into clearer focus.

Hearing the four surviving bad guys sniveling and shouting empty threats at Ronon as he babysat them was probably worth the effort.

Sheppard looked to Sandburg and then over at McKay, who despite a worrying slice of red across his own forehead was crouched to check one of the good guys for vitals.

“They’re alive, Rodney,” Sheppard told him. “I can hear them.”

“Yeah, well, you just snapped my head off for talking, so you don’t get to show off now,” replied Rodney. He stood up and pointed to the teenagers still passed out on the ground. “We gotta get them to Carson. They’re just kids.”

“Chopper’s not far out,” Ellison reported. Sheppard nodded; he could hear it, too, but he wasn’t going to say anything about it.

“What about you two?” Sheppard asked, looking between Rodney and Blair. Both of them were bloody if not bleeding. Rodney nodded.

“Shot at. Hit. Also, there may or may not have been werewolves.”

The man was rattled. Sheppard realized suddenly that it was McKay who he was listening to in the background to keep his senses level because the heartbeat tripped on the word ‘werewolves.’

“Okay... we’re gonna have Carson check you over, too...”

Ellison handed Sandburg his own recently fired weapon. “What the hell happened here, Chief?” he asked. Sandburg still seemed pretty solid as he tucked the weapon in his thigh-holster without question. He wasn’t shaky, pointed easily toward the men Ronon and Ellison had handcuffed around the tree across from the disarrayed fire pit.

“These guys showed up, chasing the kids. Basically. I... really don’t know how to explain any of it,” he said. For all he wasn’t in a panic like Rodney, Sandburg still wasn’t okay. Something had happened. And they didn’t have time to get answers.

Teyla stood near Rodney with her silent, calming presence, like she was willing him to feel better. She had collected three black backpacks from around the site and handed the two men canteens. She dug blindly into one of the packs and came out with a box of PopTarts. She didn’t know what to do with it, but she handed it to McKay. “I think these are edible.”

Rodney pounced on the box with blood-coated hands. Some fifty yards away, the Black Hawk was coming in to land in the wide creekbed, well away from the trees. Sandburg looked from the helicopter to Sheppard, pointed at the obvious weapon in his hand.

“You should probably give that back,” he said, voice pitched loud over the noise. “Regulations.”

Sheppard stared, surprised. He huffed out a humorless laugh as he glanced at the two dead bodies sprawled under the trees not far away.

Regulations are the least of my worries now,” he replied, hefting the gun up to hold it across the barrel. He still handed it over to Ronon, just to make Ellison and Sandburg feel better. “This mess puts me at a whole new level of fucked when the General hears about it.”

And it was true. Test mission or not, Sheppard was the ranking officer. He was the whole reason they were out there in the first place. Two members of his team had been attacked on his watch, along with two random American citizens killed by active military personnel, on American soil. Bad guys from Deliverance notwithstanding, Sheppard wouldn’t just be thrown under a bus; they’d probably find a steamroller just to keep the SGC and the Sentinel Project out of trouble.

McKay seemed to get shocked out of his panic-mode and stared at Sheppard, probably trying to argue and running into the wall of their shared experiences working with the SGC through Caldwell and Woolsey. Sheppard shrugged it off; they got away with a lot in Pegasus that wasn’t going to fly on Earth and there wasn’t much to be done about it now.

“Look, for now? You two and Ronon get those kids out to Carson. Keep Carter in the chopper. I’ll... figure the rest out later,” Sheppard ordered, just short of yelling to be sure everyone heard him over the noise kicked up by the wind from the helicopter idling in the narrow valley.

Blair looked from Sheppard to Ellison and then to McKay. He convinced McKay to help with the one kid who was slowly starting to show signs of awareness. The other one had an arrow in his shoulder and was out solid, so Sandburg wrapped him up in the blanket a little more securely before Ronon picked him up and carried him.

Teyla was giving John the suspicious eye, whatever sixth sense she had already well at work questioning his life-choices in the moment, but she waited beside him as Sheppard tried to sort out how to handle the extras.

The men had attacked Blair and Rodney, there was no question, and Sheppard didn’t know the details. He and Ellison had acted in defense of their team. It wasn’t a guaranteed court martial when he got back, but it was months in the wrong direction, moving Sheppard and his team further away from going back to Atlantis. It meant opening up uncomfortable trouble since two members of his team weren’t exactly local. And John didn’t have the first idea what the Sentinel protocols would do, considering he and Ellison weren’t supposed to be carrying weapons at all.

“Shit,” Sheppard muttered, staring at the four men left as witnesses. It was John’s show, but this mess... he didn’t know what to do with it.

Suddenly Ellison caught his attention by tugging at his vest until Sheppard faced him.

“Back me up on this,” the Sentinel said, voice quiet enough that Teyla probably couldn’t have heard him over the noise. It wasn’t an order, but the man had decided on whatever it was. Ellison was pretty straight-laced and by the book - which Sheppard wasn’t - so John nodded his promise. When Ellison went over to the men handcuffed together around the tree, Sheppard followed to stay in earshot.

“You, gentleman, just fucked up,” Ellison said, speaking louder than the noise from the creek.

“Fuck you!” barked one of the two men Ronon had left permanently benched with a cut of his knife. At least Ronon had been thoughtful enough to tie up the wounds to keep pressure on so they didn’t bleed out, which Sheppard thought was more than kind of him.

“No, fuck you,” returned Ellison, grabbing the man by the shirt. “You went after somebody under our protection. And it’s not gonna happen again, got it? Whoever you’re working for, tell ‘em to back off. They don’t want to fuck around with the Sunrise Patriots. Is that understood, soldier?”

The very direct threat seemed to have the intended effect and the injured man nodded. Ellison held up the handcuff key and made sure the man saw it when he dropped it on the ground where, with a little coordinated effort, the men could retrieve it. Then he stood up, paced over to pick up a cell phone from the stack of weapons that had been removed from the men. He walked back and crouched beside him again to put it in the man’s pocket.

“We ever see any of your kind again, you’re dead,” he said, completing the threat with a smile. Then Ellison stood up, helped himself to two of the handguns from the pile of weapons, and moved to meet Sheppard.

John had promised to back the play, so he watched the captain threaten the trio with his best poker-face in place. When Ellison handed him one of the weapons, he accepted it and backed away from the group to follow the Sentinel. Teyla matched their steps, watching over them as the only one technically even allowed to carry a gun.

When they cleared the treeline and were closer to the chopper, Sheppard waved for Teyla to keep watch at their backs. He pulled Ellison short of their ride out.

“I said I’ll back you. But what the hell did I just agree to?” he asked, loud enough for a Sentinel but not loud enough to carry over the noise of the helicopter rotors.

“They took our men. We were unarmed and we still got them back,” said Ellison. “That’s the only line the Project regulations will allow. Short of a court martial, anyway, and those look a lot different with that tattoo on your hand.”

“And the bad guys just get away?” Sheppard asked.

“Probably thinking they got lucky,” Ellison confirmed. “They’ll know who the Patriots are. They won’t want to bring that hell down on their heads.”

Sheppard wasn’t easy with it. But he would consider it. In the meantime, he called Teyla in and ushered the last members of his team onto the waiting Black Hawk. Sheppard closed them in and the helicopter pulled into the air.

Inside, Carter moved to where she could check over Sheppard and Ellison as Teyla climbed back to help Carson with their injured guests. Sandburg and Ellison were secured in their seats and mic’d up already. McKay crowded in next to Sheppard, holding a towel against the side of his face. The man didn’t even bother with a helmet in a helicopter so he obviously wasn’t normal if he was passing on an available safety precaution.

“What the hell happened?” Carter asked, concerned. “McKay won’t even open his mouth to talk to me.”

Sheppard blinked at her, surprised. He hadn’t heard that right. McKay didn’t even look up so Sheppard guessed he hadn’t heard her at all. He took the headphone comm set Carter handed him and then asked her to repeat herself. He still didn’t have an answer for her.

“I don’t know. By the time we caught up, they’d already found trouble,” John said, sticking to the truth. Kinda. “When Ronon chased them off, McKay said the kids needed help, and they looked pretty bad off.”

“They are. Stiles said the arrows were poisoned,” McKay said loudly, responding to Sheppard probably only because he could hear him, sitting next to him. He looked miserable, holding a rag up to his head like an ice pack on a headache. There was blood on his hand and he wasn’t even freaking out. Sheppard caught himself listening to check if the man’s heart rate had settled down. He seemed pretty steady now, just tired.

Carter sank into her seat, looking stunned at McKay, her stubborn friend who was suddenly capable of speech again. She looked to Sandburg and Ellison.

“Is this how these things usually go for you?” she asked. Sandburg shook his head as Ellison investigated a gash across the man’s bicep.

“No. We’ve never needed to be armed before,” he replied. “It’s a ninety-two percent success rate, and we’ve done this hundreds of times, easy. No trouble.”

“That figures,” Carter said, quiet. Sheppard cut her a glare for the commentary, even if it was true.

“Well, aside from the mountain of paperwork Sheppard’s going to have, it at least didn’t screw with our stats, Chief,” Ellison said to Sandburg. His voice was pitched quiet over the shared comm system. Blair looked over at him, curious.

“What?” he asked. He jerked his arm involuntarily with an ‘Ow!’ and Ellison stopped trying to clean the wound. He held the rag over the cut and Sandburg took over the chore of applying pressure.

“He was looking for McKay,” Ellison replied. “Found Teyla and Ronon but kept going.”

“Hey!” Sheppard interrupted. “For the record, that’s not my fault. Ellison told me there was nothing there. But I did technically find them.”

“What took you so long?” McKay actually shoved at him, still scowling around the cleaning rag that was not being used to wipe away blood. He wasn’t bleeding out, but it was still unusual for McKay to be so calm about a head injury of any kind.

“God, you’re such a baby,” replied Sheppard. Still, his friend was having trouble with life just then, so there was no heat to it. With Carson busy, Sheppard figured he could try to help, and offered to take the few first aid supplies from McKay.

There was a distrustful pause before McKay handed over the alcohol wipes and the towel. “I’m the one who was shot at by actual bullets while you were off fishing, or whatever.”

“You weren’t shot, Rodney,” said Sheppard. He could see the cut on the side of McKay’s forehead and knew for a fact that the man had lived through worse. McKay poked a finger at his head around John’s clean-up efforts.

“Well, I didn’t cut myself shaving this morning, John,” returned McKay with every ounce of sarcasm he could put into it. Sheppard didn’t feel all that bad for the sting caused by the alcohol wipe he took to Rodney’s wound then.

“Oh my god,” said Sandburg’s voice over the comms. “Carson was right.”

“Yep,” replied Ellison. The worrying thing was that Sam Carter echoed him. Sheppard decided that, for the moment, he was going to ignore them.

 

*~*~*

 

Rodney was, in the common vernacular, a grown-ass adult. He was a scientist, mathematician, astrophysicist, and plain old physicist, with extra certifications in theoretical computer sciences, artificial intelligence systems, computational sciences, and engineering. He had dealt with aliens more times than he had bothered to count, which was saying something in light of the fact that McKay knew almost exactly how much radiation he had been exposed to during his lifetime. He had been attacked, injured, infected, trapped, kidnapped, mind-fucked, and nearly killed more times than he ever wanted to keep track of since joining the SGC and exploring the universe.

But the weird shit always happened somewhere else. He knew what to do with aliens and nanoghosts because that was his job. That was science. All of those bizarre things that happened ultimately had a scientific reason, and his job was - at least, partly - to keep those reasons away from Earth. The place he was born, the place he grew up, that taught him his skills and honed his brilliant genius brain, that promised him an eventual Nobel for the life-saving, mind-blowing work he did... That place was supposed to stay normal, reliable, safe, and boring.

And that place had werewolves.
Rodney could not explain werewolves.
Nobody could explain werewolves.

But there was at least one and he was at the back of the helicopter on life support because apparently werewolves weren’t immortal.

Rodney knew he should tell Carson to watch out for the wolf fangs but he was... stuck. There was a circular argument going on his brain, distracting him from his own injury, about how to even say the words and have anyone with a rational, thinking brain believe him. He was a smart man, and the fact that he couldn’t find an intelligent way to warn about a mythical monster in their midst was as frustrating as it was insulting.

And it was just a kid, too. Maybe twenty? Twenty one? Did werewolves age?

In response to the internal confusion, Rodney didn’t say anything, except when Sheppard said something to him. He had tried to tell Sheppard, too, but he didn’t believe him, because werewolves weren’t Wraith. So McKay would take the help from his friend because basic... adulting wasn’t a priority. It was Sheppard’s fault anyway, so it was fair. And John Sheppard was a comforting, familiar presence. Which in itself was weird but at least made sense.

“Hold that there,” Sheppard instructed, taking Rodney’s hand to close it over the towel against his forehead. He stayed leaned in so Rodney could hear him. “I’m not a doctor, but you’re gonna need something to keep your brain from falling out.”

Rodney mechanically did as he was told, nodded a little. Then squinted in confusion at the man when his words fully processed through McKay’s brain. He lowered the towel.

“Wait - what now?”

John moved his hand back in place over the gash in his forehead.

“Just checking you’re still in there somewhere,” he said. “Apply pressure until they can look you over at the base. You’ll be fine.”

“I think I’m hungry,” McKay realized, quiet because he was still sorting it out along with everything else. Sheppard heard him anyway and scoffed, amused. He reached over to brush at Rodney’s shirt.

“You’re still wearing the crumbs from the PopTarts five minutes ago,” John told him.

“It’s been a long day,” McKay replied. “PopTarts don’t go very far.”

“We’re almost back to base. You go with Carson, I’ll find you dinner,” Sheppard promised. Rodney accepted it for a moment but then worried about werewolves again and squinted over at John.

“Why are you being nice?”

“I’m always nice. And now I’m offended, Rodney,”

Rodney glared at him from around the neatly folded towel partly blocking one narrowed eye. Sheppard sighed and shrugged it off. He took his headset off, toyed with the headphones as an excuse to look down.

“Fine. I’m being nice because you got dragged into helping, and you got hurt for it. And I can literally see and smell the blood, so I can’t be the jerk who tells you to stop faking it. You’re not. And I’m sorry,” said Sheppard, loud enough for McKay to hear because he was crammed in next to him.

“They were going after Stiles, not you, for once,” McKay reasoned as a truce.

“What’s a Stiles?” Sheppard asked. McKay leaned into his shoulder to point at the boy now awake and arguing with Carson about how to treat the patient still unconscious at the back of the chopper. Rodney didn’t have a helmet or communication system on, so he couldn’t understand what they were saying, but he could see that the younger teen was very adamantly disapproving of Carson.

“Werewolves,” he muttered.

“Fine. Werewolves is why I’m being nice then,” said Sheppard. He made Rodney shift back a little, took the cloth off his forehead to check the wound again. McKay huffed, annoyed, but allowed it. Then Sheppard frowned as he dabbed at Rodney’s head with another alcohol wipe.

“Hey... Ellison?” Sheppard called to the front bench. The Sentinel was already watching them. Sheppard pointed at Blair and then tossed a couple of the steri-pak alcohol wipes over to them. “Check his arm again.”

Ellison grew slightly grim and started to once again prod at Blair’s arm, cleaning away dried blood and probably just angering the injury further, because when the hell did Sheppard become a medic who could just attack people with things that stung, anyway?

“What is it?” McKay asked.

“Checking something,” Sheppard said, leaning close again to be sure McKay heard him. He placed the folded towel back on McKay’s forehead. McKay swatted him without much effort, annoyed at being left out of a very important loop.

“Checking what?” he insisted.

“Damn,” said Ellison. McKay only just barely caught it as he was otherwise occupied trying to get Sheppard to stop ignoring him.

“Rodney said the arrows were poisoned,” Sheppard said, loud enough for Ellison, Sandburg, and Carter all three to hear. Rodney’s brain stopped worrying about werewolves, which, well, that part was a relief, but now he was worried about poisoned bullets.

“Stiles said it was aconite,” Rodney said. On the other bench, Blair started digging at his shoulder to try to see whatever Jim had found there to swear at. Ellison held him still and looked to Sam.

“They’ll meet us with a medical team, right?”

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

When the chopper landed, a medical team was waiting. Carter’s team was supposed to have gone straight back to Colorado, but that plan was going to have to wait, and Carter quickly disappeared to handle the finer details with the base. Carson had his hands full getting the young man with the arrow free of the beat-up looking kid Rodney had called Stiles the werewolf, so Rodney and Blair would be handled by the base doctors. Sheppard didn’t like it, but he knew better than to make Carson multitask to that extent, so nobody told Dr. Beckett about the two additional poisonings on board. They just stayed out of the way as Carson and his patient were off-loaded.

Stiles, however, went right up to Blair.

“Look, that guy won’t listen, but I can fix Derek. I just need the doctors to get the arrow out, and somebody’s gotta take me back to the hunters, fast. I just... gotta,” the kid appealed to Sandburg. He looked like he had been through a wringer, and there were burn marks of all goddamned things on his ribs, which just riled Sheppard a little more than he already was. Sheppard watched, curious as the kid bounced around, trying to stay out of the way without being ignored as the medics did a quick assessment on Blair. There was no missing the hard glare from Ellison as the teenager-shaped gnat buzzed around too close to the Sentinel’s Guide.

Rodney was put in a wheelchair because of the head wound making him dizzy and, as the medics took off after Carson with him, Sheppard pointed them out to Ronon and Teyla. “Stay with him, will ya? He’s... freaking out.”

The team was bigger now and Sheppard had to remember how to split his attention again. After a month of enforced medical leave and uselessness, he was back in the command chair and trying to keep up. And Sandburg and McKay had picked up strays he had to see to. Sheppard caught Blair’s attention away.

“Introduce us and get out of here, Sandburg,” he invited. Blair took the offered out reluctantly, only because he didn’t look like he was feeling so hot out there on the windy tarmac. He pointed Stiles’ attention to John.

“Talk to Colonel Sheppard, okay, Stiles? He’ll help. I gotta... go not-die, preferably. So talk to John. John, this is Stiles. His dad was a cop, so be nice or I spike your food,” Blair instructed. It was amusing, and a good sign, Sheppard guessed. Considering even Rodney wasn’t coherent enough to threaten him just then, Sandburg couldn’t be too bad off. Small favors.

All the same, Sheppard noticed when Ellison wouldn’t let the medics push the wheelchair away. The man was protective.

Sheppard looked to the distrustful teenager sulking by the helicopter. He nodded toward the open side doors.

“Don’t think about stealing it. You wouldn’t get it two feet off the ground,” he offered, taking a genuine guess at the meaning behind the boy’s scowl. Sheppard waved him toward the hospital wing the others had disappeared into. “Walk with me, Stiles the werewolf. Help me figure out how my team got poisoned.”

The kid lit up, a live wire of tension as he shook his head. “I’m not-”

“I figured that. But Rodney’s a bit loopy right now, so all I’ve got is that he called you Stiles and kept trying to tell me about a werewolf, so it was a shot in the dark,” Sheppard said, satisfied he had the kid’s attention. “So right now, you want help with your friend, I want help with my friend, and neither of us is the doc in charge of ‘em. So tell me something we can work with here.”

Stiles squinted slightly. “Like what?”

“Like whatever you wanted Blair’s help with just now,” said Sheppard. “Like who the hell are these hunters? How do they help your friend? And are they the guys who shot my men?”

The teen looked aggravated. “First, I already told him. B, I don’t know. Three, they don’t. I need the stuff they put in the bullets, or on the arrows. And D, yes, because they’re assholes.”

“If you don’t know B, how do you know D?”

“Cuz I saw them do it?” replied Stiles like it was the most obvious answer and Sheppard was a moron. The kid talked faster than Rodney and was about as focused. He was agitated the whole time, didn’t trust Sheppard any further than Sheppard would be inclined to trust him. But Sandburg still seemed to trust him if he was going to threaten Sheppard’s food supply.

“Alright. I can work with this. So... one more thing,” said Sheppard, tuned into what sounded like the teen’s heart beat. “What’d Rodney mean about werewolves?”

“You’d have to ask him.” The kid’s heart beat jumped away faster than a rabbit.

“Well, I’d like to, but he’s babbling like his brain broke because of some kind of poison, so it’s not exactly possible right now. I’m trying to figure out how that happened to help the docs figure out how to fix it. Which is where you come in, right?”

“Wait. Poisoned? They shot him, but I didn’t see them poison anyone else,” said Stiles. He did seem surprised though, and it sounded like he was having trouble breathing. Panic attack just getting started, if Sheppard had to guess. They approached the medical building and Sheppard held Stiles back from going inside. He pointed to the spot on his head where there was a gash on Rodney’s.

“Rodney said the arrow was poisoned. So I’m guessing he and Blair were shot at and mostly missed,” he said. “Still don’t know why but...”

Stiles was not a happy kid. “The bullets. They shot them, right? They must have coated the bullets, too. Look, this is why I gotta go find-”

“McKay was shot at by bullets, not arrows?” Sheppard interrupted. Stiles nodded.

The man had some crazy luck, John figured. If there was a near-miss, Rodney could pull it off. He shook his head and tried to focus, thinking. Then he pulled the gun Ellison had stolen from the hunters from the holster on his leg. He hadn’t been the one to fire it last, so he checked it was clear and popped out the magazine.

Feeling more than a little stupid, he sniffed at the top of the clip. He knew mostly what a gun should smell like, but if the bullets were coated in some kind of poison, there had to be something different to the odor. He couldn’t exactly take them out and roll them in his palm to test it, unless he wanted to sleep in a medical bed for the next three days. Or life. From what John remembered from his science classes a lifetime ago, aconite didn’t play around.

“What are you doing?” Stiles asked in that very clear tone that said he was worried about the stranger’s sanity. But after the last month, even John still did that, so he didn’t take offense.

“Ellison confiscated two weapons. We have the bullets, as long as these are the right mags,” Sheppard said. Stiles started to grab it out of his hand, but the kid was way too much like Rodney and Sheppard saw it coming.

“Gimmie a minute!” he ordered, stepping back and blocking easily. “Something smells kinda bitter. It’s wrong. I think maybe these could be them, but I want to check with Ellison first.”

“I need it now! Just one, so I can help Derek,” said Stiles.

“Adding poison to poison isn’t gonna help him,” Sheppard replied. “But maybe the docs can help Rodney and Blair if there’s enough here to figure out the family, narrow it down.”

“Yeah, but I can still help Derek with it. He’s not... not like Rodney and Blair,” Stiles insisted. Sheppard figured the kid was near done, between his frustration and panic. Time to cut to it.

“So are you suggesting your buddy’s an actual werewolf and that’s why Rodney’s traumatized and can’t talk straight? He got scared by a werewolf?” Sheppard asked. Stiles set his jaw, some kind of stubborn streak hitting right up against his concern for a friend.

“No. Rodney’s probably talking like a vegetable because aconite is poisonous to people. And he was shot by a bullet that was coated in it. Like Derek...”

“And do you want to shoot Derek?” Sheppard held the magazine up.

“No! I’m trying to help him!”

“With aconite. AKA wolfsbane. AKA... Poison. Bullets.” Sheppard waited the kid out, lightly turning the magazine in his hands so that Stiles could see but not touch.

“You’re a pain in the ass,” Stiles huffed at him. The kid was distressed and John almost felt bad for it. Except. He didn’t.

“Thank you. Rodney in there’ll be the first person in line to agree with you,” said Sheppard. He paused and waited for Stiles to try again, but no luck. He sighed.

“Okay. Let’s try this. You answer a simple yes or no, got it? Is my doc in there right now working on trying to get an arrow out of a werewolf? Actual Awwoooo werewolf?” he asked.

Stiles fidgeted, chewed on his lip, stomped muddy boots. Sheppard almost swore he could smell the anxiety on the kid, but that was a whole new level of weird he didn’t want to think about. He was calmly talking about werewolves. He was at his max limit for the moment.

Finally, Stiles nodded. He seemed slightly confused. “Yes. But he’s not gonna hurt anybody. If I can help him!”

“See? That wasn’t so hard,” said Sheppard. In the grand scheme of his life the last few years, werewolves back on earth made a ridiculous amount of sense. But that didn’t mean he wanted Carson playing with one in an OR. Especially if the thing was ugly enough to have spooked Rodney so badly.

“Come on then. Let’s go help Derek,” he said, holding the door open for Stiles. The kid raced into the base hospital wing at the invite but then stopped and looked around at boring corridors and lobby areas, like he had been duped somehow.

“Where did they go?” Stiles turned back to ask.

Sheppard himself was quietly realizing the flaw in his plan as well. He had spent all day in nature, which was an entirely different wall of sensory input than a hospital. The radiation in the building pricked at his skin and the noise was much louder now that he was surrounded by it. John still had the earplugs from the helicopter, but he wasn’t sure it would cut the worst of it, so he didn’t want to coddle himself on base. He lasted all day in the woods, he could figure out a hospital. No, Sheppard had to try it without the training wheels, beeps and swooshes and machine alarms be damned.

There was still no way to overlook that the day’s chaos would have been handled ten times faster if he had been allowed a comms radio.

Instead, Sheppard found a nurse and put on the charm as he asked about the contractor doctor who had just brought in a patient.

“He’s in surgery,” the nurse said.

“Yes... where? He’s working with my team and I need to get him some new information. Absolutely vital.”

“Sir-”

“Lieutenant Colonel,” Sheppard corrected, helpful but not so subtle. “Where can I find Dr. Carson Beckett?”

The nurse hesitated. Finally, in light of Sheppard’s serious-face and Stiles’ anxious bouncing, she led the way. The place was still a hospital, with too many hallways, but Sheppard was starting to get a handle on the noises and the caustic smells. His skin crawled but it was ignorable. The dial trick was starting to work.

While the nurse was there, Sheppard politely did nothing more than peek through the window in the door and order Stiles to sit in a chair in the hall instead of buzz around. Once he had convinced the nurse to leave, however, the very moment she had turned the corner, he pushed through into the small washroom outside the operating room. Stiles followed, but Sheppard pointed him to the wash basin.

“It’s an OR. You want in, you wait for permission. And wash up,” he said.

Stiles impatiently did as he was told, adding to the noise as Sheppard watched what went on in the operating room through the window. He saw the arrow passed along and figured that was good enough.

“Dr. Beckett!” Sheppard called out as he let himself into the OR - muddy boots and all - to put himself in Carson’s line of sight. “I need a word.”

“Busy just now, Colonel,” came the predicted reply.

“I see that. I need you to get unbusy. Now.”

There were only two staff helping Carson and the operating room wasn’t very busy. Sheppard knew better than to assume he could pull rank on soldiers in scrubs so he wasn’t going to try it. He could still get away with ordering Carson around, though. Carson handed off whatever medical task he was doing, with much grumbling, and moved briskly to frown at Sheppard to his face.

“What in bloody hell-”

“Doc, I’m gonna need you to treat that young man there the same as you would working on a Wraith,” Sheppard said, cutting short the lecture and keeping his voice very, very quiet. “And we should probably minimize his contact with the rest of the staff here.”

“What...”

“I can’t answer that right now. Is he done?”

“Aye, but for the poison. And I don’t have the means to sort that out just yet. I was going to get him stable and then run the labs...”

“Well, is he stable?”

“He’s... mostly stable?” Carson was still very uncertain about a patient that he had been working with for perhaps at most twenty minutes.

“Then let’s get him to ground somewhere with fewer sharp objects and security cameras. A-Sap.”

“Aye. Ye said wra- well, do I assume the same healing-”

“I don’t know. And we can’t find that out here.”

Carson nodded, at least settled on the course of action. “Couple stitches should do. We’ll see to getting him moved.”

“Thank you,” said Sheppard. “And then... Gonna need you to check in on McKay and Sandburg. They were poisoned, too.”

Dr. Beckett stopped to stare at Sheppard, somewhere between disbelief and highly offended that he hadn’t been looped in on that problem earlier. “Excuse me?”

“Wolfsbane,” Sheppard replied. He nodded toward the patient across the room. “Same as him.”

“Ye can’t be serious.”

Sheppard nodded and shrugged. He wasn’t exactly going to start talking mythical creatures and aliens in front of a couple of air force medics.

Carson narrowed his eyes, probably would have said a lot more, but there was technically an audience. He scrapped the gloves and paper thin smock he was wearing over his clothes, including the vest he had worn all day. The last time John had seen it, Carson had gone fishing, so it was nice to know John’s surprise walk in the woods was a relaxing vacation day for the doctor. The vest was nice and clean aside from some bloody hand prints. The smock by comparison was pristine, but it went right into the contamination bins that probably were bound for an incinerator.

“Did you get the stitches in?” Carson asked the nurses he had borrowed with the OR. The answer was an affirmative, so Sheppard stepped back into the washroom to see Stiles staring in the window. He was anxious and had washed his hands, arms, and face while waiting. Sheppard handed him more paper towel so the kid could get a little closer to dried off. Stiles looked over at him, impatient for a report.

“What’d he say?”

“That Derek is okay and we’ll get him moved to a room where you can do whatever magic voodoo you think will fix him,” replied Sheppard.

As they waited, he stepped around Stiles to use the wash station himself. He took the plastic wrap off his palm and peeled it off the back of his hand. Hospital-grade sanitary care would have to do for the tattoo since it wasn’t likely he would be returning to his stuff at Cheyenne tonight. All day wandering around in the dirt and pines and creek water made the damn plastic itchy and smelly and John was done.

The tattoo looked like it was healing fine, and the color looked sharp inside the six fragments that made up the eagle now permanently inked into the back of his hand. He was glad they let him refuse the red before he zoned out. The blue reminded him of Atlantis, and with that much unnatural color on his skin, the red... would be a little too unpredictable anywhere off Earth.

He was just finishing up as Carson showed up. He held the door aside as the nurses pushed through with the bed-bound patient still knocked out. Sheppard caught Stiles by the arm to keep him from crowding them. Then they followed after Carson. Stiles wanted to be on their heels but Sheppard caught him by the back of the shirt collar - the shirt with the slashes and the burn marks all over it - and held him back, just to encourage a little less energy shoving after the guys with the scalpel collections.

“So Blair said your dad was a cop?” he asked, harmlessly casual but still fishing. Stiles nodded, distracted enough not to suspect.

“He’s dead,” Stiles said. He sounded very... detached. That didn’t sound like a good thing.

“So what about Derek then? He’s your brother?”

“Friend. He’s been helping me.”

“What about family?” asked Sheppard. “Where’s home?”

“What do you care?”

They got to a room and Sheppard made Stiles wait in the hall until the medical personnel had Derek settled.

“Aside from the whole thing where we have to send you home? I’m gonna have a mountain of paperwork for sneaking a couple of kids onto a military base, for starters. For medical care they apparently don’t even need, and that’s a whole other issue,” Sheppard told him, quiet. And that was saying nothing at all about the whole... werewolf thing.

“I didn’t ask you to,” replied Stiles.

“Nope. My team did. Apparently they don’t know you’re a pain in the ass yet.” Sheppard hadn’t figured out what to do about any of it yet and was looking for some kind of clue as to why Rodney of all people wanted to take home strays when they were so far from home. He monitored the activity in the room from the doorway, keeping Stiles out of the way as the nurses hooked Derek up to machines and monitors.

“I don’t have a home, just foster care,” Stiles finally told him after a very deliberative silence. “Derek’s the only kind of family I’ve got.”

That didn’t help John’s read of the situation at all. He only had more questions and a much clearer view of how close to the edge the boy was. He wasn’t just a stray with an attitude, he was a trauma case who needed help. Sheppard had done a lot of pushing so far already and he didn’t want anything to break.

Inside the room, Carson was assuring the two nurses that he had seen the strange poison-like symptoms before and that really it was only a passing reaction to the silver arrow tip. Completely pulling a terrible lie out of his ass and that was why nobody military on Atlantis was allowed to play poker with the doctor.

“He’ll be fine in a jiffy, you’ll see. Thank ye both for the help.” Sheppard couldn’t help but notice that Carson put a heavier touch on the brogue as he tried to shoo the two military medics out. They weren’t his team, and AR-1 wasn’t off-world among the less civilized cultures, they were on a fully competent air force base. One with rules. The terrible lie raised eyebrows.

Sheppard knocked impatiently on the door frame. He couldn’t exactly claim a moral high road on bad lies to the boss, but it was torture to watch Carson flounder.

“Can the kid see his brother yet, Doc? He says he won’t get checked out until he knows he’s okay,” Sheppard announced, adding to the incentive to leave. Stiles took his cue perfectly and stepped in front of him so the nurses could see the freshly cleaned bruises and cuts.

The kid was good. The kid was trouble. Of course Rodney wanted to help him.

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

It seemed to be taking forever, but Stiles reminded himself he had spent more time digging through a dumpster for aconite bullets then he had so far on the military base. And before that, in Beacon Hills, he couldn’t have been out for too long, right? They had to still be in the window. Derek would be okay.

John seemed to be pretty up-front so far, and he was surprisingly chill about the werewolf thing, so Stiles maybe almost trusted him. The guy pissed him off a lot though. He reminded Stiles of his dad, with the sarcasm and the automatic bullshit-detector always engaged. And Stiles still didn’t know what to do about his dad yet.

He had Derek in the same room as him, and he couldn’t help his friend, so he really, really couldn’t help his dad.

Instead, Stiles tried to help John get the nurses out of the room. He almost added a cough to really sell it, but John set a hand to his shoulder as a cue to enter the room so Stiles figured it was overkill.

“Stiles, this is Dr. Carson Beckett. Another friend of Blair and Rodney’s,” John said, pleasantries prompted as the nurses made their way to the door. Stiles hardly noticed, just stayed out of their way, his eyes scanning Derek. John let the door snick softly closed after the nurses before grabbing gloves out of the box on the wall behind it. He shoved two at Stiles and kept two for himself.

“Aye, we met in the chopper,” said Carson, sounding a whole new kind of tired. “Were it not for Teyla, the lad’d have punched me in the nose at half a chance when he came to.”

That was probably news, since John hadn’t been on the chopper with them the whole time. He snapped the gloves to catch Stiles’ attention away from Derek.

“Hey!” John said, very clearly talking to Stiles. Only reluctantly did Stiles look over at him when told to. “No hitting my team. Got it? Otherwise we gotta have words.”

“Whatever. Derek-” Stiles cut off as John held up a bullet.

“Gloves,” he ordered. “I already got two down from this stuff, and I’m trying not to piss off Rodney here.”

Stiles hurried to get the gloves on before taking the bullet.

“I need, like, a knife, and - and... a lighter,” Stiles said, stumbling over words as he tried to recall the trick he had only done a few times before. Derek had always helped him. That wasn’t happening this time.

“Whatever for?” asked Dr. Beckett. He still sounded pissed off, even if his accent made it comical.

“Don’t worry about it, Carson,” said John. “Stiles can try his magic voodoo poison cure, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll see what we’ve got left to work with.”

“What I’ll have left, ye mean,” replied Carson.

“It’ll work,” Stiles assured them, not appreciating the peanut gallery. John handed over a heavy duty utility knife and a lighter, tapping his shoulder encouragingly.

“I don’t see how!” Carson replied.

“Doc... until you and I have a better idea of what we’re dealing with, I vote we not get in the way of the kid who says he does. Alright? Just... settle down.”

“Oh, it’s a democracy now? I’m a doctor, and I’ll just sit here and watch the boy poison himself, and m’patient, then. Two against one?”

“He’s got gloves,” defended John, threading a very fine needle with a very irritated doctor. “And the kid’s name is Stiles, so don’t go forgetting your bedside manner now. He’s gotta be, what, eighteen? Not a-”

“Seventeen,” corrected Stiles. He was distracted working on prying the bullet apart in his lap where the men couldn’t see and actually kind of appreciated John keeping Dr. Beckett off his back by arguing with him.

“See, he’s seventeen, so... not exactly a boy.” John wasn’t exactly selling anybody on that argument, either.

“Aye, the lad’s graduated to dancing queen by now, apologies,” returned Beckett, irritation plain.

“You two married or something? Jeeze. Nag, nag, nag,” Stiles shot back at the pair of them.

“Har har. You done poisoning your boyfriend yet or is it Carson’s turn to try again?” replied John.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” said Stiles, annoyed now as well as nervous.

“Uh huh. Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it, Stiles,” replied John. “What’d you need the lighter for-”

Stiles answered by finally lighting the powdered aconite in the bullet casing just over the wound, and then dumping the ash, still hot, into the stitched up injury as Derek had shown him a few times before. It was a shitty way to do it, mixing the aconite with the gunpowder, but it burned the aconite hotter and kept the poison out of the air. Stiles still ducked back from the flare of fire that jumped up, white and yellow and blue sparks. Carson nearly fell over on the other side of the bed.

“Shit!” John started scrambling to unhook the sensors that attached Derek to the monitors before something screamed and brought the nurses back in.

“Bloody hell! What was that!” Carson demanded.

“I don’t know,” Stiles said, trying honesty. “But I fixed him. I think.”

And Stiles sat on the edge of the bed as he watched the color return to Derek’s face and the unnatural, glowing blue veins disappeared off his shoulder. In another few seconds, the wound had healed completely and no one could tell from looking at him that Derek hadn’t simply fallen asleep under the blankets.

Oh. Shit.

Blankets.

Derek would need clothes when he woke up, and Stiles didn’t even begin to know how to broach that subject with John. Distracting himself from the problem, Stiles tugged the stitches loose from Derek's healing shoulder with the point of the knife John had loaned him. Then he tossed the knife and lighter back to their owner to reclaim. John collected the bullet and casing, too, peeking carefully inside like he could see what had made the trick work.

Beckett moved around the bed to check that the wound was gone, up close and under the careful pokings of a trained doctor of some sort.

“How’d he do that?” the doctor asked. He looked to John like the man might have answers. John shrugged.

“Werewolf perk?” he replied. Beckett blinked repeatedly, his mouth appearing to have gotten stuck.

“Were- excuse me?”

John shrugged again. “Let’s face it, Carson, this is not the weirdest thing we’ve ever seen. Just... in the last month alone.”

“Yes, but here?!” The man wiped at his face, a hand over his mouth as he stared at Derek again and tried to process.

“Again, not the weirdest thing we’ve come across even here,” said John. Carson had to think about it another moment before nodding agreement, though he still seemed slightly dazed. He slowly came to his sharper senses and looked to Stiles.

“And since you’re so hellbent on helpin’ him, I wager he’s not the one who scratched you up like a cat post?” the doctor asked. Stiles weighed the question very carefully, not sure how much he trusted Carson. Both of the adults were taking this far too well, considering Scott’s own mother had stopped talking to him after seeing him as a werewolf that first time. Now a couple of military science-geeks were fine with it based on just the concept alone? No way. Too easy.

“No. The hunters,” Stiles said, only a small lie.

“Ehhh. Try again,” said John. The military man stepped forward to crowd Carson near where Stiles sat. “Family or not, was Derek one of the people who hurt you?”

Stiles looked over at him, surprised at having been caught out for the half-truth. John had helped him so far. Finally he shook his head. “No. There’s this... pack of Alphas. They’re the ones who took my dad. And me. They’re why we were hiding in the woods for the hunters to find us in the first place.”

John still stared at him for a moment before he nodded. “Okay then. Thanks. So pack of alphas... meaning more werewolves?” he asked. Stiles nodded.

“Bad ones,” he replied.

“Oh goody,” said John, looking to a still gobsmacked Dr. Beckett. “We have good werewolves and bad werewolves. Sounds familiar enough.”

Stiles tried to ignore them, looking instead to Derek. If he had actually helped, Derek’s system had to process through whatever sedative he had been given, and that shouldn’t take too long. But Stiles was still stuck in limbo in the meantime. Hoping no one asked him where his friend’s clothes were, because he didn’t know where John’s team had put his backpack when they shoved them all on a helicopter.

“So their systems... they heal?” asked the doctor. He had edged back in against the bed and was shuffling through pockets on his vest looking for something. A boxy thing that looked like a PalmPilot in a funny case fell out and landed on Derek’s arm, so Stiles automatically reached over to grab it away before it fell further. He was irritated at the doctor’s clumsiness, the rudeness of hitting an unconscious patient like that, but on second thought considered slapping Derek until he woke up. Instead he watched as Carson pulled out a stethoscope to listen to Derek’s chest.

“Yeah, they heal. Super fast metabolism, too,” said Stiles, distracted. He looked over at John briefly. “Look, where’s Blair? Didn’t you want your guy to look at him and Rodney? Derek’s gonna be fine, so I can handle this...”

“Yeah, I think we’ll just go ahead and wait him out,” said John, nodding toward Derek and in no apparent hurry. Even still, he tapped at the small computer Stiles still held in his hand. “Carson, why’d you bring this?”

Stiles looked down to see the screen lit up and various dots on it, like some kind of game. He moved to hand it back to the doctor. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to turn it on. Was just... trying to keep it from breaking.”

Carson slowly took the earpieces from his ears and draped the scope over his neck, then looked to John and back to Stiles with a slow dawning surprise. “Tis alright, lad. You won’t hurt it.”

“It’s a tracker,” John offered, pointing Stiles’ attention to the various dots on the screen. “Uh, let’s go with these blue dots there are Rodney and Blair.”

Neither man took the device from him, so Stiles looked it over more closely. “How do you know that? They’re just dots.”

A band along the side of the screen popped up with words, at first only strange characters that were nowhere near anything English. Stiles blinked, refocused, and recognized the name Blair Sandburg by one dot, Rodney McKay by another. He thought he remembered Rodney mentioning someone named Teyla that afternoon, and there on the screen was the name Teyla Emmagan. Stiles gawked. He tried to hold it up to John again.

“Is this your team?”

John leaned over enough to read the screen. “Yep. That’s them. Well, half, anyway. Missing Ronon Dex and, uh, Jim Ellison.”

A moment later, two other dots turned blue, and the names showed up on the screen. Stiles dropped the small tablet to the bed, not caring that it bumped up against Derek.

“That’s creepy...”

“You get used to it,” John told him, sounding somewhat resigned. He picked up the box and waved it at Carson. “It’s called a Life Signs Detector. He wasn’t supposed to bring it on this trip.”

“I thought it might be useful,” said Carson. “Wasn’t planning on running into anybody who could use it down here...”

The two men looked from each other to Stiles. John shrugged and reached over to put the device back in Carson’s vest pocket.

“Well, you found one,” the Colonel said.

Stiles was confused. “I just picked it up-”

“Don’t worry about it,” said John. They were apparently supposed to drop it. He pointed suddenly to the chain around Stiles’ neck. “Those dogtags your dad’s or Derek’s?”

Stiles’ hand went protectively to his shirt over the tags in question, off balance from the topic shift. “My dad’s.”

“What’s his name?” asked John.

“Why?”

“I want to make sure the VA’s office knows to get you taken care of,” replied John. “His local boys aren’t doing the best job. Maybe the service can do better.”

Stiles’ mood darkened a little. The colonel wasn’t meaning to push for once, but he just didn’t know anything at all.

“The hunters attacked the sheriff’s station. Kinda shattered everybody. The hunters and the alphas weren’t our fault,” he said. “So the new guy’s been busy.”

“That’s fair,” said John. He paused and shrugged. “Still. I wanna look into it. See what we can do. If you’re alright with it, anyway.”

The offer seemed genuine and was a surprise. Considering the only thing Stiles had to his name otherwise was the friendship of a solitary omega werewolf who didn’t want to see him dead yet, it wasn’t like he had anything to lose for letting someone else try to help, too. Stiles finally nodded.

“Sure,” he replied. “Thanks.”

 

*~*~*

 

“Well, I mean, he was a wolf at the time he was shot, and the aconite triggered the shift after he passed out, so it’s not like he really had time to... you know. Find his clothes first.”

Stiles’ eventual explanation for why he wanted to steal surgical scrubs should have been predictable, maybe even funny, but it once again reminded Sheppard that the dark-eyed young man stuck in the hospital bed with the unfading blank mask on his face was at least equal parts wolf as human. Somehow.

Carson was probably itching to get blood samples, spare tissue, the remnants from a snot rag, - anything at all really,- under a microscope, but he was afraid to ask. Derek wasn’t exactly the chatty type, and he looked like he’d be a pretty poor excuse for a lab rat. He sassed Stiles liberally though, so he had a sense of humor that Sheppard had seen, and he was quite protective of his younger friend. All told, the lack of clothes under the hospital blankets would not dissuade him from leaving for very long.

“I’m just saying, it’s something you might have mentioned before he woke up,” Sheppard said to Stiles. “We could have left by now if we’d already had the gear here.”

“I can walk out of here any time,” Derek said bluntly, not at all bothered and too eager to push back in Stiles’ defense. John stared back at him, eyebrow raised up at the challenge.

“Well, okay, I guess. But this is an Air Force base. There are rules. So how fast do you want to get your naked ass tossed in the brig? I was kinda trying to save you from that, but...” Sheppard broke off in a shrug.

“He meant as a wolf,” said Stiles.

“Oh, no, son. No, he didn’t,” said Carson. And Derek didn’t argue the correction. Sheppard checked the baggy pockets of his BDUs.

“Damn. No service vest on me. Can’t sneak you in with the bomb squad dogs. The wolf’ll get shot before the naked guy’ll get tackled into a padded room,” John said. “So. You both sit here and wait. And I’ll go see if my team picked up your stuff.”

“Fine,” said Derek. The kid sounded a bit pissed, but Sheppard was fine with that, too. This werewolf thing was a bit of an experiment, and John was the one with a gun full of werewolf-bullets strapped to his leg. Stiles seemed to have forgotten that, but Sheppard was willing to bet money that Derek could smell it. So they would both play nice as they sized each other up over the next little while.

“And you, Stiles. You sit. And let Carson check you over. I’m talking band-aids, stitches, the works,” said John, pointing the teen to sit on the bed at Derek’s feet. “Hale can supervise, but I want it done. Not gonna save you from hunters or whatever just to have you drop off from an infected paper-cut or something. Ya got me?”

“Fine,” grumbled Stiles. It was surprising when the kid hopped up onto the bed and shucked his shirt, but John kept it off his face better than Carson could. The kid was all bruises to match the claw marks that had been visible through the torn spots on the shirt.

“Is that a bloody burn, lad?” Carson nearly yelped it as he went for a fresh pair of gloves.

“Hunters have this thing for light-saber cattle prods,” Stiles said, annoyed. Carson dissolved into a quiet litany of Gaelic complaints that were probably mostly oaths against the hunters’ heritage and Sheppard left the room rather than stand around and agree with him.

He remembered the general direction the LSD had said his team would be found and headed for it, hoping that by some chance they had all wound up on the same floor. It was a nice daydream, but in reality, Sheppard marched himself up three flights of stairs seeking out the sound of a familiar voice among the blare of the hospital. He should have taken the LSD back from Carson before he left. Instead he very tentatively minded the dials as he tried to listen without triggering a zone out.

John knew he was tired, realizing with great annoyance how off his game he had become over the past month. A walk in the woods shouldn’t leave him craving a nap. Sure he had been walking for over eight hours, but that wasn’t much compared to their usual off-world misadventures. Maybe Sandburg had known what he was talking about when he tried to warn him about the impact the day’s mission would have on him.

Sandburg hadn’t predicted the whole ‘ending up in the hospital with werewolf poisoning’ part. That part would have been nice to have had some heads up on, but it was probably McKay’s crazy luck rather than Sandburg’s fault.

John was also aware that he was greatly annoyed. Not at any one person, but rather at little bits of everything and anything that wasn’t his team. He was somehow more annoyed at the existence of the so-called hunters than he was at the existence of werewolves, but he was also mildly irritated that his team had found a werewolf who had apparently grown up for a time at a nudist colony. It was another complication on the pile.

Sheppard hadn’t seen his team in just about an hour, after having been literally looking for them all day, and he needed to get a report on how McKay and Sandburg were doing, but there seemed to be delay after delay.

When he did finally find them, it was mostly thanks to Teyla, who stood outside the room in the hallway, going back and forth with Carter over the radio. She looked up and smiled when she saw him exit the stairwell.

“Colonel Sheppard has found us again, Colonel Carter,” she reported after a crackle on the hand-held radio. “I will pass along your message.”

“Thank you, Teyla. I’ll see you all shortly,” said Carter’s voice. By then, Sheppard was half way down the hall and dodging the feeling that he’d missed a red-tape bullet. Teyla met him halfway.

“Teyla,” he greeted as he approached. “How’s McKay? And Sandburg.”

“The doctor is hopeful they will both recover quickly,” Teyla reported easily. John took a breath and tried to relax at the good news. He wasn’t about to argue with Rodney’s luck just then. He reached out and caught her arm as she caught his, a thankful greeting she had taught the team early on, but it had the added bonus of giving him something familiar to hang on to for even a second. Teyla didn’t let go of his arm very quickly, guiding him instead a step further away from the rest of his team to a small waiting area with chairs.

“How are you, Colonel?” she asked. She was probing in her way, somehow eerily psychic about things even though she wasn’t. Teyla could read people better than anyone, and she was working on Sheppard now. That was probably fair, but John couldn’t risk it. He shook his head and casually shrugged it off.

“Oh, I’m fine. Just juggling since the team got split up,” he said, sticking with the tip of the iceberg and hoping that was all she could see.

“Yes. And Colonel Carter asked me to remind you that you’re expected to stay with Ronon and I when she is not, as we do not have sufficient identification for this posting,” Teyla replied, frowning. “She did say she is on her way now.”

Well, hell.

Heaving a sigh, John dropped into a nearby chair. The day was determined to get Sheppard one way or another, coming or going it didn’t seem to matter, so that news fit right in.

“John?” Teyla asked, moving to sit beside him.

“Yep,” was all he had to reply with. Reporting in. His brain was too busy going in a dozen different directions.

“Where’s Carson?”

“Three floors down, with the others who don’t have proper creds to be on base,” Sheppard replied. “God, I miss home.”

“You can have more than one home,” Teyla reminded him.

“Yeah, maybe. But everything is black or white here. All rules and regs. And life still happens in that... murky gray stuff in between. I’m rusty at making it all line up in the right boxes,” John said. “Like the senses thing. It’s either too much, or not enough. Get stuck in a zone out and you’re out for the count.”

Teyla let his observation settle before patting John on the arm again, supportive but letting him form his own conclusions. She knew too much and John knew she had to be judging him for it, but the “how” was another one of those gray areas Sheppard had no answers for.

“What made you come up here without them?” she asked instead.

“The kid needs clothes, and they’re in his backpack. Wasn’t sure if it was one of those I’d seen you pull from the chopper,” he told her.

“I believe so. I’ll collect it, and Ronon, and we will all go back to them. So Colonel Carter need not worry,” Teyla said, thoughtful and decisive. Sheppard looked up at her, surprised and yet not at the simple solution she offered under the guise of common sense.

“Can we pretend that was my idea?” John asked, waving a finger between them idly, a small grin on his face at the joke. “Ya know, make me feel like I can still do my job. A little ego triage...”

“It was your idea,” Teyla replied, confident in the statement as she was in anything else. “That’s why you came up here when you could.”

She winked at him over her smile, then she stood. “Stay here. Rodney has been asking where you went, so it’s best not to disturb him yet.”

And there went John’s self-confidence again as he was apparently hiding from the injured member of his team. At least he had been granted a few seconds in between blows to keep his feet under him.

Teyla disappeared into the room, returning quickly with Ronon at her heels. By then, John stood waiting for them, ready to move. He saw Jim Ellison pace to the wall behind the door inside the patient room, looking out after Teyla and Ronon to fix a steady stare at Sheppard.

“Don’t tell Rodney,” Sheppard said, no volume to his voice, but more than loud enough for Ellison to hear. “We’ll be right back.”

Ellison’s mouth tightened in a grim line but he nodded. Then he closed the door, a move John hoped was just an excuse for the field trip the man had taken to otherwise glare at his new CO.

Taking the stairs made Sheppard at least feel more productive with his time, and he knew the two with him were good for the extra effort. They’d take the elevator back up with Carson and Stiles. Just then, John could drop down the steps two at a time and double-time it back to the doc and the two kids.

“Tattoo is healing,” Ronon reported from behind and above him, noting the hand Sheppard kept on the railing. John nodded.

“So far, so good,” he replied.

“It looks like Atlantis,” said Teyla. “I like it.”

“It’s an eagle. Those five pieces underneath, that kinda wrap around like wings? They’re supposed to be the senses. Or something like that.”

“Huh. From the red one on Ellison, I figured it was a military thing,” said Ronon. John looked down at his hand again, reconsidering the Sentinel Project’s chosen team brand. Five senses, sure. But they also owned a good sized chunk of the five branches of the US military, too. Maybe the Satedan had an angle on it.

“It is,” Sheppard confirmed. “It’s the Project’s marker. Permanent ID badge. Sentinel thing, though. I just get to keep my rank with the military.”

“Sounds complicated,” Ronon concluded.

“They definitely tried to make it that,” said John. They hit the right level and Sheppard had to pretend he wasn’t winded as he held the stairwell door open for his team. One month of being in medically-ordered lockdown was four weeks too many. When they got back to training, Ronon was going to kick his ass. Sheppard’s pride wasn’t gonna make it.

When they got back to the room Carson had taken over, Stiles was half bandages and Derek Hale looked at least a little like he had started to back down. Sheppard tossed the backpack at him as he walked in, and Hale was up and out of bed like they were hanging out in the men’s locker room.

“Teyla! Maybe stay by the door,” John said quickly. Derek just got dressed quicker, but Ronon lurked protectively in front of her and squinted suspiciously at the young man who was very clearly no longer injured.

“You were shot,” he said, an accusation if anything.

“I got better,” replied Derek.

“How.”

“Well, guys, that’s complicated too,” said Sheppard, trying to run interference on his team again. “Ronon, Teyla, these are Rodney and Blair’s new friends, Stiles and Derek. We’re gonna be keeping them outta trouble for a bit. So play nice, hmm?”

Now that Derek was dressed, Teyla was able to politely step out from behind the Ronon-shaped shield and greet them. “I am glad to see you well,” she said. She noted the bandage Carson was setting over Stiles’ ribs, however, and John saw her frown.

“They’re better,” he said. “And Derek’s got a great metabolism. Good to go.”

That’s not something metabolism can fix,” said Ronon.

“You’re right, but that’s the story we’re sticking to until McKay gets better, too,” said Sheppard. His brain hurt.

“McKay said they were shapeshifters,” said Ronon. And just like that, the really big wolf was out of the bag of cats. Shit.

“To who?”

Us. He won’t shut up.”

“He’s ill, Ronon,” said Teyla. “It’s not his fault.”

Sheppard rubbed at the tension headache in his forehead with the heels of his hands, taking the tiny opportunity to hide from the world for a second. Derek’s eyes shifted from him to Ronon to the door and back, and it was mildly amusing that the kid hadn’t pegged Teyla as a threat yet, but John wasn’t about to correct him on it. Stiles had grabbed his own shirt back like he was taking his signals from Hale and not the doctor patching him up. Great.

“Rodney’s drugged, currently, so nobody should be paying attention to anything he says,” said Sheppard, the announcement firm and his mind made up. Rodney had a big brain, sure, but it was probably still loopy. He snagged one of the larger bandages from Carson’s rolling work-table that came with the room. Another few steps and John had unwrapped the over-sized band-aid and stuck it to Derek’s chest, just at his shoulder and easily visible under his shirt collar. The werewolf stared at him, assessing but not outwardly offended by John getting in his space without asking.

“You pretend that hurts until I say otherwise. Let’s not over-complicate things right now, alright?” Sheppard asked, staring the young man full in the face so he could be sure he was listened to. Derek seemed to be debating it longer than necessary, so Ronon took a step forward, using his physical presence to back Sheppard’s order. That seemed to seal the deal and Derek folded his arm up against his ribs like he was protecting and favoring an injured shoulder.

“Ow,” he said, tone dry.

Sheppard turned away to look over at Stiles and the quiet Dr. Beckett who looked on from across the bedside.

“Carson,” John said, his own tone still holding a warning. “I’m gonna need you to lift the medical restrictions on drinking.”

“Dream on, Colonel. Especially now,” came the reply.

Goddamnit.

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

By the time Sheppard did make it back to check on McKay and Sandburg, McKay had talked himself to sleep. He was hooked up to almost everything Carson wanted him on, however, so it was decided to let him stay that way. The doctor in charge of his care assured them there had been no threats of losing his PopTarts and only minimal nausea so the prognosis was good, and he took Dr. Beckett’s suggestions as Rodney’s primary care physician seriously.

Sandburg, on the other hand, was awake and alert and driving Ellison to irritation. A little queasy, Blair said, but otherwise fine despite Jim’s concerns. Ellison didn’t like the color or smell of the wound - the same thing Sheppard had noticed as the blood wiped away from McKay’s forehead on the chopper - and there was something about Blair’s smell involved there somewhere but John cringed his way into ignoring that bit of their conversation.

Blair was hooked up to his own IV of nutrients even though he said he was fine, and he refused to sit in the hospital bed. The best Ellison could do was get the man to sit in a wheelchair. No one was overly willing to let the Guide dismiss the problem, however, with the Sentinel hovering nearby. Both Sandburg and McKay had definitely come into contact with a potentially deadly toxin and they would not be leaving until it was cleared out.

In the meantime, Carson took over McKay’s care and cleared the room to keep Rodney asleep. Blair was all too happy to walk himself out of the room, with a little metal IV rack in tow, but Ellison insisted on the wheelchair being used for the intended purpose.

“I don’t need a wheelchair,” Blair hissed at Jim once they were out in the hall with the others again.

Teyla and Ronon were babysitting the werewolves, and at least half of that equation seemed to be getting along okay. Ronon and Derek were going to need their own time-out corners if they didn’t come to an understanding soon, however.

Sheppard leaned on the wall between the werewolf-and-alien group and the lightly bickering Sentinel team, unconsciously trying to track each set. He crossed his arms and slouched comfortably enough, looked from face to face, then glanced to the closed door across the hall. He could easily hear Carson muttering at Rodney even though the doc had kicked everyone out so the man wouldn’t wake up. It was just loud enough to let John split his attention three ways, but he wasn’t sure he could keep it up very long.

“If you zone out, I’m not letting Carson stick an oxygen mask on your face,” said Ellison’s voice, just at the edge of Sheppard’s awareness. John took that as a sign he had slipped a little too close to the edge and needed to center himself again. It took him a minute but he pulled his attention back to the pair beside him. He nodded his thanks.

“Sorry. Keeping track of too many people,” he muttered, scrubbing at his face. “And I swear to god, those kids...”

“Hey, I told you today was going to be brutal, man,” said Blair. He shrugged and toyed with the wheels on the chair Ellison had all but forced him into. “Maybe I didn’t know it would be this bad, but we told you it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. You’re holding up alright.”

Sheppard laughed under his breath. “We haven’t even gotten through day one and Carter’s already spent the last hour cleaning up after my team. And McKay is never, ever gonna let this go. I just want to go back to bury myself in a bunker and sleep it off.”

“Sounds about right,” said Ellison.

“Maybe you should go sit with McKay,” added Blair. “It’ll be quiet in there.”

“I’ll check on him when Carter’s here to get everybody else,” Sheppard replied. “Hopefully she found a place to stash everybody until we can head out.”

“We’re not due at the Project until tomorrow. And if Rodney’s not ready to go, it will wait. General O’Neill set the timeline, so he’ll be okay with bumping it back, right?” asked Blair.

Sheppard offered a shrug. “Probably. But if I gotta get to base, McKay will be safe here until he can catch up. He doesn’t want to be involved in all this, anyway.”

“Well, he is,” replied Ellison. “You’ll go when he goes.”

That sounded a lot like an order more than an observation and Sheppard looked over at the Sentinel. It hit him wrong, and Sandburg’s heart rate spiked sharply, like he was reacting to something Ellison had said. “Why? It’s my call. If I wanna send my team back to the SGC, I can. It’s only a week, and I’ll learn just fine on my own,” said Sheppard.

“And you’ll learn better with McKay,” said Ellison. “So it’s up to you how much time you want to waste covering basics.”

“Why.” It was a challenge, not a question and John shifted away from the wall toward Jim.

“Colonel Sheppard, go sit with Drs Beckett and McKay,” interrupted Sandburg. He even stood up, angled himself to block Ellison, even though he was shorter. Sheppard and Ellison were eye to eye over the Guide’s head, and there was enough attitude happening between the three of them that even Ronon was looking on from his place down the hall. But it was all just bad attitude on display, and John wasn’t sure if he or Ellison were most at fault for it. He eased back to the wall.

“When Carter gets here,” he said.

“I’ve got your team when you can’t,” said Sandburg. “That’s why they put me here. So go rest. Carter will be here soon enough,”

Sheppard glared at the floor, stuck in an internal debate over pushing himself or being pushed around by an injured geek who probably couldn’t swat a mosquito with a clear conscience. Finally he gave up. On Sentinel stuff, Sandburg outranked him, and it had been an order. John glanced over and saw Ronon watching him very close, ready to jump in, but not clear yet on which side. Sheppard shook his head.

“Just look out for the kids,” John told him, a glance at Teyla including her in the request. What had been their informal task was now official, so Ronon paced away to check the security of the area outside the visitors’ lounge. It was a goddamn Air Force base, but that didn’t mean much to Dex. John’s team was not trained for Earth missions. But it gave Ronon something to do, and John understood the feeling.

Without another word, Sheppard let himself back into the patient room. Carson looked up at him from the chair near Rodney’s bed. The man was silently reading from the book Sandburg had given him the day before. McKay let out a snort, just barely not snoring as he lay bandaged and oblivious to the visit. It was suddenly very familiar. And John was somehow more tired.

“He’s fine, John,” Carson offered up. Sheppard nodded.

“So I hear,” he replied, gesturing vaguely toward the snoring so plainly happening.

“They don’t have an antidote per se, but they dosed him with the next best thing, an’ I added something to help bump up the hydration. An’ checked his shoulder. He’ll complain, tomorrow, but he’ll be right.” Carson was whisper quiet, no volume to his voice at all, and watching Sheppard to be sure he was still understood. It took John a few words to realize the man wasn’t speaking normally. That hit John the wrong way, like he was being played somehow, just like when Ellison had pushed at him in the hall. Like there was a broad conspiracy and his own team was out to get him.

“Sandburg says I’m tired,” John reported, nodding toward the book in Carson’s hands. “There something in there about Guides being some kinda psychic?”

“No. Pretty sure the look on your face says it plain enough, no psychic needed,” said Carson.

“Fine. You tell Carter about Stiles and the gene,” said John. He moved into the room to crash as quietly as possible into the bed Sandburg had earlier refused. He sunk face-first into the pillow, moving only just enough to be sure he could still breathe. “And werewolves. You can handle them, too. I’m under orders to nap.”

There was a pause, Carson probably waiting for further explanation but John didn’t have any to pass along. Carson turned the page on his book.

“Understood, Colonel.”

 

*~*~*

 

That afternoon, Blair and Rodney had made it quite clear that they were some kind of science nerds working with a team to do science tests. But not once had he seen them do anything sciencey. Now Stiles watched their team linger around the hospital hallway and it was also very clear that the team had a grand total of two science nerds.

With the way Derek and the big guy with the dreadlocks watched each other - a couple of pacing wolves circling each other for a fight without moving at all somehow - Stiles wanted to bet that Ronon Dex was some kind of shifter. But he had a massive gun in a holster on his thigh that Stiles didn’t think was a toy, either, so he opted not to ask the man anything.

The lady who had introduced herself as Teyla, though, was nice. They hadn’t exactly met on the helicopter, more like she played interference then, but she was okay. She smiled easily, and seemed actually concerned when she asked if he and Derek would be safe when the Colonel returned them to their home. Stiles actually felt bad for lying when he said he’d be okay. The question was way too complicated for him to think about.

Stiles noticed when Sheppard snapped at Blair’s partner Ellison, too. The Colonel had met Stiles’ sass alright since the helicopter, in a very familiar kind of way, but he hadn’t expected to look over and see the man square off with someone on his own team. He didn’t think civilian science-nerd contracts like Blair could pull rank on an Air Force Colonel, either.

“What happened to John?” Stiles asked Teyla, after the man had been sent to his room and Ronon had moved off to pace the halls. Teyla’s smile had faded by then as she looked over at where Blair and Ellison whispered harshly at each other.

“John... has been getting headaches of late. They come and go rather unpredictably. He means no harm, but he is in pain,” she told him.

“Maybe there’s something going around. I’ve been fighting those since Derek got me out,” Stiles said, distracted watching Blair lecture Ellison about something in near silence. He couldn’t quite hear because they stood down the hall, in front of Rodney’s room, some twenty feet from the floor’s waiting lounge.

Be that as it may, Chief, the Program isn’t going to cut them any breaks on this. It’s in Beckett’s damn report,” Jim said, somehow loud enough of a whisper that Stiles could hear it. Teyla touched his arm and drew his attention back.

“Did you tell Carson?” she asked. Stiles blinked at her, trying to track the conversation he was in rather than the one he was snooping on.

“Tell him what?”

“About your headaches. He may have something that could help,” said Teyla.

“Oh. No. I just... they were drugging my food. I just gotta come down off whatever it was. When the headaches stop, I figure I can go home. It’ll be fine,” he replied. There was no way to really sugar-coat it, and Teyla wasn’t a social worker so he couldn’t get in trouble for it. Derek, though, shoved out of the chair beside Stiles and went to walk by the windows across the room. Anything related to the Alphas was an untouchable topic with him now, and he couldn’t exactly shift into a wolf to get away from the subject. Even Teyla seemed to see his anxiety on it. She watched Derek for a moment before turning her attention to Stiles again.

“While you’re with us, please mention the headaches to Carson. You should not be in recovery alone from something such as that. It could have adverse, lasting effects, and Dr. Beckett has much experience treating drug and toxin interactions among our teams who return unwell from their missions. You will be in good care,” she promised. Stiles shrugged and studied the floor as he considered it. Maybe she was right.

Stiles zoned out on the tile under his shoes, staring unfocused and listening to the air around him. He could hear Derek walking between the windows and a coffee table, a magazine tossed onto the stack. Off the other way, Ronon tramped along the halls, coming back toward them.

“Stiles, lad?” The quiet call startled him. Teyla tapped his arm and pointed his attention to where Carson stood with Blair and Jim. The doctor waved him over, and Stiles looked automatically to find Derek. He was surprised to see Derek sitting in a chair across from them. When did he sit down again?

Derek tilted his head back toward Carson in a hint but he made no move to go along. Stiles stood and moved to see what the doctor wanted.

“Thought ye might want to see this,” said Carson. He handed the box Stiles had messed with earlier over to Blair. The life signs detector remained blank, just a gray box. Blair poked at the edges, tried pushing non-existent buttons on the screen, but nothing happened.

“Is it supposed to do something?” Blair asked. Carson held a finger over his lips and waved a hand to lower the conversation volume. He even glanced down the hall. Then he nodded toward Stiles.

“Try holding that and wondering on where Colonel Carter is,” the doctor instructed quietly. Stiles frowned but tried it, taking the tracker when Blair handed it over. Instantly, as before, the screen lit up. A single blue dot blinked in among the cluttered field of red dots, moving steadily in one direction across the screen. Stiles curiously changed where he stood as he watched the graphics, trying to get a sense of the direction the person represented by the dot would be coming from. He handed the tracker to Carson and then pointed toward the elevators.

“Coming from there,” he said, confident in the guess. The doctor looked at the screen before nodding confirmation.

“Aye,” he said. The device was switched off and almost put away before he hesitated and handed it to Jim. “Your turn then.”

Ellison took the device and it blinked to life. The screen didn’t look quite as bright.

“Oh, now that’s interesting,” muttered Carson to himself.

“What is?” asked Blair, leaning in from his lower vantage point of the wheelchair. Carson took the tracker from Jim and the screen resumed full brightness, even more so than it had been for Stiles.

“The tracker adjusted to his vision,” Carson said, motioning with it toward Jim. He turned it off and put it back in the baggy vest pocket.

“I assume you’re gonna explain this, Doc.” Ellison didn’t seem entertained by the curiosity. Carson nodded.

“Aye. Ah had to check a theory,” he replied. He looked between them with a nod. “And thanks for the help. Mebe don’t mention it to the Colonels, eh?”

“Doc...” Blair protested, cut short by the ding! of the elevator down the hall. Carson hurried to meet it.

“Colonel, a word, please,” the doctor asked. The blonde Colonel Carter had no more stepped off the elevator before Dr. Beckett was ushering her back into it. When they disappeared, Blair and Jim looked confused and annoyed.

“What the hell just happened,” said Jim. At the same time, Blair asked, “What was that thing?”

Stiles shrugged. “A tracker. It’s weird. He’s not supposed to have it.”

“No kidding,” said Blair. He didn’t sound anymore settled on the matter. He shook his head to dismiss it anyway. Blair turned his attention to Stiles. “So how are you doing? Did Dr. Beckett get you both patched up?”

Stiles nodded. “Derek’s fine. I’m... patched up.”

“So Derek. Same dude as this afternoon? Really? Just less... scruffy?” asked Blair. “I mean, really? I didn’t imagine that part?”

“Yeah. He’s who was with me at camp,” said Stiles. “The hunters thought you were like him.”

“Oh, I figured that much out. You’re not though. They seemed to think they were on some kind of rescue mission,” said Blair. “Who’s Chris Argent?”

Stiles forgot he was the only one who had been tased unconscious by the hunters and grimaced, scratching at his neck as he tried to figure out how to handle what Blair obviously remembered. The science geek seemed to know what he was doing and shook his head. He grabbed Ellison’s right hand and held it up just enough so Stiles could see the tattoo.

“Just so you know, guys with these tattoos? Human lie detectors. And he’s cranky just now, so I wouldn’t recommend testing it,” he told Stiles. Ellison didn’t seem overly annoyed at the sharing and watched Stiles closely. Stiles was still surprised by the information.

“Yeah. John has one, too.”

Blair nodded. “Yeah. Same deal. Did he let you get away with much?”

That answer was a resounding No and Stiles shrugged it off.

“Who’s Chris Argent?” Jim asked again.

“My current foster-whatever,” said Stiles. Blair’s good mood disappeared.

“Hold up. I watched those guys take an electrified baton to you without even thinking twice,” he said, sober and alarmed. “You’re telling me he sent them to do that?”

“No,” came Derek’s voice. Stiles looked back to see Derek walking over to join their conversation more directly. “Argent sent them to do that to me, or to anyone like me, who was with him. Them taking Stiles down like that was their call, but it wouldn’t have been Argent’s. He’s actually been trying to keep Stiles alive since the Sheriff’s funeral.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that the whole family is as messed up as the other hunters,” Stiles argued, quietly set-off. “I live with them now. I hear it. And don’t get me started on Gerard.”

Derek set a hand on Stiles’ shoulder and he took the hint to calm down, however grudgingly. He didn’t quite understand, though. Blair, John, Carson - they had all done nothing but help so far, and helping them could have gotten at least Rodney killed. Stiles actually wanted to tell them the truth, for once.

“Whatever. Just don’t expect me to lie for them,” he muttered at Derek.

Blair and Jim listened quietly, not happy about it, but they listened.

“I’m... now, don’t misunderstand me, here, but - I’m confused,” said Blair, looking up at Derek from the chair. “Is Stiles supposed to lie for him or something? Are you trying to defend Argent?”

“The Argents killed his whole family, so it’s not like I know why,” Stiles cut in, the anger sneaking out.

“Chris Argent has been trying to protect Stiles from the Alphas for six months now. I couldn’t. I haven’t even been able to protect my own sister, or any of the others of my pack. There’s no way I could have done what he managed,” said Derek, sounding frustrated as he talked over Stiles. “So no, I’m not defending the hunters, or the Argents. I just know they took him in for the right reasons.”

Stiles looked over at his friend, suddenly considering something that should have been some kind of impossible. “Derek, I swear to god. Tell me you didn’t set me up. You didn’t send him after me. He said it was Allison who-”

“It was Allison. I didn’t do anything,” Derek replied, quick to try to correct the paranoid thought. “I told you I couldn’t. I just... told him not to fuck it up once the social worker ditched you with them a couple months ago.”

Stiles calmed down a little, but he still rolled his shoulder to get Derek’s hand off of him.

“Asshole,” he muttered. “I was handling it.”

Jim Ellison was watching them both closely. He reminded Stiles of the detectives with the Sheriff’s department, looking for an angle to unlock the crime. Stiles found somewhere else to look before the human lie detector figured out he had a rap sheet a half a mile long.

“What’s your stake in it, then, Derek?” Ellison asked. Derek didn’t have any smart answers for that and Stiles cast a glare at him.

“He’s shit at making friends, like me,” said Stiles. “And I’m the only one he’s got left.”

Derek remained stony-faced and just shrugged his shoulder - the one that wasn’t supposed to be injured - rather than argue. He didn’t say anything so he wouldn’t be caught out lying. Stiles cracked a small grin but didn’t gloat about it.

“Look... how attached are you to Beacon Hills? Because I want to very strongly suggest we not send you back there,” said Blair. “From what extremely little I’ve seen so far, Stiles isn’t going to survive going back. And Jim and I still have friends up in Washington who work for the system up there. It’s not California, but maybe they can do something to help get you to your eighteenth birthday, man.”

“But my dad -” Stiles clamped his mouth shut on the panic caused by just saying the words. Derek edged closer, offering a shield to hide behind but Stiles just barely leaned toward him. “I mean - I don’t...”

“Hey... it’s okay,” said Blair. He seemed to mean it because he almost stood up. Jim kept him in the chair with a hand on his shoulder. “It was an idea, Stiles. Think on it, that’s all I meant. I just... don’t think it’s an awesome idea to send you back to somebody who keeps company with sociopaths who attack people with electric batons and crossbows, you know? It sucks, and I’m just... definitely on board with doing anything else that’s not that.”

Stiles furrowed his brow and worked at not actually crying. Two things hit him at once and both triggered a very painful reaction, just a full mental shut-down and rejection: the knowledge that his dad was still alive and lost to the Alphas, and the mere suggestion that Stiles just walk away from it. Because Stiles couldn't help, despite a year of taking care of Scott, and there were few alternatives that didn't end up with the small, fleshy human very much dead.

Things were easier when he thought his dad was dead. Everything hurt more when he tried to figure out why his dad wanted to let the Alphas kill him. And that wasn’t something Stiles could even try to explain to anyone.

Ellison caught his attention and pointed off toward the windows across the visitors’ lounge. “Go walk it off. Nobody’s going anywhere,” he told Stiles. It sounded like as good an idea as any and Stiles moved to go breathe and stop the intrusive, harsh thoughts from hitting him in the face. Derek started to follow him but Ellison snapped his fingers to draw him back. “Derek. Sit by Teyla and leave the kid alone. He’ll be back in a minute.”

Stiles didn’t complain. He paced the floor in front of the windows by himself a few times, noticed Ronon standing guard on one side of the lounge, with Derek and the other three off on the opposite end. It took him a lot longer than a minute.

He stood against the floor to ceiling window, his forehead to the glass, and looked out at the parking lot below at the dark pavement and the bright lights of the air base around them. The last hint of sunset was just peeking out between a few buildings and a Black Hawk helicopter out on the tarmac. It had been a long damn day.

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

It took Stiles about a half hour of sulking by the windows before he trusted himself to try talking to anyone. By then, Carson Beckett was back. He presented himself at Stiles’ corner of the visitor’s lounge, with the weird life signs detector in hand.

“Stiles, lad. I’ve a favor to ask, if you’re of a mind to listen,” the doctor said. Stiles hesitated before nodding. He and his friends - or team, or whatever - were helping him and Derek, so Stiles could listen. Carson sat himself down in the chair across from Stiles scooted it forward and sat on the edge so he could keep his voice down. He held up the tracker just enough so Stiles could see the screen. The dots were splayed out just like before.

“Now, this bit of technology... I’ll be frank, we don’t know much about it. But we know this is what it normally looks like. What it did for you earlier, with everyone’s names? None of us have ever seen that before, and we’ve used them near every day for two years,” said Carson. Stiles’ eyes bugged slightly.

“Crap. Really?”

“Aye. What I can tell ye of this box here is that the reason we don’t know much about how they work is that they are some blend of biometrically responsive. They will only work for people who share a particular genetic fingerprint, if ye will. People like myself, or Colonel Sheppard.”

“And Ellison,” Stiles added. “And me.”

“Aye, among others. But... it’s never done this thing before. And I’d like to try to understand a bit more about why. If ye might be willing to stick with my team and I for a few days yet? See if we could get it sorted?”

There was an awful lot of crazy to what Carson was saying, and Stiles was starting to realize maybe why John had been okay helping Derek. He reached out and took the box from Carson, staring at the screen as it dimmed in his hands. The tracker adjusted and zoomed to show the two dots of Sheppard and McKay, and Ellison and Sandburg as the closest to that room.

“Is this why you and John are cool with werewolves?” he asked, half curious to see if the tracker would somehow answer his question like some kind of high-tech Magic 8 Ball. Carson seemed amused by the question, but the screen didn’t change.

“I’d say that’s a fair summary of it,” he said. “I think him an’ I the last few years have seen enough to know we don’t know everything there is to be known. And there’s certainly room for werewolves to fit in with what we do know.”

Stiles poked at the screen but it didn’t do anything else new. He considered the doctor’s request carefully even though he didn’t exactly have anything to go home to in a hurry. He was still wary of the fact that he was sitting on an air force base. With a werewolf he didn’t want dead, sitting ten feet away and eavesdropping.

“What do I gotta do?” he asked finally. “If I help.”

“Not much, really. I want to run some simple blood tests. Find you a few more things like this, may be. See if ye can get them up and running when we haven’t yet,” said Carson. “For all we know, it’s a fluke that this one likes ye. But if not, well, mebe we can better narrow down the reason ye unlocked the bit of code ye did.”

Stiles was insanely curious, though no less cautious.

“What about Derek?”

“What about him?”

“Can he come with me?” That wasn’t what Stiles meant to ask. Derek wasn’t some security blanket. He could go wherever, and Stiles would be fine. But that’s what he asked and Stiles scrubbed at his face with his shoulder to hide the red creeping up his neck.

“Of course. It’d just be a day or so. Pop over to Colorado and then be back,” said Carson. Stiles looked a bit sideways at him for the easy dismissal.

“Yeah, but will everybody leave him alone,” he clarified. Carson seemed to catch on to what Stiles was getting at and slowly nodded.

“I’ve Colonel Carter’s orders that I would handle this little project, under my purview. You and Derek would have to stay with my team, and at least one member of security on base. But I don’t expect we would be there long. I still have to get back here to help with what John is working on, of course,” said Carson.

“A human lie detector thing?” Stiles asked.

Carson grinned and nodded. Stiles handed the tracker back to Carson, staying quiet for a considerably long time, for his usual anyway.

“If I go... can you, like... make sure I’m okay?” he asked, quiet. “Things have been weird since Derek got me out, and... I think they were drugging my food. And I don’t know how long I was gone for to start with. And Teyla said it could be bad. I don’t know, maybe it’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid at all, lad. We can run some tests first thing, I’ll walk you through whatever we may find. At least set you on course to talk to your doctor when you get home. If we can get some answers, it may be that you'll feel better just for knowing,” the doctor said.

All the same, Stiles felt dumb for asking. He didn’t know any of the people who had shown up to drag him off by helicopter that day. They were all adults, and he wasn’t working on a great track record with anyone over the age of twenty-one lately. The Stranger Danger warning lights were very brightly lit in his brain.

But Stiles knew exactly what waited for him back in Beacon Hills, and if he couldn’t even think about it without suffering panic, there was no way he could go back and face it. Not yet.

If Carson was telling the truth, it bought him a few more days to get his head clear so he could focus better on not becoming an Alpha chew toy. Maybe reality was telling him that doing experiments for the military’s weird biotech toys was the survivable lesser evil to going home.

Derek didn’t have anything against going along with Carson’s request, because it would help Stiles, but he wasn’t exactly comfortable with it. He said he trusted Carson, hadn’t heard him lie once, but it was the military that the man worked for that he expected trouble from. It wasn’t exactly a fight they could win if they got cornered. But neither were the Alphas, and Derek had actual scars from them to prove it.

And so it was that, an hour later, Stiles found himself on a military Learjet, bound for Colorado. Stiles had never been to Colorado. Or on a Learjet. Teyla had never been on one until that morning, she said, and Stiles was inclined to believe her.

Stiles fell asleep on the plane, slumped on Derek’s shoulder. It was hardly a nap, just enough to remind him that breathing hurt with bruised ribs, and that he needed to drink more water. Somebody had poured sand in his eyes as he slept, just to make the world a little more difficult.

It was still the middle of the night when they landed, so Stiles couldn’t see much of the drive between the airstrip and the base. It was a winding road with a lot of trees. The base, however, was a cave. A massive complex built inside of a mountain. It was alive with activity, people moving around everywhere, completely oblivious to the fact that it was time for everyone to be asleep.

The very first place they went to was the infirmary and it was obviously Carson Beckett’s preferred space. There was an entire section of computers and technological whatsits, and Carson traded his grubby fishing vest with the pockets for a white coat out of apparent habit as he rambled on about starting basic tests.

He sat Stiles on a gurney and directed Derek to a chair nearby so he didn’t “hover.” Colonel Carter supervised from the doorway.

“Dr. Beckett, I sent Teyla and Ronon to the mess to bring back real food. I expect you three to take a break when they get here...” Carter said. It was welcome news even if it was an order. Carson waved it off.

“Oh, yes. Of course. This won’t take a minute,” he assured her.

It actually took more like forty of them, but Stiles finally got a plate full of real, hot food, and none of it was drugged. Ronon stole a piece of bacon off one of the trays just to prove it. But probably also to piss off Derek; Stiles was pretty sure that Derek and Ronon weren’t going to get along very well. Which was especially great because he had appointed himself their babysitter on base, hovering in the room with Carson but far enough away so that his friend wouldn’t notice. The doctor was too distracted fighting with computers and lab equipment that didn’t want to cooperate at no-o'clock in the morning.

When Carson was done poking Stiles with needles and taking saliva swabs, and the computers were humming away at processing and separating and quantifying codes out of samples, the doctor gave them the all-clear to go sleep. Sleep seemed like an excellent idea to Stiles. Ronon waved them toward the door, a completely redundant host because they still had the base-assigned, armed, military dude with the radios and the gear and the cammo whose entire job for the day was to watch over Derek, specifically. Derek just pretended not to notice and herded Stiles out into the hall.

“You tired?” Ronon asked them as they walked.

“Yes,” said Stiles.

“I’m fine,” said Derek.

“Good,” replied Ronon. He caught Stiles’ arm to pull him down another corridor, just enough to make sure he followed the change in direction. The guard trailed behind, apparently only supposed to watch over them, not make sure they arrived anywhere.

Where they ended up looked like a gym training room. Padded mats on the floor and along one wall. One end of the room had weights and a bench. Practice staffs and other mock weapons on a rack. Oh god.

“Let’s go,” said Ronon. He picked up a pair of short staffs and pointed the ends at Derek, just to make it annoyingly clear who he was calling out.

“Oh come on...” Stiles complained. “Carson promised nobody would-”

“Spar?” cut in Ronon with a shrug. “It’s good for you.” The man paused, reconsidered his words, and then nodded toward Derek. “Well, not you. But him. This place is just a tiny box. Gotta use up energy or bad things happen.”

He probably had a point but that was intentionally and entirely besides the point. Stiles looked to Derek and saw his friend was obviously considering it. “Oh my god. You’re insane. You know that? Gone.”

“Go sit down then, Stiles,” replied Derek.

“Oh, fuck off, Derek,” returned Stiles. As the two adrenaline junkies started to pace each other and stretch in their macho manly bullheaded ways, Stiles marched up to their babysitter with the automatic weapons and the handcuffs on his belt.

“Are you gonna make them stop?” he asked.

“Why? It’s just sparring,” the man replied. Stiles rolled his eyes.

“Fine. Then go out there and don’t let anybody in. Sparring is how idiots get hurt if they get in the way,” Stiles told him. The sergeant reconsidered.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean my friend is stronger than he looks, and he likes to throw things. If somebody walks in, they might get hurt,” Stiles insisted. And that was the best defense Stiles had, so if the guy didn’t buy it then Derek would have to keep himself from shifting and that was on his own head. In a military base. Where they probably kept people as lab rats for lesser crimes than being a werewolf. Thankfully it must have been logical enough of a warning and the sergeant retreated to do his job from a safer distance.

Stiles made his way over to a stack of extra padded mats across the room. Derek had found his own pair of fighting sticks and took an experimental swing at Ronon. The big man sidestepped, lazy about it. He was grinning like a crazy man. Derek was focused. Stiles wasn’t sure who to bet on because his friend tended to lose fights against crazy people.

“There’s cameras in here,” Ronon offered up, pointing Derek’s attention to a corner with a round glass bubble installed high up. “So no cheating. You’ll get us both in trouble.”

“Cheating?” asked Derek. He took another test hit, Ronon blocking it away without even trying.

“McKay says you can shift. That’s cheating,” said Ronon.

“Did you consider maybe he was seeing things? He’s sick enough, right?” replied Derek.

“Ha ha,” said Ronon. He took a fast swipe at Derek’s head with a pole half as tall as Stiles but it didn’t catch. “He knew what he saw.”

“Well, he’s not gonna see it again,” said Derek.

“Good answer,” said Ronon. The man used distraction tactics like a magician, testing Derek’s responses rather than engaging, giving him multiple directions to look in at once without actually attacking. Derek wasn’t as good with the poles as Ronon was, much more accustomed to using fangs and claws.

“Hold up!” Stiles called over from the safety of the wall. “If he’s gotta be handicapped, what’s yours? Now you’re the one cheating.”

Ronon shrugged at the accusation. “Fine.”

The man tossed one pole away and tucked his arm behind his back. Stiles was just guessing, but that didn’t seem like a fair accommodation. Derek didn’t complain about it.

The two stopped bullshitting at each other and actually started fighting after that. The sticks were loud and even when somebody did take a hit to the thigh or back it echoed in the metal room. Ronon had the advantage of height, size, and experience, but Derek could wait him out with endurance, strength, and the handy healing trick. They fought for over twenty minutes without losing any speed at all, blow after blow with the sticks.

Ronon got frustrated when none of the hits he got in seemed to make any kind of impact and he actually moved in enough to take the staff upside Derek's head, followed through with his elbow like he needed to verify contact. It split Derek's lip and caused a gash over his eyebrow. And then it healed a minute later while they were squared off at a farther distance because Derek wasn't going to let him cheat again.

"Knew McKay wasn't crazy," Ronon said. He had a cut across his cheek by then that was definitely not healing as quick as Derek's had. Slouched against the wall, Stiles crossed his arms and scowled at Derek taking the bait as he had, and at the proof that he had lost the bet that Ronon was some kind of shifter.

Derek snuck in a blow as Ronon gloated, sweeping in at his knees to take the bigger man down. He flipped back to his feet as nimble as Derek could, but he stumbled on the knee that had been hit. Derek backed off, adrenaline up, and tired, but not far enough gone that he wanted to get in trouble for breaking the man's leg.

Ronon waved him on. "Nope. Don't back off."

"You're hurt," said Derek.

"I'll walk it off," replied Ronon. "Don't give up an advantage like that in the field. It's how you get dead."

"We're not in the field," Derek said. He looked confused but he stepped in to bring both sticks across Ronon's shoulder, just to fake something. Ronon caught the move and managed to disarm Derek of one of the poles at the same time, without so much as flinching. He tossed the conquered weapon off the mats with the other one, grinning smug.

"Maybe not, but if the kid's as good with the Ancient tech as it sounds, I bet you will be. And soon."

Derek backed off, risking a look at Stiles that Ronon actually didn't exploit. Stiles jumped down from the mats to move closer. He could hear them fine but he didn't want to raise his voice.

"What do you mean by that?" he asked.

"We need people like you on Atlantis. Every time Sheppard finds people who can help the city, he lets them stay. You... could help," said Ronon. He taunted Derek with another feigned attack and Derek swatted it away. He was distracted now, mentally backed off from the sparring fight.

"Atlantis?" he asked. Ronon smiled the wolfish grin that looked equal parts charming as dangerous. He held his arms out and waved a hand at the room around them.

"What? You think I'm from here?" he asked.

"Atlantis, though? Really?" asked Stiles. "Like, the city that disappeared. That's what you mean?"

He moved into the fighting range between the two men without realizing it, but Derek did. He dropped the remaining staff at his feet, his way of calling a draw at the interference. Ronon sighed and did the same, tossing the staff away.

"That tracker was from Atlantis. The whole city is like that. Only people with the gene can get her to work. And these idiots sent a whole expedition out there, hundreds of people, so they need all the help they can get to keep her cooperating with everybody." Ronon shrugged. "If the tracker likes you, the city'll love you."

"It's a city... cities don't love people," said Derek, rationally.

"Ask Sheppard. He calls it a her. He's been able to do more with the city so far than anybody," replied Ronon.

"Sheppard didn't say anything about it to me," said Stiles. Ronon didn't seem surprised.

"And if anybody asks me, I'm not gonna say I did, either," he told them. "But I figured you could ask 'em about it if you wanted to know."

"Oh crap," said Stiles, suddenly catching on. He was caught up in classified stuff. Off the books stuff. The reason the G-men spent two hundred bucks whenever they bought a hammer, kind of stuff.

"Relax. You'll be fine. Beckett's good," said Ronon. "Whatever you worked out with him, he'll make sure they follow. He keeps his word."

"He can't lie for shit," added Derek, looking to Stiles again. "I didn't hear him lie to you. Maybe he's trying to keep you out of it."

"Sheppard has to be on board with anything that happens with the city from here, and right now he's out of commission. The doc won't say anything about it to him until he knows something," Ronon said. Stiles shook his head.

"Sheppard knows I could work the life signs thing better than him," he said. Ronon broke out in another laughing grin.

"Better than Sheppard?"

Stiles nodded. "Carson said nobody else could unlock the code that way, whatever that means."

Ronon shook his head. "Kid. If you've got nowhere else to go, I think you just got options. A whole city of 'em."

More options was probably the last thing Stiles wanted just then when he didn't know what to do with the shitty options he currently had to choose between. Derek caught at the side of his shirt, a little tug to remind him to keep standing.

"We're done here. He needs to sleep," said Derek. Ronon was watching him carefully too and nodded.

"Beckett's gonna be pissed if he doesn't," he replied.

"Oh, now you consider that?" Stiles asked the both of them, annoyed. "Not a half hour ago when I voted to sleep?"

Ronon ushered them to the door, not at all bothered. "I told you. He needed to get that out of his system so there weren't any problems."

"He did. Right," muttered Stiles. He kept his opinions to himself though, too tired and cranky now to care.

They followed the sergeant to the guest quarters and Derek invited himself into the one Stiles had been assigned. The plan was that they weren't going to split up, and that seemed to be especially important with the new news about expeditions to Atlantis. Even if it meant cramming their stinky selves into one bed.

The bed was just barely big enough. And Stiles curled into Derek's side, falling into an actual, real sleep with the help of his werewolf babysitter pulling pain from his aching ribs.

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

Earth: Beale AFB, California

It was dark out when Rodney woke up. He didn’t remember passing out, but he was certain it had still been daylight. Now the room he was in was dark, except a light over his head, and the illuminated screens of various hospital monitors. Thank god they were quiet because his head throbbed every time he took a breath.

Also, he was hungry. Did they starve people in hospitals on Earth now? Could he just order up from the cafeteria?

He was unfortunately awake. Very carefully, Rodney started trying to take inventory. He didn’t even know for certain where he was, but there was an open window in the room so he knew it wasn’t the SGC. Looking around, he realized there was another patient bed in the room.

Sprawled across it, boots and all, was the messy haired Colonel Sheppard. Normal people got bedhead, Sheppard’s hair just flattened out like it slept when he did. What even was that man, anyway?

For the second time in as many days, Rodney found himself attempting to wake John up, in a place he was fairly certain the man wasn’t supposed to be at all, let alone sleeping in. And he very clearly remembered being yelled at about not yelling, so he tried to be quiet about trying to wake him up. It didn’t work out very well.

On second thought, maybe Rodney wanted to let the colonel sleep. Wasn’t there something about werewolves he should be more worried about?

“Damnit, John. You had better have passed that assessment, because I am not doing that... whatever it was, again,” Rodney informed him as his friend snored into the pillow. He poked gingerly at the bandage over his forehead. “I’m too old to come back to Earth and get shot at. I’ve just decided this. It’s one thing up there. Gravity is nicer almost anywhere else. This... is tiring.”

As if to prove it, John slept on. The colonel was out of it, like he was catching up on a month of sleep in one night. Great. That left the nurse’ station as a source of assistance. And where the hell was Carson, anyway? Rodney reached for what he assumed was the pager, getting nauseous briefly before he settled back against the raised head of the bed.

The nurse showed up presently, checked him over, and asked a dozen questions. The only one Rodney really cared about was the one related to his appetite, as he was hungry and wanted dinner delivered. The nurse didn’t give any indication that death was imminent, overall, so Rodney considered the checkup a success otherwise.

“I’ll have Dr. Dalley paged,” the nurse said as she was leaving.

“What- No, Dr. Beckett. Carson Beckett...”

“Dr. Beckett had to take his patients to another facility. They left last night,” the nurse replied, paused in the doorway.

“Last night?” Rodney stared, jaw slack. Carson had just left them there?

“Yessir. It’s morning now,” she said. “Oh-five-thirty.”

“Oh.” Rodney let the nurse leave and stared at the window. Sunrise would be due shortly, but everything outside was still lit up like it was midnight.

And despite his back and forth with the nurse, John was still passed out.

Rodney squinted over at him. “Can you zone out in your sleep? Is that what this is? Remind me to ask Sandburg. Whenever you wake up.”

No response. Rodney gave up expecting one. They slept less on Atlantis, so Sheppard was probably just being lazy. It wasn’t like he had been shot in the head and poisoned on their hiking trip, oh no. That was Rodney’s reward for helping out, taking one for the team back on Earth. Where there were werewolves now.

McKay’s head hurt, he was hungry, he was awake, and he was bored. He looked around the room for something to throw at Sheppard. What he found was a thick paperback, nondescript-looking book sitting on the rolling table just barely in reach. Sandburg’s book on Sentinel stuff. And Rodney had been promised there would be science.

Being very careful not to move his aching cranium more than absolutely necessary, Rodney inched the book close enough that he could grab it.

And then Rodney squinted through a headache to read about ancient multicultural instances across the globe of the tribal guardians with enhanced senses who had protected their communities, sorting through anthropologic voodoo quackery that was probably left over from Sandburg’s original thesis. And then came the expanded relevance of modern day warfare and human sensory recognition that was thus far still faster and more accurate than technological solutions, from explosives detection to weaponized aerosol attacks.

It was mostly all case study and statistics, but Rodney had to admit that the introduction was the summary built to suit the impatient attention spans of the military brass and the political money-movers. They liked case studies and statistics because they didn’t like science. Less than fifteen pages in and Rodney was having to convince himself not to hold the intended audience against Sandburg’s intelligence.

When the door opened somewhere around page twelve, Rodney grumbled at the intrusion. “Now what?”

The main light in the room was switched on and the nurse from earlier accompanied some new doctor Rodney didn’t remember meeting before.

“What about breakfast?” McKay asked the nurse, not expecting nor receiving an answer. The doctor instead offered a smarmy, tired smile.

“Dr. McKay, I’m Dr. Dalley. I wanted to check you over before we try adding solid foods...”

“Why? It went into the bloodstream, not my stomach. Ticker’s still ticking, right?” Rodney complained.

“Yes, and your head is still hurting, and we’ll need to check the blood work results again,” Dalley replied, apparently used to cranky patients. Rodney sighed, annoyed, and set the book down on the bed beside him so it wouldn’t wander off. The military doctor wasn’t Carson and was therefore incompetant, but Carson had left him there so McKay would have to accept the lumps he was served. Dalley carefully removed the bandage on Rodney’s forehead to investigate the wound. Rodney was in for more pokes and prods and checking for color that Rodney couldn’t see.

“I was wondering why that bed had been marked off,” the doctor said, his eyes glancing over at the occupied patient bed across from Rodney’s as he disposed of the bandage. Because of course McKay would get the chatty doctor who wasn’t Carson. “He’s yours then?”

The odd question was asked so casually that it took Rodney a few extra seconds to actually process. “What? What’s mine?”

“Looks like he’s a Sentinel, and the front desk marked the bed as in use. Are you the Guide? It’s not on your chart,” the doctor clarified. The book by Rodney’s hand probably didn’t help the man’s poor deductive reasoning skills, either.

“No, he’s the CO of my post,” said McKay, defensive. “He’s new to that whole Project.”

“Ah. I assumed. Usually the hospital isn’t a hotel unless there’s an injured team. The desk makes exceptions for that.” It was probably supposed to be a joke but Rodney wasn’t feeling very amused.

“Sgt. Porter made a note that Dr. Sandburg with the Sentinel Project made the request to be moved,” said the helpful nurse at the end of the bed. “It’s only for the next few hours.”

“Ah. Always interesting when that group shows up,” said Dalley. He had moved on to listening to Rodney’s various insides with the stethoscope but that didn’t make him any less annoying.

“How many Sentinel teams have you seen?” he asked.

“Depends on the station. More the last few years, certainly,” said the doctor. “Mostly with the Marines. I thankfully haven’t treated many. The teams get belligerent. Had an attending get her nose broken for trying to tell a Sentinel he had to wait outside during a Guide’s pre-op once.”

“Oh.” Maybe the man had a reason to ask that wasn’t just being a nosy jerk about a tattoo.

“And if he’s not stable, it makes sense they’d ask to leave him here. Where’s his Guide?” the doctor went on. Rodney didn’t even know if it was an invasive question or not. Feeling ignorant was McKay’s least favorite thing on any planet, which just compounded his defensiveness exponentially.

“He doesn’t have one,” Rodney said, shortly. “Like I don’t have any breakfast. And I’m hungry. Have I mentioned that? I’m sure I have.”

Dr. Dalley took his time with the further checkups, but he at least stopped talking about being some kind of armchair quarterback pro at all things Sentinel. He rebandaged the line on McKay’s forehead and promised to have a real breakfast sent up before he went off shift.

That was probably voodoo-doctor code for “You’ll starve to death.” But McKay was just glad the man was not going to be coming back. It wasn’t like they would make him stay there too much longer just for a headache. Rodney could pop a couple of Tylenol and be home-free. Coffee would help. He was getting twitchy.

In the meantime, he went back to reading. He listened close every so often to be sure John was still breathing but otherwise let the man sleep since he hadn’t so much as moved a muscle the whole time the doctor and nurse had been talking in the room.

It wasn’t until breakfast showed up that Sheppard showed any real signs of life. That figured.

Thankfully the orderly who brought in the meal for Rodney also left a tray for John on his bed table. There would be no benevolent sharing. It was bad enough that Rodney was voluntarily reading an anthropological report for the man; sacrifices had already been made and breakfast would not be one of them.

“Hey,” came Sheppard’s groggy voice eventually. The man pushed himself to sit up, disheveled and looking like he was still half asleep. Rodney stared a moment, more surprised than amused. That wasn’t the usual ‘just woke up’ response from John when they were out on missions, or even when they had been stuck together in the infirmary for a week.

“Are you okay?” he asked the man who was just barely not a mop-headed zombie. Sheppard paused to take stock before nodding.

“Yeah. I guess I was tired,” he said. He spied the food in front of Rodney then and the sleepy eyes woke up a little more. He sat on the edge of the bed, intent on investigation of what he could clearly smell, but Rodney pointed his attention quickly to the tray behind John’s own bed.

“Yours is over there,” he informed him. The tray was retrieved in a flash and John Sheppard and his messy hair sat on the edge of the bed and ate breakfast like a kid parked in front of the TV for saturday morning cartoons. Apparently he had caught up on his sleep well enough.

“So what’s the call? Are you going to live or what?” Sheppard asked between bites. “You seem normal. Except for the-” he waved toward his own forehead to indicate the bandage on Rodney’s.

“Now that I’ve been allowed food, I’m fine,” said Rodney. “I don’t know why Carson left us here to them. I don’t think he would have signed off on care he knew would withhold meals.”

“Good bet he wouldn’t, yeah,” said John with a frown. “I’ll find Teyla in a bit. See where she stashed your pack.”

The ready meals would be a welcome fallback but there was a problem with John’s plan. “The nurse said Carson took everybody back to the SGC. Or at least, it was inferred. They didn’t check with you first?”

Sheppard finished chewing his food as he processed the news, then shook his head. “Sandburg sent me to a time-out for snapping at Ellison. Carson was here for a minute, but I passed out."

“What? Why would you - you do realize you need their help, right? Don’t piss off the Sentinel team. It’s the only one you’re gonna get and you’re not home yet,” Rodney scolded. John smirked at him.

“Do you ever, just, listen to yourself, McKay? Like, just for the sake of, I dunno, science or something?” he taunted.

Rodney frowned at him. “You’re less of a pain in the ass when you’re sleep-deprived, I think.”

John nodded. “Probably.”

“But seriously. I mean it. Don’t,” Rodney added. Again, John bobbed his head and shrugged it off.

“Yeah, I know. I was just strung out I think. And he was pushing buttons. We got into it worse out in the woods and we were fine afterward, though. I think it’s just... new team stuff. It’ll work out.”

“Did you pass whatever the test was?” asked Rodney. He doubted it greatly. John shrugged.

“I found you at least,” he said. He brightened. “And that kid Stiles you found? Gene carrier. He could work an SGC LSD Carson snuck out.”

“Well, that’s nice, but that wasn’t exactly the objective, was it?” Rodney blinked as he tried to process the information. “And also, there’s the subject of werewolves.”

“Derek’s fine. He healed right up. Stiles didn’t. That’s probably what Carson’s up to. Wherever he took everybody,” reasoned John.

“Okay, John, but werewolves aren’t real, so I need a better explanation,” said Rodney.

“Why not? Wraith got bit by bugs and the species evolved, so... the same thing happens everywhere. The same rules apply on Earth, we just... had different bugs. Who knows.” Sheppard shook his head, obviously judging Rodney’s refusal to accept what he had seen with his own eyes. And Rodney had certainly seen it with his own eyes. But he couldn’t explain it, and that was the problem.

“But the models...”

“Were wrong,” replied John. “It happens. You’ll be okay, Rodney.”

Rather than be placated and mocked by a MENSA-qualified flyboy, Rodney turned his attention back to his breakfast. He had the book propped open on the other side of the tray and multitasked as he read, John firmly on ignore.

Not long later there was a knock on the door. Sheppard was paying attention to it, so Rodney didn’t have to.

“Hello?” came Blair Sandburg’s voice. At least it wasn’t another doctor.

“Hey,” greeted Sheppard. His tray was promptly put away on the rolling table behind him again but Rodney carried on, piecing at what was left of the hospital’s tater-tot version of hashbrowns.

“I thought you said there was science in this,” Rodney said in lieu of a more customary welcome. Blair walked in the room then, followed by Jim Ellison, which wasn’t a surprise at all.

“There’s science in there, I just had to bury it so I didn’t scare away the bureaucrats,” Blair assured him. Rodney nodded.

“I suspected as much.”

“So how are you today?” Blair asked, tentative as he took a chair not far away. He still had a bandage over his arm but seemed alright himself.

“Headache, but fine. The doctor is a moron,” said Rodney without looking up from the book. “Where did Carson go?”

“Uh. Back to the SGC. He needed to run some tests on the kids and wasn’t willing to risk it here,” said Blair. “Colonel Carter said they’ll catch up in a day or two. Depending on what Stiles and Derek decide.”

Decide?” Rodney looked up, confused. “They’re kids.”

Blair nodded. “Kids, sure. And Stiles’ foster-family sent hunters after him when they knew he was already a mess. And Carson kinda explained the gene-thing to us. So all in all, nobody wants to send him back anymore than he wants to go. Colonel Carter had some ideas.”

“But what about John’s thing?” asked Rodney. He had obviously slept through a lot.

“That’s going to depend on you,” said Ellison.

“Oh come on,” complained John, like this was a return to an old conversation for them. “Is this because I snapped at you yesterday? I was tired-”

“How’d you sleep?” Jim asked rather than answer. John held out his arms as though to illustrate his excessive amount of obnoxious energy.

“Great! I’m fine now. Yesterday kicked my ass, like you said it would,” said Sheppard. “All clear now.”

“When’s the last time you slept great?” Jim pressed. “I’m gonna guess about a month ago, from Carson’s notes.”

Rodney looked over at John in time to see the color fade from his friend’s face.

“Well. Maybe?”

“Look. Guys... There’s a pattern here. And if we gotta keep working around it instead of with it, this is going to take forever, okay? Just... ages,” Blair said. Sheppard slumped a little where he sat, scrubbed at his face in apparent frustration.

“I don’t want one,” he muttered into his hands. Rodney looked between the three of them, confused.

“What-”

“It’s not important,” said John rather than answer anything useful.

“Yeah, it kind of is,” replied Blair. “You’re tuned into him, and I think you know it. It’s not going to work if he doesn’t know what to do with that.”

John scowled at the wall rather than look at anyone. Rodney stalled out, blaming the pain in his head for his lack of ability to comprehend something that obviously made sense to Sheppard and everyone else in the room.

“Wait. Who him? Me, him?” he asked.

“Yeah, Rodney,” replied Blair. “Believe it or not, John’s senses are more stable with you around. Even Carson noted it a month ago.”

“The - the Guide thing?”

“Yeah. That thing,” said John. He didn’t sound happy about it. Rodney looked from John to Ellison and Sandburg.

“Don’t you have to, like, sign up for that? Some kind of... application approval process. Or... or pre-requisite qualifications...” Like not freaking out every time he had to fire a gun would probably be a good one for someone like John Sheppard to expect from a ‘Guide.’

“Prerequisite prison planet, maybe,” said Jim. John looked somehow worse suddenly when Ellison nodded toward him. “From what he said yesterday, you were around when he came online. May even be the reason he came online at all. He was helping protect you, tracking you when his senses were still ramping up. It’s as simple as that.”

“You didn’t know it, maybe, but you were working together on this thing before you even knew it was a thing,” added Blair.

“But... Ronon was there. He at least makes sense-”

“Ronon could take care of himself,” John offered up, quiet. Rodney looked over at him, not sure what to make of the news the others were breaking down for him. He didn’t seem angry about it, but he definitely wasn’t surprised by it, either.

“Did you know?” McKay asked.

“Not until people started pointing it out,” John said. He shook his head. “Even Teyla called me out yesterday. It’s apparently obvious.”

Blindingly,” said Ellison. John rolled his eyes.

“Okay, but you knew what to look for,” John argued lightly. “And everything around me has been just a little too intense until I got to the SGC, so I was doing the best I could with what I had.”

“It’s fine, John. But... It’s got to be sorted out before we get to the Project. Then they start shoving paperwork in your faces, and everything has to match up,” said Blair. “And it will make everything else far easier. From here on out.”

“Now hold on a minute,” said John, sitting up and reclaiming some space, maybe his pride. He pointed toward Rodney. “I think he gets a goddamn say in if he even wants the job before the Project gets involved. The Sentinel Project Manual can take the rules and get stuffed.”

Rodney hesitated, remembering the manual in question clearly enough. The Sentinel and Guide were supposed to be brought into the Project at the same time for training, and there weren’t many clear allowances for if one or the other party refused. There was nothing saying the Guide had to sign on, only outlined consequences for the Sentinel if they refused. John already knew what those were, thanks to his treatment since getting back to the SGC.

“Sorry,” said Blair to Rodney then. “You guys are friends so I just assumed you would be up for it. He’s right, that’s my bad.”

“Up for what? If I don’t, it sounds like he’ll never sleep again,” said Rodney, and voicing it out loud was somehow worse than when it just rattled in his own head.

“Well, it’ll take a few months, maybe,” said Blair soberly. “I mean, we can send you back with the others and get started the same as we would otherwise. But if John came online as a trauma response, he would have to work through that before he could find a new baseline. It’s a conditioned response, a different kinda PTSD. He’d have to break the habit. He would have to get used to not looking for you. It’d mean more zone outs, maybe. And from what I’ve seen so far, a hellaciously bad attitude.”

“All of which he’ll have to start working on this week as it is,” added Ellison with a shrug. “So now would be the time to make the break, while he’s going through the adjustments anyway.”

“Well it doesn’t sound very pleasant at any rate,” replied Rodney, somewhat mortified at the sudden sense of responsibility rushing directly at his aching face. Nobody had explicitly said it, but the last month of upheaval for John and the team had been partly his fault.

“It’s not your problem,” said John quickly. “I can deal.”

“Maybe, but why the hell should you have to?” Rodney looked over at his friend. “We’re on the same team. If we were going to kill each other, I think it’s safe to say that we would have by now. I mean, literally.”

John cracked the barest of smiles but sobered quickly. “I swear to god I will kill you if you make this mess-” He paused to wave generally toward the messed up senses around his head. “Live through another planetary destruction scheme. I will murder.”

Another one?” squawked Sandburg.

“It’s a...” began Rodney with a dismissive wave even as John replied, “Long story.”

“Oh. Great. At least it wasn’t short.” Blair did not seem at all calmed, and Ellison crossed his arms as he propped up the nearby wall, looking no less annoyed.

“This isn’t a small thing, here. It means living on top of each other and looking out for each other,” he said, calling their attention back to the matter at hand.

“We do that anyway,” said Rodney. “Atlantis isn’t that big.”

John seemed to pale a little. “Well, it’s not that small, either.”

Blair pointed from Rodney to John. “Every scrap of paper he signs, every day, has to have your countersignature. You’ll have to verify that he’s not just making up an account that relies on him seeing, hearing, smelling, or otherwise witnessing an event. Your reputation goes with his.”

That gave Rodney a moment’s pause. Jim caught John’s attention, nodded toward Rodney. “He gets put in charge of your medical care. All of it. You get a cold, he gets CC’d on the ‘scrip for the NyQuill.”

“Also, you really shouldn’t try NyQuill anytime soon, so don’t get sick,” added Blair offhand.

“What-” Rodney was suddenly back to wanting to find John a good lawyer rather than let the man anywhere near the Project.

“Drugs don’t always settle well with an elevated sensitivity,” said Blair. “So I have to make sure some idiot quack doesn’t try to put Jim on an antihistamine that will put him in an actual coma.”

“Why can’t he do that himself?” asked Rodney. Blair shrugged, not apparently bothered, and nodded toward Jim.

“If he’s already sick or injured, he may not be conscious to tell anyone. Doctors have just started asking for the Guide before they’ll even look at him.”

“Well, that’s what we’ve got Carson for,” reasoned John. “I’ll just... let him know.”

“Same goes for food allergies. There can be sensitivity to new foods, they can have a reaction. Some chemical environments, like warehouse spills, or-” Blair carried on but Rodney waved him off, more than getting the picture.

“Okay, I got it,” he said. He was miserably reminded of the doctor an hour ago asking if John was his. “It’s a responsibility.”

“One way or another, yeah,” replied Ellison. “Seems like it goes pretty one-way at times, too. When you’re stuck living it.”

Blair shook his head. “No, it doesn’t.”

John watched Rodney, frowning. “Sorry...” he offered up. “I didn’t know.”

“Nobody did,” said Rodney. “Well, maybe Carson knew some of the doctor-stuff.”

“I’ve been living on a bland diet for a month,” scoffed John. “Oh yeah. He knew.”

"Well, the idea is to make sure your team knows how to keep you from the problem spots, eventually. If it takes a village, so be it," said Blair. "But think on the Guide thing for a while. It changes the game. And by the time we head down south, we need to know how to proceed."

“Right...” Rodney attempted to sit up and was suddenly nauseous all over again, this time with food on his stomach making the threat a little more imminent. “Woah.”

“You two stay here for now,” said Ellison, pointing between Blair and Rodney. “I can still smell that stuff on him, so I’m sure you’re not much better. You can wait here until it’s medically cleared and out of your system.”

“You said that last night, too.” John blinked a little, side-eyeing Ellison on the Sentinel senses trick. “You can smell him? Like, on purpose?”

“You can smell everyone, you just start to process what the normal is and ignore it unless it changes,” said Jim.

“I’d rather just ignore it all the time,” replied John, not at all enthusiastic about apparently superhuman sniffing skills. Rodney took a self-conscious whiff of himself and figured he could understand the reluctance. It did nothing to help his queasy stomach, but it wasn’t exactly his fault that he hadn’t showered in a couple of days, either.

“How’d you know he’d been poisoned on the chopper?” Jim asked Sheppard. John shrugged at the question.

“I could smell something that wasn’t blood on the rag,” he said. Jim nodded. “And there was this weird white color around the cut.”

“Because you know what blood smells like, so the toxin that made it wrong stood out. Practice and familiarity. Same thing with... everything else. From odor to the color of their skin. You pick it up, you just have to know to pay attention to it,” Ellison replied. John sobered in his complaining, but he still didn’t look happy about the responsibility. He wasn’t any kind of a doctor, so it wasn’t something he signed up for, either. The list of Things Nobody Signed Up For just seemed to keep growing.

Ellison waved John off the bed, snapped his fingers to hint at speeding up the response pace. “Come on. Up. Time to work.”

Sheppard looked offended for a moment before he grudgingly got up to follow Ellison. “Just don’t make me start sniffing bodily fluids in a hospital. I’ll tell Carter.”

“Oh, yeah?” asked Ellison, sounding almost amused but the man was hard to read. “Where’d you get the radio?”

“...fuck.”

The door shut behind them then and Rodney couldn’t hear the two anymore. He looked to Blair and the man shrugged.

“I promise, they won’t kill each other,” he said. Rodney nodded acceptance of that but then stopped as he waited for his head to stop throbbing again.

 

*~*~*