“I’m a bit nervous.”
“Shouldn’t we stay? Just for another day or two?”
“Alex… “ he patted her hand and shook his head. He understood what she was getting at far too well. And it wasn’t like he was perfectly calm, but this was the right thing to do. He couldn’t keep himself from smiling. “You do know we’re on the plane already? Do you want to cancel?”
She leaned back in her seat, her fingers closing around his. “No. My mom is gonna drag them to all the museums in the vicinity, while Adam will spoil them with toys and McDonald’s.” She smiled. “We wouldn’t want to rob my family of that when they complain so much about not seeing them.”
Laughing softly, he lifted her hand to his lips. “How long has it been since the two of us have been on holiday together? Just the two of us?”
“I believe,” she whispered so low he had to strain his ears to hear her over the engine and the soft rumbling of the air conditioning. She stretched out her finger, touching his lips, “the last real holiday was cut short when we had to be taken straight back to General Landry. It was a bit of an international crisis.”
Somehow Evan had learned to laugh about this. Leaning in, he pressed his lips to hers. “I love you.”
Her smile widened. “I-“
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard this flight from London Heathrow to JFK, New York.”
She looked up at the speakers above them, her mouth hanging slightly open and it took Evan a full second before he too realized what was going on.
“My name is Captain John Sheppard, accompanied here by my First Officer Douglas Crieff. I will not bore you with the details of how high up we’ll be flying, or how long this trip will take, because I know for a fact, you will be looking at the little screens in front of you for most of the flight.”
“Are you feeling better?” Torren whispered.
Grace shook her head. They were sitting at one side of the room with Josh and Eva right across from them. Josh had his arm around her as she was leaning against him, one hand on his leg. They looked comfortable with each other. At ease in sleep. It was something Grace couldn’t even begin to think about. And neither could Lucas. He was still standing by the door, still seething. He didn’t even listen when Miller told him to sit down.
“You should try to get some rest.” Torren weaved his fingers through hers.
“What for?” She looked up at Lucas and she felt something in her chest start to crack. Ba’al had killed so many. And whoever he was interested in, no matter for what reason, ended up dead. She’d read enough about him, had learned enough about Goa’uld strategies to know that Ba’al would not let them live if they were of no or little value to him. And what use were they really? They were a nuisance.
All of that didn’t really worry her. She’d always known this might happen. What worried her was that it was incredibly uncharacteristic to have Ba’al pay such special attention to Caleb.
She was only grateful to have Torren by her side. And she hated herself for thinking that. He should be home. Back at school. Teaching. Or at the very least, he should be on the Hammond with her parents. This was not right. He wasn’t supposed to die with her here.
He didn’t speak, just held her hand and she selfishly felt his warmth seeping into her. He knew what was going in inside her head. He’d known her since forever after all. Her mother had shown her the early pictures. The ones she kept on a secret, outdated drive in their home. And one had stuck with her in particular. Of Grace and Torren, of Josh, Caleb and Lucas sitting in the rear of one of those tube shaped Ancient ships they used to call Jumpers. John was sitting behind them, his feet stretched out in front of him as he watched the children. Where they were or why John Sheppard, military commander of the expedition, was watching them, or why that picture had been taken at all, Grace didn’t know, but she remembered staring at herself, no older than one, clinging to the older Torren. When her mother had shown her this picture, Grace had already been chosen for the Stargate Program. She had already known of her parents’ roles in its history. She’d always known that Torren was a constant friend in her life and getting to know him on a more intimate level came natural to her. It would never have occurred to her to make as big a deal about this as Lucas and Caleb did, but seeing herself already clinging to Torren before she even remembered it, had shifted something within her. It had made suspicion certainty.
And she hated that she couldn’t tell him this.
Not with everyone around.
Not when they could so easily be overheard.
Instead she lifted his arm over her shoulders and leaned into him, her head resting on his shoulder. “I’m sure he’s fine,” he whispered into her hair. The sudden rush of warm air made her scalp tingle and she closed her eyes, unable to speak. How could she say anything to that, when she knew he was only saying it to make her feel better. “He needs him for something, or he would have had him killed already.”
She shivered, pressing herself against him, wishing she could have hidden her face from everyone else. She hadn’t forgotten. The way Caleb had looked at Ba’al. What they had said. They know each other. But she couldn’t say that either. Because how was that possible? Where should Caleb have met Ba’al?
Swallowing hard, she closed her eyes so she didn’t have to look at Lucas. Caleb’s wide eyes, the way he’d stared at Ba’al… Whatever it was that had driven Ba’al to do this, she couldn’t imagine Caleb would want Lucas to know.
“I’m coming with you.”
Evan hadn’t expected anything else from him. Ronon wouldn’t be Ronon if he decided to lay low and let others rescue his only child. And besides, they could use someone from this galaxy at their side, lest they start up yet another war and it was all their fault.
“We are leaving within the hour,” Carter said, going through the ship’s status on the thin tablet in her hand. “Get everything you need.” She looked up at him and nodded. “Thank you.”
With a grunt, telling her he’d understood, Ronon was about to turn around, when Fisherman spoke up. “Ma’am, we’re receiving a transmission. Not encoded.”
Carter threw him a short glance and then nodded at Fisherman. “Load it on a secure computer before playing it.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” She leaned against her chair, eyes intent on the screen ahead of her. A message didn’t have to be bad news. It was highly unlikely that in their situation it was good news, though. Evan felt Alex shift beside him. He’d meant to send her off the bridge, but he also couldn’t bring himself to tell her to leave. To leave her to not knowing.
It only took a few seconds for Fisherman to arrange everything and Evan felt the eyes of every single person on the bridge on him as Carter nodded at the younger woman. “Let’s see it.”
His heart sank the moment the familiar face appeared on screen. The same smile, the same hair, the same beard. Tan and confident. He felt bile rise in his throat. Suspicions were not a good preparation. And what this face alone confirmed made him want to punch something.
“Greetings.” That voice. That voice which made his blood run cold. He hadn’t heard it in over twenty years and the sound of it was enough to make it all rush back into his mind. Alex. Nora. The deceit and the lies and the pain and the constant fear. And now, finally, Ba’al had a hold of their children again. “I am Ba’al. This is a message for the crew of the USS George Hammond, but especially to its commanding officer Colonel Carter, and, of course General Lorne.” The smirk tugging at the corners of his lips elevated his urge to punch to a flaming hot desire to choke the life out of him. “As you undoubtedly may ver presumed, I have in my custody three of your teams and one Satedan female. But there are other subjects which we need to discuss and reach an agreement on. The trespassing of Tau’ri forces on formerly declared neutral zones for instance. You may be surprised to hear me say this, but this is how things stand. I demand you to meet with me in person to negotiate the terms of our new agreement. I will send you the time and place within the day.” And with that the message was over. Ba’al’s image faded away to leave behind the view of the sea of green that was the forest surrounding them.
“What are the odds?”
Evan laughed. He was off his seat the moment he saw the curtain being pulled to the side. “McKay could probably tell you,” he grinned, hugging Sheppard close to his chest.
“He really could.” Sheppard clapped him on the shoulder, then pulled Alex into a hug as well. During their time on Atlantis they hadn’t been particularly close, but once they were back here, once Sheppard had assumed the role as Torren’s substitute father, things had changed somewhat.
“It’s good to see you,” she said. Sheppard’s temples were starting to go grey, but she couldn’t say it made him look older. Not even the beard managed to do that. “How is Teyla?”
“She’s good,” he laughed, taking a step back to take a short look around. The captain leaving the flight deck to greet two of the passengers was, after all, a very unusual sight and Sheppard didn’t look like he liked all that attention being thrown at them. “Family visit back in England?”
Evan nodded, ignoring the stares and the people looking away on purpose at the same time. “We haven’t seen Alex’s brother and mother in ages. It was high time we dropped the kids off so they could have a go.”
Again, Sheppard laughed. “Will you be staying in New York?”
“Well…” Evan threw her a glance, unsure of what to say. They had planned on taking a road trip. Something quiet. No big tour of the city. They had done it before, and their relationship hadn’t lasted. It seemed like a bad omen to repeat that now.
“Stay with us for a day or two, will you?” Sheppard was still grinning.
When the SGC had abandoned Pegasus for good, Alex hadn’t thought she’d ever see him smile again. But there it was. That characteristic grin and the twinkle in his eye. “Sure. Thank you for the invitiation.”
“Great. I can’t wait to catch up. And Torren will be extra disappointed you didn’t bring Caleb and Grace.”
“What did Sheppard say when he quit?”
Alex looked up. She was clutching her metal mug so tightly, she felt the heat seeping into her skin. Small comfort in this whirlwind of uncertainty. Ronon was scowling at her. Not the way he frowned at Evan or at Carter. It helped her take her mind of the thousand other things going through her mind as the ship prepared for leaving this place behind.
From the corner of her eye she could see Kavanagh frowning at a tablet. How she hated having him near her after that outburst of his, but she couldn’t bear being alone in her quarters. But he was far away. Far enough not to be able to hear them over the soft rumble of the engines. Nobody else was down here.
Evan was up on the bridge with Carter and there was clearly nothing for her to do. Not for the foreseeable future. She only dreaded bursting into tears here and now. She’d been waiting for her eyes to start burning again the moment Ba’al’s face had appeared in front of her. Unchanged. Unyielding.
“Sheppard?” she asked, trying to recall Ronon’s message and clutching the mug even tighter.
“When he quit the Stargate Program. You never told me.” So this was his strategy. Keep her distracted as long as possible until Evan had time for her again. He must be just as nervous. Emma was at the window, looking down at the planet slowly receding from view.
“I don’t know exactly,” she said. “But he was furious and disappointed. Teyla resigned the same time he did. They moved to New York.”
“They became an item then?”
Alex nodded at her tea. Chamomile. It was supposed to be soothing, but it reminded her too much of the stuff she’d drunk on Larsa. She’d never been able to stomach it after that. But it was all the tea that was left onboard. No small wonder after months of travelling. “About half a year after the siege, yes. And Sheppard’s been a really good dad to Torren.”
“He does seem like a good kid.”
“The kid’s twenty-six years old.”
Ronon scoffed at this, lifting his own mug to his lips. “Tell me about it. Eva turned twenty-two last month and she’s been making her own decisions for years.”
Eva. There it was. His own daughter. The person he must be worried about the most. Alex watched Emma turn around slightly to look at them. She wasn’t far away, had probably heard every word they were saying. “Do you think he will let them live?” she asked, her tone firm, but the worry so plain in her eyes, Alex had to look down again. At her fingers and the wedding ring as it stood out against her pale skin.
Would Ba’al let their children go? Just like that?
Would Carter and Evan agree to negotiate, or engage in an attack straight away? She knew the protocol. She knew Carter and Evan were devoted to the rules and regulations. But she also knew that Carter and Evan had very often gone against those. And over the years the rule that nobody was to be left behind had only been re-affirmed. They had always tried to uphold that promise to each and every member of each and every expedition. But sometimes a promise needed to be broken. Sometimes it was broken, because politics demanded it.
And engaging in negotiations with Ba’al was a political act.
Engaging in open conflict with a man who had taken over half of two galaxies even more so. They could not afford to start another war.
On the other hand, they could not start negotiating with terrorists.
And Ba’al was that, too.
Alex pressed her lips together, trying to keep them from quivering. The block of ice that had appeared as suddenly as Ba’al had re-entered her life, made her shiver, but she also knew it helped her keep the tears at bay. She had killed him. Evan had killed him. And yet, there was always one more. One more clone, one more copy, ready to make their life a living hell. To take their children. “I don’t know,” she conceded finally, her voice as calm as the tea in her mug. Undisturbed by the venom coursing through her veins. It was no use pretending. Not to these two. Not to anyone. “He’s…” she cleared her throat. “Ba’al’s only concern is his own well-being. If keeping them alive, if handing them over is to his advantage, he will do it.” Yes, he was cruel. He was viscous and dangerous, but he was also calculating. And that might help.
She felt Ronon staring at her and she had to force herself to look up again. To face him. He, like Emma, must know that there might be no negotiations at all. But the fact that Evan and Carter had allowed them to come along, must be some comfort. It had to be. They wouldn’t have done it, if they’d decided to blow Ba’al’s ship out of the sky already.
“I only ever read a few files about him,” Emma said, sitting down herself. “It… it never seemed important… not until now. Not after… after his defeat.” She frowned at the table and Alex watched Ronon slide his hand under the table to put it on his wife’s knee.
“I never though I’d have to think about killing him for a third time.” Alex found herself smiling, as the block of ice appeared to grow. Humour in the face of danger was not her strong suit.
“Eva might do that for you if he touches a hair on Josh’s pretty head.” Ronon said, pride and worry displayed in equal parts on his face as he looked at Emma. He didn’t flinch when she whacked his arm.
“Don’t be like that,” Emma scolded him, taking the mug from him to take a gulp herself.
Alex looked out the window, at the horizon of trees slimming into a thin line before it vanished completely in a mass of grey clouds before the ship broke atmosphere and there was nothing left outside the viewport but inky blackness and tiny dots of stars. She sighed and got up. “I’m gonna head to the gym.” It was better than doing nothing. Better than sitting around to wait for Evan to show up here while she was with Emma and Ronon. With Kavanagh within earshot. The gym would be empty right now. That was something.