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Ripple Effect

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The smell of decaying vegetation caught in John's throat, making him gag as they came through the 'gate to P4J-958. He'd known from the information sent back by the MALP the planet wasn't going to be a lush paradise. The reality, however, was worse than the images had led him to believe. After the noxious smell, his first impression as he stepped away from the 'gate, was an overwhelming sense of grey. Thick, grey clouds looming overhead promised rain and clumps of grey-green grass sprouted from the pearly grey mud around the 'gate.

The 'gate stood on a small island surrounded by a shallow body of stagnant water, from which John decided most of the smell emanated. Looking across the water, he saw a forest made up of two distinct kinds of trees. The dominant species were tall, palm-looking trees, but a smaller, bushier tree with shiny leaves peppered the forest of palms.

"Remind me to add some sort of olfactory sensor for the MALPs," McKay said from where he stood near the DHD, his voice muffled by his arm covering his nose and mouth.

"You sure there's something on this planet worth finding?" Ronon asked as he surveyed the area around the 'gate with a look of distaste.

Teyla stood at the edge of the water where a line of tumbled stone blocks created a ford across the water. "I believe this was once a bridge," she said as she crouched down near the edge of the water. "It does lend credence to the idea that there was once a thriving civilisation on this world."

Ronon grunted and moved to the other side of the island.

John shook his head and sighed. Even though he, Ronon, and McKay had been back from Earth for almost a week, things were still not all right with his team. The only time he saw all of them together was during breakfast, a tense meal they shared more from habit these last few days than any sense of camaraderie. The rest of the time, McKay hid in his lab, and Teyla taught classes or had meetings with Elizabeth about the state of affairs on the mainland. John wasn't sure what Ronon had been up to since their return, but he'd heard a few rumors from the Marines about the state of the shooting range.

He rubbed his nose and studied the slimy water. He wasn't completely blameless, either, he knew. He'd used the excuse of catching up on paperwork or meetings with Lorne as a reason to cut short any chance encounter he had with McKay. McKay, for his part, accepted the excuses with little complaint, but John hadn't missed the forlorn expression on his face as he stepped back and let John walk away.

When Elizabeth had mentioned the mission to P4J-958, John had volunteered his team to check out the planet. It had seemed like a simple enough mission. P4J-958 was deserted, entirely culled a long time ago. However, several different reports from the science teams researching the planet in the Ancient database showed there might be something useful in the ruins.

He had hoped the routine of a mission would help all of them find their footing with each other again, but so far, he wasn't having much luck. Dex and Teyla still warily tip-toed around each other while McKay was almost diffident when he offered an opinion if he bothered to offer one at all.

Maybe getting back into the field so soon after Doranda and Belkan wasn't such a good idea, after all, he thought to himself with a frown.

He glanced out at the grey trees and remembered his plan to take the team camping on the mainland soon after Ronon had officially joined the team, to welcome Dex to the team and to do a little team building. He glanced from Teyla near the water to McKay still standing near the 'gate, to Ronon a few feet away from him.

Camping may have been the better choice, John, he chastised himself with another look at the desolate landscape around them.

McKay dropped his arm away from his face and turned to Ronon. "According to Zelenka, one of the botany teams stumbled across some research while we were gone." He gave John a furtive look. "According to what the botanists found in the database, the people living here had found some sort of weapon they used against the Wraith." He grimaced as he looked around. "Radek didn't mention anything about the smell, though."

"I have never heard of anyone successfully repelling a Wraith culling," Teyla said. "Could it be possible?"

McKay shrugged. "The Ancients thought it was at least worth investigating. They sent someone here to find out more. Too bad they didn't bother to record whatever it was they found."

Ronon turned from his study of the forest on the other side of the water. "So where are these people now?"

"If the Wraith learnt of this weapon, they would have certainly taken steps to prevent its use," Teyla replied and pointed at the tumbled stones in the water. "I am not sure there will be much left to find."

"We aren't going to find anything staying here," John told them. "McKay, which way to this village?"

McKay looked out at the trees, then turned in a slow circle. "Umm, the data Zelenka found said the village was a few kilometers south of the stargate."

Ronon pointed to the trees on the other side of the ford. "That way," he said and brushed past Teyla as he started across the shallow ford. Even with the rocks, the water still rose past Ronon's ankles and, if anything, the water smelt worse once it was disturbed by Ronon crossing.

John waited until Dex was across, nodded to Teyla to follow him, then waited for McKay to fall in behind her.

McKay stopped at the edge of the water, and John saw his face screw up in distaste as the slimy water ran over his boots. He took a deep breath and started across. John was a few steps behind him when one of the stones must have shifted, and McKay flailed his arms in a desperate attempt to keep from falling.

John grabbed McKay's arm, preventing a fall into the smelly water, and kept his hold on McKay until they were both across.

"Umm, thanks," McKay mumbled as John let go.

"No problem," John replied and turned to Ronon. "Lead the way. I've got our six."

Ronon led the way into the forest, McKay a few steps behind him, one eye on the scanner in his hand.

John fell into step next to Teyla as they walked through the woods. Now that he was closer, he noticed the taller trees looked like a cross between a palm tree and something out of Doctor Seuss. The trunks were tall and straight and a sort of brownish-grey color. A feathery poof of frond-like leaves sprouted from the very top of each tree. Protruding out from the trunk at regular intervals were spines, thick at the base sharpening to needle-sharp points at the tip. Sprinkled in amongst the weird palm trees, were the smaller trees, and John could see what looked like tiny apples peeking from between the leaves.

He reached forward to pick one of the tiny fruits but grabbed Teyla's arm instead when she slid on the muddy ground.

"Thank you, Colonel," Teyla said with a smile.

John nodded. "How are you doing?" he asked with a glance at her leg.

"I am well," she replied. "Doctor Beckett said the wound healed well and there should be no long-term complications."

John looked up at the looming grey clouds overhead. "I'm sorry we weren't there to help. You do know I didn't mean to abandon you like that, right?"

Teyla smiled. "There is no need to apologise, Colonel. Rodney was in trouble. You were needed more on your homeworld."

"Still, I'm sorry we weren't here to help while you recovered."

"I was fine," she reassured him. "Between Doctor Beckett and several of my people on the mainland, I was well looked after."

John nodded absently, and they walked in silence for a few minutes. He was about to ask Teyla about the Athosians on the mainland when he heard a commotion in front of them.

"Ow!" McKay exclaimed. "Just what I need, to be skewered on a deserted planet by mutant palm trees."

John and Teyla exchanged a look before hurrying forward to where McKay stood next to one of the Seussian palm trees, rubbing his arm.

"Told you to watch where you were going," Ronon said as he walked back to McKay.

McKay shifted to glare at Dex. "Thank you so much for that." He pulled at the tear in his jacket sleeve. "This planet just keeps getting better and better," he groused as he checked his arm. "Just my luck those spikes are probably poisonous."

John glanced from the scrap of grey cloth still snagged on one of the needle-like spines to McKay's arm. A thin line of blood showed where the tree had managed to slice more than just material. The injury, however, was little more than a scratch, and John shook his head. "I think you'll live," he said, and motioned Ronon to move out.

McKay made a face, rubbed at the scratched skin, and followed as Dex set off into the forest. John hid a smile when he saw McKay give the palm tree a wide berth and he put the scanner away before he followed behind Ronon.

"Is everything all right between you and Doctor McKay?" Teyla asked after they'd been walking for a few minutes.

John pursed his lips. "I could ask the same thing about you and Dex." John saw the denial poised on her lips and shook his head. "I had an interesting conversation with Ronon while we were back on Earth. It seems that trade excursion to Belkan last month was a little more exciting than you let on."

"Colonel --" she started to say, but John stopped her.

"I've already had this conversation with Dex," he said in a low voice and glanced ahead to where Ronon and McKay walked several feet in front of them. "I don't appreciate members of my team keeping things like that from me. The four of us can't afford secrets like that. Not if we all want to stay alive out here."

Teyla studied his face for a moment. "I admit I was unsure how you would react to the news Ronon had killed a man in cold blood."

John adjusted the strap for the P-90 clipped to his vest. "I wasn't thrilled when I found out what he'd done, but I do understand why he did what he did." He gave her a measured look. "What about the rest?"

"Rest?"

"The part where he used you and your connections to get Kell to that meeting."

Teyla looked away. "It has been a month," she said a moment later. "I thought I had let the matter go while you were all on Earth." She looked from Ronon's back to John. "However, that may not entirely be the case."

John could understand the hesitation. While he and McKay had talked, on Earth and on board the Daedalus, there was still a wall between them. The natural, comfortable relationship they'd had before Doranda was still missing.

"You going to be all right?" he asked with a glance at Teyla. He noticed Ronon watching them from the corner of his eye and could have kicked himself for forgetting how sharp Dex's hearing was.

Teyla sighed, then nodded. "I will be fine," she assured him.

John nodded and let the matter drop for now. He looked at Ronon still watching Teyla and hoped Dex understood he needed to do or say something to her, sooner rather than later.

He opened his mouth to ask McKay how much farther it was to the village they were looking for when Teyla gave him a pointed look and said, "Do not think I did not notice how you did not answer me."

John tried to look innocent, but it was obvious Teyla wasn't buying the act. "Were you and Rodney able to talk while you were on Earth?" she asked.

"We talked," he admitted with a glance at McKay who, unlike Ronon, was oblivious to the discussion going on behind him. "He understands a few things now."

Teyla nodded. "And you?"

John shrugged. "I've forgiven him for what happened. The rest," he adjusted the P-90, "we'll see." He felt Teyla watching him and tried to ignore the scrutiny as he studied the sky through the canopy of trees.

"There is something I believe you should know," she said and paused.

John gave her a puzzled look.

"Doctor Beckett and I took a jumper to the mainland the day after your return from Doranda. I asked Rodney at the time if he would like to join us. To get away from the city for a few hours."

"To get away from me, you mean," John said.

"Perhaps," Teyla replied without hesitation. "However, the important thing is, he refused. He told me he had made a promise to you not to run away if the pair of you had another disagreement" She laid a hand on his arm. "He had every intention of keeping that promise to you."

John pursed his lips and glanced up at the looming clouds. The summons back to Earth had been beyond McKay's control, he knew that, but it was nice to know he had tried to keep his word.

"I thought you should know," Teyla said and let go of his arm.

"Thanks," John told her with a smile.

"You are welcome." She nodded to McKay's back. "How is Rodney doing after everything that happened to him on Earth?"

"He's fine, I guess," John replied. "His wrists were pretty much healed before we left on the Daedalus to come back."

John watched as Teyla started to say something, apparently changed her mind, and finally said, "And there has been no news on the whereabouts of this Alex Vance?"

John shook his head. "Elizabeth talked to General Landry yesterday when we dialled Earth for the weekly check-in. He promised to keep people on the search, but for now," he glanced out at the trees, "Vance is in the wind."

Teyla tapped his arm. "He cannot hurt either of you now that you have returned to Atlantis," she reminded him.

John grunted but said nothing.

There had been more than a few nightmares over the last few weeks in which he did not find McKay in time. In the dreams, he was back in Afghanistan, back in that village, and the limp body tied to a chair wasn't his missing informant, Naseer, but McKay with his throat slit. Or he dreamt he and Ronon found the mine. He could hear McKay calling for help, but before he could reach the building, Vance would appear. He would grin, hold up a detonator, and push a button, blowing up the building and McKay.

Every time he had one of the dreams, he had to remind himself McKay was fine, that he was just down the hall, asleep. That Vance had lost. He glanced at McKay's back and suspected he was having his share of bad dreams as well, but so far he hadn't mentioned anything to John about them.

"His plan almost worked," he said, more to himself than Teyla.

"But it did not," she reminded him. "Rodney is safe. You found him in time."

John looked over at her. "This time. I've already told Elizabeth if McKay makes any more trips to Earth, he's going with an armed escort. That's twice now he's been in danger while on a supposedly safe planet."

Teyla smiled and said nothing.

"We're here," Ronon announced, and John followed the others into a small clearing.

There weren't as many of the palm trees in this part of the forest, the large, leafy trees surrounded the clearing and stood tall enough to hide several tumbled down buildings built near the edges of the woods.

John grimaced as he studied the ruins.

"Lovely," McKay said from where he stood a few paces away. "If there was anything to this so-called weapon, any information is long gone now."

John couldn't really disagree. "We'll take a look around anyway, just to be sure."

McKay started to say something, clamped his mouth shut instead, and moved around the clearing to the nearest building.

John frowned. This wasn't the first time since their return that McKay had stopped himself from disagreeing with something John said and it was beginning to annoy him. One of the things he valued most about McKay was that he wasn't afraid to speak up when he had an opinion on something.

"Stay with him," he muttered to Teyla, then walked over to another of the ramshackle buildings with Ronon beside him.

The building, like the rest of the small village, had been made of stone, which was probably the only reason there was anything left to find at all. The roof was gone, and one of the walls had tumbled into the rest of the house sometime in the past.

John ducked low as he stepped inside and looked around. The room he was in led into two others, one that looked like it might have been a bedroom and the other held a sturdy table and some broken dishes. He was poking through the pile of broken crockery when he heard Dex outside.

"Sheppard," Ronon called through the door. "You need to see this."

"What did you find?" he asked as he stepped outside and found Dex crouched on the ground near the back of the house. "Wow," he added as he knelt down beside Ronon and stared at the large animal print in the mud.

He placed his hand inside the large four-toed print in front of him. "I guess now we know why the trees have those spines."

Ronon pointed out the other three prints on the ground closer to the trees. "Prints aren't that old," he said. "An hour, two at the most."

John gauged the distance between each of the prints and estimated whatever had made them had to stand at least five feet tall at the shoulder, maybe more.

"Don't suppose it eats plants?" John asked with a wry twist of his lips as he did a quick survey of the surrounding trees.

"Doubt it. See those." Ronon pointed to the small divots in the ground in front of each toe print. "Claws."

"Colonel?" Teyla asked, and John looked up to see her walking out of another of the buildings. "Is there something the matter?"

John wiped his hand on his trousers and stood. "Not sure. Ronon found some animal tracks. Whatever it is, it's pretty big."

"It's probably living in the ruins," Ronon added as he stood. "We need to leave before it comes back."

"Where's McKay?" John asked, surprised he wasn't with Teyla.

"He is in the large central building," Teyla replied. She pointed to a large structure at the edge of the trees that was in slightly better shape than the rest of the village. "He found a few books in one of the rooms, and was looking for more when I heard Ronon calling you."

"I'll go get him. You two, stay here and keep an eye out for whatever made those prints."

John found McKay in the back of the large building, crouched on the floor, sorting through broken equipment. A few tattered books sat on the end of a table in the middle of the room.

"Find anything interesting?" John asked as he stopped at the end of the table.

Mckay looked up and jerked his chin toward the books. "There might be something in those," he replied. "I'm still looking for anything that might be a weapon."

"The books are going to have to be enough for this trip. We need to go."

"What? Why?" he asked with the first glimmer of his usual attitude that John had seen in days. "We just got here. If you want me to find anything useful, I need more time."

John picked up the books and held them out for McKay to take. "Ronon found some animal tracks behind one of the other houses."

McKay stood with a huff of impatience. "I'm sure there are any number of animals living in these woods."

"Well, this one is huge, and Ronon thinks it's living in one of these buildings. We need to go. Now. Before it comes back."

"Sheppard," Ronon called over the radio. "It's here. We need to move."

John shoved the books into McKay's arms and tapped his radio. "We're coming. Where is it?"

"Still in the trees," Dex replied. "I don't think it's caught our scent yet."

"Can we get back to the 'gate?" John asked with a glance at McKay busy stuffing the books in his pack.

John waited until McKay had the pack clipped to his vest, then led the way back outside. Ronon and Teyla stood a few feet away, their weapons pointed at the trees behind the buildings to John's left.

"It knows something is in its lair," Ronon hissed as he backed across the clearing in the direction of the stargate.

"What is it?" McKay asked, and John heard the note of fear in his voice.

"Looked like a type of cave bear," Dex replied.

"You're kidding," McKay said.

"Cave bears are common on several worlds," Teyla told him. "They are dangerous predators."

Ronon looked back at them with a glare. "We need to get into the trees. Before we're cut off from the stargate."

John nodded. "Ronon take point. Get us back by the fastest route." He pushed McKay in front of him and nodded to Teyla. "I've got our six. Go."

Teyla nodded back and followed McKay and Dex back into the trees at the edge of the clearing. John waited until she was several steps ahead of him, then turned back to check the clearing. Something that vaguely resembled a bear, if bears stood six feet at the shoulder, had saber-toothed canines, and claws on the end of each toe, lumbered into the clearing and stopped near one of the smaller buildings.

John ducked behind one of the palm trees, wincing as the spines poked through his jacket and into his skin. He watched as the cave bear pawed at the ground then jerked its head up and down as it scented the air. The animal turned in his direction and John was up and moving even as he felt the ground shake as the bear caught their scent and gave chase.

It didn't take him long to catch up to Teyla and McKay ahead of him on the trail. He wasn't sure where Ronon was.

"It has our scent," John said. He gave McKay a shove to get him moving faster and turned back with the P-90 raised.

The bear was closer than he expected, and John fired several rounds at it, hitting it more than once, he was sure. The bear stopped for a moment, and John suspected it was startled by the noise more than it was injured by any of the bullets hitting it. It tossed its head back and forth and started after them again. The delay had bought the rest of his team a few precious seconds, but not much more than that.

John turned and ran.

He heard the snuffling, grunting breathing behind him as the bear closed the distance, and ran faster, ignoring the sharp spikes from the palm trees tearing at his uniform. He knew the bear was almost on top of him and was looking for a place where he could stop and try shooting it again when he saw Ronon in front of him, his particle gun raised. He ducked out of the way just as Dex fired at the bear a few steps behind him.

John heard a howl of pain behind him and turned as Ronon took a few steps closer to the bear and fired again.

The bear jerked its head to one side as it stopped short. Ronon raised the particle weapon, but before he could shoot a third time, the bear turned tail and limped back into the trees, bleeding from the shoulder and its paw raised off the ground as it moved.

"Good timing," John panted as Ronon holstered his gun. "Where are the others?"

"Over there," Ronon replied and jerked his chin toward a break in the trees.

John glanced over and saw Teyla standing to one side, her P-90 held low and ready. McKay stood bent double with his left hand braced on the trunk of one of the smaller, bushier trees as he tried to catch his breath. John noticed their uniforms were torn in several places as he fingered the hole in the sleeve of his jacket.

"Everyone all right?" John called as he followed Ronon into the small clearing.

Teyla examined one of the tears in her jacket sleeve and nodded.

"McKay?" John asked.

"Umm, fine," McKay replied and stood up straight. He looked down at the milky sap covering the palm of his hand and made a face as he tried to scrub the sap off on the leg of his trousers.

John ignored the disgusted expression and turned back to Ronon. "I'm surprised you weren't able to kill that thing."

Ronon shrugged, broke off one of the spikes from a nearby palm tree, and held it up. "Tough hide." He dropped the spine. "The bear was headed back in the direction of the village. No point in trying to go back."

John nodded. "Agreed. I think we've all had more than enough of this particular planet. Time to head home."

Ronon took the lead, and John made one last survey of the surrounding forest before he hurried to catch up with McKay lagging behind Teyla, scrubbing his hand against the leg of his trousers and then his jacket as he walked.

"It's just some tree sap, McKay. You can wash it off when we get back."

McKay glared over at him and scrubbed his palm against his leg again. "My hand feels like it's on fire," he retorted.

John had a sarcastic reply on the tip of his tongue when he felt the itch start at the back of his skull and caught a glimpse of McKay's red and swollen hand.

"All right, that's more than simple tree sap," he agreed. He reached out to turn McKay's hand over, but he jerked back out of John's reach.

"Don't," he said and cradled his hand against his chest. "Trust me, you don't want any of this on you."

"Show me," he ordered with a nod at McKay's hand.

McKay hesitated a moment longer, then held out his hand.

John winced in sympathy when he saw the extent of the damage. The palm of McKay's hand from the second knuckle of his fingers down to his wrist was an angry red with a few blisters starting to form. "We need to get that sap off."

"What do you think I've been trying to do?" McKay retorted, frustration overriding the pain in his tone.

"Colonel?" Teyla said. "Is everything all right?"

John looked up and saw Teyla and Ronon coming back down the trail towards them. "Not really, no."

Teyla glanced from John to McKay and frowned. "Rodney? What happened?"

"The trees on this planet are determined to kill me," McKay ground out. He tried to move his fingers, and John saw him wince and bite his lip.

"How far is it to the 'gate?" John asked, pulling his canteen out of its loop and a roll of gauze out of his vest pocket.

"Not far," Ronon replied. "Maybe a mile or two through those trees."

John nodded. "Teyla, head back to the 'gate. Tell Elizabeth we have a situation and Beckett should be waiting in the gateroom."

Teyla nodded, squeezed McKay's arm, and set off at a run for the stargate.

"All right, let's try and get that sap off," John said to McKay and held up the canteen. "Hold out your hand."

Ronon blocked John's arm as he started to tip the canteen over McKay's hand. "I wouldn't."

"The sap is burning his hand," John pointed to the angry red blotches. "We need to get it off."

"I've heard of something like this before," Ronon replied. "If the sap is from a corpse tree, water could make the burns worse."

"Corpse tree?" McKay squeaked, and pulled his hand back against his chest.

John looked around and pointed to one of the smaller, leafy trees between two of the tall palms. "He was leaning against one of those trees after you shot the cave bear."

"Corpse tree?" McKay said again, louder.

"Never seen the tree. Just heard stories," Ronon replied.

"Why is it called a corpse tree?" McKay demanded.

"You don't want to know," Ronon told him bluntly and focused on John. "Trust me, water will make the burns worse."

John glanced from the canteen to McKay. "Okay, I'll wrap it for now and let Beckett decide what to do once we get back."

"Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla called over the radio. "I am at the stargate. Doctor Beckett is standing by in the gateroom."

John tapped his earpiece. "Copy that, Teyla. Head back. We'll be there as soon as possible."

"Understood."

John tapped off the radio and held up the roll of gauze. He tried to be gentle but heard more than a few hisses from McKay as he wrapped the bandage around his hand, leaving only the tips of his fingers exposed.

"All right, that should hold until we can get you to Beckett," he said a few minutes later as he tied off the bandage.

McKay cradled his hand against his chest. "Thanks."

John nodded and turned to Ronon. "Let's go."

Ronon set a quick pace back to the island. John stayed next to McKay, keeping one eye on Ronon's leather duster ahead of them and the other on McKay stumbling along beside him.

"At least it's my left hand," McKay said as they followed Ronon back through the gloom. "Not that I don't need my left hand, but at least it's not my right."

John made a noncommittal grunt. Something cracked in the forest to their right, and John paused, the P-90 raised as he studied the forest intently. The last thing they needed was another animal finding them.

"What?" McKay hissed from beside him.

John waited a few more seconds, then lowered the rifle.

"Nothing," he replied and started walking again. He looked back and saw McKay staring at the trees. "Come on. Beckett's waiting. We need to get back to the 'gate."

"Yes, yes, coming." He gave the trees one last suspicious glance before falling into step next to John.

"Still, this is going to make doing any real work a problem," McKay continued, a few minutes later. "Typing won't be easy. I hate the hunt and peck method. Takes too long."

"Hmm," was John's only reply to the nervous chatter.

"And then there are the repairs waiting to be done to the ventilation systems along the North pier," McKay added as they came out of the trees. "No idea how I'm going to get that work done with one hand bandaged."

John saw the stargate on the other side of the stagnant water and breathed a sigh of relief. The itch told him McKay was in more pain than he was letting on, and the stream-of-conscious talking told John he was also afraid. The sooner he had McKay back to Beckett, the happier they would both be.

He led the way across the shallow ford, keeping one hand on McKay's right arm, as what light that managed to penetrate the thick clouds started to fade and stopped in front of the DHD. John punched in the address and sent his IDC as soon as the wormhole formed. When he received clearance the shield was down, he waved Ronon through the 'gate and waited for McKay to follow Dex.

John was at the edge of the event horizon when the promised rain started to fall. He brushed the water out of his hair and stepped into the shimmering pool. As far as he was concerned, there was no reason for anyone to come back to P4J-958 any time soon.

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

Rodney sat on the edge of the infirmary bed wearing a set of scrubs, as Carson gently unwrapped the bandage on his hand. He saw Beckett frown when the last of the gauze was removed, glanced down at his hand, and swallowed when he saw the extent of the damage.

Large blisters covered his palm and the lower joints of his fingers, the skin around the blisters was pale, and he couldn't uncurl his fingers. Looking at the blisters, he thought his hand should hurt much more than it actually did and felt his breathing hitch at what the lack of pain could mean.

"Sharon, I need the distilled water, please," Carson said calmly as he examined Rodney's hand.

"No!" Rodney exclaimed and tried to jerk his hand out of Beckett's grasp.

"Rodney, calm --" Carson started to say, but Rodney talked over him.

"Ronon said water would make it worse." He tried to pull his hand free again, and this time Carson let him go.

"All right, lad, calm down," he said and turned to Sharon. "Send one of the techs to the mess hall. I need a few bottles of vinegar."

Sharon nodded and disappeared.

"You're kidding, right?" Rodney said with a glare and hid his hand against his chest.

"Stop that," Carson admonished and rested the hand back on the table between them. "I've already told David to burn your uniform. Don't go getting any of that tree sap on anything else."

"I always suspected medicine was a weak science," he muttered under his breath.

Carson rolled his eyes. "If Ronon is correct, and water reacts badly with whatever is in that sap, then vinegar is the next best thing for getting any last remnants off your skin."

Rodney shook his head and tried to not look at the blisters or his fingers curled into his palm.

Carson picked up a specimen jar and a pair of tweezers. "Now just hold still, for a moment. I need to get some samples to analyse. The more I can find out, the better we can treat these burns."

Rodney forced himself not to flinch as Beckett collected samples of the sticky sap around the edges of one of the blisters and capped the jar.

Sharon came back into the room a moment later carrying two bottles of vinegar.

"Thank you, Sharon," Carson said with a tight smile. She set the bottles on the table along with a large metal basin. Carson picked up one of the bottles and handed her the specimen jar. "Get this over to the lab for analysis. Let's find out what we're dealing with."

"Right away, Doctor Beckett," Sharon said and left their corner of the room again.

"All right, Rodney, let's see about getting the rest of that sap off."

Rodney sucked in a breath and braced himself for the pain.

Carson waited a moment, then held Rodney's hand over the basin and slowly poured the vinegar over his palm.

Rodney had expected the vinegar to sting and relaxed when he didn't feel much of anything as Carson emptied the bottle. "I'm going to smell like a salad for the rest of the day," he groused as Beckett emptied the basin in a nearby sink. He checked Rodney's hand, frowned slightly, and poured the second bottle of vinegar over the burns.

Carson ignored him, set the second empty bottle to one side, and examined Rodney's hand again. "I don't see any more of the sap," he reported. "I think the vinegar did the job."

"You think?"

Carson gave him a long-suffering look. "Close your eyes."

Rodney stared at him for a moment longer, then closed his eyes.

"Tell me when you feel something."

Rodney waited several seconds, then said, "Well?" He opened his eyes and glared at Beckett. "Are you going to do anything or not?"

"I already did," Carson told him, his tone serious. "Can you unbend your fingers?"

Rodney focused on the wall behind Carson's head and felt the fear rising in his chest. He bit his lip and felt his heart rate speed up when he couldn't move his fingers more than a few millimeters.

"Don't force it, lad," Carson said softly. "You'll only make it worse."

Rodney swallowed and squeezed his eyes shut. He hadn't felt anything when Carson cleaned his hand or when Beckett touched his palm, and he couldn't move his fingers. He'd suspected the burns were bad back on the planet, but this was worse than he thought.

Rodney tried to poke one of the blisters on his palm, but Carson stopped him with a gentle hand on his wrist. "Don't," Beckett told him. "You don't want any of those blisters breaking."

Rodney pulled out of Beckett's grip and tried to unbend his fingers again. He looked up, not bothering to hide the fear in his eyes. "Carson?" he whispered.

"I don't know, lad," Carson replied. "The burns are serious. At the very least, you are going to have scars. As for your range of motion, let's give your hand time to heal first. Then we'll have a better idea of what to do next."

Beckett opened a roll of gauze and started to wrap Rodney's hand. "You need to be careful. As I said, you don't want to do anything that will break any of the blisters," he said as he covered the burns, leaving just the tips of Rodney's curled fingers exposed. "You don't want an infection on top of everything else."

Carson finished taping the bandage in place and sat back. "As your hand starts to heal, it's going to hurt. I'll give you some stronger ibuprofen to take with you." He stood and glanced out into the main infirmary. "It looks like Colonel Sheppard and the others were already released. I'll call John and have him bring you some clothes."

Rodney was only listening with half an ear as Carson spoke. He tried to flex the tips of his fingers as his mind was consumed with figuring out how he was going to do his job and stay on the team if his hand didn't heal. A month ago, he never would have questioned his future. Since Doranda, however, Rodney didn't really know where he stood with Sheppard.

John had said they would continue to work together as they tried to sort everything out, but Rodney wasn't sure how well that was working. Sheppard hadn't been down to the lab at all since their return from Earth. And the one time Rodney had sought him out, John had claimed he needed to run a training session for the new Marines and had disappeared after a few minutes. The mission to P4J-958 was the first time he'd seen Sheppard for longer than an awkward meal in the morning.

"Everything will be fine," Carson said and patted Rodney's shoulder. "You'll see."

"Right," he muttered and wrapped his arms around his chest.

Beckett pursed his lips. "Once Colonel Sheppard gets here, you can leave."

Rodney gave him an absent nod. Maybe the best course was to just not say anything to Sheppard. If John didn't know how bad the burns were, he'd have no reason to remove him from the team.

He looked up when he heard the door to the infirmary open a few minutes later, and Sheppard entered, carrying a clean uniform.

"How's your hand?" he asked as he set the clothes on the end of the bed.

Rodney gave him a tight smile. "Carson told me to be careful and try not to break any of the blisters."

Not a lie, he told himself when John gave him an odd look. "What about you?" he asked and pointed to Sheppard's arm.

John glanced down at the red marks on his arm and shrugged. "Nothing serious. Mostly scratches, a few cuts."

Rodney nodded. "And the others?"

"Teyla looks about the same." John smiled slightly. "Funny thing, Ronon is fine. Maybe I should talk to Elizabeth about requisitioning leather jackets for all off-world teams."

Rodney quirked his lips and looked down at his hand.

John stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets. "You sure you're all right?" he asked.

Rodney glanced up and nodded. "I'll be fine," he replied, picked up the clothes in his right hand, and went behind a curtain in the corner to change.

Chapter Text

Rodney walked down the hall, reading a report on the tablet in his hand, and muttering to himself. He'd only been gone a little over a month, and in that time the science division had utterly fallen apart. He ignored the scientists and Marines around him as he tapped out notes on the computer telling Zelenka to stop work on the power conduits and send someone down to check the desalination plant.

He turned another corner and only noticed something was wrong when the noise level dropped to silence. Rodney looked up and found himself in a deserted hallway with no memory of how he'd ended up there. He thought he was headed for his lab, but the distraction of the report he'd been reading meant he must have made a wrong turn.

"Pay attention to where you're going next time," he muttered to himself in a voice that sounded remarkably like Sheppard. He turned around, intending to head back to the last branching hallway when he found his way blocked by a tall Marine he didn't recognise.

"Do you mind," he muttered with a glare up at the Marine and tried to move around the human barrier.

The Marine shifted in front of him again, and before Rodney could blink, he was pressed up against the nearest wall with the Marine's arm braced against his throat.

Rodney dropped the tablet and grasped the arm choking him with both hands. "What the --" he wheezed as the Marine bent forward until his face was only a few centimeters from Rodney's.

"Alex Vance sends his regards," the Marine growled and increased the pressure on Rodney's throat, cutting off his air supply.

Black spots encroached on the edges of his vision and Rodney struggled harder. The Marine only laughed at his efforts to free himself and increased the pressure against his throat.

Rodney woke with a start, his heart hammering in his chest as he gasped for air.

"Not again," he muttered to himself as he wiped the sweat off his forehead with the sleeve of his t-shirt. He pushed the restrictive sheet and blanket out of the way and sat on the edge of the bed. His hand throbbed in time with his racing pulse as he sat with his arms wrapped around his chest and tried to get his breathing under control.

He'd had the same dream a few times while on the way back to Pegasus aboard the Daedalus. Luckily, the ship wasn't overloaded with new personnel, and he'd had quarters to himself this trip. No fear of Sheppard finding out about the recurring nightmare, and he hadn't mentioned anything about the bad dreams to John, either during the trip or once they were back in the city. He didn't want to jeopardise the awkward truce between them by bringing up what had happened with Vance.

Rodney felt around the table next to the bed for his watch to check the time before he remembered he'd never replaced it after Bowers had kidnapped him. The pinkish light coming in through the window told him it was still early in the morning, and the clock on his desk confirmed it wasn't much past dawn. He scrubbed his unbandaged hand over his face and sighed.

"No point in trying to go back to sleep now," he muttered, pushed himself to his feet, and went into the bathroom.

After a careful shower, he shaved, dressed, and decided to head for his lab for a few hours before meeting the rest of the team for breakfast. He'd talked to Zelenka a few times while still on Earth, so he knew most of what had gone on while he was away, but he still felt like he needed to catch up on what he'd missed over the last month.

You really need to figure out a way to make that trip shorter, he told himself as he headed for the transporter. Three weeks on the Daedalus was too long. Anything could happen to his city in that time.

Not that he planned to return to Earth any time soon, he told himself as he walked. Anything of interest or importance was here, not there. But if Sheppard or Elizabeth wanted to go back, they needed a better, faster way to get home.

He was so preoccupied with finding a solution to the distance problem, he didn't see the Marine walking down the hall in the opposite direction until it was too late and they collided.

"Sorry, sir," the Marine said, and reached out a hand to keep Rodney from falling.

Rodney fell back a step, wincing as he cradled his hand against his chest.

"Are you all right, sir?" the Marine asked with polite concern.

Rodney gave the young man a wary look even as he waved off the apology. "It's fine," he muttered as he eased out of the Marine's hold on his arm. "Umm, sorry."

He hurried around the corner and tapped the sensor for the transporter.

Logically, he knew there was no way Vance would be able to send someone after him or Sheppard this soon. He had expected the plan at the mine to work, Rodney told himself as he tapped the section of the map for the science labs, there would have been no reason to send someone to Atlantis so soon.

But what about the next batch of new Marines the Daedalus brought out? he thought as he stepped out of the transporter and headed down the hall to his lab. Or the one after that?

Sheppard had told him Vance had managed to escape the FBI cordon in Colorado. Were either of them really safe, even in another galaxy? Based on the recurring nightmare, his subconscious, at least, thought the answer was no.

He let the door to the lab slide closed behind him and sank down in his desk chair. Had Sheppard considered the possibility Vance could send someone to Atlantis? Was Landry or that sergeant, whatshisname, Harrison? Harriman? Were they making sure no one with ties to Vance managed to get assigned to Atlantis?

He swallowed and stared around the room. What about the scientists? he wondered. Sending someone disguised as a member of the science teams made sense. Rodney spent most of his time surrounded by members of the various science teams. There was likely to be less scrutiny of a civilian as well.

Stop it, he ordered himself. Vance was on the run. The last thing he had time for was continuing his vendetta against Sheppard.

Rodney took a deep breath and powered up his computer. He'd catch up on what the science division had been up to for the last month, and then meet the team for breakfast.

Two hours later, he wandered into the mess hall and picked up a tray. He was near the end of the line when he paused at the coffee urns, lost in thought.

"Rodney, do you require assistance?" Teyla asked and stopped at his side.

"Oh, umm, no. No, I've got it," he replied. He quickly filled a cup, set it on the tray, and followed Teyla to their table near the windows.

"How is your hand?" she asked as they started to eat.

Rodney shrugged. Carson had been right, his hand was hurting more this morning, which he hoped was a good sign in the long run. He still couldn't move his fingers, however.

"It hurts," he admitted and nodded to Ronon as he sat down next to him. Sheppard took the seat across from him, next to Teyla.

"Anything of interest in the books you brought back from P4J-958?" Sheppard asked after they'd been eating for a few minutes.

"No idea. I handed them off to Chaudhri and the translation team." Rodney shrugged and ate a few bites of egg. "With the books we brought back from the archive on Mendar, they have their hands full. Might be a while before they can get to them."

John gave him a non-committal grunt and drank some of his coffee.

Rodney glanced over at Sheppard, then down at his plate, and finished his eggs.

As the awkward silence grew, Teyla sipped her tea and glanced first at Rodney then at Sheppard. "Have you spoken to Doctor Weir about the trip to Lurra?" she asked John.

Sheppard shook his head and glanced at McKay. "Not yet. Was going to do that after breakfast."

"What's this?" Rodney asked, looking from Teyla and John.

"Sergeant Thompson and Halling recently met Prin while on a trade mission. While we were in the infirmary yesterday, I mentioned to Colonel Sheppard that Prin asked again if we would be interested in visiting Lurra now that it is summer on the planet." She set down her teacup. "Many of the Lurrans will have goods available for trade."

Rodney sat up and gave Sheppard a hopeful look. "Maybe search for that Zed-PM that's supposed to be there?" he added.

"And he makes fun of me whenever anyone mentions Ancient weapons," John said with a grin.

"This is different," Rodney retorted. "Think of what I … we," he quickly amended, "could do with a second Zed-PM."

Ronon swallowed a bite of pancake. "We have one. Why do we need another?"

Rodney gave him an impatient glare. "Atlantis was designed to use multiple Zed-PMs. Yes, one is nice and keeps the lights on, but with another one …" He shook his head. "We can never have too much power," he finished and drank some of his coffee.

"Before you start planning upgrades," John said, "I still need to talk to Elizabeth. It may not be an easy sell for her. She doesn't want anyone to know the city survived, remember?"

Rodney waved his injured hand to one side. When he saw Sheppard eyeing the bandage, he hid his hand under the table. "What can be so hard to explain. More power, less chance of the Wraith destroying the city if they find out we're still here."

"That's the problem," John replied. "How are we supposed to explain to the Lurrans why we need the ZPM if the city was destroyed by the Wraith?"

Rodney opened his mouth, but he didn't have a good answer and snapped it shut.

"Exactly," John said.

"We'll think of something," Rodney said with a shrug. "We could really use that Zed-PM."

"We could tell Yev the truth," Teyla suggested.

John finished his coffee and stood. "Maybe. I'll go talk to Elizabeth. I'll let you know if we have a go for the mission."

"I will be in one of the workout rooms. I promised Sergeant Stephens I would meet with him to practice his stick forms."

"Ronon," John said as he picked up his tray. "McKay. See you later."

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

John strolled through the control room on the way to Elizabeth's glassed-in office and tapped on her door.

"John, come in," Elizabeth invited with a smile. "What's on your mind?" she added as John sat in one of the chairs in front of her desk.

"I assume you heard about Thompson and Halling meeting one of the Lurrans a few weeks ago?"

Elizabeth nodded and closed her laptop. "I did. Sergeant Thompson mentioned something about a trade for food."

John leant back in his chair. "There's something else worth checking out on Lurra."

"You mean the ZPM the other Elizabeth told us about."

"We never did get a chance to look for it," John pointed out. "There's no reason to think the ZPM isn't still there."

"And how do we explain wanting to look for it?" Elizabeth asked with a frown. "As far as the Pegasus galaxy is concerned, everyone has to believe Atlantis was destroyed."

John leant forward with his arms braced on his knees. "We've found any number of abandoned outposts and research stations in the last year. We can tell the Lurrans we relocated to one and need the ZPM to power it."

Elizabeth pursed her lips and gave John a sideways glance. "Your team just got back from a mission yesterday, Colonel. Why the rush to go back to Lurra?"

John sighed and stared at the bowl at the end of the desk. How did he explain this? he wondered. If he said too much, Elizabeth could ground the team. If he said too little, she wouldn't understand why he was concerned.

"John? Is everything all right?"

John sat up straight in his chair and took a deep breath. "No, not really."

"I see."

"The team is … off," he tried to explain.

"Off? How?"

John scrubbed a hand over his chin. "We're just not all on the same page," he finally said. "McKay's hand aside, we got lucky on this last mission. Lurra is a safe planet. We know the people there. We just need a chance to figure out how to work together again."

"Team building, you mean." Elizabeth cocked her head and smiled.

John chuckled. "Just don't use that term around McKay. It's a good plan. We do a little exploring, a little trading, maybe find another ZPM to power the city." He gave Elizabeth a serious look. "And, hopefully, we get our rhythm back at the same time."

Elizabeth started to say something in reply when she looked up, and her expression changed from teasing to concerned. John turned around and saw Beckett standing in the doorway. It was clear from Carson's stiff posture and the way he gripped the file folder in his hand that whatever news he had was serious.

"Sorry to interrupt, but I think you both need to hear this," Beckett said and held up the file folder.

"Carson? What's wrong?" Elizabeth asked and waved at the chair next to John.

"We finished the analysis of the sap Rodney encountered yesterday," Beckett replied and passed over the folder. "In amongst the minerals and sugars we'd expect to find, there was also a strong alkali compound. Rodney is lucky the burns on his hand weren't worse." He turned to John and added, "He told me Ronon warned you not to flush out the burns using water."

John nodded.

"He was right. If you had, there's a good chance he would have lost complete use of his hand." Carson looked down at his hands. "The burns did enough damage as it is."

John sat forward in his chair with a frown. "Wait. What do you mean?"

Carson glanced at John and pursed his lips. "I thought Rodney would have told you …"

"Told me what exactly?" John asked, his tone serious.

"Carson?" Elizabeth added, looking up from the report in her hand.

Beckett sighed. "The burns are bad," he finally said. He looked from Elizabeth to John and added, "He will most likely have scars across his palm and fingers."

John studied Carson's expression and stiff posture and knew there was more to it than just a few scars. "What else?"

Carson glanced at John and hesitated. "As of right now, he can't really move his fingers."

John heard Elizabeth hiss in a breath.

"Now, part of that may simply be the current trauma," he hurried to add.

"But you think it's more than that," John said.

Beckett nodded. "We'll know more once the burns have healed, but as it stands, Rodney will likely lose some significant range of motion in his fingers."

John pinched the bridge of his nose. Damn it, Rodney. Why didn't you say anything about this? he asked though he suspected he knew the answer. Just one more example of McKay pulling away since the Doranda mess.

"You didn't know?" Elizabeth asked, concern lacing her tone.

John dropped his hand and shook his head. "All he told me was that he needed to be careful of infection," he growled.

"John …" Elizabeth started to say as John stood and paced the area between the desk and the door.

Beckett glanced at the open door. "What is the link telling you?" he asked in a near whisper.

"Nothing," John said then paused. "No, that's not right. The itch is there, but it's been there since yesterday." He stopped and stood with his arms crossed over his chest. "I just want to know why he didn't tell me the truth," he muttered more to himself than to Elizabeth or Carson.

"My guess is, he's afraid," Carson said softly. "Afraid he won't be part of your team any longer if the paralysis is permanent."

John grasped the back of his chair and ducked his head. He took a breath, then looked up at Elizabeth. "This is why we need to go to Lurra. Trade and ZPMs aside, we need to figure out how to work with each other again."

Elizabeth turned to Beckett. "Is there any medical reason to keep Rodney in Atlantis?"

Carson thought for a moment, then shook his head. "He does need to be careful." He glanced at John. "If any of those blisters were to break, an infection is a serious concern. Garen will know what to do, though, if anything should happen."

"Garen?" Elizabeth asked.

"Their healer," Carson told her. "He and his wife were invaluable when we were there last winter," he added with a nod at John.

Elizabeth clasped her hands together on the desk. "All right, Colonel. You have a go to return to Lurra."

John stood straight. "Thank you."

Elizabeth nodded. "Just be careful."

"Trust me," John replied.

"Not just for your own safety, Colonel," Elizabeth admonished. "For the safety of this base and the people here, the Lurrans can't find out about Atlantis."

John nodded. "Understood."

Elizabeth sat back in her chair. "You can leave this afternoon."

John nodded and left the office. He caught up with Carson in the hallway leading away from the control room.

"You're sure it's all right for McKay to leave the city?" he asked with a glance at a pair of Marines walking down the hall in the opposite direction.

Beckett studied his face for a moment, then nodded. "He wasn't lying when he said he needed to be careful of infection. But as long as he's careful, and keeps the dressings clean, there shouldn't be anything to worry about."

John pursed his lips. "He just forgot to mention everything else."

"Yes, well, I get the impression he's not too sure of a few things at the moment."

Carson waited a beat then started down a different hallway, but John stopped him with a hand on his arm. "I'm not going to leave him to deal with this alone," he vowed.

"I know you won't, John," Beckett replied with a tight smile. "But you need to make sure Rodney knows that too."

John watched him turn the corner and tapped his radio as he walked toward his office. "Sheppard to McKay."

There was a pause and then, "McKay here."

"Elizabeth signed off on a return trip to Lurra. Do you still have that program you wrote to find the ZPM using its mineral content?"

"Umm, no. The scanners have limited memory. I offloaded the program once we were back to free up space on the scanner."

"Can't you just put it back?" John frowned when, after several seconds, McKay didn't answer.

"McKay?"

"It was on my … it was on the computer Grodin built for me last year. The one that went out the window when that Wraith grenade exploded."

"Oh."

John heard a soft sigh over the radio.

"Give me some time. I can have it rebuilt in a few hours," McKay offered.

John rubbed his head against the building headache from the link. He remembered the comment about hunt and peck typing and wondered how McKay was going to manage with his hand bandaged. Maybe if Zelenka did the typing while Rodney dictated the code …

"See if Radek can help," he suggested.

"I don't need --"

"McKay," John interrupted. "Get Zelenka to help you."

"Fine," McKay huffed over the radio.

"And McKay?" he added.

"What?" McKay growled back.

John heard the pain underlying the brusque response. "Take your pain meds," he told him kindly.

Another long pause over the radio, then. "Oh. Umm, right."

"We'll leave for Lurra once you and Zelenka have the program done," John told him.

"Yes, yes, fine," McKay replied, and the radio clicked as he cut the connection.

John continued down the hall to his office, shaking his head. First, McKay conveniently forgot to tell him how serious his hand was. Now, he was refusing to get help from Radek when he needed it. He was backsliding into old habits, habits John had thought they'd put behind them over the last year and a half.

That was until Doranda.

"You asked me to trust you, and I did. And we both know what happened. It's going to take some time before I'm ready to take that chance again," he remembered telling McKay on the Daedalus.

Part of the problem was, neither of them knew what to do next, how to rebuild that lost trust.

His father hadn't been happy with his decision to go to Stanford instead of Harvard. The last straw, however, had been when he'd decided to major in aerospace engineering instead of business and joined the Air Force. John had been prepared for his father's reaction, if he were honest with himself, he had even relished it.

What he hadn't expected was David siding with their father. He had accused John of running away, abandoning his responsibilities to the family in order to indulge his personal whim of flying airplanes. John had been shocked, to say the least. David had always acted as though he was on John's side when he fought with their father over his future. John had left the house after that last fight and hadn't looked back in almost fifteen years.

He had forgiven McKay for Doranda and everything that had happened with the Arcturus device. Of course, he'd neglected to tell McKay that, John thought wryly, and rubbed where the itch tickled the back of his head. He had never been much for words. He preferred letting his actions speak for him.

Unfortunately, his actions of late had sent the wrong message.

He leant against the wall in the deserted hallway and sighed. If they had any chance of fixing their friendship, one of them had to make the first move. The problem was, he wasn't sure if he was ready for it to be him.

He pushed off the wall and continued down to his office. He'd let Teyla and Ronon know the mission to Lurra was a go, start to deal with the pile of paperwork that had accumulated on his desk over the past month, and try not to think about his issues with McKay for a few hours.

He tapped his earpiece as he walked. "Sheppard to Teyla," he said and waited for her to answer. When he didn't get a response, he tried again. "Teyla? Come in."

John paused then remembered she was teaching a stick fighting class and probably wasn't wearing her earpiece. He could wait and try calling her again, or he could go over to the workout rooms and let her know in person the trip to Lurra was a go. He glanced from the door to his office, then back down the hall to the transporter.

It wasn't much of a decision.

He walked back to the transporter and tapped the section of the map with the gym and workout rooms. He stepped out of the transporter near the gym and walked down the hall toward the room Teyla used for her classes. The late-morning crowd was making use of the gym, and he glanced into the room when he heard the sound of conversations and activity as he strolled past.

A couple of the new Marines were practising takedowns on one set of mats, a couple more spotted a third using the weight machine in the corner. Thompson and Garcia were on the far side of the room with one of the nurses from the infirmary and Corporal Masters. He watched as Masters lightly grasped a set of parallel bars as he slowly shuffled back and forth between them.

He had been so wrapped up in his own team problems since his return, he hadn't had time to check in with Thompson to find out how Masters was after the Genii attack last month. He knew from Lorne's personnel reports that Masters had been released from the infirmary while John was coming back from Earth with McKay and Dex.

Still, he chastised himself, he should have talked to Thompson sooner.

He glanced down the hall toward Teyla's usual work out room, then entered the gym instead. He skirted around the Marines working on the mats, and when he caught Thompson's eye, jerked his head in a follow-me gesture.

Thompson nodded back, said something to Garcia on Masters' other side, and walked over to Sheppard.

"How's he doing?" John asked with a glance at Masters.

Masters reached the end of the bars but must have turned too fast. He winced and started to fall, and tried to catch himself on the bars.

Garcia leapt forward to grab him.

"I got it," Masters said to Garcia, his voice a bit breathless. "I'm good."

Garcia glanced at the nurse who nodded, and Garcia let go of Masters' arm.

John watched as Masters took a deep breath and started back in the other direction, barely touching the bars as he walked.

Thompson pursed his lips. "The bullet he took did a lot of muscle damage, but Doc Beckett is happy with his progress. Another couple weeks of therapy and he should be cleared for 'gate travel."

John nodded and watched as Masters made his way back in the other direction, Garcia hovering next to him. "No one had any run-ins with these Genii while we were gone?"

Thompson shook his head. "Major Lorne has standing orders to be on the lookout for any other Genii activity, but so far, no one has seen anything."

Masters made it back to the far end of the bars, and the nurse helped him settle in the wheelchair.

"Sir?" Thompson asked with a glance at Garcia pushing the chair toward the door.

"Go," John said with a smile.

Thompson nodded his thanks and hurried to catch up with the rest of his team as they left the gym.

John followed them out to the hall and turned toward the smaller workout rooms. He knew which room Teyla preferred for her classes and was a few steps away from the door when he heard the sharp crack of stick hitting stick in quick succession.

Whoever was in the room with her, wasn't Stephens, John realised and hurried the last few steps to the room when he heard a grunt of pain that sounded strangely like Ronon.

"You are holding back," he heard Teyla accuse and peeked into the room.

Teyla stood a few paces away from Ronon who was down on one knee, rubbing his side. Ronon said nothing and pushed himself back to his feet.

"Spent too long on the Daedalus," Ronon replied. "Out of practice, I guess."

John could tell Teyla didn't believe the excuse and watched as they circled one another.

Ronon feigned to Teyla's left. She didn't take the bait, and Dex attacked her left side again, this time in earnest. Teyla blocked most of the ensuing hits, but Ronon finally managed to break her defence, and landed a solid blow to her legs, dropping her to the mat.

Teyla nodded her thanks when Ronon pulled her to her feet, and she readied herself again.

This time, Dex launched a series of quick hits to Teyla's upper body. She easily blocked his attack, then she forced one of her own, hitting Ronon in the ribs again before tripping him and sending him to the mat.

Ronon grimaced and rubbed his side before climbing back to his feet.

"Are you all right?" Teyla asked. She dropped her stance and took a step back from him.

"I'm fine," Ronon growled. "Let's go."

Teyla shook her head. "Something is not right," she said and studied him for a moment. "You seem distracted. What is the matter?"

"Nothing," he told her and readied himself for another round. "Let's go."

Teyla took a step back. "Did something else happen while you and Colonel Sheppard were on Earth?"

"What? No." Ronon twirled one of the sticks in his hand. "Did you want to practise or not?"

Teyla eyed him for a moment, then took her ready position. "Then what is it?" she asked as she tested his defences. "You are usually not this easy to overpower," she told him as she feigned an attack on his right side, caught his sticks in a cross hold, and John winced as she tripped him again.

Ronon landed on his back with a grunt and lay there for a moment, breathing heavily.

"What is wrong?" she asked again, and walked over to the bench where a bag and a towel sat. She patted her face with the towel, then turned back to Ronon as he climbed to his feet.

"Sheppard knows about what happened with Kell," Ronon admitted and dropped his sticks on the bench.

"I know," Teyla replied. "He mentioned it yesterday."

"He was angry we didn't tell him the truth." Ronon gave her a sideways glance.

Teyla sighed. "He mentioned that to me as well."

Dex took a deep breath. "I'm sorry."

Teyla looked up at him.

"I wasn't thinking about anything other than making Kell pay for what he did." Ronon looked down at his hands. "I put you in danger." He glanced over at her. "I'm sorry."

Teyla took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Thank you."

Ronon nodded. "We good?" he asked a moment later.

She turned to him and smiled. "Yes." She stood and picked up her sticks. "Now, I believe you promised me a workout."

Ronon grinned and picked up his fighting sticks. He twirled one of his sticks as Teyla circled him.

"Ready?" Ronon asked and immediately launched an attack.

John watched them attack and counter for a few more minutes, then stepped back from the doorway and quietly made his way back to the transporter. Teyla and Ronon's problem, at least, appeared to be resolved. If only he could say the same about himself and McKay. Hopefully, the trip to Lurra would give them a chance to mend some fences as well.

Chapter Text

Rodney followed the rest of the team through the 'gate and stopped short in surprise. The last time he'd been on Lurra, it had been the dead of winter, nothing but snow in any direction. Now he realised the 'gate stood in a wide meadow backed by a forest of oak and maple-looking trees. Flowers dotted the short grass near the 'gate while shrubs, heavy with some sort of reddish-purple berry, grew in scattered clumps. The sun shining down was pleasantly warm, and a gentle breeze blew past, carrying the scent of flowers and damp earth.

Much better than P4J-958, he thought with a wry smile as he closed his eyes, tipped his head back, and let the sun warm his face.

"I told you you were not seeing the planet at its best when we were here last," he heard Teyla say.

Rodney grunted, opened his eyes, and found her standing next to him, smiling. He caught a glimpse of Sheppard watching him as well but wasn't sure what to make of the expression on John's face and turned away.

He knew things were not all right between himself and Sheppard. John had told him it was a matter of trust. That he didn't trust that Rodney wouldn't needlessly risk all of their lives again if confronted with another impossible problem. Rodney had made a silent promise to never let that happen. He was not going to mess up his relationship with John the way he'd screwed things up with Jeannie.

He glanced over at Sheppard standing to one side of the 'gate, his arms resting on the butt of the P-90 clipped to his vest, watching the trees.

Would it be enough? he wondered with a glance at the snow-capped mountains in the distance.

"Someone has been here recently," Ronon reported from where he knelt near the DHD. "There are tracks for four people and a cart."

Teyla walked over to one of the nearby shrubs and picked a few of the berries. "This is the trading season for Lurra," she said and offered Rodney a few of the berries. "They are ribes berries," she told him as an aside.

Rodney shook his head at the offered fruit and pulled the Ancient scanner out of his vest pocket. He caught another glimpse of Sheppard watching him as he balanced the device on the tips of his bandaged fingers. He ignored the scrutiny in favor of mentally turning on the scanner and pulling up the program to search for the minerals in the Zed-PM.

Teyla shrugged and finished the handful of fruit. "Prin and several of the others make trips off-world to trade meat, hides, and crops, for farming equipment, cloth, and other necessities."

Sheppard stopped near the DHD and looked around. "If I remember right, the village is in that direction," he said and pointed toward the mountains.

"Yes," Teyla agreed. "It is several miles away and will likely take a couple of hours to walk the distance."

Rodney groaned and looked up from the scanner. "Tell me again why we didn't bring a jumper? It's not like the Lurrans haven't seen one before."

"We're supposed to be refugees, remember," Sheppard said and looked up at the sky. "Kinda hard to explain why we'd have a jumper."

Rodney made a face and went back to studying the scanner.

"It's already late afternoon, if we want to get there before dark, we need to get moving." John turned to Teyla and held out a hand. "Lead the way."

"Yes, Colonel," she said. She turned toward a worn track through the trees and Sheppard fell into step next to her.

Rodney glanced from Sheppard ahead of him to Dex still standing next to the DHD, stuffed the scanner back in his vest pocket, and hurried after Sheppard.

They had been walking for more than an hour when Rodney heard voices on the trail ahead of them. A few minutes later, two people, an old man and a boy, came down the path in front of them.

The man had white curly hair and a white beard down to his chest and seemed vaguely familiar. Rodney did a double-take and shook his head. For some reason, he attached the man to the sound of jingling bells, but for the life of him, he couldn't figure out why.

The teen-aged boy walking beside him was at the lanky stage, all legs and feet going in different directions. Rodney heard him talking about a sled he was building, and his voice cracked from a piping alto to a mellow baritone as he described the design.

"Poppa, look," the boy cried and pointed to the team. "Visitors!"

The man looked up at them, and a wide smile split his face.

"Teyla!" the man called out with a wave.

"Hello, Klaus," Teyla replied and hurried forward.

Rodney gaped when he heard the name. "You're kidding," he blurted, a bit louder than he'd intended.

Teyla gave him a puzzled frown, and Rodney shook his head. There was no good way to explain his startled reaction. All Klaus needed was a red coat and a sleigh, and the picture would be complete.

Klaus ignored him as he grasped Teyla's hands. "Prin told us he had met you and Halling on Hyax a few months ago. He said you might visit soon."

Teyla nodded. "We have come to trade. And to ask a favor of Yev." She let go of Klaus' hands and looked around. "How have you been?"

Klaus smiled. "Yev would say I'm as ornery as ever. We were relieved to hear you had escaped the Wraith a second time," he added and glanced at the rest of the team.

Teyla turned and waved a hand at Sheppard. "I do not believe you were properly introduced to Colonel Sheppard or Doctor McKay when we were here last."

Klaus greeted Sheppard with the same two-handed shake he'd given Teyla and turned to Rodney.

"You probably don't remember me, son," Klaus said as he held out his hands. "The last time I saw you, you were riding in the back of my sled, more than a bit the worse for wear."

Klaus started to touch Rodney's hands, and he flinched.

Klaus glanced at his bandaged hand. "Not more frostbite, I hope?" he asked as he squeezed the fingers of Rodney's right hand.

"Umm, no, not exactly," Rodney told him and retrieved his hand from Klaus' hold.

Klaus smiled at him again and turned to Ronon.

"Klaus, this is Ronon Dex," Teyla said as Klaus held out his hands.

Ronon hesitated a moment before glancing at Teyla and allowing Klaus to grasp his hands.

"Pleased to meet you, Ronon Dex," Klaus said and paused. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were Satedan."

Ronon jerked his hands back. "You knew of Sateda?"

Klaus stared up at him, a sad smile on his face. "I did indeed, son. Visited the planet a few times when I was Hama's age." He wrapped his arm around the boy standing next to him. "It was a terrible thing that happened to your homeworld."

Ronon grunted, and Rodney saw the pain in his eyes as he turned away and watched the surrounding trees.

Klaus didn't seem offended as he looked around. "And where is young Aiden?" he asked with a glance at Teyla.

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and looked over at Sheppard.

John refused to meet Rodney's gaze. Instead, he adjusted the strap for the P-90 and took a few steps down the trail.

"Something happened," Klaus guessed.

"He was … lost," Teyla told him, "when the Wraith attacked the city."

"I'm sorry, my dear," Klaus told her and squeezed her fingers again. "We will mourn him with you."

After a moment, Klaus took a deep breath, smiled again, and said, "Come, come! Yev is settling a dispute off-world, but someone should be able to help with whatever trading you need." He turned to the boy beside him. "Run back to the village, Hama. Tell Teg we have visitors in need of food."

"Yes, Poppa," the boy replied, and sprinted back the way he had come.

Rodney fell in behind Sheppard as Klaus led the way along the path back to the village with Teyla beside him.

They entered the village bustling with activity twenty minutes later. Rodney watched as a group of men outside one of the long, low stone buildings grunted as they loaded a cart with heavy-looking piles of tanned hides. A few doors down, another group passed lumpy sacks of what Rodney assumed was vegetables from one man to the next in a chain as they loaded another cart. He was surprised to see the wagons were drawn by what looked like reindeer instead of horses.

"The pub is this way," Klaus said with a wave toward the far end of the village. "Teg had a roast of meat on the spit this morning, should be ready by now."

Rodney felt his stomach rumble at the thought of food and followed along behind Sheppard and Teyla as they walked down the cobbled street. He didn't pay much attention to the buildings or the people until they passed a house with a brightly painted red door. His memories of the village were hazy at best, but, like Klaus, the door was strangely familiar, he just didn't know why.

He shook his head and hurried to catch up to Dex.

"It appears you have had a good year so far," Teyla said as a third cart clattered down the cobbled street on its way out of the village.

Klaus nodded and led the way to a building at the end of the street. "We had a good spring," he agreed. "Not too wet; the tava beans did especially well this year."

Klaus reached for the door handle but jerked his hand back as the door flew open in front of him, and three men walked outside, laughing and thumping each other on the back. Rodney moved out of the way as the men jostled past him and climbed into a nearby cart loaded with more sacks. One of them picked up the slack reins, slapped the reindeer-looking animal, and the cart jerked into motion.

Klaus shook his head and opened the door for Teyla. "Come inside," he said and held the door open. "Teg's beer is still the best around."

Rodney caught a whiff of beer and cooking meat from the open door as he followed Sheppard inside. The pub was well-lit from the windows dotting the walls, a fire crackled in the corner, and he noticed the spit of meat roasting above the flames. A few people sat at tables scattered around the room and looked up when they entered.

"Teyla!" a huge man called from behind the bar. "By my eyes and ears, we were relieved when Prin told us you had survived the Wraith attack on the Ancestor's city."

"Hello, Teg," Teyla replied with a smile and a wave. She walked over to the bar and took Teg's hands.

Teyla made introductions, and Rodney forced himself to accept the man squeezing his hand. He'd never been that fond of strangers touching him.

Teg turned to the shelf behind him, picked up several mugs, and started to pull beer from the tapped keg balanced on the end of the bar.

"One for you as well, Klaus?" Teg asked and held up another mug.

Klaus gave the mug a long stare, then shook his head. "Hama and I were on our way to the portal when we ran into this lot. We still need to get to Hyax and pick up the load of grain we were promised." He turned to Teyla and added, "It's good to see you again, my dear."

"And you, Klaus," she replied.

"We should be back sometime tomorrow. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help while you're here."

"I will do that," she told him with a smile.

He nodded to Rodney and the others and left.

"To happy meetings," Teg said and held up his mug.

Rodney picked up his mug and took a small sip. He was surprised by the roasted, malty flavor and took several more swallows.

Teg waved a hand at one of the empty tables near the fire. "Sit, sit. I'll find you something to eat." He disappeared through a door behind the bar.

Rodney wandered over to a table near the fire, shrugged out of his pack, and sat down. Several pairs of eyes followed him, and he gave the room a cautious wave. "Umm, hello," he said with a tiny smile as Sheppard, Teyla, and Ronon joined him.

A few of the people nodded back, and Rodney noticed several whispered conversations as the men and women gave them surreptitious looks from time to time.

Rodney picked up his mug and swallowed more beer. Klaus was right, it was some of the best beer he'd ever had.

"So what do we do now?" Rodney asked in a low voice a few minutes later. "Will these people still help if Yev isn't here?"

Sheppard looked around the pub. "Prin and Mica certainly knew the way up to the cave."

Teyla nodded and set down her mug. "Klaus does as well. It should not be a problem finding someone willing to guide us up into the hills."

"Let's eat first," Sheppard said, "It's getting late, we aren't going to be able to go anywhere until tomorrow." He looked around. "Which means we're going to need a place to stay the night."

"That should not be a problem," Teyla replied. "Teg has rooms behind the bar. Lieutenant Ford and I stayed in one of the rooms the last time we were here."

Rodney couldn't help the chill that went down his spine at the reminder of their last trip to the planet. He looked up and saw Ronon staring in his direction. It took a moment for him to realise Dex was actually looking at someone coming up behind him.

Rodney turned around in time to see a middle-aged man with a limp walk up to their table and stop.

"Garen, how are you?" Teyla asked as she stood from the table and held out her hands. She turned back to the table and made introductions. "This is Garen. It is thanks to him, Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay survived the last time we were here."

"I can't take all of the credit," Garen said with a smile as he looked at each of them in turn.

"Still, we owe you a debt of thanks," Sheppard said and stood.

"You don't owe me anything, son," Garen replied, his tone stern as he grasped John's hands. "You needed help." He turned to Rodney and frowned when he saw the bandage on his hand. "And it looks like you need help again," he added and started to reach for Rodney's injured hand.

"It's fine," Rodney muttered. He glanced down at the grubby bandage, stained with dirt from where he'd tripped and fallen during the hike through the forest.

"Carson did say the bandage needed to be changed regularly," Sheppard reminded him, his expression closed.

Rodney swallowed and hid his hand behind his back. What had Carson told Sheppard about the extent of the burns? he wondered and looked away.

"Go on," Sheppard told him as he sat back down next to Teyla. "Let Garen here take a look at those burns and rewrap it. You said yourself you needed to be careful not to get any infection."

Rodney wondered if he imagined the hard edge in Sheppard's tone. "Fine," he ground out. He stood and followed Garen back through the maze of tables to the door.

Teg came back through the door behind the bar carrying a tray loaded with meat, vegetables, and some sort of bread. Rodney's stomach rumbled in protest as he glanced back at the table as Teg set the tray down.

Sheppard caught his look and shook his head. "Go," he said, and this time Rodney heard the order in his tone. "We won't let Ronon eat everything."

He heard Dex growl low in his throat as he picked up the bowl of vegetables and dumped most of them on his plate.

"Come along, son," Garen said as he ushered Rodney out of the pub. "My house is just down the street."

He stopped short when Garen led him back to the house with the red door.

"Something wrong?" Garen asked as he held the door open.

Rodney shook his head. "No. Umm, it's just … Nothing," he finished and crossed his arms over his chest.

Garen gave him a puzzled look and pointed toward the back of the house.

"Just through here," Garen said as he led him through a front room dominated by a large stone fireplace and down the hall.

"Sit down over there," Garen told him and pointed to the bed pushed up against the wall.

Rodney perched on the edge of the bed and watched as Garen opened a wooden cabinet built into the wall.

"Where did all of that come from?" he asked as Garen pulled out several familiar-looking bottles and packets.

Garen glanced over at him and smiled. "Your Doctor Beckett was good enough to leave me some of his basic supplies," he replied. He pulled a low stool over to the bed and sat down in front of Rodney. "Now, let's see what we're dealing with here."

Garen picked up a pair of scissors and cut away the dirty bandage on Rodney's hand.

"One of the blisters has broken," Garen told him once the bandage was gone.

Rodney glanced down at his hand and looked away. If anything, his hand looked worse now than it had the day before. The skin at the base of his first two fingers where the blister had broken was red and raw-looking. Another blister covered most of his palm, and he still couldn't straighten his fingers.

"These are some serious burns," Garen said and gave Rodney a questioning look.

Rodney shrugged and focused on the wall behind Garen.

Garen sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. "They don't know," he said with a nod in the direction of the pub. "Do they." Rodney could tell from Garen's tone it wasn't really a question.

Rodney hunched his shoulders and shook his head. "No."

Garen picked up an antiseptic wipe and reached for Rodney's wrist. "It may not be my place to say anything, but you really should tell them."

Rodney winced and tried to jerk his wrist free of Garen's hold when he started cleaning the area around the burns.

"This is going to hurt a bit," Garen murmured, as he worked to remove the debris and dead skin.

Rodney glowered and had a sarcastic reply on the tip of his tongue but thought better of it. He could snap at Carson on occasion knowing Beckett wouldn't hold it against him. Even though Teyla claimed Garen had been instrumental in saving his life, he didn't really know the man and wasn't sure what would happen if he said the wrong thing.

"It's complicated," Rodney muttered.

Garen snorted but said nothing as he finished with the wipe and rechecked Rodney's hand. He sat back on his stool and looked Rodney in the eye. "That hand is not going to magically heal itself, son. Even with some sort of regular physical activity, you may not regain full use of your fingers."

Rodney ducked his head and held his hand against his chest. Carson had told him the same thing, but he hadn't wanted to believe him. To hear the same prognosis from someone who had no reason to sugarcoat things for him, forced all of his fears back to the surface.

What would Sheppard do when he found out how much damage the tree sap had done to his hand? Or Elizabeth, for that matter. He wasn't sure either of them would let him continue with fieldwork if they knew the truth. But the only way he knew to earn back Sheppard's trust was to prove he wouldn't take any more risks during missions. He couldn't do that if he was relegated to his lab.

So far, he had been able to hide the extent of the injury from Sheppard, but he suspected that would change once they were back in the city. He knew it was only a matter of time before Beckett or someone else spilt the beans.

The door to the lab whispered open, and Rodney glanced up from where he sat at the worktable, pecking at the keyboard of the laptop computer in front of him. Zelenka walked in and Rodney grimaced; he had ignored Sheppard's suggestion to ask Radek for help rebuilding the search program. A corner of his mind wondered if John had anticipated him and called Zelenka himself.

Radek walked over to the worktable, his attention focused on the tablet computer in his hand. "I have the latest numbers for the desalination systems," he said and stopped next to Rodney.

"Finally," Rodney replied and held out his hand for the tablet.

Zelenka glanced at his bandaged hand resting on the table. "You are all right, yes?"

Rodney hid his hand in his lap. "I'm fine," he retorted, snapped his fingers, and glared at Radek until he handed over the computer.

Radek gave him the computer with a frown and another glance at his bandaged hand.

Rodney ignored the look as he read over the report on the upgrades to the desalination systems. "This is the best you could do?"

Radek stepped back from the worktable. "We managed to increase efficiency by nearly fifteen percent," he argued. "How much more did you want?"

"I was hoping for something closer to twenty-five," Rodney muttered. He handed back the tablet and focused on the laptop. They couldn't leave for Lurra until he had the search program done, and he needed to get back to work.

Zelenka set the tablet computer on the end of the worktable and jerked his chin at the laptop. "What are you working on?

Rodney tried to block Radek's view of the computer as Zelenka bent forward and squinted at the screen.

"You are trying to recreate the program for finding ZPMs using its mineral components?"

Rodney glared at him. "Do you mind? Sheppard wants to go back to Lurra. See if we can't find the Zed-PM that the other Elizabeth said was hidden there. We can't leave until I have this done, so …" He motioned toward the door.

Radek glanced over at him and frowned. "You have not made much progress."

Rodney glared over at him. "I haven't been working on it that long, have I?"

Zelenka held up his hands and stepped back from the worktable.

Rodney tugged the computer a little closer to his side of the table and tried to enter the next section of code one-handed. He knew Zelenka wasn't buying his act, but he hoped Radek would take the hint and leave him alone.

Instead, Zelenka sat down on the other side of the table and unceremoniously pulled the laptop away from Rodney.

"Hey!" Rodney exclaimed and scowled across the table.

"You can never ask for help," Radek said with a shake of his head and started to type. "I can tell you are in pain, you know."

"It's not that bad," Rodney denied.

"You are a terrible liar," Zelenka replied, never looking up from the computer as he typed.

Rodney watched Radek's fingers tap a staccato rhythm on the keyboard as he entered line after line of code.

He started to make a sharp reply when Zelenka, wholly nonplussed by Rodney's attitude, asked, "What are the elements we need to include in the search parameters?"

Rodney told him and watched as Radek's fingers danced over the keyboard.

"Don't forget to exclude the manganese-based elements," Rodney reminded him when Radek paused and read over the code.

Radek glanced up at him, and Rodney gave him a satisfied smirk when Zelenka pursed his lips, deleted something in the program and entered several new lines of code.

"How serious is it, really?" Radek asked, genuine concern in his expression as he nodded at Rodney's hand.

Rodney looked down at the bandage, and the fingers curled into his palm. "Beckett isn't sure," he hedged. "My hand could be fine once the burns heal."

Zelenka gave him a measured look.

Rodney pressed his lips together, jutted out his chin, and stared back.

Radek shook his head, typed a few more lines of code, and pushed the computer back in front of Rodney. "Here. I think that will work."

Rodney was reasonably sure Radek wouldn't say anything to Sheppard. But would he tell Elizabeth? Would she then go to Sheppard and insist he be removed from the team?

Garen opened a tube of antibacterial cream, dabbed the cream on the burns, and wrapped a clean bandage around Rodney's hand. "You aren't going to be able to hide this from them for very long, you know."

"Maybe," he muttered with a shrug. He glanced up, saw Garen watching him, and hopped off the bed. "I should go," he added and moved toward the door.

Garen followed him back through the house. "Be careful," he said. "You're going to be more prone to an infection more now that one of the blisters is broken. Come back tomorrow night and I'll change the bandage."

Rodney looked down at his hand and nodded. He stopped next to the red front door and turned back to Garen. "Umm, thanks," he said.

"You're welcome, son. Think about what I said, hmm?"

Rodney gave him a tight smile, nodded, and hurried back to the pub.

The room was more crowded than when he had left, and he wove his way through the crowd to the table near the fireplace.

"Rodney," Teyla greeted with a smile. "You're back."

"Mmm," he replied. He glanced at the table and frowned. Despite Sheppard's promise to the contrary, all of the plates of food were gone. The second thing he noticed was someone was sitting in his chair.

"You remember Prin?" Sheppard asked, as Teyla stood and walked over to the bar.

"Oh, umm, hello," Rodney said to Prin with a distracted nod and watched as Teyla pointed back at their table and said something to Teg.

Teg glanced over at him, nodded to Teyla, and pulled down another mug from the shelf behind him.

"Teg, will bring you something from the kitchen," she said to Rodney as she sat down between Sheppard and Ronon.

"Oh, ahh, thanks," he replied. He pulled over another chair from a nearby table and sat down.

"Sheppard was telling me you wish to return to the cave in the mountains," Prin said as Teg came over to the table carrying a full mug of beer in one hand and a pitcher in the other.

Teg set the mug in front of Rodney and put the pitcher down in the middle of the table. "Food's coming," he said with a smile at Rodney before he walked back to the bar.

Rodney picked up the mug. "Umm, yes," he said to Prin. He swallowed some of the beer, set down the mug, and glanced at Sheppard. "We'd still like to find that crystal we told you about the last time we were here."

Prin studied him for a moment. "We had heard the city of the Ancestors had been destroyed by the Wraith."

Rodney tried to keep the guilty look off his face and gave Sheppard a sideways glance.

"We've found several outposts abandoned by the Ancients over the last year," Sheppard explained and leant forward with his elbows on the table. "If we can find the crystal that was hidden here, it might still be of use."

Prin sat back in his chair, his posture stiff as he picked up his mug and drained it.

"It really is important, Prin," Teyla said softly. "If we can find the ZPM, we can still make a difference against the Wraith."

Teg came back through the door behind the bar carrying a plate. He set the plate down in front of Rodney along with a knife and fork. His genial expression changed to a puzzled frown when Rodney spent several seconds suspiciously poking at the food on his plate.

"There's no citrus in this, is there?" he asked as he gave the vegetables and grain situated on one side of the plate a careful sniff.

Teg shook his head. "The meat is roasted hreindyr, the rest is root vegetables, tava beans, and a grain mash."

Rodney nodded absently and poked a bit more at the food on his plate.

Teg watched him for a moment, shook his head, then filled Prin's mug from the pitcher on the table and walked away.

"If you don't want it, I'll eat it," Ronon told Rodney and reached for the plate.

Rodney glared across the table at him, gave the food one last check, and started to eat.

Prin finished his beer and stood. "If you want to go to the cave, Mica and I can take you."

Sheppard smiled. "Thank you."

Prin studied him for a moment longer, then shrugged. "It won't be easy. We'll have to hike up there. My older sons are off-world trading hides for supplies. They have the carts."

Rodney started to say something about walking up the side of a mountain, caught Sheppard watching him, and changed his mind, swallowing the sarcastic comment with a forkful of vegetables.

Prin glanced from Rodney to Sheppard. "It's a good half-day hike from here. We can leave in the morning."

"Sounds like a plan," Sheppard said and stood. "We'll be ready."

Chapter Text

"Good morning, Teg," Teyla said as she walked into the taproom early the next morning.

"Teyla," Teg replied with a smile and handed her a mug of hot tea. "There's food at the other end of the bar," he added and nodded his head at the platters of eggs and fried meat. Dried fruit, porridge, and loaves of fresh bread rounded out the breakfast fare.

"Thank you," she said as she took the cup and looked around the taproom.

There were a few other early risers scattered around the room, and she spotted Ronon, seated at the same table near the fire, with a plate of food in front of him. She knew Rodney was still in one of the large rooms behind the bar, asleep, but she frowned when she didn't see John anywhere.

She walked over to Ronon and set the mug of tea on the table across from Dex. "Where is Colonel Sheppard?" she asked, glancing around the room again.

Ronon jerked his chin toward the door. "Went to talk to Prin. It's going to take most of the day to get to this cave."

Teyla nodded and turned back toward the bar and the dishes of food.

She and Ronon were still eating when Sheppard walked into the pub fifteen minutes later.

"Teg, were you able to find anything?" John asked and stopped at the end of the bar.

"Right here, Sheppard," Teg said and passed over a bulky bundle. "There should be enough food for two or three days."

John took the wrapped bundle with a nod. "Thanks."

"Good morning, Colonel," Teyla greeted and gave Sheppard a smile when he stopped at the end of the table and set down the bundle of food.

"Teyla," John replied. "Where's McKay?" he asked with a glance at her then over to Ronon.

"He was still asleep when I left the room."

Sheppard glanced at the door behind the bar. "I'll go get him. We need to get moving if we want to find this cave today."

Sheppard left the taproom, and Teyla finished her breakfast.

Ronon pushed his empty plate away, drank the last of his tea, and stared out the window.

"Is something the matter?" Teyla asked.

Ronon shrugged and looked over at her. "Feels like a waste of time coming here. Why is Sheppard so sure there's something in this cave to find?"

"The people here tell stories of a healer who lived in the mountains many, many years ago," Teyla told him.

"There have to be hundreds of caves in those mountains. What makes this one so special?"

"According to Prin's son, Mica, there are numerous drawings on the walls inside this cave. He sketched one of the drawings for Colonel Sheppard when we were here last winter." She set down her mug and focused on Ronon. "It was a sketch of Atlantis."

"So Sheppard thinks this healer was one of the Ancestors?"

Teyla nodded. "It is possible. A reliable source told Colonel Sheppard and Doctor Weir that the Ancestors hid a ZPM somewhere on Lurra before they abandoned the city. The drawing makes the cave a logical place to start a search."

Ronon shrugged. "Makes sense, I guess."

"I said I was up," Rodney grumbled as he walked into the taproom several minutes later, Sheppard trailing along behind him.

Teyla noted the grin on Sheppard's face and shook her head.

"Just making sure," Sheppard replied.

Rodney glared over at John but said nothing as he wandered over to what remained of the breakfast fare.

Sheppard watched him for a moment longer, then came back to the table and sat down across from Teyla.

"What did you do to Rodney?" she asked with a glance at Rodney picking over the dried fruit on the end of the bar.

"Nothing," Sheppard replied, his expression the picture of fake innocence. "Just helped him get up."

Rodney scowled across the table, sat down next to Ronon, and started to eat.

Teyla was about to ask again what Sheppard had done when Prin walked into the taproom and came over to their table.

"Mica is packing the last of the supplies and will be here shortly," he said and nodded his thanks to Teg who handed him a steaming tea mug.

Colonel Sheppard nodded. "Thanks again for offering to take us up to the cave."

Prin waved the comment away and drank his tea. "It is nothing, Sheppard. Mica has wanted to go back up to the cave anyway. He wants to copy one of the drawings and give it to Shyan as a gift," he added with a knowing smile.

"What supplies?" Rodney asked. He scooped up the last of his porridge and dropped the spoon back in the bowl with a clatter.

"Ropes, shovels, that sort of thing," Sheppard replied.

Rodney gave Sheppard a puzzled look. "You think we're going to need all of that?"

"We don't know where the ZPM is," Sheppard reminded him. "If it's buried or down a shaft in that cave, better to have what we need with us than making a second trip."

Teyla saw Rodney shudder at the mention of a shaft in a cave. He ignored her concerned look and picked up his mug.

"Sheppard said you would want to stay up at the cave for several days," Prin added. "Even at this time of year, the temperatures in the mountains can be cold at night. Mica is bringing extra blankets, and the cave will provide shelter from the wind and other elements."

Rodney choked on his tea. "We're sleeping in this cave?" he squeaked.

Sheppard shook his head, picked up the bundle of food from Teg, and stood. "You'll be fine, McKay. Come on, we need to get going."

"There has to be someone with a tent we could borrow," Rodney suggested as he followed Sheppard out of the pub.

"What's McKay's problem now?" Ronon asked Teyla in a low voice.

"According to Colonel Sheppard, Rodney tends to panic when in enclosed spaces," Teyla explained. "He called it claustrophobia."

Teyla and Ronon watched as Sheppard and Rodney stood between the pub and the blacksmith next door wrangling back and forth over whether or not they had time to find a tent.

Ronon shook his head and pointed at Mica heading in their direction, leading a hreindyr loaded with bundles of supplies.

"Colonel," Teyla called. When Sheppard looked over at her, she continued, "Mica is here. I think we are ready to leave."

Sheppard nodded and walked away from McKay, still insisting they needed to find a tent. "Prin, are we all set?" he asked, handing the bundle of food to Prin.

"I believe so, Sheppard," Prin replied. He opened a leather satchel tied to the hreindyr's back and dropped the bundle inside.

"Great. Let's get moving."

Prin nodded and led the way back up the cobbled street to the other end of town, then along a path through the trees toward the foothills in the near-distance.

It was another beautiful day, and Teyla couldn't help the smile on her face as she followed behind Sheppard. So much of Lurra in summer reminded her of Athos. The trees were much the same, as were the clumps of bright yellow and pink flowers that grew along the side of the trail. Atlantis and the mainland were beautiful in their own right, but if she were honest with herself, there were things about her homeworld she missed.

They'd been walking for an hour when the trees thinned from dense forest to patchy clumps, and the foothills started. She heard Rodney mumbling to himself behind her as they began to climb and glanced behind her. His face was red from exertion, and he was breathing hard.

They walked into a small clearing dotted here and there with a few boulders, and she was about to suggest they stop and rest for a few minutes when Rodney beat her to it.

"Sheppard?" he called and bent forward with his arms resting on his thighs, "Can we take a break?"

John glanced back, did a double-take, and stopped walking. He reached forward to stop Prin as well.

"Sheppard?" Prin asked.

"Rest break," John explained with another glance at Rodney.

Prin nodded and led them off the trail and under the shade of a few trees.

Teyla pulled her canteen from its loop and took a drink. She watched as Rodney gave the nearest tree a wary look then glanced at Ronon with a raised eyebrow.

"Different tree," Ronon told him. He strolled past Rodney and stopped next to Sheppard, gazing out at the snow-capped peaks in front of them.

Rodney studied the tree for a moment longer, then nodded to himself, sat with his back to the tree, and found a power bar in one of his vest pockets.

"So what do you think of the planet now," Teyla asked as Rodney opened the energy bar and took a bite.

Rodney glanced around as he chewed. "It's fine, I guess. Different without all of the snow."

Teyla smiled and sat down beside him, her knees drawn up to her chest and her arms resting on her knees. "Lurra reminds me of home."

"This doesn't look much like the mainland," he pointed out and took another bite from the power bar. "There are more evergreens on the mainland for one thing. I don't think I've seen a pine tree since we arrived here."

"Not Atlantis," she explained patiently and watched the breeze ripple the tall grass in the middle of the clearing, "Athos." She stretched her legs out in front of her.

"Oh," he replied. "I never got the chance to see it."

"The trees are much the same." She picked one of the flowers growing nearby. "As are the flowers."

"I guess I never thought about what it must be like for you," Rodney admitted. "Missing your homeworld."

She glanced over at him. "There is nothing you miss about Earth?"

Rodney finished the power bar, stuffed the empty wrapper in his jacket pocket, and drank from his canteen. "Not really, no," he replied a moment later. "Atlantis is more of a home to me than Earth ever was."

He curled his injured hand against his chest and glanced at Sheppard standing several feet away, speaking quietly to Prin.

Teyla caught the look and squeezed his arm.

Rodney gave her a crooked smile and ducked his head.

"Everyone ready to go?" Sheppard asked with a pointed look at Rodney a few minutes later.

Rodney nodded and hauled himself to his feet.

Sheppard waited until Teyla stood as well, then nodded to Prin. "Let's go."

By mid-afternoon, Teyla was ready to reach their destination. She could tell the others felt much the same way. Sheppard wore an expression of stoic perseverance, Rodney hadn't said anything for the last twenty minutes, even Ronon looked tired.

The path they followed was more treacherous as well, and Teyla kept one eye on Sheppard several paces in front of her and the other on the ground. She spotted the loose stone, roughly the size of her hands fisted together, sticking out of the ground in front of her and carefully stepped around it. She turned to warn Rodney, but it was too late.

"Gah!" Rodney exclaimed as the stone came free under his foot.

Before Teyla could grab him, he lost his balance, tried to catch himself with his injured hand, and fell.

Mica managed to dodge the stone as it continued to roll down the trail behind them. He stopped several feet behind them and made sure the hreindyr halted as well.

"Watch where you're going, McKay," Ronon growled as he caught Rodney by the loop on his vest and hauled him back to his feet. Teyla noted that while Dex sounded gruff, he kept one hand on Rodney's back until he found his balance.

"I was watching," Rodney groused back, his tone laced with pain. He clutched his hand to his chest and bit his lip. "The rock came loose."

'Whatever," Ronon retorted, and gave Rodney a shove to get him moving again.

"Everything all right?" Sheppard asked.

Teyla saw him rub the back of his head and give Rodney a quick once over.

"Fine," Rodney replied shortly. He stomped past Teyla, carefully avoiding the hole where the rock had been.

Teyla noticed the bandage on his hand was dirty, and she thought she saw spots of blood as well. She reached out to touch his arm, but Rodney ignored the gesture and clutched his arm to his chest. It wasn't hard to tell he was in pain, but one look at his face was enough for her to know not to bring it up.

Sheppard exchanged a quick look with Teyla, then turned to Prin and motioned him to continue. "Let's go," he said with a glance at the sky. "I want to find this cave before it gets dark."

Prin nodded. "The pass we need to take isn't much farther. The valley is just beyond it."

They'd been walking for twenty minutes when Rodney said, "I thought you said the pass was close."

Sheppard chuckled and turned around. "McKay, did you just ask, are we there yet?"

Teyla glanced behind her and saw Rodney standing on the path, one hand braced on a tree, as he took several deep breaths. Ronon stood behind him, his hands on his hips as he glared at Rodney in front of him.

"There's the pass," Prin said and pointed to a low saddle between two taller peaks. "We should get to the valley in another hour."

"Lovely," Rodney muttered under his breath.

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

Another hour of hiking and John followed Prin through a gap carved into the mountain by the nearby stream and into a wide-open meadow. The grass waved in the afternoon breeze, and the shallow stream gurgled in its bed as it trickled down the mountain from the lake John spotted on the far side of the valley.

"The cave is there," Prin said and pointed to the hole in the side of one of the mountains in front of them.

John stopped next to Prin and studied the opening. He realised with a start that even if he and McKay had managed to fight their way through the blizzard to reach the cave, they never would have been able to get inside. The narrow fissure he remembered was, in reality, only the very top of the cave mouth.

"Rodney?" he heard Teyla say behind him, and turned to see McKay stopped several feet behind them.

"Hmm?" he replied absently as he stared around the valley, his arms crossed over his chest.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"Of course," he told her with a glare. He shuffled forward a few steps and added. "Just, umm, just catching my breath."

John heard the nervous crack in McKay's voice and was sure Teyla heard it as well, but she only patted his arm and wandered over to the stream. Mica led the hreindyr over to the water and let the animal drink its fill.

Sunlight bounced off of something to his right, and John spotted the remains of the jumper wedged against the rocky hills in the near-distance. The ship was canted at an angle, the still- extended starboard drive pod the only thing preventing the ship from tumbling over on its side.

He heard a soft hiss behind him, turned around, and saw McKay staring, wide-eyed, at the ship. McKay glanced over at John before he pointedly turned away from the crashed ship, pulled the Ancient scanner out of his vest pocket, and made a point of tapping the screen.

John had to admit, he knew how McKay felt. His memories after the crash were patchy, but he did remember McKay doing what he could to give them the best chance at surviving long enough for Teyla and Ford to find them. He adjusted the strap for the P-90, trying not to think about how close they'd come to dying from hypothermia.

"Good spot," Ronon said, stopping next to John.

John heard McKay mumble something under his breath and saw him glare at Dex before taking several steps toward the stream.

"Water." Ronon nodded at the stream. "Shelter." He pointed to the cave.

"The hunting is good as well," Prin added. "Besides wild hreindyr, there's hare and grouse. Occasionally, there is hart, but they usually stay on the other side of the mountains." He glanced at Ronon and added. "For generations, my people lived in valleys like this one." He gave John and Ronon a tight smile. "The caves provided shelter from more than just the elements. "

John heard Ronon's low growl at the mention of the Wraith and wondered how long it would be before Prin, Mica, and the rest of the villagers were once again forced to hide in the high mountains to escape the cullings.

Mica led the hreindyr over to a clump of low bushes, wedged the lead for the animal between two boulders, and removed the bundles from the animal's back. "I can show you the drawings now if you like," he offered, holding up a large lantern in one hand.

McKay looked over at Mica and swallowed. John thought he looked a little pale as he asked, "Oh, umm. How far inside the cave did you say these drawings were again?"

Mica shrugged. "There are some near the entrance. Those are mostly animal pictures."

"What about the drawing of Atlantis?" McKay pressed.

Mica nodded. "That one is on the far wall opposite the entrance."

"Of course it is," McKay muttered, and John couldn't help the grin that spread across his face.

McKay glared over at him, but John only said, "McKay, you and Teyla check out the cave with Mica. We need to know if these are just random drawings or if they could be some sort of map for finding the ZPM."

"Where are you going?" McKay asked.

John jerked his head toward the jumper on the other side of the valley. "I'm going to take Ronon and Prin and see if there's anything worth salvaging."

McKay glanced at the wrecked jumper, crossed his arms over his chest, and ducked his head. "You really think anything survived after the winter?"

John took a step away from the cave and nodded at Dex to follow him. "Only one way to find out," he said. "This shouldn't take long. We'll come find you once we're done."

They were several yards away when John glanced back and saw McKay still standing near the cave mouth. Mica stood just inside the cave, waiting for them, the lantern in one hand and a puzzled look on his face.

Teyla whispered something to McKay and squeezed his hand.

McKay glanced from her to the cave entrance and stuffed the scanner in his vest pocket. He took a deep breath, and John would have laid odds he had his eyes shut as he shuffled over to the cave entrance. John watched as he stood for several seconds before following Teyla and Mica into the cave.

"Come on," Sheppard said to Prin and Ronon once McKay disappeared. "Let's go see if there's anything left worth taking home."

John surveyed the surrounding hills as they walked. Stubby bushes dotted the sides of the surrounding mountains, along with clumps of grass. A few hardy flowers bloomed here or there, sheltered from the elements by surrounding rocks. He glanced up and spotted a distinct rocky outcrop near the top of one of the mountains and shook his head.

They had almost made it, he realised, remembering the outcrop as the one they'd slammed into thanks to a rogue wind gust. That collision had damaged the drive pod, sending them plummeting back into the valley. He shook his head and adjusted the strap for the P-90.

"Sheppard?" Ronon asked, glancing from John to the mountain.

John squinted up at him and shook his head. "Nothing," he replied and looked at the formation again.

If McKay hadn't found that extra bit of power … He dropped his eyes and followed Prin.

They reached the jumper a few minutes later. John ran his hand over the crumpled nose where the ship rested against the side of the mountain, lost in the memories of the crash and trying to survive afterwards. He patted the nose of the jumper once before walking around the starboard side toward the rear of the ship.

"Someone closed the hatch?" John asked as Prin and Ronon stopped next to him.

Prin shrugged. "Oleg wasn't sure what else to do. He thought it would be wrong to just leave it open to the elements."

John nodded absently as he wandered around to the other side of the ship. He found the gaping hole in the side where the jumper had hit the side of the mountain and ran his hand along the edge. He had a flash of memory of fighting the sluggish controls, trying to force the little ship to turn just enough that they didn't hit the mountain head-on.

He shook himself out of the memory, used a convenient rock as a step, and hauled himself up so he could peer inside the ship.

There wasn't much to see. A few crates of supplies still sat in the cargo netting while most of the others were scattered on the floor. The control box was open, its stylus hanging down beside it, and the cushions were missing from the bench seats.

Probably still on the floor in the cockpit, John mused. He forced himself not to shudder at the memory of sitting on the floor, McKay huddled against his side, as they tried to keep each other from freezing to death.

He jumped down from the rock and wiped his hands together. "There are still a few cases of supplies in the racks," he said to Ronon. "We should take those back with us."

Ronon walked back around to the other side of the ship. "The drive pod is nearly buried. It should be enough to keep the ship from rolling on us once we're inside."

John gave the ship an experimental shove. "Should be safe enough," he agreed and climbed back onto the rock. "I should be able to squeeze through this and get to the manual release for the hatch."

Ronon nodded and pulled Prin with him as he stepped back from the rear of the ship.

John pulled himself up until he sat on the hull, his legs dangling into the hole. "Be right back," he said to Ronon and Prin, then dropped down into the ship.

He landed with a thump and held his breath as the jumper creaked and shifted with his weight. When the ship settled, he triggered the manual release and pushed the rear hatch open.

Ronon stepped inside and gave the side of the ship a wary look as it groaned and shifted. "What happened to the seats?" he asked.

John glanced at the cockpit. "Long story," he replied.

Ronon grunted and started pulling boxes out of the cargo netting.

Prin had followed Ronon inside and John saw him give the ship a wary glance as it settled.

"It should be fine," John tried to reassure him.

Prin pursed his lips and nodded, but John noticed he stayed near the open hatch.

"What do you want to take?" Ronon asked as he pulled a large orange box out of the cargo netting and set it on what remained of the bench.

John studied the mess and tried to remember what all of the boxes contained. He didn't see the large crate with the MREs and bottled water or the field medical kit and assumed Ford had made sure the critical supplies made it back to Atlantis.

Ronon opened the orange box, and John saw various digging tools carefully stacked inside. Ronon shoved the crate to one side, pulled a small grey box down next. He opened it and found a pair of Berettas along with a couple of loaded magazines.

"That's definitely going back with us," John said, and Ronon set the pistol case on the other bench.

John stepped across to the netting over the control box and heard something crunch on the floor as he moved.

"Control crystals," he muttered to himself as he bent down and picked up a broken shard.

He glanced up at the control box and saw several empty slots where the crystals would normally fit. He found several more crystals on what remained of the bench seat under the control box.

"Any particular reason you're pilfering parts from this place?" He remembered asking McKay once.

"Some people have a jar of screws in case they ever need just the right one. I'm getting in the habit of saving any spare parts I come across. Never know when something might come in handy."

The jumper would never fly again, but it made sense to try and salvage whatever parts and components he could. He picked up one of the crystals on the bench, looked around and found an empty canvas pouch lying on the floor. He had no idea what the bag held originally, but it was the right size to hold the remaining control crystals, and hopefully keep them from breaking on the way back to the village. He sifted through the crystals on the floor, picked out the ones still in one piece, and placed them in the bag.

Ronon and Prin pulled the rest of the boxes and bundles out of the cargo netting, setting the items on the floor between the rows of seats.

"This looks like climbing gear," Prin said, holding up a coil of rope and a yellow canvas duffle bag.

Ronon opened a crate shoved against the bench seat opposite John. "Camping gear," he reported and started to close the box again.

John glanced over at the crate as he stuffed the last of the loose crystals in the pouch. "Are the tents still in good shape?" he asked, remembering McKay's argument in the village about sleeping in the cave.

Ronon pulled one of the dark green bags out of the crate and opened it. "Seem to be," he replied with a glance at John.

"Good. We can use them if we're going to stay here for a few days."

Ronon grunted, pulled the other bag out of the crate, and set them on the bench seat next to the gun case.

John stood and turned to the control box. He examined it from side to side, looking for a way to remove it in one piece. Unfortunately, he didn't see any handy screws or bolts.

"So much for the easy solution," he muttered as he pulled all of the crystals out of the control box, and stuffed them into the bag as well. Hopefully, McKay would find a use for them.

"What else?" Ronon asked a few minutes later.

John glanced at Prin standing on the edge of the hatch next to the stacked boxes they planned to take back with them. He checked the cargo netting for anything else worth taking, then pulled one of the portable stretchers out from under the bench seat. "Here," he said, handing over the stretcher. "We can stack the gear on this. Maybe see if Prin has any idea on how we can attach it to the hreindyr's harness and drag it back down to the village."

Ronon took the stretcher, and John turned toward the cockpit. "I'm going to see if there's anything else worth salvaging."

"It will be dark soon," Ronon told him.

John nodded. "Shouldn't take too long," he replied. "Then we'll head back to the cave and see what McKay and Teyla found out about those drawings."

He waited until Ronon and Prin were busy loading supplies on the stretcher, then stepped into the front section of the ship. He froze when he saw the sleeping bags and bench cushions on the floor. A discarded glove lay on the floor under the rear seat. John bent down and picked it up, once again lost in a memory.

John felt Rodney shift again and turned his head to find McKay slumped against his arm with his eyes closed. "Hey," he said and poked Rodney's side with his elbow, "no going to sleep."

Rodney opened his eyes with a glare. "I wasn't sleeping. I was thinking."

"Think with … your eyes open," John told him. "What were you … thinking about?" he asked a moment later.

Rodney sighed and sat up slightly. "Niagara Falls."

John scrubbed a hand over his face as he crouched on the floor. He had promised McKay they would go see the Falls the next time they were on Earth. At the time, he wasn't sure when or if he would ever be able to keep that promise. Once they'd made contact with Earth, John had had every intention of keeping his word, even had the plane ready to go before McKay was sent to Area 51 at the last minute, and was nearly killed by Mason. Then everything with Doranda and Vance happened.

John sighed and stared at the cushions. "Maybe once things are back to normal," he muttered to himself and stood, the glove still in his hand.

He dropped the glove on the co-pilot seat and turned to the dark console. With the cockpit still intact, he was sure there were components they could salvage. The problem was, he didn't have any idea how to remove them safely, and after seeing the look on McKay's face when they'd arrived in the valley, John wasn't sure he'd be able to convince him to step inside the ship again.

"We've got the supplies loaded," Ronon announced as he walked into the cockpit.

John jumped and glanced behind him. He ignored Ronon's frown at his startled reaction. "Good," he replied and checked over the console again.

"So is this where it happened?" Ronon asked a few moments later.

John looked over at him as Dex glanced from the cushions on the floor to the rear section of the ship.

"Where what happened?" John asked.

Ronon kicked one of the cushions. "Is crashing the ship how McKay got the scars on his arm?"

John sank in the pilot's chair and rubbed the back of his neck.

What happened with Kolya was still something McKay didn't talk about much. He no longer hid the scars under long-sleeved shirts, but any time someone started to ask about the thin marks on his arm, he would glare and snap at the person who dared to ask in the first place. It didn't take long for the word to get around to the new scientists not bring up the subject at all.

"You should ask him," John said with a tight smile. "Just be prepared for him to take your head off if you do."

Ronon studied him for a moment, then nodded.

John stood, took one last glance at the cushions on the floor, and turned toward the rear of the ship. "We're going to need McKay out here to see if there's anything else worth salvaging."

"Not sure that's going to happen," Ronon said from behind him.

John silently agreed as he stepped out of the jumper and led the way back to the cave.

Chapter Text

Rodney felt his breathing hitch and his heart race as soon as he stepped into the cave. There was enough light filtering in from the mouth of the cave he could see Mica and Teyla several steps in front of him. He also noted the tunnel ended in a cavern a short distance ahead of them.

"Wide open fields," Rodney muttered to himself as he trailed behind the others. "Just think about wide-open fields." He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and reminded himself why he was here, willingly walking into a cave.

"The main chamber is just up ahead," he heard Mica say.

"It is amazing," Teyla replied a few seconds later. "Rodney?" she called.

Rodney opened his eyes. He saw Teyla standing in the cavern ahead, slowly turning in place as she looked around. He took a deep breath and hurried through the tunnel into the cavern.

"Are you all right?" Teyla asked softly as Rodney stopped next to her, panting slightly.

Rodney swallowed and nodded. "I'll be fine," he replied with a crooked smile. I hope, he added to himself and looked around.

The cavern they were in was huge. From where they stood in the middle of the space, the walls were easily ten meters away. The afternoon sunlight filtering in from the cave mouth played over the nearby rock and Rodney frowned.

He wandered over to the wall in front of him and ran his hand over the smooth surface as he studied the rest of the cavern. "This isn't natural. It can't be," he muttered as he looked around.

"Rodney?" Teyla asked.

Rodney glanced at her, then Mica. "Have you ever seen a natural cave with walls like this?" he asked and ran his hand over the smooth rock again.

Teyla ran her hand over the wall and shook her head.

"There are no bumps, crevices, or stones jutting out," Rodney continued more to himself than to Teyla or Mica. "This isn't from erosion. It's like something huge bored through this mountain."

Were the Ancients mining something? he wondered as he glanced around the cavern.

He looked over at Mica, still standing in the middle of the cavern. "What about you? Any other caves around here have smooth walls like this?"

Mica gave him a startled look. "No, I guess not. I've never really paid that much attention, really. There are lots of stories about this cave."

Rodney shook his head and studied the wall.

"Yev mentioned stories about a healer living in this cave the last time we were here," Teyla added.

"It's more than just stories about Yana," Mica told her and held up the lantern in his hand. "Many generations ago, my people lived in these mountains, and the caves provided shelter from the elements. This cave," he turned a slow circle, "this cave also protected my ancestors from the Wraith."

Teyla nodded. "It is a common tactic for people on many worlds."

Mica shook his head. "It's more than that," he replied. He walked over to the other side of the cave and held up his lantern. "Here, look at these."

Rodney followed Teyla across to the dark corner of the cave. He pointed his flashlight where Mica held up the lantern and saw several crude drawings of what looked like Wraith darts and people running. He moved the flashlight along the wall as Mica spoke.

"The story goes that eventually the Wraith grew tired of their prey escaping the cullings. To prevent the people hiding in the caves, the Wraith flew ships into the mountains and bombarded the caves with powerful weapons."

Mica moved the lantern. The next drawing showed what might have been people huddled together in a small space.

"Some of the nearby caves collapsed," he continued, "leaving the people trapped inside."

Rodney shuddered and glanced back toward the cave entrance.

Mica smiled and said, "We are perfectly safe here, Doctor McKay."

"So you say," Rodney muttered and played his flashlight over the last image, this one showed people walking out of a cave together.

"No, I'm serious, that's the point of the story," Mica explained and pointed to the last picture. "While many of the other mountain caves were destroyed, this one was not. No matter what the Wraith did, they could not damage this cave. All of the people hiding here were saved."

Rodney waved the flashlight over the series of pictures again. He ran his hand over the smooth surface of the wall as the possibilities bloomed in his head. "It's possible," he muttered to himself and looked up at the roof of the cave. "How did they do it, though? That's the question."

"Rodney?" Teyla asked.

He looked over at her and tapped the cave wall. "I think this entire cave system was made, carved out of the mountain for some reason."

"And you believe that reason was to conceal the ZPM?" Teyla asked.

Rodney looked over at her and nodded. "It makes sense. If I'm right," he gave her a crooked smile, "this mountain was carved out to hide the Zed-PM. There must have been some sort of shield protecting the cave. Mica's people were unwitting benefactors of the Ancients trying to protect the crystal."

He stepped away from the wall and turned in a circle. "What was that story you heard? This Yana person was a magical healer who could predict when the Wraith were coming? That sounds like an Ancient to me."

"It is possible," she agreed. "Why would this Yana choose to remain on Lurra when so many of the Ancestors left this galaxy?"

"Who knows," Rodney replied with a shrug. "Maybe she wanted to. Maybe she got stuck here. The simple fact is, we'll never know." He touched the wall again. "The important thing is, it looks like we're in the right place."

He pulled out the Ancient scanner, turned it on, and started the search program he and Zelenka had created to find the Zed-PM.

"Anything?" Teyla asked after a few moments.

"Nothing," Rodney replied. "Must not be close enough." He glanced around the cavern and turned to Mica. "You said there were tunnels?"

Mica nodded. "At the back of the cavern." He pointed to the back wall.

Rodney glanced at the back of the cave and swallowed. The cavern they were in was large enough he could almost pretend he wasn't trapped under tons of rock. The same was likely not the case with the tunnels.

"Are the tunnel walls smooth like this?" he asked.

Mica nodded. "There are all sorts of strange drawings on those walls. Shyan spent most of last summer trying to figure out what they meant."

"Colonel Sheppard thought the drawings may be part of a map leading to the ZPM," Teyla said. "If we can decipher them, we might have a better idea of where to look for the power crystal."

Rodney grunted and thought back to Dagan and how the Brotherhood had gone to great lengths to hide the Zed-PM on that planet. Did this Yana tell the local population about the Zed-PM? he wondered with a wary glance at Mica. Would he find another of the crystals only to have it taken from him at the last moment?

"You can see some of the drawings over here," Mica said and led the way over to another section of the wall.

Rodney followed him over to the wall and examined the pictures. He hoped something in the drawings would tell him where to look for the Zed-PM, a map, a code, something. Instead, what he found were images that reminded him more of the cave art inside Lascaux Cave than anything found in Atlantis.

"These are hreindyr," Mica told him and pointed to several antlered animals drawn as if they were running in a group. "And these are hares," he added, pointing out a cluster of small shapes, all with long legs and large ears.

Rodney hissed out a breath when he recognised another of the animals. The bear-like shape was enough of a clue without the exaggerated teeth and claws. He gave the tunnel openings at the back of the cave a wary glance.

"You don't think one of those things is still around here, do you?" he whispered to Teyla.

She shook her head. "I have never heard of one living here. They prefer a warmer, wetter climate than Lurra." When Mica gave them a puzzled look, she said, "This is a drawing of a cave bear." She pointed at the drawing. "I did not think you had such animals on Lurra."

"We don't. Not anymore anyway," Mica replied. "The largest predators we have now are catamounts, but they mostly live on the other side of the mountains. It is rare to see one around here."

Rodney ignored the animal paintings and walked across the cavern to the far wall. The angle of the sun had changed, and the cavern dimmed as what little light that came in through the cave opening faded. He forced himself not to think about it and played the flashlight beam over the wall until he found the drawing of Atlantis. Like the paintings of the animals, the image of the city was crude, the shapes of the piers and towers mere shadows of themselves.

"This wasn't made by the Ancients," he muttered to himself and turned to Mica. He pointed the flashlight at the animal drawings, then back at the image of the city.

"What are you thinking?" Teyla asked.

Rodney glanced at her. "I think all of these drawings were made by Mica's ancestors." He walked back to the painting of the hreindyr. "Think about it. These are images of animals the Lurrans hunt for food or predators to be avoided. The art we found in the city looked nothing like this. It's all shapes and patterns, not … palaeolithic"

"But the drawing of the city," Teyla said. "How do you explain its presence?"

"Maybe this Yana told Mica's ancestor's stories about the city, and they tried to recreate it. Who knows. The point is, if we want to find the Zed-PM," he took a deep breath and pointed the beam of his flashlight down the nearest tunnel, "I don't think we're going to find anything useful in this part of the cave system. We need to see what else is here."

"There are more drawings in the tunnels," Mica told them.

"Drawings like these?" Rodney asked, pointing his flashlight at the hreindyr.

Mica nodded. "Some are of the hreindyr, but others …" He stopped and glanced from Teyla to Rodney.

"Mica?" Teyla asked.

"Some of the animals … I've never seen animals like that on Lurra." He turned to Teyla. "There are other images, things that aren't animals at all. Those are the ones Shyan hoped to decipher their true meaning."

"Show me," Rodney demanded.

"Umm, this way," Mica replied and led them down the left-hand tunnel.

The claustrophobic feeling Rodney had been able to ignore in the main cavern came back with a vengeance once they were in the tunnel. Like the cavern, the walls were smooth and obviously made by something other than wind or water. Unlike the cavern, however, the walls of the tunnel were only a meter or so away. After a few meters, the tunnel twisted, blocking the dimming light from the cave mouth, leaving only the narrow beams offered by their flashlights and the lantern Mica carried.

"Wide open fields," Rodney muttered under his breath. "Wide open fields."

Mica glanced back at him and held up the lantern. "Did you say something?"

Rodney swallowed and shook his head. He saw Teyla watching him and gave her a sickly smile as he moved his flashlight back and forth over the walls.

Mica shrugged and turned around.

They hadn't gone much farther when the tunnel split in two different directions.

"Which way do we go?" Teyla asked. She pointed her flashlight down one passage then directed it down the other.

"The strange drawings are down this way," Mica replied and led them deeper into the mountain.

"You're sure you know where you're going?" Rodney asked as Mica turned down another new tunnel.

Mica glanced back at him. "I have been here many times in the past. We're almost there."

Rodney glanced up at the roof of the tunnel and swallowed.

Mica waited a moment longer, then continued walking. "Once we find the strange animals, we'll be close."

"Here," Mica said a few minutes later. The light from his lantern highlighted a group of large animals all standing on their hind legs. The animals each had a large blocky skull and an extra set of limbs between their forelegs and hind legs. "We have nothing like that on Lurra."

"I have never heard of such an animal, either," Teyla told him as she bent forward to study the image.

Rodney played his light over the wall and stopped when the beam highlighted an image of what looked like some sort of nightmare chicken. It had long legs and a body not that different from an ostrich, but its beak was massive and the upper half curved into a sharp point. It wasn't hard to imagine what it ate.

Teyla stopped beside him and pointed her flashlight at the drawing. "I have heard stories of such birds. They stand as tall as a man and are said to be adept hunters."

"So these things are real?" Rodney asked her.

Teyla shrugged. "I have heard stories. I have never seen one."

"Come on, it's not much farther," Mica said and kept walking. A few minutes later, they entered a sort of alcove. Mica stopped again and held up the lantern. "This is what I wanted to show you." He held the lantern so it lit a broad section of the wall.

Rodney reached out and touched the image on the wall, stunned.

"It looks like the stained glass window behind the stargate," Teyla said in an awed whisper.

Rodney nodded in silent agreement as he played the beam of the flashlight over the wall. Unlike the pictures of the animals in the main cavern, this one was highly detailed, each pane an exact replica of the window in the gateroom.

"It's a window?" Mica asked. "Shyan thought it might be some sort of building."

"It is an image of a window from Atlantis," Teyla told him.

"And it was made by someone who had seen that window a lot," Rodney added. "We could be close," he added with a glance over at Teyla. The flashlight tracked his movement and highlighted something else in the drawing. He held the flashlight closer to the wall, then at an angle, squinting at the painting of geometric shapes.

"Rodney?" Teyla asked.

Rodney glanced at her, then back at the wall. "There's something here." He pointed the flashlight at a different angle until the shape stood out against the light. "There! Do you see that?"

Teyla studied the drawing for several seconds. "There does appear to be something …" She bent closer.

"It's Ancient text," Rodney said. "Well, an Ancient symbol at least."

"What does the symbol mean?"

"I --"

The radio squawked, making Rodney wince. "… Kay? Tey … Come."

Teyla tapped her radio. "Colonel Sheppard?" She glanced at Rodney and shook her head.

"Sheppard?" Rodney called over the radio. "Ronon? Are you receiving?" The only response was static. "Something in the rock must be blocking the signal," Rodney muttered.

"We need to return to the main cavern," Teyla said. "The others may become lost trying to find us."

Rodney nodded. He didn't want to think about any of them getting trapped in the network of tunnels.

Mica led them back through the series of tunnels until they ran into Sheppard, Ronon, and Prin near the main cavern.

"You guys all right?" Sheppard asked.

"Yes, yes, we're fine," Rodney told him. He hurried out of the tunnel and into the cavern. "Obviously the radios aren't going to work in the tunnels."

"That complicates things," Sheppard said. "Tell me you found something interesting."

Rodney nodded. "Yeah, I think we did. There's a painting back there that looks like one of the windows in Atlantis."

John stared at him. "You're sure?"

"Would I have brought it up if I wasn't?" He saw Sheppard's scowl at the sarcastic comment and added in a different tone, "Yes, I'm sure. Teyla agrees with me."

"So we're in the right place?" Ronon asked

Rodney nodded. "I think so, though the scanner hasn't picked anything up yet."

"It's nearly dark," Sheppard said. "We need to set up camp." He turned to Rodney and added. "You'll be happy to know we found a couple of tents in the jumper. You won't have to sleep in the cave."

"Fine with me," Rodney replied and headed for the cave mouth.

It didn't take long for them to set up the two large tents and start a fire. While Prin and Mica settled in one of the tents, Teyla went to the stream to refill their canteens. He watched Sheppard and Ronon sort through the bundles of food Teg had sent along with them for a few minutes, then crawled in the tent the team was sharing.

Even with the pain medication he took during the hike up the mountain, his hand had been aching for most of the day. He looked down at the dirty bandage covering his hand and frowned when he noticed it was damp and dotted with fresh spots of blood.

"That can't be good," he muttered as he dug through his pack until he found the extra medical supplies Carson had given him. He balanced the flashlight on its end, then sat cross-legged and slowly peeled the bandage off his hand.

"Not good at all," he said under his breath as he examined the burns.

The skin at the base of his first two fingers looked red and raw, and another of the blisters on his palm had broken sometime during the day.

"Probably when you fell down the path," he said to himself as he turned his hand first one way and then the other in the beam from the flashlight.

Sheppard stuck his head in the tent and said, "Hey! Dinner's --"

Rodney jerked his head up in surprise. "Ever heard of knocking?" He scowled at Sheppard and curled his hand against his chest.

"It's a tent," John retorted. He started to leave but stopped with a frown, and Rodney realised Sheppard had spotted the bloody bandage on the ground next to him. He glanced up at Sheppard's face, expecting either indifference or anger at Rodney for hiding the truth from him. What he found instead was concern laced with sympathy as Sheppard crawled into the tent and sat beside him.

"Let me see," Sheppard said gently and reached for Rodney's hand.

Rodney hesitated for a moment, then held out his hand.

Sheppard took his wrist in a gentle grip and examined the red, angry sores. "You broke the blisters hiking up here, didn't you?" he asked. He pulled open one of his vest pockets, found a wipe, and started to clean the burns.

Rodney hissed as the wipe stung the tender flesh.

"Sorry," Sheppard murmured and gave his palm one more swipe with the antiseptic wipe. "Can you move your fingers yet?" he asked once he was done cleaning the burns.

Rodney twitched against the hold on his wrist and tried to keep the guilty look off his face.

John shook his head as he rechecked the burns. "The headache from the link aside, Carson already told me the burns were serious." He waited for Rodney to look at him and added, "What I want to know is why you didn't tell me."

Rodney pulled his hand out of John's light grip and curled his arm against his chest. "You said I needed to earn back your trust."

John frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. "So you thought the best way to do that was to lie to me?"

Rodney glared over at Sheppard. "I didn't lie --" he started to say, but stopped when John pursed his lips and nodded at Rodney's hand. He crossed his right arm over his left, hiding his hand from view. "I can't earn back anything if I'm kicked off the team," he finished.

John shook his head. "For a genius, you can be incredibly dumb sometimes, you know that?"

"Thanks for the pithy wisdom," Rodney growled in reply. He clenched his jaw and dug through the supplies next to him until he found a sterile bandage and the gauze. He tried to open the package for the dressing one-handed, but couldn't get the right leverage, and the package landed on the ground between them.

John picked up the bandage and opened it.

"I can do it myself," Rodney snapped and tried to snatch the bandage back.

Sheppard held the bandage out of reach. "No, you can't," he replied. He waggled his fingers at Rodney. "Hold out your hand."

Rodney glowered for a few more seconds, then sighed and held out his hand.

John found the antibacterial cream in the pile of supplies between them and squeezed a liberal dose over the open wounds. "You didn't answer me before," he said and glanced over at Rodney. "Can you move your fingers?"

It took a few moments, but Rodney was rewarded when his fingers flexed slightly. It wasn't much, and it hurt, but he managed to uncurl his fingers slightly.

"Carson isn't sure how bad the loss of dexterity will be," Rodney admitted and watched as John wrapped the gauze over the bandage and tied it off.

"We'll worry about that later," John replied. "For now, let's just concentrate on not getting an infection."

Rodney nodded and packed up the supplies one-handed.

"Don't forget to take your pain meds," John said, holding up the bottle.

Rodney took the bottle and stuffed it in his pocket. Teyla still had his canteen.

"And McKay?" John said and tapped him on the shoulder. "No one is getting kicked off the team. Got it?"

Rodney studied Sheppard's face for a moment, then nodded.

"Good. Now, as I was saying, dinner is ready. Let's go eat."

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

Teyla sipped her coffee the next morning, savoring the warmth of both the cup in her hands and the fire in front of her. The morning air was cold and smelled of wet, chances were good it would be raining later in the day.

"All right," Colonel Sheppard said from the other side of the fire, "we're scheduled to check-in with Doctor Weir tomorrow afternoon. That means we only have today to try and find the ZPM or at least some kind of proof it might still be here."

"We have no idea how extensive the tunnels could be," Rodney pointed out. "A day isn't enough time."

"It's going to have to be," Sheppard replied and turned to Mica. "How well do you know your way around in there?"

Mica glanced at his father. "Shyan and I have only been down the tunnels where I took Teyla and Doctor McKay yesterday."

Sheppard glanced from Rodney to Teyla. "How far did you get yesterday?"

"It is difficult to say," Teyla replied. "The tunnels split more than once."

Sheppard pursed his lips. "This would go faster if we could split up."

"That is not a problem, Sheppard," Prin told him. "Mica isn't the only one who knows where to find the drawings. Who do you think showed them to him in the first place?"

Sheppard nodded. "Okay, Teyla, you take Ronon and Prin. Head to where you were yesterday and see what else you can find." He glanced from Teyla to Ronon. "No side trips. The radios won't work in the tunnels. We don't need anyone getting lost."

"Yes, Colonel," Teyla replied and stood.

"I'll take McKay and Mica with me. We'll head down the other branch. Hopefully, one of us will find a clue that will lead us to the ZPM. We'll meet back in the main cavern in two hours and compare notes."

It didn't take them long to douse the fire, gather their gear and head back to the cave mouth. Prin and Mica were already inside, and Teyla watched Ronon enter ahead of her. She was about to follow him when she heard Rodney muttering under his breath.

She glanced at him, saw his eyes were closed, his right hand clenched at his side and his left curled against his chest. "You have already been inside the cave once," she reminded him.

Rodney opened his eyes and glanced at her. "Doesn't matter." He took a deep breath and motioned her to lead the way. "Let's get this over with."

The sun wasn't at the correct angle to provide much light once they were inside the cave. Teyla turned on her flashlight once she was in the main cavern and led the way over to the crude drawing of Atlantis on the back wall. She turned to her left with Ronon and Prin behind her and started back through the tunnel they had explored the previous day.

"Be careful," Sheppard called from behind her.

Teyla turned and waved her hand. "You as well, Colonel," she replied. She watched as Sheppard started down the opposite tunnel with Rodney and Mica in tow.

"Which drawings did Mica show you yesterday?" Prin asked as he led the way back into the tunnel.

"We found the strange animals and the geometric patterns," Teyla replied. She glanced at Ronon and added, "The patterns looked like the windows in Atlantis. Rodney found what appeared to be symbols in the Ancestor's writing in some of the drawings."

"I know where those are," Prin replied. "Come."

Prin obviously knew where he was going. He set a quick pace as he led them back through the tunnels. "Do you really believe the drawings will lead you to this power crystal?" Prin asked as they walked.

"We have found such secret writings in the past," Teyla replied. "It is not impossible to think the Ancestor's left clues to find the ZPM in what looked like little more than random artwork."

It didn't take them long to reach the passage with the strange animals, and a few minutes later, they were back at the images of the window.

Ronon flashed his light along the walls, and Teyla watched as he traced something with his fingers. "There's definitely something there," he said. "Sheppard may have been right. It could be some sort of map hidden behind the paintings."

Teyla turned to Prin. "Are there any more of these paintings?" she asked.

"I don't know. There are a few more images on the walls in that direction." He pointed his lantern down the passage behind him. "But I have never been much further down the tunnel. I don't think Mica has either."

"Are there paintings in any of the other tunnels?" Ronon asked.

Prin nodded. "There are a few in some of the passages closer to the main cavern."

"Like these?" Teyla pointed her flashlight at the geometric pattern on the wall.

Prin shook his head. "No, most of the others are of familiar animals: hreindyr, birds."

Teyla pursed her lips. "Rodney believes those images were made later, after the Ancestor's had gone."

Ronon flashed his light further down the tunnel. "In that case, we should keep going. Try to find more of these symbols."

Teyla nodded to Prin to lead the way.

Over the next thirty minutes, they found several more detailed drawings on the walls. Pictures of the water features, several more with various geometric patterns, and one larger mural of what appeared to be the two moons rising above the city. Each time they found a new drawing, they carefully examined it, looking for more of the Ancestor's text. Curiously, they only found the etched symbols in the drawings of the geometric patterns.

"Any idea what they could mean?" Ronon asked as he felt the carved symbol in the wall behind the latest drawing.

Teyla shook her head. "We will need Rodney. He may be able to translate the symbols."

The tunnel continued for another several hundred paces before it ended in a solid wall with a large mural of an active stargate.

Teyla brushed her hand over the image. "It is beautiful," she said. "It almost appears to be real."

Ronon grunted and waved his light around the walls. "Still a dead end."

Teyla nodded. "Let us hope Colonel Sheppard has had --"

"Father! Father!" she heard Mica yelling from somewhere behind them in the tunnel. "Father, where are you?"

"Mica?" Prin shouted as he turned and ran toward the boy's frantic shouts.

"That can't be good," Ronon said.

"No, it cannot," Teyla agreed as they ran after Prin.

"Mica! Hang on! I'm coming," Prin shouted.

Teyla and Ronon followed the bouncing light from Prin's lantern as he ran back through the twisting tunnels. They found Prin and Mica halfway back to the main cavern along the passage near one of the sections with the geometric patterns drawn on the walls.

"… only gone a few minutes, I swear, Father," Mica was saying to Prin.

"What has happened?" Teyla asked, glancing from Prin to Mica.

Mica gave Teyla a frightened look and pointed behind him. "Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay. They're gone. I can't find them anywhere."

Teyla heard Ronon growl low in his throat as he pushed past her and stood in front of Mica. "What do you mean, they're gone. Where did they go?"

Mica gulped and stared up at Ronon. "I-I don't know. The tunnel we were following ended in a wall. There was this big drawing of the city. Much better than the one in the cavern that we saw yesterday."

Mica turned to Prin. "Doctor McKay wanted to examine it, but he needed more light. I offered to go back to camp and get the other lanterns." He curled his arms against his chest. "When I got back they were … They were just gone!"

Chapter Text

Rodney watched the flashlight beams bounce over the walls as Teyla and Ronon disappeared down the tunnel with Prin. He peered down the opposite passage and reminded himself again why he had volunteered to walk into a cave.

John had assured him he wouldn't be taken off the team. That meant he still had a chance to prove he was trustworthy, didn't it? Rodney asked himself. He inched closer to the tunnel opening and took a few deep breaths.

"Let's get moving," Sheppard said. "We only have a few hours before we need to head back to the 'gate."

Rodney shook himself and followed Sheppard as he started down the tunnel. Mica brought up the rear, his lantern providing just enough light for Rodney to see John a few paces in front of him.

After a short distance, the tunnel bent to the right, blocking out what little light made it into the cavern, and Rodney tried not to panic as he felt his breathing hitch and his chest tighten.

"Wide open fields," he murmured as he took a deep breath and clicked on his flashlight.

"Doing okay back there, McKay?" Sheppard asked with a glance behind him.

Rodney swallowed hard. "Fine. Umm, fine," he squeaked.

Despite his best efforts, Sheppard must have heard the underlying fear in his voice. He stopped and faced Rodney, holding his P-90 low enough for the barrel light to illuminate both of them without blinding either of them. "Are you going to be able to do this?" he asked, his tone serious. "If not, say so now."

Rodney pulled his shoulders back and tried to stand a little straighter. "I'll be fine." His eyes wandered toward the roof of the passage, and he swallowed again.

Sheppard pursed his lips and studied him for a moment longer.

"We're not going to find anything standing here," Rodney told him, impatience replacing the fear in his tone. "Let's just get this over with."

John gave him one last measured look, then turned around and headed down the tunnel. They hadn't gone very far before the tunnel branched in two different directions.

"Any ideas on which way to go?" Sheppard asked.

Rodney pointed his flashlight down one passage and then the other. They looked identical to him. He glanced at Sheppard and shook his head.

"Mica?" Sheppard asked over his shoulder as he moved the barrel light from one passage to the next.

"Sorry," Mica replied. "I've never been down this way before. Father only took me down the other tunnel."

Sheppard pointed the barrel light at Mica. "And you never explored on your own?"

Mica shrugged. "We didn't come here often, and Shyan only became interested in the drawings after I showed them to her last summer."

Rodney watched as Sheppard looked one way, then the other, before making a decision and turning down the right-hand passage. The beams of their flashlights and the lantern Mica carried picked out a few of the crude animal drawings on the walls as they walked, but he didn't see any of the more Atlantean drawings.

They found another branching tunnel a few minutes later, and Sheppard started down the left-hand side.

"Wait!" Rodney said and stopped. "We should go right."

Sheppard walked back to the junction. "Why?"

Rodney pointed his light down the right-hand tunnel. "Don't you know anything about mazes?"

"This isn't a maze, McKay."

Rodney scowled at him. "Are you sure about that? I think I mentioned that this isn't a natural cave system."

Sheppard glanced at the unnaturally smooth wall and shrugged. "Okay, you might have a point," he conceded. "That still doesn't explain why we should go right instead of left."

"Regardless of whether this is a maze or not, the basic principle still applies," Rodney told him. "If you don't want to end up lost in here," he paused and swallowed, "stick to one direction. In this case, the right-hand passages."

Sheppard studied him for a moment longer, then pointed the barrel light down the right-hand passage. "All right, you make a good argument. We'll go right."

"Thank you," Rodney muttered as John led the way down the new passage.

Without a watch, Rodney wasn't sure how long they'd been inside the cave already. What he did know was that there was no way to tell how deep inside the mountain they were, and he suppressed a shudder at the reminder of where he was.

John set a steady pace as they walked, and Rodney noticed there were no more drawings on the walls of the tunnel. He was beginning to think they'd gone the wrong way, and was about to suggest they backtrack and try the left-hand passages when the tunnel branched again.

Sheppard turned down the right-hand passage without prompting, and they hadn't gone far when Rodney's flashlight caught something on the wall. He pointed the beam at the image and froze.

"Sheppard," he whispered.

John turned around and pointed his barrel light at the wall.

"Wow," Mica said. He stepped closer to the wall and ran his hand over the drawing.

Rodney stared at the image and shook his head. "Great," he muttered, "first I'm trapped in a cave, and now there are pictures of whales on the walls."

Sheppard gave him a strange look then nodded as if some great mystery had been solved.

"What?" Rodney asked with a scowl.

John shook his head and played his light over the wall, picking out several more of the whales drawn on the wall. "Nothing," he replied. "Just figured something out." He glanced at Mica and asked, "Anything like this on Lurra? They'd probably live in deep water."

Mica shook his head. "Nothing. Not even stories from the fishermen in the village near the sea."

Rodney shuffled forward and studied the image. "All of the animal drawings in the main cavern were crude, little more than a barely recognisable shape." He held the flashlight closer to the wall. "These are different. This isn't just a symbolic image, it's an exact drawing. Look how the musculature is clearly defined, and I think those might be gills." He stared at the image for a moment. "Not really a whale then, I guess."

"So it was made by someone else," Sheppard said as he played the barrel light over the wall behind Rodney.

"Umm. Maybe," Rodney replied. "You don't think these things live," he gave Mica a furtive look, "lived near Atlantis, do you?"

Sheppard shrugged. "Not that hard to believe."

Rodney shuddered and turned away from the drawing. Intellectually, he knew the ocean surrounding the city had to have something living in it. Thankfully, with everything else he'd had to worry about, there hadn't been time to consider the idea of whales, or even pseudo-whales, living in such close proximity.

Sheppard studied the image for a few more seconds, then nodded. "Let's see what else we can find."

Rodney gave the drawing one last look then fell into step behind Sheppard as he moved down the tunnel.

Along with the whales, they found more of the detailed animal drawings, and it didn't take long before they spotted more images of the city on the walls.

"I'd say we're on the right track," Sheppard said ten minutes later.

"Hmm?" Rodney muttered, not really paying attention, as he gave the roof a worried look.

He stopped watching the roof of the tunnel long enough to glance at the drawing caught in Sheppard's flashlight beam and stopped in surprise. He felt Mica stumble into him, but ignored his mumbled apology as he stared at the drawing highlighted in the glow.

Rodney balanced his flashlight in the fingers of his left hand and stepped forward until he could touch the image of the red and orange crystal with his right.

"What is it?" Mica asked.

"That," Rodney told him and couldn't hide the excitement in his tone as he pointed at the wall, "is a drawing of a Zed-PM."

Mica reached out a hand and touched the drawing as Rodney tucked his flashlight under his arm, awkwardly pulled the Ancient scanner out of his vest pocket, and balanced it in his left hand. He turned the device on and started the search program. He took a step away from the drawing, glancing from the screen to the surrounding walls as he turned in a slow circle.

"Anything?" Sheppard asked.

"No, and that doesn't make any sense." Rodney tapped the screen, trying to refine the search parameters. "If a Zed-PM is in this part of the cave, we should be close enough for the scanner to detect it."

Sheppard played the flashlight beam over the wall, and Rodney saw more images of the consoles in the control room and what looked like various Ancient devices. He ran his hand over a drawing of a bulbous weapon similar to the one Ronon had found in the Ancient archive a month or so ago.

Sheppard glanced at his watch and pointed the barrel light further along the tunnel. "We have about an hour left before we need to meet the others. Let's keep going. Maybe the same thing that's blocking the radios is affecting the scanner."

Rodney nodded and tried to juggle the scanner and the flashlight in his hands. He made a grab for the flashlight when it slipped and ended up dropping the scanner instead. He cursed under his breath as he bent to pick it up.

Was this what he had to look forward to? he wondered with a frustrated glance at his bandaged hand. If he couldn't show Beckett and Weir some improvement, one or both of them would ground him despite anything Sheppard might say.

"I've got it," Sheppard told him as he scooped up the device." What am I looking for?"

Rodney tried to take the device, but Sheppard held it out of reach. He sighed and dropped his hand. "Assuming there's something here to find, a dot will show up on the screen. Find the dot, and we should find the Zed-PM."

Sheppard nodded and held the scanner out, turned one way then the other, and started down the tunnel again.

A few minutes later, the passage widened into a sort of antechamber. Sheppard took a few more steps, and Rodney nearly ran into him when he stopped short and stared at the wall in front of them.

"What's the problem? Why did you stop?"

Sheppard glanced back at him. "I think I know where Mica's ancestors got the idea to draw Atlantis," he replied. He stepped to one side and played the barrel light over the solid wall in front of them.

Rodney moved around John and stared at the picture of Atlantis drawn on the wall. The image of the city was incredibly detailed and exact. He squinted at the drawing and absently rubbed his right arm when he found the grounding station he had tried to fix during the storm. Sunlight highlighted the control tower in glowing pinks and yellows, and he could almost see the water rippling along the piers in the wavering beams of their flashlights.

"Is that what the city of the Ancestors looked like?" Mica asked from behind Rodney. "It was beautiful."

"Yeah, it is," Rodney replied with a wistful smile as he stared at the image. He felt Sheppard's elbow jab into his ribs. "I mean, it was. Beautiful, that is."

Mica didn't seem to notice the slip as he reached out a hand and touched one of the towers.

Sheppard stepped back a few paces and ran the beam from his flashlight over the wall. "The tunnel dead-ends here," he said. He studied the scanner for several seconds, then shook his head. "And there's still nothing on the scanner." He handed the small device back to Rodney and played the barrel light beam over the painting. "What do you think? Could the Ancients have hidden some sort of map in the painting of the city?"

Rodney stuffed the scanner back in his vest pocket and shrugged. "There might be more of those etched symbols we found yesterday, but I can't see the painting well enough to be sure."

"We brought extra lanterns with us yesterday," Mica said. "It shouldn't take me very long to go out to the camp and get them."

Sheppard studied Mica's face for a moment. "You're sure you can find your way out and back? I don't want to have to tell your father you're lost in here somewhere."

Mica nodded at Rodney. "Take the left-hand tunnels to get out, the right-hand ones to come back," he said with a grin before he turned and jogged back the way they had come.

Rodney watched until the glow from Mica's lantern disappeared then turned back to the mural of Atlantis. The beam of his flashlight caught on something on the wall beside him as he moved. He played the beam over the wall, but the new drawing didn't look like much more than random squiggles. He shrugged and started to turn back to Sheppard, still examining the mural when he recognised one of the squiggles as one of the symbols on the 'gate in Atlantis.

"The detail in this is amazing," he heard Sheppard say behind him. "Someone spent a lot of time getting everything about the city just right."

Rodney ignored him and focused on the wall in front of him. Was it part of a 'gate address? he wondered.

He ran his fingers over each of the symbols, trying to remember if the address was to any of the planets they had visited in the last year and a half.

"Huh," John grunted a moment later.

"What?" Rodney asked. He glanced over at Sheppard and watched as he moved the barrel light back-and-forth over the painting.

"There's something wrong with the control tower."

Rodney shrugged and went back to examining the 'gate symbols. "Wrong how?" he asked absently.

Maybe this Yana person moved the Zed-PM off-world after the other Ancients either left the galaxy or ascended, he thought to himself, not really caring about a missed detail in the mural.

"I think this is a 'gate address," he said to Sheppard a few minutes later. "Here, hold the light so I can copy this down." He held out his flashlight, waiting for Sheppard to take it.

"Sheppard?" he said and glanced behind him. He did a double-take when he realised Sheppard wasn't there.

"Sheppard!" Rodney called and spun in a circle, the flashlight waving back and forth as he frantically searched. "John!"

Did he go back to one of the other passages? he wondered.

He took a few steps down the tunnel before he stopped short. "Don't be an idiot," he chastised himself. "If he had walked away, you would have seen him."

He felt a flush of guilt on his face. He'd been so absorbed with the 'gate symbols, it was entirely possible for Sheppard to have walked away from him and he wouldn't have noticed.

"He wouldn't just leave," he told himself even as he played the flashlight over the walls and the floor looking for anything that would explain how Sheppard had disappeared.

"John! Where are you?" he shouted as guilt gave way to fear.

When Sheppard didn't answer, Rodney swallowed and turned to face the mural. "Think," he ordered himself. "There's a logical explanation. He couldn't just vanish."

He took a deep breath and flicked the light over the image. John had been fascinated with the painting, he told himself as he studied the image. Was that it? he wondered. John had said there was something wrong with the control tower, he reminded himself.

"But that wouldn't explain how he could just disappear," he muttered as he stepped closer to the mural.

Rodney held the light closer to the picture examining the tower and had to agree, something wasn't right. It took him a few moments to see the problem; the two lightning rods on the control tower were both missing.

He balanced the flashlight in the fingers of his left hand and reached out to touch the tower. He felt a split second of surprise as the wall disappeared under his hand and then he felt himself falling.

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

Ronon growled low in his throat and pushed past Prin and Mica blocking the way back to the main cavern.

"Ronon, wait," Teyla told him, and laid a hand on his arm.

"We need to find them," Ronon told her.

"I agree. But we must have a plan. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming lost. The tunnels in this cave are extensive."

Ronon pursed his lips and clenched his hands. He knew Teyla was right, but that didn't make the situation any easier to bear. He stepped back and forced himself to get his temper under control.

"What do you want to do?" he asked.

"We need to go back to where Mica saw them last," Teyla said with a nod and a smile at Mica. "Maybe they left a clue where they were going."

Ronon wasn't convinced the answer would be as simple as Sheppard and McKay went exploring, but he grunted and stepped back far enough for Prin and Mica to get around him.

"Show us where you were," Prin said, and patted Mica on the shoulder.

"This way," Mica replied. He quickly led the way back through the tunnels to the main cavern.

"You don't really think they just decided to explore another passage without waiting for the kid to come back, do you?" Ronon asked Teyla as they passed through the main cavern a few minutes later.

"I am unsure what to think," Teyla replied as she followed Mica and Prin into the new tunnel. "It is unlike Colonel Sheppard to simply wander away."

Ronon snorted. "Maybe McKay did the wandering and Sheppard went after him."

Teyla shook her head. "I do not think Rodney would willingly explore these tunnels alone."

"Never said it was willingly," Ronon replied and jerked his head toward another tunnel entrance as they walked past it.

"We have found no evidence of people or any sort of animal living in these caves."

"Doesn't mean there isn't something here."

"You are thinking of the drawings of the cave bear?" Teyla shook her head again. "When Yev told us about this cave last winter, she was certain no dangerous animals were living here."

Ronon shrugged. "You said it yourself. The tunnels are extensive. No way to know for sure."

"Let us hope you are wrong," she replied and hurried to catch up with Prin several paces ahead of them.

Mica led them back through the series of tunnels and stopped in front of the mural of Atlantis. "I left them right here," he said. He spread his arms and turned in a circle. "I don't know what could have happened to them."

Ronon bent down and studied the hard-packed dirt, then backtracked to the nearest side passage. He shook his head when the ground didn't show much other than a few scuff marks. If something had come out of the tunnel and grabbed McKay or Sheppard, it hadn't left any traces.

He turned back and watched as Teyla ran her hand over the painting of the city. "What exactly did Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay say before you left to find more lanterns?"

Mica pressed his back against the tunnel wall, wrapped his arms around his middle, and glanced at his father. "Sheppard thought there might be something hidden in the picture. Some sort of map." He looked over at Teyla. "McKay wanted to try and find more of those etchings that we found yesterday, but he needed more light to examine the drawing properly."

Ronon stopped next to Teyla and ran his hands over the painting. "I don't feel any grooves or shapes carved in the wall."

Teyla rested her hands on Mica's shoulders. "Did they say anything else? Anything about searching the other passages?"

Mica shook his head. "I offered to go back to camp and get more lanterns and … and then I just … l-left." He turned guilt-ridden eyes on his father.

Prin pursed his lips and wrapped an arm around Mica's shoulders. "This was not your fault," he said softly.

"No," Teyla added with a gentle smile. She squeezed Mica's hand. "You are not to blame. Do not worry, we will find them."

Mica nodded and gave her a watery smile.

Teyla let go of his hand and turned back to Ronon. "It does not sound like they planned to leave this area."

"So we're back to someone or something taking them," Ronon growled.

"Were you able to find any sort of trail?" Teyla asked as she played her flashlight over the ground.

Ronon shook his head. "Nothing," he told her absently as he glared at the drawing of the city. "Ground's too hard."

Teyla sighed and stepped closer to Ronon. "I do not know where they could be," she admitted, keeping her voice low enough that Prin and Mica on the other side of the tunnel wouldn't hear her.

They didn't just vanish into thin air, Ronon argued with himself. If they didn't go back to the main cavern … He thought and ran his fingers along the edges of the wall feeling for any cracks or seams that would indicate the wall wasn't as solid as it looked.

"Ronon? What are you doing?" Teyla asked.

Ronon ignored her question, stepped back, and pulled out his particle weapon. He quickly adjusted it to its highest setting and pointed it at the wall.

"Ronon!" Teyla exclaimed.

Ronon glared over at her, his aim never wavering. "If they didn't try to explore the other tunnels, they had to find some way through that wall." He turned back to the wall and tightened his finger on the trigger.

"Stop!" she told him and tried to push his arm down. "If you are correct, you may damage the only way they have to get back."

Ronon studied her for a moment, then lowered his weapon.

"I don't understand," Prin said. "It's stone. There's no way through a stone wall without cutting tools."

Teyla turned to him. "That is not always the case," she said.

Ronon caught the pensive glance she gave the wall. He holstered his gun and crossed his arms over his chest. "You've seen something like this before."

He watched as Teyla hesitated for a moment then nodded. "There was another cave." She placed her hand on the mural. "To John and Rodney, the wall appeared solid. I, however, was able to easily pass through it when I touched it."

Ronon pointed at the wall. "So why isn't it working now?"

Teyla sighed and dropped her hand. "Rodney believes these tunnels were made with a purpose. It is possible that purpose was to hide the ZPM. If that is the case, only someone with the Ancestor's gene would be able to access the hiding place."

"So what do we do?"

"There is nothing we can do," she replied. "Unless Colonel Sheppard or Rodney opens the hidden door, there is no way for us to join them."

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

As soon as John touched the section of the painting with the control tower, the entire wall vanished under his hand. Caught off guard, he fell forward, releasing his hold on the P-90, and reached out instinctively to the nearest wall to break his fall. His hand landed on the smooth surface just as he felt his stomach flip when the ground disappeared under him.

"Damn it!" he exclaimed as he stumbled forward in the pitch dark.

He stopped moving and kept one hand braced against the wall as he tried to get his breathing back under control. The P-90 dangled from his vest clip, the beam from the barrel light faintly illuminating what turned out to be a series of wide stone steps. He turned, pointing the light at the solid wall at the top of the stairs.

"No, no, no," he muttered as he took the steps two at a time, reached out a hand, and pressed it against the plain stone wall.

"So much for the easy solution," he muttered when the wall remained stubbornly solid. He tapped his earpiece. "McKay?" he said. "Rodney, can you hear me?" He waited a few moments then tried again. "This is Sheppard. Is anyone reading me?"

The only reply was dead air.

"Good job, John," he chastised himself as he tapped off the radio. "You got yourself stuck behind a wall and no way to tell anyone where you are."

He examined the wall as best he could in the dim glow of the barrel light's beam but didn't find any sort of obvious latch or access panel that would open the wall.

It occurred to him that McKay was likely panicking by now, and he hoped Rodney would wait until Mica came back before he tried to find Teyla and Ronon. The last thing he needed was to get out of wherever he was, only to find out McKay was lost somewhere in the tunnels looking for him.

"Assuming he's noticed you're even gone," he muttered to himself with a hint of resentment in his tone.

He scrubbed a hand over his face. The thought wasn't really fair, he knew that, but there was still that niggle of doubt at the back of his mind; that little voice saying he still didn't really trust McKay.

He shook his head and turned around. "Maybe there's another way out," he said as he started down the stone steps again.

He was at the bottom of the stairs when he noticed something in the cave had changed. It took him a moment to realise he could see not only the walls of the cave now without the flashlight, but also that the walls were covered with more drawings.

"Okay," he muttered as the light continued to increase. He clicked off the barrel light and turned in a slow circle. "That's kinda … weird."

With the better light, he discovered the cave was a large, open space, not that different from the cavern near the entrance. Whoever had made the drawings in the past, there was no indication anyone was living in this cave now, either human or animal. He reached out a hand to touch the image of a puddle jumper before he remembered what had happened with the mural of the city.

He clenched his hand into a loose fist and pulled his hand back. All he needed was for another wall to suddenly disappear. He stepped back and continued his survey of the cave.

While there was more light, there wasn't much warmth, and John zipped his jacket higher to ward off the chill as he walked the perimeter of the cave. An out-jutting of stone hid an alcove near the back of the cave. He peered around the corner and found a second, smaller space, just as empty as the larger cavern. What he didn't find was any sort of tunnel opening.

"So that's the only way in or out," John muttered with a glance at the wall at the top of the stone steps. "Great." He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.

He took another deep breath and spun around, checking the walls and then the roof.

Where was the fresh air coming from? he wondered as he studied the walls again. If there's an air shaft … He let the thought peter out when he didn't find anything that looked like a ventilation shaft he could use to climb out of the cave.

So much for that plan, he thought with a grimace.

He wandered back to the nearest wall and was examining an image of what looked like the Ancient box Rodney had in his lab when he caught a glimpse of a bright shape moving toward him from the back of the cave. He spun around, the P-90 raised, when a woman appeared out of the light and stepped forward.

The woman appeared to be several years older than John. Her silver hair was gathered in an elegant bun at the top of her head, leaving a few tasteful tendrils hanging loose around her face. She wore a quilted robe over a plain tunic and John was reminded of the Ancient woman in the recording Beckett had found when they had first arrived in Atlantis.

She stopped a few paces from John, glanced at the gun in his hand, and frowned slightly. "Welcome, brother," she said, and held up her hand in greeting.

"Umm, hello," John replied. He lowered the P-90 and mirrored her raised hand.

The woman lowered her arm and clasped her hands together. "It has been so long, I admit I had lost hope that our plan had worked."

John gave her a puzzled look. "I'm sorry. Our plan?"

The woman studied John for several moments. "You are of The People, I can sense it."

John stepped back a pace. "The People?"

"The People of Atlantis," the woman explained with a frown. "You are from the Great City, are you not?"

Before John could explain about the Ancient gene, he heard a startled yelp behind him. He spun around in time to see McKay stumble through the wall behind him and crash to the floor when his foot missed one of the steps.

"Damn it!" McKay exclaimed. He clutched his bandaged hand to his chest and rocked back-and-forth.

John winced and rubbed the back of his head. "McKay?" He glanced from the woman standing in front of him to Rodney sprawled on the ground behind him. "You all right?" he asked, and took a backwards step toward McKay.

"I think I broke another of the blisters on my hand," McKay groused in reply. "Beckett is going --"

John glanced back at him and found McKay staring at the woman, the expression on his face a mixture of pain and fear.

"Who are you?" McKay asked. He climbed to his feet, his hand held protectively against his chest, and stood slightly behind John.

The woman ignored the question as she reached out a hand and stepped toward them.

John took a step back, pushing McKay back with him.

"You are bonded," she whispered, and John didn't miss the awe in her voice.

"How did --" John started to say.

McKay started to step around him, but John put out an arm and blocked his path. "You're an Ancient, aren't you?"

"I am unfamiliar with that term," the woman said. "I am of Atlantis. As, I believe, are you. My name is Yana."

John saw McKay's startled reaction even as he felt a jolt in his stomach at the familiar name.

"And you would be John Sheppard." She nodded to him and turned to McKay, "And M --"

"Rodney," McKay jumped in with a surreptitious glance at John. "Doctor Rodney McKay."

"Rodney," Yana said with a tiny smile. She turned and motioned for them to follow her. "Come, there is much to explain," she added, and disappeared around the protruding wall near the back of the cave.

"What do you think?" McKay asked with a glance at the corner where Yana had disappeared.

John checked the safety was set on the P-90 and started across the cave. "I think our best chance of finding the ZPM, not to mention a way out of this cave, is to do as the lady asks."

McKay gave the walls of the cave a startled look. "Are you telling me we're trapped in here?" he asked, and John heard the note of panic in his voice.

"Come on," he said and tugged McKay's jacket sleeve to get him moving. "I'm sure if the ZPM is here, there's a way to get it back to the city."

"If?" McKay whispered as he followed John around the wall.

John came around the wall and did a double-take when he found Yana seated in a high backed chair. Two more chairs sat across from her.

"Please, sit," Yana said and pointed to the two waiting chairs.

John watched as McKay gave the chairs a suspicious glance, and he had to admit he, too, wondered how the furniture had suddenly appeared. He unclipped the P-90, set it on the ground next to one of the chairs, and sat down. McKay gave the other chair a cautious poke, then perched on the edge of the seat.

"You are chilled," Yana said to McKay with a puzzled frown.

John looked over at McKay and noticed he had his jacket zipped to his chin, and his arms were wrapped around his middle.

"Yes, well, it's not exactly the tropics in here," McKay told her as he rubbed his right hand up and down his left arm; he kept his bandaged left hand tight against his chest.

"Very strange," she muttered, then pointed at the ground between her chair and theirs. A flame formed on the ground where she'd indicated, and within a few seconds, a small fire burned merrily.

"How did you do that?" McKay asked. He bent forward and studied the flames intently.

John shook his head and pushed McKay back in his chair. "You're gonna singe off your eyebrows you get any closer."

McKay glared at him for a moment then settled back in his chair. John noted it didn't take long for him to relax as the small fire warmed the space around them.

Yana waited a moment, then clasped her hands together in her lap. "Now, I am correct, am I not? You are both from the Great City?"

McKay glanced over at him, and John knew they were thinking the same thing. The last time they were this close to a ZPM, Allina and her people had refused to accept them as the true inheritors of the crystal.

John took a deep breath and replied, "Not exactly. We came to Atlantis a little over a year ago. We're from … Earth." He squinted at Yana and waited to see how she would react.

Yana smiled. "Earth," she said with a nod. "We were successful, after all."

John and McKay exchanged a confused look.

"How were you successful, exactly?" John asked.

Yana leant back and rested her arms on the broad arms of the chair. "We were losing the war against the Wraith," she told them. "In an attempt to save our race, the last of our people used the portal in the city and fled to Earth."

McKay grunted. "Leaving countless planets and people here in Pegasus to fend for themselves."

"McKay," John hissed and glared at him.

"No, John," Yana replied, regret clear in her tone. "Rodney is correct. We did leave the people of this galaxy at the mercy of the Wraith." She looked at McKay. "But we had no choice. Those of us who had already achieved ascension to a higher plane were forbidden from offering assistance to those suffering the cullings."

"So we've heard," John said. The memory of Chaya waving goodbye to him from the balcony of her temple flashed across his mind, and he didn't bother to hide his frustration.

Yana pursed her lips and continued, "It was always our hope that one day we would be able to return to this galaxy, reclaim Atlantis, and put an end to the scourge that is the Wraith."

"But you stayed here, on Lurra?" John asked.

Yana nodded. "I had already completed my journey along The Way and had achieved an existence on a higher plane. The Wraith were no longer a threat to me. I offered to take one of the power crystals and hide it in anticipation of the return of our people."

"So the other Elizabeth was right," McKay muttered. He looked over at Yana and continued, "You're telling us there really is a Zed-PM here."

"Zed-PM?" Yana asked with a puzzled frown.

"Umm, yes. It's what we call the crystals used to power Atlantis. It stands for Zero-Point Module."

"Ahh, an apt description," she replied. She glanced at the wall behind John and sighed.

John saw her wistful expression and felt his stomach clench. "Something happened. Didn't it?" he said.

Yana clasped her hands in her lap and nodded. "Over the ensuing millennia, I will admit my hope waned." She ducked her head. "Lurra was attacked, oh, many hundreds of years ago. Many Wraith came, bombarding the mountains, trying to force the Lurrans out into the open where they could be culled." She glanced up at the roof of the cavern. "This mountain was no exception."

"So it was true," Rodney muttered to himself.

John glanced at him, but Rodney just shook his head.

Yana sighed. "The attack lasted for almost a day. Somehow the Wraith knew most of the Lurrans had taken refuge in one of the nearby caverns. After several hours, the assault took its toll, and some of the tunnels started to collapse. I was forced to make a choice, protect the crystal or protect the people of this planet."

She looked over at John. "I chose to save the Lurrans and made sure the cavern where they had taken refuge remained whole. The next day, the Wraith finally left. After the Lurrans returned to their homes, I returned to the section where the crystal was hidden only to discover it was lost, shattered when the cavern where it was hidden collapsed. I had saved the Lurran people, but I had failed in my duty to Atlantis."

John's mind turned to Chaya, exiled on Proculus for a similar offence. "And there were no … repercussions?" he asked with a frown.

Yana shook her head. "I was charged with protecting this cave. I did so. The Others never knew of the choice I was forced to make." She sat back in her chair and glanced at McKay. "It was the right thing to do. If necessary, I would make the same choice again."

John watched McKay sag back in his chair and knew how he felt. Once again they were so close only to have the ZPM ripped away at the last minute.

McKay looked over at him. "That would at least explain why the scanner never picked up any signs the Zed-PM was here. The cave-in must have crushed it down to dust. Anything still left was just too small for the scanner to pick up."

John nodded and started to reply when McKay sat up straight in his chair and stared at Yana. "Hang on. Why are you still here?"

"What?" John asked.

McKay turned to John and pointed a finger at Yana. "If the Zed-PM was destroyed hundreds of years ago, and these Others didn't know what happened, why is she still here? There's nothing left to protect."

John glanced from McKay to Yana and raised a questioning eyebrow.

"It is only recently that I have returned to Lurra," Yana replied. "I sensed a presence here not that long ago. I had hoped it meant the return of our people, and I wished to explain what had happened."

John exchanged another look with McKay. "Presence?" he asked Yana.

Yana nodded. "Even though the crystal had been destroyed, I did not wish to completely abandon my duty," she told him, her tone more formal. "I kept watch and sensed the presence of someone from Atlantis on the planet a few months ago. I returned in order to explain my failure. However, when I arrived, no one was here."

"That was us," John admitted, pointing first at McKay and then himself. "We were here last winter. We had heard the stories the Lurrans told about you and this cave and wanted to investigate. Unfortunately, we were caught in a blizzard, and our jumper crashed."

"And we nearly died," McKay muttered beside him.

"We had to wait for the snow to melt before we could come back," John finished.

Yana frowned. "That is something I do not understand. You share the mental bond. Something as trivial as the weather should not have been such a hindrance for two such as yourselves."

John sat forward in his chair. "How do you know about the link?"

"I can sense it," she told him. She waved her hand at the air between their two chairs. "The connection between the pair of you is palpable."

McKay snorted. "You're saying we have an aura?"

Yana gave him a hard look. "The term is crude but apropos."

"Unbelievable," McKay muttered.

John stared at Yana. "You're saying you can actually see the link?"

Yana stood from her chair and paced back-and-forth. "This does not make any sense. You are clearly linked to each other. From what I can see, the bond is a strong one. How can you be so far along your chosen path of The Way and not know this?"

John could hear the capital letters in her voice when Yana said 'The Way'. "The link was a sort of --"

"Accident," McKay finished. "We found a totem pole on the mainland that dropped us into the gauntlet from hell."

Yana stared at McKay, clearly surprised. "Many of our people spent years in study with their partner before seeking a waypost and attempting the trials. You were able to successfully navigate those trials, and achieved the final phase for linking, and yet you have no formal training in The Way?"

"Umm, yes?" Rodney replied with a confused glance at John.

Yana shook her head. "I am … amazed."

"The Overseer was kinda surprised when we survived too," John told her with a wry smile.

"So what is this 'way' you keep talking about?" McKay asked.

"The Way to Ascension," Yana told him.

'Ascension,' McKay mouthed. He sank back in his chair, a stunned expression on his face.

John sat frozen in place for a few seconds.

"It has been a long time since I have seen such a strong bond between two such disparate individuals," he remembered the Overseer telling them, then giving John a measured look. "You, in particular, seem to have an especially strong mental capability. The final phase will serve you well, I think."

Was this what he meant? John wondered when a new thought occurred to him.

"Wait. I thought this link was only supposed to make the symbiotic systems in the city work," he said to Yana. "Wasn't the final phase so linked pairs," he pointed a thumb at McKay and then himself, "could use those systems to defend Atlantis?"

Yana shook her head. "Those systems were designed once we knew the power contained within two linked minds." She glanced from John to McKay. "The true purpose of the mental bond was to allow two individuals to remain connected once the path to ascension was complete. It was not a path chosen by many of my people, and even fewer were able to complete the trials for the link to be established."

Chapter Text

Rodney felt his stomach lurch. "You are such an idiot," he scolded himself as he jumped up, and paced a small circle in the corner of the cave behind his chair. He held up his right hand, one finger extended. "Why didn't you ever even consider the possibility of ascension?" He held up another finger. "Of course it's not like anyone bothered to leave any sort of manual of what the link does or how it works."

He stopped moving and crossed his left arm over his chest and pinched the bridge of his nose with his right.

"McKay?" Sheppard said, but Rodney closed his eyes and ignored him.

"With everything you know about the Ancients, it should have been obvious," he continued berating himself in a low mutter. He flung his arms away from his chest as he started pacing again. "Nearly everything they did was focused on reaching a higher plane of existence. So, back to being an idiot."

"McKay," Sheppard drawled a little louder.

He froze in place. "Do you even want to ascend?" he asked as he stared up at the roof of the cave. "How would that even work? And what happens if --"

"Rodney!" Sheppard shouted.

"What!" Rodney yelled back. He spun around and found Sheppard and Yana watching him.

"Calm down," Sheppard replied. "We aren't going to solve anything while you're panicking."

Rodney glared over at John, still sitting in his chair. "I'm not --"

Sheppard merely stared at him.

"Fine," he huffed and leant against the wall. "Why are you so calm about this, anyways? Isn't this freaking you out? Because it's really freaking me out."

"We can see that," John said with a wry smile.

"I sympathise with what you are feeling, Rodney," Yana said softly. "Neither you nor John were prepared for what the mental bond entailed."

Rodney snorted and forced down the urge to roll his eyes.

"There may be something I can do, however," Yana said as she walked over to Rodney's corner. She started to reach for him, but Rodney shifted away from her.

Yana dropped her hand and said, "Before I ascended, I assisted others along The Way. Perhaps I can do the same for you and John."

"Can you tell us how to break the link?" Rodney asked her bluntly.

"What?" John asked, and Rodney saw the mix of surprise and hurt in his expression. "You really want to break the link?"

"No!" he exclaimed and shook his head. "Not really. I just thought … after Doranda." He sat down in his chair and looked at the wall behind Sheppard. "It's … I like …" He frowned and looked down at his hands. "I don't want to lose what we have," he admitted with a hesitant glance at John.

"Good," John told him and relaxed slightly. "I don't either." He leant forward and tapped Rodney on the knee. "Even after Doranda."

Rodney gave him a crooked smile. "Still, have you thought about what this means? And how are we going to explain this to Elizabeth, never mind Ronon and Teyla?"

"If I may," Yana interjected. She waited until Rodney and John both turned toward her, then continued, "The link is a permanent part of each of you. Once established, it cannot be broken, except in death."

Rodney swallowed hard and glanced at John. "You said this was a path to ascension. How common was it for one of the pair to die before …" He waved his hand over his head.

Yana ducked her head and turned away. "Due to the war with the Wraith there were occasions when one half of a linked pair died before he or she could reach ascension," she admitted.

Rodney felt his stomach clench and forced himself to not look at Sheppard. "What happened … What happened to the one left behind?"

Yana sat in her chair and looked down at her hands. "A few were able to move on after a time." She glanced up at them. "They were never the same, however."

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "And the others?" he asked, though he suspected he knew what the answer would be.

Yana sighed. "Most went mad from the loss," she admitted softly.

Rodney felt the panic rising in his chest again as his worst fears were confirmed. He tried to get the panic under control, but he felt himself getting lost in the memories of all the close calls they'd had over the last year. The Eidolon. The transformer exploding. Sheppard's suicide run at a Wraith hive ship. Vance.

"Hey," he heard Sheppard whisper and felt a hand grasping his arm.

Rodney looked over at John, his eyes wide as his panic grew.

"That's not going to happen, all right?" Sheppard looked him in the eye. "We'll figure this out."

Rodney closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then another. He used John's hand on his arm as an anchor as he forced himself to calm down.

"That's better," John said a moment later. He squeezed Rodney's arm one last time and let go.

"Astounding," Yana said, glancing from Rodney to John and back again. "Now, I am beginning to understand how you were able to complete the trials even though you've had no formal training."

"What are you talking about?" Rodney asked, his expression shifting from fear to impatience.

"You react to each other on an instinctive level. It is that level of interaction so many of my people failed to achieve even with years of practice." She glanced first at John then at Rodney. "And you are certain you are not blood-related?"

Sheppard shook his head. "A friend of ours says we're chaguo ndugu."

Yana nodded. "Your friend is wise. The description fits you both well." She let the silence grow for several moments, then asked. "If I may, when did you complete the trials?"

"About a year ago," John replied. "Maybe a little longer."

Yana nodded. "You have achieved much in that time."

"Yes, the headaches from the pain spikes have been such a joy," Rodney grumbled.

Yana smiled. "Sensitivity to your partner's pain is one of the early manifestations of the mental bond, it is true. But from what I have just observed, you have moved beyond that initial phase."

Rodney exchanged a puzzled look with John.

Yana bent forward. "Rodney, tell me what happened a few moments ago."

"What do you mean?"

Yana perched on the edge of her chair and studied him intently. "A moment ago, you were afraid, correct? You felt yourself sinking or drowning in that anxiety?"

Rodney glanced at John, swallowed, and nodded.

"When John touched your arm, what did you feel?"

"Umm." Rodney wrapped his arms around his middle. He gave John another quick glance then focused on the wall behind Yana's head. "I-I don't know. Safe, maybe? I guess?"

Yana nodded. "That was the link. When John touched you, I watched the energy field surrounding both of you shift."

Rodney frowned. That was not what he expected her to say. "Shift how?" he asked, and felt curiosity overriding any embarrassment he felt at the admission.

"I am not sure how to explain," she admitted. "Before John touched your arm, the energy field surrounding your side of the bond was chaotic, like a storm-tossed ocean. John's side was calm, as the still waters of a quiet lake. When John touched you, the flow of energy changed. The calmness was able to quiet the storm. What is so amazing is that both of you acted on a purely instinctual level."

All of this talk of energy fields and instinctive reactions went against everything Rodney's scientific mind knew how to understand. He shook his head and pushed himself back in his chair. "I'm sorry, but that's … that's just nuts."

"You are a logician," Yana told him. "Perhaps a more practical example will help convince you of what I am saying." She reached forward and touched Rodney's bandaged hand. "May I ask what happened?"

Rodney curled his hand to his chest. "Caustic tree sap."

"From a mancinella tree, I presume? They can be dangerous."

"Ronon called it a Corpse Tree," Rodney replied and kept his hand against his chest.

Yana smiled, "A bit of an exaggeration, but still, burns caused by the sap are quite painful." She held out her open palm to him. "Will you allow me to see it?"

Rodney hesitated. "This is ridiculous," he muttered. "There is no such thing as auras or energy fields."

Sheppard leant forward. "What would you have said a year ago if someone had told you it was possible to share a mental link with someone?"

Rodney shook his head. Sheppard had a point, he realised. To anyone else, the mental link he and John shared would seem equally absurd. He gave John a quick glance and held out his hand.

Yana knelt on her knees in front of Rodney and carefully unwrapped the bandage. He glanced down at the raw, red skin of his palm and the open sores on the pads at the base of his fingers. He swallowed, and focused on the wall behind John's head.

"These are serious burns," she said after a moment and glanced up at him. "There is extensive damage to the underlying muscle and tendons."

"So I've been told," Rodney muttered with a sideways glance at John.

Yana turned to John. "John, if you would take Rodney's hand, please," she said, holding out Rodney's arm to John.

"I'm sorry?" John asked. "Why?" He glanced from Yana to Rodney and back again.

"To prove a point," Yana replied. "Please." She nodded to Rodney's hand.

John sighed and took Rodney's wrist in a light grip.

"No, more like this," Yana told him, and positioned them such that Rodney's curled fingers and palm were sandwiched between John's two hands.

Once she had their hands positioned, Yana laid her right hand on top of John's. "John, you will need to concentrate. Focus on the burned tissue. Imagine the underlying muscle and skin healed and whole again."

"This is never going to work," Rodney growled and tried to pull his hand loose.

Yana gave him a reproving glance. "Do you truly fear that John will be unable to heal your burns?" she asked. "Or are you more afraid that he will?"

"I don't know if this is such a good idea," John said with a quick glance at Rodney. "Who's to say I won't actually make things worse."

Yana smiled. "You will do fine, John. Trust me. More importantly, you must trust yourself."

John pursed his lips, then looked at Rodney. "It's up to you. Do you want me to try this?"

"At the very least, you are going to have scars," Carson's prognosis echoed in his mind. "As for your range of motion, let's give your hand time to heal first. Then we'll have a better idea of what to do next."

"That hand is not going to magically heal itself, son. Even with some sort of regular physical activity, you may not regain full use of your fingers."

Rodney sighed. Two different doctors had told him his hand would likely never heal completely. What did he have to lose? he asked himself. He took a deep breath and nodded to John.

John nodded back. "All right, what do I have to do?" he asked Yana.

"Close your eyes," Yana told him. "Picture in your mind the burns to Rodney's hand."

John gave Rodney a reassuring nod and closed his eyes.

Yana's voice took on a low, hypnotic quality as she continued, "Now, John, picture the burns slowly disappearing. The muscles and tendons healed. The skin of his palm is no longer red and raw."

Rodney watched as John's brow furrowed.

"Good," Yana whispered. "Very good, John."

A few seconds later, Rodney saw a faint glow surrounding their hands. He hissed in a breath when he felt a warm, tingling feeling in his palm and forced himself not to jerk his hand free of John's grip.

"Now, John," Yana murmured. "The burns have disappeared, and new skin has formed in their place. Do you see it?"

"Mmm," John murmured. A moment later, he gasped out a breath and let go of Rodney's hand.

"Sheppard?" Rodney said as John sat back in his chair, his eyes still closed. "John? Are you all right?"

John nodded, rubbing his forehead. "Yeah. I think so. Just … Just give me a minute."

Rodney clenched his hand to his chest and stared, first at Sheppard then at Yana. "What's wrong with him?" he demanded. "You didn't say anything about him getting hurt doing this."

Yana slowly stood and settled back in her chair. "Such a large energy exchange can be tiring if you are not used to it," she explained, and Rodney thought she looked as exhausted as Sheppard. "It will pass in a moment."

Rodney glared at her for a moment longer, then turned his attention back to Sheppard. "John?"

"It's fine," he replied. He took another breath and opened his eyes. "So? Did it work?"

"Oh, umm." Rodney looked down at his palm for an instant, then back up at John. "I-I don't believe it," he muttered, and held out his hand, palm up, to John.

Where only a few moments before the skin had been red and raw, now the open sores, along with the few remaining blisters, were gone. In their place, the skin was pale and looked a bit leathery. Rodney pressed his finger to where one of the open blisters had been, and while the new skin was a bit sensitive, most of the pain was gone.

Sheppard scooted forward in his chair and took Rodney's wrist in one hand. "Can you move your fingers?" he asked with a glance up at him.

Rodney concentrated and watched as his fingers slowly uncurled. The joints were stiff, and his fingers ached, but they moved. He saw the relieved look on John's face and flexed his fingers again before another thought occurred to him. When he'd been inside John's head in the gauntlet, the electrical burns on his hands had disappeared. When they had found the Entry Room last year, he had been able to see while inside the environ.

Was that all this was? he wondered. Another illusion?

He poked the pale skin on his palm and frowned.

"Rodney?" John asked, releasing his hand. "What's the matter?"

Rodney glanced at him then turned on Yana. "Is this real?" he asked bluntly.

"I do not understand," Yana replied, her expression puzzled.

"This isn't some kind of trick, is it?" Rodney said. "Some sort of mind manipulation and the burns will be back as soon as we leave the cave or something?"

Yana pursed her lips and shook her head. "It is no trick," she assured him. "Your hand has been healed. There may be some scars and the joints of your fingers will be stiff for many days, but the damage caused by the mancinella tree has been repaired."

Rodney flexed his fingers again and tried to wrap his head around what had just happened. The idea of healing energy went against everything he accepted as fact. Looking down at where the burns had been, though, he couldn't deny that was also a fact.

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

"We can't stand here doing nothing," Ronon growled. "We need to find them. I thought we didn't leave people."

Teyla pursed her lips. "It has already been almost an hour since Mica told us of their disappearance. We should return to the stargate and let Doctor Weir know what has happened."

From a practical point of view, Ronon knew Teyla was right. If they wanted to find Sheppard and McKay, they needed more help than just Prin and Mica. But the idea of leaving … He had a flash memory of Kell, standing near the ring on Sateda, ordering another company into battle while he ran for the safety of another planet.

Ronon growled low in his throat and smacked the mural with the palm of his hand.

"We are not abandoning them," Teyla assured him softly. "We need to get help. There is too much risk of becoming lost ourselves, otherwise."

He could walk away, he knew. Tell Teyla to go back if she wanted to, he would search alone if he had to. The idea fizzled as quickly as it formed. The time when he would go off on his own, damn the consequences, had passed. He was part of a team again, and it was a responsibility he took seriously. He had already jeopardised Teyla's trust once by killing Kell. He owed the team too much to risk it again.

He glared at the roof of the cavern for a moment, then looked down when he felt a hand on his arm.

"I know you are worried about them," Teyla told him. "I am also concerned." She turned back to the mural and placed her hand on the wall. "They may be in no danger," she reminded him. "If this is a hidden door, either Colonel Sheppard or Rodney was able to safely trigger it. If that is the case, they should be able to exit the cavern in the same manner when they choose."

"So why haven't they?"

Teyla dropped her hand. "There is no way to know for certain. The doorway may protect another passage. If so, they may still be searching that passage for the ZPM. With no way to communicate with them, we cannot be sure."

Ronon grunted and glanced at Prin and Mica standing near the entrance to the tunnel. "Do you really believe that?" he asked her in a whisper. "Even if they are just exploring, they're overdue to meet us."

Teyla met his gaze for a moment then glanced away. "We cannot know one way or the other with any certainty," she said. "We are only assuming they are in trouble. It is just as likely they could be fine."

"Yeah, maybe."

Teyla glanced at her watch. "It is nearly midday. If we return to camp and pack up the supplies as well as the items salvaged from the jumper, that will give the Colonel and Rodney more time to find their way back on their own. If they have not returned by the time we have struck camp, then we must return to the stargate and alert Doctor Weir."

Ronon turned away and scowled at the mural.

Teyla squeezed his arm. "We will find them," she said, and Ronon heard the determination in her voice. "We will not leave the planet until we do."

"No, we won't," he agreed and stepped back from the mural.

"Prin," Teyla said. "We need to return to the campsite. We will take as much with us now as the hreindyr can safely pack out. Anything we cannot carry out now, we will return for later when the search teams arrive."

Prin nodded and glanced up at Ronon. "We will help with the search as well," he promised. "We will find your friends."

"Thank you," Teyla replied with a tight smile.

Ronon didn't like it, but he realised they were out of options. "We don't leave until we have them back."

Teyla turned around, her expression concerned but laced with resolve. "Agreed."

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

John did his best to hide how tired he felt after … whatever it was that had just happened. He'd felt some sort of energy building in his chest, it had been a bit of a rush if he were honest, then Yana's voice telling him what to do. The energy had flowed through his hands and there had been a strange sense of calm as he pictured the burns healing. He had known the moment whatever it was they were doing had started to work, the itch at the back of his skull disappeared, and he'd felt Rodney relax.

Had that energy really come from him? he wondered. What, exactly, did that mean? Would he be able to heal someone else the same way or only McKay?

He watched Rodney rubbing his newly-healed hand, a slightly stunned expression still on his face. He shook his head and mouthed something John couldn't make out, and he realised Rodney's logical mind was having more than a little trouble dealing with what had just happened.

The link itself was something John had accepted easily enough, and he had to admit, it had proven useful more than once. But the idea of ascension and a permanent connection to McKay? Even if, unlike Rodney, he hadn't shown any sort of outward signs of panic, the idea scared him more than a little. He hadn't been able to save his marriage. How was he supposed to make something like that work?

John tried to tell himself most of the power, or whatever it was that had healed Rodney's burns, had come from Yana. But he knew there had been something else, something that had come solely from him. And for just an instant, as he imagined the burns were gone, he thought he had caught a glimpse of the energy field surrounding them that Yana had mentioned.

He took a breath and tried to still his shaking hands. Maybe he wasn't doing such a good job of hiding his own fears, after all, he thought to himself.

"Now you both begin to understand the power of The Way and the mental bond you share," Yana said. "What you have experienced so far is only the beginning." She nodded at Rodney's hand. "The ability to share and use the power contained within the bond is only one of the benefits. With enough time and effort, there will be no limit to what you will achieve."

Rodney looked up from his hand. "About that --" he started to say, but Yana shook her head.

"I cannot stay here," she reminded him with a smile. "While it is permitted to show those still along The Way the potential of a particular path, I cannot walk the distance with you. You and John will need to decide what you wish to do next, continue toward the final goal of The Way and ascend, or accept where you are now." She paused. "And the consequences that will occur later."

Sheppard pursed his lips and glanced at Rodney.

"It would have been nice if anyone had bothered to write some of this down," McKay muttered.

John suspected he'd meant the comment only for himself, but he saw Yana nod in response. "One's pilgrimage along his chosen path was a personal one, though some of our people did keep journals of their journey along The Way," she replied. "There were even a few accounts made by bonded pairs."

"I don't suppose you'd know where those books are now?" Rodney asked.

Yana shook her head. "Many things were lost as various planets fell to the Wraith. A few were housed in various libraries and archives. I do not know if any of those records still exist after so much time has passed."

Rodney twisted his lips and grumbled under his breath.

Yana glanced at the front of the cavern and stood. "Your friends are looking for you," she said. "It is time we parted." She reached out one hand to John and the other to Rodney.

John picked up the P-90 from the ground next to his chair and clipped it to his tac-vest. After a brief hesitation, he took Yana's hand and waited for McKay to take her other.

"Thank you," she said, and John felt her squeeze his hand.

John glanced at Rodney's hand. "Maybe we should be saying that to you."

Yana gave him a gentle smile. "You and Rodney have proven we were right all those millennia ago. Our people have returned to Atlantis and, hopefully, in time, you will succeed where we failed." She looked from John to Rodney. "Farewell, John Sheppard. Doctor Rodney McKay. Whatever you choose for your path along The Way, I wish you peace at the end of your journey."

Before John could reply, there was a bright flash of light, and the air was displaced around him. When he blinked the spots from his vision, he realised it wasn't just the flash blindness affecting his vision, it really was dark. He heard a groan beside him, clicked on the barrel light for the P-90, and looked around. Rodney stood hunched beside him, his hands over his eyes.

"You all right?" he asked as he played the flashlight over the surrounding walls. He took a step back in surprise when the beam of light picked out the mural of Atlantis on the wall behind them.

"I really wish people would give me a warning before blinding me," Rodney grumbled and rubbed his eyes. "What happened?"

"I'm guessing Yana returned to wherever it is she came from," John replied. "But she dropped us off outside her cave before she left."

Rodney groaned, and John swung the light back around in time to see him stagger a step and reach blindly for the nearest wall. Unfortunately, it was the wall with the mural.

"Don't!" John exclaimed and grabbed McKay's wrist.

"What?" Rodney yelped in surprise as John led him over to another wall and let go of his hand.

"That was the wall with the mural," John explained. "Best not to press our luck with that doorway. If Yana is really gone, I'm not sure we'd get out a second time."

Rodney nodded and slouched with his back against the wall, rubbing his eyes.

John gave him a moment to get his bearings and focused the barrel light on the wall behind Rodney's head. The patterns decorating the wall seemed strangely familiar, and John took a step closer to the wall, running his hand over one of the shapes.

"I think they might be 'gate symbols," Rodney said, squinting at the wall. "I was trying to figure them out when I noticed you had, umm … disappeared."

John remembered how Rodney had fallen through the doorway into Yana's cave. The pain from falling on his injured hand hadn't been enough to hide the panic he'd seen in McKay's eyes. "Did you try the running start and slam into it method you suggested when we found that Wraith cave of Teyla's?" he asked, trying to lighten the mood.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "This is what I get for worrying about you," he muttered and stood up straight.

"I'm touched," John replied with a smile.

"Whatever," Rodney replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. He pointed at the wall. "These symbols might still be important, I really should write them down before we leave."

"Fine, but be quick about it. We've been gone a couple of hours at least. We need to find Ronon and Teyla."

Rodney nodded and patted his vest. John watched as he pulled a pad of paper and a pencil out of his vest pocket before he turned to check the tunnel that led back to the front of the cave.

"Umm, a little light here, please?" Rodney said.

John turned from his examination of the passage. "Where's your flashlight?" he asked even as he stepped behind Rodney and held the beam from the barrel light on the wall.

"I think I dropped the flashlight when I fell through the …" He waved his hand at the mural.

John shook his head. "Just hurry up."

Rodney nodded and quickly drew the symbols on a page from the notebook. "Done," he said a few minutes later. He stuffed the notebook and pencil back in his vest pocket and flexed the fingers used to hold the paper.

"How's the hand?" John asked.

"Stiff, but I'll take it," Rodney replied. He winced as he flexed his fingers again, then glanced over at John. "Thank you."

John shook his head. "I'm still not sure how much of it was me and how much was Yana," he hedged. "I'm just glad it worked."

McKay frowned down at his hand. "How are we going to explain it, though? Without telling everyone about the link?"

John pointed the flashlight at McKay's hand. The palm was still pale compared to the rest of his hand, and John wondered if the skin would ever look normal again. "It might be best to rewrap it until we're back in Atlantis." When Rodney gave him a questioning look, John continued, "We don't need to be the source of a new folk story about a cave with magical healing properties."

Rodney looked around the cave and shuddered. "Good point," he agreed, and dug through his vest pockets until he found a roll of gauze. "That still leaves the team and everyone in the city," he added as John took the roll.

"Hold this where I can see what I'm doing," John said as he unclipped the P-90 from his vest and handed it over.

Rodney took an awkward hold on the rifle and pointed the barrel light at his hand.

"As for Ronon, Teyla, and the others, we'll deal with that once we're home," John said as he wrapped Rodney's palm and tied off the gauze. "One thing at a time," he added and took back the rifle. "We need to find the others and get back to the city." He tapped his earpiece. "This is Sheppard. Ronon? Teyla? Either of you reading me?"

Rodney picked at the bandage and shook his head. "The radios don't work in here, remember?"

John shrugged and tapped off the radio. "It was worth a shot," he replied and turned toward the passage. "Come on, we'll head back to the cavern near the entrance. Let's hope Ronon and Teyla waited for us. Otherwise, we'll need to find our own way back to the village."

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

Ronon kept one eye on the cave entrance even as he finished packing the tent Prin and Mica had used. The rest of the supplies were already piled near the hreindyr. All that was left standing in their campsite was the tent the team had used the night before.

"Leave it," he said as Mica stepped toward the still-standing tent. "They're going to need it if they get trapped up here overnight."

Mica stepped back, glanced up at the afternoon sun, and nodded. "I'll get the rest of the gear loaded on the hreindyr."

Ronon grunted, and Mica hurried back to the animal. He watched as Mica and Prin tied the various bundles to the hreindyr's back, then turned back to the cave, his arms crossed over his chest.

"We are doing the right thing," Teyla reminded him as she walked past with her pack in her arms. "We will need help if we wish to find them."

Ronon glared at the cave. "I still think one of us should stay here."

Teyla shook her head. "We need to stay together."

Ronon was about to reply when the radio squawked in his ear. "… ard. Tey… Non … Read me?"

Teyla gave Ronon a startled look as she set the pack on the ground and tapped her ear. "Colonel Sheppard? Your transmission is poor. Are you all right?"

Ronon didn't wait for Sheppard to answer. He turned and ran back toward the cave.

" … 're fine. Where … you?"

"Teyla? Ronon?" Ronon heard Prin call behind him. "Is everything all right?"

"I believe Colonel Sheppard is trying to contact us on the radio," Ronon heard Teyla reply. "We will return shortly."

Ronon tapped his earpiece. "Sheppard?" We're outside the cave. Where are you?"

"Almost back to … first cavern," Sheppard replied.

"McKay with you?" Ronon asked and stopped a few paces away from the cave.

"Yep … here, too," Sheppard replied. "Hang on … meet you outside in … minutes."

Ronon glanced over as Teyla joined him. "You heard?"

She nodded. "It sounds like they are both well."

Ronon grunted. He heard McKay's voice coming from the cave entrance, and a few moments later, Sheppard exited the cave followed by McKay. Sheppard held up a hand in greeting, and Ronon gave them both a quick once over, relieved they both appeared to be fine.

"Colonel," Teyla said with a nod. "Rodney. Mica informed us you had disappeared. We were concerned."

"We took a bit of an unexpected detour," Sheppard replied. "You guys all okay?"

"We're fine," Ronon replied. "What about the ZPM?"

Sheppard glanced at McKay. "That's a bit of a long story," he started to say, but McKay interrupted.

"The short version is, it was destroyed. Years ago." McKay rubbed the bandage on his hand and gave Sheppard a sideways look.

"So this whole trip was a waste of time?" Ronon asked.

"Not … exactly," Sheppard replied. "There was --" He stopped speaking and stared at something behind Ronon's shoulder.

Ronon turned and saw Prin and Mica only a few steps away.

"Did you find the crystal?" Prin asked as he stopped next to Ronon and glanced from Sheppard to McKay.

"No," Sheppard replied. "There was a collapsed tunnel. We think the ZPM was down that passage. If it was, it's most likely crushed."

"It may be possible to dig through the debris," Teyla suggested.

Sheppard shook his head. "Like Rodney said, it probably happened years ago."

Ronon noticed the furtive look McKay gave Sheppard and wondered what they weren't saying.

Prin ducked his head. "I'm sorry to hear that."

"Yeah," Sheppard told him and started walking back toward the camp. "The trip wasn't a complete loss, however. We did manage to salvage most of the supplies from the jumper. Which reminds me," he turned to McKay, "I was going to ask if you thought any of the ship's systems might be worth saving."

McKay gave Sheppard a startled look. "Oh, umm, maybe?" He stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets.

Ronon frowned when McKay didn't wince at the movement.

"With everything else we salvaged, will we be able to pack anything else out with us?" Sheppard asked Prin.

Prin nodded. "Mica and I were able to devise a way to attach the stretcher to the hreindyr's harness. There is still some room."

Sheppard nodded and turned to McKay. "Grab whatever tools you need and take Ronon with you." He glanced at his watch then up at the sun. "You have an hour to get what you can, then we need to start back to the village. I don't think any of us want to try climbing out of these mountains in the dark."

"I'll get the tools for you," Mica offered and jogged over to the hreindyr standing near the stream.

McKay took his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms over his chest. "I thought you already went through the jumper."

Sheppard nodded. "We did, but that was just the supplies from the rear section. I didn't know how to remove any of the ship's components."

"Oh," McKay mumbled. He glanced at the jumper in the distance and Ronon saw him shudder before he looked away.

Mica stopped next to the hreindyr, and Ronon watched him sift through the various bundles tied to the animal's back. He pulled a familiar roll out from under one of the straps, then turned and jogged back carrying the tools. "Here," he said and offered the roll to McKay.

McKay started to reach out with his bandaged left hand, and Ronon saw Sheppard nudge him before McKay shifted and took the tools with his right.

Ronon narrowed his eyes at the exchange.

"What's --" he started to ask.

Sheppard pursed his lips and shook his head. "Go with McKay," he ordered with a pointed look at McKay's back. "We need to get moving."

He held Sheppard's gaze for a moment longer, then tugged McKay's arm. "Come on," he growled and started toward the jumper.

"Do you mind," McKay replied, and pulled his arm loose. "I can walk."

"Then walk," Ronon told him and headed toward the jumper in the distance.

McKay grumbled something under his breath and followed Ronon across the meadow.

"Priorities," he heard McKay muttering as they walked. "Cloaking generator, definitely. Anything I can pull from the DHD, we can always use the spare parts. Oh and crystals. Whatever crystals you can grab."

"Sheppard already took those," Ronon told him.

"Hmm?" McKay asked with a distracted glance over at him.

"Crystals. Sheppard pulled all of the crystals out of the box in the rear section already."

"Oh. Good, good," McKay replied with a nod. "One less thing to worry about, then."

They stopped next to the jumper ten minutes later, and Ronon was at the rear hatch when he realised McKay was no longer beside him. He looked back and found McKay standing a few feet from the jumper staring at the front of the ship.

"You coming?" Ronon prodded, letting his impatience show.

"Yes, yes, coming," McKay muttered. He hunched his shoulders and shuffled over to the rear hatch.

Ronon waited for McKay to step inside the ship, then followed him. He ignored the creaking noise the jumper made as they moved, but McKay froze and gave the roof, then the cockpit a worried look.

"You're sure it's safe to be in here?" he asked.

"It's safe," Ronon told him and pushed McKay in the back to get him moving. "You're wasting time."

"Yes, yes," McKay muttered. He took a few more hesitant steps toward the cockpit.

Ronon felt the ship start to tilt with the change in weight, so he was ready when McKay lost his balance.

"Gah!" McKay yelped and shot out a hand to catch himself on the bulkhead. At the same time, Ronon grabbed the loop on the back of his tac-vest and kept him more or less on his feet.

"I thought you said we were safe," McKay exclaimed and glared at Ronon.

Ronon ignored him and stared at McKay's bandaged hand braced against the side of the ship.

McKay caught the look and jerked his hand off the wall, hiding his hand under his right arm.

Ronon gave him a steely glare as he let go of the vest's loop.

McKay swallowed. "I'll just …" He waved his unbandaged hand in the direction of the cockpit and hurried the last few steps toward the front of the ship.

Ronon stood against the bulkhead between the cockpit and the rear section and listened as McKay, half-hidden under the console, muttered to himself. Occasionally he heard McKay grunt as he worked. After a few minutes, he scooted back out from under the console holding out a short, rectangular box with several wires dangling from one end.

"Here," he said and held out the object. "Take this."

"What is it?" Ronon asked as he took the box and turned it over in his hand.

"It's the interface module for the DHD," McKay replied absently and stood.

Ronon watched as he pried the front cover off the mini-DHD with a screwdriver and removed the crystals. "And these are the control crystals," he added. "I'll need to find something to put them in." He looked around the cockpit, then patted his vest pockets.

Ronon looked around the rear section but turned back to McKay when he heard a soft hiss of breath behind him. He found McKay standing with his right hand held against his chest, staring at the discarded glove on the co-pilot seat.

When, after a few more seconds, McKay still hadn't moved, Ronon stepped forward and grasped him by the arm. "Hey," he said and waited for McKay to look at him. "You wanted something to put the crystals in, remember?"

"Yes, yes, right," McKay replied. He shook himself out of Ronon's light hold and glanced around again. "Umm." He looked over at Ronon. "I don't suppose you've seen anything we can use?"

Ronon walked back into the rear section, looked around, and picked up a small box lying under one of the bench seats. He had no idea what the box would have held, but it was lined with foam, so he figured it would do to carry McKay's crystals.

"Give me the crystals," he ordered and held out his hand.

McKay glanced at the open box, then dropped the crystals into Ronon's palm. "Now for the cloaking generator," he muttered and picked up his tools. He gave Ronon a wary look as he skirted around him and walked back into the rear section of the ship.

Ronon dropped the crystals into the box, picked up the DHD module, and followed McKay back to the rear section where McKay was busy dismantling the bulkhead behind one of the bench seats.

He watched McKay grapple with one of the panels with both hands before it came loose and he dropped the panel on the seat. He quickly sorted through the various cables hidden behind the panel and pulled several free from whatever they were connected to.

When McKay reached for a screwdriver with his bandaged hand, Ronon decided he'd had enough with the charade. He dropped the box of crystals and the module on the other bench seat and scooped up the screwdriver.

"Do you mind?" McKay asked with a scowl and tried to grab the tool back.

Ronon shook his head and held it out of McKay's reach.

"I need to get the cloaking generator disconnected." McKay glanced at his bare arm where he usually wore a watch, shook his head, and added, "And I don't have much time before Sheppard radios and tells us we need to leave."

"You and Sheppard are hiding something," Ronon told him in a low growl.

If he hadn't suspected anything before, the guilty look that flashed across McKay's face was all the proof he needed.

McKay dropped his hand and looked away."How many times do I have to tell people I'm no good at subterfuge?" he muttered to himself.

Ronon grunted and crossed his arms over his chest. "There's nothing wrong with your hand." He nodded at the bandage. "Is there." It wasn't a question.

McKay took a step back and ducked his head. "It's … complicated."

"So uncomplicate it."

McKay scowled over at him. "Look, I don't have time for this. You're just going to have to trust me," Ronon couldn't help the snort that escaped, "or at least trust Sheppard," McKay finished and held out his hand toward the screwdriver. "We'll tell you and Teyla everything. Once we're back in Atlantis."

Ronon studied him for a moment longer, then handed over the screwdriver. "You better."

McKay took the screwdriver and went back to work. A few minutes, and several muttered curses later, McKay pulled a bulky device out of the hole in the jumper's wall. He dropped the device on the bench in front of him with a groan and curled his bandaged hand to his chest.

So not completely fine, then, Ronon thought to himself. He set the DHD module and the crystals on top of the bulky box, picked everything up, and started down the ramp. "Let's go."

McKay gathered up his tools and hurried down the ramp behind him. "Just in time," he said and pointed in the direction of their camp.

Ronon looked up and saw Sheppard and Prin walking towards them.

"Well?" Sheppard asked.

"I managed to pull the cloaking generator and some of the DHD components," McKay replied with a glance at the boxes in Ronon's hands.

Sheppard nodded. "Good enough for now." He glanced at his watch. "We need to move. At this rate, it will be dark before we get back to the 'gate."

Ronon hefted the boxes and followed as Prin led the way back across the meadow. Sheppard fell into step beside him, looking out at the meadow then McKay and Prin in front of them. He glanced at Ronon and caught him staring.

Sheppard waited until Prin and McKay were several steps ahead of them, then asked, "Problem?"

For a moment, Ronon was tempted to confront Sheppard about McKay's hand. He knew something had happened in the time they were missing. What he didn't understand was why the need for the deception. He shifted the boxes in his hands and glared at McKay's back.

Ronon shook his head and hefted the components in his hands. Sheppard is not Kell, he reminded himself.

"Nothing that can't wait," he finally replied with a glance at Sheppard.

Chapter Text

The makeshift sled for the supplies salvaged from the jumper caught on roots or wedged between rocks seemingly at every turn, making the trip out of the mountains slow and tedious. By the time they left the last of the hills, the stretcher was torn in several places, and Rodney had begun to wonder if they would be forced to leave the supplies behind after all.

He glanced at the tattered material and had to admit he wasn't in much better shape. He was exhausted, dirty, hungry, and even with whatever Sheppard had done, his hand ached. Glancing over at the others, he could see he wasn't the only one ready for a break. If Sheppard had suggested they return to the village and wait for the morning, Rodney would have willingly agreed.

"Are you certain you do not wish to stop in at the pub first?" Prin asked as they entered the meadow with the 'gate. "Teg will have some sort of supper ready, and Yev should be back by now. She will be disappointed she missed you."

Sheppard shook his head, and Rodney only listened with half an ear to the rest of the conversation as he walked over to the DHD and started to dial. The wormhole formed a few seconds later, and he glanced back at the rest of the team.

Teyla stood in front of Prin, grasping his two hands. "Please give Yev our apologies," she told him. "And we hope to return soon. We should have a good crop for trade later in the season."

"I will," Prin replied. He let go of Teyla's hands and turned to John. "Sheppard, I am sorry you did not find the crystal." He held out his hands to John.

Sheppard took the outstretched hands. "It was a longshot at best," he replied with a shrug.

Prin studied Sheppard's face, and for a moment, Rodney wondered if he had figured out the truth about Atlantis or even what he and John had really found in the cave. After another moment, Prin smiled and let go of John's hands. "Safe travels, Sheppard. Know that you and your people are always welcome."

"Thanks."

Prin nodded and walked over to Mica and Ronon who were busy removing the stretcher from the hreindyr.

"Teyla, you and Rodney head back," John said. "I'll help Ronon with the supplies."

"Yes, Colonel," Teyla replied. She waved to Mica then turned toward the 'gate.

Rodney watched her disappear through the wormhole, then glanced back at John.

"Go," Sheppard said. "We'll be right behind you."

Rodney nodded and stepped into the shimmering pool.

"Rodney," Elizabeth greeted when he exited the 'gate. "Good to see you back. Where are Colonel Sheppard and Ronon?"

Rodney gestured to the still-active 'gate. "They're coming. They're bringing back the supplies we managed to recover from the jumper."

"That's good news. Even with regular contact with Earth, every bit helps." Elizabeth clasped her hands together. "And the ZPM?"

Rodney shook his head and glanced back at the active wormhole.

"I see. In that case --" she started to add, but stopped when Sheppard and Ronon appeared pulling the stretcher behind them.

"Elizabeth," Sheppard said as the wormhole shut down.

"Colonel. I understand you did not find the ZPM."

Sheppard shook his head. He signalled to one of the Marines standing near the stairs leading up to the control room, and let go of his side of the stretcher. "Looks like it was destroyed. Probably a long time ago."

Ronon set his side of the stretcher on the floor and stepped back as two Marines stepped forward and took the stretcher loaded with gear.

Elizabeth waited until the Marines left the room then pursed her lips. "Get cleaned up and checked out. Once you've all had a chance to find something to eat, we'll meet in the conference room."

"Copy that," Sheppard said and motioned them out of the gateroom.

Rodney took his time showering and dressing. He sat on the edge of his bed, staring down at his left hand, poking the pearly white skin of the fresh scars. The moment of truth had finally arrived, and he wasn't looking forward to explaining what had happened to Carson or Elizabeth, never mind Ronon and Teyla.

There was a soft tap at his door, and Rodney suspected he knew who it was even before he opened the door and found Sheppard waiting for him.

"I think I can find my way down to the infirmary without help," he groused. He stepped back from the door and looked around for his boots.

John walked into the room and let the door slide closed behind him. "Figured it wouldn't be fair to make you face Beckett alone," he replied.

Rodney sat in the desk chair and tied his boots. "Ronon knows something happened," he said and stood.

"I know." John paused and studied him for a moment. "You ready?"

Rodney looked down at his hand. "Not really," he replied and led the way out of the room.

They were near the transporter when Sheppard stopped and tapped his earpiece. "Sheppard here," he said. John listened for a moment then closed his eyes and nodded. "Understood. We'll be right there," he said and tapped off the radio.

"What?" Rodney asked as John waved his hand over the sensor for the transporter. "What's happened?"

John stepped into the transporter and tapped the screen for the control room. "Change of plans. Beckett is meeting us in the conference room."

Rodney swallowed. "Why?"

John stepped out of the transporter and led the way to the control room, then over the bridge to the conference room.

"Ronon said something to Carson," Rodney guessed. "Didn't he."

Sheppard nodded.

"Lovely," Rodney muttered as the conference room doors swung open.

He followed Sheppard inside and stopped a few steps into the room. Elizabeth sat at one end of the conference table, her arms on the table and her hands clasped in front of her. Teyla and Ronon sat side-by-side along one side of the table. Teyla looked curious, Ronon glared from Rodney to John.

Carson stood next to Elizabeth's chair with his arms crossed over his chest and a frown on his face. The doors had barely twisted closed before he came around the table and pointed at one of the empty chairs. "Sit," he ordered.

"I'm not a dog," Rodney muttered.

Carson gave him a pointed look and Rodney sat in the indicated chair.

"Colonel?" Elizabeth asked as Carson knelt down, picked up Rodney's hand, and turned it over. "Care to explain?"

"It's … complicated," John replied as he slid into the chair next to Rodney's.

"So we've heard," Ronon replied.

Beckett touched the edges of one of the healed burns. "Any pain," he asked, his gentle fingers and tone belying his earlier frustration.

Rodney shook his head. "Not really. Only if I pick up something heavy."

Carson nodded. He glanced up at Rodney. "Can you straighten your fingers?"

"Umm, yes, but that hurts more." Rodney flexed his fingers a few times and tried not to wince.

"Carson?" Elizabeth asked.

Beckett let go of Rodney's hand and shook his head. "I can't even begin to explain it," he said as he stood and sat on Rodney's other side, "but the burns are completely healed." He turned to Rodney and added, "You'll still need some physical therapy to help with the stiffness in the joints and tendons." He looked back at Elizabeth. "I'll want to run a few scans to be sure, but other than the stiffness and some scarring, he should be fine."

Elizabeth nodded and turned to Sheppard. "You were saying, Colonel?"

Sheppard pinched the bridge of his nose, and Rodney knew precisely how he felt. He wasn't sure how much he really believed about what had happened. He had no idea how to explain it to Elizabeth and the others.

"The Lurrans tell stories of a wise woman who once lived in that cave," Teyla said into the silence. "The stories say she was a great healer." She looked across the table and nodded at Rodney. "I think we can assume at least part of those stories were true."

"Something like that," John agreed, and explained what Yana had told them about the true nature of the mental bond and how Rodney's hand had been healed.

"Incredible," Carson said once John was finished.

"That's one word for it," John replied with a wry smile.

"So what happens now," Ronon asked.

"Good question," Elizabeth replied. "John? Rodney?"

Rodney glanced at Sheppard. "We don't know yet," he replied. "This has all been more than a bit of a shock." He curled his fingers into his palm.

Elizabeth pursed her lips. "Yes, I imagine it has."

John sat forward in his chair. "One thing that hasn't changed," he said and glanced from Elizabeth to Ronon and Teyla, then over at Beckett, "no one outside of this room needs to know about this."

Rodney saw Elizabeth purse her lips. "Stargate Command --" she started to say, but John spoke over her.

"They can't know," John replied. "They find out, and what do you think General Landry will do?"

"Not the way I want to see Area 51 again," Rodney added.

"John, this is getting much bigger than just a feeling when one of you is hurt," Elizabeth told him. "You and Rodney are going to need help dealing with this."

John snorted and sat back in his chair. "I don't think helping would be the first thing on the SGC's mind," he replied.

"My people have heard of The Way," Teyla said. "It is mentioned in the old writings as The Way of the Ancestors. Halling would know more. I can ask him if you wish."

Rodney could tell Sheppard was about to say 'no' and jumped in first. "More information can't hurt," he said.

John shook his head.

"I will be discreet, John," Teyla promised in a low voice. "I will not reveal your secret."

Rodney and John exchanged a look.

"Fine, I guess," Sheppard finally agreed with a sigh.

Teyla smiled and nodded. "It would be best if I spoke to Halling in person," she added.

John glanced at Elizabeth, and when she nodded, he stood and motioned to the door. "I'll take you. I can wait in the jumper while you two talk."

Elizabeth pushed back her chair. "John. Rodney. You both have a lot of thinking to do. I don't expect an answer right away, but I would like to know when you've decided what you want to do next."

John stopped at the doors to the conference room and looked back at her. He nodded to Elizabeth then followed Teyla out of the room.

Carson stood and tapped Rodney on the shoulder. "In the meantime, if you don't want everyone on the base to suspect something, we'd best rewrap that hand. And I still want to run a few tests."

"Oh, umm." He curled his hand against his chest. He toyed with the idea of simply returning to his quarters, or maybe the lab. He needed to think.

"Rodney, go with Carson," Elizabeth told him when he hesitated.

"Come on, lad," Beckett added and tugged his arm.

Rodney nodded and followed Carson out of the conference room and down to the infirmary.

Sharon looked up from the computer on her desk when they entered. "Everything all right, Doctor Beckett?" she asked.

"Nothing to worry about, Sharon, love," Carson replied with a smile. "I just want to check Rodney's hand."

"Do you need help?"

"No, no," Carson said and pushed Rodney toward the back of the infirmary. "I've got it."

Sharon nodded and turned back to her computer.

"Lie down over there," Carson said, pointing to a bed in the corner. "I'll get the scanner set up."

He positioned the Ancient scanner beside Rodney's bed, hooked up the computer, and stood back. "Just lie still now," he said to Rodney and started the scanner.

Rodney tried not to fidget as the scanner passed back and forth over his hand and arm.

The scanner finished its last pass, and Beckett stood at the end of the bed, studying the results on the computer screen.

"Well?" Rodney asked impatiently and sat up.

Carson looked up from the computer. "Nothing too serious," he said with a reassuring smile.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Rodney demanded. "I thought you said I was fine."

"And you are fine," Carson said as he gathered a few supplies and set them on the roll away table next to Rodney's bed. "The scanner doesn't show any signs of permanent damage to the muscles or tendons." He pulled a stool over in front of Rodney, sat down, and started to wrap gauze around Rodney's hand.

"The joints are a bit swollen still, and I imagine you're feeling some tightness in your fingers when you try to move them." He glanced up, and Rodney nodded. "I'll give you something for the inflammation. And as I said, you'll likely need some physical therapy as well."

Rodney grunted.

"How are you doing with everything else?" Beckett asked as he worked.

Rodney shrugged and looked away.

Carson tied off the bandage and sat back. "Now that I know what to look for, I can start a new search through the medical database for information in this 'Way' Yana told you about," he offered.

Rodney made another non-committal noise and refused to look at Carson.

Carson tapped him on the arm. "Rodney? Look at me." He waited until Rodney glanced at him, then continued, "You can talk to me, you know."

Rodney looked down at his freshly bandaged hand. "I came to Atlantis expecting to make new scientific discoveries," he muttered to himself as much as to Carson. "I wanted to learn more about the Ancients. Find some amazing technology that would change the course of human history." He gave Carson a crooked smile. "Win a Nobel Prize."

He looked down at his bandaged hand. "This, though." He sighed. "I've never been one for metaphysical mumbo-jumbo."

"I know," Carson said with a smile. He sat down on the bed next to Rodney and added, "Have you talked to Colonel Sheppard about all of this? What does he think?"

Rodney toyed with the edge of the sheet. "We haven't had a chance to really discuss it," he replied and picked at the fresh gauze. "I know I'm not the easiest person to be around," he admitted. "Part of me wouldn't blame Sheppard if he decided he didn't want to go any farther along this Way Yana mentioned."

"And the other part?" Carson asked.

Rodney shrugged. "I don't know."

Carson smiled and stilled Rodney's fidgeting fingers. "I know such a level of trust is hard for you. I'm willing to bet John is just as scared as you are at the moment." He ducked his head and caught Rodney's eye. "I'd bet he's maybe just a little better at hiding it."

Rodney thought about that for a moment. "So what would you do?" he asked and looked over at Beckett.

"Me?"

"Would you want to," he waved a hand in the air over his head, "ascend to a higher plane?"

Carson sat with his hands braced on the bed and stared down at his feet. "Honestly, I've never given it much thought," he replied.

"Me either," Rodney replied and hopped off the bed. "I guess I'll need to start."

He was almost to the door when Carson called his name.

"Rodney." He waited until Rodney turned around, then added, "Talk to John. You both need to agree on what you want to do next. Whatever you two decide, you won't have to deal with it alone. We'll figure this out."

Rodney gave him a tight smile. "Yeah, Sheppard said the same thing." He gave Carson a nod and left the infirmary. He wasn't in the mood to deal with anyone or anything else at the moment, but his stomach rumbled, reminding him how long it had been since he'd eaten. After a brief hesitation, he stopped in the mess hall long enough to grab a cup of coffee and several power bars before heading down to his lab.

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

The jumper exited the tower, and Teyla watched as John checked their course on the HUD. His movements were tightly controlled as he adjusted their course, then focused on the water skimming past under them.

John certainly wasn't as obvious as Rodney when it came to expressing his emotions. Still, it was clear to her he was feeling just as overwhelmed by what Yana had told them. He hadn't said a word since they had left the conference room, and watching him now, she noted how he looked everywhere but at her.

She thought back to the hike out of the mountains and remembered the sense of unease emanating from her teammates. Rodney had given Ronon more than one furtive glance and tried to keep his distance as they walked. Ronon, for his part, had glared at Rodney and had occasionally given Sheppard a strange look as well. When she glanced back at Sheppard and raised an eyebrow in question, he had merely shaken his head and focused on the surrounding trees.

Considering how Ronon had acted once they had discovered Sheppard and Rodney were missing, Teyla chalked up the awkward feelings as Ronon unable to let go of his concern, but unwilling to tell John or Rodney how he felt. The last thing she would have suspected was that Rodney and John had met one of the Ancestors during the time they were missing, or that Ronon had somehow known about the encounter.

And then for Yana to tell them about the reason for the mental bond …

She remembered how, during the meeting in the conference room, John had sat stiffly upright in his chair, as close as he could get to standing at attention while sitting down. Rodney had sat beside him, splitting his time between staring at his hand and watching Sheppard with a worried crease across his forehead. Throughout the meeting, John had kept tight control of his emotions, his tone flat as he reported to Doctor Weir what had happened in the cave.

If asked, Teyla was sure John would reply it was to keep Rodney from panicking. She suspected, however, that John was just as afraid, but refused to allow anyone to help him. While John freely offered support when something happened to his team, in the year and a half she had known him, there were only a handful of instances Teyla could remember where John allowed one of them to return the favor. She reached across the mini-DHD and rested a hand on Sheppard's arm, hoping this was one of those rare times when he would accept the comfort offered.

"John --"

"Don't," John interrupted. He shook off her light hold and tightened his grip on the control sticks in front of him. He took a deep breath and glanced over at her. "Just … Don't. Please." He stared back at her, and for a moment, Teyla saw the fear hidden behind his carefully constructed mask.

Teyla nodded and curled her fingers into her palm as she retreated back to her side of the ship. She heard John release a slow breath a moment later and let the silence grow between them as the mainland came into view in the distance.

John landed the shuttle ten minutes later. He powered down the ship and opened the rear hatch for her, but stayed in his chair.

"I will find Halling," she told him as she stood.

John gave her a brief nod, then turned back to the control console in front of him.

Teyla pursed her lips and started to reach out to touch him again, but thought better of it. "I will be back as quickly as possible," she said and left the jumper.

"Teyla!" several voices shouted as she walked into the village a few minutes later.

Teyla smiled, and despite the seriousness of her mission, she felt herself relax as she returned the various greetings from the villagers.

"Teyla Emmagan," Iranda said as she stepped out of a nearby tent.

"Hello, Iranda," Teyla replied, and touched her forehead to Iranda's. She felt a tug on her trouser leg and looked down to see a toddler standing precariously at her feet. The little boy grasped the material again just before he lost his balance and plopped down on the ground.

Teyla laughed and scooped up the little boy, balancing him on her hip. "He is getting so big," she said to Iranda with a smile.

"It is nearly time for Jeeta's first sherehe," Iranda replied. "I hope you will be able to attend?"

Teyla nodded. "I would not miss it," she said, glancing around the village. Unfortunately, she didn't see Halling anywhere.

Iranda gave her a measured look. "You did not come merely to visit. Did you?"

Teyla shook her head. "I need to speak to Halling."

Iranda took the baby back and pointed to the fields beyond the village. "He is checking on one of the hunting parties. He should be back soon."

"Thank you, Iranda. Please let me know the date of the feast." She tickled Jeeta's knee. The little boy giggled and hid his head in Iranda's neck.

Teyla walked away from the tents and saw Halling coming across the open field in front of her, the hunting party following behind him. When Halling saw her, his face broke out in a smile, and he held up his hand.

"Teyla," he greeted. "It is good to see you."

"And you," she replied as they touched foreheads.

She greeted the hunters with a nod and a smile, then gave Halling a significant look.

Halling studied her for a moment then turned to the group beside him. "Go," he told them. "We will talk after the evening meal."

The men and women nodded, smiled at Teyla, and continued on toward the village.

Teyla waited until the hunting party was on the outskirts of the village before she started walking as well.

"What brings you?" Halling asked as they strolled back toward the tents.

"We discovered something on a recent trip to Lurra," Teyla said. "Doctor Weir was hoping you may be able to help."

Halling ducked his head. "I will do what I can."

They walked several paces as Teyla considered how to phrase her question. She did not want to lie to Halling; however, she also needed to be careful not to reveal the truth about the link John and Rodney shared.

"Teyla?" Halling prompted.

Teyla stopped and glanced at the village and the people milling near the central tent. She could smell the spices from the evening meal and her stomach twinged.

She took a deep breath and turned back to Halling. "Our recent mission to Lurra was to search for a ZPM rumored to be on the planet."

Halling nodded. "I remember you telling us about these rumors last winter."

Teyla glanced up at him and nodded. "We were in the mountains behind Yev's village and we found a reference to something called The Way in one of the caves."

"I see," Halling replied, and Teyla hoped she was only imagining the defensiveness in his tone.

"You told me about the Way of the Ancestors in some of the old writings when Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay were missing last year. Doctor Weir hoped you might be able to help her understand what this 'Way' may have been."

Halling studied her for a moment, and Teyla wondered if he had guessed there was more to the story than what she was telling him.

After another few moments, Halling steepled his fingers near his chin. "What little I know of The Way of the Ancestors is fragmentary at best," he told her. "Few of the old texts mention it."

"That is what I feared," she admitted and looked out at the nearby forest. "Do you remember anything describing what The Way was? What it did or how it worked?"

Halling looked over at her and shook his head. "There is mention of the wayposts like the one Colonel Sheppard found last year. A few of the texts allude to the releasing of one's burdens and accepting the power of The Way." He looked over at her. "I am sorry I cannot help you more. The impression I have is the Ancestors considered The Way sacred. They did not often speak of it."

"There is no need to apologise," Teyla replied and squeezed his hand. "I will pass on to Doctor Weir what you have told me."

Halling glanced at the jumper parked behind the village. Teyla followed his gaze and saw John standing at the end of the ramp watching several children playing nearby.

"The evening meal is almost ready," Halling said. "You and Colonel Sheppard are welcome to join us."

"Thank you, Halling, but we must return to the city." She touched her forehead to Halling's.

"You will return for the sherehe?" he asked as she stepped back.

"I will," Teyla replied. She gave him a last wave and turned toward the jumper.

She skirted around the edge of the village and met John at the bottom of the ramp.

"You don't look like you have good news," John said as he led the way inside the ship.

"Unfortunately, Halling did not know as much as I had hoped." Teyla sat in the co-pilot's chair and watched as John ran through the preflight checks. "I am sorry I do not have better news."

John flashed her a smile and powered up the jumper. "Not your fault the Ancients liked to keep their secrets."

Teyla reached out and touched John's arm, silently grateful when he didn't flinch away from her. "Whatever you and Rodney decide, I will do whatever we can to help you. I am sure Ronon will, too."

John humphed out a breath as the ship lifted off.

"Have you spoken to Rodney?" Teyla asked once the shuttle was over the ocean.

Sheppard glanced over at her. "There hasn't really been any time."

Teyla nodded as the city appeared in the distance.

"I was married once," Sheppard said softly a few moments later. "Have I told you that?" He glanced over at her, and Teyla shook her head. "It was supposed to be 'til death do us part, you know?"

Teyla didn't know, but John was finally talking, and that was the important thing.

"Things didn't really work out that way." He stared out at the water racing past them. "This, though …"

Teyla sat forward in her chair. "It is understandable to be apprehensive."

John glanced over at her with a wry smile. "I guess that's a better way of saying scared spitless."

Teyla smiled. "I imagine Rodney is equally afraid."

John snorted. "You could say that. Let's just say he did not take Yana's news well."

"You need to talk," she said again. "I do not believe this is a decision that must be made immediately. However, you must be willing to talk to each other, honestly, about what you are feeling."

John sighed as the city loomed closer. "Yeah, I know."

She nodded and let the matter rest.

A few minutes later the sunroof yawned open below them, and it didn't take long for John to manoeuvre the ship into the jumper bay. Once the ship landed, Teyla stood and watched as John fiddled with the controls and refused to look at her.

"I will see you later," she told him and walked toward the rear of the ship, content to leave John to his thoughts. She was near the rear hatch when Sheppard spoke.

"Hey, Teyla?" he called from where he sat in the cockpit. She turned around, and he looked back at her. "Umm. Thanks," he said with a shy smile. He didn't wait for her to reply, he merely turned back to the console and tapped a few more of the controls.

Teyla watched him for a moment, then smiled at his back, nodded to herself, and left the ship.

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

Several hours later, John lay in bed, staring up at the geometric patterns on the ceiling of his room. It had been a long day, between the hike down the mountain and the time difference between Lurra and Atlantis, he should have been soundly asleep. Instead, he'd spent the last couple of hours tossing and turning, unable to settle.

He sighed, pushed the bedcovers aside, and sat on the edge of the bed, his elbows resting on his knees as he held his head in his hands.

"The true purpose of the mental bond was to allow two individuals to remain connected once the path to ascension was complete."

"The link is a permanent part of each of you. Once established, it cannot be broken, except in death."

"Both of you acted on a purely instinctual level."

"Isn't this freaking you out? Because it's really freaking me out."

John stared at the photo sitting on the corner of his desk of the pair of them standing in the embarkation room at the SGC. "Yeah, Rodney," he mumbled to himself. "It's kinda freaking me out, too."

He pushed himself back on the bed until his back rested against the wall, pulled his knees up to his chest, and dangled his arms over his knees.

"He is your chaguo ndugu," Teyla told him once. "You are both fortunate to have such a bond. It is highly respected by my people."

There was that word again, he realised. Bond.

John knocked his head against the wall behind him and thought about how much his life had changed in such a short amount of time.

After his last mission in Afghanistan, he had tried to cut any sort of personal ties. For family, it had been easy. His father and brother were no longer speaking to him, Nancy had divorced him, and his mother had died years before. He'd told himself he was doing his special operations team a favor by transferring before any of the bad blood the Air Force brass felt for him blew back on them. As far as he was concerned, Antarctica had been perfect. He was still able to fly, and everyone left him alone the rest of the time.

Over the last year and a half, something changed.

"Family is important. I-I've come to realise that because the people here have become a sort of a ... kind of a surrogate family to me."

John scrubbed a hand over his face as Rodney's message to his sister echoed in his mind. Somewhere along the line, the same sentiment had become true for him as well. Rodney, Teyla, Elizabeth, Carson, and now Ronon, they were his surrogate family. What surprised him most was that he had been okay with these new personal ties. These bonds.

Until now.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and considered the new wrinkle of the mental bond with McKay and everything that potentially entailed. He twisted his hands until he could see his palms.

It had been Yana who had healed Rodney's burns. Hadn't it? He stared at his hands, lost in thought.

After a moment, he dropped his hands, leant his head back, and stared at the patterns on the ceiling. No matter how he tried to convince himself otherwise, a piece of him suspected he'd had at least as much to do with fixing Rodney's hand as Yana. And that really scared him. Because if that was true, then everything else Yana had told them was true as well.

He thudded his head against the wall. No wonder he couldn't sleep.

Maybe a run would help, he decided and stood. He changed into a pair of sweatpants and a black t-shirt and left his room.

He took a few steps down the hall toward the transporter, then turned and glanced back down the hall toward McKay's room. Between taking Teyla to the mainland and his own desire to avoid the dinner rush in the mess hall, he hadn't seen Rodney since the briefing that afternoon.

Should he try to talk to McKay now? he wondered.

He took a few steps toward Rodney's door before he changed his mind and stopped again.

Do you want to wake him on the off chance he's finally getting some sleep? he asked himself. Besides, what would you even say to him, anyway?

He ducked his head, then backtracked to the transporter and tapped the map on the wall.

He started jogging his usual route through the dimly lit lower section and tried to wrap his head around everything Yana had told them. Unfortunately, other memories bubbled to the surface instead.

"Dad's right, John," David told him with a scowl. "It's time to put the fantasies away. You want to join the Air Force and become a fighter pilot? Really?" David scoffed. "You have a responsibility to your family, not to mention Dad's legacy, you know."

"John, I just can't do this anymore," Nancy told him. "I'm tired of worrying about you. Tired of being second in your life." She ducked her head. "Tired of wondering if this time you won't come home." She picked up the suitcase at her feet. "I'm going to my parent's house for the holidays." She took a deep breath and added, "I won't be coming back."

"You know, this isn't about you, Sheppard. It's a lot bigger than that," O'Neill said with a glare.

How many times had he let someone down? he wondered as he finished one lap and started another. His father. Nancy. Certain members of the Air Force brass certainly thought he hadn't lived up to the military standard.

Now, according to Yana, he was bound to another person, potentially for the rest of eternity? That added a whole new level to the word commitment. It was one he wasn't at all sure he could live up to.

He finished the second lap and bent forward with his hands on his knees.

He would be the first to admit the mental link he shared with Rodney had proved useful on more than one occasion; it had saved both of their lives more than once. But ascension? He shook his head and stood up straight. He was not the pure and innocent type. He'd done some terrible things in the name of defending both his country and Atlantis.

Where did that leave Rodney if he did want to eventually ascend and John couldn't? Or what if he decided he wanted to take that step and McKay wouldn't take it with him?

He wiped his brow on the sleeve of his shirt and glanced at his watch. Almost zero two hundred. The run hadn't done as much to clear his head as he'd hoped. He was still no closer to making a decision.

He walked back to the transporter and only gave the map a distracted glance as he tapped the section for his quarters. It wasn't until he stepped out of the transporter that he realised he was in the wrong section. He grimaced and was about to try again when he heard soft music coming from the end of the hall.

So much for the idea McKay was in his quarters asleep, he thought to himself as he glanced down the corridor toward the rec room as the music ended.

John ducked his head, and for a moment, considered letting things lie. He had no idea what to say to Rodney, and he wasn't sure he was ready to hear anything McKay might say to him. The piano started again, playing the same mournful, slow tune.

Not sleeping and probably wrestling with the same questions he was, John decided. Leave him be or try to start talking like Teyla suggested? he wondered as the music drifted down the hall.

He listened for a few more seconds, then pursed his lips and tapped his closed fist on the nearest wall. "Talking it is," he muttered to himself and headed for the rec room.

He crept down the hall and peeked into the rec room where Rodney sat in front of the keyboard. John watched as he swayed to the music, clearly lost in his own head. For a split-second, John wondered if it had really been an accident he'd tapped the wrong section on the transporter map. Before he could decide if it was something with the link or really happenstance, Rodney stopped playing and glanced back at the door.

"I really wish you wouldn't hover," he muttered and turned back to the keyboard.

John stepped into the room and let the door slide closed behind him. He pulled a chair over from a corner of the room and sat down on the other side of the keyboard where he could see Rodney's face.

"I thought you said your fingers were stiff. Doesn't playing make your hand hurt?"

Rodney glanced down at the scars on the palm of his hand and shrugged. "Carson said I needed to do something to loosen up the joints."

John made a non-committal grunt as Rodney started playing the melancholy song again.

"I haven't heard you play this one before," John said after listening for a few moments.

Rodney looked up at him. "The first part of the Gymnopédies by Erik Satie."

John nodded. "Good music to think by."

Rodney snorted and shook his head. "Not your most subtle effort, Sheppard."

John let the comment pass and leant forward in the chair, his arms resting on his knees. "No, probably not," he admitted.

Rodney finished playing and let his hands rest in his lap. "I'm sorry," he muttered at his hands.

"What can you possibly have to be sorry about?" John asked.

McKay glanced up at him, and John easily read the misery in his eyes. "I didn't stop to think what the implications of the link really meant. Maybe if I had …" His voice trailed off, and he looked back down at his hands.

"Hey," John said and waited for Rodney to look at him. "It wouldn't have mattered one way or the other. Remember what Yana said? The link can't be broken."

"Still, I could have --" Rodney started to argue, but John shook his head.

"What's done is done," John told him. "We can't go back and change it. Not that I want to," he added and waited to see how Mckay would react.

Rodney glanced up at him. "No. I-I don't either."

John nodded. "Then the only thing we have to decide is what to do next."

Rodney's fingers fidgeted on the keyboard. "Do you want to ascend?" He waved a hand out beside him. "Someday?"

John sat back in his chair. "Do you?"

The absent scales Rodney's fingers had been playing on the keyboard settled into another tune, this time one John recognised.

"I don't know," Rodney admitted, and John wondered if he even realised he was playing music again. "The idea of knowing everything … having all of the wonders of the universe laid out in front of me …" He gave John a hesitant smile. "There is some appeal."

John smiled back. "I'll bet."

"On the other hand," he continued, "What's the use of having all of that knowledge if you can't do anything with it? Simply knowing the how isn't enough. I want to understand the why. And I want to take that knowledge and do some good with it." He shrugged and looked down at his hands, his expression a mixture of puzzlement and surprise as he realised he'd been unconsciously playing music. He shook his head and started the piece over again.

"Prelude in C," John said with a nod.

Rodney looked up at him. "What?"

"Prelude in C," John told him and nodded at the keyboard. "You play that one a lot."

Rodney smiled. "At least you finally remembered the name." He finished playing, pushed himself away from the keyboard, and focused on John. "You didn't answer my question, you know."

John stood from the chair and paced a few steps. "I'm not sure I could ascend even if I wanted to. Besides, after everything with Chaya," he crossed his arms over his chest, "I really don't know. I'm not really a 'follow the rules' kind of guy."

Rodney snorted but said nothing.

"Exactly," John replied with a smile. He stood against the wall, a few paces away from Rodney as the silence grew between them.

"So what did we just decide here?" Rodney asked a few minutes later.

John shook his head, sat back in his chair, and met Rodney's gaze. "I don't think either of us is ready to take that next step," he admitted and waited for McKay to nod. "I guess we just keep doing what we're doing. If something else happens, or if we ever find one of those journals Yana mentioned, then we can maybe reconsider things."

Rodney rubbed one of the scars on his palm. "This is a lot more than I bargained for when I agreed to come on this mission."

"Yeah, I know what you mean."

"Still, I don't think I'd change any of it, either." He gave John a sideways glance.

John stood and tugged Rodney to his feet. "Believe it or not, neither would I."

FIN


For anyone curious, the "corpse tree" is a real tree. It grows in the southeast US as well as in the Caribbean. Google manchineel tree for more information. And yes, vinegar is the best thing for getting the sap off your skin.