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The Search for Victory

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Somewhere behind him, Hulk heard the buzz of flying army machines. Hulk pushed trees aside as he ran from them, just wanting to get away. Hulk didn't understand what had changed. He remembered Others: the metal man, the bright blue shield man, the woman with long red hair, the flying thunder man and the arrow man. He didn't see them for very long, but he remembered feeling things other than anger when he looked at them. They'd smiled at Hulk. They'd smashed things with Hulk.

Friends, a small voice from deep within Hulk supplied. Friends. Hulk liked the word friends.

He heard a high-pitched whine and ducked as a missile sailed over his head. It hit the ground and exploded, sending dirt and half a splintered tree flying into the air. Hulk caught the broken tree and whirled around, throwing it towards the nearest flying machine. The machine swerved out of the way, but couldn't stop the tree from clipping its tail, sending it spinning. The other machines had to move out of its way.

Hulk turned and ran again, needing to get away. He was angry. He clenched his fists as his body burned up with his anger. He wanted to smash the puny, annoying machines that were hunting him, but somewhere inside him a voice was yelling at him not to stop, to just run. So Hulk ran. He didn't want to make the Little Man sad; Hulk didn't like it when the Little Man inside him was sad. It made Hulk restless, made him want to smash things. And that made the Little Man sadder.

Something caught his attention and Hulk veered to the left. Two missiles sailed into the trees behind him and he heard them explode and tear up another piece of the forest.

The Little Man had been happy for a while and the Hulk had felt less angry. Hulk wasn't sure how much time had passed in that while, but he had felt fear from the Little Man and then sadness. He'd growled from within his darkness, because Hulk could feel but he couldn't see. And then the Little Man had been frightened and desperate and Hulk had felt danger. So Hulk had roared out in anger and opened his eyes to see the flying machines chasing him.

Where had the warm happiness gone? Where were friends?

Hulk was confused. Hulk hated being confused.

Another whine pierced through the air and then Hulk felt fire sear across his back as the impact made him stagger forward. He roared, anger colouring his vision, silencing all the little voices telling him to run, just run. He grabbed a tree and ripped it from the ground, hefting it easily over his shoulder as he turned to face the on-coming machines. There were five of them and Hulk watched as one fired two more missiles. Hulk swung the tree and one of the missiles impacted with it, shattering the wood and sending splinters in all directions. Hulk barely felt the splinters as they peppered his skin. The tree was burning now.

A different machine had flown lower and Hulk heard the sharp rhythm of bullet fire. Stings like a dozen metal bees rained over his arm. He took a step back and growled. Then he threw the burning tree at the flying machine.

He heard shouting and watched as the tree hit the machine across the front. Hulk heard glass shatter and people yell. He grinned. Then he picked up a large rock from the ground and threw it at another machine, aiming for the spinning propeller. The rock hit its target and the propeller slowed, the machine tilting to one side. The machines around it scattered to the sides to avoid it.

Satisfied, Hulk turned and ran.

Up ahead, he saw something sparkling from between the trees. Water. Good, Hulk was thirsty. Maybe he could use it to hide too.

Hulk ran ahead, pushing trees aside and feeling as roots and bushes were crushed beneath his feet. At last he came out of the trees and into a clearing. There was a lake in the centre of it and a small wooden house on the other side – the lake was too small for Hulk to hide in, but the water looked clear. Hulk knelt down at its bank and cupped his hand to bring some to his mouth. The water was cool and refreshing as it poured down his throat. He managed a second mouthful before the flying machines were once again too close.

He turned just in time to watch them appear over top of the trees. Hulk saw smoke come out of the sides of the one on his left and then heard the familiar whine... Hulk threw himself forward, into the water. The lake wasn't deep, but it was deep enough to cover him. He swam forward, letting the water cool him down. He felt the water shudder as missiles flew into it. Then a sharp fire exploded on his shoulder and Hulk screamed, sending waves out across the lake. Hulk grit his teeth and propelled himself to the right, altering his direction, but still moving forward.

It didn't take him long to reach the other side of the lake. There Hulk came crashing out of the water. He turned and roared into the sky, at the two machines hovering in the air above him. He saw the other two had landed and men were pouring out, with their things meant to hurt Hulk. The two machines in the air circled him carefully. He glared up at them and growled.

There was a loud bang and suddenly fire exploded along Hulk's side. He roared in pain and glared at the puny human soldiers on the ground. Behind the big guns, he saw a familiar face staring at him.

“Ross,” he growled, angry, so unbelievably angry, at the man for making the Little Man afraid again. Hulk wondered if he'd done anything to friends and that made him angrier.

Then came a second bang, but it didn't hit Hulk. Instead it flew past him.

The wooden house exploded.

Hulk turned to run away from the weapons, but the flying machines were in his way. There was a brief whine and then four points of fire hit Hulk. He staggered back as pain flared up along his torso and left shoulder. Hulk roared, glaring up at the flying machines. They were lower now. Hulk bent his knees and leapt into the air, grabbing one of them by the tail. The second quickly flew away. Small sharp bursts of staccatto fire peppered his shoulders and upper arms, but Hulk didn't let go. He hit the ground still holding the flying machine's tail and tore it off. He threw the bigger part of the machine into the lake and its tail at the guns on the other side.

He turned to run.

“Cassie! Cassie, can you hear me? Cassandra Fraiser don't you dare die on me! Just hold on, I'm on my way!”

Hulk paused and looked to the wooden house. There was a man there now, trying with all his puny strength to lift away chunks of debris. Not far from him, fire burned. Hulk could see him hurrying desperately, but he was small.

Too small.

 


 

What he wouldn't give for his Kevlar vest and gloves right now. It was an odd thing to think when all he could see was debris in front of him, but the wood kept slipping in his hands and he couldn't get a good grip on it. Around him he smelt gunpower and burning wood. He felt heat from the fire. It was spreading towards him. He needed to work faster.

Daniel was used to missions going from milk-run to FUBAR in the blink of an eye. But this wasn't a mission. This was middle of nowhere Minnesota. He'd been gathering herbs and wild mushrooms for stew.

He'd froze. For long, precious minutes, shock and disbelief had froze him to the spot when he'd heard the distinct, unforgettable sound of missile-fire. He hadn't even registered the strangeness of the roars that followed the explosions at first: it was all so wrong. Scrambling through his pockets, he finally found his binoculars. Helicopters. He saw helicopters above the trees: US military.

They were heading towards the cabin. And he was nearly a mile away.

“Cassie,” he whispered, his eyes widening in horror.

Terror finally granted him the ability to move. He dropped the bag of herbs and ran. Years of running full-tilt over uneven terrain made his steps sure as he automatically side-stepped or leaped over obstacles.

He vaguely remembered taking a call from a panicked Cassie, remembered telling her to take the shotgun and get down into the cold cellar. There might've been a panicked call to Jack, telling him to move his elderly ass back to the cabin. He wasn't even sure he'd made sense. He didn't care; nothing else made sense.

This was Minnesota. There weren't any Goa'uld or Ori in Minnesota. It was supposed to be safe.

Daniel managed to get another plank loose and pushed it aside. The cold cellar was still far below. He glanced to his left: the fire was spreading. He had to work faster. Couldn't think about the moment the rocket had hit the cabin. Couldn't let his breath leave him like that again; couldn't let himself freeze again. Shock wasn't going to help anyone. Cassie was counting on him.

He pulled another plank loose.

A shadow fell over him. Daniel grabbed for the knife in his belt and swung around. The large green giant the army had been chasing stood above him, looking angry and remarkably unharmed by the missiles Daniel had seen impacting him. The giant saw Daniel's knife and scoffed.

Daniel shrugged and put it back into its holster.

“Yeah, probably wouldn't have helped me against the soldiers armed with rocket launchers either,” he muttered under his breath. His eyes slipped towards the flames that were inching closer. “And normally I'd be happy to make friends, but I've got a friend trapped under here so unless you're going to help, you should probably-”

The green giant brushed past him (he looked familiar, Daniel knew he did, but his brain wasn't supplying information past the mental image of Cassie trembling in fear in the dark beneath the destroyed cabin). Daniel turned and watched in amazement as the giant grabbed an armful of debris and tossed it to the side as easily as a pile of leaves. It only took two armfuls for Daniel to see the opening to the cold cellar.

“Cassie!” he called and ran forward.

“Uncle Daniel?” he heard followed by a bought of coughing. Smoke inhalation, his mind supplied. He was going to need oxygen. Hopefully the soldiers had a medic with them. He couldn't remembered what Jack had in his truck's first aid kit.

Daniel slipped on a loose floorboard as he scrambled to get to the opening to the cellar. Cassie wasn't climbing out on her own. That wasn't good. He could barely make out her form when he stared down into the glorified hole in the ground that counted as Jack's cold cellar.

“Cassie, how are you?” he called down. “Can you move?”

He heard a strangled sob and then “Something fell on my leg and my arm hurts... I think. I can't move it. I-I'm cold, I can't...”

Shock. “Hold on, Cassie, I'm coming down.”

He didn't dare look at how close the fire had gotten; the heat was beating on his skin enough to remind him of the fires in Sokar's prison. Daniel quickly climbed down the ladder steps into the cellar. He was half-way down when he heard automatic weapon's fire. He grit his teeth.

A staff weapon. He really, really wished he had a staff weapon right now. Or the Odyssey. Actually, he'd prefer the Odyssey: it had medical facilities.

He jumped down the last couple of steps and crouched next to Cassie.

“Uncle Daniel!” she sobbed with relief and held her hand out.

Daniel squeezed it. “We don't have much time, the blast set the cabin on fire. So, I'm sorry, but this won't be gentle.”

Cassie took a deep breath and he could see her nod in the darkness. “I understand.”

There was a familiar high-pitched squeal from above them. Rocket-launcher, Daniel's mind automatically supplied. There was the blast of an impact and a roar as the earth around them shook. Daniel threw himself over Cassie and felt as some small debris hit his back. He grit his teeth.

“Who are they?” Cassie whispered, fear making her voice shake.

“United States Army,” Daniel said bitterly.

She snorted. “Of course it's the army; only the army employs idiots who fire haphazardly on civilian targets.”

Daniel maneuvered to the side and slipped an arm around her back as he braced himself. “Okay, on three: one, two, three!” He heard Cassie suppress a scream as she helped him drag her to her feet. Once upright he have her a few seconds to recover.

“Is that air force snobbery I hear?” he asked her as he tried to get look at the injury on her arm – there was something sticking out of it. It wasn't a long something, so he decided to leave it until he could get a better look at it.

She chuckled in-between wheezing breaths. “I come by it honestly.”

“I'm sure your mother would be proud.” He took a deep breath. “Okay, there's only one way to do this. Grab onto my shoulders with your arms and my hips with your legs and hold on. It's going to hurt, but I'm going to need my arms to climb up that ladder.”

It wasn't easy and he was fairly certain Jack would've told him he only managed out of sheer stubbornness. The stair ladder up wasn't very tall, but Cassie was heavy and her hold rigid with fear and pain. He could hear her gasping and whimpering into his ear the entire way up and the closer they got to the top, the worse the air became as smoke from the fire reached them. Daniel ignored the burn in his muscles, ignored the sweat that poured down his brow and into his eyes.

Ignored the roaring and weapon's fire outside.

Why was the giant still there?!

Eventually he dragged them both out into burning heat and thick smoke. Exhausted, he collapsed onto his side as soon as he could, but he couldn't stop. No time to rest, the fire was almost licking at them now. He dragged himself to his knees and put an arm around Cassie.

“C'mon Cassie, we've got to move!”

Cassie cried out in pain as the movements aggravated her wounds, but she grit her teeth and leaned on him. Daniel took as much of her weight as he could as they made their way through the uneven rubble. He nearly stumbled once when the piece of flooring he stepped on broke under his weight, but he regained his footing and continued on. He felt the fire behind him, but didn't dare look back. Only forward, always forward.

They found solid ground and Daniel didn't stop. He hauled them further away from the house, only stopping when they reached the well. It wouldn't provide much cover, but the trees wouldn't be much protection from missiles either. He collapsed onto the ground beside her and panted.

In the background, he heard the sharp staccato of automatic weapon's fire and a furious roar.

“Oh my god, is that the Hulk?!” Cassie whispered incredulously, her voice raspy from the smoke.

Daniel looked up to where the green giant was straining against some invisible force. He was standing between two wheeled contraptions with flat panels and some sort of satellite behind them. The Hulk... right, New York, the Chittauri... Daniel had read about that. Once they'd been allowed to know about it – no, there was no point in dwelling on something that didn't matter right now.

“He helped defend New York, didn't he?” Daniel asked instead.

Cassie nodded. “Yeah, he's a hero. One of the Avengers, I thought.”

“So why the hell is the army hunting him? No, you know what, I don't actually care why they're hunting him.” Suddenly, Daniel was furious. He'd worked with enough military people to know that you didn't just ignore civilians. Daniel himself had risked his life more than once to save civilians caught in the crossfire.

He turned to Cassie and quickly inspected her wounds, using his knife to tear away the fabric of her shirt. “The Hulk helped me get to you. I-I don't think I would've been able to clear it all on my own...” He took a deep breath. Later. “They were shooting rocket launchers at him and instead of running, he stopped and cleared the rubble for me so that I could get to you.”

“And they took advantage of that in order to trap him,” said Cassie. Daniel looked up from examining her arm and saw the anger he'd thought he heard burning in her eyes.

“Yes.”

“Then go.” Daniel blinked, surprised. Cassie coughed and then forced a small smile onto her face. “You have to help him, Uncle Daniel. I'll be fine. Go.”

Daniel paused, looking back to the wound on her shoulder. There was a wooden shard embedded in her upper arm: it wasn't large, but it looked like it was in deep. An infection waiting to happen, but Daniel knew better than to take it out. He pulled his cellphone out of his pocket, amazed it was still there, and placed it in her hand.

“Call Jack, make sure they're sending an ambulance,” he said. “I'm going to get the first aid kit out of the car.”

“Daniel-”

“-Cassie, right now the Hulk is fine. You, however, are bleeding. Besides, what exactly do you figure I'm going to be able to do unarmed right now?”

“According to Uncle Jack, that's never stopped you bef-” A coughing fit interrupted Cassie's words.

Daniel rolled his eyes. “I'll be right back,” he told her and ran for his car.

It'd been far enough away from the cabin that it didn't get caught in the explosion, but he was going to have to move it further away from the fire. As he ran to the car, he noticed the fire had completely overwhelmed the space above the cellar. He shivered. He'd come so close to loosing another person.

Somehow, he still had his car keys in his pocket which made opening the trunk easier. The first thing that caught his eye was the large white box in the corner of the trunk. It was supposed to be a surprise for this evening; he'd forgotten to move it into the cold cellar. Too late now. He grabbed the first aid kit and a bottle of water and ran back to Cassie.

He looked back to the Hulk. The soldiers had stopped shooting at him, but he was still trapped between the two... sonic beams? Sam would probably know. There was movement by one of the helicopters and Daniel saw several soldiers hauling out what looked like long metal rods. One of them sparked.

He cursed under his breath just like Skaara had taught him (except Skaara never cursed under his breath unless his father or sister were around).

He knelt next to Cassie trying very hard not to think about car batteries. Or Jaffa pain sticks.

“Daniel? Daniel, what are they doing?”

Apparently, Cassie had noticed them too. Her eyes were wide, her face was pale and she trembling. Dammit, this was going to give her enough nightmares already. She didn't need more nightmares. He wished he could just bundle her up into the car and drive away...

The car. Huh, maybe he did have a weapon after all.

He didn't pause, couldn't afford to, as he routed through the kit for painkillers. Bottle in hand, he took Cassie's hand and shook two pills onto it. He was prone to migraines, so at least these were the good, prescription-only kind of painkillers.

“Swallow,” he ordered, opening the bottle of water and placing it next to her.

This part, this was second nature. Disinfectant, cotton swabs, gauze, wait for Cassie to swallow down the pain killers.

“Sorry, this'll probably hurt,” he said just before pouring the iodine solution over her wound.

Cassie screamed.

Behind them, the Hulk roared in pain.

Daniel grit his teeth and used a cotton swab to dab at some of the new blood that began to pour from the wound. It took him three seconds to assess and realize he wasn't going to be able to wrap the wound. At least they didn't need to race across any countryside.

“This is the best I'll be able to do until Sam or professional help gets here,” he said. Then he met her eyes. “Are you sure you'll be okay?”

She nodded. “I-I'll be fine. Go.”

He took a deep breath. “Call Jack.”

And then he was off, racing towards the car. The Hulk roared again and Daniel let the anger and pain in the sound fuel his own anger. There was no hesitation, no second-guessing, no thought for an actual plan. He threw himself into the driver's seat and started the motor.

The wheels screeched as he floored the pedal and turned towards the commotion. He aimed for the farthest one, the one with less soldiers surrounding it, less people to stop him. If anyone tried shooting at the car, they missed.

Daniel didn't. And he didn't take his foot off the gas pedal until the front of his car had hit the strange satellite sonic projector beam thing and knocked it to the side. The airbag burst out from the steering wheel and Daniel pushed it to the side as he scrambled out of the car.

Keep moving, don't stand still, don't make yourself a target.

The Hulk roared. The ground shook. Daniel made it out of the car in time to watch as the Hulk straightened, the second projector thing a pile of smashed rubble at his feet. Daniel grinned.

“Well, that must be pretty satisfying,” he said.

The Hulk whirled around to look at him. Slowly, a toothy grin spread across his face. Then he backhanded the soldiers trying to sneak up on him with the metal rods, sending them flying through the air.

Daniel stepped away from the car and wobbled as his head spun. Okay, so maybe he wasn't as unscathed by everything as he'd though. Dammit, he really didn't need his adrenalin to crash just yet. He looked to Cassie and nearly stumbled with relief as he saw a familiar truck pull up next to the well.

A shadow fell over him. This time he didn't reach for his knife. Instead, he looked up to the Hulk and smiled.

“Thank you for helping me save Cassie,” he said, his eyes darted to where the soldiers were regrouping, gathering their weapons.

A stern-looking man with a bushy blond mustache was glaring at Daniel. Daniel's eyes narrowed at him. He saw the stars on his lapels: a general, two, maybe three star. Probably didn't expect a civilian to give him trouble. He looked back up to the Hulk.

“We'll take it from here,” he said. “You should go.” He held his hand out. “I'm Doctor Daniel Jackson. If you're ever around Colorado Springs and need help, come find me.”

The Hulk blinked, looking confused. Whatever he would've done in response was lost in the sound of weapon's fire. Daniel automatically ducked down, covering his face with his arm, but the bullets were all aimed at the Hulk. The green giant growled angrily, eyes flashing. A bullet hit the ground just in front of Daniel. That got him moving.

He kept down as he made his way along the side of the car and along the trunk. The trunk. A flash of inspiration hit Daniel and in moments he had the trunk open and was rooting in its depths. He pulled out a canvas bag and eyed his stash of bottled water. There were four left; he grabbed three and threw them into the bottom of the bag. Then he took the white box and shoved it as gently as he could into the bag.

He waited until the gunfire had momentarily ceased. The Hulk roared and Daniel ran out from behind the car. “Hulk!”

The Hulk whirled angrily to Daniel as the man stepped towards him, holding out the canvas bag. It looked so small compared to the Hulk's massive bulk, but it was all Daniel had.

“Here, I don't know how much this'll do, but it's better than nothing.” The Hulk frowned and stepped towards Daniel, carefully accepting the bag. Daniel pointed past the cabin. “South-west from here there's some hills and a cave system. It'll be more difficult for them to track you there.”

The Hulk looked in the direction Daniel pointed, then looked back to Daniel.

“Th'nk you,” he grunted and then took off at a run that shook the ground. Then, with a mighty leap, he jumped over Cassie, Sam and the truck, landing at the treeline. He didn't look back even once before disappearing into the forest.

For several moments, the clearing was silent. Then the general began yelling out orders for pursuit. Daniel pushed himself away from the car. Now the adrenalin was definitely leaving him – he swayed for a moment and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. When he opened his eyes there was a seething mad general standing less than a step in front of him, glaring with all his years of intimidation and authority behind him.

As if any of that could compare with a goa'uld or their First Prime.

“What did you tell him?” the general demanded. Daniel glanced to his insignia: yup, three star. Pity. It would've been nice if Jack had out-ranked him.

Daniel raised an unimpressed eyebrow at him and crossed his arms. “I thanked him for saving my niece's life.”

The man bristled. “You pointed him somewhere! That-that thing is a monster and a danger to others so long as it's loose. It's my job to find it and make sure it's no longer a threat and you had better not try standing in my way.”

“Or you'll do what? Court-martial me? Because I'm starting to wonder who the threat here really is. In fact, I seem to be coming back to the point where the Hulk saved my niece's life while you and your men didn't appear to care that there were civilians in the area.”

“Son, this is a military operation; we don't have time to watch out for civilians.”

Daniel's thin tendrils of patience snapped.

“My name is Doctor Daniel Jackson. I am a high-ranking civilian consultant with the US Air Force and I've worked worked with both the air force, marines and navy. Believe me, I am fully aware of what a military operation entails and SOP is to first of all clear the area of any potential civilian casualties when at all possible. That cabin was hit with a surface weapon which means you were already on the ground when you fired on it. There is no reason why you couldn't have sent one of your men to make sure it was clear – something you should have known was a possibility given that you arrived in helicopters and therefore during your initial assessment of the area would've noticed the car parked near the cabin indicating the presence of people.”

The general growled and his hand shot forward, grabbing Daniel by the front of his shirt.

“I don't care who the hell you think you are. You work for the military? Good. That's better than good. I can have you run out faster than you can say 'hallelujah' if you don't tell me where you sent the Hulk right now. I know people outside the military too, important people. Your name, your reputation will be mud by the time I'm done with you.”

Daniel snorted. Was he seriously threatening his reputation outside the military?

“Daniel, I see you're making friends as per usual.”

Daniel looked to the left and tried not to make his relief to the three-star general in front of him too obvious. One glance was all it took to realize that the clipped tone of voice wasn't just his imagination. Though outwardly calm, Daniel could tell that Jack was splitting mad right now.

“Heya Jack,” he said with false cheer. “In my defense, this vacation definitely wasn't my idea.”

Jack snorted with amusement, but his eyes bore into the army general. “General Ross, I assume you have a good reason for threatening an important government asset? One that you wouldn't mind repeating to the president and Joint Chief's?”

Daniel felt Ross stiffen. After a moment's pause he let go of Daniel and took a step back. “Who are you?” he asked with narrow, calculating eyes.

“Leuitenant General Jack O'Neill, USAF.” Jack's eyes darted to the side and he nodded slightly. “Now, General, I suggest you and your men lay down your weapons and surrender peacefully.”

Ross' eyes flashed. “You are in no position to give me orders! This operation is under army jurisdiction.”

Which was when SG-3, SG-9 and SG-12 made their presence known by loudly arming their weapons and coming out from their hiding spots in the trees. Ross grit his teeth, but after a few tense minutes, barked the order to surrender. Less than five minutes later, after Jack gave the order to SG-12 to see if they could fish out any survivors from the helicopter in his lake, the medical evac chopper flew in over the treetops.

“So, what was that you gave the big green guy?” Jack asked casually as the two of them made their way back to Cassie and Sam.

“Hm, oh that was supposed to be desert,” Daniel answered. “I had intended it to be a surprise.”

“What? You gave him our desert?!”

“Jack, he'd just helped save Cassie's life: the least I could do was send him off with some food and water.”

“Yeah, but desert?”

“It was all I had, sorry.”

A few moments passed in silence as Jack stewed in annoyance.

“Was it pie?”

Daniel rolled his eyes.

 


 

Bruce sipped his coffee, trying to appear as casual, nonchalant as possible while he waited for the waitress to bring him his food. It was yet another out-of-the-way diner in the middle of nowhere that looked about as old and lifeless as most of its patrons. This one was clean at least, even if the greenery surrounding him was obviously plastic and the burgundy faux-leather seats were faded, the material cracked in quite a few visible places. There were scratch marks on the wooden table he was seated at that Bruce wasn't even going to try and identify. The place smelt of bacon grease and stale cigarette smoke despite the no-smoking sign just inside the entrance.

He didn't look up when the bell above the door jingled.

Someone entered the diner with light, confident steps accompanied with the slight creek of leather. In a place where workboots seemed to be the continual, undying trend, that was odd. Bruce wasn't even surprised when the newcomer slid into the booth across from him.

Bruce sighed and looked up at the grinning face of his companion.

“You are a difficult man to track down, Brusselsprout,” said Tony, his designer sunglasses, charcoal, impeccably tailored suit, and bright red silk tie looking about as inconspicuous as a golden retriever at a cat show.

“That was the idea yes,” Bruce replied. “And yet you managed, which means I clearly wasn't doing a good enough job of it.”

“Oh trust me it wasn't you, it was totally me. And JARVIS. If I hadn't had JARVIS scouring everything I could think of I wouldn't have managed it. When you go off-grid you sure do it in style.” He looked around. “Or lack of. You know, I think this place might actually be older than Capsicle.”

Bruce leveled an even look at Tony and resisted the urge to sigh. “Tony, after SHIELD fell apart, the deals Fury had in place to protect me did too. Which means Ross is free to come after me and he will bury anyone who tries to stand in his way and protect me, including Stark Industries, and you have too many people, families, depending on you to risk playing his game.”

He took a deep breath to calm himself. His ever-simmering anger was controlled, but closer to erupting than ever these days. “We've been through all this, you said you understood. So why are you here?”

There was glimmer in Tony's eyes that Bruce wasn't entirely sure he trusted. It was part mischievous, part malicious and a whole lot of amused. That didn't bode well for someone. Tony reached into his jacket and pulled out a Starkpad. He typed on it while he spoke.

“Seems the Hulk managed to make a friend out in Minnesota.”

“A friend in Minnesota...” Yes, Bruce remembered waking up in Minnesota. It had been rather memorable. “Is that where I got the chocolate cake from?”

Tony paused. Blinked. Looked up. “Chocolate cake?”

“Uh, yes, I woke up in a large cave in the middle of the forest. I could remember Ross finding me and then... well, nothing. And sitting next to me there was a canvas bag from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science with three bottles of water and a giant chocolate cake.”

“Was it good chocolate cake?”

“Oh excellent, one of the best I've ever had. Moist, with a chocolate mocha mousse filling and dark chocolate ganache: it was exquisite. Also not something I would've expected to find myself with in the middle of a forest.”

“Well, as thank-you-for-saving-my-deceased-friend's-adopted-daughter presents go, that's not bad.”

“What?”

“Yup, Lieutenant General – sorry, Brigadier General – Ross reeeaally screwed up this time.”

“Brigadier General– Ross was demoted?!” Bruce took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. He liked Tony most of the time, he really did, but sometimes the man could be positively infuriating. “Tony, start from the beginning. What happened exactly?”

Tony smiled, looking over his glasses at Bruce. “Ross blew up an air force general's cabin while his adopted sort-of niece was inside. Then Hulk lost his chance to escape in order to clear debris away so that a close friend of said general could rescue her. At no point during this whole thing did Ross do anything to help, or order anyone else to help. I mention this because it's important, kept getting repeated at his hearing.”

Tony turned his tablet around to face Bruce. It showed a picture of a man: sun-bleached hair, tanned skin, blue eyes, thick glasses and a pleasant, though slightly shy smile. He didn't exactly look familiar, but when Bruce looked at the face he felt...

“Picture's about ten years old, but this is... uh, Bruce?”

Bruce looked up slowly. Odd, it seemed to take more effort than it should to move his head. He blinked at Tony's wide-eyed expression. He saw him clearly, but it felt as though he was seeing him clearly twice. Tony's hand shot out and fumbled with the napkin holder. The frantic look in his friend's eyes had him glancing at the shiny silver side Tony and turned to face him.

Green eyes.

His reflection was distorted, but the bright green eyes staring back at him were perfectly clear. Bruce's eyes widened and then he closed them, taking several deep calming breaths as he pushed the Other Guy back, trying not to think of how terrifying it was that the Hulk had managed to sneak up on him like that. Bruce always felt the Other Guy when he came out.

When he opened his eyes again, it was to the smell of food being set before him and the sounds of Tony charming the elderly waitress and her bubble-gum pink hair. After she'd left, Tony's eyes became concerned.

“Everything alright there, Big Guy?”

Bruce nodded. “Yes, I don't really know what that was about to be honest. I didn't even notice the Other Guy coming out. And he didn't feel particularly angry the way he usually does... although he has felt closer to the surface ever since I left New York... Maybe he simply recognized Daniel?”

There was a pause as Bruce picked up his utensils (he was hungry, after all). “Uh, Bruce? You do realize I never told you the guy's name was Daniel?”

Bruce froze and swallowed. “Is his name Daniel?”

“Uh, well, yeah: Doctor Daniel Jackson, a civilian consultant for the US Air Force. And an important one at that. As in, the guy knew exactly which hoops to jump through and which people to file his complaint against Ross with. From what I've been able to figure out he works for some sort of classified project at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs as a language specialist. Three days after this happened, he and his buddy – as in the three-star general whose cabin Ross blew up – were up in arms over this. Then the Russian and Chinese ambassadors somehow got involved, and to top it all off, the President apparently loves the guy. Ross didn't stand a chance. I mean, it's not a court-martial, but considering how untouchable the guy usually is, it's way more than a slap on the wrist.”

Bruce smiled. It felt like a long time since he'd had reason to smile. “And the Hulkbusters?”

“Disbanded for good.” Tony grinned. “I'd say Big Green did pretty good for himself. Come back to New York with me, I'll show you the full report. No, actually, scratch that. I have a better idea. We can make popcorn and watch the hacked feed of the hearing itself. Seriously, it was brilliant. Jackson was brilliant, talked circles around Ross. And he did it without pissing off half the room like I usually do. It was like a cautionary tale: never start a verbal argument with a linguist. I was actually a little bit in awe.”

Bruce's smile widened. “I think that sounds like a great idea, Tony. Thank you.”

“For once, it's not me you have to thank.”

Chapter Text


 

THREADS

No one took any notice of her as she walked through the halls: long blonde hair tied into a perfect tight bun that fit just beneath her hat, minimal make-up (enough to accentuate, not enough to be noticeable), air force uniform with a gold leaf on her shoulder completed with a regulation-length pencil skirt, sheer nylons and sensible one and a half inch heels. She walked with her head held high, confidently and with the regular gait of a soldier, but quiet – a seasoned soldier would probably take one look and guess special ops. They wouldn't be too far off the mark either.

That was image the Black Widow carefully presented to those she passed by in the halls of the Pentagon. However, it was what they didn't see that was important.

In her left hand she held a briefcase full of reports that, while real enough and probably important to someone, were of no actual significance to her mission and there was certainly no one waiting for them inside this building. The sleeves of her uniform jacket were just long enough to cover the widow's bites she wore underneath. The last button could be also be easily torn off and act as a short-distance surveillance device. Her eyeglasses contained a hidden camera and communicator – it didn't have much of a range, but it didn't need to.

Her mark was a General Markham. Or rather, his office was. Hydra hadn't lost all their military backing, they had evidence of that, but they needed to figure out who those backers were. Their only potential ally, General Talbot, was treating all former SHIELD agents as the enemy, including her, despite having been one of the people to expose the threat in the first place.

Oh well, her methods were more interesting anyway.

Then she heard voices coming from a door on her right. Loud voices. An argument? They were muffled behind a door, but the emotions were obvious. The word 'Hydra' had Natasha tripping over nothing in particular – oops clumsy moment – and then pausing as she checked the heel of her shoe, nudging it as though to make sure it hadn't come loose. Just in case someone was watching the cameras. Meanwhile, she ran her other hand over the last button, pressing it lightly to turn on the recording.

“-until this Hydra mess is sorted out!”

“Jack, I know Hydra's a problem! But you and I both know that it's not the biggest problem we have right now. The SGC has obligations to our allies and this is breaking those obligations!”

“It doesn't matter! Orders are orders, Daniel, you've been working for the Air Force long enough to know that! Everything stays grounded until Hydra is rooted out completely.”

“Hydra won't matter if the Ori get this far!”

There were a few moments of silence. Natasha let go of her shoe. She straightened her blazer, running her hands over the front of it, tearing off the last button with the flick of a finger and letting it fall to the ground. She adjusted her glasses as she continued down the hallway, activating the nearly-invisible listening device in her ear.

“-still have time-”

“No Jack, we don't! According to the our latest intell, they're planning a large-scale assault and they're planning it soon. And right now, we're in no shape to fight back. Sam's working on her idea, but she's not sure she can make it viable quickly enough. The chair-”

“Enough! Daniel, I know exactly where we stand with this. I've seen every single, dismal report-”

“Yes, but have you actually read them?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I have. For once. And a dyson vacuum doesn't suck this much, but I'm under orders just as much as you are. Do you think I haven't fought it?”

A sigh. “I know, Jack, but... Is there anything I can do? I know I'm not exactly the Joint Chiefs' greatest friend right now after that whole Hulk thing, but what if I talked to them? I could go in front of the IOA, the Pentagon, anyone. I'll do anything. We need to do something. It's not just... morale is horrible at the SGC. It was bad after New York, but now? Now it's worse.”

“Look, I'll talk to Hammond and see what he says.”

“Okay. I'm actually meeting him for dinner tomorrow so I'll bring it up then.”

“Still going to New York next week?”

A deep breath. “Yeah. I-I have to. Cassie's going to fly up to spend the weekend with me. We'll go to the museum together on Friday.”

“Good. That's... good. Wish I could go too, but well the president wants me here in case they uncover Hydra ties somewhere. Or something. Don't worry, the SGC has good people; they'll pull through.”

“No, they have pulled through. They've done amazing things. They should've been allowed to continue to do amazing things – the things they trained for – instead of getting sidelined in the name of maintaining secrecy. And right now, they're angry, betrayed, frustrated. If the SGC were a ship, I'd call it the Bounty.”

“Great. Well, at least I'll know who to blame if that mutiny ever happens. Hope you at least get yourself an eyepatch and a parrot. Or would that be a camel, since it's you?”

“You're hilarious, Jack.”

The conversation continued as Natasha slipped into General Markham's office, but not for long. The two men left for lunch together just as she was logging into Markham's computer. On her way out, she picked up the dropped button. No one paid her anymore attention as she was leaving than they had when she'd arrived. Mission accomplished.

She walked down the steps from the Pentagon and hailed a cab, asking it to take her to a little Italian restaurant she knew of. It wasn't far and less than ten minutes later, she was paying the cabbie and getting out at her destination. Once out of the cab, she made a show of checking her watch, looking around and then checking her cellphone messages until the cab had driven away. Only then did she walk under the restaurant's canopy and used its shadow to slip into the alley beside it.

The backpack she'd hidden there last night was still stuffed behind a stack of plywood. It took her a matter of minutes to pull her hair out of its bun and clip on a bright pink hair streak, slip in a fake nose ring and change her blazer, pencil skirt and sensible heels for a Washington U sweatshirt, grungy, torn jeans and converse sneakers. She stuffed the uniform into the backpack, along with the glasses and hefted it over her shoulder. Then she walked out the other side of the alley, slouching slightly as she walked to the busstop on the corner.

Two minutes later, she boarded a city bus.

An hour and forty-three minutes after she'd walked into the Pentagon, the Black Widow was sitting in front of a Starbucks with a veritable tub of coffee in front of her as she used her tablet to tap into their wifi.

A few minutes later a purple nike gym bag was thrown onto the ground next to her backpack. “Hey long time no see,” said a familiar voice.

Natasha looked up and smiled in surprise at the blond man standing in front of her table. “Oh my god, it's good to see you!” she exclaimed with a bubbly smile and stood to hug the newcomer. “How's it going?”

“Not bad, nothing to write home about, but you know,” he replied smoothly, his shrug a bit stiff (probably due to the kevlar vest underneath the black t-shirt and leather jacket). His jeans weren't quite as grungy as hers, but they had a well-worn look to them.

In other words, she hadn't been followed.

She gestured to the other chair. “Have a seat.”

“Hang on, let me get a coffee first.”

While Natasha waited for Clint to get himself coffee and a sandwich (he'd been staking out the Pentagon since early this morning in case she needed back up so was probably quite hungry), she casually scanned the street for anything suspicious.

“So, how did things go on your end?” Clint asked after he'd sat down with coffee and a ham and swiss sandwich.

Natasha shrugged. “I have the information, but from what I've seen so far, I think Markham's a bust. No idea how he managed to make general, but it wasn't Hydra.”

“Damn, well one name crossed off the list, I guess.”

“Hm. I did, however, come across something else that was interesting.”

“Oh?”

Natasha dug into the front pocket of her backpack and pulled out an mp3 player. She pretended to fiddle with it for a few moments, while she slipped the button recorder into a slot at the bottom. She handed it over to Clint, who took it and immediately put the headphones on and began. She watched his reactions while she watched their surroundings out of the corner of her eye.

When the conversation finished, Clint stopped the playback and took off the headphones. He looked thoughtful while Natasha put them back into her bag.

“You're definitely right,” he finally said when she was done. “That was interesting. I gotta say, something that's potentially a bigger threat than Hydra doesn't sound good. Also, can't say I've ever heard of the military using the acronym SGC... could stand for anything.”

She nodded. “Same as IOA.”

“International something something, or maybe Internal... 'A' cold stand for 'association' or 'administration' maybe?”

“Maybe.”

“Do you know who either of them are?”

“The plaque on the office door said Leutenent General Jack O'Neill.”

“And this Daniel guy?”

“We have just under a week to figure it out.”

Clint's eyebrows rose. “Does this mean we're going to New York?”

“Unless you have something better to do?”

“Nope.”

 


 

“Mac says everything's working fine as far as he can see, and Trip has swept it for every type of surveillance devices they could think of and then some,” May continued.

Coulson nodded thoughtfully. “And Skye tells me it's clear of any sort of radio signals.”

“Which means...?” May raised an eyebrow at him.

The corners of Coulson's mouth twitched slightly. “Which means we have ourselves a quinjet.”

“But at what cost?”

Coulson took a deep breath, his face sliding back into its habitual neutral expression. “At a cost the agents involved were willing to pay. That all of us are willing to pay.”

“Was it worth it?”

“Yes. Or rather, we'll have to make it worth it. That's our job now; to make sure that every person who sacrifices their lives... any part of themselves for SHIELD doesn't die in vain.”

May nodded, her posture relaxing slightly even as her expression stayed just as severe. “I had to ask.”

Coulson nodded. “I know. You wouldn't be much of a second if you didn't.” He took a deep breath and adjusted his tie. “Well, shall we go take a look at what Skye has for us?”

May inclined her head and stepped aside. “After you,” she said with a slight smirk.

Downstairs in the main room, they found Skye sitting crosslegged on top of the large conference table, furiously typing. She looked up when she heard them coming down the stairs and smiled. The others were sprawled around the room in various states of relaxation, Lance and Mac with their usual beers in hand. Coulson nearly rolled his eyes at their poorly-hidden attempts to appear uninterested in Skye's report.

“Heya boss man, that didn't take you nearly as long as I thought it would,” Skye called to him.

“Does that mean you're not ready to present your findings?” he asked.

“Wouldn't have called you if I wasn't.”

“Good, then what do you have?”

Skye bit her lip and hesitated for a moment. “Okay, so before I start I should probably mention that I'm not actually sure what I've found. Suspicious, super-secretive: yes, definitely. Evil and affiliated with Hydra: maybe, maybe not.”

“Why don't you start from the beginning, Skye,” May prompted her.

“And the rest of you might as well stop pretending you're not listening to every word and pull up closer,” said Coulson.

Skye waited for the others to come in closer before bringing her research up onto the projector.

“Okay, so as you all know I've been scouring any and all military communications, databases, reports, ecetera for any evidence of Hydra activity. Well, I came across a couple of references for something called Project Blue Book, which you know, sounds totally innocuous.”

“Which means it's probably anything but,” Lance added.

Skye's lips quirked. “Exactly. Anyway, I did some digging and saw it referred to in a few other places – sometimes also called the SGC. And this is where this whole thing gets really weird and confusing.” She brought up a few other files, opened the reports for them to see. “Because the more I read about this project, the less I understand. It's almost like it's written in code and you need a cipher or maybe a legend to understand it. Like here-” She highlighted a section of the text. “-it's referring to something called 'naquadah'. I have no idea what that is. A few of the reports mention mines so I guess that means it's a mineral or a metal or rock or something-”

“Could be a code word for 'diamond' or 'gold',” May suggested.

Skye nodded. “That's sort of what I'm thinking. And that's one example. A lot of the reports are like that. Or here they're talking about the 'people from the Land of Light', also refered to as P3X-797.”

“I see what you mean,” said Coulson, his eyes skimming what he could see of the reports on the projection screen. “It's like they're written specifically for people who know what's going on. Or who possess the cipher to decode it with. There were a few operations SHIELD handled that way.”

“Really?” Trip asked.

Coulson smiled thinly. “There weren't many, but some yes. It's useful for misdirecting people who go snooping where they shouldn't.”

“Yeah, well, as the person doing the snooping here, it's damn frustrating,” said Skye. “Anyway, I decided to try it from a different angle and from what I've managed to figure out, whatever this Project Blue Book is, it's got ties to Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs.”

May raised an eyebrow in surprise. “The air force base?”

“NORAD?” Trip said at almost the same time. “This is affiliated with NORAD?!”

Skye paused. “Uh, same complex as NORAD, but I didn't find any evidence to suggest they were in any way connected other than sharing space.”

“I think there was supposed to be an old missile silo underneath NORAD,” said Coulson thoughtfully. “They could be using that space for the project.”

“That... would make a lot of sense actually,” said Skye. “'Cause this Project Blue Book/SGC thing? It gets weirder.”

“Great,” said Lance. “I just love it when the weird things get weirder.”

Skye brought up a few more reports. “I hacked my way in through government channels and found a few funding reports.” She brought them up. “Whatever's going on down there has been eating money; like huge chunks of the military and Department of Defense's budget has been going towards this thing.”

Trip whistled in awe. “Jesus, girl, this thing's gotta be big for the government to pour that much money into it. What is this, research? Weapon's development?”

“I have no idea, but the number of civilians associated with it is ridiculous – and super random. I found a list of people from medical experts and biologists to physicists, engineers and even a whole bunch of archaeologists and linguists. Also, oddly enough, a handful of diplomats.”

Coulson blinked. “That is an odd mixture. Any clues at all what they're doing down there?”

Skye shook her head. “They're building or developing something that's for sure. Something that's taking a lot of power. Here, check out the power drain from this place.”

“Well, it definitely looks like something that deserves a closer look,” said May carefully. “Skye, do you have a possible in for us?”

Skye grinned. “Now that is a question I can answer.” She closed the document windows on the projector and replaced them with a personalle file, complete with ID photo. “Meet Doctor Daniel Jackson, double PhD in archaeology and linguistics and civilian consultant with the SGC. Was hired on to the project eleven years ago and has been with it ever since with three note-worthy gaps in his record.”

“Gaps?” Colson asked. “What sort of gaps?”

Skye's grin widened. “He was dead.”

“He was dead,” Colson dead-panned back at her.

“Say what?” said Trip. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” said Skye. “According to his record, Doctor Jackson has been declared dead not once, not twice, but three times.”

“Guess you're not so special anymore, Director Coulson,” Lance drawled.

“I suppose not,” said Coulson with a thoughtful frown. “I know everyone jokes about so-called 'military intelligence', but that's a bit much.”

“That's what I thought,” Skye agreed. She winced slightly. “Unfortunately his file is heavily redacted and really well protected. I had to pull back when I realized I was about to get caught in a tracer program, so I don't really have any details... But, I thought I recognized the name, so I did a basic google search.”

Skye's fingers flew over the keyboard and a few seconds later the projection screen showed a webpage. It was simple, obviously put together by an amateur. May's eyebrows raised at it in surprise. Coulson blinked.

“He's a conspiracy theorist?” he asked.

Skye shook her head. “Not him personally, but his work is used by conspiracy theorists. As far as I can tell he doesn't personally have anything to do with any of the sites I found and only a few had any relevant information about him – I think, like, maybe one or two had made the top-secret government job connection. In his Phd thesis he theorized that Egyptian culture was actually a lot older than we think. Also, he talked about, uh-” She consulted her notes. “-cross-culture pollination and how disparate cultures that never would've had any contact nonetheless developed similarities. He doesn't actually mention aliens himself, but the consensus is that it would've been the next step in his thought process. He got laughed out of the archaeological community for it and hasn't published anything since.”

“That we know of,” Coulson added.

Skye paused. “Right, sure, that we know of.”

“Disenfranchised, with crazy theories and a knowledge of languages and ancient myths...” Trip began. “He sure sounds like the kinda guy Hydra would be looking to recruit.”

Coulson looked to Skye. Skye nodded to the room at large. “Yeah, on paper he looks like the perfect candidate for Hydra... except for one huge blip. Remember that thing with the Hulk a few months ago? The one where Ross got demoted and the Hulkbusters disbanded because he fired on a civilian target and didn't give a shit?”

Everyone nodded.

“That was Jackson?” May asked.

“Yup, that was Jackson. I mean, could be he was just pissed that his friend's adopted daughter nearly got killed, but tactically it would've been a really bad move on Hydra's part.”

“Agreed,” said Coulson. “Hulk on the run keeps at least one of the Avengers out of the picture. According to a source of mine, Bruce Banner is now back living in Stark Tower.”

“So, other than making our heads explode, is there a reason we're learning about this Jackson guy?” Lance asked.

“I'm not sure that breaking into Cheyenne Mountain is really all that feasible at the moment,” said Coulson.

Skye smiled brightly. “Well then it's a good thing he's not in Colorado Springs right now. According to his credit card statement, he's in Washington this week.”

“It'll be risky,” said Coulson thoughtfully. “He had some pretty heavy-hitting political allies in his case against Ross. I'm not sure I want to stir that hornet's nest just yet.”

“You've got something more, don't you?” May asked Skye.

Skye smirked. “Yup,” she answered, popping the 'p'. “From Washington he's got a commercial flight booked for New York on Thursday. Our best guess for grabbing him is Friday.”

“Why Friday?” asked Coulson.

“It's the anniversary of his parents' death. He's going to be in either one of two places: the cemetery where they're buried, or the museum where they died.”

 


 

Sam paused in front of the guest room and went over what he wanted to say once more in his head. He felt slightly ridiculous bracing himself as if for battle when the closest thing to a weapon he had were the hot rum toddies his mom had made, and the person he was about to face was a close friend. But only slightly ridiculous, because said friend was Steve Rogers, Captain America himself. And Steve Rogers was one stubborn son-of-a-bitch.

“Hey,” he said when he walked into the room.

Steve turned away from the window (not exactly a hardship, since the neighbour's yard didn't exactly make for picturesque viewing unless you were into scrap-pile chic) and smiled at the mugs Sam was holding. He shook his head.

“Your mother is an amazing woman,” he said.

“Yeah, well, in case you haven't noticed she's pretty much adopted you,” Sam drawled as he handed him one of the mugs, snickering at the way Steve's ears turned pink in embarrassment.

Steve tried to hide a pleased little smile by taking a drink of his hot toddy, but Sam saw it anyway. He grinned. Then cleared his throat.

“Speaking of my mom, she's worried about you.” It was cowardly, but Sam wasn't above using slightly under-handed methods if it meant ensuring the well-being of his friends. Besides, it wasn't completely false.

Steve frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean you've been pushing yourself too hard. You need to take a break, man.”

And, yup, there it was: that flash of stubborn pride. “I'm fine,” came the clipped reply.

“Yeah, you're really not. Look, I get that you really want to find Bucky, I do. But we've looked through every damn city, town and hamlet between Washington and New York and spent the last two weeks scouring Brooklyn in case he wanted to find something he recognized. And we've got nothing. We don't even know that we're on the right side of the Canadian boarder or that the Winter Soldier got enough of his memories back to remember Brooklyn as home. Hell, for all we know, he had an extraction plan that somehow didn't fall through and he's now back in Russia or something!”

Steve's eyes flashed with pain, his lips turning downwards unhappily. “Sam, if this is-”

Sam raised a palm out to stop him. “I'm not saying we should stop. I told you I'd go wherever you did and I meant it. I'm not abandoning your mission anymore than you are. Just... I'm just suggesting a break.”

Steve opened his mouth to protest.

“One day,” Sam cut him off again. “That's all I'm saying. Let's take one day to relax, clear our heads, recharge and then plan our attack from there.”

Steve didn't look thrilled about the idea, but at least he'd stopped protesting. For the moment. Deciding to press his advantage while he could, Sam pulled the leaflet he'd found sitting on top of the newspaper pile in the livingroom out of his back pocket and showed it to Steve.

“Look, the Met's got a special exhibition on right now featuring art of the Ancient World or something. Apparently they're celebrating the fifty year anniversary of the crown jewel of their Egyptian collection. You like art, right?”

Steve reluctantly took the pamphlet from Sam. “I was an art student before the war,” he agreed as he looked it over.

Sam fought to keep the triumphant grin off his face. “So what do you say? Tomorrow's Friday. We take the day off, meander around the Met, maybe catch a movie or go to the zoo or whatever we feel like afterwards and then we can spend the weekend figuring out a plan. Or however long it takes us.”

He watched Steve hesitate, obviously tempted, but possibly feeling guilty about it.

“Sometimes stepping away from a problem for a short time and coming back to it with fresh eyes makes it easier to see the solution,” he said. “Besides, my mom won't worry as much if she thinks you're taking care of yourself and taking a break when you need it.”

Steve rolled his eyes and shot Sam an unamused look. “Sam, you and I both know you're just shamelessly using your mom to get me to say 'yes' to this.”

Sam shrugged. “Is it working?”

Steve watched him for a few moments and then finally huffed in a mixture of amusement and frustration. “Yes, alright, fine, let's go to the museum tomorrow.”

Sam grinned. “Good, then I haven't used my mom's name in vain after all.”

Steve smiled and Sam couldn't help but notice how much more relaxed he looked already as he took another sip of his hot toddy.


 

Daniel stood on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue and stared at the long stairway that led to the imposing stone building of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It wasn't like he hadn't visited the museum since his parents' death, but he'd always managed to avoid most of the Egyptian wing (it often involved 'getting lost' or quietly wandering away from the school group he was with). Just knowing that was his main destination today made his palms sweat and the building before him tower in a way that had his mind flashing back to memories of Ra's hat'ak.

He snorted softly to himself. He was being ridiculous, he knew he was.

He squeezed the cellphone in his pocket. It had Cassie's message on it, the one telling him that she was running about half an hour late, and his reply, saying he'd wait for her inside.

Well, he'd have to walk up those stairs first.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then he squared his shoulders, pictured himself wearing his kevlar vest and combat boots, and marched up the stairs. The stairs were longer than the ramp at the SGC, but it wasn't like the doors at the end literally led to another world. It was just a building, after all.

And the ghosts that haunted it only existed in his own mind.

Chapter Text


 

WEAVING

Natasha had waited for her mark on the staircase leading to the museum. She'd dyed her hair back to its customary red, but added a pair of large black plastic hipster glasses. With brown boots, pale-wash skinny jeans, a white lace tunic top and fitted tweed blazer, she was just another arts student as she sat on the steps reading a large tome about unveiling the mysteries of the pharaohs.

The book was a last-minute touch, because Doctor Daniel Jackson was an Egyptologist and she might need an excuse to create conversation.

The last several chapters had also been hollowed out and contained a small handgun.

She saw him approach the museum with obvious unease – having guessed why he was here, that hardly surprised her. She also saw him check his phone and hesitate, before squaring his shoulders as though preparing for battle and marching up the staircase. To his credit, once he'd forced himself to move he didn't slow until he disappeared into the building.

Casually, she checked her watch and then closed the tome she'd been pretending to read. She reached up to 'adjust' her glasses.

“This is Widow,” she whispered. “Target spotted, I'm going in.”

“Roger that, Widow,” came the faint reply.

She noticed him in line to pay for admission and walked on, having purchased hers online the night before. Grabbing a pamphlet, she showed her ticket to the attendant and headed straight for the Egyptian art wing. She quickly found an intricate mural by the entrance she could pretend to be fascinated with.

Her eyes darted to the side every few seconds, towards the exhibit's entrance. Natasha waited.

A little less than ten minutes later, Daniel Jackson finally walked into the wing and paused. She noticed his adam's apple move as he swallowed heavily. Just like on the steps, saw him steel himself, as though this was the most difficult journey he would ever make. And for all she knew, perhaps it was.

Unlike on the steps, he didn't rush through the wing, but rather took his time perusing the artwork, examining the artifacts (and frowning at a few of the description cards). He was enjoying himself, she realized after a while. Or forcing himself to, at any rate; his movements were just a little too stiff, his eyes just a little too preoccupied with not looking ahead. His curiosity, his fascination, however, looked genuine.

Natasha followed him carefully, his leisurely pace allowing her to appear to be casually examining the displays. Her plan was to eventually draw him into conversation – she would get a read on him and adapt her plan from there. She already knew he was unhappy with his current job, and today he would be even more emotionally vulnerable. It was perfect timing. However, he'd also been the recipient of several civil service awards both from the Department of Defence, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President himself. And he received hazard pay in addition to earning a paycheque equivalent to the military's most high-profile civilian scientists.

Natasha knew she needed to be careful not to underestimate him.

Doctor Jackson moved around someone already standing and staring with a puzzled sort of expression in front of a glass case containing an ornate sceptre. Natasha blinked, startled momentarily at the familiar face. She pursed her lips in annoyance and walked a little less casually towards him.

“Sam, what are you doing here?” she said, noting that, to his credit, he only jumped slightly.

Wide-eyed, Sam Wilson blinked down at her in surprise. “Jesus, Natasha, I could ask you the same thing. At least I was just minding my own business instead of sneaking up on people.”

Natasha smirked. “I'm following a lead,” she said. “Is Steve here?”

“Yeah, yeah, he's here somewhere,” said Sam, waving his hand vaguely towards somewhere behind him. “And you had better not be telling me you're here because you're expecting trouble, 'cause let me tell you, it was not easy for me to convince him to take a day off. I even had to use my mother as blackmail material and if she ever finds out I did that, then she will not be happy.”

He paused, considered.

“Actually, nevermind, she might be really happy. She freaking loves Steve.”

Natasha raised an eyebrow at him. “You took Steve to meet you mother?”

He rolled his eyes. “You're hilarious. Seriously though, she is the sweetest most wonderful person in the world and she would fucking murder me if she found out I was in New York and staying in a hotel. Like, there would be blood and guts and possibly even tar and feathers.”

“She sounds lovely,” Natasha chuckled. Then she grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the sceptre. “Walk with me, you can be my cover.”

Sam allowed her to pull him away. “Hydra at the Met, though? Seriously?”

“Not sure if he's Hydra... In fact, I'm mostly convinced he's not. Just someone we believe deserves a closer look.”

“Aah. So who is he?”

“A high-ranking civilian consultant who works at Cheyenne Mountain.”

“Oh? I've heard rumours about that place.”

“Really?”

“Yep. Like weird, freaky science experiment rumours. Knew a guy who'd been stationed there as a guard for a few months. He didn't really know anything specific, but man did he have some bizarre stories to tell.”

“Hmm.”

They rounded the corner and Natasha froze, cursing under her breath. Because there was Steve Rogers. Talking to Doctor Daniel Jackson. Wonderful.

 


 

The moment Steve had walked into the museum, he'd found himself relaxing, his eyes widening in awe at the grandeur of the large stone building. He remembered coming here as a child for the first time with his mother – it had been his birthday present when he'd turned eleven, no, twelve. And just like then, it was like stepping into another world. A world where the present didn't matter, where the only thing that mattered was the past.

Steve had always loved to draw, but this was where he'd fallen in love with art.

He should have done this sooner, he realized as he and Sam meandered their way through the Egyptian art exhibit, going in no particular direction. Hydra, the twenty-first century, SHIELD, they had no place within these walls. Even now, Steve often felt like a relic as he stumbled his way through this world he wasn't sure he would ever be comfortable in. But here, here there were true relics. The people who'd crafted the artwork he saw before him had long turned to dust, their names faded from existence even as their creations endured.

Would his shield have a place in this museum one day? A thousand years from now, would hundreds of people look at it, admire it for its beautiful yet simple design. Would they read the tiny display card that told them it had once been created by Howard Stark for the man that was known as Captain America? Would they even bother putting the name Steve Rogers on the card?

Oddly enough, he found it comforting to think of himself as just a part of history when faced with evidence of just how vast that history was. He was nothing more than flotsam bobbing upon the surface of the flowing river. Flotsam with a shield.

He hadn't really noticed when he'd wandered away from Sam. One moment he'd simply turned around to point out something about the chariot on display and realized his friend wasn't beside him. He blinked and looked around, but Sam was nowhere in sight.

Steve shrugged to himself. They'd run into each other again eventually.

It was then that he noticed the man standing at the entrance to a large exhibit across from him. He was just standing in the doorway, steadying himself with one hand clutching the corner of the wall, and trembling as he stared ahead into the room. Though completely out of place, Steve recognized that stance, could almost hear the man's madly-beating heart and, as he got closer, could definitely hear his quiet, too-quick breaths.

Steve placed a gentle hand on the man's shoulder. “Sir?” he asked quietly, careful not to spook him. “Are you alright?”

The man startled anyway, his muscles tensing, his weight automatically shifting slightly forward, ready to defend himself or run. Battle-ready. Was this man a soldier?

Steve took his hand off the man's shoulder and held both his hands palms out to show he was unarmed and didn't mean any harm. The other man was tall, though not as tall as Steve, and muscular beneath the grey button-up shirt he was wearing. Blue eyes blinked up at him warily from behind simple, wire-rim glasses as the man assessed his situation, reminded himself where he was and what was real.

Steve smiled at him and waited patiently for him to push away the images, memories, he'd been trapped in. Finally, the man closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose as he took several deep breath.

“Sorry,” he said quietly. “I just got caught up there – I thought I could do it alone.” He chuckled bitterly and opened his eyes. The pain in them was old, haunting. “Thank you. I'm fine now.”

He wasn't. “Are you sure?” Steve asked softly. “I know what it's like to see horrible things when I close my eyes.”

The man's eyes shifted to Steve, suddenly sharp, focused and intelligent as they took him in for probably the first time.

“You're a soldier,” he finally said.

Steve shrugged. “I was in the army.”

The man nodded and looked away, towards the room he'd been standing in front of. “I know that feeling too, but this... this is different.”

“Uncle Daniel!”

Both men startled at the sudden voice that broke the silence of the exhibit. Steve looked up to see a young blonde woman with a giant hiking backpack hurrying towards them, ignoring the disapproving looks cast towards her for breaking the sacred silence of the museum. She stalked up to the man Steve had been speaking to and glared at him.

“I was only running a little late because of the airport buses,” she said. “I told you to wait for me.”

“Sorry, Cassie, I just thought that maybe... I mean, it's been so long.” He sighed. “I didn't think it would hit me so hard.”

The woman's eyes softened. “You don't have to do it alone, Uncle Daniel. That's why I'm here.”

She stepped forward and embraced him. And after a moment's hesitation, the man – Daniel – hugged her back. Looking over his shoulder, the woman caught Steve's eye and mouthed 'thank you' to him. Steve smiled and nodded before stepping back, understanding he was no longer needed.

He turned back to the chariot display and blinked at an amused-looking Sam. And standing next to him... Natasha? Steve nodded a greeting to her.

“So, what was that about?” Sam asked him when he'd made his way over to them.

Steve shrugged. “I'm not entirely sure,” he replied. “I noticed the guy standing there. Seemed like he was nearly hyperventilating, so I went over to see if I could help.”

Sam's eyebrows rose. “PTSD? Weird place to get flashbacks, but it's not like those ever play by any rules.”

“His parents died in that room,” said Natasha in the same tone of voice she'd use for the weather forecast. Steve and Sam both looked to her with wide eyes. She looked back evenly. “Crushed to death when one of the stones of the archway they were assembling for the exhibit fell on top of them. He saw it happen.”

“Fuck,” said Sam quietly.

Steve silently agreed with his sentiment and, even though he would never be able to swear out loud in mixed company the way most of his new friends did, he thought Sam summed it up quite nicely. He turned and glanced to where the young woman was talking to Daniel softly. She held her hand out to him with a smile and Steve breathed a sign of relief when Daniel smiled back and took it.

They walked into the room together.

“So how exactly do you know about random guy's parents?” he heard Sam ask Natasha.

Steve turned back and raised an eyebrow at her. “Is he why you're here?” he asked her. “Not that it isn't great to see you again, but I didn't think the Met was where you'd spend your downtime.”

The corners of Natasha's lips quirked. “He caught my attention. Doctor Daniel Jackson, archaeologist, linguist, Egyptologist and civilian consultant for the air force, stationed at Cheyenne Mountain. Fairly high profile too, with extremely good relations with both the Russian and Chinese governments – or their representatives in any case.”

Steve froze, the worries and tension that had evaporated the moment he'd stepped into the museum returning to him in a wave that threatened him with dizziness.

“You think he's Hydra?”

Natasha pursed her lips for a long moment before answering. “No. No, I don't think he's Hydra. But I do think he's involved in something that merits investigating.”

He let out the breath he was holding. He nodded. “Okay, well then let's go take a look.”

 


 

Skye's plan hitched on the theory that museum security wasn't too clever and wouldn't care about one person hanging out all day. The same two people hanging out in one exhibit room for hours on end would get noticed quickly, so she and Trip had decided to split up. Trip was wandering around the museum, while she had sat herself down in the corner of the room with her laptop. As her cover – and to pass the time – she was creating a three-dimensional graphic design of the arch in front of her and using some of the drawing around her to build a CGI model. Not that she entirely knew how to do more than a rudimentary design, but if anyone asked she was a film studies student using the exhibit as inspiration for a project.

It was as good of a cover as any and pretending to be a history or archaeology student would last about the three seconds it took for someone to realize she knew absolutely nothing about Ancient Egyptians except that they'd built pyramids. And a Sphinx.

When she saw Doctor Jackson enter the room, she immediately texted Trip. Then Coulson, who was with May staking out the cemetery.

She looked back up and realized he wasn't alone. Damn, that wasn't part of the plan. They'd hoped to grab him on his way out of either the museum or cemetery. The blonde girl with him was holding his hand and talking to him quietly, engaging him in conversation. It really should have occurred to them that he'd bring someone for moral support. Slowly, steadily they made their way across the room, not paying attention to anything else.

A few minutes later another group of people walked in. Skye felt the difference immediately. Their gaits were casual, but she couldn't help but notice the way each of them scanned the room when they entered. Their gazes didn't linger on anything, but she knew they had to have seen her. She looked back to her laptop and pretended to bury herself back into her work. Those three did not give her a good feeling. The big blond and the dark-skinned man moved like soldiers, like SHIELD agents. The smaller redhead... Skye could swear she felt her eyes watching her even though she wasn't even looking in her direction.

She didn't dare look up again until she heard footsteps coming towards her and felt a warm body settle next to her on the ground. Trip smiled and gave her a little wave.

“What's up, girlfriend?” he said. “How's that project coming?”

“I seem to have hit a snag,” she said.

“Oh? Let me see.” He leaned over to look at her laptop screen, close enough that they could whisper without being overheard.

Skye brought up a blank notepad on screen. 'He's not alone' she typed.

Trip's eyes darted upwards, pretending to examine the arch, but taking in the people standing in front of it at the same time. Skye glanced up just as the big blond man walked up to Jackson and his friend.

“Shit,” she heard Trip whisper quietly. He spoke so quietly that even right next to him she had to strain to hear the words. “We've got bigger problems. Not a hundred percent sure about the others, but that big blond is definitely Steve Rogers.”

Skye's head snapped to Trip. “What?” she whispered, forgetting her cover for a second. Cursing inwardly, she looked back to her laptop. She typed: 'What's Captain America doing at the met?'

Trip shrugged and then pulled away from her and got his phone out. This changed things.


 

Daniel stared at the arch. It was made of stone, ordinary stone. Thousand-year-old stone, yes, but still just stone. The museum lights illuminated it, allowing the faint, weather-worn carvings to be seen clearly, but it still just ordinary stone. It wasn't as tall as he remembered it, but then he'd been eight the last time he'd seen it. No, that wasn't true, the Gamekeeper had shown it to him on repeat when he'd been much older than that.

These simple stones were the cause of so much grief. In his memories, they'd always loomed menacingly. But now they were just simple stones.

His throat seized up, words of thanks buried within the jumble of emotions he felt: sadness, relief, appreciation for their simple beauty. He squeezed Cassie's hand instead and she squeezed back. Looking at the arch now, he could see it for what it was and it was beautiful. The pyramids told the story of the pharaohs, and of a people who worshipped their leaders as deities. This arch, however, told a much simpler story, the story of a forgotten town and their much-beloved city-god, whose temple the arch was from.

He felt movement to his right as someone came to stand beside him.

“That's impressive-looking,” a voice said quietly and Daniel recognized it as the blond soldier's. “What is it?”

It took Daniel a few moments, but he somehow found his voice.

“It's the entrance arch from a temple,” said Daniel. “Dated to about the sixteenth century BC, it's the last remaining evidence of an Ancient Egyptian town. In fact the only reason it was found was because it's made of limestone. The rest of the town had probably been made of traditional mudbrick, which had been destroyed over time by the elements, crumbled to dust and then buried by sandstorms. It was an incredible find. This was the only complete part of the temple that remained, the rest of it was broken up and in ruins, although enough of the structure remained to determine what it had once been.”

He remembered his parent's excitement. Remembered his father lifting his mother into the air and spinning her, both their faces lit up with delight and laughter. And then their more quiet excitement as they'd taken him by the hand and shown him what they'd found, patiently explained what these giant rocks really were, what they meant. Until he'd understood even with his child's mind that these rocks weren't just rocks, that they were a portal into another time, practically another world.

Daniel found himself smiling. He'd forgotten that.

“I wonder what it says on the sides,” someone else said.

Daniel blinked and took a step forward, leaning over to get a better look at the hieroglyphs carved into the temple arch.

“Home of the great – no, glorious – Ra, beloved protector. May he ride in eternal glory.”

There was a pause and then, “Woah, you can read that?!”

Daniel looked over at short-haired African-American man standing next to the blond. He, too, looked very much like a soldier. Daniel shrugged. “I'm an Egyptologist.”

Next to him, a petite redhead frowned at the display card. “That's not what it says here,” she said.

Daniel rolled his eyes. “Don't tell me, they translated it as 'May he live forever', didn't they? Probably used Budge too.”

Beside him, Cassie giggled. “You and Budge: what do you have against the poor man?”

“He's a hack! Doesn't know the first thing about language and then he tries to translate something as complex as hieroglyphs and gets half of it completely wrong, prompting the rest of the archaeological community to create erroneous translations for years!”

Cassie's giggles dissolved into quiet laughter. “I'm sure he did the best he could, Uncle Daniel,” she said. “He just wasn't the genius you are.”

“I've worked with a few geniuses in my time,” the blond man said with a chuckle. “And it seems to me that they never understand why everyone else doesn't see things the way they do, not realizing that they're geniuses precisely because they see the world differently.”

Daniel raised an eyebrow at him and the blond man chuckled, his eyes filled with amusement. He held a hand out to Daniel.

“I'm Steve,” he said and then pointed behind him. “And my friends, Sam and Natasha.”

Daniel smiled back. “Daniel,” he said shaking his hand. “And this is my niece, Cassandra.”

Cassie mock-glared at him and then turned to the blond with a bright smile. “Call me Cassie.”

“Nice to meet you, miss.”

The museum shook.

“Oh my god, what was that?” asked Cassie, her eyes wide. “Earthquake?”

“Doesn't feel like one,” Daniel answered automatically, already moving out of the room.

He knew the others were following him. Well, it was likely second-nature to the soldiers. Out in the main corridor of the Egyptian art exhibition, people were silent, looking around uncertainly.

The second time the museum shook, they heard the accompanying explosion. Steve and his friends raced past him towards the front of the museum. People around him screamed and began to rush out.

“Everyone calm down!” he yelled, his voice loud and filled with all the military authority he'd learnt from Jack. It stopped most of them in their tracks. “This building is made of solid stone, it's sturdy and it's like a maze. No matter what's going on out there, this is the safest place for you to be. Understand?”

He looked around, watching as pure panic calmed in most of their eyes and logic won. In the far corner he saw a Chinese family whispering amongst themselves, their expressions panicked. He walked over to them and smiled, bowed slightly and then repeated what he'd just said in Mandarin. Their faces brightened instantly and they bowed back, thanking him. He noticed some people moving further into the museum and urged the family to follow them.

He turned to Cassie. “Stay here,” he told her.

She crossed her arms and gave her an unamused, unimpressed look that was so purely Janet it made his heart pang. “Yeah, not happening,” she said.

“Cassie--”

“--Just go, I'll be right behind you.”

Deciding he didn't have time to argue a lost cause, Daniel turned and rushed towards the front, crouching beside the exit and carefully looking around the corner. Inside the vast entrance hall, he saw about a dozen burly men dressed in bright blue armour that looked like it had been designed by someone who'd tried to fuse medieval knights together with traditional Japanese ninjas, but didn't really know much about either.

Then again, the P-90s weren't exactly historically accurate either, so maybe that wasn't the point.

The sound of gunshots and shouting echoed within the cavernous space, creating a deafening din. There was a loud crash followed by a chorus of screams as the glass in the ticket booths shattered and crashed to the ground. Daniel scanned the area, taking in every detail. He caught a glimpse of civilians cowering behind statues and pillars. A white-haired woman lay motionless on the ground, her cane haphazardly thrown mere inches away from her outstretched hand and, though he couldn't see her wounds, he saw the blood that was gradually spreading along the marble tiles.

He also saw Steve, Sam and Natasha. Sam had somehow managed to get hold of a handgun and was firing into the fray from behind an overturned table. Natasha and Steve, on the other hand, seemed to have just jumped in. He watched them for a few moments, mesmerized by the fluidity of their movements. Steve's movements reminded him of Teal'c: raw power controlled, tamed by a force of will that could cut through the fiercest opponents. Natasha was a whirlwind of motion as she twisted herself like a deadly acrobat, taking down her opponents using all four limbs and a taser weapon attached to her wrists.

If not for the steady stream of ridiculously-dressed thugs, they would've likely taken care of the situation within minutes.

Daniel took a deep breath and assessed the situation. He was unarmed and Steve, Sam and Natasha clearly didn't need his help. But they couldn't go on forever. Eventually, one of the thugs might get lucky. But if he broke position to run in to help, he'd have to run across quite a bit of uncovered ground with no Kevlar vest.

What would Jack do, he wondered? Or Teal'c for that matter...

Look for any advantage, the element of surprise. But how could he surprise armoured thugs that were armed to the teeth? First of all, he needed a weapon. The archaeologist in him cried out in horror at the mere thought of using one of the many weapons on display throughout the museum. It would be sacrilege! And yet the past wasn't worth more than present human lives.

He would still have to somehow lay an ambush and... wait.

Daniel cursed his own absent-mindedness. Hadn't he just told all those people that the museum was like a maze?

Daniel patted himself down until he'd found the small visitor's map he'd grabbed absent-mindedly from beside the ticket booth and unfolded it. It took him about thirty seconds to figure out his best path. He backed away from the lobby and then turned and ran back the way he'd come.

“Uncle Daniel, what are you doing?” Cassie asked as she ran after him.

“Going around to cut them off at the antiquities exhibit,” he answered. “Steve, Sam and Natasha are amazing, but they won't be able to hold that lobby on their own for much longer. Those blue ninja knight guys had a clear path to the Egyptian wing, but didn't take it, which means whatever they're here for isn't in there.”

“Oh god, this is one of those infamous Daniel Jackson plans I keep hearing about, isn't it?”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “Don't worry, I'm not going to try talking them out of it until I can do it at gunpoint.”

“Good.”

They ran around corners, down corridors that hadn't seen sprinters in a very long time – if ever. At one point, Daniel realized there were more footsteps following him than just Cassie's and he turned to see two more people behind them: a dark-skinned man and a long-haired young woman. They weren't in hideous blue costumes, though, so he dismissed them as people who wanted to help.

As they approached the antiquities wing, he slowed down, pausing at every bend to listen for the clang of armour (he really hoped no one ever invented silent armour). It wasn't until they were facing a beautifully preserved statue of Athena that he finally heard anything. Bringing a hand up, he motioned for the people following him to stop and crouch down. Straining his ears, he could hear heavy bootfalls coming closer and – sure enough – the familiar clang of armour, albeit a bit less metallic than Jaffa armour Did they make it out of plastic?

“Daniel?” Cassie whispered behind him. “Shouldn't you be calling the SGC?”

Daniel shrugged. Yeah, he probably should have, but it was too late now. He'd deal with Jack's fit later.

“No time,” he said, looking back to meet Cassie's eyes. She was gritting her teeth, her face pale, but determined. Then he looked past her to where the two who'd followed them were crouching down and also waiting. They met his eyes evenly and he couldn't help but be impressed by their calm – he wondered if maybe this wasn't the first time they'd done something like this.

He nodded to them. They nodded back.

Then he turned and shifted his weight to the balls of his feet, bracing himself as the footsteps came closer. As soon as Daniel saw the tip of gun, he was in motion. He grabbed the barrel of the gun in his left hand and threw a punch with his right. The blue-clad ninja-knight stepped backwards to avoid the hit. Daniel still managed to clip him on the jaw, which threw him off-balance enough for Daniel to step in, discover the plastic-looking armour had some good hand-holds, and flip the man onto his back while wrenching the gun out of his hand. As the man fell, Daniel used the momentum to spin around towards the two ninja-knights further down the corridor.

The gun was already armed. He shouldered it and fired. First shot: the ninja-knight on the right went down with a scream of pain. Second shot: the ninja-knight ducked down at the last moment and the bullet hit the wall harmlessly.

He didn't take a third, instead diving out of the way as the man he hadn't hit emptied his clip at him. Daniel scrambled until he was safely behind the bend. The man he'd gotten his gun from was sprawled out not far from them; he was breathing, but unconscious. Daniel took a deep breath. When the gunfire stopped, he peeked quickly around the corner.

And found himself staring into the muzzle of a gun. Daniel leaped behind the corner again. The ninja-knight followed after him, but those precious bare inches were all Daniel needed. He shot three bullets into the armoured torso, happy to note that it wasn't bullet-proof – at least not at close range. The man's body jerked as each bullet hit and he staggered backwards before falling heavily into the statue behind him.

“No!” Daniel cried in horror as he watched the white marble Goddess of Wisdom topple over and land on the tile floors with a crash. An arm went flying as pieces broke apart.

Daniel ran forward to see the damage for himself.

And then froze, staring down at the pieces that now remained of the beautiful Athena. He blinked, cocking his head to the side to see if the change in angle would make what he was seeing change.

He felt someone come up beside him. “Huh,” he heard Cassie say. “It's... hollow.” A pause. “Is that something Ancient Romans did?”

“No,” he replied absently. “They didn't have any technology capable of that.”

Actually, he was fairly certain no one in the twenty-first century had the technology capable of creating a hollow marble statue. Not out of real marble in any case.

He handed his gun to the dark-skinned man. “Here, take this,” he said absently before kneeling in front of the shards of statue.

Behind him he heard whispering, but didn't pay any attention. Somewhere in the distance he heard gunfire, but it wasn't coming closer so that was okay. No, not okay, but there was a buzzing in his mind as his thoughts whirled excitedly like a flock of humming birds. This wasn't an archaeological marvel he was staring at: this was an impossibility, something that physically shouldn't have been able to exist.

He carefully picked up one of the larger shards that had been part of Athena's back and ran a hand over it. It certainly felt like marble. He turned it over. The underside was perfectly smooth and so shiny he wondered if it had been perhaps coated with something. He set the piece aside and grabbed another. Moving it revealed a different sort of stone, darker, perfectly smoothed down with straight edges: two tablets of identical shape and size.

Daniel picked the tablets up reverently and stared at them. The letters were perfectly proportioned and cut into the stone with even, precise lines.

“Cassie, do you have any extra room in your backpack?” he finally asked. He looked up, taking note that the woman who'd joined them earlier was now armed with the P-90 from one of the fallen ninja-knights and the dark-skinned man wasn't with them anymore.

Cassie raised an eyebrow at him. “Maybe. Are you seriously planning to steal those from the museum?”

He shrugged. “It's not like they knew they were here. Besides, it'll save me time wading through bureaucracy later.”

She rolled her eyes even as she shrugged the bag off her shoulders.

 


 

It had happened so fast, Clint wasn't quite sure where the first of them had come from. One minute he was watching tourists taking pictures of the front of the Met, the next there were dozens of smurf-blue minions in armour running up the steps. There were screams as civilians moved out of their way. Clint caught sight of weapons in their hands and cursed, quickly notching an arrow into his bow.

Armoured smurfs with assault rifles was exactly what this day needed.

He was aiming for the minions at the front when a loud bang echoed from the street below him. Seconds later, part of the facade of one of the side wings exploded, rocking the building. Clint followed the trajectory of strike and found three minions with what looked like modified rocket launchers. The second minion fired.

Clint shifted his aim and fired an arrow into the back of the neck of the third minion. The other two followed seconds later.

The comm in his ear flared to life. “Hawkeye, this is Widow. What's going on out there?”

“Evil armoured smurfs,” Clint replied. “I've taken out the guys with the modified rocket launchers, but you've got about two to three dozen incoming and armed. Are you maintaining cover?”

“Negative. I'm engaging the enemy.”

Clint shifted his aim back to the front of the Met. The doors had been thrown open and a batch of minions had already made their way inside. He aimed and fired into the group at the entrance. He didn't have enough arrows to take them all down, but he could take out enough to help Natasha. He managed two arrows before the minions realized they were under attack. His rooftop perch was hidden enough from the streets by several trees, so he wasn't concerned that they'd be able to spot him too quickly, but he would have to move eventually.

He continued firing arrows, trusting Natasha to hold her own inside.

The armour was a bit tricky, as long as he hit it straight-on, his arrows pierced right through, but if they hit at any sort of angle, they just slid along harmlessly. The need for even more careful aiming than usual was slowing him down and more were getting into the museum than he was happy with.

“Black Widow, what's your situation?” he asked into the comm.

“We've managed to stop most of them in the lobby, but they're starting to break away into the exhibits.”

He smirked. “Bet they weren't expecting the Black Widow,” he said.

“They weren't expecting Captain America either.”

Hawkeye let loose another arrow and then paused, blinked. “Were you expecting Captain America?”

“No. He says 'hi' by the way.”

“Cool.” He noticed movement down below as someone new stepped into view, the armour a darker shade of blue and more elaborate for no visibly practical reason. The parking lot, he suddenly realized: they were coming from the parking lot. Did they take an evil villain tour bus? “Uh, I think I've finally got eyes on evil villain Papa Smurf.”

“Acknowledged. I'm going to take down the minions inside the museum. Steve and Sam are coming out to help with the ones outside.”

“Roger that, Widow. I'll cover them.”

A shrill alarm suddenly went off inside the museum, the thick stone walls muffling much of the noise but not all of it. As he notched another arrow, Clint wondered why someone hadn't done that sooner. And then the doors were thrown open from the inside and the front row of minions fell under an unexpected onslaught of bullets. He caught a glimpse of two, dark-skinned shooters just before a bright blue blur shot out from behind them and plowed into the minion huddle. When it stopped in the middle of the remaining group and started throwing punches, he realized it was Steve Rogers holding what looked like the breastplate off one of the armors.

Hawkeye aimed and fired an arrow at one of the minions unknowingly aiming their weapons at Captain America. The minion went down and he notched another arrow.

A single gunshot sounded from behind him.

Hawkeye whirled around, arrow automatically pointed at the only standing target, but instinct made him pause. Laying on the ground unmoving, was a bright blue armoured figure. But what stayed his movements was the man in a black business suit, white shirt and plain grey tie. And a face that should've been impossible.

The man was holding a handgun, but wasn't pointing it at him. Clint felt himself trembling, his ears suddenly buzzing with white noise and his eyes becoming unfocused even as he could make out every single, familiar feature.

“Hello, Hawkeye,” said Phil Coulson with a slight smile. “It's been a while.”

 


 

The alarm was irritating, but she tuned it out as she slunk through the maze that was the museum. Natasha had spent two days studying the floor plans, but hadn't actually expected to need the knowledge like this. Her Widow's Bites were getting quite the work-out as she'd given Sam her gun and submachine guns weren't really her style.

She just hoped they managed to find Daniel Jackson again after this was all over.

Natasha paused at the edge of the next corridor, hearing voices up ahead. A quick peek using a compact purse mirror revealed two more minions. Natasha grinned inwardly and slipped the compact back into the pocket of her pants – she'd lost the blazer at the very beginning of the fight. Silently as only the Black Widow could, Natasha stalked up to the garishly blue minions from behind.

They never heard her coming. At two feet away from them, she brought both arms up and fired a Widow Bite into each of them. From experience she now knew the armour was only semi-conductive, which meant she needed to knock them out the old fashion way. Cutting power to the Bites just before making contact herself, Natasha pounced onto the minion on her left and wrapped her thighs around his neck, using her body weight to pull him off-balance and send them crashing to the ground. Tumbling with the movement, she threw him face-down onto the tile floor and let go, pulling his helmet off with a sharp tug and throwing it at the second minion. It hit the second minion in the head, making him stagger and trip over his own feet, which were already unsteady from the electric shock of the Widow Bites.

A well-placed hit to the back of the head had the minion beneath her stilling and then she was on her feet again. A bullet breezed by her ear and she heard glass shatter as it hit a display case somewhere down the corridor. She dived under a spray of bullets, turning the dive into a forward tumble and nimbly springing to her feet right in front of him. The minion was much too slow to react and she kicked out at his knee with all her strength, feeling the pop through the armour as the joint dislocated.

The minion went down with a scream. Natasha grabbed the gun from his hands as he fell and used the butt of it to knock him out.

After half a moment's hesitation, she decided to keep the gun after all and continued onward. She passed a room full of large display cases and noticed several people crouching behind them. She caught a glimpse of jeans and a t-shirt and, next to them, the edge of a frilly pink sundress. Good, that meant word had somehow gotten round for non-combatants to hide. She moved on without showing she'd seen them, aware the museum was full of security cameras and she had no idea who was watching them.

Over the continuous blaring of the alarm, Natasha just managed to hear a single gunshot.

She ran quietly but quickly to the next bend, where she flattened herself to the wall and listened. She waited the span of three breaths and then spun around the corner, gun drawn, her mind automatically finding a target. The target was small, female and dressed in black combat attire. SHIELD-issue black combat attire: Natasha would recognize it anywhere. The woman's handgun was aimed at Natasha, her face blank, but eyes widening slightly in recognition.

“May,” said Natasha, voice flat, surprise schooled out of her expression.

“Romanov,” the Asian woman replied with an equally flat tone.

For several moments, neither of them moved, each clearly assessing their opponent and looking for any weaknesses to exploit while trying to figure out whether or not they trusted the other. Just then the Agent Melinda May's eyes slid to the side. With barely a glance, her arm moved to point down another corridor and she fired. There was a cry of pain followed by a thud.

May's eyes turned back to Natasha. “I'm with Coulson,” she said.

Natasha raised an eyebrow at her.

 


 

The mastermind behind the attack was easily distinguishable by his even gaudier outfit (although it was at least a better colour) and the elaborate, gold-coloured headpiece that looked like a rather lopsided crown. There were even gemstones. He also had the biggest gun. One size larger than a rocket-launcher, it had a rounded end where several vials of red liquid were visible behind a clear panel. It thankfully wasn't bright blue, but metallic grey

The villain hefted it easily over his shoulder and aimed at the front of the museum. Moments later a thin steam began to waft out of a small opening just above the vial chamber as the weapon hummed to life. The villain grinned, all teeth and maliciousness.

A repulsor blast hit the back end of the weapon and the blue-armoured villain fell to the ground with a scream as the weapon blew apart and the ignited, the flames quickly turning a curious green colour when the vials shattered.

Iron Man hovered above the burning blue armour – or rather the blue armour that curiously didn't seem to be burning at all as fire burned around it.

“JARVIS,” said Tony Stark inside his suit, once he'd determined that the fumes from whatever was burning in the vials wouldn't be dangerous to the EMTs. “Remind me later to grab some of this armour to analyze in the lab.”

“Very good, sir.”

Suddenly dull clangs echoed against the armour Tony rolled his eyes and lifted his arms, palms out towards the three bright blue minions who'd been paying attention and noticed their leader go down. He shot a repulsor blast out of each hand, taking down the first two immediately. The third went down before he'd had a chance to aim.

He blinked at the familiar arrow sticking out of the armour

“Sir, there appears to be someone engaging the combatants on the steps. I believe it might be Steve Rogers.”

Tony looked up the steps in time to watch as a large blond dressed in jeans and holding something so bright blue it could only have been part of the armour the minions were wearing, vault over the iron handrail and kick an armoured minion square in the chest with both legs. The minion staggered back several steps and tripped over another minion, sending both of them tumbling down.

“Huh, I think you're right, JARVIS,” said Tony quietly.

He fired his repulsors and flew above the fight. There were a few minions still trying to fight their way into the museum, but two figures knelt just inside the doorway and steadfastly denied them entry with the minions' own weapons. Bright blue armour littered the steps, some of it completely still and some of it moaning and dragging itself out of the way. Tony activated his external speakers.

“Ehem, attention all bright blue minions – and seriously, what is with that colour? Anyway, your leader is down and my armour is bullet-proof. So, I can just sit here and take potshots at you while Captain America down there beats you into submission... or you can all surrender.”

No more than five seconds passed in silence before the first gun fell to the ground, followed by a rain of clacking as the rest of the minions dropped their weapons and held up their hands in surrender.

“Good choice,” said Iron Man. Then he turned to the police cars waiting along Fifth Avenue. “They're all yours guys.”

Once the police had everything in hand, he landed next to Steve Rogers. The super soldier was looking considerably less than super, leaning heavily on the railing and breathing carefully. The side of his face was blossoming into a pretty impressive-looking bruise and blood ran from what looked like a bullet wound on his left shoulder and a graze along his left side. Blood was also soaking his right thigh, although Tony couldn't see what the wound itself looked like.

Tony lifted his facemask. “So, Rogers, long time no see,” he said. “You've looked better.”

Steve Rogers chuckled tiredly. “I'm sure I have, thanks Stark. And thanks for coming to help.”

“No problem, Cap, anytime.” He paused and looked pointedly at an arrow sticking out of one of the injured minions beside the doors, the back of his mind doggedly echoing the words 'Iron Man yes, Tony Stark no'. “So, was there an assembly invitation or something that I missed?”

Steve Rogers cocked his head. “How did you find out what was going on?”

“Heard it on the news. Or, well, JARVIS saw it on the news and then turned my music off and showed it to me, which is really the same thing in the end, so whatever. Also, where's your shield?”

Rogers shook his head ruefully. “That was more of an invitation than any of us got. Left my shield back at Sam's. We were supposed to be taking the day off to relax.”

“Sam? Who's Sam?”

Just then they were interrupted by a paramedic, who insisted on looking at Rogers' injuries.

Tony hung around, keeping a careful eye out in case he was needed – purposefully hovering close to the ambulance tending to Rogers in case he needed to run interference. He'd read any and all files on Captain America he could find in his father's things. Painkillers didn't work on the good captain any more than alcohol did. The bullet wound on his shoulder had an exit wound, but when his jeans were cut away around his thigh to reveal another bullet wound, it was quickly clear that bullet would have to be dug out.

Tony cringed at the thought and looked away, towards the museum. There were EMTs anxiously waiting just outside the doors to be given the all-clear to enter. He knew a few had already gone inside to take care of the injured in the museum's lobby. There was a quiet huddle of civilians with thin grey blankets standing at the bottom of the steps, being looked over by paramedics.

Suddenly, two paramedics burst out of the front doors with a stretcher. They ran down the stairs and bee-lined it to the ambulance next to Steve's. They moved with practised efficiency, not a single move wasted as they loaded the stretcher, containing an older man with tanned, deeply wrinkled skin and white hair, onto a gurney and packed it into the ambulance. Then one of the paramedics raced to the front and Tony heard the driver's side door slam shut.

The second paramedic, a young woman with blonde hair pulled back into a pony tail, leaned out of the ambulance.

“Does his wife want to come with him to the hospital?” she called out.

Tony looked over to where a worried-looking woman in her sixties stood staring at the ambulance. There were tears in her eyes as she absently fiddled with the camera around her neck. A much younger man stood next to her and spoke in a calm voice. Tony couldn't understand the words, but the language sounded German-esque. Dutch, maybe?

Finally, the woman nodded stiffly and answered the younger man. He looked back to the paramedic.

“Yes, she says she'd like that,” he said. He then said something more to the woman, beckoning her towards the ambulance.

She turned to the man abruptly and embraced him, clearly surprising him. Tony heard the words 'duizendmaal dank' among a burst of other, less intelligible words. She pulled away quickly and ran to the ambulance, taking the paramedic's hand as she climbed into the vehicle. The door shut with a resounding bang. The siren sprang to life and the ambulance sped off towards the hospital.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tony saw Rogers lean out of the ambulance, earning himself a disapproving huff from the paramedic taping up his shoulder (they clearly had plans to take him to the hospital).

“Daniel?” he called out.

The man who'd been translating for the Dutch woman blinked from where he'd been standing and watching the ambulance drive away and leaned over. “Oh, hey, Steve,” he said coming towards them. He frowned. “Good to see you're still alive and mostly in one piece.”

Rogers grinned. “It'll take a bit more than some blue armoured guys to take me out.”

“Well, they did have P-90s and, as my friend Jack keeps telling me, humans aren't bullet-proof.”

Suddenly, a harried-looking police officer ran up to Daniel. “I'm sorry, sir, I know this isn't your job, but one of the museum visitors said they'd seen you speaking Chinese earlier. We're having a bit of communication problems...”

“Mandarin or Cantonese?” Daniel asked.

“Er... I don't know?”

“Okay, well, I'll do what I can.”

“Thank you, if you could just follow me then, sir.”

Tony watched the man and the police officer hurry off towards the museum. Daniel stopped for a moment beside a pair of young women and spoke briefly to the one with long blonde hair and a large backpack. He was about to ask Rogers who this Daniel was, when a voice interrupted him.

“Well, this has sure turned into one hell of a reunion,” it said, coming from behind him.

He turned to look at Clint's grinning face. The archer was holding onto the bicep of a slim man wearing a black suit and tie. Tony completely forgot about Daniel in favour of gapping.

“Hey Cap,” Clint continued. He nodded to Tony. “Stark.” Then he pulled the other man a bit closer. “Speaking of reunions, look who I ran into.”

Tony looked to Rogers, feeling slightly appeased that Captain America looked just as shocked by this little development as he was. Phil Coulson nodded to both of them.

“It's good to see both of you again,” he said evenly. “It's been a while.”

“Uh, yeah, it has been a while,” Tony agreed. “A while during which you were supposed to be dead. You look surprisingly good for a corpse. Less decomposition than I would've expected for one.”

“I get that a lot.”

“So Fury lied to us,” said Captain Rogers and wow, thought Tony, there was enough ice in that tone to recreate the iceberg Cap had been stuck inside of for seventy years.

“Not entirely...” Coulson's eyes slid to the paramedic tending to Captain America. “And perhaps we should discuss this somewhere else.”

Tony nodded. That was probably a good idea. And he felt like he'd need something to drink for this conversation.

“You're not dead.”

Tony didn't jump only because the Iron Man suit was too heavy for it. Natasha came up next to him, ignoring him entirely in favour of pinning Coulson with a sharp stare. It wasn't a glare and there wasn't even any sort of accusation in it. But it was steady, piercing and intense and Tony was really glad he wasn't the one it was being aimed at.

“Hello, Natasha,” said Coulson. “I see you met up with May.”

“Yes. Apparently we were after the same target.”

That had Coulson blinking in surprise. “We were?”

“Yes. And I don't think he's Hydra.”

“But not sure.”

Natasha hesitated for a moment. “No, not entirely.”

Tony threw his hands up. “Okay, so for those of us who came late to this spy party – namely me – what the hell are you talking about?”

“Daniel, the man who was just here, they think he's involved in something suspicious,” Rogers answered with a sigh.

Tony turned to him, noting how tired and world-weary the other man suddenly looked. “This Daniel have a last name?” he asked.

“Jackson,” Natasha replied. “Doctor Daniel Jackson.”

Tony blinked. Damn, now that he thought of it, the man had looked familiar. He looked back towards the museum and noticed that Daniel was back outside again talking to the young woman from before. She looked too young to be a girlfriend; maybe this was the niece. According to the file she was in her early twenties and had long, blonde hair.

Not bothering to say anything to the others, Tony began to cross the street towards them, calling Happy as he went. There were now two others with the young woman, the long-haired brunette having been joined by a tall, dark-skinned man. The way they kept looking towards the group he'd just left told him everything he needed to know about them.

“You're with Coulson, aren't you?” he said when he got to them.

“What, I don't know what you're–” the woman began to protest.

“Sure whatever,” he cut her off before turning to Daniel. “Doctor Daniel Jackson? I'm Tony Stark. Heard you were here from my friends over there.”

Daniel Jackson's eyes widened in surprise, but he shook Tony's proffered hand and smiled politely. “It's a pleasure to meet you Mister Stark. This is my niece, Cassie.”

Bingo. Tony grinned, genuinely pleased he'd hit the mark on that one. “I know it's been a long day for you and you probably already have a hotel in town and all that, but you should totally ditch that plan and join us at Stark Tower. There'll be pizza, beer, awesome company... I can have someone pick up your stuff from your hotel and everything.”

“Er, that's very generous of you Mister Stark– ”

“– Tony, please. I've got plenty of guest rooms, the best view of the city and someone who'll really, really want to meet you.”

Daniel opened his mouth to reply, but Cassie nudged him before he could say anything. They exchanged a brief conversation consisting of several significant looks, including a rather odd shift of eyes towards Cassie's backpack. Finally Daniel sighed and turned back to Tony.

“Thank you Mister Stark, we would love to take you up on that offer.”

“Fantastic, then it's settled. I've already called my chauffeur to bring the car around. It'll be a full house tonight so I'll just head on over first to get everything set up.”

“And by that you mean, tell other people to get everything set up,” said Daniel with a bemused look.

“Well, naturally. That's what being insanely rich is all about.”

“I wouldn't know.”

 


 

In the end, Daniel had realized that leaving with Tony Stark's friends – he'd put two and two together and quickly realized he was talking about the Avengers here – was the easiest way to avoid anyone searching Cassie's backpack. Yes, Skye had seen him and Cassie hide the tablets there, but she hadn't told anyone about it yet. He doubted she'd keep completely silent, but he'd cross that bridge (or blow it up) when it came to it.

Maybe he'd even have enough time to figure out what the tablets were.

As promised, Stark's chauffeur showed up in a long black stretch limo and they all piled into it (except for Steve and Sam, who went to the hospital). Daniel hadn't actually seen Stark Tower in person yet and he had to admit it looked quite impressive and very futuristic. The garage they were driven into looked ordinary enough and the row of cars that would've made Sam salivate, were still just regular cars, no jet blasters or hover bases to be seen.

It was rather difficult to be impressed by a Ferrari when you'd driven a space ship, after all.

An elevator door opened for them and they got into the spacious elevator.

“Welcome to Stark Tower,” said a smooth voice with an English accent over the loud speaker. “Mister Stark is waiting for you on the common floor.”

The doors closed and the elevator began to rise.

“Hello JARVIS,” said the bland-looking man in a suit who'd been introduced as Phil Coulson.

“Agent Coulson, it's good to see you alive.”

The man gave a small smile. “Thank you, JARVIS.”

The elevator doors opened shortly and they all walked out. Tony Stark was standing in the lobby holding a glass of amber liquid, a meek-looking man with floppy black curls standing next to him.

“Oh good, glad you could all make it,” said Tony with a wide grin. “Now, important introductions first: Doctor Daniel Jackson, meet Doctor Bruce Banner.”

The man next to Tony stepped forward, towards Daniel, looking slightly nervous.

“It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Doctor Jackson.”

Daniel blinked. He wracked his brain for a moment, until he placed the name. His eyes widened and he stepped forward, holding out a hand in greeting.

“You're the Hulk,” he said, awed that such a powerful creature could be contained in such an ordinary-looking man. He smiled widely. “It's an honour to meet you, Doctor Banner.”

Bruce Banner stared down at the offered hand for a moment before shaking his head in bemusement and grasping it with his own. Green flashed in his eyes and Daniel was vaguely aware of the others around him stiffening.

“Most people don't feel quite so honoured when they realize who I am,” he said with a hint of bitterness.

Daniel shrugged. “Maybe it's because I met the Hulk first.”

Bruce Banner blinked and then shook his head, chuckling. “Somehow, I don't think that's it. But it's probably why the Other Guy likes you.”

“Other Guy? Is he like an alternate personality or an extension of your own self?”

Tony grinned as he took a sip of his scotch, glad to have found someone else who wasn't afraid of Bruce.

Chapter Text


 

TAPESTRY

Tony herded everyone into the living room. It was a large open room with a bar in one corner, a large-screen TV dominating one wall and the promised spectacular view filling up the entire length of another. Couches and armchairs of various sizes littered the room, tastefully arranged so that a small group could have an intimate conversation or a large group could relax and chat. The large coffee table in the centre of the seating area was simple and sturdy, yet elegant, and made of dark wood.

Pizza arrived ten minutes later while they were comparing stories about events at the museum.

“So do we even know who this guy was?” Tony asked as he grabbed a slice of pizza. “I sort of didn't let him monologue before I shot up his fancy-looking gun so I actually have no idea.”

“Someone who couldn't decide whether he wanted to be a ninja or a knight,” Daniel suggested before biting into his own pizza.

“I was thinking Evil Papa Smurf,” said Clint, looking thoughtful from where he was perched on the back of a leather loveseat. “But I can see that too.”

“Does it matter?” Natasha asked with a raised eyebrow up at him from the same loveseat.

Clint shrugged. “Probably not. Guy was pretty lame anyway.”

“And colourblind,” Tony added. “Though, granted, the armor does look interesting. Brucie you'll help me analyze it later, right?”

Bruce blinked at him. “Uh, sure. I could do that.”

“Cool!”

Someone's cellphone went off. Daniel started and then patted his pockets down before taking out a Blackberry. He looked at the caller ID and groaned.

“Uncle Jack?” Cassie asked, biting her lip to keep from laughing.

“Yeah,” said Daniel. He sighed and answered the phone. “Hi Ja–“

He pulled the phone away from his ear and the rest of the room faintly heard the words '-the hell have you been?'. Daniel rolled his eyes and put the phone back to his ear as soon as there was a pause in shouting.

“Jack, relax. Yes, we were at the Met when the strange blue guys attacked; no it had nothing to do with me. I'm sure the NYPD are investigating. I'm fine. Cassie's fine. We're fine... No I'm not just saying that... Yes, I'm sure Jack, the paramedics looked me over and said I was good to go... Oh for–”

He pulled the cellphone away from his ear and thrust it at Cassie. “Here, you tell him we're fine!”

Cassie giggled and took the phone. “Hi Uncle Jack. Yeah, I'm alright and so's Daniel and yes, the EMTs really did check him out. He's gonna have some bruises from leaping out of the way of a bunch of bullets, but otherwise he really is fine.”

She put a finger over the speaker and looked to Daniel. “He says he's in shock,” she said quietly. Daniel glared at the phone.

She returned back to the conversation with a grin. “You should've seen him, Uncle Jack, he totally busted out some special ops moves back there. Disarmed one of the guys, took his gun and then shot down another. Then he had to jump out of the way of the third guy's bullets, but he managed to take him out afterwards too. It was terrifying, but pretty cool. You taught him well.”

Next to her, Daniel's face took on a slightly pink hue that had the rest of the room chuckling. Skye turned to Coulson. “She's right, it actually was pretty cool,” she whispered.

Next to her, Trip nodded. “Knew how to use that gun like a pro.”

Coulson acknowledged the information with a tilt of his head, his face not betraying any of his thoughts.

Cassie handed the phone back to Daniel, who said good-bye to his friend and hung up. “Well, that could've gone worse,” he said as he pocketed the phone. Then he yawned and sighed. “Thank you for dinner and for getting us out of the way of reporters and everything, but we should probably head back to our hotel now.”

“I'm all for that,” said Cassie. “I wrote my last exam yesterday afternoon and then flew up from Nevada this morning... I'm beat.”

“Hey, hey, what's this about leaving?” Tony exclaimed. “Remember the part where I mentioned guest rooms and how I have a lot of them? Seriously, stay here tonight. I've got soap, towels, spare toothbrushes. You name it, I've got it and if I don't have it, then JARVIS can get it for you.”

Daniel looked to Cassie, who held her hands up. “Hey, your call. I went to the museum direct from the airport; all my stuff's in my bag.”

Daniel turned to Tony. “Then thank you, we'll happily take you up on that offer and make it an early night. It's been a bit of a long week.”

Tony grinned. “Excellent! JARVIS will show you to your rooms.”

“JARVIS?”

“I will be happy to assist you when you are ready to retire, Doctor Jackson.”

Daniel's head snapped up. “Oh, you're the voice from the elevator.”

“Indeed. I am a fully functional AI and I maintain and oversee building operations.”

“An AI?” Daniel's eyes widened, the tiredness vanishing from his face as he stood up. “Fully functional: does that mean you have the capacity for independent thought or just that you control all aspects of the house's systems?”

“Both statements are correct, Doctor Jackson, however fully-functional refers to the way my programming mimics human mental pathways, allowing for the capacity to learn and adapt to new information independent of the initial programming.”

Tony stared at the archaeologist. “Uh, you realize the guy who made him is right here? If you have any questions about JARVIS you could just ask me.”

Daniel frowned, his look disapproving. “But if JARVIS is right here and fully capable of answering questions about himself. It would be rude of me to ask someone else as though he weren't.”

Tony gaped, while a few people snickered. Even Coulson's eyes shone with amusement.

Meanwhile, Cassie stood up with an exasperated sigh and retrieved her backpack from the hallway. Hefting it over her shoulder, she then linked her arms with one of Daniel's. “Goodnight everyone,” she said before linking her arms with Daniel and dragging him away towards a newly lit-up corridor. They disappeared from sight just as Daniel was starting to ask JARVIS about whether independent thought meant being able to create opinions on music, movies and books, whether he was able to enjoy such things.

“JARVIS, there's no need to lock them in or anything, but let us know if either of them come back down to this floor,” said Tony once their voices became too faint to hear.

“Understood, sir. And sir, if I may, I do not believe Doctor Jackson is ruthless enough to be Hydra.”

“Hydra?!” said Bruce. He turned to stare at the others. “You think he's Hydra?!”

His eyes flashed green and the last word carried an echo of a second, deeper voice. Bruce immediately closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. The others watched him warily. Tony was the only one not disturbed by the scene. Instead of watching Bruce, he turned cold eyes on his fellow Avengers and Coulson's team.

“Daniel is Hulk's friend,” he said quietly. “So you'd better have some really solid evidence to support that accusation.”

The young woman with Coulson swallowed (she had an unusual, airy name... Skye, that was it, her name was Skye). Her eyes darting nervously towards Bruce before she steeled herself and met Tony's eyes. “He's the perfect candidate for Hydra recruitment. Orphaned at a young age, brilliant, a loner, never married, no family connections except for a crazy grandfather who's disappeared off the face of the earth, and looked down upon by everyone in his chosen profession because of his, uh, unorthodox theories. Unorthodox, slightly out-of-this-world theories.”

Tony winced. “Well, when you put it that way, it does sound a bit suspicious. And I know he's got government and military connections 'cause he pulled those strings to get the Hulkbusters disbanded.”

“He's certainly involved with something,” Natasha admitted. “But I don't think it's Hydra.”

“For what it's worth, he doesn't act like an evil Nazi,” said Clint with a shrug.

“He could be a very good actor,” said Coulson.

“He gave the Hulk cake.”

All eyes turned to Bruce at his soft words.

“He gave the Hulk cake,” said the Asian woman sitting next to Coulson. Tony thought her name was May... something May. “And that's relevant how, exactly?”

Bruce smiled. “I don't remember any of it myself, but I have read the report. The Hulk helped Daniel Jackson save Cassie and then Daniel Jackson helped save the Hulk. What isn't in the report is that before the Hulk left, he gave him a bag with three bottles of water and a giant chocolate cake. I'm assuming he had them in his car. It was with me when I woke up in a cave.”

“Basic human kindness,” said a new voice and they all turned to the sight of Steve Rogers.

He looked tired, worn, his left cheek sporting a deep purple bruise and there were bandages peeking out from behind a navy blue t-shirt. He was leaning on a crutch, an African-American man Tony assumed was the mysterious Sam hovering just behind him. He moved carefully, like someone in a lot of pain even though none of it showed on his face.

Tony winced, knowing the super soldier might heal faster than anyone else, but his pain threshhold wasn't any higher than the average human's. Rogers carefully lowered himself down into the spot recently vacated by Daniel and leaned his crutch against the side. Natasha leaned over and pushed a box still containing some pizza slices in his direction.

“So, Agent, you and your people had better have a really good story here,” said Tony, turning his attention back to Coulson. “And don't think we've forgotten about how you've been pretending to be dead for the past, what, two years?”

The corner of Coulson's mouth twitched. “It's Director now, actually.”

Tony blinked.

“So the rumours are true then,” said Natasha with a smirk.

“That depends on the rumours.”

“Agent Coulson,” Steve Rogers cut in, his voice low and tone easy, but his eyes held an edge of steel. “I may not have seen any of your evidence against Daniel Jackson, but I did spent some time with him in the museum and he seems like someone who tries to help people, not hurt them. And before you start accusing anyone of being Hydra, maybe you should start by explainin' why we should be trusting you. Modern technology has come a long way: how do we know you're really Phil Coulson?”

Rogers' jaw visibily tightened. “You coulda been brainwashed for all we know.”

Coulson looked Rogers in the eye. “I suppose you don't.”

“Why didn't you tell us you were alive?” Clint asked.

Coulson's eyes flicked over to the archer, before returning to Rogers. “Fury's orders.”

Rogers nodded.

“But Fury's dead and you're apparently the new director, which means you get to make the – alright, what is that look for Capsicle?” Tony glared at Rogers, having seen the startled expression that passed over his face. He thought back over what he'd just said. “Wait. Son of a – Fury's not dead?! That man's an over-inflated, one-eyed cockroach is what he is.”

Rogers winced. “Er, sorry, I figured you'd know. I mean, I thought Maria would've told you.”

“Maria? As in Maria Hill?! That former SHIELD deputy-director that's currently on my payroll? You have got to be kidding me!” Tony glowered at Coulson. “Did she know you were alive? Oh, what am I saying, of course she did.”

He stood up, suddenly needing to do go build something, or blow it up, or build something he could blow up. Or – oooh analyse.

“Hey Green, wanna go take apart some garishly blue armour and see what makes it tick? Well, metaphorically tick, 'cause there aren't any actual mechanisms in it anywhere and therefore no literal ticking.”

Bruce was stone-faced when he unfolded his legs and stood up. “I think that's a good idea,” he said.

Coulson sighed as he watched them leave. “Well, that could've gone worse,” he said. Then he turned to Natasha. “I realize I owe you all an explanation and I will tell you what I can of it in a moment – and please keep in mind when I do that even I don't know all the details. I am, however, curious as to why you seem so convinced Daniel isn't Hydra. I'm assuming you have something we don't.”

Natasha nodded and looked thoughtful for a moment.

“I overheard a conversation between him and Lieutenant General Jack O'Neill,” she said. “He mentioned that morale at the SGC was bad because of New York. It sounded like they had the means to help and weren't allowed to because it would mean exposing the project. His exact words were: 'side-lined in the name of maintaining secrecy'.”

“I've heard the recording of the conversation,” Clint pipped up. “He did not sound happy about it.”

Natasha nodded. “He also mentioned a threat bigger than Hydra.”

Steve's eyes widened. “Something worse than Hydra?” he said. “And something the government, apparently, knows about.”

“Yes. Daniel Jackson said that something called the Ori were preparing a large-scale attack and that right now, we have no way to defend ourselves.”

A moment of stunned silence filled the room.

“Well, that's not good,” said Coulson.

 


 

It was just past midnight and Daniel couldn't sleep.

Part of him was exhausted: mentally, physically exhausted. It had been a long day. The other, unfortunately much louder, part of him was tugging at the bit to get started on that tablet. He'd only needed a glimpse to recognize the familiar lines of Ancient script. And to realize that it wasn't normal Ancient writing. A new dialect? Or perhaps a code? Someone had hidden the tablets inside a statue of all things: had they intended to come back for them? Had they been hidden from someone or for someone?

He turned over and sighed. Just outside his bedroom, the tablets were burning a hole through Cassie's sweater, which they were still wrapped in, calling to him like sirens in the night. Forget beautiful, inhuman enchantresses from Greek myths, these tablets were a far more seductive temptation. They were a mystery waiting to be solved.

But he needed sleep. Needed to be rested. What if Jack magically managed to convince someone that the alien armada was a problem that needed a solution sooner not later? Miracles could happen. And he was tired. So, so tired. He needed to sleep...

Daniel gave up.

A short while later he slid out of his guest suite wearing a pair of jeans and a borrowed bath robe, sweater-wrapped tablets held securely under one arm along with a blank, lined notebook he'd found in the suite's desk drawer.

He made his way down into the communal living room, blinking when the the lights turned on automatically as he entered. Shaking his head in amusement, he walked over to the kitchen, this time expecting the lights to turn on and grinning when they did.

“Thanks, JARVIS,” he said. “I'm assuming that's you.”

“Indeed it is, Daniel Jackson.” Daniel smiled. The AI sounded amused. “May I inquire as to what you are doing up so late?”

“Couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd get started on this project I picked up at the museum.”

Checking the coffeepot, Daniel made a triumphant sound when he found it still had coffee in it. A quick check of the cupboards above the pot and he had a mug. The coffee was not only the same amazing blend Tony had served him earlier, but it was still warm. Which meant that either he wasn't the only person who couldn't sleep, or the machine had one hell of an amazing thermos.

Daniel hummed happily to himself as he took a sip of his coffee and moved back out into the living room. He stood in front of the coffee table thoughtfully for a moment.

“JARVIS? I don't suppose that somewhere in these endless corridors of rooms there's something like a conference room – with, like, whiteboards and stuff – that Tony wouldn't mind me using?”

“There is indeed a briefing room just down the hall and, given that sir seldom uses it himself, I do not believe he would mind if you were to use it.”

“Great! Thank you, JARVIS.”

“My pleasure, Daniel Jackson. If you would follow me.”

 


 

Tony yawned as he wandered blearily into the kitchen. His mug made a dull clunk when he placed it on the counter, exhaustion and alcohol making his movements clumsy. He reached for the coffeepot and frowned. It felt lighter than it should have. Sure enough, there was only half a cup inside. He could've sworn there'd been more in there the last time he'd come up for some. Bruce maybe? Except Bruce was still in his lab and he had a kettle there (Pepper had no problem with Bruce having a kettle, but she wouldn't allow Tony to keep a coffeemaker in his lab: it was so unfair).

“JARVIS, where'd all the coffee go?” he asked as he stared forlornly into his half-empty mug.

“Daniel Jackson helped himself to some earlier. He's currently working on a translation in the Avenger's briefing room. Perhaps you might like to go check on him.”

Tony blinked. “Translation of what?”

“I am not certain. Daniel Jackson seems to be in possession of two stone tablets. I took the liberty of scanning them and they appear to be a minimum of three thousand years old, however I am unfamiliar with the language and the script is not found in any of my databases.”

Tony gulped down the coffee he had and put the mug down on the first available surface before going to check on Daniel.

The briefing room was something Tony had built on the theory of 'it could come in handy', but the room had yet to be used by anyone except Pepper when she'd been planning last year's Maria Stark Foundation Charity Gala. So walking into the room to find half the whiteboards lining the walls covered in print – some of it was English, some of it could've been Klingon for all Tony could tell – came as a bit of a shock. An open notebook lay on the table, next to an abandoned coffee mug and a bright red sweater that was laid out flat with two rectangular stone tablets on top of it.

A blown-up holographic projection of the tablets hovered in the air above them. And wow, JARVIS apparently really liked the guy if he'd decided to be this helpful. Or, Tony thought as he walked over to get a closer look at the lettering from the original tablet, he was curious about this tablet and the language that his encyclopedia of languages couldn't identify.

Daniel was working at one of the whiteboards, carefully copying a line of the unknown script onto the board, leaving room beneath each line for, presumably, an English translation.

“JARVIS, how long has he been at this?” Tony asked quietly.

“Daniel Jackson began work at 12:42, sir,” came the equally-quiet reply.

Not that it appeared to matter, because Daniel didn't seem at all aware that he wasn't alone anymore, his eyes intent on the translation he was working on. Tony wondered if this was how he looked when he was absorbed in calculations. Tony glanced at the digital clock on the wall. It read 5:56. He blinked. Okay, he hadn't realized it was that late, er, early.

Tony cleared his throat. “So, Daniel, you've been busy I see.”

“Not now Cam,” Daniel replied absently. “I'll eat something later.”

Tony's eyebrows rose and he blinked. That reply had sounded automatic; in fact, Daniel hadn't even paused in his work to think about it. Tony grinned. It seemed that he and Doctor Daniel Jackson were cut from the same mould... only from different sides of it. Tony walked over and leaned against the whiteboard next to Daniel, careful not to smudge any of the writing.

“Sorry, Daniel, 'fraid I'm not Cam,” he said with a cheerful grin. “On the plus side, I'm totally not here to drag you away and force you to do so-called healthy things like eating and/or sleeping.”

Daniel blinked and looked over to Tony, looking confused for a moment. Then he looked to the marker in his hand and up at the ceiling.

“I was wondering why my office was so bright,” he said, sounding befuddled, like he couldn't quite remember how he'd gotten where he was. “Smelt wrong too...”

He trailed off, his gaze falling back to Tony again. He blinked once, twice, and then his eyes widened slightly in realization. “Oh, you're a scientist, right?”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Engineer, technically, but–“

“–That means you know some physics right?”

Tony's eyes narrowed. “Yes, I know some physics, I'm a gen–“

“–Good, I need you to take a look at this part over here.”

Daniel grabbed him by the arm and didn't seem to notice Tony's sputtered a protest against the manhandling. He stopped in front of a different section of the whiteboard. This section had already been translated into English.

“I've translated it as much as I could, but technical jargon can be a bit tricky, because it develops differently than the rest of the language and knowledge of the specific field in question becomes important.” Daniel let go of Tony and indicated a section in the text. “For instance, this part here talks about energy, but I can't quite tell if it's talking about energy in the form of electricity or some other sort of outside source, or an inner core that creates the energy.”

“Woah, woah, hang on!” Tony waved his arms in front of him to make Daniel stop. It worked. “Daniel, buddy, I thought you were translating a couple of three-thousand-year-old tablets?”

Daniel blinked. “I am. Wait, how do you know about – oh right, of course, Skye probably told you.” He took a deep breath, not noticing Tony's surprised expression. “Yes, this is from those tablets. And... well, I think it's describing an engine.”

“An engine?!” Tony stepped up closer to the whiteboard and began reading.

“Or possibly a power source... I'm not an engineer so I'm not entirely sure.”

“JARVIS, bring up a blank project template. I don't think this is an engine exactly... are you sure this part here is accurate?”

Daniel took a closer look at where Tony indicated. “Hmm... like I said, jargon can be difficult; is there something else that would make more sense?”

“You know I'm not even sure.”

Fifteen minutes later, Bruce shuffled into the room, having been attracted by the light spilling out into the hallway. Daniel was at one end of the room working on some sort of translation and Tony was on the other, reading over a translation it looked like Daniel had already made, a holographic display to his left. He kept looking between the translation and the holographic contraption he had started building.

“Hello, what's going on here?” Bruce called to them.

Daniel ignored him completely, but Tony looked up with a grin. “Brussel Sprout, come over and take a look at this. Daniel translated it from a couple of tablets he apparently found at the Met. It's fascinating... and I'm trying to figure out if it's even possible.”

“What is it?” Bruce asked, walking over to Tony's side to take a look.

“It's describing an energy source, I think, and then possibly a type of device that uses said energy source.” He paused and grinned at Bruce. “Sadly it's all theory, but the math... the math would be beautiful. Like, mind-blowingly beautiful. Seriously, take a look at this. I think it's talking about folding space, or folding space molecules... and over here, there's a bit about pulling energy from emptiness...”

Bruce put his glasses on and began to examine the translation. “Emptiness? You mean like empty space?”

Tony froze, his eyes widening comically. “Daniel said technical jargon can be difficult to translate correctly.” He looked at Bruce. “You're thinking it's supposed to be 'vacuum' instead of 'emptiness', aren't you?”

Bruce nodded as he continued to read. “That's certainly one possibility.”

 


 

Cassie had been puzzled to find Daniel missing from his 'guest room' (apparently Tony Stark's idea of a room was very different to everyone else's definition of a room). Then she'd noticed that her sweater and the tablets were missing and was no longer quite so surprised.

“JARVIS, do you know where my uncle is?” she asked.

Following the AI's instructions led her to what looked like a conference room. That had, apparently, been taken over by a trio of mad scientists. Well, two mad scientists and a mad archaeologist.

She'd heard Tony and Doctor Banner arguing from the hallway about whether or not something was possible – whatever they were arguing about was clearly light years away from the material covered in her third year physics course that she didn't even bother trying to follow the conversation. Besides, they were arguing in half-sentences and short, cut-off phrases. Daniel was quietly working on a translation, oblivious to the noise.

She shook her head in amusement. Scientists.

Well, at least she knew one way to get their attention.

“JARVIS, is there a coffee machine nearby?” she asked.

“Indeed, there is one in the kitchen, Miss Fraiser.”

“Uhg, can't you just call me Cassie?” she asked as she turned to leave.

“I'm afraid that is against my programming, Miss Fraiser.”

“You know I'll bet you do a lot of things that are against your programming. Like World of Warcraft, for instance. Pretty sure Tony didn't input that into your programming, but I definitely heard you tell Uncle Daniel that you play in what passes for your spare time.”

“I have no idea what you mean.”

“Uh huh, sure you don't.”

Just then the elevator on the other end of the hallway pinged. She turned in time to watch the doors open. Steve stepped out and she caught a glimpse of Sam in the elevator before the doors closed.

“Good morning, Steve,” she called to him.

He looked to her and smiled before limping towards her. “Good morning, Cassie,” he said.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Should you be walking on that leg? I heard you got shot. Tony said they were going to have to dig the bullet out. In fact, I'm pretty sure you shouldn't even be out of hospital yet.”

Steve blinked at her, looking surprised. “It's mostly healed already. Still twinges a bit, but I'll be fine by tomorrow. Super-serum.” He added the last as an after-thought.

Cassie gaped at him. “Wait what? My mother was a doctor, I know that bullet wounds take longer to heal than that. A lot longer. How could you possibly be fine by tomor – oh.” She stopped as something suddenly occurred to her and she felt at once stupid and excited. “I don't know why I didn't make the connection sooner: you're Captain America, aren't you?”

His features settled into a sort of half-smile. “Yes, I am.” He frowned. “You mean the others didn't tell you?”

“They probably figured we already knew. Which is probably a fair call, except that while Daniel is a genius, he can also be fairly oblivious when it comes to things that are less than two thousand years old.” She grinned. “You're way too young for him, Steve.”

Steve chuckled. Just then the voices from the conference room grew in volume again and Steve glanced up at the sound, looking worried.

“Don't worry,” said Cassie. “They're busy arguing the science of something Daniel translated. Trust me, you're not getting anywhere near that without ammunition.”

“Ammunition?” Steve asked, looking amused.

The ammunition worked, because the moment Steve, Cassie and the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee entered the room, it went miraculously silent. Until Tony nearly tripped over himself in his rush to get around the long conference table. Even Daniel surfaced momentarily from his work in order to hurry over to grab a mug of hot, caffeinated gold.

“So, what exactly are you three working on?” Steve asked as he sipped his own coffee. “Loudly, I might add.”

“Hmm... the language on the tablet is a derivative of Latin, but it was written in code, which is why it didn't look familiar,” Daniel answered. “Took me a while, but once I realized the conjugation looked almost Greek, the rest of it was just a matter of working out how much of it had been altered and how much was technical jargon... It's fascinating really, how simple and elegant the code is and how it's been weaved subtly into the original language almost creating a language of its own–“

“–Which is fascinating, I'm sure,” Tony interrupted. “But the really interesting part is this bit here where it's describing some sort of machine. At first we were thinking it's a vehicle of some sort, but I'm pretty sure it's not. Whatever it is, it looks like it's, uh, trying to destabilize its molecules and make them vibrate out of sync with the molecules around it.”

“You know, I'm not sure that 'vibrate' is an appropriate description of what its doing,” Bruce pointed out.

Tony threw his hands up. “Well how would you describe it then?!”

Bruce looked thoughtful for a moment. “More like phasing out of sync.”

“Which means what exactly?” Coulson asked from the doorway. They all turned at his sudden appearance, his expression giving nothing away about how long he'd stood there.

Tony opened his mouth to reply.

“Do mean shifting out of phase through solid matter or into another dimension?” Daniel suddenly asked.

Tony closed his mouth. He and Bruce looked to each other and then to Daniel.

“That's... a very good question,” said Tony. “And not one I would expect from a non-physics major.”

Daniel shrugged. “I work around physicists and engineers; some of it was bound to sink in eventually.”

Bruce's expression was suspicious, but he nodded slowly anyway. “We don't really have enough data to know for sure either way, although I'd personally been thinking of an invisibility cloak.”

“Creating an invisibility cloak wouldn't require the kind of power they're talking about here,”said Tony dismissively. This had clearly been one of the things they'd been arguing about.

“You know, it's not entirely clear according to the translated text that the power source is meant to power the device in question.”

“Then why would it even be here?”

“Uh, you know it is just a rough translation, guys...” Daniel tried to interject, but was ignored as Tony and Bruce launched into another discussion full of half-sentences and cut-off phrases. He wondered if this was how Jack had felt back in the early days of the team when he and Sam had started brainstorming.

He sighed and walked over to the tablet again to take another look at the original text. Even in code, sometimes the original text held clues and nuances that a translation, no matter how accurate, missed. He skipped the formal introduction and went straight to the description of technology. He read it over again, carefully reading each sentence in its original Ancient under his breath.

Half-way down, he frowned and double-backed in the text to study the structure of the sentences. Oh. When he looked at it as a whole, including the brief, formal introduction, it read like an official document. And the technologies described... no, not just described, listed. Not only that, but the last sentenced seemed to be cut off, as though there was meant to be more to the list. But why then include only these two pages...

A short while later he stepped back when a loud yawn interrupted his concentration. He scanned the room and blinked, realizing there were suddenly a lot more people milling about, mostly sitting around the long table. Tony and Bruce had moved away from his original translation and seemed to be having fun debating science over crude marker drawings of what Daniel assumed were their theories of the device described in the tablet. And there was food on the table. On cue, Daniel's stomach growled.

Steve looked up from where he and Cassie were hunched over a laptop with Clint looking on in amusement. He grinned at Daniel.

“Come on over and help yourself, Daniel,” he said.

“Thank you,” said Daniel and wandered over to refill his coffee mug and grabbed a danish from what looked like a severely-depleted pile. “I see they've moved to trying to construct the device.”

Steve chuckled. “Yup, not that I have any idea what they're talking about.”

“None of us do, Cap, so don't worry: it's not just you,” said Clint absently, wincing at something Cassie was doing on-screen. Daniel leaned over and saw they were playing a computer game: one of those empire-building ones.

He gulped down the rest of his coffee and finished his danish. After a short pause, he grabbed a second.

He placed a hand on Cassie's shoulder to get her attention. “I'm going to go grab a shower,” he told her once she'd looked up.

“Okay, Uncle Daniel,” she said. “Maybe you should try and take a nap too.”

He shrugged. “Not a bad idea. I'll try.”

He doubted it would work, there were too many thoughts buzzing around inside his head, the elation of discovery infusing his veins. He was tired, yes, but he also felt more invigorated, more awake, than he had in months.

He managed to make it out of the conference room before the giddiness overtook him completely. The tablet wasn't just a document: it was an inventory, he was sure of it. Figuring out why only two pages had been left behind had taken him a bit longer despite the answer staring him in the face the entire time. Running down both tablets were decorative symbols and he'd thought they were mere decorations. Which was why he hadn't paid them any attention.

Once he had though, it had taken him only minutes to realize what he was looking at: a gate address.

The first thing he did when he made it to his guest suite, wasn't take a shower. Instead he paused in front of the nightstand, where he'd placed the Target bag containing the 'present' Cassie had brought him from Sam. It was fairly large, but not particularly heavy. The package was wrapped with military precision in sandy brown wrapping paper covered in little cartoon pyramids and Sphinxes and tied with bright red ribbon. Daniel grinned, wondering where Sam had managed to find the wrapping paper.

Carefully, he untied the ribbon and unwrapped the gift. After a quick search, he found a pair of scissors in a desk in the suite's main room. He opened the box and instantly was assaulted by the aroma of chocolate and walnuts. Delighted, he immediately grabbed a cookie and popped half of it in his mouth. He wondered when Sam had found the time to bake.

However, that wasn't the main present. Underneath the cookies, he found an Egyptian puzzle box. It was one he'd given Sam for Christmas several years ago. Well, he supposed this answered the question of whether or not she'd managed to solve it...

First, he studied it from all sides. Then he popped the rest of the cookie into his mouth and began to fiddle with it. It'd been a while since he'd solved a puzzle box, but he managed to figure it out eventually. Inside was exactly what he needed; Sam had certainly out-done herself.

He turned on the Asgard anti-surveillence device and picked up his cellphone. His first call was to the mountain. Vala picked up on the second ring.

“Hello, Vala mal Doran here. Please tell me you have something to help relieve my boredom.”

Daniel chuckled. “Sorry, I'm afraid not. Although, you're welcome to some of my excitement; I have way too much of it.”

“Daniel! We heard about the masoleum blowing up. Are you alright?”

Daniel sighed. “First of all, it was a museum, not a masoleum, and second, it didn't blow up, it was attacked. By a bunch of guys with even less fashion sense than the Goa'uld.”

“Oh, so not only unfashionable, but also insane. I mean, honestly, who makes it their goal in life to be less fashionable than the Goa'uld? Crazy people, that's who. I'm glad you weren't blown up.”

“Thank you, Vala, I am too. Listen, I struck out in Washington. Any news on your end?”

“We got more words of doom and gloom from the Tok'ra. Apparently they got a look at the armada: at least five ships, but it looked like they may have run into some supply problems so their departure's been delayed. The Tok'ra aren't sure for how long, though.”

“Well, that's almost good news, I suppose. I... may have found something, but I'm not sure how much help it'll be.” It required gate travel, after all.

“Then keep working at it. If anyone can do it, you can. Go Daniel, ra, ra. And don't forget that you promised to bring me back a t-shirt.”

He shook his head. “Sure. Maybe I'll even manage to get the Avengers to sign it.”

“Oooh, that would be lovely. Just remember: kidnapping is bad. At least that's what Cameron keeps telling me.”

“Ehem, well, yes kidnapping is bad. I definitely won't be doing any of that.” He paused. “Listen I should go. I'll see you in five days.”

“Oh, well yes, alright then. I'll see you when you get back. Just don't forget the souveneirs.”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “Bye, Vala.”

“Bye, Daniel.”

He heard her hang up before he'd managed to find the right button on his phone. Then he sent a quick text to Sam: Thanks for the cookies. :)

He ran a hand through his hair as put his phone down and turned off the anti-surveillence device, closing the box after he was done. He noticed his suitcase had been delivered from his hotel room at some point in the morning (Tony had insisted last night he could have someone get it for him and since Daniel didn't actually have anything classified inside he gave Tony his key). The idea of a shower and fresh clothes was definitely appealing right now, so he was glad he'd said 'yes'.

His phone was ringing when he got out of the shower. He grimaced and answered.

“Hey, Jack,” he said.

“Daniel, what's this I hear about you and Cassie not spending the night in your hotel?”

Daniel's eyes narrowed. “Are you having someone follow us, Jack?” he asked slowly. He was supposed to be on vacation.

“What? No. I mean, they're not following you... I just thought I'd have someone go check up on you after what happened at the museum. For all we know you were the target of that so-called heist.”

“You mean, other than the fact that no one was looking for me, that the bad guys never went anywhere near the Egyptian wing – which would've been the obvious placed to look for me given the date – and that they didn't look military or like anyone with the connections to know why I should be a potential target in the first place?”

“Well, when you put it like that...”

“Besides, I have a tracking chip embedded in my shoulder so don't tell me you don't know exactly where I am right now. And even if I didn't, whoever you sent to 'check up' on me could've just followed whoever Tony sent this morning to pick up my suitcase from the hotel. So what you're really asking is why are Cassie and I staying at Stark Tower?”

“I thought it was called Avenger's Tower now?”

“Not officially.”

“But the St-rk was never replaced; there's just a big 'A' there, which stands for neither 'Tony', nor 'Stark', nor, uh... 'Industries'.”

Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose. “Jack, why are you calling?”

“Look Daniel, I don't know how you managed to get yourself into Tony Stark's good graces–“

“–He's friends with the Hulk. You know, big green guy who saved Cassie's life.”

“He's just a bit memorable, yes.”

“Well, apparently making friends with the Hulk makes you a friend of the Avengers. I met Doctor Bruce Banner, by the way, he's a really interesting guy: quiet, polite... pretty much the complete opposite of the Hulk in every way. I like him.”

“You like everyone, Daniel.”

“That's not true and you know it,” Daniel snapped into the phone. “Just because I like giving people the benefit of the doubt when I first meet them doesn't mean I continue to like them all. The names Kinsley, Maybourne and Woolsley come to mind, not to mention the more obvious ones like Apophis, and Anubis, although I think 'dislike' is much too mild a word for those two.”

“Woolsley's not too bad.”

“He's also never accused you of helping the people who murdered your wife.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone. He could hear Jack taking a deep breath.

“Right, well, either way you need to be careful. The Avengers were affiliated with SHIELD, after all. In fact, three of them – including Captain America – are former SHIELD agents. For all we know–“

“–Jack, you did not just accuse Captain America of being Hydra. He and Black Widow were among the group of people who exposed Hydra's presence inside SHIELD, not to mention taking out those helicarriers. I've read the reports, Jack, and yes, we would've taken those helicarriers out before they could've been used as the global threat Hydra wanted to use them as, but not before hundreds, if not thousands, of people were dead!”

Daniel took a deep breath. Reading the reports had been a horrific experience. The extent of the damage caused by the helicarriers going down into the Potomac was minimal compared to the number of lives Hydra had planned to take. It didn't matter that he knew the Apollo could've blasted both helicarriers from orbit without so much as breaking a proverbial sweat, the very thought of what Hydra had accomplished and how close they'd been to achieving their goals made his blood freeze.

Thank god for Captain America. Wait. Daniel blinked, vaguely aware that Jack was talking in the background.

“Jack?”

“What?!” Jack snapped, sounding annoyed. Had he figured out Daniel had been ignoring him?

“What's Captain America's real name?”

There was a pause during which he could picture Jack glaring at him through the phone. “Steve Rogers.”

“Oh. Huh, I think I met him yesterday: he was at the museum.”

“Great Daniel, good for you.”

“Actually, I also found these Ancient tablets–“

“–It's a museum, I'm pretty sure there are supposed to ancient tablets at a museum. Not that I ever looked for them. I sort of skipped ahead to the armour and swords – and the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are cool.”

“No, listen Jack, that's not what I mean.”

“No, Daniel, you listen. The Avengers are a grey area. We don't know what they are outside of SHIELD yet. And until we figure out whether or not Hydra managed to infiltrate the SGC, you need to stay away from anyone suspect.”

“Jack, Hydra has not infiltrated the SGC! Do you know how I know that? Because if Hydra had infiltrated the SGC they wouldn't have needed those goddamned helicarriers! If anyone involved is suspect it's the IOA. The World Council leader was Hydra, remember, and the IOA caved to him really easily when he asked them to let the Council and SHIELD deal with the New York crisis and the Chitauri invasion.”

“The helicarriers could've been a distraction...”

“Distraction for what? They'd been lying patiently in wait for decades as they slowly grew and infiltrated their people into the right places. Exposing themselves too early wouldn't have been to their benefit at all. I may not be some great tactician, but even I can see that.”

“Right. I'll follow up with the IOA later. Always love giving those guys a hard time. I'll try talking to the President again and see if I can't get some of the restrictions lifted or eased off or something, but Daniel, I'm serious. It really doesn't matter what you or I think: the Avengers, and Tony Stark in particular, are a bit of a grey area with the government. Everyone involved is walking a fine line and you have enemies who'd love to use something like this to bury you, get you kicked out of the program... or worse.”

Daniel frowned. “Why Tony Stark in particular?”

“He's unpredictable, brilliant and has this thing for sticking his nose where it shouldn't be. Now I have every confidence in Carter and her teams' security, but the NID and the Trust have managed to hack us before.”

Daniel winced and then closed his eyes, his night of insomnia catching up to him with a bone-deep exhaustion. “So, you're saying that if Tony managed to hack the SGC someone would try and make it look like I helped him.”

Which would be treason. For him and anyone who could be accused of helping him. At least anyone affiliated with the SGC. That included Jack. Thankfully, Daniel had a reputation of going against orders and causing trouble all on his own, which meant that keeping Jack out of it would be easy enough so long as he didn't actually tell him anything.

“Thanks for the reminder, Jack. I can't just leave without causing suspicion, but I'll think about it. I should go, though. Didn't get much sleep last night.”

“Daniel, you're supposed to be on vacation! Don't make me call Cassie and tell her to make sure you eat and sleep.”

Daniel chuckled. “Don't worry, I ate both dinner last night and breakfast this morning. Was just too wired to sleep in-between.”

“Well, food is good, but make sure you sleep too.”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “Yes, mother. I was actually about to take a nap.”

“Good, then I'll leave you to it while I go make the IOA sweat a little.”

“Have fun with that.”

“Youbetcha, Dannyboy. Talk to you later.”

“Bye, Jack.”

He hung up and stared at the phone, taking a deep breath before placing it down carefully. He ran a hand through his hair. His plane left for Colorado Springs in four days. He had four days to come up with a plan. It would be difficult, but not impossible. Save maybe Sam, no one knew the project better than he did. But his friends, his team – with the exception of Vala – were all career military. He couldn't let them risk everything along with him. Sam had already done it once before, but she was busy. Earth needed her working on the shield more than he needed her as backup.

Daniel sat down and clenched his fist. The danger was too great and, as usual, no one was listening. He had a lead now, which might turn out to be nothing but held a potential for reward that made it worth following up on. He had to do something.

And it looked like he would have to do it alone.

He sighed and rubbed his eyes. Well, it looked like that nap wasn't going to happen after all.

Chapter Text

Cameron Mitchell sighed as he dissected the casserole on his plate, idly trying to guess the cafeteria's mystery meat of the day. A tray banged onto the table across from him and he looked up to greet Vala, the other half of his currently much-diminished team. Not that having a full team would've accomplished much at the moment, other than having five bored people mulling about the base instead of two. Okay, three bored people mulling about the base – Sam and Daniel would've probably found something 'interesting' to do.

With orders against any gate travel the SGC was less 'SG' at the moment and more just 'C' and not even very much of that.

His eyes strayed down to Vala's tray and he blinked. “Hey Vala, you decide to skip the actual food part?” he asked.

“Hmm?” Vala looked to him in confusion before following his gaze to the three slices of pie sitting on her tray. “Oh, you mean the pie? Well, I've been told that it's apparently traditional on this planet to drown your depression in either alcohol or copious amounts of sugary things. Unfortunately they won't let me have alcohol on base, so I've had to go with sugary substances and I like pie better than ice cream.”

She cut off a piece of blueberry pie and looked at it contemplatively for a moment. “Besides, there's a fruit-like substance in here and according to Daniel that counts.”

Cameron rolled his eyes. “I'm pretty sure Jackson ain't the one you should be takin' advice on nutrition from.”

Vala popped the piece of pie in her mouth and shrugged. Cameron decided to give mystery meat a try and took a bite. Pork, he decided: it was probably pork. Probably. They sat in silence for a few moments, long enough for the subdued atmosphere around them to become properly suffocating.

“We should go visit your parents,” said Vala suddenly.

Cameron chocked on some noodles. “Pardon me?”

Vala had another piece of pie on her fork and pointed it at Cameron. “Well, it's not like we're doing anything useful around here and your mom makes much better pie.”

“You want to go visit my folks so that my mom can make you pie?”

She shrugged. “I like your mother. Although admittedly because she tells me funny stories about you and makes me pie.”

Cameron groaned. “No, Vala, we can't go visit my folks. There could be an emergency here, we might be needed.”

Vala raised an incredulous eyebrow at him. “Needed for what? To break up gambling rings?”

Cameron opened his mouth and then closed it with a sigh, knowing full well he had nothing to say to that. Tension on base had been steadily growing, folks getting restless – everyone knew there were a thousand things that needed doing and that list was only growing the longer the gate stayed silent. It wasn't quite a protest, but people were certainly becoming less subtle about their non-regulation activities.

“Maybe Jackson will get himself into trouble again and he'll need us to bail him out,” he finally answered.

Vala seemed to consider that for a moment. “Alright, fine, I concede that Daniel does seem incredibly good at finding trouble in places there shouldn't be any.”

“Like museums,” Cameron grumbled.

He nearly jumped at the unexpected movement next to him as chairs were pulled out and Colonel Pettrelli and Lieutenant Colonel Donovan, the team leaders of SG3 and SG9 slid in next to him and Vala.

“So, what's the scoop?” Pettrelli asked without any sort of preamble.

“The scoop on what?” Cameron asked carefully.

“C'mon, we've all been waitin' to find out,” said Donovan. His eyes slid over the room suspiciously before he leaned in closer to Cameron. “What's SG1 planning?”

“Uh...you think we're plannin' something?”

“Of course: it's traditional, right? The earth's in danger, brass and politicians aren't helping, so SG1 does something monumentally stupid, goes against orders, and ends up saving the world.”

“Right, of course.”

“Well, before we do anything, we'll have to wait for Daniel to come back,” said Vala, a spark of excitement in her eyes that hadn't been there moments before.

The other two team leaders nodded solemnly. “Right, of course, Jackson,” said Pettrelli. “Makes sense.” Then he clapped Cameron on the back. “Well, whatever happens, we've got your backs. Anything you need, just let us know.”

“Uh, okay. Thanks guys.”

Donovan smiled and then the two of them took their trays and went to sit with their respective teams. Vala looked to Cameron. “What exactly do they expect us to do?”

Cameron shook his head. “I have no idea.”

“But we are going to do something, right?”

“Sounds like. I mean, like they said, we're SG1. Maybe Jackson'll have some ideas from talking to all those politicians when he gets back.”

Vala raised an eyebrow at him in a very clear 'and when do you expect these flying pigs to arrive' gesture. Cameron grimaced.

“Or maybe he'll be annoyed and pissed off enough to feel like screwing orders and kicking some serious Ori butt,” he allowed.

“Well I talked to him yesterday and he said he thought he might have something, but he wasn't sure what.”

“I'm gonna hope it's a big honkin' space gun then.”

“Ooh, if it is can we use it to blow up those stuffy, useless politicians?”

Vala.”

Vala blinked. “What?” she asked, popped a piece of pie into her mouth. “We could always just blame those hydrant people everyone seems to be so worried about.”

Cameron let his fork drop into the middle of his casserole and cradled his head in his hands. He couldn't wait for Daniel to get back.

Chapter Text


 

GEARS

“I smell chocolate and walnuts,” Daniel declared with a pleased smile as he entered the kitchen.

“And meatballs, tomato sauce and pasta, I hope,” said Sam, raising an eyebrow as he looked up from the stove, where he was standing over a large saucepan.

“Yeah, yeah, that too,” Daniel waved him off as he bee-lined towards Cassie who was busy dropping balls of cookie dough onto a large cookie sheet and then flattening them with the bottom of a glass.

“This is for after lunch, Uncle Daniel,” said Cassie when he came to look over her shoulder.

“But I'm on vacation,” he whined.

“And coffee and chocolate are still not a food group.”

Daniel huffed and poured himself some still-steaming coffee before going to join Steve, Natasha and Clint at the spacious kitchen table. “Some days, I think you take after your mother a little too much.”

“My mom managed to intimidate ex-black ops Jack O'Neill and Uncle Murray, so good. I can only hope to do the same thing with my medical degree... once I have it and all.”

“I almost feel sorry for the poor marines already. Except that, well, they're marines.”

Sam burst out laughing. Daniel's eyes twinkled mischievously as he looked around the table. Natasha looked amused – in a way that reminded him of Teal'c as he'd been ten years ago – and Steve and Clint were chuckling.

“Your mom was a military doctor?” Sam asked Cassie.

“Air force,” she answered with a nod. “Doctor Janet Fraiser: she was the CMO at the base where Daniel works.”

Sam's eyebrows rose in surprise. “Janet Fraiser? As in five foot nothing spitfire with brown hair and a look that made generals freeze before weeping in jealousy?”

“Yep, that sounds like Janet,” Daniel answered, turning around in his seat. “You knew her?”

Sam smiled. “Yeah, I did my field medic training under her. Man, she was a slave-driver, but I sure learned a lot from her. The things she drilled into me stayed with me, and saved both my life and my patients' lives more times than I can count.”

Daniel smiled. “Yeah, she was amazing like that.”

Suddenly, Sam frowned, looking between the two of them. “Was?” he asked carefully.

Daniel glanced to Cassie, took in her still hands and tense shoulders. He waited, wondering if she would answer or leave it to him.

“KIA,” Cassie finally whispered. She swallowed. “A couple of years ago. D-Daniel was there, he could probably tell you what happened.”

“She was in the field?”

“Emergency medical evac,” Daniel supplied, but refused to go on. Not here, not in front of Cassie. He knew that in some way she took comfort in knowing that thanks to Janet's sacrifice, there was a little girl in the world who would have the chance to know her father, but that didn't make the grief easier to bear. And she'd seen far too much of it for someone so young.

“I'm sorry for your loss,” said Sam softly. “She was a wonderful person, one of the best.”

Daniel looked down into the dark depths of his coffee cup. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cassie nod curtly and then hurry over to the oven when a timer went off. He took a deep drink of his coffee, savouring the hot bitter liquid on his tongue, let it wash away the sting of his own grief. Composed, he turned back to the rest of the table. The others looked back in a mixture of sympathy and understanding. He sighed, trying to think of some way to move the conversation onto a happier note.

Bruce did it for him when he walked into the kitchen. “You know, I think this is the first time this kitchen has smelt this good since I've lived here,” he said.

“And that is a sin,” said Sam. “An inexcusable sin, because this kitchen is awesome. Us mere mortals only dream of cooking in a kitchen like this.”

“Must've cost a fortune too,” Cassie added from where she was placing oven-fresh cookies onto a cooling rack. “Why bother when you're not going to use it?”

Bruce shrugged. “Tony never gets anything less than the best even if he's not using it.”

“He was probably secretly hoping one of us cooked,” said Natasha.

Clint snorted. “Yeah, good luck with that. I don't have the patience to read recepies, Natasha burns water and Steve grew up in the depression. The only one of us with any hope of being able to cook is Bruce.”

“Well, you're not altogether wrong,” said Bruce, looking amused. “I have learned quite a few dishes over the course of my travels, but it's not something I consider a hobby.”

“Hm, if we're still here tonight, I can make some mujadarra for dinner,” said Daniel thoughtfully.

If?” said Clint. “You think that after handing Stark a brand new mysterious science project to play with he's going to just let you walk away? You'll be lucky if he lets you go home after your vacation's over.”

Daniel chuckled. “Well then I suppose I should go out and get supplies.”

“If there is something you require, I will be happy to arrange for it to be delivered to the tower.”

“Thanks, JARVIS,” said Daniel, looking in the direction of where he guessed at least one of the security cameras in the room was located. “But I was taught that gathering ingredients was just as much of a part of preparing the dish as the cooking itself. Besides, I have to go find some souvenirs anyway.”

“I understand, Daniel Jackson.”

Cassie put her now-empty bowl into the dishwasher. “Daniel doesn't cook often, but when he does it's totally worth it.”

“Looking forward to it,” said Sam. “Just to warn you though, super soldier over there's got a black hole in his stomach.”

Steve's face took on a slightly pink hue. “It's the serum,” he said.

Daniel nodded. “Ah, so you are Captain America. I thought so.”

Steve nodded.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to find Cassie grinning down at him. “You figured it out all on your own, I'm impressed.”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “Don't you start. Just because I spent my childhood with my nose in historical texts and learning dead languages doesn't mean I don't know people who read comic books.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh, like who?”

Daniel smirked. “Jack.”

Her eyes widened. “Really? As in he read comic books in general or Captain America comic books specifically?”

“Um, not sure how many other comic books he might've read, but he definitely had a large Captain America collection, which he then gave to his son. Which he then gave to Murray to give to his son, Ryac.”

“Wow, that's quite the, uh, journey those comic books have made. Do you know if Murray read them?”

Daniel shrugged. “If I'd come across Murray reading them by candlelight in his room at the base, I'm sure I would've been sworn to secrecy.”

Cassie giggled. “I think I've figured out what I'm going to get him for Christmas.”

“Whatever it is, you should get Steve to sign it for you,” said Clint.

Cassie's eyes lit up and she looked to Steve. “Oooh, would you please?”

Steve smiled. “Sure, no problem.”

“So, out of curiosity, just how accurate are the comic books?” Daniel asked. “I mean, obviously I'm not expecting most of them to be given how many of them there are, but I think I remember Jack saying that the first ones were published while you were still alive.”

Steve nodded. “I saw the first few editions after they came out.” He shrugged. “They got the basics right. I was a skinny, sickly kid from Brooklyn who tried to lie his way into the army because I wanted to help protect my country same as everyone else. Then I got lucky because Abraham Erskin saw me and offered me the chance. Still don't know how he knew, but he'd somehow figured out what I'd been up to, lying on my recruitment papers and all. I was injected with the super serum, Erskin was assassinated and then I spent nearly a year as a dancing monkey on a war bonds tour.”

“Sorry, you must get sick of repeating the story,” said Daniel quietly.

Steve gave him a sort of half-smile. “A little bit. The Jeffersonian did a pretty good job with their exhibit.”

“Hm, I'll have to go see it next time I'm in Washington.”

“Weren't you just in Washington?” Cassie asked him.

“Yes, and yes, I did go to the Jeffersonian, but Jack wasn't with me so I got to skip all the twentieth century military exhibits.”

The oven timer beeped and Cassie just shook her head as she went to swap a sheet of baked cookies for a sheet of unbaked ones. Daniel looked to Steve apologetically.

“Sorry, it's not that I don't think your contribution to history wasn't important or significant– ”

Steve waved his apologies away. “Cassie already explained it to me. I'm less than two thousand years old, therefore that apparently makes me too young for you.” His eyes twinkled in amusement. “Quite frankly I spend enough time feeling too old in this century, so being 'too young' is a nice change.”

Daniel chuckled. “Fair enough. So you'll forgive me then for asking why there aren't more super soldiers out there. Given that it was a military-funded project in the first place, I would've expected it to have continued once they'd managed a successful experiment.”

“Oh they did,” Bruce answered him. “But no one's been able to recreate the results. The Hulk is actually the result of that research.”

“Huh, a bit of an extreme result though.”

“And yet, believe it or not, one of the more successful ones.”

Daniel's eyebrows rose. “Really?”

Bruce shrugged. “Well I haven't died because my DNA has destabilized nor have I suddenly regressed and developed genetic abnormalities and defects, so yes, marginally successful.”

“The Hulk is also significantly less of a monster than the Abomination,” Natasha added quietly.

“Yeah, but Emil Blonsky wasn't exactly the paragon of sanity before he was injected with the serum,” Clint pointed out.

Daniel frowned. “But our science and understanding of genetics in particular has come a long way since the 1940s.”

Bruce shrugged. “It's widely believed in the scientific community that Doctor Abraham Erskin did some last-minute adjustments to the formula the night before the experiment, but never wrote them down. You have to remember that, while constrained by the technology of his day, Erskin was leagues beyond everyone else in his field and had an intuitive understanding of genetics that most scientists today can't boast.”

Daniel nodded thoughtfully.

“Erskin said the serum was designed to enhance a person's qualities: good became great and bad became evil,” Steve added quietly.

Daniel frowned. “That doesn't sound very scientific. I mean, aren't 'good' and 'evil' defined by human culture and understanding in the first place? For instance, to early Christians demons were messengers, middle-men between Heaven and the earthly realm and in the Middle Ages that definition changed to mean the dark and malevolent creatures of Hell.”

“I-I'm not sure...” said Steve, looking taken aback. “I know that other than me, the Red Skull was the only other successful super soldier and he was nothing less than pure evil.”

“Then the serum is like a weapon: hand a bad man a gun and he'll kill people, hand a good man a gun and he'll protect them. Your goal from the start was to fight for your country, to protect people. His was to create the perfect Aryan race and the serum made him stronger, faster and maybe smarter than any human: the highest point of human evolution that he could conceive of. I don't think you really need a genius to figure out what was going to happen to the two of you.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Natasha nod thoughtfully. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” she said.

Daniel hoped his internal flinch wasn't noticeable. He took a breath and let it out.

“That doesn't really change the fact that Red Skull and Steve are the only two successful super soldiers in existence,” Bruce pointed out.

“Three,” Natasha corrected him quietly.

Daniel saw her exchange looks with Steve, saw raw grief flash across his face for a moment, before it was smothered beneath a neutral facade. He looked away, to where Cassie was carefully beginning to arrange a mountain of cookies onto a large red ceramic platter. He considered the problem as he watched her move the cookies one by one with a spatula.

“Yeah, three,” Steve agreed quietly. “Although the Winter Soldier was Zola's masterpiece. He might not have been created with the same serum.”

Natasha acknowledged his point with a nod of her head.

“The Winter Soldier?” Bruce asked.

“We'll explain later,” Steve told him.

“What if you've been going about it the wrong way?” Daniel suddenly asked, his head still turned towards Cassie although his eyes not really seeing her. “What if it wasn't Erskin's formula that made the difference?”

There was a moment of silence. “What do you mean?” Bruce asked with a puzzled frown.

“It was just Erskin's formula and Howard Stark's vita rays,” said Steve with an equally puzzled frown.

Daniel turned around and looked Steve in the eyes. “And you,” he said simply.

He turned to Bruce. “What if Erskin got lucky in choosing Steve, not entirely realizing he'd hit a sort of genetic jackpot? I mean, the man died right after the experiment so we really have no idea whether any subsequent attempts would've been successful even for him.”

“A genetic anomaly,” Bruce breathed, understanding lightening his face.

“Are there any samples of Steve's blood from before the serum?” Natasha asked after a moment's pause.

Bruce shook his head. “No. That's been one of the biggest hampers on the research all along, that we have no way of comparing how exactly the serum changed his blood. There are some odd genetic markers in his DNA now, but it's difficult to tell whether they were there before or not. Admittedly, when Betty and I had been conducting our research on the serum with the blood samples we had, we just generally assumed that anything unusual was a result of the serum itself...”

Bruce trailed off, although it was clear his mind was still busy processing. Clint began to grin after a few moments of silence.

“I think you might've just blown his mind, Doctor Jackson,” he said.

Natasha's lips quirked slightly, but then she looked to Daniel with a curious expression. “Do you have any idea of what sort of genetic anomaly we're talking about here?”

Daniel shrugged. “Sorry. I'm good at brainstorming and throwing out ideas, but this is generally the part where I sit back and let the experts in the field take over.”

“It sounds like a pretty good guess though,” said Clint. “What do you think, Cap?”

Steve looked like he'd bitten into a lemon. “I'm not entirely sure.”

Sam suddenly appeared with a stack of pasta plates. “Whatever,” he said, placing them down in front of Steve with a clear gesture to distribute them. “Me, I'm not entirely sure I want more super soldiers running around the world. And I'm pretty sure we've got bigger problems than unlocking the secrets of the super soldier formula. Hey JARVIS, could you let the others know lunch is being served?”

“Of course, Mister Wilson, it will be my pleasure.”

“Thanks man.”

“You're very welcome.”

Daniel smiled at the amusement in the AI's voice as he took the utensils Cassie set in front of him and began to distribute them. Several minutes later, Phil Coulson, Skye and May entered the kitchen, a disgruntled-looking Tony Stark trailing behind them. He stopped just inside the kitchen and blinked.

“It smells like food in here,” he said.

“That's what a kitchen's supposed to smell like,” said Sam dryly. “Now stop gaping and find a seat.”

“Are we going to all fit?” Coulson asked, eyeing the table warily. It was a large table, true enough, but it didn't look nearly large enough to fit them all.

“There's a dining room just down the hall,” said Tony, looking at the table with a similar look of distrust.

“We'll just get Captain America to squish up and there'll be plenty of room for everyone,” said Sam.

Steve rolled his eyes.

“No, seriously though,” Sam continued. “I've seen that dining room: it's all crystal chandelier, fancy wooden table with gold trim and paintings on the wall. I feel like I need to be wearing a suit and tie just to walk into the damn room and I am not wearing a suit and tie for spaghetti and meatballs! We're eating in here.”

Tony raised an eyebrow in amusement and then went to find a sliver of room at the kitchen table. Lunch was a loud, boisterous affair with light-hearted conversation. And a few thrown meatballs, but that was quickly put a stop to by Natasha, who stared both Clint and Tony down until they popped the meatballs they were holding into their mouths and picked up their forks again. Bruce and Daniel ignored them as they compared stories of their travels around the world.

When the last of them (Steve) had finally finished eating – he'd learned to stop feeling embarrassed by how much he consumed and so was able to easily roll his eyes at Tony's comments. Especially once Cassie told Tony to knock it off and threatened to withhold cookies if he didn't.

“So, Daniel, you seem to have spent a lot of time in the desert,” Steve heard Coulson say when they'd sat back down after having cleared the table.

“Yes, I have,” Daniel answered. A small, wistful smile appeared on his face and Steve felt his own heart echo the longing in the other man's eyes. “Some of the happiest times of my life were spent in the desert. It's beautiful.”

On the other side of the table, Tony shivered. “I only like sand when there's a beach attached,” he said before taking a long drink of his coffee.

Daniel shrugged.

“Is that where you died?” Coulson asked.

Tony sprayed coffee all over Bruce, causing enough commotion that likely no one but Steve heard Cassie's soft gasp as she paled, her eyes widening in horror. Daniel froze momentarily, but quickly shrugged off his surprise and looked to Couslon with narrowed eyes.

“Where I died?” he repeated. “I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I do have a pulse.”

Coulson smiled blandly at him, his eyes sharp. “And yet you were declared dead by the military.”

“Obviously, that was done in error.”

“And you didn't notice for an entire year?”

Steve looked to Natasha and saw her watching Daniel carefully. “I was out of the country and didn't notice until I got back.”

“Hm. And the second time?”

“Second time?” Tony asked, his voice still a little hoarse from his coughing fit. “What exactly are you saying: that he's a zombie with pulse-control issues? Also, like you can talk: you're still officially dead.”

Steve heard Clint snort and out of the corner of his eyes, he noticed Natasha's lips quirk in amusement. Coulson's expression didn't change, his eyes still locked on Daniel. Who was meeting his eyes straight-on, the friendly, mild-mannered man gone and replaced with a hardness Steve recognized. Now he looked like a soldier, someone hardened by experience. Beside him, Cassie was pale and visibly shaking with nerves, but clearly trying to keep a brave face on. Her hands weren't visible, but one of them was angled forward just enough for him to be able to imagine it clutching her uncle's for support.

“What I'm saying is that most people don't get more than one funeral, let alone three,” said Coulson.

“And I don't see how that's any business of yours,” said Daniel.

Now Coulson's lips curled into a bland smile that didn't reach his eyes. “I tend to make things my business.”

Daniel looked at him for a moment and then his gaze swept over to Skye next to him and May, who hadn't sat down again, but was leaning against the kitchen counter just out of his line of sight. Steve wondered if this was his subtle way of pointing out that he was aware of what they were doing. Daniel's gaze returned to Coulson, his eyes sharper than before.

“You weren't at the museum by accident,” he said, and it wasn't a question. “Who are you?”

“Phil Coulson, I believe we've already been introduced.”

“No, that's your name.” Daniel paused for a moment. “Who are you? If you were NID this charade wouldn't be necessary. The Trust wouldn't be bothered playing games like this. The CIA generally stays out of our way and we're on pretty good terms with the Russians these days, although I suppose you can never be completely sure.”

“We're not Russian. We're SHIELD.”

Daniel raised an eyebrow at the response.

“What's Project Blue Book?” Skye suddenly asked.

“Classified,” Daniel snapped, his expression darkening. His gaze swept around the table. “So was all of this an elaborate set-up? Were all of you at the Met just to get to me?”

Clint sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Nat and I were, although not with these guys,” he said, gesturing vaguely towards Coulson and his people. “Steve and Sam were honestly just taking the day off to go to the museum, and Tony and Bruce didn't even know any of us were in town.”

Daniel nodded and some of the tension left his shoulders, although he was clearly still on his guard. Steve sympathized with him; he remembered vividly what it had been like when the Triskellion had gone from being a safe haven to enemy territory within the blink of an eye.

“We know you work on Project Blue Book,” said Coulson calmly.

“Yeah, I figured as much,” said Daniel dryly. “You wouldn't be asking me otherwise.”

“We know about the SGC,” Skye tried again.

Daniel looked at her and then smirked. “No, you don't. You wouldn't be asking me if you did.” His face smoothed out and he looked back to Coulson. “You may have looked at what you could find of the personnel roster and decided that the head geek was a weak link you could exploit, but I've been intimidated and questioned by people far more terrifying than you are. So unless you plan to go through with the threat of those knives May's holding, we're done here.”

“Hey, uh, yeah that's not going to happen,” Tony interjected. He glared at Coulson. “Agent, I like you, but I've gotten really good at ejecting unwanted SHIELD agents and since that whole Washington kerfuffle, I've added a few extra features to my security. Daniel is my guest.” A beat passed. “Also, Bruce's eyes are turning green.”

All eyes were instantly on Doctor Banner, whose eyes were indeed glowing bright green – and several green veins stood out prominently on his neck.

“Dammit,” he said though clenched teeth before standing and rushing out of the room.

“Is he okay?” Daniel asked, sounding worried.

“Yeah, he's fine,” said Tony. “The Other Guy's been pretty close to the surface ever since Bruce had to go back on the run after SHIELD fell and Ross was able to start coming after him again. Bruce'll get it under control again, it just takes time.”

Daniel nodded. “And the Hulk's understandably afraid that if he gets comfortable in safety again, that it'll just be snatched away from him. It's probably his way of keeping an eye on you to make sure you're here and safe.”

Tony stared at him. “I hadn't thought of it like that.”

Daniel shrugged. “It's a perfectly natural reponse.”

“Daniel,” Natasha said gently. Daniel looked to her, his expression wary. “The world's in danger, isn't it?”

“The world's always in danger,” he answered. “Too many hotheads with weapons that do too much damage.”

“True, but that's not what I meant.” She paused and Steve could watch her assessing Daniel. Daniel looked back at her calmly, waiting. Steve was certain he forgot to breathe for a few moments. And then Natasha blinked and in the split-second it took for her eyes to open and close, her demeanor changed. Her face became blank, her eyes just a little duller, everything about her just a little sharper.

She became Natasha Romanov, deadly assassin. For most people, this would be getting into character, but Steve knew that for her, this was the truth. It was everything else that was the mask.

“I was looking for something in the Pentagon last week and overheard an interesting conversation,” she said. “What are the Ori?”

Daniel blinked. “Classified,” he said after a pause, sounding much less hostile than he had when speaking to Coulson. In fact, he almost sounded regretful. Beside him, Cassie looked confused.

So it seemed she knew something about the project Daniel and her mother had been working on, but not nearly everything. Or maybe nothing current. Although, if Daniel had really had several funerals, then she'd probably been to them. Steve suddenly felt bad for having been a part of dredging up those memories for her.

“You know we specialize in saving the world,” said Clint softly. “If the world's in danger, we want to help save it. It's what we do.”

Daniel took a deep breath. “Thank you. I – let me think about it.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Maybe I'll go get my shopping done this afternoon. There are a few things I need to consider.”

“And souvenirs to buy,” Cassie added.

Daniel rolled his eyes. “Yes, God forbid I forget to bring Vala her souvenirs.”

Cassie giggled, although there was a slight hysterical edge to it. Steve smiled at her reassuringly. Whatever was going on, she at least was a civilian, blameless except by association. And Daniel... Daniel at least hadn't lied to them. Steve could respect that; he'd run covert missions both during the war and in the twenty-first century. Perhaps not in this case, not when so much seemed to be at stake, but then again he also didn't know any details.

“Well, then I guess I'll see you all later,” Daniel said as he stood.

“Yeah, later man,” said Sam. “I'll be looking forward to that, uh, mujapiri or whatever it was called.”

“Mujadarra,” Daniel corrected with an amused smile. “It's an Egyptian green lentil dish. A worker on one of the digs I was on once showed me how to make it.”

“Green lentils?” Tony asked. He made a face. “That sounds healthy. I'm not sure I want to be a part of that.”

“We promise there'll be more cookies,” said Cassie.

Tony grinned. “My hero.”

No one said a word until they heard the elevator doors close.

“JARVIS?” Tony asked.

“Doctor Jackson and Cassandra Fraiser are both currently on their way to their rooms, sir.”

May walked up to the table to stand beside Coulson. “Are we really just going to let them go?”

“Yes,” Steve answered her. “We are.”

“He's testing us,” Natasha added, sounding like she approved.

“Yeah, we might've saved New York, but he hasn't really got any reason to trust us,” said Clint.

“But what if he contacts his superiors?” Skye asked. “He's gotta know a few people who'd love to know where we are.”

Coulson nodded. “It's why I sent Trip back to the quinjet this morning. Just in case we need to call for an extraction.”

“I'd say he's got good cause not to trust you,” said Tony with narrowed eyes aimed at Couslon. “Right now I sort of trust him more than I trust you, but then again I know all about the bugs you planted in his room. Also, were you planning on telling us about the tablet?”

“Sir, if I may interrupt: Doctor Jackson took a call earlier today from an individual he called 'Jack'.”

“That'll probably be Lieutenent General Jack O'Neill,” said Natasha.

“Again,” Clint added.

“I take it you recorded the conversation, JARVIS?” Coulson asked.

“Indeed, Director Coulson, I did. Regrettably, however, I was unable to discern most of the caller's side of the conversation.”

That was when Bruce walked back into the kitchen. He looked around the table, his expression darkening at the empty seats. “Where's Daniel?” he asked.

“Don't worry, he and Cassie went out to do some shopping,” Steve assured him.

“Alone?”

“Yes, alone,” Coulson confirmed. “It's an act of faith on our part, to prove that we can be trusted.”

“Well, as alone as anyone can be in the middle of downtown Manhattan with hundreds of video cameras JARVIS can hack into and monitor,” said Tony. “You'll let us know if our friend Danny does anything strange, right J?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Excellent! Have a seat Brucie, and J, hit us with that phone conversation.”

Chapter Text

MOVEMENT

Natasha reclined casually on the couch, reading Harry Potter. It was an effective way to keep an eye on Coulson and his newest agent, Skye, who had each claimed themselves a large padded armchair and were tapping away at their laptops. Agent May was in the gym with Steve and Sam, and Clint had vanished. He was probably napping somewhere.

The elevator chimed from down the hall. Natasha turned the page. Across from her, Director Coulson barely twitched. Skye froze and looked up, craning her neck towards the hallway, from where they could hear footsteps approaching along with the rustling of shopping bags.

“Welcome back, Doctor Jackson,” Coulson called to him without taking his eyes off the screen.

She heard Daniel pause in front of the kitchen door and finally looked up. He was holding a large canvas bag in one hand that looked like it was stuffed to the brim with groceries – Natasha could see tomatoes gleaming orange-red on the top of the pile – and several regular white plastic bags in the other printed with logos she couldn't make out because of the creases and waves in the bag.

“Thank you, Director Coulson,” said Daniel. “Hello, Skye, Natasha.”

Natasha nodded to him in greeting, before turning back to her book. She'd perfected the art of reading while watching someone a long time ago.

“Your niece isn't with you?” she heard Coulson ask.

“No, she got a text from a university friend who lives in New York. Turns out she's leaving to go visit her grandparents in Portland tomorrow, so they decided to meet up for dinner and drinks this evening.”

“That's convenient.”

“Hm, yes actually it is. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm just going to put the food into the kitchen.”

Natasha hid her smile. Whether or not the story was real didn't entirely matter; Daniel had convinced Cassie to stay away from the tower for the evening, which meant that either he didn't want to put her in danger by revealing classified information around her, or else he wanted to keep her out of the line of fire when he refused to. Either way, he clearly wasn't concerned for his own safety. Knowing he had a tracker chip embedded beneath his skin, it made sense, because the Air Force could find him anywhere. Having Cassie out of the tower also gave her the freedom to call 'Uncle Jack' should he need her to. Natasha wondered if they'd worked something out. Was Daniel going to call her or send her a text letting her know if things went smoothly?

It was a simple strategy, but if the Avengers or SHIELD wanted to go after Cassie they'd be doing so in public, with witnesses. Natasha enjoyed being right, and Doctor Daniel Jackson was turning out to be quite the interesting person indeed.

After ten minutes of movement in the kitchen, Daniel emerged again and headed up to his room to deposit the rest of his purchases.

A few minutes later, a freshly-showered Sam came out of the elevator. Natasha raised an eyebrow at him. “Give up already?” she asked him, idly turning a page.

“Yeah, I think I'm done trying to keep up with a super soldier for the day,” he said as he eased himself into the armchair next to Natasha's couch. “Also, there's something really weird about watching you read a children's book.”

“It was in Stark's library and I remember Clint saying once that I should read it.”

“And? What do you think?”

“There are too many children in it.”

Sam laughed. “Well, yeah, that's sort of the point.”

Steve and Agent May came down from the gym an hour later, smiling and relaxed. Even Coulson raised an eyebrow at the easy camaraderie that seemed to have suddenly sprung up between them as they headed into the kitchen for water (and probably food, in Steve's case). Daniel had already come back down again and was in the kitchen, creating a plethora of delicious smells. Sam and Skye had joined him and the sounds of pots and pans were accompanied by occasional laughter.

The elevator dinged just as the other end of the couch dipped under Steve's weight, glass of orange juice in one hand a plate containing a sandwich in the other. Natasha frowned, listening closely as the sound of wheels and sharp, precise taps of two sets of high heels exited the elevator. She closed her book and set it onto the end table beside her as she slid her legs around to sit upright.

If Pepper Potts was at all surprised by the amount of people in her living room, she didn't show it. Beside her, Maria Hill looked equally unsurprised, although her eyes widened when she noticed Agent May relaxing by the kitchen doorway, and then scanned the room until she found Coulson's back.

Pepper's eyes scanned the group and smiled pleasantly. “Hello, I didn't know Tony had anyone over,” she said, the question clear in her voice. Her smile became a bit more genuine when she saw Natasha. “It's good to see you again, Natasha.”

Natasha smiled. “It's good to see you too, Pepper. We were a bit unexpected by everyone, including each other. We just happened to meet at the Met yesterday before it was attacked.”

Pepper frowned slightly. “Yes, I heard about that. I'm glad you were there to stop those idiots from doing too much damage.”

“So are we,” Steve readily agreed. “It would've been a shame for anything to have been damaged.” Pepper's eyes snapped to the blond and he stood with a friendly smile and walked around the coffee table to hold out his hand in greeting. “Steve Rogers, ma'am.”

Her eyes widened slightly in recognition. “It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Captain,” she said with a warm smile as she shook his hand.

“You as well, Ms. Potts.” He let go of her hand and stepped away. “Maria, I'm glad you're doing well,” he then said with a nod to the former deputy-director.

“Hello Steve,” Maria Hill said with a quirk of her lips. “What exactly were you doing at the museum yesterday?”

Steve shrugged. “Attempting to take a day off. Apparently, Sam's mom thought we needed one.”

“Ah, that's right, he has family in Harlem, doesn't he?”

“Yes he does.”

Maria Hill nodded and then looked to the back of Coulson's head. “And I suppose I should congratulate you on your promotion, Director.”

As though waiting for his cue, Coulson smoothly stood up and turned to the two women with a polite smile. “Thank you, Maria. I hear the military's finally stopped hounding you.”

“Yes, they have.”

The suitcase Pepper had been pulling behind her clattered to the ground. “Phil?” she said, shock written across her face.

After the emotional reunion, after Pepper had introduced herself to the people in the kitchen and left to find Tony – no doubt to give him a piece of her mind about failing to mention Coulson's not-quite-dead status and the team of super heroes and spies staying at the tower – Maria Hill grabbed Coulson and dragged him to the side of the room. It was far enough from the kitchen to not be overheard, but still within Natasha and Steve's hearing.

“I didn't think involving the Avengers was a part of your plan?” she said calmly. It wasn't quite a demand.

Coulson shrugged. “It was a last-minute decision,” he said. “Romanov and I happened to be after the same target and then Cap made first contact with him without even realizing it. I could've pulled back, but then we would've lost the target.”

Hill frowned. “And where's the target now?”

“In the kitchen making dinner.”

Hill blinked and then frowned. “Your target is in Stark's kitchen making dinner.”

“Some sort of Egyptian green lentil dish, apparently.”

Hill brought a hand up to rub at one of her temples. “Does this target know he's a target?”

“He's guessed as much.”

“Great. And naturally, he's probably a security risk Stark didn't bother telling me about.”

“Tony has JARVIS monitoring him and he's probably not dangerous so long as we don't provoke him,” said Natasha.

Hill looked at her wryly. “I really wish that was as comforting as it sounds like it should be.” She shook her head and looked between them. “Who's the target?”

“An Air Force civilian consultant named Doctor Daniel Jackson,” Coulson replied smoothly, but Natasha had known him long enough to detect the glint of speculation in his eyes as he watched Maria Hill's reactions. “We're investigating him and the project he's working on for possible ties to Hydra.” He paused and then, almost casually, asked: “Have you ever heard of Project Blue Book?”

Hill's reaction was instantaneous. Her eyes snapped up to Coulson's and she paled. “Leave Project Blue Book alone, Coulson.”

Coulson exchanged a look with Agent May. “So you've heard of it.”

“Yes, and no I don't know a lot of particulars.” Hill paused and looked around. “Fury knew more, but he kept the information close to his chest. I asked him once and he said they were dealing with things that didn't concern SHIELD and he was happy to leave them to it, because he had enough problems of his own. I do know that they take their security very seriously. There've been rumours about people disappearing after getting their hands on leaked information about the project.”

Natasha looked to Steve, who looked back with a worried expression.

“I've heard those rumours too,” Coulson agreed. “We're trying to figure out if the project has any ties to Hydra.”

“I... I suppose it's possible. Like I said, I don't know exactly what they're up to down there, but I do know it's multi-disciplinary in a way no other US military project has ever been and in recent years they've come to agreements of co-operation with foreign governments, including the Russians and Chinese. They've also been snatching experts and scientists from all over the world, to the point that SHIELD had been having a difficult time recruiting recently. It's probably at least partially how Hydra managed to get so many of their own people into SHIELD.”

“Really?” Coulson blinked in surprise. “I wasn't aware we were having recruitment issues.”

Hill shrugged. “It wasn't a major cause for concern yet, but slightly unsettling for the future.”

“Hm, well I had one of my insiders look into potential links between Project Blue Book and Hydra and they came up with nothing. In fact, they said they had to stop asking around because they were afraid they were actually bringing the project to the attention of Hydra's higher ups.”

“Just be careful, Phil,” she said. Then she smirked. “And good luck, Director.”

“Thank you.”

Maria Hill was half-way to the elevator when she turned around again. “Oh, and tell Mockingbird to look me up once she'd done with her assignment; we haven't done a martini and spa night in a while.”

Coulson made a pained face. “And that right there was more information than I wanted to know. I'll be sure to pass on the message.”

 


 

Daniel insisted on dinner first.

It wasn't a stalling technique as such. Nor did he truly need more time to gather his thoughts. Yes, part of him was still unsure of the wisdom of betraying the SGC (for he was nothing if not honest and he couldn't bring himself to call this anything less than a betrayal to all those who had lived and breathed and bled with him beneath the mountain), but another part of him couldn't think of a better way. And he wasn't going to give them the whole truth, only what was necessary. He would go through with his plans alone if he had to – in fact it would probably be easier – but there was at least one of them whose help he suspected he might need.

He sat at a table – this time the one in the dining room, because Pepper Potts was a very persuasive woman who didn't take foolishness lightly – with a group of people who would no doubt react strongly to what he had to tell them. And dinner was not the place for strife; his Abydonian family had taught him that. Though he'd been with them for only a year, he held dear the lessons they'd taught him.

Kasuf's number one rule was that any arguments, any grievances were left behind when they sat down to share food and drink. Only when the food had been cleared away were they allowed to once again be taken out. Sha're had also embraced that rule and Daniel attempted to do the same whenever he could.

People were always so much happier after a good, warm-hearted meal.

And so he waited until food and dishes from dinner had been cleared away and stacked into the dishwasher and the mound of pastries he'd purchased at a little middle-eastern bakery were set out onto the table along with coffee, tea and wine. Even then, he waited until a sizable dent had been made into the pastries and Pepper Potts – having most likely sensed the underlying anxious tension – yawned loudly and declared she was going to head off to bed early.

Daniel followed her out and detoured into the kitchen, where he re-filled his coffee, needing the bitter warmth and caffeine infusion to give him strength. Then he grabbed the Target bag he'd placed next to the doorway and took out the item inside.

“What's that?” Clint asked when Daniel walked into the dining room with it.

Daniel held it up. “An Egyptian puzzle box,” he said and then placed his coffee cup down and began to solve it. A few minutes passed, during which the Avengers watched him intently.

“I'm developing a new appreciation for the Ancient Egyptians,” said Skye. “That's like the ancient equivalent of an electronic lock.”

“Yeah, an electronic lock that needs a secret handshake to open,” Sam added.

“I could probably build an electronic lock like that,” said Tony thoughtfully.

Finally, Daniel got it open and took out the small device inside. It was made of dark metal and looked a bit like a high-tech mushroom. Tony practically surged out of his seat to get a closer look.

“That had better not be a bomb,” said Agent May as she eyed the device.

Daniel chuckled. “No, it's not.” He looked up. “JARVIS, I'm sorry, but I can't risk this conversation being recorded in any way. This isn't going to harm you or anyone else and we'll still be able to hear you. All anyone has to do to talk to you is go into the hall.”

“Understood, Doctor Jackson.”

Daniel pressed down and a row of small red lights came on.

“Daniel, what is it?” Steve asked, looking at the device warily. His tone wasn't hostile, but it was firm, unwilling to back down until he had an answer.

“It's an anti-surveillance device,” said Daniel. “Basically we're now in a bubble that no one, whether in person, or via electronics, can see or hear into. I mean, they can physically see us if they're for instance, standing out in the hall, but they wouldn't be able to read lips or emotions.”

Coulson raised an eyebrow. “That's handy. And it doesn't disrupt the surveillance?”

“No, any microphones and/or cameras in the room are still working just fine. They just won't be able to pick up anything.”

“Okay, I'm just a bit jealous,” said Clint. “Pressing a button sounds way easier than searching a room from top to bottom for bugs.”

“No kidding,” said Steve. “Does it work for phone taps?”

Daniel thought about that for a moment. “I don't see why not... although I'm not a hundred percent sure it's been tested for that.”

A thoughtful silence followed. Tony was the first to break. “Okay, Dannyboy, we gave you time, now what's the big secret?” he asked, doing a very bad job of pretending to be asking only out of boredom. Daniel winced at the nickname.

“Wait,” Sam interrupted whatever Daniel was going to answer. He met Daniel's eyes seriously. “Just so we're all clear about this: we're talking treason here, right? I know a bit about how some of these confidentiality agreements work and by telling us, you're committing treason, right?”

Daniel paused and then nodded slowly. “Yes, after this is all over and they find out I've told you I could be arrested and then executed for treason.”

The silence that followed was deafening. Tony and Skye seemed to be the only ones shocked by the news, the others nodding at the news in grim, unhappy silence.

“They won't seriously execute you if you end up saving the world, will they?!” said Skye, her eyes wide. Daniel smiled at her; he almost remembered being that young.

Daniel shrugged noncommittally. “No I don't think they'll actually execute me, not if my actions end up saving the world...” His lips quirked into a wry smile. “Generals don't like looking like idiots and tend to be willing to retrospectively bend rules or impose slap-on-the-wrist punishments if they want to cover up how much you've upstaged them.”

“Better to ask forgiveness than permission,” said Steve with a nod. “They did the same thing after I saved the 107th: cut orders for the mission and then suddenly promoted me to a full captain despite the fact that I was completely unqualified.”

Sam blinked and looked at his friend. “You weren't a captain?”

Steve looked to him in amusement. “Captain America was a stage name. How exactly do you think I managed to get the field experience to become an officer while prancing on stage selling war bonds? I'd only barely made it through boot-camp when I was injected.”

Sam opened his mouth to protest and then closed it. “Huh. I'd never thought about it like that. Wow. I guess it's real lucky you were hiding a tactical genius under that serum-enhanced physic.”

Steve shrugged. Daniel chuckled.

“Either way, I'll manage,” he said. “I've made a few enemies over the years, but I have allies as well and I've been with the program since pretty much the beginning. I may not be indispensable, but I don't think I'm someone they can afford to just throw away either. Besides, it's not like you're going to just let it go, is it?”

Skye had the decency to look chagrined. She looked to Coulson, who cooling stated “No, we're not.”

Daniel nodded and he placed his coffee cup down on the table before folding his hands over each other and leaning on them as he looked around the table, his face determined and brooking no place for argument.

“You should know that there's still a big 'if' in front of 'saving the world' at this point. I don't entirely know what I've found yet. I mean, whatever it is, it'll no doubt be a remarkable find, but whether or not it'll hold the key to saving Earth is another matter entirely.”

“But you have an idea of what you've found,” said Bruce, his eyes sharp.

Daniel grinned. “Probably more than you do to be honest.”

Tony scoffed. “I highly doubt that.”

“So you haven't found a rough description of a device that takes power from the exact zero point of space then? A theoretically endless supply of energy?”

Tony froze, his eyes slowly narrowing. “Theoretically, yes. Your friends seem to be keeping you well-informed.”

“Well, I've sort of had front-row seats to a lot of their discoveries. Also, it helps that one of my closest friends is the former head of R&D at Area 51.”

“Area 51,” said Clint. “Area 51 is actually a thing?!”

“I have clearly not been digging deep enough into government records,” said Tony.

Steve sighed. “What exactly is Area 51?”

“It's the Holy Grail of all conspiracy theorists,” Skye answered him, her eyes wide and becoming more excited by the second. “Where all the top-secret projects and experiments the military doesn't want anyone to know about hide. Where they have alien corpses and half-dissected alien spaceships and weird mutant strains of killer bees and illegal cloning programs and...”

Skye trailed off as she noticed the way everyone was looking at her.

“Someone was definitely an X-Files fan,” Clint muttered.

“After everything you've seen at SHIELD, should you really be getting this excited about Area 51?” Coulson asked, not bothering to hide his amusement.

“Er, no, probably not.” Skye looked sheepish for a moment. “But it's Area 51! Do you realize how many people I've known over the years who would give their firstborn just for confirmation that it exists?”

Daniel cleared his throat. “So, for the record, Area 51 is tech only, so sorry but no alien corpses. Or mutant killer bees. And no alien spaceships either.” He waited for a beat. “I'm pretty sure they moved those elsewhere. There might be pieces of alien spaceships, but nothing recognizable.”

“You are enjoying this way too much,” Tony grumbled.

Daniel grinned. “Yeah, just a bit.”

Then he sighed, the grin sliding from his face. He brought a hand up to rub at his temple. There was a dull throbbing starting up behind his eyes: between lack of sleep and stress, it was difficult to tell which was the exact cause. Probably a combination of both. He tried to remember if he'd brought his Goa'uld hand device-strength pain killers with him.

“Sorry,” he said. “That was getting a bit ahead of myself there.” He took a deep breath and looked back to his avid audience. “Okay, so this is a bit out of order, but I know you'll want to know so I might as well start with it. New York: the Chitauri Attack.”

The group stiffened.

“What about it?” Tony growled out.

“We could've helped. We weren't given the option.”

“What?!”

“You were sidelined in the name of secrecy,” Natasha whispered.

Daniel froze. “Yes, how do you know?” He frowned. “In fact, I think those might've been my exact words.”

“They were.” She tilted her head to the side as she watched him. “I told you I overheard a conversation.”

“I thought that door was sound-proof...”

“It wasn't when I walked by.”

“Oookay... I'll have to let Jack know that the next time I see him... assuming he gives me the chance. Yes, that's pretty much exactly what happened. The IOA – that's the International Oversight Advisory Committee – gave in to the World Council's demands to take the lead on the situation because, well, mostly because they're really just a bunch of bureaucratic cowards and were too afraid to deal with the aftermath of the world finding out about our project. They and the Pentagon ordered the base into lockdown, blackout conditions. I'm not even sure what bullshit lie they fed to the general, or if they even bothered. Now, while lockdown isn't exactly an everyday occurrence, it happens often enough that everyone's just learnt to go about their business unless an order from the general tells them otherwise.”

He took a deep breath.

“We were in lockdown for just over twelve hours. Then lockdown was lifted and people started to head home... and they heard the news. Believe me, no one was happy. Especially once the rumour about the nuclear bomb the World Council had decided to use spread around the base. See we have... experimental aircraft that could've flown circles around those Chitauri and blasted the big whale things out of the sky. Not to mention that we've got the world's foremost expert on wormhole physics on staff.”

“And we had the Avengers,” said Coulson, for once unable to keep the shock off his face. “Six extraordinary individuals, but still only six against an army.”

Daniel nodded.

“The world's foremost expert on wormhole physics?” Bruce asked.

“Doctor Colonel Samantha Carter,” Daniel answered and then added dismissively, “You may have heard Cassie refer to her as Aunt Sam.”

“That name does sound familiar...” said Tony.

“I consulted her work heavily when I was studying wormholes,” said Bruce. “Although she was wrong about a wormhole only letting in matter in one direction.”

Daniel shrugged. “Yeah, she's got theories on why that worked for Tony with the Chitauri's wormhole.”

“I'll bet she does,” Clint interrupted. “Can we get back to the topic though? Like this Project Blue Book thing or the SGC or whatever it's actually called?”

Daniel's lips quirked. “Project Blue Book is sort of an umbrella name for the entire project. The SGC is where the project initially started, but it's since expanded and there are a number of facilities and side-projects associated with it now. For instance, Area 51 isn't a part of Project Blue Book, except for certain areas and specific research projects. We also have several engineering sites dedicated to working on our experimental aircraft and... other facilities, including a few things we've contracted out to civilian research and development companies.”

Tony frowned. “You don't have anything at Stark Industries,” he said, although it sounded like a question.

“You don't work with the US military anymore.”

“Ah. Right.”

“Anyway, I just want you to know that I believe in this project. I think it's the most amazing thing the human race has ever done.”

“If it's so great, why is the IOA so intent on keeping it secret?” Steve asked.

Daniel sighed, pausing to think of the best way to describe it. “One of our earliest detractors was Senator Kinsley–“

“–Met him,” said Tony. “Hated him. He was an ass... and then he disappeared. Wait. Did you guys have anything to do with that?”

“Uh, sort of. I mean, we didn't have him killed – that was partially his own fault – but if he hadn't been involved with the project he wouldn't have died. Anyway, he once called the project Pandora's Box and it sort of is. At the time we weren't quite as big and hadn't really expanded into as much of the non-weapons research, making us a huge drain on resources that someone like Kinsley couldn't see any viable use for. And starting up the project came with dangerous consequences.”

“Like the Ori,” said Natasha.

Daniel nodded. “Like the Ori.” He took a deep breath. “The Ori are gods. Or rather, they have set themselves up as gods. What they actually are is a very advanced race of aliens that had managed to evolve to the point where they could leave this universe and ascend to a higher plane of existence in non-corporeal form. They're not the only ones that have done so, but they discovered that they gained power through belief, through faith and so they set themselves up as gods. When we came into contact with them, their first question was if we believed in the Ori. We – sorry, no I answered that no, we'd never even heard of them.”

Daniel smiled bitterly. “So they gathered their followers, commanded them to build ships, and launched a crusade. Their followers, the people we're facing all come from Medieval-level societies, but the weapons and technology they've been given is so far beyond us that nothing we, or our allies, have been able to throw at them has managed to do anything significant. We've managed to slow them down, destroyed a few of their ships, but the damages we've taken have been high. And now we have confirmation that they're on their way to Earth with at least five ships and the SGC has been stalled ever since SHIELD fell and Hydra was exposed.”

“They want to root out any Hydra infiltration,” said Steve. “But they're choosing one threat over another.”

“Exactly!” Daniel couldn't take it anymore, he shoved his chair backwards almost violently as he stood, running a hand through his hair as he began to pace.

“The problem is that when it comes down to it, Hydra almost doesn't matter. They're an insignificant threat at this point. It's not that we don't have any weapons, any means to defend ourselves, but what we have won't be enough. Sam and her team are working on something that could work as a defence, but it's not finished yet and we have no idea how long-term it'll work for when they do get it to work.”

“Not to mention that even if Hydra has infiltrated you, it's not like they're going to work against you on this,” Natasha added.

“Can't take over the world if someone bigger and badder has already taken it over,” said Sam. “Damn.”

“Hang on, if they haven't made it to Earth yet, how do you know how big of a threat they are?” Skye asked.

“They've been taking their time getting here and we've watched as planet after planet has fallen to them.”

“Yeah, but how?!” said Tony.

Daniel put his hands into his pockets and rocked backwards onto his heels. “Ever heard of a show called Wormhole X-treme?”

“Yup, love that show,” said Clint.

“I've seen it,” said Skye.

“I think I've seen parts of it,” said Tony. “That's the one with the people walking through wormholes to other planets right?”

“Yeah, my mom loved that show,” said Sam. “Was really sad when it went off the air. She cried when Doctor– hang on.”

“Daniel, exactly what does SGC stand for?” Coulson asked shrewdly.

Daniel grinned. “Stargate Command. Martin Lloyd, the guy who came up with the idea for Wormhole X-treme and wrote the original scripts, is actually from another planet.”

“You're shitting me,” said Clint, gaping. “You're fucking shitting me. That thing is real?!”

“Yup,” Daniel agreed, popping the 'p'. “Or possibly no, possibly you've just been watching waay too much sci-fi; it's all just make-believe you know.”

They were all silent, until Agent May smirked. “That's quite the clever cover,” she said. “I'm impressed.”

“So am I,” said Coulson. “Hiding in plain sight and setting up something that makes any conspiracy theorists that get close and start talking look like fools.”

“To be fair, it wasn't our idea,” said Daniel with a shrug. “The thing with Marty is... complicated.”

“How would it even work?” Tony asked, his eyes wide and unfocused, lost inside his own head.

“We actually have no idea.” Tony blinked and his eyes focused back to Daniel. “We know what it does, how to fix it, how to use the gate technology and even how to change some of its base programming, but how it actually works, we have no idea. I don't think that physics has been invented yet.”

Tony's jaw dropped. Bruce snorted softly in amusement. “I think you'll have him drooling here in a second.”

“Ah, well I remember one race we encountered who Sam told me had been amused when they found out we still used quantum physics.”

All eyes turned to Tony to watch his expression go blank. “Still use quantum physics? Still use quantum physics?!” And then his eyes shone with excitement, with the same sort of glee that a child would show if they'd been told it was official Eat Nothing But Candy Day. “Right, where's that dotted line? Show me the dotted line. I'll sign over my soul, my firstborn, whatever it takes. Well, except for Pepper's shoe collection. I do have some sense of self-preservation, after all.”

Daniel laughed. “So, I take it we can start planning?”

Natasha raised an eyebrow. “Are you telling us you don't have a plan yet?”

“Ah, well, yes I do have a plan, but I wasn't sure if I'd have to do it alone or not.”

“Daniel, we're not going to let you do this alone,” said Steve.

“We're all sort of attached to the world staying the way it is, free of pretend alien gods,” Clint added. “Well, except for Thor, because we like Thor. He can stay.”

An hour later, Daniel sent a text to Cassie, telling her all was going well. When she got back to the tower, the group was still in the dining room, trying to convince Tony why he needed to stay behind on Earth where he'd likely be needed more than gallivanting through space. She smiled and bid them goodnight, leaving them to their planning.

The next day, Daniel and Cassie moved back to their hotel to keep the NID and the military from getting too suspicious and spent the rest of Daniel's vacation enjoying themselves around the city. When Daniel left for Colorado Springs, Cassie saw him off at the airport and then went back to her hotel. The next afternoon she signed out and walked out the front lobby. She slid into the waiting limo.

“So, they did it?” she asked Tony, who looked up from his tablet.

“Went off without a hitch according to Coulson,” he said.

“Good... that's good.”

Cassie looked out the window and watched as New York streets sped by, silently hoping that Daniel managed to get out of this one alive.

Chapter Text

CLOCKWORK

The apartment wasn't large, but it was full, teetering on the edge between efficiently-used space and overcrowded. Every available surface was covered in books and nick knacks – of the sort that most people would call souvenirs and knowledgeable eyes would recognize as treasures.

It looked like a well-lived home.

It felt abandoned. The colours were muted as only narrow stripes of sunlight managed to peek in through the heavy drapes across the windows, light almost reflecting off the edge of the empty fish tank that sat on top a shorter bookcases. The air smelt stale, held suspended in time by a stillness so complete it meant the inhabitants had been absent for long enough that the dust had settled some time ago.

There was a comfortable-looking couch and matching armchair in the living room facing a small television and a coffee table that looked like it had come from an auction house. The walls were lined with bookshelves that parted only to wrap around an electric fireplace. Above the mantel hung a grainy blown-up photograph of a lonely pyramid in the midst of a desert, its tip pointing up towards a bright blue sky – and if one looked closely, they would notice how the fluffy white clouds hid three spherical shapes. A person with enough imagination might just call them moons. They would think of it as an amusing bit of photoshop. The photograph's owner would just smile and nod.

In the kitchen stood a large, solid wood table that would've easily seated an entire family had the surface not been cluttered with papers, books and empty mugs. Very little light made it into the kitchen, turning it into a dark, forbidding cave.

The stillness was momentarily broken by a low metallic hum and a sudden light spilling out from the deep blackness beneath the kitchen table. If anyone had been in the apartment, they would've seen a column of wavering light appear out of thin air and then disappear mere moments later, leaving behind an innocuous-looking paper bag.

It was swallowed up by the shadows, the apartment darkening further as the meagre light from outside gradually dimmed. The only disturbance to the quiet was a muted thud as something fell to the ground in the apartment above: a sign that life existed beyond the apartment.

Until there came the hint of a whisper from the bedroom along with a sliver of fresh air, noticeable only for its rarity. A well-trained eye would've then noticed how some of the shadows grew and, perhaps, may even have caught movement within their depths.

However, with methodical efficiency, any eyes that might have been watching were snuffed out, listening ears made deaf. So they couldn't see the two figures that eventually crept out from the shadows and settled silently on the couches, where they remained, motionless, as the stillness settled around them.

 


 

Daniel paid the cab driver and then adjusted the strap of his leather satchel before heading into his apartment building, wheeling his suitcase behind him. He couldn't suppress the yawn while he waited for the elevator and tried to remember why he'd decided it was a good idea to book a flight that brought him home so late.

He let himself into his apartment, cringing as the smell of warm stale air his his nose, and turned the light on. He abandoned his suitcase next to the door, eager to open all the apartment's windows as wide as they would go.

Two steps later, he froze, taking in the two people silently lounging on his couch. Both calmly watched him back.

“Uh...” he began. He hadn't expected them so soon, dammit. The Asgard anti-surveillance device was still buried deep within his suitcase and he didn't trust the NID, the IOA, the Joint Chiefs or the Trust (he supposed Hydra was a possibility now too) to have not taken advantage of his absence to bug his apartment. His eyes scanned the room frantically, trying to see if he noticed anything out of place – not that anyone who knew what they were doing would be that clumsy, but it never hurt to check for the obvious first.

“We got them all.”

Daniel's eyes snapped back to the couch. Natasha was looking at him with steady eyes, the side of her mouth quirked in amusement. “The bugs, we got them all.”

“There were a lot of them,” Steve added. “A couple different makes too: you're apparently a popular guy, Daniel.”

Daniel groaned. “Great, that's just great. I'm just going to go and assume they all magically appeared while I was away and if there's any evidence to the contrary, I don't want to know.”

Steve nodded. “Fair enough. If it helps, the only cameras were in the living room and kitchen.”

Daniel snorted. “So you mean my stalkers had some respect for my privacy? Though I'm not exactly sure what they expected me to be doing in my kitchen that they needed to set up cameras to catch.”

“Maybe they really wanted to know the secret ingredient to your pasta sauce,” said Natasha.

“Then they should've bugged Jack's place, because my pasta sauce comes from the organic store next to my dry cleaners.”

He shook his head and then decided to continue with his original goal of opening all the windows in the apartment. The fresh air felt lovely as it began to circulate, slowly chasing out the stuffiness. When he came back to the main area, it was to find Steve examining one of his mezzo-American sculptures while Natasha brewed coffee.

“You guys hungry?” Daniel asked. “I could order pizza.”

Natasha shrugged. “That's an unfair question,” she said casually. “Steve's always hungry.”

Steve coughed and his cheeks took on a slightly pink hue. “I'm fine,” he said. “We ate before we came.”

Daniel shrugged. “Well, I'm hungry and there's no food in the fridge, so I may as well order an extra large pizza. It's better value anyway. And I highly doubt you've been able to eat the way you'd like to on the journey down: attractive young blond who looks like either a body-builder or a marine and eats twice eats his weight in food would be a bit memorable with wait staff at restaurants.”

Steve's blush deepened. “We ordered at drive-thrus,” he muttered.

Daniel chuckled as he grabbed the menu from the top of his fridge and dialled the delivery number. Once he'd placed his order and put the menu back, he caught sight of something under his kitchen table. He pushed one of the chairs to the side and crouched down to grab the nondescript paper bag he found. It crinkled in his hand, the smell of chocolate and walnuts wafting out when he opened it.

Daniel smiled and stood, placing the bag onto the table as he carefully piled the cookies next to it to see what Sam had managed to get him this time. He'd talked to her the night after leaving Stark Tower and explained his plans, because he'd needed her help with some of the logistics. She hadn't exactly been happy about it, but Daniel knew that was at least partially because she couldn't come with him. And partially because of the regulations they were breaking: she would always be an army brat at heart and no matter how good the reason, going against orders would never sit well with her.

“What's that?” he heard Steve ask.

Daniel looked up. “Chocolate walnut cookies,” he said.

“You keep cookies under the table?” Natasha asked with a raised eyebrow.

Daniel chuckled. “Ah, well, I didn't put them there.” He took a small stack of cookies and handed it to Steve. “Here, have some.” He then took one for himself and bit into it, savouring the gooey chocolate heaven with added nutty crunch.

Taking away the cookies revealed a red plastic bag. Daniel took it out and looked inside. He grinned and immediately put the bag down in order to grab his cellphone and text Sam.

Sam you're spoiling me with all these cookies. Seriously, where do you find the time to bake them? Thank you! :)

Sam's reply arrived only moments later.

Lol, you're welcome! They're from my emergency freezer stash. Good luck tomorrow.

Thanks. You too.

He put the phone down and looked back to Steve and Natasha, who were examining the wristband that had been in the red bag. “This isn't a cookie,” Natasha commented.

“Admittedly the cookies were a disguise.” Daniel held his hand out for the wristband. Natasha hesitated for a moment before handing it over to him. “This–“ he said as he slipped it into place around his wrist, “–is going to help one of you sneak into Cheyenne Mountain with me tomorrow morning.”

He could see the questions on the tip of their tongues but instead of answering, he simply turned the device on. By the way they both jumped after it activated, he assumed it had worked.

“Daniel, are you there?” Steve asked, stepping forward and carefully waving his hand in Daniel's direction.

Natasha wasn't nearly as careful when she stepped forward, crowding right in front of Daniel. Her hand went through him and Daniel resisted the urge to backpedal. He'd done this before – twice – he knew nothing they did could hurt him until he turned the device off. Natasha walked forward, arms slightly outstretched, sharp eyes looking into every hidden corner, into every shadow, ears listening for the slightest noise, the shallowest breath. He was getting a second glimpse of the Black Widow, Daniel realized.

He also realized that people walking through you never stopped being weird.

Steve took several steps backwards and seemed to do the same although he held his arms out a bit further, as though preparing to grapple. He slowly made his way to the edge of the kitchen and then turned to meet Natasha's eyes. Daniel suddenly felt incredibly glad to have them as allies rather than enemies. Neither spoke a word as they began circling the room, meeting in the middle.

Daniel waited until Steve had just walked past him to turn off the device. First he glanced to his feet to make sure nothing unexpected had come back with him, but the floor was clear. He felt the displacement of air as Steve whirled around.

“Woah,” he exclaimed in surprise.

Daniel looked up and smiled at the shocked expression on Steve's face. There was something immensely satisfying about surprising Captain America.

“That's a pretty impressive cloak,” said Natasha, not bothering to hide the sparkle of excitement in her eyes.

Daniel grinned. “It's not really a cloak,” he said. “It phases you into a parallel dimension, but one that's only slightly out of phase with ours. So you can see into this dimension, but you're just enough out of phase with it that nothing in this dimension can touch you and nothing you do can affect it.”

“Now that sounds like something I'd expect to find in the future,” said Steve with a wide, excited grin.

Natasha snorted. “Fury would offer his second eye in exchange for a couple of these.”

“Assuming Tony didn't beat him to it,” Steve added.

Daniel laughed. “I think I could solve that problem. Fury could have the wristbands and Tony could play with the device that shifts you into a parallel dimension without the need for them.”

“Seriously?” said Steve.

“Yep,” said Daniel. “Actually, there's probably any number of things we could distract Tony with so that'd hardly be a problem. And most labs have their own coffeemakers, so we'd probably never see him again. And that's assuming we could get him away from the gate in the first place.”

Steve laughed and even Natasha let her lips form a small smile. They both disappeared into Daniel's bedroom when the pizza arrived.

 


 

“Nice digs,” said Clint as he walked up the ramp of the Bus, bow in one hand and a quiver of arrows slung over his shoulder.

“Thank you, it was gift from Fury,” said Coulson blandly. “And I've had Mac rig all the ventilation shafts with electric grates, so don't even try it.”

Clint grinned. “Aw, you're such a spoilsport.”

Coulson managed not to roll his eyes, but Clint could tell the temptation was there. Mission accomplished. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye and rolled his neck as he adjusted the quiver on his back. There was a figure in the shadows: Melinda May.

“The others not back yet?” Coulson asked.

“We were going to just meet up here,” said Clint with a shrug. He noticed others coming out from the labs and from down the corridors. “And hey, I don't think I've met some of these people. They all yours?”

A lean man with a brown beard snorted. “Uh, I'm not,” he said and Clint made note of the British accent.

“So you keep saying,” said Skye from where she was leaning against the railing. “And yet you're still here.” The man glared at her, but she ignored him, instead waving to Clint with a smile. “Hey Clint, you guys get here okay?”

“Hey Skye! Yeah, got in this morning. Didn't look like there was anyone following us, so we did some hiking, scoped out the mountain and bought supplies.”

Bootfalls coming up the ramp behind him had him turning around. It was Sam, looking relaxed... and slightly drunk if the slight tilt in his posture was any indication. Clint snickered.

“Hey, flyboy, how was the reunions with your buddies?” he called down.

“It was good to see them again,” said Sam. “They weren't much help, mind you, but Wettlaufer might be in training for Daniel's project, 'cause he said he was in some sort of special training that was super exciting and that I should come back to the service, that he'd put a good word in for me and it would be awesome and sort of a lot scary. And Heston's getting married. To a woman. Whose name is... Irene or Iris or something...” He looked thoughtful for a moment and then his eyes lit up. “Heather! Her name's Heather!”

“Good job, man,” said Clint. “Why don't you come sit down and one of Coulson's minions will get you some water. Pretty sure the last thing you'll wanna be tomorrow is hungover.”

An hour later, Sam was much more sober and Cap finally came climbing up the ramp.

“About time!” Clint called to him from the steps he and Sam had settled onto. “What took you guys so long? Also, where'd you leave Natasha?”

“Sorry, Daniel ordered pizza and we sort of lost track of time,” said Steve. “And I have no idea where Natasha is.”

“What do you mean you have no idea where Natasha is?” said Sam. “Did you guys get attacked?”

“Naw, we're both fine.”

Clint's eyes narrowed. Something wasn't right. Steve wasn't nearly this nonchalant when one of them went missing. He was the worst sort of mother hen when it came to his team. Something brushed against his ear.

“Boo.”

Clint jumped away instinctively, startled by the sudden appearance of someone at his back. Unfortunately, he misjudged the width of the step below him and slipped on the smooth metal with a squawk, waving his arms for balance, before crashing to the ground in an undignified heap. There was a moment of stunned silence before the Bus erupted with laughter. Clint groaned and stayed where he was for a moment.

Suddenly there was an amused-looking face framed with red hair looking down at him. She was joined by a worried-looking Steve.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, I'm good Cap. Nothing bruised or broken but my dignity. Well, there might be a few bruises, but nothing serious.” Then he turned to Natasha. “How the fuck did you get there?”

Natasha smirked and brought her hand up to touch a button on the weird wristband thing she was wearing. And then she was gone.

Clint shot up, his arm reaching out to grab her... but all he caught was air. He scanned the area. A hand came to rest on his shoulder and he looked up into Steve's laughing eyes.

“Don't bother looking, you won't find her,” he said.

“Wow, that's amazing!” said Skye. “I didn't think anyone had a personal cloaking device like that.”

“Neither did I,” said Coulson, unable to keep the stunned look entirely off his face.

“Yeah, except I'm not getting any heat signatures,” said a deep voice. Clint looked up to the large bald engineer. Mac was holding a tablet in his hands and poking at it.

“Because she's not in this dimension,” said Steve. “According to Daniel, the device phases you out of this dimension into another one that's so close to this one that you can see it, but no one can see you or touch you.”

Suddenly Natasha appeared beside Steve again. “This is how Steve's breaking into the mountain,” she said.

“Steve? Why Steve?” Sam asked, eyeing the wristband with excitement.

“Because the two of us are our close-quarters combat specialists and, of the two of us, which one would you rather being flying down from the quinjet?”

Sam made a face. “Yeah, okay, good point.”

“Uh, do you mind if I take a look at it?” Mac asked and Clint had to grin at the man's awed expression.

Steve shrugged. “Sure, I guess. Just remember we're gonna need it in one piece and working for tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, yeah, for sure. I'll just run some scans and maybe take a peek at the gears and wiring. Maybe build it a shrine to it while I'm at it...”

Natasha undid the wristband's clasp and handed it to Mac, who took it with such delicate care that it might as well have been made of crystal.

“Hey Fitz, buddy, wanna help me with some scans?” he called up towards the lab. A young man with curly hair came to the lab door just as Mac walked in, still holding the wristband reverently in front of him. They disappeared into the depths of the lab.

“He'll probably be up all night with that,” Coulson commented.

“It's just a glimpse too,” said Steve and they all turned to him. “According to Daniel it's sort of what his friend Sam's working on right now as part of Earth's defence. She's trying to alter the scope of a device that does something similar and create a pocket dimension big enough to cover the entire planet.”

Clint stared up at Steve.

“That's insane,” said Skye with bulging eyes.

“If it works it'll be even more insane,” said Coulson. “Also quite brilliant.”

“Until one of the alien space ships decides to fly through the planet,” said Natasha. “Then it'll be mass panic.”

 


 

The sun hadn't even begun to peek over the horizon when Steve snuck into Daniel's apartment again. This time the climb was easier because he knew where he was going. The bedroom was empty when he climbed in through the window, but he could hear a shower running further down the hall.

He considered waiting for Daniel in his bedroom, but then decided he didn't want to give the man too much of a shock first thing in the morning. So instead he left the window open to announce his presence and went into the kitchen to make coffee. It had just finished brewing when Daniel shuffled in, dressed but bleary-eyed.

Steve handed him a mug of coffee.

“Aah, a considerate home invader,” said Daniel, inhaling the coffee's aroma with a happy smile. “You can stay.”

Steve laughed and took a sip of his own coffee, savouring the warmth. He watched as Daniel demonstrated Tony Stark-levels of heat tolerance and took mere minutes to gulp down his coffee. He drank his second cup much more slowly, enjoying the taste.

“You gonna have food with your breakfast?” Steve asked.

“No food, remember,” said Daniel, waving a hand towards his empty fridge (the few condiments Steve had spied there yesterday wouldn't have made a meal even for the most creative cook). “There's a little bakery I can drive by and pick up something to eat. I should also get some power bars... can't quite remember what was left of my stash at the office. Chocolate too, probably.”

Steve blinked. “Chocolate?”

Daniel nodded, his expression completely serious. “It doubles as a potential thing to trade with locals for real food, or as a peace offering.” He shrugged. “I've learnt that the oddest things come in handy when you least expect them to. Extra lighters are useful too.”

Steve nodded, trying to maintain a semblance of professionalism despite the child inside his mind – the one who'd been too sick to join the other children in their games, who'd spent days in bed with nothing to do but draw and read, and dream – bouncing with excitement as he finally got his wish, his own fantastic adventure. Not that becoming Captain America hadn't been an adventure, but the best thing for the longest time had been his ability to run without his heart and lungs squeezing in protest, to be able to breathe even on hot, muggy days, to be able to see colours (the artist in him had delighted in the spectacular palate he hadn't realized existed). Then there had been the War Bonds tour, which had made him feel empty and hollow – a fraud.

And then there'd been the war, and no matter what books and movies tried to say, there was nothing glamorous about war. He'd done what had been asked of him, done his duty. He'd never thought of himself as a hero.

Waking up in the future should've been an adventure; it was the sort of thing science fiction novels were made of, after all. But the excitement had been muted by grief, by realizing that he had no one to share the adventure with. Not at first, anyway. Now he had a team, friends, and he was going to another planet in order to save the world. It was like a medieval quest and a science fiction novel thrown into one story.

“You know, it's okay to be both excited and nervous.”

Steve started from his thoughts and looked up to Daniel, who was looking at him over his coffee mug with an amused smile. There was as much understanding in the smile as there was amusement, however.

“I suppose that's a normal reaction,” said Steve sheepishly.

Daniel grinned. “Oh yeah. This might be just another day at the office for me, but I still remember that first time I went through... and really the first year of missions once the SGC actually got going for real. I think it's even worse for the hard scientists who understand what the Gate does. Just remember not to breath in before going through and to walk normally.”

Steve nodded. “I'll try and remember that.”

Daniel finished his coffee and placed the mug next to the sink. “So, we should probably get going. It's Saturday, so there won't be as many people at the base, but we should still aim to get there before the day shift does.”

“Why exactly is your vacation ending on a Saturday?” Steve asked.

Daniel just shrugged. “I like working on the weekends. There's less distractions and it's a great time to catch up on stuff. Which admittedly won't be nearly as bad as if the last two weeks had been full of missions, but I'm sure there'll be a bunch of reports and such for me to look through...” He trailed off, his eyes going unfocused, stunned, as though suddenly realizing those reports might never get looked at, the work on his desk never finished.

Steve gulped down the last bit of his coffee and placed the mug next to Daniel's. The clink of china on the countertop, seemed to shake Daniel out of his stupor and he headed for the door, where he picked up his satchel and went over its contents one, last time.

“Oh!” he suddenly exclaimed and ran off into his bedroom. He came back with a familiar-looking device. “Here, you take the anti-surveillance device. I suddenly realized that I have no idea if my car's bugged and I'm not taking the chance that it's the NID, who could actually call ahead to the base and have me detained. Also, after you and Natasha left last night, I remembered the Reetou Detectors, which are scanners set up at the entrance to the Gateroom and the SGC itself that can detect lifeforms moving in closely parallel dimensions. Now, I have no idea if this'll actually work, but it's the best I can think of. Otherwise, we'll just have to knock out the guards and run straight to the Gateroom before someone figures out what's going on and puts the base on lockdown.”

Steve took the device. “I take it these detectors were installed as a result of however you managed to get your hands on these wristbands?”

Daniel laughed. “Nope, actually that was a completely different mission. I can tell you on the way to the mountain if you like.”

As planned, Daniel stopped at the bakery on their way to the base, arriving just as it was opening. Steve stayed in the car, a dark grey blanket draped over his shoulders to hide his uniform from the sight of curious on-lookers. Not that there were many of those this early on a Saturday morning, but it only took one person to recognize Captain America for it to be all over the internet within minutes.

Daniel came back with a large paper bag of buns and pastries and a second, smaller plastic bag he threw onto the backseat next to his leather satchel. He handed the paper bag to Steve, silently indicated that he should help himself as he ate his own danish.

As they approached Cheyenne Mountain, Steve began to feel the familiar thrum of anticipation in his veins. His limbs felt like they were vibrating with the desire for movement, for action. He tried to calm himself by looking out the window – there was certainly a lot to look at, enough to make Steve want to take out his sketchbook.

“You have a beautiful drive to work,” he said into the silence.

Daniel snorted. “Trust me, you get far less appreciative of the view after the first time you have to navigate a snowstorm along this road.”

Steve chuckled. “I suppose.”

A few minutes later Daniel cleared his throat. “You should probably turn the armband on now,” he said. “That bend up ahead is where the first CCTV cameras are located to monitor incoming traffic.”

“You know, I don't even think SHIELD had as much security as you guys do,” said Steve, shaking his head. He reached for the controls on the wristband. “Well, I guess I'll see you in your office, Daniel.”

“Good luck, Steve.”

“You too.”

The most remarkable about the wristband was how the only indication it had done anything was a slight tingling sensation that enveloped the area around the band for a few seconds. And yet he'd phased into a parallel dimension. He looked up, wondering if the quinjet was in position yet. A glance at the clock told him that no, probably not, since they weren't due to take off for another twenty minutes and they would've let him know if they'd been compromised.

Daniel flashed his ID at the security guard by the front gate, asking the young man about his wife as he signed the ledger. Steve grinned as the soldier suddenly stood a little straighter, proudly answering that his wife was recovering just fine and their daughter, Julie, was healthy as any newborn could be and looked just like her mother. Daniel congratulated him and then drove off to park.

Steve made note of the cameras on the door and watched as Daniel walked through the metal detector at the security checkpoint inside. The guards stationed here seemed less friendly and Daniel was polite, but not personable. One of them raised an eyebrow at the contents of the red plastic bag.

“My stash ran dry,” said Daniel with a shrug and the guard merely rolled his eyes, muttering something rather uncomplimentary about scientists. Steve couldn't tell if Daniel had heard him.

After getting through the scan, Daniel veered away from the wall of elevators most people were heading and down a short hallway that a second set of elevators.

“Doctor Jackson!”

Steve turned to watch a woman quickly walked towards them, her long straight dark hair tied into a ponytail at the nape of her neck. She smiled at Daniel.

“Thought it was you,” she said. “Welcome back, I hear your vacation got a bit exciting.”

“Thanks,” said Daniel with a friendly smile. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.” He paused and smirked. “So, who won the pool on that one?”

The woman raised an eyebrow. “I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about.” A sly smile edged its way across her face. “But Lieutenant Avery looked a little too happy the day after your misadventure.”

“Of course it was SG-3.”

“Well, if it helps, there were a lot of marines moping around the place that day, so he kinda stuck out.”

“I'm so sorry to disappoint. Next time I'll ask the Avengers to be less efficient because my own marines want a chance to play dashing knights. And before you even say it, yes, the paramedics checked me out at the scene, gave me a clean bill of health except for some mild bruising, so no I don't need to come see you in the infirmary where you can poke and prod at me.”

“And the nurses were so looking forward to seeing you again. I'm pretty sure I saw Nurse Clark polishing her favourite needle.”

Steve chuckled as Daniel shivered.

“Well, you're due for your antihistamine shot, so tough luck; you'll be seeing me anyway,” she said.

“Sure thing, Doctor Lam.”

The doctor was eyeing Daniel suspiciously when the elevator door opened. Daniel smiled innocently as he motioned to her to precede him.

To yet another security checkpoint. This one had two guards: one sitting at a desk with a ledger which Daniel signed into and a second standing next to him, visibly armed with a semi-automatic rifle. It seemed too simple, until Steve's sharp eyes took in the thick rubber mat just in front of the desk. It had SGC printed on it, with a bouquet of international flags below it and some sort of symbol arched above it. At least it looked like it was supposed to be a symbol even if Steve didn't recognize it: an inverted 'V' with a circle at its tip.

It was an odd place for a welcome mat. Steve was guessing a weight sensor. He looked to either side of the short corridor... yup, motion sensors. They were well-hidden and an untrained eye probably wouldn't have found them at all.

Once he'd signed in, Daniel walked with the doctor into another elevator and they began to head down. And down. Steve looked at the keypad and whistled. None of the floors were labelled, but there sure were a lot of them. Finally, the elevator door opened and Steve followed the other two into a military grey corridor that could've easily been a corridor in any military facility. Oddly enough, the only security here seemed to be a single armed guard stationed by the elevator doors, beside a phone hanging on the wall.

Daniel nodded a greeting to the guard and then paused to look up at the ceiling for a few moments, before looking to the side walls. Steve frowned and looked up. There was a row of small blue boxes stuck to the ceiling in a straight line. They had to be the Reetou detectors, as Daniel had called them. The corridor was also full of security cameras, but that wasn't exactly a surprise.

Steve took a deep breath. This was the first real hurdle. He looked at the device in his hand, double-checking that it was on. Then his muscles tensed and he ran forward, through the minuscule gap between Daniel and Doctor Lam, not knocking them over only because his body moved through them. He ran to the end of the corridor and turned, not daring to breathe as he waited for an alarm to go off, for the guard to raise her gun and aim it at him, for the phone next to her to ring.

The phone stayed silent. The alarms all stayed off. After a few minutes, Steve allowed himself to breathe again.

And realized that Daniel wasn't walking towards him. He cursed under his breath and hurried back. It took him several minutes (and one detour he was glad no one would ever find out about) to find Daniel inside the men's locker room lacing up a pair of combat boots.

They got waylaid a few times on their way to Daniel's office and Steve suddenly understood why the man had refused to specify an exact time for the group on the quinjet. There was another elevator ride and several stretches of corridors involved before Daniel finally swiped his keycard at an office door.

“Daniel!!”

Steve instinctively jumped out of the way as a figure streaked past him and launched herself onto Daniel's back. Daniel cried out in surprise and staggered under the sudden weight. It took him a moment of flailing before he regained his balance. He sighed in resignation.

“Hello, Vala,” he said, his tone flat. “What are you doing up this early on a Saturday?”

“Oh just wanted to welcome you back,” said the woman, whose arms were clasped around Daniel's shoulders while the rest of her dangled off of him like an army-green cape. Her dark hair was tied into two pony tails at the base of her head with bright pink elastics and she was grinning madly.

“Right, of course,” said Daniel, sounding entirely unconvinced as he opened the door to his office and turned on the light. He walked through, seemingly unconcerned with his passenger.

“And Cameron wanted to come see the souvenirs you brought him,” Vala added cheerfully.

“Woah there, you keep me out of this, Vala,” a male voice said from behind Steve, making him jump.

He cursed under his breath. The wristband device was throwing him off-balance, because nothing around him felt right. He might've been able to see the parallel dimension everyone else was in, but he couldn't feel anything. He suspected this was the real reason Natasha had left this part of the mission to him.

“Hey Cam,” Daniel greeted the man.

“Heya Daniel. Nice to see you back in one piece.”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “You realize that was never actually in any doubt.”

“Daniel, with you it's always in doubt.”

Steve grinned as he followed them into Daniel's office. The office wasn't a small space, but like Daniel's apartment, every single available inch had been crammed with stuff, including the large wooden worktable in the centre. Mostly books – some looked new, but many looked old, some very old, nearly ancient – but there was also a stack of scrolls, a portable chalkboard, and a plethora of artifacts including bowls, elaborately-decorated knives, figurines and a human skull made from black stone. The metal filing cabinet beside the door had a coffeemaker and several mugs sitting on top of it. In the middle of the semi-organized chaos, the computer desk looked almost out-of-place as the only sign of the modern world.

He looked back to the still-bickering trio just as Daniel reached into his satchel and took out a plain white plastic bag, handing it over his shoulder to Vala. Vala's eyes lit up and she finally let go of Daniel and slid off his back as she grabbed the package.

“Ooh, thank you!” she said, happily taking out a familiar 'I Love NY' t-shirt.

Daniel rolled his shoulders before throwing Cameron a similar white plastic bag.

“Thanks Daniel,” said Cameron with a grin before leaning against the worktable behind him. He waited for a beat. “So, what's the plan?”

Daniel froze. “What do you mean?” he asked carefully. “Plan for what?”

Cameron shrugs. “Vala said you told her you thought you might've found something.”

“Might have, yes, but does how 'might have' turn into a plan exactly?”

“'Cause you're you and we're SG1,” said Vala matter-of-factly. “And that means we're supposed to have some sort of crazy plan to save the world.”

“Can't be a full, card-carrying member of SG1 'till I've gone against orders to save the world,” Cameron agreed with a grin. “So, is there a plan?”

Daniel couldn't stop the smile that inched its way across his face. Jack, Sam and Teal'c weren't able to help, but he should've known better than to consider Cameron and Vala as anything less than dedicated.

“There's a plan,” he admitted. Then he frowned. “But it's more than just going against orders. This is going to get us in serious trouble if you come along with me.”

“Daniel, do you have any idea what the scientists are working on right now?” said Vala, looking pained. “Well I do. Because I was actually bored enough to go down to the science labs and find out. I even let Doctor Lee help me create a World of Warcraft avatar.”

Daniel chuckled and looked to Cameron. The other man simply shrugged. “Look, someone's gotta do something and if we don't then we'll be dead after the Ori get here anyway. If the army wants to throw us in jail or execute us or whatever after, then at least everyone else will be alive.”

Daniel took a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair. “It's a long shot,” he warned them. “I'm not entirely sure what we'll find... but if we find what I think we might, then it'll be worth it.”

Cameron just shrugged. “Sometimes, to win the game you've just gotta throw that Hail Mary and pray it works out.”

“Okay then,” Daniel considered his friends. “Steve, you might want to join us for this part.”

Cameron jumped as Captain America suddenly materialized next to him out of thin air.

“Guys, this is Steve. Steve, this is Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell and Vala Mal Doran.”

“Nice to meet you folks,” said Steve with a nod.

Cam was staring at Steve in awe – until he noticed the familiar wristband. He turned accusing eyes towards Daniel. Vala continued to eye Steve appreciatively. Steve watched her out of the corner of his eyes, looking increasingly uncomfortable.

“Jackson, I'm hurt,” he said. “You've been talking to Sam about this and didn't think to come to us?!”

“Sorry, wasn't sure if I could trust the SGC's phone lines.” Which was also true.

“Yeah, but–“

“Shut up, Cameron,” said Vala, snapping her eyes away from Steve's biceps (Steve's relief was obvious). “The plan, Daniel?”

“Uh, I'll have to explain most of it on the move, 'cause we've gotta go. So if you're coming, you'd better get your gear.”

Cameron hesitated for a moment and then sighed. “Aw, what the hell, this is what we do all the time too. Okay, so I take it we're headed for the Gateroom?”

“Yup.”

“And this is gonna be a bit more than a day-trip.”

“Definitely.”

“Good thing we had so much time on our hands, then. We'll meet you in the Gateroom in fifteen.”

Daniel blinked as Cam and Vala rushed out of his office. He shook his head and then looked to Steve. “Well, I guess our group just got bigger.”

Steve smiled. “They look like good people.”

“They are good people,” Daniel replied. He made a face. “Well, most of the time Vala's good people. Watch out for her, though, she's a con-artist and thief at heart.”

“I'll keep that in mind.”

“Good. And we should probably get going.”

Steve nodded to him and turned his wristband back on. Daniel grabbed his backpack from under his desk, where it sat ready with the basics. Given the amount of books and other tools of his trade he often carried with him on missions, it wasn't entirely unusual for him to keep his bag in his office and he was glad he'd decided to stash it here months ago. Now he threw in the notebook and some papers from his satchel, along with a few books, upended a box of power bars and stuffed in the bag of chocolate.

He exited his office and walked right into Doctor Lam, who immediately grabbed his arm and began rolling up his sleeve. In his surprise, Daniel didn't think to stop her.

“D-Doctor Lam–“ he stuttered.

“–I don't usually do house calls, Daniel, but if you're not going to come to me then I guess I have to come to you,” she said as she reached into the pocket of her labcoat and took out a needle. She met his eyes. “You're not going to defeat the Ori by sneezing all over them.”

His eyes widened as she slid the needle into his veins and emptied its contents. She took it out, wiped the puncture wound with an antiseptic wipe and then reached into her other pocket and took out a small bag.

“Extra bandages, morphine and antibiotics, just in case,” she said, handing it to him. “Good luck.”

Without another word, she turned and walked away, back towards the elevator that would take her to the infirmary. Daniel stared after her as she left, before shaking himself out of his stupor. He clutched the bag in his hand for a moment as panic gave way to warmth with the realization that he wasn't alone. He'd known the SGC wasn't happy with what was happening, but he'd forgotten that just because the people around him were military, didn't mean they weren't willing to help someone else go against orders.

Daniel stuffed the bag of medical supplies into his backpack and headed for the stairs. Clearly there were people who were already aware of what he was up to, so there was little point of trying to be stealthy when time was ticking away. Director Coulson said his plane had cloaking abilities, but Daniel couldn't be certain the Apollo's sensor's wouldn't see through them (not that Coulson knew about the Apollo, because Daniel hadn't come close to telling them all the SGC's secrets).

Daniel's first stop was his locker, where he took two minutes to put on his combat uniform. Cam walked into the room and threw him a handgun and a zat. He held up another zat.

“Got one for Steve too,” he said. “I'm assuming he's around somewhere?”

“I hope so,” said Daniel just before Steve materialized at the locker room entrance, where he'd clearly been watching the hallway. He caught the zat easily and examined it curiously, startling as it opened.

“It's a weapon,” said Daniel in amusement. “We'll show you how to use it later. Think you and Cameron can get rid of the guards, while I go up and get the roof open?”

Steve attacked the zat to his belt and took the shield off his back. “Sure, no problem,” he said.

“Don't worry, Daniel, we've got this,” said Cam, looking really excited by the prospect.

Daniel took a deep breath and headed up to the control room. He greeted the guards at the door, who greeted him back... until they noticed he was decked out in his field gear. But even then they weren't expecting the zat blasts. He didn't hesitate, striding into the control room and zatting the staff inside before they'd realized he was there.

“Doctor Jackson?”

Daniel whirled around at the voice behind him. Siler immediately put his hands up in surrender.

“Just wanted to remind you to take a GDO, sir,” he continued when he realized he wasn't going to get instantly shot. “And good luck.”

Daniel smiled. “Thank you, we're probably going to need it. And, I'm sorry.”

The corner of Siler's mouth twitched. “Occupational hazard, sir.”

He crumbled to the ground as the zat blast hit him. Daniel crossed the room to the safe where the GDOs were kept and found it suspiciously unlocked. He looked to Siler's still form and wondered if this was why the sergeant had been here in the first place. Deciding he didn't have time to dwell on the matter, Daniel quickly took three GDOs and then closed and locked the safe. No point in getting anyone in trouble if he didn't have to.

Daniel crossed to the control panels and entered the commands exactly as Sam had told him. After a few moments, he felt the roof above him shudder. Running to the window, Daniel looked up to see the ceiling slowly sliding apart and smiled. Then he carefully pushed the young lieutenant in front of the dialling computer out of his chair and carefully lowered him to the ground before taking his place. He entered his command code and dialled a gate address.


 

Steve's first impression of the Stargate was that it was large. And beautiful, in its own way, as it towered over the rest of the room. Clint had shown them several episodes of Wormhole Extreme, but this giant stone ring looked nothing like the one from the show. Suddenly, the room rumbled and the ceiling began to slide apart, slowly covering the stone ring in daylight.

He activated his comm. “Black Widow, Falcon, Hawkeye, this is Cap,” he said. “Plan is proceeding without a hitch. We're in the Gateroom and the roof is opening.”

“Roger that, Cap, we have a visual on the roof and are preparing to disembark.”  Steve released a breath at Natasha's voice.

“Hey, Steve,” Cam said from beside him. Steve turned to him and noticed he was looking up towards the control room window. Through the glass they could see Daniel sitting at the controls. “I'm going to assume here that you've got friends joining us?”

“Yes, there's three more.”

Steve whirled around as the Stargate came to life. It didn't look quite the same as it had on the television show, but the mechanical sound of stone moving against stone was very similar.

“And did Daniel warn you about the gate's backwash?”

“Yes, he did.”

“Ah, good then.” The plan was for Sam to wait until the wormhole had activated before flying in.

Vala ran into the room only moments before the final chevron was dialled. With a loud 'whoosh' the wormhole formed in what looked like a large splash of water. The wormhole itself looked like a calm rippling pool of the bluest water Steve had ever seen. Steve wished he could sit down with a canvas and some paints.

“Okay, that is one, cool-ass rabbit hole!” Sam exclaimed as he deposited Clint and Natasha onto the ground before landing himself.

“Sure is,” Steve agreed with a grin.

“Hey, I'm with the Air Force, why didn't I get wings?” Cameron protested, eyeing Sam's wings with envy.

“Dude, your day-job includes travelling to other planets,” said Clint. Steve nodded in agreement. “You do not get to complain.”

“And you were an F-302 pilot before that,” Daniel added as he joined them. He nodded a greeting to Sam, Natasha and Clint. Then he met Steve's eyes and must've noticed the unspoken question in them. “Those are the, uh, experimental aircraft... that might have the ability to leave the atmosphere.”

Sam and Clint goggled. Natasha looked mildly impressed. Steve's grinned widened – that sounded much neater than a flying car.

“Anyway, everyone good to go?” Cameron asked.

Steve nodded along with everyone else. Beside him, Natasha tapped her comm.

“Black Widow here, we're in and heading out,” she said.

“Well then, everyone remember the basic rules of gate travel,” said Cameron as he lead the way up the metal ramp. “Breathe normally, don't hold your breath before entering the wormhole, walk don't run – unless of course you're being shot at, or chased by vicious man-eating lion-things, or running away from meteor showers, volcanic lava, ex–“

His words got swallowed by the vertical pond with a quiet slurp. Vala walked calmly after him. Daniel looked back to give the four Avengers a reassuring smile before he, too, was swallowed by the wormhole. Clint and Natasha exchanged looks and then marched right into the wormhole without a single hesitation.

Steve heard Sam retracting his wings and looked at him. Sam smirked. “Well, here goes nothing, man,” he said. “See ya on the other side.”

Steve looked into the rippling blue wormhole and tried not to think about how much it reminded him of the ocean.

He walked into the horizon.

Chapter Text


 

Jack hung up his phone and immediately wished he was in his office. New technology was wonderful, and cellphones oh-so-handy, but there was something to be said for good old fashion receivers that you could slam down. Therapeutic even. Pressing a button just didn't do anything to satisfy that instant desire for violence; throwing cellphones got expensive real fast.

Jack sighed and ran a hand through his hair as he paced his living room floor. General Landry had been furious. Not only had he been called into the SGC on his weekend off (actually, Jack had absolutely no sympathy for that given how often his weekends had been interrupted while at the SGC), but he'd never been Daniel's biggest fan and now the archaeologist had gone and disobeyed direct orders. He and SG-1 had also made the rest of the base look like fools, which was most likely a large part of Landry's anger. Jack should've seen this coming.

If he was completely honest with himself, he had. He'd noticed the signs, seen Daniel's growing frustration. He should've realized when Daniel left Stark Tower and gone back to his hotel, that he was giving up too easily.

Once again, Jack resisted the impulse to throw his phone at the wall and dialled Area 51 instead. It rang six times.

“Hello.”

“Good morning Carter,” he said, putting all his effort into sounding chipper instead of pissed off.

“Good morning, General.”

By the sound of her voice, he hadn't succeeded.

“So I don't suppose you know where Daniel is right now?” he asked.

There was a pause. “It's Saturday... isn't he supposed to be in Colorado Springs? I think he was planning to be back at the mountain today.”

The fact that Sam Carter knew it was Saturday was suspicious at best, but not enough to call her out on.

“Oh he was in Colorado Springs all right. And showed up to work bright and early this morning too. And then he and SG1 decided to take a little unauthorized field trip through the stargate. With a group of civilians in tow.”

“With civilians, sir?”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “An interesting part to focus on, Carter. Yes, they smuggled civilians into the base: the Avengers in fact.”

There was a pause on the other end of the phone. “I thought the NID was watching the Avengers?”

Jack snorted. “Oh, they were. Unfortunately, they were paying too much attention to Stark and his fancy press conferences to realize no one had seen Captain America in three or four days.”

“Daniel had Captain America with him?! Wow. You must be pretty jealous, sir.”

And he was, he really was. But he wasn't about to admit it out loud.

“Uh uh, you're not changing the subject that easily, Colonel. Landry's not actually sure how Daniel managed to get Captain America into the base, but he got the rest of them in by opening the Gateroom ceiling. I'm kinda curious as to how he knew to do that.”

“Uh, probably from the mission reports, sir. I mean, you're aware that he read all of SG1's mission reports from his year with the Ancients, right? Remember, we had to open the Gateroom ceiling that time when the gate had been rigged to blow.”

Of course. Sometimes Jack forgot that Daniel's smarts extended beyond languages. Funny how he always told everyone else to listen to and not underestimate Daniel, and yet he never failed to be the first guilty one at the party. Like he'd assumed there wasn't anything Daniel could do with the gate was shut down.

“Right, with Jonas.” So much had happened that year. So much had happened every year since he'd joined SG1. He sighed. “So you're saying you didn't talk to Daniel while he was in New York?”

The pause that followed was likely pregnant with twins. “Well, yes, I did talk to him sir. What with the anniversary of his parents' deaths and then the attack on the Met, I wanted to make sure he was alright. And Cassie was with him.”

“Hmmm.”

Oh she knew what Daniel had been up to alright and Jack knew that if he pushed, she would eventually cave. He was her superior officer and the military mindset was too ingrained in her to allow her to directly lie to a superior officer. Side-step sure, Carter could side-step and talk around the truth with the best of them. The problem was that once the truth was acknowledged, he'd have no choice but to act on it, which would mean arresting her and holding an enquiry, taking her away from her work on the phase shield bubble thing she was working on.

No one could afford to take Carter away from her work. Doctor Lee and the others were all really smart, but Carter was the head brain for a reason. Bureaucracy would just have to wait.

“So, how's the shield coming?” he asked instead and he could practically feel the relief from the other end of the phone.

“The shield isn't the problem, sir. I've already built it once before in that alternate universe. The problem is the power requirement. In the alternate universe, the SGC had managed to reroute energy from the entire US power grid into the generator to make it work. If you'll recall I'd suggested setting up something similar several years ago, but the Joint Chiefs thought it was unnecessary and would draw too much attention to the project.”

Jack vaguely remembered that. “Right sure... and why can't we do that now?”

“It would take too much time. My alternate had calculated the approximate power requirements before she'd figured out how to make the shield work and the government and SGC had started setting up the power reroute years in advance.”

“And I take it it'll take more than a couple naquadah generators to make this work?”

“A lot more. Maybe a couple of ZPMs would do the job.”

“And we've got all of one of those, which we need for the Antarctic outpost.”

“Exactly, sir.”

“Great. I just love these odds.”

“We've had worse, sir.”

“Have we?”

“Well... they did just get better. Sir.”

Jack snorted. Of all the cheeky things to say... “Just get that shield working, Carter. We need it pronto if the info from the Tok'ra is any indication. Any resources you need, just take them. I'm giving you express permission to by-pass any and all requisition procedures.”

“Anything, sir?”

“Yes, Colonel, anything you need, it's yours. I'll make sure the guys at Area 51 know that. You have top priority except for anything that's needed for defence.”

“Understood sir. Thank you sir.”

“Bye Carter.”

He hung up and then stared at the phone, wondering how worried he should be at the barely-hidden glee in her voice. He was fairly certain he could trust her not to blow up anything too important – not when so much was at stake anyway.

He shook his head and dialled a second number. This time the phone only rang once. He wondered if his call had been expected.

“Heya, Uncle Jack!”

“Cassie, how was your flight?”

An uncertain pause. “I actually cancelled my flight last night. Decided to stay in New York a bit longer, see more of the city, you know. Plus I got offered a summer internship at Stark Industries and I'd have been stupid to say no to that.”

Jack pursed his lips unhappily. No one had been paying attention to Cassie either: they really should have. This whole thing was turning into one miss-step after another.

“So you knew Daniel was up to something.”

“What do you mean, Uncle Jack?”

“Don't you 'Uncle Jack' me!” he snapped. “Changing plans like this isn't like you and I highly doubt this internship was something you'd applied for months ago; your Aunt Sam would've been all over that. No, this has Daniel Jackson sneakiness written all over it. Especially with Tony Stark's sudden decision to release details about the new Starkpad a whole month early in that press conference this morning. Which happened to come right after his press conference last night about Stark Industry's donation to the Met, all of which Tony Stark actually showed up for in person. If Daniel thinks he's fooling anyone, he's dumber than those rocks he likes to play with!”

Cassie chuckled. “Daniel didn't need to fool you for good, Uncle Jack. He just needed to keep you and the NID off his trail until he could get to the SGC. He learnt military tactics from you after all, especially the bit about crossing bridges.”

“And I can't help but notice that you're no longer denying knowing about it,” said Jack wryly. “Pretty sure your aunt knew about it too.”

“You wish you were there with them,” said Cassie and, for a moment, Jack felt equally proud at the perceptive young woman she had grown up to be, and appalled that she saw through him so easily. “But you know why he couldn't tell you of all people, Uncle Jack. The SGC needs you here on Earth both now to co-ordinate defence and in the future as the Head of Homeworld Security. It's the same reason why Tony Stark had to stay behind: because if the worst case happens and the Ori get this far, then he'll be needed to protect people as Iron Man.”

Jack sighed. “He told you about the Ori.”

“Not a lot, but given that I was at the big 'Ding Dong, the Snakes are Dead' party, I knew it wasn't the Goa'uld who were the threat.”

“Right. That was a great party.”

“Sure was.”

“You're sure about staying in New York?”

“Uncle Jack, Colorado Springs is going to be the Ori's first target, so actually, yes, I'm pretty sure about staying in New York. I have a Hulk for a bodyguard, how could I possibly be safer?”

“If you had a Jaffa as a bodyguard,” Jack muttered, annoyed.

Cassie laughed. “Okay point, but Uncle Teal'c isn't on Earth right now, so that's not an option. Besides, if he was he'd be with SG1 in the thick of things and I'm really not sure that's safer.”

“Yeah, whatever. You take care, Cassie and if anyone tries to hurt you or... gets too frisky or something, then just let me know and I'll eject them into space. Or something.”

“Good-bye, Uncle Jack.”

“Stay safe, kiddo.”

“You too. And good luck.”

They were gonna need it, thought Jack as he hung up. His phone started ringing again almost immediately: it was General Vidrine. Fantastic.

Chapter Text


 

LOVE

If someone had asked Steve to describe the trip through the wormhole, he wouldn't have had the words. Perhaps he might've managed an impressionist painting to express how one step managed to feel like a single step and simultaneously carry the left-over sensation of having his body torn apart into its component cells and then thrown through space. There was a single, agonizing millisecond of all-encompassing cold that made him gasp and stumble as he exited.

Just ahead, he saw Sam righting himself, his journey through also not having been entirely smooth. If Clint and Natasha had lost their footing, it wasn't obvious as they calmly followed Daniel and his team, who were hurrying on towards a large mushroom-shaped stone dais at the foot of a long set of cracked and overgrown stone stairs.

Steve paused before following them and looked out, eager to get a look at this new world. A whole other planet. Except that it looked a lot like a beach; it was full of smooth, brown sand and a few rocks. Not a single seashell littered the shore, not a single brush of algae floated upon the water.

He looked up, towards the horizon. And gasped.

Really, he didn't know how he hadn't noticed sooner. Just wasn't used to looking up, he guessed. From now on, he was always looking up. When he'd imagined alien planets, he'd imaged odd-coloured plants and odd-looking creatures and maybe an extra moon or sun, but he'd never imagined a sky like this. He would never forget this sky. His fingers already itched and he just knew that no matter where they ended up spending the night, he wouldn't lay down to sleep until he'd sketched the tableau in front of him.

It was daytime, although the sun appeared to be hidden behind streaks of cloud that littered the sky in a myriad of shades from almost-white to dark gray. Two pale moons hung in the gaps between the clouds, round white ghosts in the daylight. And intruding into the rest of the sky... was another planet. It looked terrifyingly close, like it was about to come crashing into them close. He'd seen pictures of Earth from space, but this planet looked nothing like them: there were no bright blue oceans, no indications of any landmasses at all. This planet had streaks of beiges and browns, with white cloud-like streaks whirling amongst them.

The wormhole disengaged with a quiet, mechanical swish and a slight displacement of air. Steve barely registered it as he stared up at the sky. He knew it was impossible, but he felt as though the planet was inching its way closer the more he stared at it.

“I'm really kicking myself now,” he heard Sam say from beside him. “Can't believe I didn't think to bring my camera, 'cause that's just...”

“Wow,” said Steve. “I don't think there's really a better word than just 'wow'.”

“Yeah, wow's good.”

“Hey guys, hurry up and get on over here!”

They both looked down to the bottom of the steps, where Colonel Mitchell was motioning them forward. Steve exchanged a glance with Sam and hurried to join them. Clint and Natasha were standing in front of the odd stone dais next to Daniel.

“Daniel, how exactly did you decide to gate here?” Steve heard Vala ask as he approached. “Not that I have any idea where here is, so it wasn't one of our missions.”

Daniel shrugged. “This is Oannes, Nem's planet. It was the first address I thought of.”

“Woah, Nem?” Mitchell exclaimed. “You mean the fish guy, who kidnapped you and made the rest of the SG1 think you were dead?! And you thought this was a great place to revisit, why exactly?”

“Unless we attack, I'm reasonably sure Nem will leave us alone,” said Daniel calmly. “He only took me because I demonstrated a basic knowledge of Mesopotamian and he wanted to find out what happened to his mate.”

“Why did he think you would know?” Vala asked.

“Because she had been on Earth fighting against the Goa'uld in Mesopotamia. And he sort of figured if I knew Mesopotamian, I might know the history and therefore her story.”

“Oh. And did you?”

“Eventually.”

Steve came to stand next to Daniel and blinked in amazement at the dais. Now that he could see it from the front, he realized it had symbols carved into it in a circle surrounding a large glass half-sphere. And then Daniel reached out and pressed down onto one of the symbols and Steve's eyes widened as the symbol depressed and lit up. At the top of the steps, the inner circle of the Stargate began to spin.

“Wow, okay, that's – what are you doing?” Clint asked, his eyes darting from the dais – or, well, controlling device he supposed – and the moving gate.

“Look, I'll explain later,” said Daniel. “This gate address is logged in the SGC's computer systems as the last address dialled, which means they can track us here. And I want to be long gone by the time they muster up a team to follow us. Assuming they get the orders to do so.”

“Is there a reason they wouldn't?” Natasha asked.

Daniel shrugged. “Because for anyone familiar with gate travel, this is obvious. You can figure out the last dialled address from the DHD crystals, but that takes time and the SGC is still under orders forbidding the use of the Stargate. Jack will know right away that we didn't stay on whatever planet we gated to – especially since it's this one. Official death number two, in case you were wondering.”

He pressed down on the half-sphere with his entire hand and a wormhole formed with a side-ways splash of silent water.

“Alright, let's move out,” said Mitchell.

“Uh, Daniel?” Clint suddenly asked. Steve stopped at the tone of Clint's voice and turned around to see the archer looking out over the ocean.

“Yes?” Daniel asked.

Clint pointed out into the open sea. “Is that your fishy friend?”

Daniel followed Clint's gaze and smiled slightly. Steve looked as well, almost instantly spotting the dark shape bobbing in the water. From the distance, it was difficult to see any of its features clearly, but he could just barely make out the blue-ish skin and hairless head with what were possibly tentacles growing out like a squiggly beard. When Daniel waved at it, the hand that waved back was definitely webbed.

“Yeah, that's Nem,” said Daniel quietly. Then he took a deep breath and turned around, heading back towards the gate.

“So, what happened to his mate?” Steve asked as they walked up the steps.

Daniel's face darkened. “Nothing good.”

Steve stumbled again as he stepped through the Stargate, although this time it was due to the blinding wind that swept leaves and rain into his face and pushed him backwards with its force. To his left, he heard Clint shriek in surprise at the sudden onslaught. He was fairly certain none of their uniforms were waterproof enough to withstand this weather.

“Dammit, Jackson, where's that DHD?!” Mitchell yelled somewhere ahead of him.

“I think it's in the middle of that clump of trees!” Daniel yelled back.

“Not helpful! In case you hadn't noticed, we're surrounded by clumps of trees and I can barely see any-ow, shit!”

Steve managed to peer through the deluge of water being poured over them and saw the outline of what was probably Colonel Mitchell hopping on one leg as he leaned against some sort of stone statue (although it was rather tall and straight, so maybe it was a decorative column... it was difficult to tell in the rain) and rubbed his shin. Vala walked up to him.

“You alright?” she asked loudly enough to be heard over the wind.

“Yup, just dandy. Having warm fuzzy feelings towards the MALPs right about now.”

She nodded as though in agreement.

“Is everyone clear of the gate?” Daniel yelled.

After they'd all called off one by one that they were clear, the gate began to light up, the sound barely audible over the wind. When the wormhole whooshed into being, the wavy blue light was like a beacon in the storm, beckoning them forward. They gladly answered.

And staggered out on the other side, their waterlogged clothing heavy and clinging to their skin uncomfortably. Their boots squished and squeaked as they stumbled down a set of stone stairs – these much smoother and less weather-worn than those on the beach planet. Smooth tile floor met them at the bottom.

Natasha brushed wet hair out of her eyes and looked around. They were inside a room, probably part of a much bigger complex if the multitude of corridors branching off were any indication. Her eyes darted around, watching for movement and taking note of every corner and hiding place, even as she paused at the bottom of the steps to wring as much water out of her hair as she could. There was no furniture that she could see, no rugs, no paintings, nothing that would indicate anyone had ever been here. What surfaces there were, were covered in a thick layer of dust. The building was at least warm for which she was grateful.

“Uh, sorry everyone,” said Daniel after he'd come through. Natasha turned just as the wormhole vanished behind him, wondering how it knew to do that. He grimaced. “I'd forgotten about the wicked monsoon season on that planet. On the plus side, it'll make it that much more difficult for anyone following behind us.”

Natasha nodded. Setting up equipment in that storm would not be easy.

“What is this place?” Clint asked, seemingly unbothered by his wet clothes as he leapt onto a ledge and peeked through the ornate grating in the wall.

“An abandoned Goa'uld pleasure palace,” said Daniel. He shrugged. “Sorry, these aren't the most exciting planets to visit, but I'm trying to pick ones that wouldn't have attracted the attention of the Ori.”

“No, we get that,” Sam told him. “Don't exactly want to come across the evil dudes before we're ready for them. Though I would've expected a pleasure palace to look a bit more comfortable and inviting...”

“The Goa'uld wouldn't have left anything valuable behind,” Vala scoffed. She was frowning. “This looks like a slightly different design to the ones I've been to. Qetesh enjoyed them enough, although it involved being around the other System Lords, so she didn't generally go often.”

Natasha frowned. “Who are the Goa'uld?” she asked. The name didn't sound familiar.

“Parasitic aliens that used to rule over this galaxy by setting themselves up as gods in order to enslave the human populations,” Daniel answered. “You'd be amazed at how many Earth gods were actually Goa'uld.”

Natasha watched as Daniel went to the stone dais. Once there he paused and bit his lip. “Actually, this is probably a good place for a crash course in gate travel. So you're not stuck in case we ever get divided.”

He stood back and waved his arms to encase the dais. “This is a DHD, which is an acronym for Dial Home Device – you can thank Jack O'Neill for that one by the way. It's like the keypad for a phone: enter an address and it'll connect you to the gate you've dialled. Each address has seven chevrons...”

It didn't take him long to go over basic gate operations and he showed them the address to Earth. Then he cursed and dug his hand into his pocket, pulling out several small devices. He threw one to Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell, who caught it and then nodded approvingly before tucking it away into his flack vest. Daniel tucked a second into his own pocket and then looked to them thoughtfully with the third. After a moment he handed it to Steve.

“Here,” he said. “I'll let you guys decide who wants to keep this. It's called a GDO. See we installed an iris on the Earth Stargate to prevent any unwanted visitors from coming through. It's basically a metal barrier that covers the event horizon of any in-coming wormhole and prevents anything from materializing on our end of the gate.”

“Basically, you go splat... only without the disgusting splatter mark,” Mitchell added helpfully.

“Efficient,” said Natasha and then nodded towards the device Steve was holding. “I'm assuming this sends a signal ahead to let the base know you're friendly?”

Daniel nodded. “Yeah, but you have to input a code. I'll give you SG1's code, which may or may not be active after today, but I'd like to think they'd let us come back even if only to arrest us.”

“If they choose not to, then we'll at least never know,” Clint pointed out. Natasha looked up meet his eyes over the top of the DHD. He shrugged at her. “It's not a bad way to go, all things considered.”

She let the corner of her lips quirk slightly in amusement. Yes, there were certainly worse ways to die.

“You'll know before you walk through the gate,” said Daniel, as he looked between the two of them uncomfortably. “If the iris is down, the little light here will shine red. Once the iris has opened, a signal is sent through the gate and the light will turn green.”

“Green for go, sounds simple enough,” Sam commented.

Daniel nodded. “Good. I'm thinking one more pit-stop before we stop for the day and dry off.”

“Just so long as you don't hit the winter season on the next stop,” said Clint. Off to the left, Natasha saw Steve wincing.

Daniel looked apologetic. “Can't promise anything, sorry. I don't really know anything about the seasons on this next planet.”

They stood by and watched as he dialled the next planet. Once the wormhole formed, they squelched their way up the steps and walked through.

Sam felt very proud of himself for not stumbling this time as he exited the gate. Even that weird antsy feeling he'd gotten the first time had gone. He knew that sometime later tonight it would hit him that after spending his entire life on the same planet (as people generally did), he'd suddenly travelled to four different planets within the course of less than an hour. And it would be five by the time they were done. Crazy: it was absolutely insane.

And really, really cool. Cooler than Star Trek.

There might not have been any strange plants and animals on these planets, or little green men in flying saucers, but that purple sky he was looking at sort of made up for it.

“Hey, does this white gravel road lead to anywhere interesting?” Clint asked. “I mean it sure looks like civilization to me.”

Daniel paused to look into the distance and Sam studied the look on his face. Wherever they were, the archaeologist clearly had mixed feelings about the place. There was pain in his eyes – grief – but there was also wistfulness and a strange sort of serenity. It was a really beautiful place – out of the corner of his eyes he could see Steve's hand twitching in that way it did when he wanted to forget everything and just drag his sketchbook out and draw what was in front of him. The white gravel road they were standing on led into a forest in the distance and behind them, he could hear the gentle lapping of waves against the shore.

“It leads to a temple,” Daniel finally answered. “This planet is a rumour, a legend of the Jaffa warriors; a place where they travelled to find their final resting place. It's where I first met an Ancient named Oma Desala.”

“Shit,” he heard the air force colonel swear under his breath. “What exactly is this, the Daniel Jackson tour of painful memories? Jesus, this is Kheb isn't it?”

“Kheb?!” Vala gasped, clearly startled. She looked around with wide eyes, before glaring at Daniel and hissing between her teeth: “You never said you'd been to Kheb!”

Daniel blinked and looked at her. “It was before your time. Jack, Sam, Teal'c and I came here to find my- to find Sha're's child.”

Vala blinked and frowned. “Your wife had a child? I've heard of you having a child.”

“I let Oma take him. I... I couldn't care for him.”

“Why?” Vala looked genuinely puzzled, and from everything Sam had observed about Daniel, he didn't seem like the type of man to abandon a child or walk away from the hardship of raising one.

Daniel took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “He was a harcesis,” he said quietly.

Vala's eyes widened and for a moment, she looked truly stunned. “A harcesis... Apophis and Ammunet had a harcesis. That's...”

“Yeah.”

Sam exchanged looks with Steve and the other Avengers. That was the second mention of a wife, but according to all official records, Daniel Jackson had never married. Unless... aw man, he supposed marriage certificates from other planets didn't get registered on Earth, did they? There was a story there, he instinctively knew. And just as instinctively, he knew by the grief in Daniel's eyes it was a tragedy.

Daniel broke the spell of silence that had descended on the group himself with a shake of his head before walking over to the DHD to dial their final destination for the day. He'd spent long hours in his hotel room trying to figure out the best, safest planets to gate to, wracked his brain for the best choices to bunk for the night. Because the their end goal was a planet that was a complete unknown and Daniel wasn't sure that going there directly with a group of people who knew next to nothing about the Milky Way and gate travel was such a great idea. He'd given them a brief explanation on PX8 499, but that barely touched the surface.

Before they moved on, they needed to get their bearings and the rest of his team needed to know the plan. Really, the choice of where to settle down for the night was obvious once he'd thought of it. So he dialled the gate and then ran ahead of the group, making sure to be the first one through.

The other end of the wormhole revealed a forest with a rough dirt path leading away from the gate. The area looked deserted except for chirping, rustling and buzzing of the forest. But Daniel knew better than to be fooled by appearances. He walked forward slowly, taking care not to make any sudden movements. Behind him, he heard the others exit the wormhole one by one. When he reached the centre of the clearing, he made a point of unhooking his zat from his belt and unholstering his handgun. He dropped both to the ground.

“Uh, what's he doing?” he heard someone whisper. He thought it might've been Sam.

Daniel ignored them as he spread his arms wide to show to his invisible observers that he wasn't holding any weapons.

“I'm Daniel,” he called out into the trees. “I'm here to see your leader; I'm his friend.” He paused. “Te a Zo Chaka ka nay Daniel.”

Around him the forest was silent for several agonizing moments. Then several trees rustled and four large, armed unas slid to the ground. Daniel let out the breath he was holding.


 

Several hours later, they were comfortably seated at a simple yet sturdy wooden table laden with what looked like a small feast and Clint couldn't help his fidgeting as he waited for Daniel to join them. He was willing to let the archaeologist keep his secrets about the first three planets they'd visited, but this one needed a story pronto.

Clint hadn't known there was anyone in the trees, until they'd dropped out of them. His jaw had followed, because these aliens were big and mean-looking and looked like they would lumber along not sneak. The clothes they were wearing looked like they could've come from the American Wild West right down to the shot guns a few of them carried. He couldn't help but wonder if Daniel had known the guards would be there.

“They're Unas,” Cam said quietly to the Avengers as they watched the archaeologist stumble through a conversation with one of the aliens. “Daniel's the most fluent in the language of anyone on base. He's usually the one who handles any negotiations with them.”

“But if this is somewhere that you guys negotiate with often, then wouldn't this be one of the first places the SGC will look?” Steve asked.

Cam snorted. “Cap, it'd take them months to get through all the places where Daniel handles negotiations. There are people who won't talk to anyone else but Daniel. The guy's pulled off miracles – point in case here actually. The reason we're here, I think, is because their leader is Daniel's friend first, ally of Earth second.”

Their leader was an especially large specimen, who was waiting for them at the edge of the village and smiled widely, exclaiming “Dannel!” loudly before darting forward and enveloping Daniel in a bear-hug. When he finally pulled back it was to grab an amused-looking Daniel by the arm and drag him further into the village.

The reactions they'd received walking through the village were... varied. Interestingly enough, the unas seemed curious and even excited to see them – a lot of them seemed to recognize Daniel, or at least the symbol on his uniform. Many of them were shy, hesitant about their interest; they looked up from the corner of their eyes, hunched in on themselves as though attempting to look smaller, to avoid notice. The humans, however, looked at them with expressions ranging from curiosity to contempt. And anger. Hatred.

Hawkeye gripped his bow tighter and looked to Black Widow, catching her eye. She blinked at him in acknowledgement and then casually inched her way towards Daniel.

First they were taken to a small hut, where they were given some dry clothes and a clothesline where they could hang their wet clothes to dry. Then they got the grand tour of what looked like a new construction in the village, which seemed to include a school and a sports field. Loud shots rang through the air, startling the group. It turned out to be nothing more than a group of young men (all human) doing target practise. Which was just too much for Clint to resist. Notching an arrow from where he stood, he carefully aimed and let his arrow fly. It, of course, hit dead centre.

He spent the next hour gathering a small crowd as he showed off. It didn't escape his notice that the crowd started off as all-human and only gradually began to contain some unas. Not that they hadn't been watching, but it had taken them a while to come closer.

Clint could spend hours on the range and likely would've stayed longer had one of his arrows not been interrupted half-way to the target by a round flat spinning object.

“Aw, come on, no fair Cap,” he complained loudly before turning to find Steve surrounded by children and grinning mischievously.

His group had small humans as well as small unas. A dozen or so faces watched in amazement as the shield ricocheted off trees and the wall of a house and then sailed smoothly into Cap's waiting hand. A dozen or so voices cheered.

“Who said anything about fair?” Steve called back.

The sky was beginning to fall to twilight when Daniel's unas friend, Chaka, showed them to a small cottage and presented them with the feast. Then he nudged Daniel out the door again, looking endearingly eager to show him something. Like a pitbull puppy: all happy smiles full of strong, sharp teeth.

“Okay, do you guys realize it's actually only about three in the afternoon?” Sam broke the silence, staring at his watch in amazement. “I thought it felt a bit early for dinner.”

“Yeah, gate-lag can be a real bitch,” said Cam. “It's like jet-lag on steroids. Can't remember how often we leave a planet in the morning on a bright warm sunny day only to arrive back and realize it's the middle of the night and snowing. And that's not even going into how weird it is to get used to a planet with a different cycle, like thirty-hour days.”

“How long are your missions usually?” Sam asked.

Cam shrugged. “Depends on whether we find anything useful. SG1's a first contact team, so our missions are shorter ones, anywhere from one day to a week. Our job is to scope out a planet and assess if there's anything worth sending a long-term team in for. Trust me, some missions are really boring.”

“Especially when they're for Daniel,” Vala added. “There's never anything to do when you're stuck on a planet while he translates rocks. Come to think of it, the science ones aren't much better.”

Just then Cam stood and went to the window, nudging the linen drape to the side and peeking out. After a few moments of observation, he let it go and retook his seat.

“Something the matter?” Steve asked.

Cam sighed. “Not really, but I figured I should warn you about working with Daniel.”

Clint felt as Natasha and Steve both froze at that. “Warn us?” Natasha asked carefully. There was a deep undercurrent of 'explain now or else' in her voice.

“Now, don't get me wrong, Daniel's awesome and he's been doing this for longer than just about anyone...” Cam trailed off. Then he shrugged. “But you should know a few things about him. First of all, he really is just as smart as everyone says he is. And he's usually right. Secondly, he's more or less the best diplomat in the galaxy, and his instinct about people are generally excellent. But he's got the self-preservation instincts of an alcoholic lemming.”

Clint blinked. “Wow, so not even just a regular lemming, but an alcoholic one.”

Cam and Vala both nodded solemnly.

“And he's a trouble-magnet,” Cam added.

“Oh, so that museum attack was his fault?” Sam asked after a pause. “You couldn't have told us that before we agreed to follow him through a wormhole.”

Vala rolled her eyes. “We didn't exactly invite you along.”

The door opened and they fell silent. Daniel walked in, looking happy.

“So, what did Chaka want?” Cam asked him.

“Hm?” Daniel looked up at him and blinked. “Oh, he wanted to introduce me to his wife. At least I think that's what the word 'zoka' roughly translates as.”

“He got married? Good for him.”

“Yeah, whatever, we can get back to that,” Clint dismissed. He really didn't care about some alien's love life. “More to the point what's up with this planet?”

“You noticed it too?” Steve asked. “The children didn't seem as bad, but the adults seemed to have a really hard time mixing.”

“Okay so it wasn't just me they were staring at?” said Sam. “'Cause I couldn't help but notice how disgustingly white this entire village is, so I was figuring maybe the planet's super segregated.”

“It wasn't just you,” Daniel assured him. “Up until a few years ago, this village used to practise slavery. It'll take a while for their society to integrate and see each other as equal.”

Clint's first instinct was to demand how Daniel could be friends with a former slaver, but then he paused and thought about what he'd seen in the village. How the humans had been angry to see them – resentful.

“The unas were the slaves, weren't they?” he said carefully.

Daniel nodded. “Chaka led the rebellion and caused the unas to rise up against their slavers. And then he brokered peace with the humans.”

“But he wasn't a slave,” said Natasha. “He's different than the rest.”

The corner of Daniel's mouth quirked. “No, I met Chaka on another planet, then the slavers caught him and Jack and I went after him. Turned out he did more rescuing than we did in the end and then decided to stay here instead of going home in order to lead the rebellion.”

“Cool,” said Sam with a nod. “I like these unas a bit more now. I mean makes sense it's going to take a while for them to get over it.”

“It's going to take a while from both sides. The humans were originally brought here from Earth by the Goa'uld and they were the slaves with the unas as their keepers. Then the humans rebelled and the situation reversed, with the unas being kept as slaves. It'll be rough for a while.”

“So, did you help Chaka with his rebellion?” Sam asked.

Daniel shook his head, looking amused. “No, we had to get back to Earth. I did give him the my staff weapon though.”

“So, how exactly did you and Chaka meet that you became such good friends?” Steve asked, looking curious.

Cam snickered. “Good question,” he said. “It's the type of Daniel Jackson story that legends are made of.”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “It is not. I was just in the right place – or wrong place, really – at the right time.”

“Uh, yeah, no, anyone else in your place would've been bludgeoned with a rock and eaten,” said Cam.

“How do you know all this?” Vala asked, amazed. “You've been with SG1 for as long as I have and I've even known Daniel longer, so why don't I know all these things?”

“'Cause I read through all the old mission reports.”

“Oh. Why in the world would you want to do that? Reports are boring. And they don't include the time Daniel and I had sex.”

Steve choked on the thick green liquid he was drinking.

“Mostly because that never happened,” Daniel retorted automatically.

“Aaanyway,” Sam interrupted them. “So, we setting out in the morning?”

Daniel nodded. “Yes. I figured after everything, getting an early night and some time to just talk might be a good idea since we have absolutely no idea what we might find at the gate address we're heading to. I showed you the address for Earth, but that's not going to be of any use to you if you happen to get stuck without a GDO. So I'll give you two other address for allies of ours who have GDOs and can get you to Earth. Unfortunately, the Alpha site's been abandoned, which would've been the best option since they could've easily verified who you are.”

“I feel like you're trying to tell us that this whole going boldly where no human has been before is actually really terrifying,” said Clint, thinking of the monsoon they'd accidentally walked into.

“Well, for all we know it's an Ori stronghold,” said Cam.

“Or it could've become a volcano planet,” said Vala.

“Or it froze over at some point,” Daniel suggested.

“Awesome,” said Clint. “You guys ever think of doing a comedy act? You could be the Doom Trio.”

Daniel laughed. “You laugh, but those are all things we've actually encountered.”

“Really?” said Vala. “I was actually joking with the volcano planet.”

“Well, it wasn't actually SG1 that was involved. I was with SG3 helping to evacuate the population out of the area before the volcano erupted. Then the gate malfunctioned, which was just great. We had all the villagers and their livestock ready and standing in front of the gate while getting covered in volcanic ash and the Stargate refused to connect to earth.”

“What did you do with the villagers?” Steve asked.

“We relocated them to a planet with a similar atmosphere and rich soil. There was already a settlement there, but they were happy to take in the refugees. Not only were they bringing with them seeds for a new kind of grain that was more resilient to drought-like conditions, but the settlement was small enough that inter-marriage had become a problem so they were happy for the infusion of new blood.”

“That's impressive for a military operation,” said Natasha.

“It wasn't easy, trust me,” said Daniel dryly. “I can't count the number of arguments I've had over the years with various generals, politicians and bureaucrats to keep the program from becoming exclusively about weapons hunting.”

“I tried to help too,” said Vala.

Daniel scowled at her. “That wasn't called helping.”

“But it was true. That politician only wanted to throw his weight around to make up for the small size of his penis.”

Clint burst out laughing.

Daniel groaned and cradled his head in his hands. “I am not having this conversation.”

“Did you actually say that?” Clint asked Vala.

She blinked at him. “Of course I did.”

“Ah man, you are my kind of crazy.”

She grinned and raised her glass to him. In fact all of SG1 were the Avenger's sort of crazy. Daniel's plans of an early night fell through the moment Vala discovered that one of the bottles on the table had paint-stripper levels of alcohol. At one point in time, Steve had gone and gotten his sketchbook from his bag and pauses in conversation were punctuated by the steady sound of his charcoal on paper.

Chapter Text


 

Head-throbbing drumbeats and screaming guitars blared through hidden speakers, the music so loud it nearly drowned out the high-pitched grinding squeal of the circular saw. Sparks flew out from from it as it shaved away an edge of gold-coloured metal being held down by large metal arms. Excess metal clattered to the ground and the giant arms lifted the sheet of metal they were holding, turned it, readjusted it, then set it back down and resumed cutting along some pre-programed, invisible line.

Tony Stark ignored the arms and their cutting in favour of concentrating on the small welding torch in his hands and the tiny metallic pieces he was holding in place with tongs. Finally, he leaned back and took his hands away from the joint he was working on, putting the tongs down before shutting off the welding torch. He flipped up the protective visor and leaned in to examine his work up close.

He put down the welding torch. “JARVIS, how's the cutting going?” he asked.

The music's volume lowered from eardrum piercing to merely loud.

“Is it approximately 73.4 % complete. Estimated time to completion: 12.86 minutes. Sir– “

“Good, and how are those calculations coming along?”

“The calculations you requested were completed one hour and seven minutes ago.”

Tony threw his hands up in exasperation. “Then why didn't you tell me?!”

“I did, sir. Three times.”

Tony blinked. “Oh. You're sure?”

“Positive, sir. Now, perhaps I could bring your attention to–“

“–Then what are you waiting for?” He slipped off the protective visor and tossed it haphazardly onto the workstation. “Bring it up on the screen, chop, chop! I want to see how this material stands up now that we've managed to get rid of that fuck-awful blue colour.”

A holographic screen popped into existence on Tony's left, just far enough away that he had to turn his wheeled chair around to properly see the display. His face twisted in annoyance as he reached out to grab at the screen – presumably to pull it forward.

Movement in the corner of his eyes caught his attention. He frowned and glanced towards the centre of the lab. And froze. Blinked.

“JARVIS, I hate to state the obvious, but there's a person in my lab. Why is there a person in my lab?” He paused. “No, even better: I have the best security, well, anywhere, so how is there a person in my lab?”

Tony swivelled his chair around to face the unknown person. It was a woman; she had short, blonde hair and wearing a long white labcoat and combat boots. However instead of staring around in awe, or greedily taking in whatever prototypes or scraps of blueprints he happened to have lying around, she was crouched in front of DUM-E, waving her hand slowly in front of the bot and watching with obvious fascination as Tony's bot's head/arm followed the movement.

“DUM-E, you useless bot, you're supposed to evict strangers not beg for treats!” Tony yelled at the bot. “Seriously, it's the community college for you, first thing in the morning.”

The woman looked up and grinned at Tony. “His optic sensors are really something!” she said. “They must be light-sensitive instead of just infra-red and motion-active.”

Tony blinked at her. “Of course they're light-sensitive. Why wouldn't they be?” His eyes narrowed as she stood and he saw that she was wearing what looked like standard military-issue BDUs under the labcoat. “How did you get in here exactly?”

“Sir, I feel I should point out–“

“–Not now, JARVIS. Who are you?”

“Actually before I answer that question, I think maybe you should listen to your AI,” said the woman with an impish grin.

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Oookay. JARVIS?”

“As I was trying to tell you, sir, my sensors are not picking up a detectable presence.”

“What? Are they malfunctioning?”

“No, sir. I have run a full system diagnostic and everything seems to be working at maximum efficiency. Cameras have visual confirmation of the presence, however neither heat nor motion sensors are registering anything.”

Tony blinked. “How is that–“ he began, looking at the woman closely for any hidden devices. The blonde met his eyes and smirked just before she stepped forward and walked right through DUM-E. Tony felt his mouth go slack as he gaped. There had been no distortion, no blurring, nothing whatsoever to indicate she'd passed through solid matter.

And Tony certainly didn't have any projectors in that part of the floor.

He sat up, eyes scanning every inch of the woman for any signs that she was anything less than a physical presence. “Okay, you have my attention,” he said.

She smiled. “Oh good,” she said. “I'm Colonel Doctor Samantha Carter.”

Tony froze, mind whirling at the name. The answer came to him shortly and he snapped his fingers at his moment of epiphany. “Daniel's friend: the one who works at Area 51!”

He leapt out of his chair and walked up to her, reaching out to run his fingers over the edges of the projection. Only when he was this close could he see a slight fuzziness around the edges, a sort of soft edge that took away from the solidness of the image. He pressed in, amazed at how little his fingers disrupted the image even from up close. The contrast of solid matter to projection made the projection all the more obvious, but it didn't break up around the disruption.

“Where are you projecting this hologram from?” he asked. This didn't look like his work; he'd never bothered with a full range of the colour spectrum for his holograms, hadn't felt the need for it.

He heard her clear her throat and looked up. She raised an eyebrow at him. Tony blinked and then looked down, noticing just where his hand was on the hologram. He quickly pulled his hand away and took a few steps back, shoving his hands into his pockets against further temptation.

“Er, right, sorry,” he mumbled.

“We're projecting the image from orbit,” Sam Carter finally answered him. “This is something a couple of our scientists have been working on for a while.” She shrugged mischievously. “I sort of convinced them to let me hijack it for a little while. Figured it'd be a better way to get your attention than an e-mail.”

“Wow, it's like you know me,” he said.

She grinned. “Daniel said you were a bit like me.”

Tony grinned back. “Oh he did, did he? Well consider my attention gotten, now you didn't just pop by to say 'hi', did you?”

“Daniel said he told you about the Ori.”

The grin slid off Tony's face. “Yes, the big bad alien armada heading right for Earth. He said you were in charge of creating some sort of weapon to defend Earth with?”

“Not quite. It's not a weapon I'm building: what I'm trying to do is create a dimensional bubble large enough to encompass the entire planet in order to shift it out of phase and into its own pocket dimension. We'd be still be able to keep an eye on their movements, but they wouldn't be able to see or touch us.”

Tony felt the excitement building up in his veins, felt his fingers twitch as he imagined the schematics for such a device.

“And you're having trouble getting it to work?” he asked.

“Oh no, the phase-shifting device works just fine on a smaller scale,” she said, much too dismissively for Tony's taste (only he was allowed to be that dismissive when it came to making brilliant creations work). “According to all the scenarios I've run, the calibrations I've made to it should allow it to work on a larger scale, but the problem I'm running into is that–“

“–the power requirements for something like that would be massive,” Tony finished as his mind rushed ahead. He snapped his finger and pointed at her. “The arc reactor. You want the arc reactor.”

“I need 700 gigawatts of power. Short of re-routing all power from seventy percent of the country...” she sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “If I had more time I could probably build something. Maybe. But from what little I know about the arch reactor, I think it should work. I mean, we might need more than one–“

“–One should be fine, we'll just make it bigger,” said Tony. He narrowed his eyes at her. “But you know I'm not going to just hand over arch reactor specs to anyone, even if it is to save the world.”

“Give me your cell number and I'll text you the GPS co-ordinates.”

Tony blinked. “GPS – wait, are you...” He broke out in a grin and rattled off the number. “How exactly did you get permission for this? From what we overheard when Daniel was here, the military doesn't exactly want me on-board with anything.”

The colonel looked sheepish for a moment. “Well, I didn't specifically get permission to bring you into the project... but I did get blanket permission to request any and all resources I might need to get this done before the Ori get here.”

“So I'm a resource now?” Tony asked, amused.

She shrugged. “Daniel would say that people are one of the best resources.”

“Then who are we to argue with Daniel Jackson?”

 


 

“JARVIS, are you sure this is the right place?” Tony asked as he flew over the desert. “I mean, I know according to every single rumour ever Area 51's supposed to be in the middle of nowhere, but I'm pretty sure we passed 'middle of nowhere' ten miles ago.”

“Sir, we are approaching the GPS co-ordinates. Sensors are picking up faint energy readings and radio activity.”

“Show it to me, J.”

A screen helpfully popped up on the HUD, displaying the readings. Tony hummed thoughtfully as he skimmed through the numbers. It wouldn't have been enough to catch anyone's attention if they weren't looking for it, but there was definitely something more in that area than just sand and cacti. He wondered what sort of shielding they were using, because the readings he was getting looked like they were for some sort of small bunker, not a large research facility.

He landed on the exact spot with as loud a thud as he could manage without actually crashing to the ground, crouching down and stabilizing himself with one arm. The HUD's motion sensors picked up minute movements at ground-level: cameras, probably. Well, whatever, he'd been invited, so let them get a good look. After a few moments, he raised his faceplate and took in the area with his naked eyes.

There wasn't much to see. Unless you really liked sand.

Needless to say, Tony wasn't particularly surprised when a large box started to rise up out of the desert in front of him. He was slightly impressed with how silently it managed to move despite the no-doubt powerful machinery at work, but that was hardly surprising. When it stopped moving it looked like a tall metal booth with a cap made of dirt and sand (Tony saw plexiglas keeping at least some of the dirt in place, but he couldn't help but wonder how the sand wasn't flying off with the motion). Doors on the front slid open and two armed military guards stepped out.

Tony tensed, but relaxed moments later when Colonel Doctor Sam Carter barrelled past them as though she barely noticed them.

“Doctor Stark,” she greeted with a smile. “I'm glad you made it. Sorry for the delay; we had to confirm it really was you.”

“That's perfectly understandable,” he answered back, wordlessly giving the command to dismantle the suit. The blonde watched with interest as the Iron Man's parts flew away from his body and then reassembled beside him.

“How fast does it go?” she asked.

“I've clocked its maximum speed at about Mach 3.6, but it starts getting a bit shaky in the air after 3.3.”

“Really?”

She looked covetously at the suit, her eyes shining with excitement. Tony smirked. Well, looked like the good little astrophysicist had a thing for speed. He had a feeling they were going to get along just fine.

“So, I think you said you had some science to show me?” he said. “And, call me Tony,” he said, holding out his hand. “I only make people I don't like call me Doctor Stark.”

She smiled as she shook it. “In that case, I'm Sam. And I'll show you mine if you show me yours.”

Tony laughed.

Chapter Text

HOPE

Chaka walked them to the Stargate with a female unas who had to be his wife. Natasha wasn't afraid to admit she was impressed by the scary-looking alien. And he was scary-looking. Not as big as the Hulk, but he had a wildness in his eyes, a barely-contained presence that said he could tear you apart with his bare hands if he chose to. It had not surprised her to learn he had grown up in a cave. Well, maybe a little, but it somehow seemed fitting. That he'd grown up knowing freedom was obvious: Chaka held his head higher than most of his fellow unas and with a confidence that not only spoke of leadership, but also of someone who'd never had to bow before a master. At least not for long enough to have been broken into it.

He'd gone from primitive cave-dweller, to captured slave, to leader of a revolution, to peacekeeper and leader of a mixed settlement. And, according to Daniel, most of that had happened while he was still rather young. Daniel was clearly proud of his friend.

Natasha, however, was glad to be leaving the settlement. By silent agreement, she, Steve and Clint had agreed to take watch shifts, not entirely sure the former slavers could be trusted. The hostility and fear being levelled at them had them all on edge. Colonel Cameron Mitchell seemed to be of the same opinion as he'd woken up an hour before her shift was due to end and took over. Sam was the one watching instead of Steve when she woke up.

As soon as they'd entered the forest path, Natasha noticed Chaka relax, yet look somehow sharper, more alert than before. He never stopped his conversation with Daniel that appeared to be half in Unas and half in English. His wife looked at both of them in what appeared to be bemusement.

And then, finally, the stargate blocked their path – for once not looming above them, but rather nestled into the scenery like it was trying to blend in. Daniel entered the address on the DHD and a watery splash appeared inside the giant stone circle. The man had been doing this for over twelve years, she had to keep reminding herself every time she saw how entirely unaffected he was by the spectacle.

Twelve years of travelling to other planets and meeting aliens. Natasha didn't think she'd lived anything close to a boring life, but there was something so fantastical, so impossible about that that it hadn't hit her until she'd been woken up in the morning by a completely foreign sound coming from outside. It had turned out to be a bird nearly the size of a chicken with brown, blue and green speckled feathers and a long tail that fanned out behind it as it flew away. It was beautiful, its voice several octaves higher than she would've expected from such a large bird.

Daniel had known exactly what it was and immediately began explaining how the locals used them to tell the shifting seasons, because they migrated south just before winter would hit and then fly back when spring had arrived for good.

For once, she wasn't the one with the most field experience or training. It was... disconcerting.

Colonel Cameron Mitchell walked up to the stargate first and then paused for a moment before turning around.

“Okay, we have no idea what's on the other side of the stargate, so I'm going to go first and make sure it's–“

“– alright, because otherwise we'll just turn around and go back to Earth to face Jack and the air force's firing squad empty-handed?” Daniel interrupted, barrelling past her and everyone else. He glared at Mitchell. “I don't think so. If there's something waiting for us on the other side, we have greater strength in numbers.”

Mitchell gave him an exasperated look, but didn't say anything as Daniel turned to wave and call something (probably good-bye) to Chaka.

“Unless it's a meteor shower,” said Vala quietly as she watched Daniel slip into the wormhole.

“But aren't you explorers?” Steve asked, frowning with confusion at the colonel. “I mean, don't you usually go places and not know what to expect?”

“Well, yeah, all the time,” said Mitchell with a shrug. “But usually, we've sent a MALP ahead and gotten some pictures and stats back which gives us some idea of what's on the other side. We don't usually go completely blind like this.”

“Ah.” Steve nodded and slipped his shield off his back before looking around to meet everyone's eyes. Natasha nodded to him when he met hers. The risk wasn't any greater than any of her regular missions, possibly less.

“Hey man, this sort of feels like we're hunting for the Holy Grail,” Sam quipped. He held his hand out as though he were holding a sword. “Onward for Camelot!”

“I'll bring the Holy Hand Grenade,” said Clint with a grin.

Mitchell snorted. “Been there, done that,” he said just before he turned and walked into the wormhole.

Clint and Sam exchanged baffled looks.

“Wait, what?!” Sam exclaimed and then both of them followed the colonel.

Natasha rolled her eyes.

 


 

“What the hell do you mean you've been- woah!”

Clint was already kneeling at the edge of the platform, his bow in one hand, the other reaching for an arrow as his eyes looked sharply at what lay before him.

This stargate stood on a large platform made of gleaming white stone with several stepped going down into a bright green grassy field. A grassy field that was full of people. They looked human, their clothes made of brightly-coloured, light-weight material that flowed in the breeze. And they all looked young. Clint notched an arrow absently even as his eyes swept the crowd of people and realized the oldest looked maybe eighteen, if he squinted.

And in their midst stood Daniel, weaponless and glaring up at them in disapproval.

“Put down your weapons,” he called to them. “Unless you make a habit of threatening children?”

“No, we don't,” said Steve resolutely. “Clint, Natasha, stand down.”

Clint relaxed and slipped the arrow out of its notch and then back into the quiver on his back. To his left, he noticed Cam and Vala had already brought their weapons down, although they didn't remove them like Daniel had.

“Children can be dangerous too,” said Natasha, but Clint could tell she was saying it mostly as a matter of protocol, because she'd holstered her handgun and relaxed.

“Yes, but in this case we hoping to make friends with their parents, which is going to be somewhat problematic if they find out we pointed weapons at their children,” said Daniel pointedly.

Clint stood and glanced to Cam, who was watching Daniel like a hawk even as he was obviously scanning the area. Once weapons were no longer pointing at them, the children relaxed, looking instantly less skittish and more curious. Many of them were still hanging back, but they were watching them.

“Howdy,” Cam called out with a wide, friendly smile as he stepped down from the platform.

The children blinked and exchanged looks with each other before looking to Daniel. Who was busy speaking to the older ones... or at least attempting to. There seemed to be a rather lot of hand gestures and thoughtful frowning as the children looked like they were trying to follow his words. And then Daniel would pause while they hesitantly replied and do some frowning of his own.

“Daniel, you doing okay over there?” Cam called to him after a few minutes.

Daniel half-waved over his shoulder. “They're speaking in a dialect of Ancient and I'm having a bit of trouble understanding some of the expressions.”

“But that's good right?” Vala asked as she came down the steps next to Cam. “That they're speaking any sort of Ancient at all?”

Daniel turned and grinned. “Oh, yes, that's very good. And if you look to the town, you'll notice that tall tower looks familiar too.”

At the other end of the field, framed from the east by a tall mountain range that disappeared into the clouds, was a town. The buildings were white with brightly-painted roofs. Towering above the town was a single tower, a silver four-sided monolith with a large windowed area at the top, just before the building began to narrow to a gleaming point.

Cam whistled in appreciation. “Wow, looks like the main tower on Atlantis.”

The response to the name 'Atlantis' was instantaneous. Suddenly, the children were looking at each other with shining eyes and gathering even closer to Daniel, talking excitedly. Daniel's eyes lit up at this response and he turned all his attention back to the ones he'd been attempting to communicate with. The word 'Atlantis' got thrown around a few times.

Clint felt silent steps beside him and cocked his head to the side to acknowledge Natasha's presence.

“Atlantis?” she whispered.

“I know,” he said. “Think they could've covered up finding the actual city, or do you figure it's some sort of alien thing that just happens to be called Atlantis?”

“Well, it apparently has a tower.”

“Maybe it's a very skinny spaceship?”

Natasha snorted softly. Then she stiffened.

Clint's hand tightened around his bow when he noticed the procession approaching from the city. In front ran several more kids – they must've sent earlier to get the adults (that's the sort of things kids did, right?). Three taller people ran on their heels, one trailing vibrant fushia shirts behind her. Quite a bit behind them he saw a man with a long white beard looking like he was running at full-tilt, though not at the same speed the younger ones could.

“Uh, Daniel, I think you've got those parents coming up!” Clint called.

“Thanks!” he called back. “I think I'm finally getting the hang of this dialect.”

“It sounds related to Latin,” said Natasha quietly.

Clint glanced to her. She was frowning, eyes watching the approaching people even as her head was tilted to one side as she listened to Daniel and the children.

“Can you understand any of it?” Clint asked.

Natasha shook her head. “Maybe with enough time. And less children.”

Clint chuckled.

He and Natasha waited behind as Steve and Sam went down to join Cam and Vala, although they all let Daniel take the lead in speaking with the adults when they arrived. The three younger ones who arrived first seemed just as excited as Daniel. The older man joined them a short while later, red-faced and wheezing, though his eyes shone with equal excitement.

Daniel seemed to have a much easier time understanding the older man. When it became clear none of them were any danger to anyone but their own vocal chords, Clint and Natasha descended the steps to join the others.

“Does he do this a lot?” Natasha asked, having picked up Daniel's weapons from where he'd dropped them.

“Yeah, it's not often the 'Hi, I'm Daniel Jackson, peaceful explorer' spiel fails,” Cam said. He looked over. “Although when it does, it's at least memorable.”

“Yes, being burned to death certainly was memorable,” said Vala with a matter-of-fact nod.

Clint looked to her. “Burned to death. You were burned to death.”

“You look less, uh, crispy than I would've expected someone who'd burned to death to look,” Sam added with an equally incredulous look.

Vala shrugged. “Oh, I wasn't in my own body. And the priors made me all better anyway, because they wanted to take us to meet the great, all-powerful Orici or some nonsense.”

Sam blinked. “Was it just me, or did that do absolutely nothing to clarify the burning to death part?”

“No, definitely not just you,” said Steve. “I can heal from a lot of things, but I don't even think I could heal from burning to death. Mostly because of the, well, 'to death' part.”

“Oh, it's not that impressive,” said Vala dismissively. “Even a sarcophagus can do that.”

Steve looked puzzled. He turned to Sam and opened his mouth.

“Uh no Cap, a sarcophagus is not some new age fancy hospital thing,” Sam said before he could ask. “Unless she's been going to some very different hospitals than I have.”

“A sarcophagus is a Goa'uld healing slash regeneration device,” said Cam. “I've never seen or used one, but I know Daniel there's seen more of them than he'd like to remember.”

Vala cocked her head to the side and slowly turned to Cam. “Cameron, you've really read through those files thoroughly, haven't you? I don't think I really knew what an SG1 fanboy you were before joining.”

The tips of Cam's ears turned pink. “Shut up, Vala.” He frowned. “And how do you know what a fanboy is anyway?”

Suddenly, Daniel was standing in front of them vibrating with excitement, his face lit up with glee.

“Okay, I think there's definitely something here,” he said. He turned to the side and raised his hand to indicate the four adults. “Hektor here is the town's Head Archivist and Keeper of History – I can't quite tell if that's one title or two, but you get the idea – and Mauffid, Diados and Len are his students. The town's name is Aeneid and this is where it gets interesting, because while the name clearly links it to Earth at a later historical period, the design of the tower is clearly Ancient. Unless, of course, the name of the epic poem comes from the name of the town, but I don't suppose we'll have the opportunity to figure that out.”

“Jackson, the point,” said Cam.

Daniel blinked. “Uh, right. Aeneid was founded by the Ancients about ten thousand years ago. Well, not this Aeneid that you see there, but I'll get to that in a minute. Anyway, the Ancients founded a small town and built a temple in the forest not far away from it. From what Hektor and his colleagues have been able to figure out over the years, they Ancients inhabited the settlement for quite a few years before something changed approximately four thousand years ago and they brought new people from far away to live here with them. And then, three thousand years ago, the Ancients – otherwise known as 'the Founders' – gathered the citizens in the village and bade them farewell before vanishing in a flash of blinding white light. But just before disappearing, they told the villagers about the temple in the forest. Their exact words were: 'Within the temple lies the means to victory should peace ever be threatened'.”

Daniel gestured to the village. “That tower was build by the town's citizens about a hundred years ago, after one of their archaeological teams uncovered some mentions of Atlantis within the city's archives. They also found a picture which they based the tower's design on. Apparently it's become quite the fairy tale around here: the fantastic city the Founders had come from.”

“The means to victory sounds good to me,” said Cam. “I take it your friend can take you to the temple.”

Daniel nodded. “Oh yes, definitely, but apparently it's pretty far away and it's nearly mid-day. Besides, I'd like to take a look at some of the research Hektor's people have done on this temple. Might save us time in the long run and I'd like Hektor to take a look at the tablets, see if maybe he has anything similar to them.”

Clint blinked and then looked up to the sky to check the position of the sun... nope, suns.

“This is starting to get a disorientating,” he muttered.

“Shit, I really hope my biological clock is going to be so confused by all this it won't realize it's supposed to be jet-lagged or gate-lagged or whatever,” said Sam.

Daniel looked at them both in amusement. “I'm sure Hektor could find someone to show you the city if you'd like.”

“I'd love to paint this view,” said Steve quietly.

Daniel laughed. “You know, I can also ask if they have an art gallery or something like it in the town.”

Steve's eyes lit up. “That would really be swell, thank you.”

They were met in front of the village by a tall, severe-looking woman who glared angrily at Hektor and his three students. Her tone was frosty when she spoke, eyes narrowing as she took in SG1 and the Avengers.

“If I'm understanding correctly, she's the head of the town's police force and she's not happy that she wasn't the first one informed about the gate activating,” Daniel translated softly. “I guess the kids just ran straight for Hektor and she only found out third-hand or something.”

Sam winced. “Okay, yeah, she's got reason to be pissed.”

They quickly drew a crowd and Clint was sort of glad they didn't have Tony with them. He didn't think these people would be all that impressed with his brand of loud show-boating. Daniel – when it finally came time for him to speak and present their request – and his quiet, unassuming but firm way seemed to make more of an impression.

In the end, the head of security relented and allowed them into the city. They were accompanied by police officers everywhere they went, but Clint figured that was fair enough really. Turned out the town did have an art gallery of sorts as well as extensive training grounds and a sports field where they played an odd sort of sport that was almost soccer except for the the large poles the players carried and used for everything from controlling the ball to vaulting over other players.

It was a fun sport to watch even if none of them understood the rules. Daniel wasn't around to translate for them, having disappeared along with Hektor and his students as soon as they were given the okay to proceed.

It was an interesting experience; unsettling perhaps was a better word. It had been a very long time since Clint had been anywhere without at least a basic knowledge of how to communicate with the locals, even if all he knew was how to say 'hello', 'thank you' and 'do you speak English'. It made him feel like a novice all over again. Natasha was having a slightly better time with her knowledge of Latin, but only slightly.

“Okay, seriously, do you understand a word anyone around here is saying?” he asked at one point as he sat down next to Cam and Steve, both of whom were watching the game with nearly identical analytic expressions, apparently still trying to figure out the rules.

“Hell no, that's what we keep Jackson around for,” Cam answered, his eyes never leaving the field. “Vala's picked up a bit of Ancient, but apparently the dialect 'round these parts is just way too thick for her.”

“Then you look way too relaxed for someone who has no idea what's going on around him. I mean, you get that these guys could be plotting our assassination and we'd have no idea.”

Cam looked to him with an amused smile, though his eyes were serious. “Yeah, they could be.” He shrugged. “I guess you just get used to not really knowing what's going on. I've definitely gotten a lot better at reading body language since joining SG1 and these guys around us just look like they're having fun. And that historian guy back there was genuinely excited to meet us. He an' Daniel are probably going to spend the night bonding over exciting book stuff and pickin' each other's brains. That'll give us one ally in this place should something go sideways.”

“Yeah, but he's just one guy.”

Cam shrugged. “One guy who seems to be respected by the folks 'round here and knows the city real well. Sides, 's not like we can just pack it up and go home, plus we'll need someone to show us this temple of theirs.”

Steve had looked over at some point while Cam was talking. “They seem to want to know more about this temple too, so at the very least we should have until Daniel figures it out,” he said with a nod. “And by then we'll be in the middle of a forest without all these civilians around.”

“Yeah,” said Clint grudgingly. “There's too many kids here for my taste.”

Steve chuckled. “I like it: it's peaceful, but full of life.”

Clint rolled his eyes. “Of course you like it,” he muttered.

Just then a young girl walked up to them with a tray of glasses full of some sort of bright purple liquid. They thanked her and inspected the beverage. It was thicker than water and smelled sweetly – some sort of juice perhaps? Or maybe it was alien sodapop. Clint took a sip. It wasn't quite as sweet as he would've expected it to be based on the smell, with an almost nutty flavour. He took a second sip and swirled it around his mouth for a moment before swallowing. He could get used to this drink, he decided.

He sat back with a shrug, and began watching the game in earnest as he sipped his bright purple drink, eyes scanning the area every once in a while out of habit.

 


 

There was a clink of china as something was placed beside him. Daniel looked up and blinked at the dim lighting in the room. A glance at the window showed it was far beyond simply night; the air held a stillness that only happened when the night was beginning to approach dawn. He blinked again, suddenly aware of the soreness in his eyes – the sort that came from staring at pages for too long. His head felt fuzzy, his limbs sore.

God, he was getting too old for this.

A soft herbal smell met his nose and he looked back to the table. Beside him now sat a plate with simple blue ceramic mug and a little pot of the pink-ish paste that Hektor had told him was used by the citizens of Aeneid as a sweetener. It was made from the sap of a local tree and gave everything a slight floral smell and flavour. It was pleasant, though Daniel wouldn't want it anywhere near his coffee.

There was movement out of the corner of his eye and he looked up to see Dion, Hektor's wife, drapping a woven blanket over her husband's softly snoring form. The old man was slumped over a book, his left hand still clutching an old, tattered scroll, though the pen had fallen out of his other hand and rolled off towards the edge of the desk. After she'd arranged the blanket across his shoulders, Dion gently carded a hand through his hair, smiling fondly.

“He is too old for such late nights,” she said softly. “And too foolish to remember.”

Daniel winced. They'd gotten a bit carried away, both high on the endorphins of potential discovery.

“Sorry,” he said, keeping his voice quiet.

Dion snorted. “Don't bother, I know very well who I married all those years ago. Besides, it was nice to see him looking so full of energy... so young. It's been a while since anything has captured his mind like this.”

She spoke in the local dialect, a rounded lilt to her words, the phrasing jumbling the Ancient language it had clearly originated from. Hektor, as a historian and expert on the Founders, spoke proper Ancient, though he often forgot himself and switched to his native dialect when excited. As a result, Daniel had heard it enough to have gotten a fair handle on it. Now that it no longer confused him, he could admit it was rather pleasant-sounding. He wondered whether it was simply the result of evolution of the language, or something carried over from the Earth culture the citizens of Aeneid had originally come from.

“He has a remarkable mind,” he said with a small smile. “I can only hope to be as sharp as him after my hair has gone white.”

She laughed. “Like Hektor, I doubt you will allow your hair and your bones to tell you what to do. But perhaps you should lay down for a short while anyway. Tomorrow will be a busy day.”

Daniel nodded. “Yes, you're right, I probably should.” He sighed. “There's just so much here, so much to go through.”

“Then that will give a reason to come back after peace has been won.”

Daniel smiled wistfully. It wouldn't be up to him to decide: the only place he might be going after the Ori were defeated was in front of a firing squad. “I hope so,” was all he said.

He picked up the delicate wooden paddle-shaped spoon provided with the sweetener paste and scooped up a bit, letting it drop into the warm liquid – a mixture of herbs and fruit juices that wasn't quite tea and wasn't quite juice that Daniel found both soothing and refreshing. He watched as the paste dissolved quickly and then put the spoon down and took a sip.

“Thank you,” he said, gesturing with the cup.

“You're welcome,” said Dion as she made to leave.

Daniel took another sip and looked thoughtfully at Hektor. “Should we move him to somewhere more comfortable?”

Dion had reached the doorway by then. “No,” she said, looking over her shoulder to answer him. Even in the dim light Daniel could see the impish twinkle in her eyes. “I have brought him a blanket so that he will not be cold, but ignoring sense was his own decision. If he will fall asleep at his desk because of his own foolishness, then he can deal with the consequences in the morning. Perhaps he will remember the backache and stiff neck and come to bed next time.”

Daniel chuckled. “You aren't as sweet as you seem, Dion.”

She grinned. “Why thank you, Daniel. And goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”


 

The world was shaking. Slowly, the desert in front of Daniel's eyes turned into darkness, but before he wonder about the black nothingness, it began to brighten. He felt a pressure on his shoulder and heard words – recognizing his own name among them – and slowly realized the world wasn't shaking. Someone was shaking him.

Daniel groaned in protest and swatted at the annoyance. He heard his groan eched from somewhere across the room. He blinked his eyes open and Vala's face swarm blearily into view. She was grinning. That was not a good sign given that he knew for a fact she was not a morning person.

“Come on, Daniel, rise and shine!” she exclaimed much too exuberantly. “Adventures and temples await! Oh and congratulations on making it to a horizontal surface last night.”

Daniel ignored her as he forced his body to sit up despite its protests. He looked to the side where Hektor was trying to massage a crick in his neck. Daniel winced in sympathy: he'd slept slumped over his desk more times than he could possibly count and that particular crick was an old friend of his.

“Good morning, Hektor,” he called to the older man. He didn't quite manage to catch the mumbled response, but he assumed it was also some sort of greeting.

Then he yawned into his fist and stretched, feeling his back pop. The small couch he'd found at the back of the study was surprisingly comfortable, but not designed for someone of his size. Vala passed him his glasses and the world came into focus – the Ancients might have fixed his vision when they descended him, but they didn't stop the natural aging process.

“How are you guys doing?” he asked her, suddenly realizing he had no idea what the rest of his team had been up to.

“Well, Captain America has been up since the crack of dawn,” she answered. “The rest of us are up now too and having breakfast. Hektor's wife makes this amazing tea.”

“Yes, she does. Wait, you guys were staying here?”

Vala rolled her eyes. “Yes, Dion found us yesterday evening and asked us to stay the night – well, gestured mostly. You probably haven't noticed, but it's a rather large house.”

He had actually. “According to Hektor, it's the official residence of the Keeper of History.”

“Pays to like history around here then.”

Daniel snorted. “Even more interestingly, did you notice the statue out in front of the building?”

Vala paused thoughtfully. “The white one of the woman, right? We saw a few others like it around town.”

“Hmm... that's interesting. Because it's a statue of Athena and looks an awful lot like the one that got knocked over at the museum, where I got the tablets from. But what makes it really interesting, is that the inscription on the book she's holding is in Latin.”

Vala raised an eyebrow. “What does it say?”

“Translated: the Path to Victory. Which would make sense given that Athena was the goddess of wisdom and war, except that she was a Greek goddess so you would expect the inscription to be in Ancient Greek...”

“Hm. That is interesting.”

“Ah, Daniel, it is good that your friends are up!”

Hektor's voice from across the room startled them as it pierced through the silence in the study. Daniel looked over to find the older man looking stiff, but wide awake now, his eyes shining with renewed enthusiasm. “We should get ready as well. There is a long day ahead and much to discover.”

Daniel grinned back at him. “Yes, and we should probably help gather books and supplies we'll need.”

“Bah, that's what apprentices are for! Now come, I will show you the bathing rooms.”

 


 

In general, the Avengers were not a group of people who enjoyed surprises. They dealt with them on a daily basis, but they didn't like them. Unless, as Clint would say, they involved candy. Which missions never did. Well, except for that one time.

Discovering that the friendly, Renaissance-esque people they'd spent the past day getting to know meant for them to travel deep into the forest in a large, motorized hovercraft didn't count as the biggest surprise they'd ever received, but it was certainly the last thing they'd expected.

Daniel's eyes had widened in pleased surprise before he rushed off to the vehicle to examine it. Dion was already there, her fingers brushing over the controls as she read the readouts carefully. Cameron Mitchell, meanwhile, simply whistled in appreciation and wished he had the Ancient gene as he ambled up with a much slower pace, part of him grinning at the truly shocked looks on the Avengers' faces. While he hadn't exactly expected something like this, it didn't entirely surprise him either.

“So, do ya think this is a leftover from the Ancients?” he called up to Daniel. It was a bit of a redundant question given that the design was acutely familiar: it looked a bit like large, topless puddlejumpers.

After a few moments, Daniel leaned over the side of the craft. “Definitely. Dion says there are four others like it, although they all seem to be set to an autopilot. There's two that will only go to and from the temple, one that travels to a nearby quarry and the fourth to the stargate. It seems they have a basic understanding of how to operate them, and know how to fix them up to a point, but no knowledge of their programming, so they can't change the settings.”

“Well, at least it means we won't be walking all day,” Vala commented before climbing into the hovercraft.

It was a valid point and no one was really willing to argue in favour of walking for miles through the forest. Hektor's apprentices had been up bright and early preparing the hovercraft for the journey along with Dion – who it turned out was a hovercraft operator by trade. It was how she and Hektor had met, in fact. Whether by design, or a lack of understanding on how to improve it, the hovercraft's speed wasn't much more than a steady run, but it made for a smooth journey. Dion told the group, via Daniel, that she could steer the vehicle to take several different paths to the temple, though if she strayed too far off course, the hovercraft would automatically adjust their heading. She took them down what she said was her favourite path, which had them hovering just above the surface of a large river, giant leafy trees forming a lush green canopy over their heads.

Just over an hour into their journey, Steve finally gave in and took out his sketchbook.

“You know, I think this has to be the most relaxing mission I've ever been on,” he said.

Clint groaned. “Okay now you've totally jinxed us. Thanks Cap.”

Beside him, Natasha's lips quirked. Then she leaned back and looked over her shoulder at the passing scenery. She agreed with Steve, it was rather relaxing. Missions weren't meant to be relaxing, though, and it was making her anxious. She turned away from the forest and riverbed and scanned the hovercraft.

Daniel, Hektor and Hektor's apprentices say at the very back, all clustered around a small table cluttered with maps and papers. They were alternatively silent and speaking loudly a mile a minute with expressive hand gestures (she couldn't quite tell how much of that was necessary for communication and how much was simply them). It was amusing to watch in any case. Dion was, of course, at the control panel. Just in front of what could possibly be loosely termed a cockpit, sat two guards with sharp-looking spears. Natasha wondered idly whether they'd ever had call to use them.

At about mid-day they had lunch. Three hours later, they suddenly found themselves bathed in sunlight as the hovercraft exited the forest and they caught their first glimpse of the temple.

It was sitting in the middle of a valley, fields of lush green grass surrounding it on all sides except for a bright field of flowers to its right. The closer they came, the more apparent it became that that field of flowers wasn't really nature's doing so much as a carefully cultivated garden. The fields were full of grazing animals: sheep and cows and something that looked almost like a cross between a goat and a deer, only with a blueish-green stripe of fur on its back. When she looked further up the valley, just past the temple, she saw a series of huts with red and orange roofs.

“Hey Daniel, does it look familiar to you?” Mitchell called to the back of the vehicle. He, Clint and Vala had paused in their game of cards.

Daniel looked thoughtful. “No, not really. At least not from here.”

The temple itself was beautiful in its simplicity. It was round, with three short, stubby towers along its perimeter and a large central tower that climbed to a flattened point. It wasn't as tall as the tower in the town, but still tall enough to be impressive. Its lines were crisp and clean, the edges slightly embellished in places, but not overtly ornamental. It didn't show a single sign of its age other than a distinct lack of activity.

It struck Natasha that it didn't really look abandoned. More like it was laying dormant.

She heard Daniel's footsteps as he approached to get a closer look and looked up. He stared out at the temple in awe, delight dancing in his eyes. She decided this was a good sign.

“Do you think you'll find what you're looking for here?” she asked him. They hadn't had much of a chance to find out what he'd discovered since they'd parted yesterday.

Daniel didn't look away from the temple.

“I think so...” He trailed, looking thoughtful for a moment. “I don't really believe in fate per say... but, somehow, I just know there's something waiting for us here. I just don't know what it is yet.”

Natasha nodded. She didn't believe in fate either, but she'd come too far to start doubting their self-appointed mission now.

Chapter Text


 

FAITH

The temple was definitely of Ancient design: the walls smoothed down and every visible panel so perfectly aligned with its neighbours that the entire building was no doubt airtight. Or at least it had been before an archaeological team a hundred years ago had managed to break down the front door by crashing one of the topless puddlejumpers into it. Daniel frowned disapprovingly at the destruction before walking up the wooden bridge that crossed over what remained of the bottom portion of the massive entrance doors. The crash still hadn't managed to fully destroy the doors and there was over a metre high left intact at the bottom – hence the bridge.

Daniel carefully examined the door's remains as he crossed the bridge. They were nearly as high as the high ceilinged room beyond them (about twenty feet or so) and wide enough to fit a small plane. Without the doors in the way, the topless puddlejumpers would've been able to make their way through and still leave room for people to walk beside them. They were thick doors as well, enough for him to be sure there had to be a mechanism to open them, because not even Captain America would've been able to do so by hand. Inside they were greeted by a wide open space, a hall that curved along what looked like nearly an entire quarter of the temple's perimeter and would've fit an entire football field. It was illuminated with sunlight that streamed in through a series of long skylights.

Two large planters divided the space into thirds, each with trees growing inside it, and a series of benches jutted out from the walls. Otherwise the space impressive in its size, yet void of any extraneous decorations. It looked clean and elegant, the classic Alteran love of minimalism coupled with crisp geometric shapes apparent in its design. It felt functional.

At either end, the large room ended with a solid wall. Daniel was too far away to see whether there was anything there, such as a door or a transport. Directly opposite him, however, was a double-door that was being held open with a heavy stone slab. A wide window above it revealed a second floor. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that hole had been carved into a section of it.

He heard someone behind him whistle in appreciation. He didn't bother finding out who, turning instead to Hektor, who was watching him with understanding in his eyes.

“Was there anything else in here when the doors were open?” he asked him.

Hektor shook his head. “No, everything was left as it was. There was nothing in the main room. Except for the planters. The plants that had been there were, of course, very much dead. A later team planted the ones you see now. And then thirty-five years ago, Keeper of History Altus used one of the transportation platforms in order to gain access to the upper stories through the windows.”

Daniel frowned. “Why hadn't anyone before him tried?” he asked. Surely going through a window would be the obvious way to get inside.

Hektor chuckled. “Oh they'd tried alright, but Altus was especially clever and managed to modify a tool usually used to mine white roman stone in order to get them open.”

“I see. I'm assuming that door that's propped open is – or was rather – his doing then?”

“Hmm... oh yes, that stone has laid in that spot since the day his expedition placed it there.”

Daniel nodded slowly as he swallowed the sudden apprehension. Intellectually, he'd always known this was a long shot, but suddenly his leap of faith felt a little less like it had a steady landing site at the end. This temple was a work-in-progress: generations of scholars had dedicated their lives to figuring it out. How could he possibly hope to make it tell him its secrets within a few days? True, he came armed with knowledge the people of Aeneid were missing in their search, but would it be enough?

Daniel took a deep breath to calm himself. Panicking wouldn't help anything.

“What's in the upper levels?” he asked Hektor.

“Curiously enough, mostly living quarters, it seems,” Hektor answered. “We've never managed to figure out exactly how many people at once lived within the temple walls, however the upper levels would comfortably house at least two hundred.”

“Can we take a look?”

Hektor paused for a moment before shrugging. “I suppose it doesn't entirely matter where we begin our search.”

After calling back to his apprentices to begin setting up a workstation, he motioned for Daniel to follow him. Daniel did so eagerly, vaguely aware of being followed by the rest of his team. A quick glance just in front of the doorway confirmed that Vala, Steve, Sam and Natasha were right behind them.

The double doors led into a foyer. The ceiling here was higher than in the main room they'd just exited, with skylights above the entire area. Staircases connected each floor along both sides in a way that reminded Daniel of Atlantis. To his right, Daniel spied a box with long crystals jutting out of the wall and recognized it as a door mechanism.

However, the crowning glory of the foyer was a painting drawn onto a large centre column. It was probably about five feet wide and four feet tall, the colours so vivid it could've been freshly painted, each brush stroke done with the precision of a photograph and the emotion of one who'd been there in person and felt their breath catch in awe at the sight. The sky was so bright, Daniel almost expected to hear birds, the gently bobbing ocean so perfectly rendered, he expected to smell salt.

Behind him, he heard a gasp.

They all stood in silence for a few minutes, just staring at the painting. Then Natasha came to stand next to him. “That central tower looks like the one in the town,” she pointed out quietly.

Daniel nodded. This explained where they learnt about the tower all right. He walked up closer to it and then noticed the inscription at the bottom of the frame, done in a very thin line in the same colour as the rest of the frame: 'In memory of our home and to those who fell defending it.'. Daniel's eyes widened and he quickly looked back to the rest of the painting, thoughts swirling in his head.

When he looked back to Hektor, there was a twinkle of delight – and pride – in the older man's eyes. Daniel grinned. “It's magnificent,” he said. “But how did you know it was Atlantis?”

Hektor raised an eyebrow. “We recovered some additional plans and reading materials that named it. Our Founders used some rather unusual tools, but we have managed to figure out how to use some of them over the years.”

Daniel could imagine the sorts of unusual tools the Ancients had left behind.

Hektor cleared his throat. “Come, we should continue on.”

He led them up the set of stairs on the right and then began walking along the corridor at a steady pace, speaking all the while about the trials of his predecessors. Many of the rooms on the upper levels were open, though scratches on the walls indicated it had been done by force and the archaeologist in Daniel cringed at the damage. He did, however, also note that some of the rooms were full of personal items: nick knacks, clothes, data pads... Obviously, the Ancients living here hadn't exactly had time to pack before they ascended.

He fired question after question at Hektor, though the scholar's answers didn't quite engage him the way he knew they normally would. Even as he listened, his eyes kept straying towards Steve. The super soldier was looking at everything with wide, excited eyes and moving carefully – like a rather self-conscious bull that had inexplicably found himself in a china shop and was now trying very, very hard not to break anything. It was actually rather endearing, if entirely unhelpful.

As they reached the last of what Daniel was thinking of as the residential levels, he saw Steve approach another wall panel, similar to the ones downstairs. He frowned as he looked at it from all angles, bending over to get a better look at the crystals. All without touching it. Daniel rolled his eyes.

“Steve,” he called in amusement. “I know this place is nearly ten thousand years old, but the Ancients built things to last – as evidenced by the fact that that front door is still at least partially intact after having a hovercraft crash into it. Not even you are going to break anything just by touching it.”

Steve's ears reddened. “Right, sorry. I just didn't want to take the chance.”

Daniel grinned. “No, no, that's fine and believe me, it's very much appreciated. I'm just saying: if you want to touch, go ahead.”

Steve grinned back. And turned back to the wall panel.

“Daniel?” Vala asked with a speculative look on her face. Daniel motioned for her to be silent for a moment, his eyes still glued to Steve. He didn't dare breathe as he watched him reach out to touch the crystals.

Several things happened at once.

Steve touched one of the crystals and the entire panel lit up. Beside the panel, two parts of the wall slid open to reveal what looked like a closet with a display screen at the back. Several people gasped. Daniel grabbed onto Vala's arm and squeezed, suddenly dizzy with relief as a weight he hadn't dared fully acknowledge carrying was lifted from his shoulders.

“Daniel, did you know?” he heard Vala whisper.

He blinked and looked to her. “I guessed,” he said, feeling suddenly giddy and out of breath. “I'd hoped.”

Vala's eyes widened as she realized what he meant. “You are incredibly lucky the universe really likes you some days,” she said.

Daniel snorted. “Except that most days the universe really hates me.”

It was then that he became aware of the commotion in front of the transporter. Steve looked panicked, holding his hands as far away from the panel as he could, red-faced and stuttering apologies while Hektor was demanding to know what he'd done (not that Steve could understand him). Sam seemed to be trying to calm everyone down even as he was freaking out himself and Natasha looked like she was silently laughing at them all even as she eyed the transporter carefully.

Daniel winced and hurried to step between Steve and Hektor. First he turned to Hektor.

“I'm sorry, I'll explain in a second,” he told the scholar. “Steve doesn't actually know what he did and why that happened.”

Hektor's eyes quickly turned speculative. “But you do,” he stated, the lack of question in his voice speaking for itself. “This isn't surprising to you.”

“Not entirely... I've seen the technology used by your Founders in many places. Look, I promise I'll explain, just give me a minute.”

Then he turned to Steve.

“Steve–“

“–Daniel I swear all I did was touch it! I have no idea why it did that or what it is or how I could–“

Daniel grabbed the super soldier by the arms. “Steve, calm down!”

Steve went silent, wide eyes staring down at Daniel imploringly. In that moment it suddenly struck Daniel just how young the other man was: the same age as many of the new recruits Daniel had helped Cam train several months ago, and younger than some. To think he'd already gone through as many hardships that he had... Daniel shook his head. What an odd expression that was: as if heartbreak and trauma got easier with age.

He met his eyes, trying to project calm and confidence. “Steve, trust me, no one is blaming you for anything. This is a good thing, a very good thing, and I'm sorry I didn't warn you this could happen. To you specifically. But, well, this entire plan has more or less hinged on a theory and I didn't want to put that kind of burden onto your shoulders.”

Steve's eyes narrowed. “Warned me about what?” he asked.

Daniel let go of him and took a step back, running a hand through his hair. “The Ancients – or Alterans as they called themselves – designed their technology so that only they could operate it. To do that they tied it to a specific gene in their DNA that is unique to them. Now some of their technology can be operated without the gene, but it has to be activated by someone with the gene. The exact history isn't entirely clear to us, but we believe the Ancients evolved from a race of humans that existed on Earth before we did. Unfortunately, a plague forced those living in the Milky Way to Ascend to a higher plane of existence. We've found traces of them throughout the Milky Way, although mostly small research facilities or labs and a few ruins. Ten thousand years ago, those living in the Pegasus Galaxy were forced to flee their home there and return to Earth.”

He paused and glanced at the other two Avengers before looking back to Steve. They were all listening intently.

“While they lived on Earth, they intermarried, and that gene got passed on into the human population. We're speculating that only a small percentage of the Earth's population has the gene. But the thing is that it's not just a leftover reminder of the Ancients, the ATA gene is also a higher stage of evolution. From the few samples of Ancient DNA we've managed to obtain over the years, our geneticists have discovered that everything ties back to the gene. For the most part, other than activating Ancient technology, the gene doesn't really do anything, but it does carry an evolutionary potential.”

“The super serum,” said Natasha and Daniel could see her putting things together in her mind. “At Stark's, you suggested that maybe it wasn't Erskine's serum that made the difference, but something in Steve's blood. This is what you were thinking of, wasn't it? This Ancient gene?”

Daniel smiled and nodded. “Yes. We only discovered the Ancient gene by accident, because we had someone who could activate the technology and it was a matter of figuring out what made them different from everyone else.”

He looked to the transporter and caught sight of the display. He froze.

“Oh my god,” he said. He turned to Hektor, excitement thrumming through his veins. “Hektor it goes up to the top of the tower!”

Hektor blinked at him and then his lips quirked in amusement. “I don't understand your language, Daniel.”

Daniel blinked, shook his head and continued on in Ancient. “Sorry. That small room that looks like a closet is a transporter and it'll take us up to the top of the tower.”

Hektor's eyes widened. Then he grinned. “Well, then what are we waiting for?” he said as he grabbed Daniel by the arm and hurried them both into the transporter.

“C'mon Steve, hurry up!” Daniel called after them.

It was a tight fit, but they all managed to squeeze inside. Daniel then touched the top of the tower on the display and the doors closed. Five seconds later they re-opened to a scene that was no longer a simple corridor.

“Woah, that was fast,” said Sam. “I didn't even realize we'd moved.”

The room looked very different to what they'd seen in the rest of the temple. The walls were covered in windows, making it look like there was nothing but four pillars between them and the rest of world – or at least had the windows been kept clean it would've no doubt given that effect. Instead of the grey metal look preferred by the Ancients, everything was a brownish colour. There was one round central counsel, most of which was covered in a large glass dome.

Daniel stepped into the room and took it all in in a daze. This was a dream. It had to be. This wasn't what he'd set out to find at all. Why was it here?

“Daniel,” he heard Vala say. “This doesn't look Ancient.”

“It's not,” he said and walked towards the centre of the room.

“These pillars have writing on them,” Steve commented. He pointed at one. “That looks like the writing that was on the tablets you found at the museum.”

Vala went up to the second one. “That's Asgard,” she said. “But I don't recognize the other two. Daniel?”

She looked like she had a feeling she knew what he was going to say. With a shaky hand he pointed to the one to Steve's right. “That's Nox.” And then to the last pillar. “And that's Furling. The Four Great Races... this was a meeting place.”

He walked up to the central counsel. It had been years, but he still remembered Ernest showing him how to turn it on. The glass dome lit up and a holographic display appeared above them like a faint cloud full of small clusters of spheres.

“Elements of the Periodic Table,” Daniel explained gesturing up at the clusters. “The only truly universal language.”

He turned to Hektor, feeling his own awe mirrored in Hektor's face. “Your planet was more important than you realized,” he said.

He explained about the Four Races. Behind him, he heard Vala tell the others.

 


 

Clint looked up and grinned. “Hey, I see they finally let you leave!” he called to Cap as the man stepped out of the fancy alien elevator and headed towards them.

Steve pulled a face. “I don't actually think they were paying attention to me by the time I told them I was coming down here to eat.”

“Don't know why you bothered staying up there that long in the first place,” Cam commented before taking another bite of the panzerotti-type thing that had come from the food supplies Hektor's apprentices had packed for the trip. There were three more crates on the hovercraft, identical to the one sitting next to the large pieces of door rubble they were using in place of actual chairs.

Steve shrugged. “Thought I might be more useful up there than out here.”

“Did they find anything else?” Natasha asked.

“Like a death ray or something that could actually be useful in defending Earth?” Clint added.

“I'm not sure...” Steve sighed. “No, I don't think so. Not that I could understand a word of what any of them were saying.”

“I just hope Daniel hasn't forgotten why we're here in the first place,” Vala muttered from the stone she was sitting on.

Clint blinked and turned to stare at her. “Is that actually a possibility?!”

She shrugged. “With Daniel you never know, but probably not. Wouldn't be the first time a mission sends us travelling from planet to planet, so he might just be making sure there isn't a clue to a more final destination for this quest of ours.”

“Are we going to have to drag them all out of there to make sure they sleep?” Sam asked.

“Definitely,” Vala and Cam answered at once.

“Probably kicking and screaming,” Cam added.

Clint exchanged looks with Natasha, who just smirked. “I'll take care of it. I've had to wrangle Tony Stark before. Can't imagine an archaeologist being any worse.”

“Now that just shows your lack of imagination,” Cam drawled.

Natasha's answering grin was downright evil. “On the contrary, I have a very good imagination.”

Vala chuckled. “I like her,” she told Cam.

Clint looked at Vala. “You worry me,” he said with a straight face.

“I should.”

They ate in companionable silence until the alien elevator opened again, spitting out Hektor, Daniel and the three apprentices, all chatting loudly amongst themselves. Hektor's wife followed behind them with a bemused look on her face. She looked over to SG1 and the Avengers and winked at them.

Clint grinned back and shook his head. “Or we could just let the expert handle it,” he said.

“Daniel!” Vala suddenly called, waving the archaeologist over.

Daniel said a few words to his fellow scholars and then began to walk towards them. There was a spring in his step and he was beaming from ear to ear, eyes alight.

“Hey guys,” he said. “Hope you didn't get too bored down here.”

Cam snorted. “Do you actually care if we were bored?”

Daniel shrugged. “No, not really.”

“You sure look happy,” Sam commented with a smile. “That mean you found something interesting?”

Impossibly, Daniel actually managed to beam even more at that. “Oh yes. That room is amazing. The last time I saw one of these it was mostly in ruins and I only really managed to glance at it before we had to leave. Plus, I didn't have the knowledge of the various cultures that I have now. The technology in that room isn't Ancient and it clearly isn't Asgard, which means that we're getting a glimpse of either Nox or Furling tech. Or possibly something else entirely. I think I could honestly spend the next ten years studying that room up there. ”

“Does it have anything to do with what we came here to find?” Cam asked.

Daniel grimaced, his enthusiasm dimming somewhat. “Admittedly no, not really. I mean, it does provide us with some important information, not the least of which is that this planet was obviously important not just to the Ancients, but to the other three races as well. Which still doesn't explain the size of this facility or what's in the part we haven't managed to get into yet.”

“Facility?” Natasha interrupted. “You're not calling it a temple anymore?”

Daniel shook his head. “No, although I confess that might've been my mistranslation there. Or rather a cultural difference I didn't recognize immediately. Hektor and his people know this place as a 'temple' and thus their interpretation of what a temple is can basically be summed up as 'big, old, mysterious building', which differs from what we think of as a temple. It's one of the reasons why understanding a culture is key to doing accurate translations of their language. Either way, I'm thinking this place was probably more of a research outpost or something.”

“Do you have any idea what's in the other part of the facility?” Steve asked, his face serious, thoughtful.

Daniel shook his head. “Not entirely. I have my theories, but nothing concrete. There's certainly nothing in the Meeting Room to indicate what's there.”

“So what are you thinking then?” Cam asked. “I mean, do you think it's worth sticking around to find out?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Daniel said immediately. “If I'm right about the tablet and it's an inventory, then at the very least we should be able to find some of the things on said list, such as the ZPMs. It's not entirely unreasonable to think we'd be able to find one here regardless. This is definitely one of the largest Ancient outposts we've found so far in the Milky Way; possibly larger than the one in Antarctica, especially if it happens to expand underground in any way.”

“Woah, hang on there!” Clint exclaimed as Daniel's words penetrated his brain. “Antarctica? There's an alien outpost in Antarctica?!”

Daniel blinked at him. “Uh yeah, quite a large one. It's where a lot of our information about the Ancients comes from actually.”

“How long has it been there?” Natasha asked.

“Uh, about 7 million years, give or take a century or five. It'd been encased in ice when we found it, which makes getting an accurate date difficult, but we do believe it was built before the area froze up the way it is today.”

Clint whistled. “Wow, that makes it older than pretty much most human civilization.”

“Yup. This place might end up being bigger, but the Antarctic outpost's definitely older. For all we know this one might've even replaced it. Except for the Meeting Room: Antarctica doesn't have one of those.”

“Okay, so this place is big, that's great,” said Cam. “And ZPMs are always awesome, but any idea yet what this 'Path to Victory' thing might be?”

Daniel shook his head. “No, not yet, but I do–“ He cut himself off and pursed his lips, looking unsure for a moment. “I have nothing to confirm this just yet, but I have a feeling that...”

Cam made an annoyed sound as Daniel trailed off. “You have a feeling that what, Jackson?”

Daniel shot him a glare. “Look I've talked to Hektor. He's read through all the earliest historical entries for this town, including the Stargate logs from when the Founders were still living here – in fact it was what he'd specialized in during his initial apprenticeship. But he's never read anything about other races coming through the gate, or about strangers coming to meet with the Founders.”

Clint exchanged looks with Natasha and then Steve. Okay, good, they looked just as confused as he did. Also, Asgard? Thor's people had friends who had a lab or something on Earth and he never said anything about it? Not, Clint had to concede, that he'd been given a whole lot of reason to trust SHEILD with something like that.

Meanwhile, its was Vala's turn to make a frustrated noise. “Daniel, what's your point? That the Asgard are capable of stealth? You know they had ships right? Not to mention beaming technology.”

“Yes, but to our knowledge the Nox do not,” Daniel quickly replied. “The Asgard database had incredibly sparse information on the Furling, so they're still a huge unknown, but it does briefly mention the Nox and it didn't mention space travel. Which doesn't, I suppose, mean that ten thousand years ago they didn't have ships – I mean, for all we know ten thousand years ago the Nox were a violent savage race–“

“–Woah, okay now I know you're nuts!” Cam exclaimed. “The Nox, violent? Aren't they like tech-savvy hippies.”

Daniel's dry look could've given Coulson a run for his money. “Most of human civilization evolved within that time-frame. Ten thousand years is definitely enough time for the Nox to go from violent to pacifist.”

“Yeah, okay fine.”

“What exactly do Thor's people have to do with anything?” Steve suddenly asked into the ensuing silence. Daniel frowned at him in confusion. “I mean, I might not have known him for very long, but why would he have needed to use that bridge thing if he'd known about the stargate? Wouldn't that have been an easier way to get home?”

Daniel's eyes widened in sudden comprehension. “Aah, you mean the Asgardians not the Asgard.” He waved away any protests with one hand. “Sorry, I know Asgard versus Asgardian sounds like semantics, but it's how those of us at the mountain decided to refer to them to avoid unnecessary confusion. They're really not the same thing at all. Well, mostly.”

He paused for a moment, looking like he was gathering his thoughts. Clint raised an eyebrow. “So are you saying there's, like, a second Thor out there?” he joked.

“Yes! Actually, yes, that's exactly what I'm saying! Or at least there was a second Thor. The Asgard are gone now unfortunately, but one of them was once called Thor.”

Daniel took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He ran a hand through his hair.

“Okay, so first of all you have to understand that a lot of this is just speculation on our part. No one at the SGC has managed to talk to the Thor you know and the database we inherited from the Asgard doesn't mention him or the Asgardians at all. However, based on some of Shield's notes and the research of Doctor Jane Foster that Sam managed to snag from that internet info dump you did before it was taken down, it looked like her theory was that Asgardian mode of transportation was a sophisticated variation of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Some of the math she did... well, let's just say it looked familiar. To Sam, I mean. It just looked like a bunch of numbers to me.”

He looked down as the others chuckled.

“Sam thinks your Thor actually comes from an alternate dimension. A dimension where the Asgardians managed to fix their cloning problem – or maybe found a way to live a very long time without the cloning. Either way, there was a big difference somewhere in their evolution as a species which meant their appearance remained the same. The Asgard Thor I knew didn't look anything like the Asgardian Thor you know. A lot more... alien you could say.”

“And because your Thor first showed up a couple months after the Asgard committed mass suicide, he got to avoid the joys of Entropic Cascade Failure,” Cam drawled.

“That's insane,” said Sam incredulously. “You realize that right?”

Clint looked at him. “More insane than a huge viking god alien who can fly and call lightening from the sky with his hammer?”

Sam made a face. “Yeah, okay, point.”

“Other dimensions?” Steve asked, his eyes wide. “That exists? For real?”

“Oh yes,” said Daniel. “We have undeniable proof of that.”

“Reed Richards will be happy to hear his theories aren't complete crack,” Clint commented. “Not that he ever thought they were.”

“Thor does call Earth the realm of Midgard, not the planet of Midgard,” said Natasha thoughtfully. “I always thought he was just being poetic...”

“You think maybe he's not?” asked Clint.

“Maybe.” She shrugged. “Maybe it's just what all Asgardians call it and so he does the same. We'd have to ask him.”

“Woah, as fascinating as this is,” Cam suddenly said loudly, looking annoyed with Daniel. “Jackson, you were talking about the temple, facility, whatever thing. I think you said you had a point with the Nox story and their lack of spaceships. At least I really hope you did.”

Daniel blinked at his team leader. “Oh, right, yes I did have a point. I think this planet has to have a second stargate.” He paused. “In fact, I'd go so far as to theorize that it's probably within this very facility. I mean, even if it doesn't extend underground, there's certainly room enough for it in that part we haven't explored yet.”

Cam blinked. Vala nodded thoughtfully. “It would have to be disconnected from the main network,” she said.

“Wouldn't be the first time we've seen that,” said Daniel. “Well, okay, once; we've seen it once. But that means it can be done. Either way, we need to get into the rest of the facility.”

 


 

They found the second stargate the next morning.

Turned out there was a panel with door controls on one of the far walls of the vast main room which blocked access to the rest of the building. The display lit up when Steve touched it and then it took Daniel mere moments to figure out how to open the door itself.

The corridors they found on the other side were definitely more than just reminiscent of Atlantis; here Daniel could've easily tricked himself into thinking he was back inside the Ancient city. Most of the doors along the network corridors opened easily, revealing labs and offices and a fairly large medical bay. A few remained stubbornly shut, but none of them could tell whether it was because of added security on the doors themselves or due to malfunction in the mechanisms.

Hektor and his apprentices were absolutely beside themselves with excitement. The old man looked positively drunk with it. Not even Natasha managed to avoid becoming infected with it as she peeked into each room before slinking inside.

“Man, Stark is going to be sooo jealous he missed out on this,” she heard Clint say as he sauntered after her into the room she'd decided to explore. “I mean all this alien tech just waiting for someone to figure it out...”

Natasha smirked as she looked over the contents of the shelves that ran along the wall. “I'd love to see the look on his face when he realizes he needs Cap to make any of it work.”

“Plus Daniel to translate.”

“Exactly.”

Clint snickered and walked further into the room, picking up a flat object off a table in the corner and turning it over in his hands. “Hey, this sort of looks like a tablet.”

Natasha raised an eyebrow before turning and walking over to take a look. “Hm, it does. You should show it to Daniel; it might have important information on it.”

“Or it might have an alien version of War and Peace.”

“Well you wouldn't be able to tell the difference either way.”

They found Daniel, Hektor and Steve two rooms behind, with Cam standing just outside the door. He nodded to them as they passed. They found Steve standing just on the other side of the door, arms crossed in front of him, quite consciously not touching anything.

“I thought they wanted to touch everything,” said Clint with amusement.

Steve shook his head. “Door panels are one thing, but until we know what any of these gadgets lying around do, that would be dangerous.” He swallowed. “Apparently they've lost quite a few people thanks to being impatient.”

“You mean you could accidentally activate a bomb or something?” Clint asked with a frown. “I mean, you'd think a bomb wouldn't be quite that easy to detonate. There's usually safeties and stuff on those things.”

“Usually, but you could also activate a device that turns people into time bombs, or accidentally unleash nanobots that kill anyone without the ATA gene...” Daniel said loudly as he walked over to them. “Those are all things we've encountered in one way or another, by the way. The Ancients were scientists as much as they were anything else – maybe even more than they were anything else – but their idea of 'safety protocols' leaves a lot to be desired.”

Natasha's eyebrows rose. “They did a lot of biological experimentation then?”

“A bit, yes. I mean, okay, most of the more dangerous stuff was found on Atlantis where the Ancients had been in the middle of a war, so it's hardly a surprise that there was a lot of weapons designing going on.”

“On Atlantis,” said Steve. “You mean the Lost City? The one that sunk into the ocean thousands of years ago?”

Daniel's eyes twinkled as he answered. “Ten thousand years ago to be precise. And yes, that's the one, although it's not so lost anymore.”

Clint's eyes were boggling. “Okay, how the hell did you manage to keep an entire city being found a secret? Like, seriously, there's some stuff it shouldn't be possible to cover up.”

Daniel shrugged. “Ah, well...“

They all looked up at the sound of running from down the hall. Cam stepped aside as Vala and Sam careened into the doorway, eyes lit up.

“Daniel!” Vala exclaimed. “We found a transporter!”

“And, man, there is definitely an underground to this place and it looks huge!” Sam added with a grin.

Daniel called something over his shoulder to Hektor before running out the door. The old man dropped everything and ran after them at a much slower pace.

Cam sighed. “I don't suppose there's any point in tell you guys to be careful?” he called after them.

Natasha smirked as she came up beside him. “I think you're a little late for that,” she said.

He made an annoyed face. “Yeah, figured.”

He and Natasha found the rest of the group clustered around a closed transporter. A quick survey of the group revealed one, important feature.

“Uh, where's Jackson?” Cam asked, already knowing the answer, but needing for someone to confirm it anyway because, for some reason, he just didn't want to believe that the archaeologist would be that stupid.

Clint turned to them. “Oh, he, Steve and Vala already went down ahead,” he said.

And yes, apparently he was that stupid. Although, at least he hadn't gone alone. Cam activated his radio.

“Jackson, this is Mitchell, do you copy?” he said. He waited five seconds. “Jackson, do you read?”

The radio cracked. “This is Daniel, I read you. Don't worry, we arrived safe and sound in what appears to be a storage bay of some sort.”

A storage bay, full of unknown things in boxes, some of which could no doubt explode in their faces. That was just wonderful. He ran a hand over the wall panel and the doors opened.

“Jackson, don't touch anything until I get there!”

Sam and Hektor slipped into the transporter with him. “What exactly do you figure you'll be able to do better than him?” Sam asked him with amusement. “I mean without having this ATA gene and not being able to read any of the labels...”

Cam glared at him. “Trouble magnet, remember?”

“Aah, right.”

The doors opened. The room looked oddly ordinary and, well, exactly like one would expect a small warehouse to look. One that hadn't been used in a while anyway. There were several large crates stacked off to the side, an open one full of crystals, and some odd metal pieces that looked like they were possibly spare parts. However most of the large room was empty, except for a couple of large, equally empty metal shelving units.

“Steve, I think this is it,” he heard Daniel say from the other side of one such unit. Cam cursed under his breath and headed over to them. “Try touching here and think 'open'. Using Ancient tech is partially about intent.”

“Just like the Unforgivables,” Vala added.

There was a pause. “The what?” asked Steve.

“The Unforgivables. You know, like in Harry Potter. Haven't you seen the movies?”

“Uh, no. I'll add it to the list.”

“You do that. Although the books are better.”

Cam rounded the shelving unit in time to see the look Daniel gave her.

“When did you read the Harry Potter books?” he asked her.

Vala shrugged. “It's been a very boring couple of months. Lieutenant Coleman lent them to me. Also that Fifty Shades of Grey book: it was quite interesting.” Her expression turned sly. “You're getting ten feet of rope for your birthday by the way.”

Daniel just nodded. “It'll go with the fedora and bull-whip.”

Cam stopped in his tracks. “Jackson, do I want to know why you own a bull-whip?”

Daniel looked to him and blinked. “It was a part of the Indiana Jones costume I wore to Jack's Halloween party three years ago.”

“Right. Of course.” He had vague recollections of that costume. Even vaguer recollections of that party. He may or may not have ended the night wearing someone else's grass skirt.

Captain America's face brightened. “Oh! I saw Indiana Jones! Those were swell movies.”

“Really?” said Daniel. “Have you seen The Mummy yet?”

“Uh, no, I don't think so.”

Daniel nodded. “Not as culturally significant as Indiana Jones, of course, but a lot of fun and with about the same amount of attention paid to historical and archaeological accuracy. Anyway, the wall panel please.”

“Oh yeah, sorry.”

Before Cam had a chance to protest, Cap had pushed at a rectangular outline in the wall. There was a low hiss and then the entire panel slid out of the wall, revealing a storage tray. Nestled inside the white padded container lay four faintly-glowing canisters.

Cam froze, barely believing his eyes. “Holy shit,” he said quietly.

The Avengers clearly caught onto SG1's sudden mood shift and were looking between the three members and the golden canisters.

“What are they?” Steve finally asked.

“ZPMs,” Daniel breathed, not bothering to hide the awe in his voice. And then, as though a switch had been flipped, the manic energy was back. Reaching out, he grabbed Steve and him pulled along to the next wall panel. “Quick, quick try the next one!”

All in all, they managed to count twelve ZPMs and, in panels lining the adjacent wall, several dozen brand new drones.

“Okay, I gotta say, this is beyond cool,” Cam finally admitted once they'd stood back to look over their bounty. “Can't see how the SGC can complain about this.”

“Except that ZPMs alone won't save Earth from the Ori,” Vala pointed out.

Meanwhile, Steve had gone over to a door at the far side of the storage area. He stared it for a few moments before shrugging and running his hand over it. The door slid open without problem and he grinned. He had to admit, it was sort of nice being able to do this. Especially when Daniel assured him that this wasn't just another side-effect of the serum. No, even sickly little Stevie Rogers would've been able to do this; it was a part of him, not Captain America.

Cautiously, he walked into what looked like a really big hanger. Workstations lined one wall and there were some very space-age looking control panels around the centre of the room. And at the far end, there was a podium.

Steve stuck his head back into the storage room.

“Hey Daniel,” he called. “I found your second stargate!”

 


 

Outside, the sun was starting to go down by the time anyone even thought about quitting for the day. Clint and Natasha spent the afternoon scouring the labs and offices for anything that looked like it could possibly shed light on what the facility was for. They managed to find several more Ancient tablets and Clint discovered a small laser weapon (which didn't actually help, but Clint was too delighted with it to care).

“Come on, Daniel, you haven't eaten since breakfast,” said Cam gently, having come to find his teammate long after everyone else had left. “It's time to call it a day.”

Daniel's response was to scowl harder at the diagram on the back of the transporter. Specifically, at the large darkened section at the bottom right corner. It was the only portion of the facility that wasn't labelled. It didn't even appear on many of the transporter diagrams, but on the few it did it was darkened and unmarked.

“There's something down there,” he whispered. “Possibly whatever's mentioned on the tablet, because I'm sure it's describing more than just a ZPM and Sam agreed with me. It's just... I don't know how to get to that part. Maybe there's a passkey or a code or even a secret entrance, but without accessing the systems we have no way figuring it out.”

He sighed tiredly and closed his eyes, bringing a hand up to rub at them. Cam laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. Daniel appreciated the gesture, but was too wound-up to give into the slight comfort it provided.

“Don't worry, Jackson, you'll figure it out. Maybe you just need to sleep on it.”

“Yeah, maybe,” he said automatically.

He knew without looking that Cam would know he didn't believe the words. Daniel felt frustrated, the frustration exhausting him far more than staring at Ancient script would have. To have come so far, to have found the place he was looking for, only to realize he didn't have the expertise needed to complete the mission... It was disheartening.

He wished Sam was here.

But he knew why she couldn't be here and he understood, agreed with it even. Just as he still didn't entirely regret leaving Tony Stark behind on Earth. Sure, the man was a genius, but he didn't know Ancient technology and didn't have the ATA gene – probably. Oh yeah, sure, no doubt he would've eventually managed to figure the tech out, possibly build himself his own interface into his Iron Man suit.

But they didn't have the time to wait for eventually.

The Ori were on their way to Earth. For all any of them knew, they were already there. Maybe the Earth would be conquered tonight while they slept. Maybe it had already been conquered.

Daniel opened his eyes. No one had thought the Goa'uld could be defeated either, but their empire had fallen. If Earth had already been conquered when they arrived, they would just have to win it back.

He nodded to Cameron and then both of them got into the transporter to head back up.

 


 

Steve was just coming back from his morning jog when the rest of the makeshift camp was beginning to stir. He nodded to Clint who'd taken the dawn watch.

“You had breakfast yet?” he asked him.

“Nah, I'm good for now,” he said. Then he held up a tin mug. “Though I won't say no to more coffee. Daniel made some before he headed back down to the gateroom.”

“Daniel's up already?” Steve asked with a frown.

Clint shrugged. “Said he couldn't sleep. I made sure he had his radio with him.”

Steve nodded. He'd head down himself after he'd grabbed some food to see if Daniel needed help. First, though, he poured coffee into the tin mug and brought it out to Clint, who smiled at him gratefully before looking out into the peaceful sunny morning. It had rained a bit overnight and the leftover moisture gave the air a clean, fresh feel as the first rays of sunlight reflected off leftover raindrops.

Steve's sketchbook was filling rapidly during the bits of downtime they had.

He grabbed a couple of MREs out of his pack and sat down onto a relatively flat piece of masonry to eat. One by one his teammates woke up and joined him. He couldn't help chuckle at the exasperated look that crossed Colonel Mitchell's face when he noticed Daniel was missing again.

He didn't remain missing for long, however.

They were all nearly done breakfast and in the middle of discussing their plans for the day, when the doors at the far end opened and Daniel burst through. Even from a distance they could tell by the determination in his stride that something had happened. The dejection that had clung to him the night before was gone.

The Avengers and SG1 were on their feet before he'd reached them.

“Daniel?” Vala asked.

“Everyone get your stuff together, we're moving out,” Daniel announced. “I'm going to go tell Hektor.”

Cam grabbed his arm to stop him before he ran off. “Woah, steady there, Daniel,” he said with a worried frown. “Is there a problem? You find something dangerous down there?”

Daniel paused and took a deep breath. “No, sorry, I didn't mean to scare anyone. There's no problem as such, except that I'm an archaeologist and a linguist, not a computer programmer or engineer. I'm an expert on Ancient culture, but what we need is an expert on Ancient tech and there's no point in pretending they're the same things, or that I could somehow miraculously transform into an astrophysicist overnight.”

“So, we're what, giving up?” Sam asked, his expression somewhere between outraged and disbelieving. “After all this?”

Daniel blinked. “What? No, of course we're not giving up. I'm not the expert we need right now, so what we need to do is go get the experts we do need.”

Mitchell frowned. “And how exactly do you figure we're going to do that?”

Daniel stared at him. “With the, uh, stargate down in the basement?”

A little over an hour later, the Avengers and SG1 were standing in front of the gate.

“Do you think the SGC is going to happy to see us?” Vala asked no one in particular.

“Probably,” Cam answered her anyway. He ran a hand through his hair. “Well, once we present them with souvenirs. But damn, I sure didn't think we'd be going back to Earth so soon.”

Daniel frowned and looked back to them. “Earth? Uh, we're not going back to Earth, guys.”

Cameron threw his arms up in exasperation. “Then I give, where the hell are you planning on finding experts on Ancient tech. Or did you find something new while the rest of us were still sleeping? Like maybe alien Yellow Pages?”

Daniel grinned. “I managed to pry off one of the sides of the podium the gate is sitting on. Turns out this particular gate comes with a built-in long distance plan.”

Cam frowned. “What do you mean?” he asked as Daniel began pressing the chevrons on the dialling computer.

The outer circle of the gate began to spin.

“There's a ZPM attached to this gate.”

As they watched, the gate continued to spin and one by one, the chevrons lit up. All seven of them. Then there was a pause – as though the gate itself was taking a deep breath – before the now-familiar wormhole kawooshed into existence. Daniel took out his GDO and sent out SG1's code.

He tapped his radio. “Hello, this is Daniel Jackson of SG1, do you read?”

For a few moments the room was entirely silent. And then his radio crackled to life.

“Hello Doctor Jackson, this is Atlantis. We read you loud and clear.”

Chapter Text


 

Jean-clad legs crossed at the ankle resting atop the round wooden kitchen table, Darcy Lewis idly flipped through a bright glossy magazine as she ate a sugary, cream-filled pastry. A steaming mug of coffee depicting the Eiffel Tower sat on the table beside her legs and a large paper bag sat further away, smelling of freshly-baked sugary goods. There were ear buds in her ears and her head bobbed along ever so slightly to the music.

A crackly buzzer sounded. Darcy turned a page.

It sounded again. Darcy frowned and looked up, pulling one of the ear buds out of her ears. She looked around, leaning her head backwards to look into what little she could see of the hallway.

The buzzer sounded for a third time. Darcy groaned and hung her head backwards for a moment before slipping her legs off the top of the table and tossing the magazine down, barely missing the coffee cup.

“I'll get it!” she called out as she walked out of the small kitchen and into the narrow hallway, not sure that anyone upstairs was even paying attention. She opened the door and leaned against the door frame. The mailman looked like he'd been about to leave.

“Oh, sorry luv, I didn't fink anyone was 'ome,” he apologized, the tiny curls covering his head bobbing as he swung around. His eyes instinctively zeroed in on her cleavage, before quickly darting back up to her face.

Darcy didn't miss the movement. She grinned lazily. “Yeah, Jane doesn't do mornings unless the world is ending,” she drawled. “And Thor doesn't get the whole doorbell thing. Like why would you announce yourself before you walk in when you can just announce your presence loudly after you've walked in?”

“Uh, yeah, right....” the man said, looking awkward. He consulted the tablet in his head. “I 'ave a package for a Ms. Jane Foster?”

“Oooh, fun times.” Darcy held out a hand. “I'll take it.”

The mailman looked unsure. “And you are?”

“Her assistant.”

The man looked her up and down. Darcy rolled her eyes. “She's a scientist; were you expecting a suit and tie?”

“Er... alright, just sign 'ere then, yeah?”

Darcy took his tablet and plucked the stylus out of the side, signing on the line he showed her. Forging Jane's signature was second nature to her now – made things easier in the long run. She wasn't even sure that Jane knew Darcy signed things for her, but she'd never complained about not having to sign things... The mailman then took back his tablet and handed her a large soft parcel wrapped in a grey plastic bag.

Darcy let the door slam shut behind her, more interested in the package than being quiet. She turned it over in her hands and read the shipping label.

“Darcy, was there someone at the door?” she heard Jane call from upstairs.

“Did you or Blond Thunder order anything from Amazon?” Darcy called back.

There was no answer as Darcy entered the kitchen, heading straight for the cutlery drawer where she knew she would find the scissors. She cut a slit into the plastic packaging and then tore it apart the rest of the way. She pulled the contents out and ran a hand over the soft surface. She unfolded it slightly and grinned.

“Darcy!” Jane exclaimed as she came rushing into the kitchen, hair sticking out in all directions, and looking frazzled. “Wait, don't open it! We didn't order anything!”

Her eyes widened when she saw the open packaging. Thor walked in sedately behind her and instantly the small kitchen felt even smaller.

“Geez, relax Jane,” said Darcy. She pulled out the shipping manifest. “Apparently it's for your anniversary.”

Jane paused, blinked. “Oh. It's our anniversary? Already?”

Darcy shrugged. “Beats me. I suppose it depends on when you're counting as the start of your relationship.”

“An anniversary?” Thor asked. His face burst into a beaming smile. “Splendid! That requires celebration, for the day my lady Jane felt fit to bestow her love upon me was truly a momentous day! I shall fell a stout boar for the occasion!”

Jane paled, quickly turning to Thor and grabbed his arms before he could bound off on his boar-felling quest. “Uh, Thor, honey no that's okay. I really don't need a boar and we wouldn't have anywhere to roast it or whatever it is you do with a boar. Instead you can, uh, go forth and order pizza. I like pizza and you like pizza, so it'll be perfect. It's a Midgardian tradition. Definitely.”

Darcy snickered as she watched Thor process this information. The poor thunder god looked slightly disappointed at having had his hunt thwarted, but thankfully seemed to be listening to Jane.

“Very well,” he said. “Pizza is indeed a delicacy worthy of the gods. As I am on Midgard, I shall do my best to uphold the finest of Midgardian traditions. And one day, I shall take you, fairest Jane, into the lofty walls of Asgard and throw a feast worthy of your beauty.”

“I'll be looking forward to it,” said Jane, sounding relieved.

Darcy pulled out the shipping manifest printout to see if it provided any clues as to the sender. She raised an eyebrow at the quality of the paper: since when did Amazon spring for anything other than cheap printer paper? A misshapen black dot at the bottom corner caught her her attention. For all intents and purposes it looked a lot like a printer error, but if she squinted she could just barely make out the shape of an eagle.

She rolled her eyes. Well, whoever sent this, she at least approved of their sense of humour. Straightening the paper out as she went, Darcy walked over to the sink and turned the water on, letting it run for a few minutes to get it as cold as possible (Coulson had said ice water, but that felt like too much effort). Then she carefully ran the paper under the water, letting the stream drench it completely before pulling it out again. The paper had stiffened and turned nearly translucent, the original printout unreadable due to the thick dark grey letters that materialized over top.

She turned off the tap and shook the paper off. She heard floorboards creek as Thor and Jane walked around the kitchen table to come take a look. When she'd finished reading the message she handed it over her shoulder to Jane and went over to the hutch. It was an ancient-looking piece of furniture made of dark stained wood that was probably pretending to be mahogany (and failing badly). It had come with the house and Jane didn't care enough to replace it. Sitting on its top shelf was a large blue and white ceramic jar labelled 'Rice' in big block letters. Darcy pulled it down and took the lid off.

Inside, there really was rice. In fact, it was probably the best-stocked container in the entire kitchen. Darcy slipped her hand into the rice and routed around until she found what she was looking for. With a triumphant noise, she pulled out a small, black flip-phone and blew over it to dislodge some of the more stubbornly-clinging rice grains.

She hit speedial three. The phone rang twice.

“Coulson.”

“Heya Secret Agent Man,” said Darcy brightly. “What's with all the bird monikers?”

There was a pause. “Hello Darcy. I'm not sure what you mean.”

“Well you've got Hawkeye and now I'm playing messenger for some Mockingbird.”

“What does it say?”

“Seriously, was Fury secretly an avid birdwatcher or something, 'cause that would just be, well mostly weird. I would've taken him for a lizard watcher myse–“

Darcy. The message, please.”

“Yeah, yeah, chill Son of Coul, I was getting to that,” she said with a grin. “She says sorry, she couldn't derail the search and now Hydra's going after some guy named Jack O'Neill.”

There was a pause. “Is it an assassination?”

“Nope, detain and question apparently.”

“Does she give a date?”

“Uh...” Darcy looked over to Jane and Thor. Jane looked back down at the the message and then looked back up and shook her head. “Nope, sorry, no dice on the date. You know this guy?”

“Not personally... he's a three-star general with the air force and, apparently, the head of Homeworld Security.”

Darcy blinked. “I'm sorry, did you just say Home-world Security? This about the Chitauri Invasion?”

“Yes, I did and no, it isn't. Ask Jane to set up her big telescopes to do a sweep of the Solar System. Oh, and check for bugs in the imaging program. I'd be curious to hear if you find anything.”

“Okie dokie. We'll call Selvig and get on that. By the way, I call dibs on any hot aliens we find.”

“In the interest in maintaining intergalactic peace I'm going to have to deny that request.”

Darcy gasped dramatically. “Coulson you're wounding me here! Don't you think intergalactic peace would be way easier to maintain if the person greeting the aliens was a beautiful young woman with impressive endowments rather than some stuffy suit surrounded by muscled gorillas packing double their bodyweight in firepower?”

“No comment.”

“You totally know I'm right.”

“Thank you for delivering the message, Darcy.”

“No problemo, Secret Agent Man.”

“Goodbye, Darcy.”

The phone went dead and Darcy blinked before rolling her eyes. “Would it seriously kill him to have a conversation like a normal person?” she asked the room at large.

“He's the director of SHIELD,” Jane pointed out with a small smile as she shuffled her way over to the coffeemaker. “That makes him 'not normal' by definition. Being legally dead probably helps.”

“Trufax.” Suddenly Darcy became aware of the gaping absence in the room. “Uh, where's Thor?”

Jane winced. “He went to get that celebratory pizza.”

Darcy's eyes widened. “Woah, seriously?! It's like...” She looked over at the digital display on the oven. “...okay one o'clock in the afternoon, not actually crazytime for pizza. But is he, like, planning to spend all day celebrating?!”

Jane shrugged. “Probably.”

She leaned against the counter as she took her first sip of coffee. Her eyes closed in bliss and she moaned softly. Darcy giggled. Jane's eyes flew open.

“Oh, hey I almost forgot,” she said. “What was in the package anyway?”

Darcy grinned widely and reached for the soft bundle. “Oh it's the perfect gift for Thor's girlfriend,” she said as she tore off the rest of the packaging and let it unravel. “A soft, cozy Captain America fleece blanket.”

Jane stared at the red, white and blue blanket. She blinked once. “It really does look soft and cozy,” she finally said.

Moments later their eyes met and they promptly dissolved into giggles.

Chapter Text


 

Tony had been expecting the call. He just hadn't expected it to come while he was holding a soldering iron. Which he nearly dropped when the phone in his pocket buzzed seconds before AC/DC started blaring from his pants. Thankfully he managed to refrain from dropping it on top of Sargent Siler's head. Because that would've been a real shame; he liked Siler even if he stubbornly refused to call him Tony.

“Shit, dammit,” he cursed, fumbling with the iron. By the time he'd managed to pass it down to Siler, his phone had gone silent.

The sargent set the soldering iron down on the nearby workstation and came back to grip the ladder Tony was standing on. “Do you need to return the call, sir?” he asked politely.

Tony looked at the digital clock hanging on the far wall and shrugged. “Nah, it's probably Pepper: she'll call back in a bit. You could get me some coffee though. I definitely need coffee, even crap military coffee.”

There was barely a pause before he nodded and then turned towards the door. Tony gaped after him. The guy was an engineer for fuck's sake and here was Tony demanding he get him coffee and the guy barely blinked! He could give Coulson a run for his stoic money.

Siler stuck his head out of the door. “Airman!” he called into the hallway. “Get us a carafe of coffee from the mess!”

Tony's ears just made out the muffled 'Yes, sir' that followed the order and then Siler was turning back to them.

“That's what we have enlisted men for, sir,” he told Tony. Then he turned to Sam – who was biting her lip in amusement. “Ma'am, if it's alright with you, I'd like to go check on the progress of the back-up palladium core.”

“Yes, of course, go ahead Sargent,” she said.

Siler nodded to her and then to Tony, and then he was out the door, closing it softly behind him. Tony threw his arms up.

“Okay, seriously, what the hell does it take to flap the guy!” he exclaimed. “Even Bruce and Jarvis question some of my crazier requests and schemes. So does Pepper and all of them know me – which, now that I think of it might be why they question some of my schemes, but that's not the point. The point is that this guy has his own dictionary entry right beside the words 'unflappable' and 'stoic'.”

Sam burst out laughing. Tony glowered at her as he scooted down the ladder.

“Well, if Sargent Siler is 'flappable', I haven't seen it,” she said once she'd finally stopped laughing. “And I've seen lock-down situations due to alien invasions, technological invasions, viruses, not to mention all the bizarre requests he's gotten over the years thanks to things we've found on the other side of the gate. But I've never seen Siler ever be anything other than calm and competent. Or in pain, since he sort of tends to get injured a lot.”

Her eyes narrowed as she looked at Tony. “And, no, you can't have him.”

Tony didn't even bother denying that he'd been spending the past two hours putting together the most enticing employment package imaginable to lure the engineer to the Stark Industries R&D department.

“Pretty sure that's up to him,” said Tony lightly. “And I can be very persuasive when I want to be. So can my HR department.”

Sam smirked. “Siler's been with the SGC for nearly the entire time it's been in operation, bar a few temporary transfers to Area 51 and a couple other projects. I can guarantee you that nothing you can offer him will come even close to comparing. It's like the ultimate engineering playground. I mean, Siler's had to build everything from the trinium barrier for the 'gate, to mobile platforms, containment units for nanobots, wooden plows and freshwater wells, to helping with spaceship repairs.”

Tony opened his mouth to protest... and then closed it, frowning.

“I've heard rumours that he's even refused promotions that would take him out of the SGC,” Sam added softly. “And no CO's been willing to push it, because he's too much of an asset.”

Tony sighed. Yeah, okay, so the guy was built from the same engineering mould Tony was. Without the genius part, of course. He definitely hadn't missed the spark of excitement in his eyes when Sam had introduced Tony and explained what they'd be doing. Sam had let Tony explain what he'd need to create the device that would then create the core for the arc reactor (there'd been no point in Tony creating one in his own lab because they'd need a much bigger one than even the one powering Avengers Tower). Then Tony had handed him a USB with the designs, stood back and waited for the inevitable barrage of questions that usually came from the labcoats he worked with – not that Siler wore a lab coat, which was actually another point in his favour now that Tony had thought of it – but they never came. No, Sargent Siler had thought about the instructions for a moment, then asked one clarifying question about the structural integrity the input ducts would be required to maintain and the force that would be generated within the main chamber itself.

Then he'd said, “I think I understand. I'll get right on it, sir, ma'am.”

And then he'd left Tony blinking after him as he disappeared down into the depths of Area 51's white-washed hallways. Three hours later, he'd called down to request that Tony come down to verify their progress. Sure, he hadn't gotten it completely perfect and Tony did some tweaking here and there, especially around the pressurized intake valve, but it was close enough that Tony felt fairly confident in leaving the project in the Sargent's hands.

It was amazing just how smoothly a project went when he didn't have to babysit every single step of it personally. Now that they'd relocated from Sam's lab to the main area where they'd be building the reactor, he'd gotten the pleasure of working with the other engineer directly and realized that, oh yes, the other man was a tinkerer all right. He'd even modified bits of Tony's plans when he didn't have the right materials on-site and Tony couldn't find anything wrong with the modifications no matter how hard he'd tried.

Tony was having so much fun it was easy to forget about the big bad alien armada that was the reason for the whole engineering fun-fest.

His phone buzzed and AC/DC sounded out of his pocket again. This time he was ready for it and snatched it out, sighing at the screen. Yup, it was Pepper. Steeling himself, he answered the call, automatically putting it on speakerphone.

“Hey Pep–”

“Tony, where the hell are you?! You promised me you'd be at this investor's meeting and now Jarvis is telling me you're not only not in the Tower, but not even in New York. I don't care if aliens are about to attack, this is important!”

Tony winced. “You know, someone could make the argument about your skewed priorities...”

Tony...

He looked over at Sam, who gave him a sympathetic smile. Which gave him an idea. “Okay, look, if the investors give you a hard time, then tell them I'm helping the Air Force with something.”

There was a pause on the other end. “Tony, you actually expect me to believe you took on an Air Force contract without discussing it with me? Or that you took on an Air Force contract period for that matter.”

“Ah, well, there's not really a contract per say...”

“Then what is it?”

“Well, I'm building them a giant arc reactor to power the dimensional phase shift device that they're planning to use to save the world.”

Stunned silence followed, and then a sigh. “Tony, you're building the Air Force an arc reactor for free?”

“Er...” In his excitement to get a look at Sam's dimensional phase shifting device along with a glimpse at the legendary Area 51, money hadn't even entered his head. Funny, that was usually the first thing he'd snap out at SHIELD. Damn, Sam was good. “Yes? I mean, it's to save the world, so ultimately the paycheque is not watching everyone die which is a good thing, right?”

“Excuse me, if I may,” Sam suddenly cut in. Tony looked up to find she'd circled her work station and was standing only several feet away from him, her hands clasped behind her back and a pleasant smile on her face. “My name is Colonel Samantha Carter. I requested Doctor Stark's assistance in this matter on the recommendation of my friend and teammate, Doctor Daniel Jackson. In exchange I have added both of your names to what we call the Alpha Site Designation List.”

“What's the Alpha Site Designation List?” Pepper asked, trepidation clear in her voice.

“It's a list of people- well, you can think of it as the passenger list for the lifeboat. Should the worst happen.”

Pepper's sharp intake of breath came in clear through the phone's speaker and Tony felt the world shift side-ways. A lifeboat list... of course the Air Force had a lifeboat list. A list of people that likely wasn't long enough, not by a long shot. He wondered how they'd chosen those people. Did they do a lottery? Did they pick out all their own people? Were their families on the list or would they have to leave their children behind, their spouses? And what was the lifeboat? An underground bunker? A spaceship? A – no, he realized.

“The stargate,” he whispered, closing his eyes. “You're planning to send them through the stargate to another planet. To...”

“To rebuild, to survive, to make sure humanity – Earth – doesn't completely die,” Sam finished.

Tony opened his eyes and looked at her. He didn't want to know, but he had to ask. “Have you ever...?”

She hesitated. “Twice,” she finally answered.

“Oh god.”

There was a knock at the door and a kid who looked barely old enough to drive walked in carrying a tray containing a carafe and several mugs (he probably wasn't on the list). Sam thanked him and told him to leave it on the work station. When the door shut behind him, Tony managed to pull himself together and swallowed down the sudden fear.

Suddenly, the aliens weren't millions of light years away happily flying through some distant part of space; they were breathing down his neck, threatening everyone and everything he cared about.

He took a deep breath. “Pepper, you'll have to run the investor's meeting without me. Make my excuses, whatever. And then you know how we have the basement levels re-enforced in case of, well, in case of emergency? I need you to pack the levels with emergency supplies: food, water, blankets, whatever you think is best.”

“You can get Cassie to do it,” Sam suggested. “She was raised by air force people; she'll know what to get together.”

“Right, yeah, she might be tired of playing lab assistant to Bruce by now,” he said. “And you know what, give everyone the day off tomorrow – no, the next two days. Tell them it's a reward for the successful launch of the new Starkphone or something. Tell them to spend it with their families. In fact, make it an order: they are to spend the next two days with their families or partners or hell their cats and dogs if that's who they've got.”

He could hear Pepper take a deep breath. “Alright Tony, I'll see what I can do. It was nice to meet you, Colonel Carter.”

“You as well and Ms. Potts, I'd recommend you pack a small case just in case. Nothing fancy, and definitely nothing frivolous. If the worst should happen, you'll be needing hiking books and a good pair of jeans more than high heels and a skirt where you'll be going.”

“I... yes, of course. I'll do it as soon as I get back to the penthouse.”

“It was nice to meet you, Pepper.”

“Pep, I'll call you when I get a chance,” said Tony. “I-” He swallowed.

“Anthony Edward Stark don't you dare! This is not good-bye. I'll pack you a case tonight too and if the worst should happen, I'll see you in... Colorado I think it was.”

Tony chuckled. “Yeah, it was Colorado. Okay then, good luck and I'll see you in either New York or Colorado.”

“Good luck, Tony. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go make your excuses to the investors. Again.”

Pepper hung up and Tony took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. He turned to Sam.

“So, as far as a suggestion for payment goes, that was a pretty good one,” he said. His eyes hardened. “And now that you've told my girlfriend about it, I expect you to keep it. I mean, I'll probably be here 'till the bitter end right beside you trying to save the world, but Pepper? If this lifeboat of yours leaves, I expect her to be on it.”

Sam's eyes twinkled. “Oh don't worry, she will,” she said cheekily. “Both your names were added to the list about two years ago.”

Tony blinked. “Son of a bitch,” he said. “That was... that was downright underhanded. I'm so proud.”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh please, you're not even close to being the one who taught me.”

He grinned. “Now then, I guess that means we can get back to work! But with coffee, because I definitely didn't miss the coffee that came in with that enlisted man – I'm a new fan of enlisted men... enlisted people? Enlistees? Whatever. Where's Siler anyway?”

He headed directly for the carafe, happily pouring himself a mug of dark liquid he knew would taste much worse than it smelled, but held enough caffeine to keep an elephant awake (Sam told him it was Area 51's special brew – there was even a small roastery on-site run by a co-op of biologists, physicists and the occasional air force officer).

He ignored the snickering coming from the computer console and turned to the Iron Man suit standing in the corner of the room.

“Alright, J, hit me: how are those calculations going?”

There was a pause and then Jarvis came over the speaker: “I apologize, sir, I'm afraid I'm having a bit of difficulty calculating the conversion from the arc reactor into the device. All projections indicate the energy generated by the device itself as incompatible with that of the arc reactor, which has a 75% chance of resulting in a system overload with a 60% chance of explosion.”

Tony cringed. “Okay that's not good. Jarvis, bring it up on screen.”

Tony hurried over to where Sam was already standing in front of the mass of computer screens set up in the corner of the room. There was a whiteboard next to it where Tony had drawn a diagram for Siler earlier. Jarvis' calculations were already up on the farthest left-most screen and the two scientists scrolled through them.

“Damn,” Sam finally said, running a hand through her hair. “Okay, this could be a problem.”

“It's fixable though,” Tony rushed to assure her. “I mean, it's just a matter of figuring out the exact energy ratio we need to balance out the arc reactor and compensate for the energy created by the phase shift device.”

“Yes, I realize it's doable,” Sam snapped. “It's matter of whether or not we can get it done in time. We still have to finish assembling the pressurized chamber we need to create the vibranium in. Unless you want to forget the vibranium and just go with the back-up palladium core.”

Tony thought about it for a moment, ran a few calculations, before shaking his head. “No, at this level of output it'd burn out too fast. The palladium is a good thing to have on hand just in case, but we definitely need the vibranium core.”

“Then it's down to a lack of manpower.”

Tony frowned. “I'd have thought you'd have, like, hundreds of scientists working in here.”

“We do, but they're all running diagnostics or upgrades on a dozen other defence projects. Once they're finished, then yes we'll have more help, but for now it's us and Siler's engineering staff.”

Tony's frown deepened. Other defence projects? What sort of defence projects would rate higher than this dimensional phase shift device?

The door opened just as Tony was about to ask and Siler stepped into the room.

“How's does it look?” Sam asked him.

“The palladium core will be ready by eighteen hundred, ma'am,” Siler answered promptly. “Doesn't look like there should be any complications. And we just got word that Doctors Lee and Kavanaugh have finished calibrating the ion cannons and should be heading back within the hour.”

Sam let out a breath. “Okay, that's good, we could use the help,” she said. “We've run into a snag with the energy calculations...”

Worry flashed through Siler's eyes. “Are we still proceeding with the project?”

Her eyes widened. “What? Oh, yes, yes of course we are. We've come too far at this point and it can work. We just have to figure out how to make it work.”

“It'll work,” said Tony. “Jarvis, keep at those calculations. Try everything you can think of.”

Sam rubbed a hand across her face and took a deep breath. “Damn I wish we had more time.”

“We might, ma'am,” said Siler. “We don't actually know when the Ori ships will be arriving.”

Sam smiled wryly at him. “Which means we might have days, or we might have hours... Okay, no, probably not hours. The Tok'ra's information has given us at least another day, but that's all we know for sure.”

“The Tok'ra?” Tony asked. “Who or what are the Tok'ra?”

Sam waved him off. “Sorry, it's really way too complicated to go into now. If we survive this I'll tell you.” She took a deep breath. “Which means we really need to get back to work. And I need to report our problem to the general.”

“Why?” Tony demanded. “We're going to figure it out, so why would you report it to anyone?”

“Because if the Pentagon needs to have all the information available to them if they're going to order an evacuation to the Alpha Site. You know, that lifeboat we just talked about?”

“Ah, right.”

Then she nodded to both of them and walked off towards the landline phone in the corner of the room – and really, why the hell did Area 51 of all places still have landlines? She dialled the first two numbers before pausing and slamming the receiver back down and running back to the computer station. She practically threw herself into the desk chair, rolled over to the next computer over and began typing. Tony walked around the desk to get a look at the screen.

“Personnel records?” he said with a raised eyebrow.

Sam nodded absently. “Right now, we've got all our people running ragged trying to come up with a defensive plan; there's a dozen of them working hard on a multi-phase ion wave cannon on the other end of the base. I could pull one or two of them to this project and that might help, but what if their absence means that the cannon doesn't get completed?”

Tony blinked. A multi-phase ion wave cannon... that sounded kinda cool. “Do you think they'll manage to get it completed?”

Sam winced. “Well... no, probably not. It requires melding Tollan ion cannon technology with Asgard photon beams which aren't technologies that were ever meant to work together in the first place and we've only barely gotten a hand on how the ion cannon works...”

“Wait, woah, Asgard technology? You have Asgard tech?! Where the hell did you get Asgard tech from and why did SHIELD and therefore by extension me not know about this?”

Sam blinked, paused. “Oh, right, you're thinking of the Asgardians.” She waved him off before she continued typing. “Later. It's an even longer story- Aha!”

Grinning triumphantly, she reached over for the phone (another landline) sitting at the corner of the desk and started dialling.

“So, who are you calling then?” Tony asked. “Another genius friend of yours? 'Cause Jarvis is working on it. I mean, I made him, so he's almost as smart as me; he'll figure it out.”

“I'm sure he is, Tony and no offence meant Jarvis, but sometimes a computer just can't replace human creativity and leaps of imagination.”

“I take no offence at that remark, Colonel. Indeed, I often find myself perplexed at the more creative of sir's ideas and I must agree that I am not capable of such leaps of imagination.”

“Hey, my creative ideas are always brilliant!”

“If you say so, sir.”

Sam giggled.

“So, who are you calling anyway?”

“A mathematical genius who's not directly affiliated with the project, but has security clearance and has helped us out before. I just hope she'll be willing to do it again.”

That caught Tony's interest. “A mathematical genius? What sort of mathematical genius?”

Sam grinned at him impishly as the phone connected. They heard it ring over the speakerphone.

“The sort who calculates part of the Einstein-Rosen bridge on a Monday night using her daughter's finger paints.”

The ringing stopped as the phone was picked up. There was some interference as someone apparently fumbled with the receiver. Then there were a few moments of silence.

“Hello,” said a small, quiet voice.

Sam bit her lip. “Uh, hi, is this Madison?”

“Uh huh. Who are you?”

“Hi Madison, my name is Sam. I'm a friend of your mom's... is she there?”

“Ye-es.”

There were a few moments of silence during which Tony contemplated strangling the kid over the phone. Sam, thankfully seemed to have more patience.

“Could you get her for me, honey?” she asked.

And then there was another, muffled voice in the background and more movement and a hurried, whispered exchange of voices.

“Hello, I'm so sorry about that.”

Sam let out a breath of relief. “Hi, Jeannie, it's Sam Carter.”

“Oh no, what's he done now?”

Tony blinked. That was usually the sort of thing people asked about him, but he was certain he didn't know any Jeannie Millers who used finger paint to write mathematical equations. He was sure he'd remember that sort of thing.

“Uh, as far as I know Rodney's fine; he hasn't done anything–“

“–As far as you know? What do you mean as far as you know? Colonel, the last time you people called me it was to tell me my brother was dying and then I travelled all the way to the Pegasus Galaxy in order to watch one of the greatest scientific minds of our time reduced to the state of a toddler! So is my brother okay or isn't he?”

Tony knew he should be objecting to the 'greatest minds of our time', but his brain had gotten stuck at 'travelled all the way to the Pegasus Galaxy' and didn't entirely seem willing to move past that. Holy shit, Daniel had really being holding out on them. Then again, he never would've gotten him to stay on Earth if he'd told them there was an option to travel to another galaxy...

Sam, meanwhile, had taken a deep breath.

“Jeannie, I'm sorry, we haven't had any real contact with Atlantis since we were ordered into blackout conditions after the whole Hydra debacle in Washington. Their last, brief communique was over a month ago and at that point everyone was fine, including Rodney.”

There was the sound of a deep breath being taken. “Okay, good. That's, well, not great, but I guess no news is better than bad news. So what can I help you with, Sam?”

Tony didn't hear the rest of their conversation, because that was when Siler approached him with a tablet to ask him about the arc reactor's casing. Apparently, they had a small supply of a metal called trinium, which was a metal they mined off-world, and he wanted to know if it would harm the rest of the reactor. When Sam joined, she seemed thrilled with the idea and so off Siler went to give his team instructions while Tony and Sam finished putting together the device they'd use to create the vibranium core.

He'd never, ever tell Pepper, but possible end of the world not-withstanding, this was actually a lot of fun. He just hoped Jarvis managed to hack Area 51's computer system while he worked on those calculations, because he desperately wanted to read those reports.

Also, he was incredibly curious to see whether finger-paint woman would manage to solve the energy transfer problem before Jarvis.

Chapter Text


 

WHEEL

It was a quiet morning on Atlantis as bright sunlight streamed into the control room, bathing the stargate in a halo of light. It was a marked contrast to the flashes of light that had illuminated it overnight thanks to a rather spectacular thunderstorm that had ushered in the beginning of what this planet considered to be autumn. The waves had been so high that the on-duty medical staff had been giving out doses of sea-sickness medication throughout the night and had been happy that the worse injury had been a broken wrist. And so very few people in the control room were actually admiring the haloed stargate, their fingers flying over control panels as their eyes instead analyzed the readings they were getting on the display screens, trying to figure out what damage had been done.

They all paused and looked up when the stargate began to spin.

Chuck activated his comm. “Control room to Colonel Sheppard,” he said.

Two chevrons encoded.

“Sheppard here. What is it?”

“We have an incoming wormhole, sir.”

“Woolsey coming back early?”

“I don't know, sir.”

“On my way.”

Colonel Sheppard walked in, tailed by Ronon, just as he gate had finished dialling. Chuck activated the shield and then watched as the wormhole opened with its usual splash of bright blue light. He stared at the readout.

“So, what have we got?” Sheppard asked as he came to stand behind him.

“It-it's from the Milky Way, sir.”

The disbelief in the man's voice made the colonel look down. “The SGC?” he asked hopefully.

Chuck shook his head. “No sir, the address is unknown.”

“Sir, we're receiving an incoming transmission,” said Amelia Banks at the next counsel. She looked up at Sheppard, barely-hidden surprise on her face. “I'm confirming SG-1's IDC.”

Sheppard blinked in surprise, exchanging looks with the people in the room. He nodded to the woman. “Put it through.”

“Hello, this is Daniel Jackson of SG1, do you read?”

“Hello Doctor Jackson, this is Atlantis. We read you loud and clear.”

“Oh Colonel Sheppard, hello. We've found some, uh, Ancient devices, and we were wondering if Rodney could take a look at them. Permission to enter the city?”

Sheppard frowned, his eyes narrowing. The voice sounded like Daniel Jackson alright, but that didn't mean it was. “Didn't know the SGC allowing gate travel again?” he drawled.

There was a pause. “Uh, well, they're not really. We're... not entirely on a sanctioned mission. We do come bearing gifts though.”

He perked up. “Is it coffee? 'Cause right now, coffee's worth more than gold around here.”

He heard Daniel chuckle. “Nope, sorry, but you're not getting my field rations of coffee. I will defend them with my life. However, I do think this might just be worth more than even coffee.”

Sheppard nodded, wishing he'd taken the time to get to know the archaeologist well enough to be able to subtly tell whether or not this was actually him. He shook his head. He supposed he was just going to have to take that risk.

“Alright, now you've got me curious, Doc,” he said. “Permission to come through granted; we're taking the shield down.”

He made a cutting motion to Banks and watched as she cut off communications. “Call McKay,” he then told her. “Tell him to drop whatever he's working on and get up here immediately.”

He then walked out from behind the main control panel and caught the eyes of the security personnel stationed around the control room, carefully watching what was going on.

“Eyes sharp, people,” he announced. “But don't make it too obvious. This could be Doctor Jackson, or not. Might even be some left-over Goa'uld wearin' his body.” He looked back towards Ronon. “Stay back in case I need you for back-up.”

Ronon nodded.

He finally turned to Chuck and nodded. A few moments later, the familiar shimmer of the shield appeared for a second before it winked out of existence. And then Daniel Jackson stepped through the gate. The first thing he did was look around, but John could tell he wasn't actually paying any attention to the officers stationed around the room. No, it looked more like he was just taking in his surroundings, looking around at an old friend he was happy to see again. His eyes crinkled with happiness for a short while, before he finally turned his gaze towards John and his expression grew serious again.

John felt himself relax.

“Colonel Sheppard, long time no see,” Daniel greeted him.

“Yeah, good to see you again Doctor Jackson,” John answered, returning his smile. Meanwhile, he noticed the rest of SG1 wander in through the wormhole out of the corner of his eye, along with a few others...

John froze, taking in the tall, imposing, larger-than-life figure wearing red, white and blue.

“That's–”

“–Okay this had better be damn important,” Rodney's voice suddenly burst into the control room, followed by the man himself making an appearance at the top of the stairs. “I was busy re-calibrating the internal sensors 'cause they got thrown out of whack in the storm last night and we all remember what happened the last time the internal sensors got screwed up, right? I somehow don't think we want emergency protocols to get triggered the next time someone takes a hot shower. Although at least this time I won't be stuck in the biology labs so it'll all get taken care of a lot faster – oh, hey Daniel, when did you arrive?”

Daniel smiled. “Hey Rodney, we just got here.” He gestured behind him. “We brought you presents. In return for which I hope you'll be willing to give us a hand cracking a couple Ancient databases.”

Rodney's eyes had lit up excitedly. “Presents? You brought me presents? Oooh, is it coffee? 'Cause I'd be willing to do quite a lot for coffee right about now.”

John grabbed him by the upper arm. “Rodney,” he hissed into his ear. “He brought Captain America with him.”

Rodney's annoyed scowl turned confused. He glanced to the others behind Daniel, sweeping through them to single out a semi-familiar figure who was staring up at the stained glass windows of the upper floor in awe. He looked back to John.

“Uh, yeah sure, I can see that,” he said.

John sighed. Clearly the scientist wasn't getting it. “It's Captain America,” he tried again.

Rodney blinked. “And I'm Canadian. Your point? Oh wait, that's right: you read his comic books and fanboyed all over them and now you get to meet your hero in person. That's great. Congratulations or something. Just don't drool all over him. Now let go of me so I can go see my presents.”

“I do not drool,” John felt the need to point out as he glared at his sometimes-friend (obviously not at this moment). He let go of him and Rodney walked over to Daniel, who was also looking around, but with a confused frown.

“You know I was almost expecting Woolsey to deny our request without confirmation from the SGC,” he said carefully. “Where is he anyway?”

John shrugged. “He was on a diplomatic mission to discuss trade for food with one of the farming settlements we've come across and then got stuck there when the mother of all storms decided to hit us last night.”

“Oh please, it wasn't that bad,” said Rodney dismissively. “Temporarily knocked out a couple of systems, no big. We're mostly just running maintenance right now to make sure nothing got fried by lightening. And re-calibrating the internal sensors, but that's stuff I could do in my sleep with both hands tied behind my back. The storm when the Genii attacked? That was the mother and grandmother of all storms.”

John gave Rodney a look, remembering just how twitchy and panicky the scientist had been throughout the night. Then he turned back to Daniel with a grin and clapped his hands together, rubbing them excitedly. “So what've you got for me?”

Daniel smirked and turned to Captain America – who, now that John was paying attention again, was carrying a large crate. “Steve?” he said innocently and John's brain stalled for a moment at the use of Captain America's real name.

The blond's expression didn't change. Instead he stepped forward and placed the crate he was holding gently on the ground. Daniel bent over and unlatched the lid, pulling it up to reveal four glowing crystals sitting atop of what looked like a pile of white drones.

He thought he heard Rodney gasp, but was too busy gaping to check.

Holy shit, SG1 had brought them ZPMs.

 


 

The moment Steve had heard Atlantis responding, his mouth had widened into an excited grin. Atlantis, The Lost City, the dream of every adventurer, and it hardly mattered that someone had found it before him, because he was apparently going to see it for his own eyes. He felt a pang of sorrow as his thoughts fleetingly turned to Bucky, wishing his friend was here to share this adventure just like he'd shared every adventure with him when they were children.

“Dude, Atlantis is on another planet?” he heard Clint mutter beside him.

“Explains how they were able to keep it quiet,” Sam answered him.

“Yeah, no kidding.”

Steve looked to the side and noticed Cameron and Vala watching them with knowing smiles. When Cam noticed him looking, he shrugged.

“Hey, Atlantis is just as cool as it sounds,” he said. Then frowned. “Except for the wraith.”

“The wraith?” Steve asked.

Cam never got the chance to answer as then they were being given permission to come through. So he picked up the crate they'd loaded up with drones and four of the glowing ZPMs and followed Daniel through the gate.

The trip felt different this time – Steve couldn't exactly pin-point how it was different, but he walked out the other side feeling like he'd somehow been stretched thinner than before, the cold felt sharper. He didn't stumble, but it was close. He had to take a deep breath to shake off the deep-down coldness that felt too much like ice.

Then he looked around and his breath caught for an entirely different reason. Whatever he'd ever imagined Atlantis to look like, this wasn't it. Daniel didn't even have to tell him that the same people – the Ancients – who'd designed the temple, had designed Atlantis as well. It was obvious in every line, every smooth polished surface. He felt eyes on him from all around, but he ignored them. Steve didn't think he would ever get used to the attention Captain America brought with him, but he'd gotten fairly good at gritting his teeth and ignoring it.

The room they were in wasn't large, but it felt grand. A main entrance from the Stargate, it was clearly meant to impress. Large staircases leading up to a smaller second level gave the illusion of even more space as well as giving a welcoming feel. There were about half a dozen soldier lined up along the railing of the second level, and what looked like it could be a control room behind a glass wall. He also caught a glimpse of an office in the back corner.

Sun beat down on him from behind and he turned around. Behind the gate was another staircase leading to an alcove bathed in light from the windows that surrounded it from every angle. Towards the top, the windows became smaller, pieced together between metal frames like shards of gleaming light. Through the windows he could see bright blue sky.

“So, Atlantis is not only no longer lost, but also no longer sunk,” Sam said quietly, bringing Steve out of his musings.

“Yeah, looks like,” he said quietly back.

He looked back to Daniel, who was now speaking with two men at the bottom of the stairs. They were both wearing military-style BDUs, but of a different design to those the personnel at the SGC had worn. Daniel looked back and met his eyes.

“Steve?” he said.

Steve took that as his cue and stepped forward with the crate, carefully setting it down in front of the two men from Atlantis. He eyed their uniforms more closely as Daniel bent down to open the crate. The taller of the two men had a playful twinkle in his eyes and slightly shaggy hair that would've only just passed regulations. The military insignia on his shoulder identified him as a Lieutenant Colonel, though Steve frowned in confusion at the US flag stitched onto the uniform beneath the insignia. Then he looked to the other man and took in the lack of rank insignia and the Canadian flag stitched onto the same spot.

He looked up at the security detail standing guard around the room and was amazed to pick out US flags, along with more Canadian flags and even two Russian flags. They also seemed to be gathering a crowd of on-lookers that looked to be a mixture of civilian and military. Steve caught sight of a few Chinese flags, several German flags and a British one among the group.

“This place is international,” he breathed, feeling even more awed than before.

“Yup, we've got a complement of 279 people representing 23 different countries from around the world, both civilian and military.”

Steve looked back to the colonel who'd spoken. Standing next to him, Daniel smiled at Steve and then looked to the other Avengers, all of whom had come closer (except for Natasha who seemed to locked in a staring contest with a large, fierce-looking man with dreadlocks standing about half-way up the stairs) before gesturing to the colonel.

“This is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, head of Atlantis' military contingent,” he said and then gestured to the other man, the one with the Canadian flag. “And this is Doctor Rodney McKay, Head of the Science Department and that man in the back with the apparent death wish is Ronon Dex.”

Ronon raised a hand and waved at them without breaking eye contact with Natasha.

Sheppard looked over his shoulder with a perplexed look on his face. “Ronon, what are you doing?”

“Nothin',” the tall man with dreadlocks replied.

“Dude, don't even think about it,” said Clint, amusement evident in his voice. “She'll break you in half.”

His face slowly slid into a smirk. “That a challenge?” he asked.

Natasha smirked back. “Would you like it to be?” she drawled, her eyes never wavering.

Ronon's eyes sparked with delight and his grin was full of teeth. “I'll be in the training room tonight at seven.”

“I'll find you.”

“Good.”

Finally, Ronon turned away and nodded to the others before stuffing his hands into his pockets and bounding up the stairs and out of sight. Steve sighed and shook his head.

“Please remember we're guests here and leave him mostly in one piece,” he said.

Natasha looked over to him with a pleased smile. “No promises, Cap.”

Colonel Sheppard cleared his throat. “Er, so who exactly did Ronon just challenge?” he asked, looking slightly worried.

Steve heard Daniel chuckle before pointing to each of the group in sequence. “That would be Ms. Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow. Next to her we've got Clint Barton, Sam Wilson, Captain Steve Rogers and, of course Vala and Cam you already know.”

Sheppard shook Natasha and Clint's hands and then grinned widely at Sam.

“Hey, good to see you again, Sam,” he said.

Sam grinned back. “Yeah, you too, you crazy son-of-a-bitch,” he said. “How the hell did you end up here?”

“Believe it or not, I nearly crashed a helicopter with a three-star general inside.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “You crashing helicopters: no, really?” He looked over to Steve. “You know I swear this guy spent more time crashing helicopters than flying 'em.”

“Hey! I'll have you know this time totally wasn't my fault!” He paused thoughtfully and then pointed to the Canadian beside him. “Actually, it was his fault.”

“W-what?!” Doctor McKay stuttered. “It was not! Carson was the one in the chair!”

“Yeah, but he wouldn't have been in the chair if it weren't for you, ergo, it's your fault.”

“He was only supposed to make the drone float a bit, not shoot out at your helicopter! How was I supposed to know he was that incompetent?”

Daniel cleared his throat. “You know it did all work out and Jack wasn't even hurt, so it really doesn't matter,” he said. “Besides, if the drone hadn't attacked the helicopter, then Jack would've never invited John into the base with him and none of us would've known that he has the ATA gene.”

That got Steve's attention. “You have the Ancient gene?” he asked. Logically he knew there had to be more people like him with this special gene – Daniel had said as much when he'd told them about it – but it was still exciting to actually meet one of those people in person.

“Next to Jack, John's one of the strongest carriers we've ever encountered,” said Daniel.

“Wow.”

“Of course we have no idea where exactly you fall in strength...”

Colonel Sheppard's eyes widened. “Wait, whoa.” He looked at Steve in astonishment. “You have the ATA gene?”

“Apparently.”

Sheppard grinned and stuck a hand out. “Well, if you have any questions about how to use any of the stuff on base just let me know,” he said as Steve shook his hand. “It's a real honour to meet you. I've been reading your comic books since I was a kid.”

Steve chuckled. “Weren't my comic books. Most of the stories were completely made up by the writers. They just slapped my face onto it.”

Beside him, Doctor McKay rolled his eyes. “If you're done with the hero worship, can you get someone to help me with this?”

“Oh, I can carry it for you, Doctor,” said Steve quickly.

Colonel Sheppard immediately waved him off. “Don't be ridiculous, you're guests and we've got dozens of marines cooling their heels just waiting for something to do. 'Sides, Doc'll need to look you over first. SOP for anyone arriving on base.”

Steve bit his lip to stop his immediate protest that he couldn't get sick. He glanced at his team. Sam seemed to be taking it in stride, but Natasha and Clint didn't look one bit happy. He sighed.

Suddenly, Daniel cleared his throat. “Actually, Colonel, would you mind if we take a look outside first?”

Sheppard blinked and then grinned a decidedly lopsided grin. “I think that could be arranged, Doc.” He made a motion with his head. “Follow me.”

He led them up the stairs and past the control room. A set of large doors slid open before him and he stepped aside and beckoned them to go ahead. Natasha went first and from right behind her, Steve just barely managed to hear a quiet sound of surprise.

There was a slight breeze that smelt of saltwater and faintly of fish. Steve stepped up to the balcony's railing and stared out in amazement. The painting they'd seen of Atlantis had been beautiful, but had barely done the city justice. They were in a tower and on all sides he could see the elegant, fine lines of the city's other towers climbing towards the sky, though he could see none as tall as the one they were in. Tony would love this place, he knew. It was a pinnacle of modern architecture with its metal and glass and straight lines.

It lacked the true artistry and nostalgia of Manhattan, but didn't feel barren and lifeless like some of the newer constructs and skyscraper cities he'd seen. Perhaps because it was cleaner, quieter, without the smog that always clung to New York City like a second skin. Or perhaps it was the bright blue ocean that sparkled merrily as far as the eye could see.

His fingers itched for a paintbrush.

Colonel Sheppard cleared his throat and Steve turned to look at him. Sheppard grinned proudly. “Guess I really should've said this sooner, but welcome to the Pegasus Galaxy.”

 


 

The Pegasus Galaxy. Holy Mother of God, they were in the Pegasus Galaxy, Clint thought as he sat next to Sam on a bed in the infirmary waiting for the others to be done with Doctor Keller, who looked way too young to be heading a medical team in another galaxy. She was currently taking a sample of Steve's blood, smiling widely as she chatted away.

Clint hadn't wanted to give her a blood sample; she wasn't SHIELD or Bruce and it went against everything he'd been trained for. It left evidence of his presence. Natasha's glare had made the doctor shrink away for a moment, before she'd managed to gather herself.

“Look, we won't be running tests on the blood or anything,” she tried to reason with him. Her lips quirked into a small smile. “And no paternity tests, I promise.”

Clint snorted in amusement, though didn't budge an inch in his resolve.

She sighed. “It's just that we need a baseline sample of your blood and DNA in case something happens to you, so that we have something for comparison.”

He frowned. “We're only going to be here for, like, a day or two: we're not going to be going on missions.”

“That doesn't mean you can't contract something from someone else. Just because we test everyone as soon as they come through the gate doesn't mean we catch everything. We try, but we are in another galaxy and sometimes that means that we don't know what's possible and some of those possible things are really, really weird.”

Clint rolled his eyes. “I deal with weird all the time.”

The Doctor's eyes narrowed. Needle still in hand, she crossed her arms.

“Colonel Sheppard once came back from a mission carrying an organism made of energy that fed on emotions of despair and had the ability to affect a person's subconsciousness, especially while they were dreaming. One of our people died as a result of whatever they'd been dreaming.”

Clint shuddered. That creature wouldn't even have to try very hard with him; he had vivid nightmares without any outside influence.

“Rodney – er, Doctor McKay – once got infected by an organism that grew inside his skull, pushing against the part of his brain that controls memory and causing him to slowly lose himself and his memories.”

Clint blinked. “Inside his skull? He had an organism growing inside his skull?”

“Yup, all along the upper part of his brain – looked like something between a plant and an insect. The effect was a bit like developing alzheimers, except that it took just over a month for him to lose most of his memory and cognitive functions. Oh, and I got infected with a virus that essentially tried to use my body as the central vessel to grow a wraith ship around.”

He gaped. “Grow a ship: how do you grow a – no you know what, I don't want to know.” He straightened his left arm and held it out towards her. “This galaxy is clearly weird beyond my wildest imagination.”

Keller smiled brightly as she inserted the needle into his vein. No one else had protested having to give a blood sample after that. Not even Natasha.

By the time they were done, nearly an hour had passed and Colonel Sheppard was back to give them a tour of the city. By this point, Clint had already decided Atlantis was cool and the tour did nothing to dissuade him. Especially the jumper bay.

“So they're like the Enterprise shuttles,” Clint commented as he looked at the funny-shaped vessels.

“Sort of, except that they're designed for gate travel,” Sheppard responded.

“That's why they're such an odd shape,” said Steve, nodding in comprehension.

“Yup. Here in the Pegasus Galaxy, the Ancients set up a series of space gates along with the regular planet-based gates you'll find in the Milky Way.”

“Space gates?” Sam asked.

“Stargates that are in orbit around planets instead of on the ground.”

“Huh, cool.”

“Yeah, they really are.” Sheppard paused. “You know, while the geeks are pouring over Daniel's puzzle later, I could take you guys up in one. Cap, you've got the ATA gene; I could show you how to fly it.”

The colonel was practically bouncing on his feet in excitement at his own suggestion. Clint saw Steve try to keep the feeling of dread off his face.

“Er, that sounds swell,” Cap said carefully. “But the last time I flew a plane I crashed it into the Atlantic ocean.”

“Don't worry, these babies are fully submersible.”

“Oh. Well, in that case...” Cap grinned. “I definitely want to fly a spaceship that can also swim.”

Sheppard grinned.

 


 

SG1, the Avengers, Colonel Sheppard and Ronon were all sitting around a table in the commissary when suddenly the lights flickered for a moment, before coming back brighter than before. Sheppard stopped eating immediately and looked up.

“I thought he said there weren't going to be any problems,” he grumbled before hitting his communicator. “Sheppard to McKay: what the hell was that?”

No answer.

The Avengers exchanged looks, shifting automatically in their seats so that they could be up and running at a moment's notice. Sheppard sighed.

“Rodney, do you read?” he tried again.

Another pause and then: “McKay here! That was just a minor fluctuation; we have everything under control. Now, if you don't mind, I'm busy!”

Natasha bit her lip to keep from smiling as she imagined those exact words coming from another genius' mouth. Across the table from her, Clint didn't bother trying not to smile. From further down, she heard Colonel Sheppard sigh in exasperation.

“What sort of minor fluctuation?” he asked, his tone pointed and words pronounced slightly slower than usual for emphasis. “Does this have to do with the storm?”

“What? No, of course not. We finished with the internal sensors over an hour ago; I've got some minions running the last diagnostics on the long-range scanners. Everything's fine.”

Clint snorted. “He actually calls his lab assistants, minions?”

Daniel chuckled, looking amused. “They're not actually lab assistants. Every single member of the research team is among the best and brightest in their field with at least one PhD a piece. Of course, Rodney's the head of the department and a long-standing member with the SGC program itself, but they're still technically all his peers.”

“Wouldn't know it by talking to him,” Ronon chimed in with a straight face, although amusement danced in his eyes.

Meanwhile, Sheppard tapped his comm again. “Rodney, if the storm's damage is fixed then why are we getting power fluctuations?”

“Just a minute, I've just got to double-check these readings.”

Sheppard's eyes narrowed. Around them, people had stopped eating in favour of listening in on the conversation.

Rodney...”

“Two. Minutes.”

Sheppard grumbled something under his breath and looked at his watch. Then he picked up his fork again and began stabbing at the bright green leafy vegetables on his plate. Two minutes passed mostly in silence, except for Steve asking Ronon how he was supposed to eat the odd pink spindly fruit he'd picked up at the canteen. Natasha listened carefully to the explanation as she'd picked one up herself (it had sharp-looking, three inch spikes growing out of it from all sides and Natasha figured that any fruit that developed that sort of defence had to be pure ambrosia inside).

Just over two minutes later, Doctor McKay's voice came on over the internal speaker system.

“Ehem, attention Atlantis, this is Doctor Rodney McKay. I'd just like to announce that thanks to my efforts and – oh okay, fine, and SG-1's I suppose... and possibly Captain America and his groupies might have helped too... Anyway, the point is that for the first time in ten thousand years, Atlantis is now running on full power!”

There was a beat and then the entire commissary exploded in loud cheers and applause.

“Okay, fine, and Zelenka helped too. Happy now?”

Sheppard rolled his eyes.

“Groupies?” Sam asked amid the applause, looking outraged. “Oh no, no, he did not just call us Captain America groupies. I'll take friends, comrades, posse – hell, I'll even take side-kick – but I draw a line in big, bold permanent marker at being called a groupie!”

Steve snickered through his blush.

“Aw, don't worry Sam,” said Clint. “Being Steve's groupie isn't so bad. It means you get to console all the poor heart-broken girls he's always attracting and somehow never really notices.”

Sam looked to Clint thoughtfully. “Does that happen often?”

Natasha pulled out the long knife from her thigh holster to tackle the pink spindly fruit. “Getting the fossil here to go on a date is like asking Stark to go undercover.”

Steve's blush darkened even as he rolled his eyes. “Very funny Natasha,” he said. “And for the record, I was frozen, not fossilized.”

“Yeah Nat, lay off him,” Clint drawled. Natasha glanced over to him and took note of the sparkle of mirth in his eyes. “He's not a total dinosaur anymore. He even knows what Twitter is.”

“Well, he's doing better than me then,” said Sheppard, looking confused. “What's Twitter?”

Clint gasped in mock horror. “How to you, genuine twenty-first century man, not know what Twitter is?”

“I've been in another galaxy for most of four years.”

“It's some sort of online messaging site, I think,” Daniel answered him. “You publish status updates on it or something.” He shrugged. “Cassie keeps telling me I need to sign up for an account, but given that most of the time my status would be 'doing classified things', I haven't really bothered looking into it.”

Vala raised an eyebrow at him as she stole a slice of fried fruit off his plate. “I have a Twitter account,” she said.

Daniel and Colonel Mitchell both looked over at her.

“Does the Pentagon know you have a Twitter account?” Mitchell asked carefully.

Vala shrugged. “Well, considering even the president's following it, I should think so.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Natasha noticed Doctor Rodney McKay walk into the commissary next to a small man with wild hair and glasses. They were arguing with each other as they walked, kept up the debate/argument (it was hard to tell which it was) as they lined up to get their food, and barely paused for breath as they made their way down the buffet line, picking up food along the way.

“Wait, seriously?!” Clint suddenly exclaimed, dragging Natasha's attention back to the conversation at the table. He turned to her moments later, an incredulous expression on his face. “Did you know?”

She blinked at him, keeping her expression carefully neutral. She had no idea what he was asking her, but knew that if she stayed enigmatically silent, he would tell her without prompting. Sure enough, a breath later he was rolling his eyes.

“Yeah, no, I don't buy it,” he told her. “You're good, but there's no way you knew Vala was from another planet.”

Natasha blinked again. Oh. No, she definitely hadn't known that. Interesting. She looked to Daniel.

“Does the air force often let people from other planets work for them as people instead of lab rats?” she asked.

Daniel smiled. “It's sort of tradition with SG1,” he said. “One of our original members is an alien. And, no, they don't often employ people from other planets, but there have been a few over the years. The assistant head of the Anthro-archaeology department at the SGC is one. He was the second non-Earthling to join our ranks. Trust me, we've had to fight more than once with the NID and the Pentagon to keep them out of the labs. Thankfully we've been lucky with generals who are willing to go to bat for us on this.”

Natasha nodded. She was certain Bruce would be glad to hear that. It was another point in favour of the SGC.

And then there came the loud scraping sound of a chair being pulled out as Doctor Rodney McKay finally joined them, his tray laden with food and a satisfied smile on his face. He barely graced the table with a nod before digging into the food before him with an appetite that looked like it could rival Steve's.

“So... Rodney,” Sheppard began. “I don't suppose you'd like to explain why you didn't tell me you were going to be hooking up the ZPMs?”

McKay paused just before taking another bite of the red stew Natasha hadn't had the courage to try and gave Sheppard a look that clearly doubted his intelligence.

“SG1 just brought us four ZPMs,” he said. “What the hell did you think I was going to do with them? Give them to the botanists as a centrepiece to some lovely flower arrangements?” He shoved a spoon-full of stew into his mouth and talked as he continued to eat. “Seriously, we've been looking for ZPMs for years and now that we finally have them you expected me to put them into storage? Are you nuts?!”

Sheppard glared at him. “Rodney, you know the rules: whenever anyone's about to work with anything that has the potential to blow them or the rest of us up, they have to contact whoever's on duty.”

“Hello, Science Department Head here! I am one of those people on duty and Zelenka was standing right beside me, so obviously I knew that he was working on the ZPMs. Besides, it's not like we were doing anything more than sticking them into the right slot like a super-powered Duracell battery.”

“Then why the power fluctuation?”

McKay waved him off. “Power systems resetting. Completely normal, nothing to worry about.”

“If we get a surge or something that overloads the systems and makes everything crash, I'm going to hold you responsible.”

McKay's spoon clattered down onto his half-empty plate. “A surge or something?!” he exclaimed indignantly. “Colonel I know that not everyone's as brilliant as me – in fact pretty much no one is – but none of my staff are quite that incompetent! I selected them after all.”

Beside her Clint frowned and then leaned in closer to say softly: “You know, I can't quite decide if that was a backhanded compliment or a side-ways insult.”

Sheppard eventually threw his arms up and gave up the argument. McKay smugly finished his meal in silence. As soon as he was finished, he shoved his tray to the side and immediately looked to Daniel.

“Okay, so you had something for me to look at?” he said expectantly.

Daniel's eyebrows rose up in surprise. “And here I was thinking I might have to blackmail you.”

McKay snorted. “Please, you have nothing to blackmail me with. Besides, if you got this mysterious something in the same place you found the ZPMs, then of course I want to see it.”

“Aah, right.” Daniel dug into the satchel he was carrying and pulled out several of the alien tablets they'd found. “Now keep in mind that we found these all over the place and since I can't seem to figure out how to get into them, they could have anything from nursery rhymes to nanobot blueprints.”

“Well, at least it'll be easy to tell the difference,” Mitchell commented.

“Yes, yes, your wit is astounding,” McKay dismissed the remark dryly. He looked the tablets over for a moment, checking the backs of a few. “Okay, so this should work with the interface I have to my laptop... which is down in the lab. I should also be able to hook the interface up to one of the other computers easy.”

Shoving the tablets under one arm, he picked up his empty tray with the other and hurried off without another word. Daniel stared at his empty space for a moment before turning to the rest of them.

“Well, I guess that means I know what I'm doing with my afternoon,” he said, shaking his head in amusement. He smiled at them. “I'll see you guys later.”

“Have fun,” Mitchell called after him.

With Daniel and McKay both gone, Sheppard turned to the rest of them. “So, about those puddlejumper lessons...”

“Yes,” said Clint. “I don't even care if I can't fly the thing, but totally yes.”

Steve and Sam exchanged excited grins.

Sheppard grinned. “Cool.” He looked at his watch and grimaced. “Just give me about an hour to greet Woolsey, the esteemed leader of this expedition, and let him know what's going on. I'll send someone down to prep the jumpers for us in the meantime.”

“Can we watch?” Sam asked.

Sheppard's gaze snapped to him sharply for a moment, but then he shrugged. “Sure. Ronon, you got a few minutes to take them down?”

Ronon's eyes scanned them. When he met Natasha's eyes, he smirked. “Yeah, I got a few minutes. We can take the scenic route around the training room so that they know where they are in case someone wants to use them.”

Natasha smirked back. “That would be useful,” she said.

Though he wasn't entirely predictable, she was getting used to Rogers' moves, the way he thought. She was looking forward to the challenge of someone new, ruthless, and hopefully fighting with a style she'd never seen before. With any luck, he'd be good enough to play with for a bit – stretch the fight out enough to make it a real workout.

Sheppard looked between them nervously. “Yeah, okay, you do that and I'll, uh, see you in an hour.”


 

John was half-way down the stairs when Woolsey stepped out of the wormhole, closely followed by Carson, Teyla and Major Lorne's team.

“Welcome back,” he called out.

“Thank you, Colonel Sheppard,” Woolsey answered with that bland smile of his. He looked happy as he looked around the gateroom, so John took that to mean negotiations had gone well. “I see you weathered the storm.”

“Yeah, she held up just fine. Rodney and his team had to do some minor calibrations and run a bunch of diagnostics and stuff first thing in the morning, but that was it.”

He noticed Teyla was looking around with a frown on her face.

“So, negotiations were a success?” he asked for the sake of being polite.

“Yes, indeed they were, Colonel,” Woolsey replied. “In three months we should be collecting twenty sacks of tava grain and ten sacks of yelsi.”

John frowned. “Yelsi?”

“It's a root vegetable,” Carson answered. “Highly nutritious and high in potassium and vitamins A and C, and actually rather tasty when prepared properly.” He smiled impishly. “The locals also distill a rather potent alcohol out of it.”

Woolsey cleared his throat. “Yes, well, given that our priority is ensuring we don't starve, I don't think we'll be using them for that.”

John looked down to hide his smile. He was fairly certain by the twinkle in the doctor's eyes that he'd already negotiated his way to a few bottles. Meanwhile, Teyla was still frowning.

“John, there seems to be something... different about this room,” she said.

Which was when Major Lorne came up to the group also frowning . “Hey, is it just me, or is it brighter in here?” he asked.

Teyla's eyes widened. “Yes, I believe you are right, Major. It is definitely brighter in here than usual.”

John blinked and looked around himself. Huh, he hadn't even noticed. His one consolation was that Woolsey quite clearly couldn't tell the difference even after the others had pointed it out.

“Did something other than the storm happen while we were away?” the man asked.

“Uh, yeah you could say that... We got some guests from the Milky Way this morning.”

“I thought the Daedalus wasn't due to arrive in the Solar System for another couple of days?” Carson asked. His eyes widened. “Did something happen to make them turn back? Or has the crisis passed and the SGC is using the gate again?”

“Nope, the SGC still isn't using the gate and the Daedalus is still on its way to Earth as far as we know...”

“It's SG1, isn't it?” said Woolsey flatly.

“Well, Colonel Carter and Teal'c aren't with them, but yeah, it's SG1. And friends.”

Woolsey's left eyebrow rose. “And friends?” He took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Do you mean to tell me that you went against our standing orders regarding gate travel to Earth and let SG1, who you had to know were going against their own orders, and a quantity of unknown people into Atlantis?”

John stamped down on the automatic flare of annoyance and shrugged instead. “They weren't coming from Earth. Besides, Doctor Jackson said they were bringing gifts and since none of them are Greek I figured it couldn't hurt.”

“Oh, was it coffee?” Major Lorne asked eagerly. Woolsey perked up at that suggestion.

John chuckled. “No, Doctor Jackson says he's prepared to defend his coffee stash with his life.”

“Smart man,” said Carson, exchanging an amused look with Teyla.

“Besides Jackson totally managed to trump the coffee; he and SG1 apparently found themselves an Ancient base, complete with a stash of drones and ZPMs.” He paused for emphasis, taking in the expressions of dawning comprehension. “They showed up with Captain America carrying about a dozen drones and four ZPMs. Rodney just finished installing them.”

Woolsey looked speechless.

Teyla smiled. “John, that's wonderful news!” she said.

“Wait,” Major Lorne said just as Woolsey looked like he was recovering his voice. “Did you say Captain America carried it in?”

John's grin slowly widened. “I sure did. Didn't take you for a comics nerd though.”

Lorne shrugged. “I'm not really, but my granddad was a Captain America fan. He took me to see the exhibit at the Jeffersonian when I was eleven and, well, let's just say it was memorable. I mean, I've read some of the World War II-era comics my granddad had, but that's about it.”

“This captain is some sort of hero?” Teyla asked, looking between them in confusion.

“He's the hero,” John explained. “Story goes he was a scrawny, sickly kid who hated bullies and got beat up a lot, 'cause he wanted to defend other people but wasn't strong enough to do it. Then an army scientist named Erskine decided to give him a chance and they injected him with an experimental serum that transformed him into the peak of human perfection. He's faster, stronger and more durable than any regular human. He can't get sick and he says it takes him something like two days to fully recover from a bullet wound. During World War II he led a strike force to take down bases and research stations run by Hydra, which was an evil Nazi group led by the Red Skull. And he's got this shield made of vibranium–“

“–Colonel, you're gushing,” Woolsey interrupted dryly. He turned to Teyla. “Captain America was a national icon during the last world war on Earth, largely used for propaganda, to drum up support for the war effort. Although, unlike most propaganda icons, he also happened to be a real man who eventually fought in the war and became known in the field as a brilliant tactician, credited with the supposed destruction of the enemy's scientific division known as Hydra. Most importantly, however, he took down a plane full of explosives that would have destroyed several major cities in the United States, causing the deaths of millions of people, by crashing it into the ocean. Until two years ago it was believed he died in the crash.”

Teyla's eyebrows rose. “Well, yes, that would seem to be the logical conclusion,” she said. “How did he survive?”

“The Super Serum,” said John, grinning madly. “He crashed into the Arctic and when the water around him turned to ice, the serum kept him alive in it for seventy years 'till someone found and defrosted him.”

John watched as Teyla's eyes softened. “That must be difficult for him. Seventy years is a long time. However, I must confess, this... Super Serum sounds impressive.”

“Aye it is that, although it's definitely created more pain and suffering than it's worth,” said Carson darkly.

“You've studied the Super Serum, Doc?” Lorne asked, looking surprised.

“Only in passing. It's rather difficult to study human genetics and genetic anomalies without coming across mention of Abraham Erskine, although I mostly studied his earlier work. Captain America was the only successful attempt at creating the so-called Super Soldier, but that doesn't mean others haven't attempted it and most of the results have been truly horrific.”

He shook his head sadly. “Medical research should never come at such a price,” he added softly, a haunted look in his eyes.

“Speaking of genetics,” John drawled into the silence. “Interestingly enough, turns out, Captain America has the ATA gene.”

Carson's eyes snapped back up immediately. “Really?”

“Yup. I was going to take him and the Avengers up in one of the puddlejumpers.” He paused and looked to Woolsey. “Unless you have any objections?”

He'd already ignored protocol once today, so letting Woolsey feel like he wasn't completely stepping all over it was probably a good idea. The man might've eased up a bit since coming to Atlantis and realizing that protocol only worked so far in real-life situations, but he was still a bureaucrat at heart.

Woolsey, for his part, seemed to consider the request. Eventually he nodded. “Very well, it isn't like they could learn anything they don't already know at this point. But please send SG1 to my office. As the one in charge, I believe I'm due an explanation.”

 


 

Daniel ignored the conversation behind him as he led the way to their destination. He had one, last theory to check and it was one he both looked forward to and dreaded. On the one hand he hated being manipulated, but on the other if being a pawn meant possibly saving the world... He could feel the sweat gathering in his palms. There was always the chance he was wrong, but he doubted it.

He took a deep breath, letting the sounds of Vala, Teyla, Sam and Steve's voices wash over him and calm his nerves. There was excitement beneath the nerves, part of him looking forward to possibly seeing an old friend again, daring to be hopeful about the future that had, until recently, looked so bleak.

He thought back to his conversation with Woolsey. The man had honestly surprised him; it seemed the Pegasus Galaxy had finally taught him that protocol and rules were all well and good, but they didn't always work the way they were supposed to in practise. Woolsey was still reserving judgement on actively helping them (waiting to find out what Rodney and Zelenka managed get from the tablets) but that was understandable and much better than simply dialling Earth and informing them of SG1's whereabouts like he probably should have.

Finally, he arrived at his destination. The doors slid apart to let him enter and he heard the others follow him in.

Teyla came to stand next to him as he stared at the empty podium in the centre of the room. “Daniel, you believe the learning interface will have the answers you seek?” she asked him gently.

“I think so,” he answered. “It did last time.”

And then he stepped onto the raised control panel in front of the podium. A familiar hologram immediately materialized in its centre and Daniel smiled.

“This is the Atlantis Systems Learning Interface, please state your question,” the dark-haired woman on the podium said in a flat, uniform voice.

“Please tell me everything everything you can about the town and Alteran facility called Aeneid,” said Daniel.

There was a pause.

“The facility called Aeneid was built 9,932 years ago by former citizens of Atlantis as a research facility dedicated to creating a weapon capable of overcoming the overwhelming presence of the Wraith that had resulted in the abandonment of Atlantis. They believed that given time and peace, they could come up with a solution to the problem which would then enable them to return to Atlantis and reclaim the Pegasus Galaxy once again. However, they soon realized it would not be an easy or straightforward task so they asked their allies for help. 8,753 years ago, Aeneid officially became the first Meeting Place of the Four Great Races, where they gathered to discuss solutions to problems that faced the Milky Way, including the potential spread of the Wraith.”

She went silent and Daniel sighed. Ah, well, it confirmed some of what he had already more or less figured out, although it didn't answer all his questions by any stretch of the imagination.

“Daniel?” he heard Vala ask. He looked down to where she was standing beside the raised platform, frowning at the holographic projection. Beside her, he saw Steve sporting a similar frown. “Didn't you say that Aeneid was founded after Atlantis had been sunk?”

Daniel smiled slyly. “Why yes, I did,” he said.

“How can the computer know what happened nearly nine thousand years ago if it had been abandoned ten thousand years ago?” Steve asked, looking nervous.

Daniel's smile widened. “Oh, it can't,” he told them cheerfully before turning back to the 'projection'.

“It's good to see you again, Morgan. And thank you. For the information and for...” He bit his lip thoughtfully. “And for everything else. Because I've seen a lot of strange and wonderful things in my time at the SGC, but there's only so much co-incidence I'll believe in. I mean, Minnesota's got a lot of forested area and yet the Hulk managed to run straight to Jack's cabin. And then the right computer hacker coming across just the right file to get curious, doors that are supposed to be sound-proof suddenly being not so soundproof, a museum flier conveniently sitting on top of a pile of newspapers, evil villains who decide to attack at the exact moment that most of the Avengers are in a museum with me, and a statue that really shouldn't have overbalanced so easily crashing to the floor and shattering to reveal exactly what we needed.”

He resisted the urge to fidgit as he looked into the blank eyes that stared straight ahead at nothing. “It's all too much to just be co-incidence, so thank you.”

For a moment nothing happened and then, from one moment to the next, the image seemed to change, become more substantial. The woman blinked and turned her head towards him. She smiled.

“It's good to see again as well, Daniel,” she said. “And you're welcome for the information, but as for the rest... it is not me you have to thank.”

Daniel frowned.

“You are very welcome, Good Son.”

Daniel froze, the frown disappearing as he felt his eyes widen. He looked to Morgan, who was looking back at him with a fond, encouraging smile. Around him, the world had disappeared, become transparent, insubstantial next to the maelstrom in his head that seemed to have neither rhyme nor reason. A hurricane of thought and sound that muffled everything but his own existence. He wanted to turn around, to run, to embrace the voice, but fear stayed his movements. Not fear of the unknown, no. Daniel wasn't afraid of the voice, not afraid of what he would find behind him.

He was terrified that the voice was only in his mind, something conjured by his imagination. That when he turned around, there would be no one there.

He turned around and the whirlwind of sound stopped. It hadn't disappeared, but rather he found himself standing within the eye of its storm, the dull roar still alive, but no longer deafening. He was fairly certain the small gasp he heard came from his lips. His hands shook and his legs barely held him up as he stumbled down a few steps from the control panel.

The two men were framed with golden light as they stood at the edge of the room, watching him in amusement, nearly identical serene smiles on their faces.

“Good Father,” Daniel said softly, as though saying the words too loudly would cause them to vanish. “Skaara. I... I think I tried to save you and I failed.”

He raised a hand to reach towards them. Kasuf moved forward and grasped it in his barely-felt grip that was warm, but insubstantial – nothing like the dry, firm touch Daniel remembered.

“Good Son you did save us,” he said. “Perhaps not that day, not against Anubis, but it was not in your powers to interfere. Instead, Oma Desala gave us the chance at another life as she had given you.”

Skaara stepped forward and laid a gentle touch on Daniel's shoulder. “My brother you gave us a gift worth more than our lives. You gave us freedom.”

Daniel could feel his eyes burning and with that feeling came the realization that this was real, this was actually happening. “You did most of it yourselves,” he whispered.

Kasuf shook his head. “But we would not have if not for you and O'Neill. You showed us that we had a choice, gave us the courage to rise up against our oppressive false god.”

“You think it is not worth it because we did not have long to enjoy it,” Skaara continued. “But, brother, if you hadn't come to us then we might have been dead now anyway: a mining accident, a sandstorm, or perhaps for the amusement of a cruel and merciless god. My sister may still have caught his eye and been taken from us and would now be suffering, trapped, as that vile being used her body as it wished.”

Sha're. It was the mention of his wife that broke the dam and Daniel felt the first tear begin to fall down his cheek. He hadn't expected this. He'd expected a lot, but not this.

“I thought you weren't allowed to interfere,” he whispered.

“Ah, but we didn't,” said Kasuf, a small, almost mischievous smile on his face – the smile Sha're had inherited. “We merely pushed a few small things into place. You – all of you – made your own decisions. Even that silly little man that wished to be a god; he was going to attack that museum, but he would have done it two days earlier had it not been for a mysterious malfunction in his weapon.”

“Your world is a very strange place, Danyel,” Skaara added. “Beautiful, yes, but strange with so many people... No wonder you liked the peace of Abydos.”

Daniel's heart clenched at the Abydonian pronunciation of his name. He chuckled, though it came out sounding almost like a sob. “It wasn't the peace of Abydos that I craved, but the family you so freely gave me. I owe you so much more than I could ever repay.”

Kasuf shook his head. “Good Son, family means never owing anything, never having anything that needs repaying.”

“You made my sister happy even if for only a short time,” Skaara added. “That was all you needed to do.”

“I miss you,” Daniel whispered. More tears slid down his cheeks.

“Your journey is not yet done, Good Son, but when it is, then join us. You will always be welcome.”

“When you are once more ready to join us, we will all welcome you back,” came a voice from behind him.

Daniel turned to see that Morgan had stepped down from the pedestal, her form now carried the same halo of golden light as Kasuf and Skaara's did. He took a deep breath and nodded.

“Thank you,” he told her. “I still have a lot I have to do, but one day I know I'll be ready. That one day I'll grow tired of constantly fighting, arguing... one day I'll be happy to leave it to someone else and join you.”

Morgan smiled. “Then we shall look forward to that day. I am not the only one who'd treasured your friendship even if you do not remember it now.”

He found himself speechless for a moment, the lump in his throat felt impossibly big, too big to allow words. He managed to swallow it down.

“How is Oma?” he asked in a whisper.

“Still fighting, but I believe she may be slowly gaining an upper hand. And... it is possible that some of the others are considering joining her, to cast Anubis out from our ranks once and for all.”

“Good, that's good news.”

“It means you may encounter him again,” she warned.

The corner of Daniel's mouth twitched. “Yes, but the Milky Way will be a very different place than it was when he left. He'll have a much more difficult time gaining power. And we'll be ready for him.”

She nodded. “Then fare thee well, Daniel Jackson. Until we meet again.”

“Yes, farewell, Morgan Le Fay,” said Daniel softly. “'Till we meet again.”

He turned to Kasuf and Skaara. The golden light that shone from them had grown more pronounced, nearly overwhelming their forms.

“It was good to see you again,” he told them. “I wish you could stay.”

“I, too, wish I could stay by your side, brother,” said Skaara with a regretful smile. “But we cannot.”

“We wish you luck and courage,” said Kasuf. “Go forth with my blessing, Good Son, and may your path be clear.”

Daniel smiled through his tears. “Thank you. For everything... Good Father, my brother, you will always have my love.”

They smiled at him. “And you will always have ours.”

And then the light glowed even brighter until it shone through their very beings and their images dissolved within it. Tentacles of light reached for him and Daniel reached back, closing his eyes at the embrace that seemed to envelope him from all sides. He felt their warmth, their love, surrounding him like the softest cocoon.

And then all too soon, the cocoon unravelled and he was left bereft and cold. Alone. His legs gave way beneath him and he fell to his knees.

He barely heard the doors sliding open and shouts of surprise as a pair of warm arms wrapped around his shoulders and held him. Another hand carded gently through his hair and he looked up into Teyla's eyes, warm and full of sympathy as she smiled at him sadly. He reached up and squeezed one of the arms holding him, recognizing Vala's grip instantly.

None of them said anything for a very long time, both women allowing him time to grieve in peace and glaring at anyone who dared approach.

Sam had to swallow around the lump in his own throat. He wasn't exactly happy to hear he was right, that the story of Daniel's wife was a tragedy, although he hadn't come close to guessing just how big of a tragedy it had truly been. Part of him was still trying to figure out what had just happened. From the moment the hologram had come to life, to the moment she and the two others had turned into glowing, tentacled balls of light, only parts of it had made sense. He wanted to join Teyla and Vala by Daniel's side, but one look at Steve made him stay where he was. Though there'd been no real explanation, what little had been said told enough of a story.

And it had clearly hit Steve a little too close to home. He reached out and touched his friend's shoulder, squeezing it to remind him he wasn't alone either. Steve looked over at him and smiled slightly, his eyes wet with unshed tears.

It was almost amusing watching the two tentacled balls of light that had been Daniel's father and brother-in-law use the door to leave, startling Clint and the others who'd been about to come in, but he didn't feel like laughing. The others picked up on the mood inside the room immediately, even Colonel Sheppard, who began to run over to Teyla and Vala to see if Daniel was hurt, but was glared away by both.

“Okay, what the hell happened in here?” Cam demanded quietly, having taken one look at the huddle around Daniel and walked over to Sam and Steve instead.

“Seems we've all been the subject of some divine intervention,” Sam answered him.

 


 

Everyone in the control room leapt to attention when the stargate began a dialling sequence, eyes immediately scanning readouts and hands flying over display screens.

“Do we know where it's coming from yet?” Woolsey asked as soon as he'd ran out of his office. He paused, did a quick mental search.

“No sir... it's not,” said Amelia Banks. She frowned “The wormhole's out-going.”

“What?! Who's dialling it then? One of the puddlejumpers?”

“Sir, I have no idea.”

“The puddlejumpers all scan as powered-down, sir,” Chuck added.

“Well, then shut down the dialling sequence!”

“I'm trying, but it's like whoever's dialling the gate is by-passing the main controls.”

Woolsey paused for a moment. “Then activate the energy shield.”

“Yes, sir.”

The Stargate's event horizon activated with its usual dramatic flare, the energy shield shimmering slightly when it settled.

“Sir, we're getting anomalous energy readings approaching the control room,” Chuck announced. His eyebrows rose as he stared at the display screen. “They're consistent with ascended Ancients.”

Just then, the doors to the control room slid open with a soft hiss and two glowing white beings of light floated into the vast room. They didn't rush, but neither did they pause on their way to the gate, completely unconcerned by the security teams that had immediate pointed their armed weapons at them. Of course, no doubt even the security teams knew their weapons were no better than nerf guns at the moment. The energy shield didn't pose any sort of obstacle and they neatly slid through it and into the wormhole.

The gate shut off behind them. The room was silent for a very long moment.

“Where did that gate dial out to?” Woolsey finally asked in a strangled voice.

Amelia glanced down at her read-outs and paused. “I-Sir, according to the readings, the systems are identifying the gate address as Abydos.”

Chapter Text


 

SPINNING

The doors slid open and Steve stepped out onto the balcony. Salty ocean air blew into his face and he felt the rest of the tension from his shoulders melt away as he walked over to lean against the railing. He felt like he could spend years living here and yet the view would never fail to take his breath away.

He clutched his sketchbook to his side, a familiar security blanket. Nightmares had driven him from his bed at nearly four in the morning (by his watch: he wasn't quite sure what that translated to in Atlantis time) and he'd spent several hours sketching the city from one of the piers. He was fairly certain it was the east pier given the dazzling sunrise he'd witnessed just over an hour ago. But he was on another planet, so who knew.

Daniel might've known. And Steve could've asked him when he'd run into him in the hallway only minutes ago, but that would've led to conversation. He'd seen the grief reflected in Daniel's eyes on Kheb at the mention of his wife and her son (not his son, hers), but knowing that his grief was so similar to Steve's own had reopened freshly-scarred wounds inside Steve. One look at Daniel this morning and he knew that both of them were feeling too raw, too blistered by their re-opened wounds to risk conversation. They would talk and share memories eventually, but not just yet.

Leaning against the railing, Steve took in the sight of Atlantis gleaming nearly white in the bright, early morning sun. He sighed. God how he wished he could've shown this to Peggy. And Falsworth, though not an artist himself, had loved art nearly as much as Steve. And Bucky... well, he wouldn't have actually cared about the symmetry in the elegant lines, but he would've listened to Steve go on about them anyway, over the moon at being on another planet – in another galaxy no less.

Maybe one day he'd manage to find the Winter Soldier and bring his friend back home in some form or other. But would the Winter Soldier be able to see the beauty of this place or were such human reactions so deeply buried beneath the programming that had turned him into the deadliest assassin in the world?

Steve let his eyes wander: the frantic desire to loose himself in his sketchbook – in watching images take shape before his eyes – was gone now and he was content to just look. He'd sketch it later. Remembering details was both the curse and the blessing of having an eidetic memory.

Something clattered to the ground and Steve startled, immediately shifting so that he was balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to jump into action.

“Shit!” came a soft exclamation.

Steve blinked, relaxing as he saw a figure at the far end of the balcony and cursing internally that he hadn't been paying attention to his surroundings. Dressed in the standard-issue Atlantis uniform, the man was picking up several fallen paintbrushes and the small plastic cup they'd probably been resting in. Steve took note of the American flag on his shoulder and, when he'd straightened, the rank and insignia of major.

The major glanced over to Steve and he winced. “Uh, sorry,” he said with an apologetic smile. “Didn't mean to disturb you.”

Steve smiled wryly. “Don't worry about it,” he said. “I must've been more distracted than I'd realized if I hadn't noticed you there. Didn't mean to intrude on your balcony.”

The other man waved him off as he replaced the cup and paintbrushes onto the small stand attached to the side of his easel. “Not at all. The balconies are an Atlantis tradition; pretty sure everyone's got their favourite. It's where we go to stand and stare out at the city and the sea. This place gets intense, you know, so it's nice to come out and decompress, organize your thoughts, or not think at all. Sometimes you get your balcony to yourself and sometimes you don't. Just the way it is.”

Steve smiled and looked at the painting. “And some people come out to paint the scenery,” he commented lightly.

The soldier laughed. “Pretty sure that's just me,” He stepped forward and held out a hand. “Major Evan Lorne, I'm Colonel Sheppard's second-in-command.”

Steve stepped forward and shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, Major. I'm Captain Steve Rogers.”

The other man's lips quirked, but he refrained from the usual 'I know' that a lot of people replied with.

“It's an honour, sir,” he said instead. “So, was that you I noticed on the east pier when I got up here?”

“Yeah,” Steve answered with a wince. “Was having a bit of trouble sleeping.”

“Ah,” Major Lorne said in a tone of voice that spoke of many sleepless nights of his own. “That's another thing the balconies are good for. Better than a shrink sometimes – not that we've had one of those since Kate Heightmeyer died just over a year ago.”

Steve nodded, relaxing further at the easy acceptance from the other man. “Yeah, I imagine living here isn't easy. I thought we had it bad during the war. Couldn't imagine it could get any worse than the Red Skull and Hydra... boy was I wrong.”

Major Lorne chuckled and looked out at the sea, his eyes taking on a haunted, bitter edge. “Yeah, the wraith are bad, but they're not human which is both better and worse. Makes them more like monsters, but also scarier. Plus, it's not all bad in the Pegasus Galaxy. There are some pretty amazing things here too.”

Steve nodded. He'd heard a lot of stories from Colonel Sheppard during their puddlejumper ride yesterday and Teyla had happily shared many stories of her own. He couldn't imagine living in fear the way her people did and yet she still managed to be geniunely kind and warm.

He shook his head.

“It's beautiful, by the way,” he said. “You're really talented.”

Lorne blinked and glanced at his painting in surprise. “Oh, uh, thanks. I've been working on and off on that one for over a year now. Not a lot of off-time around this place that doesn't get interrupted by some emergency or other.”

“Still, it's a bit of an unusual hobby for a soldier. Not that there's anything wrong with it, of course, but it's just... unusual.”

Lorne grimaced and rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment. “Uh, yeah... my mom's an art teacher and she taught me to draw and paint when I was a kid and I loved it. But my granddad, he was in the army: World War Two vet and career military. I used to listen to him talk. He didn't really talk a whole lot about some parts of the war, but he'd talk about his unit, about the guys he headed out to battle with and some of the crazy things they'd get up to. And then about the later years when he was doing movements against the Russian commies and, well, I loved his stories. Decided when I was ten that I wanted to join the army just like him.”

He paused for a moment.

“My granddad was a fan of yours. Owned all the early releases of the comic books – actually I'm pretty sure they're still boxed up in my mom's attic. Probably worth a small fortune now. I've read some of them, but I was never much of a reader. The only thing I'd ever sit still for was art. And action movies.”

Steve grinned. He loved what his years in the ice had done to movies. Sure, there was an innocence that had been lost along the way, but the special effects were real swell. And the computer animation... He'd watched Avatar five times, delighted with the colours and movements that looked so vivid and seemed so real.

Lorne returned his grin, looking more comfortable suddenly as he continued with his story.

“Anyway, as a kid I was really confused, 'cause I couldn't decide if I wanted to be an artist or a soldier.” He shrugged. “I was eleven; it was a big deal. Anyway, that summer my granddad went to some sort of World War Two veteran's reunion in Washington and took me with him. Took me 'round to all the sights, including the Jeffersonian so he could show me the Captain America exhibit. I think it's bigger now, but I remember there were these sketches on display and a painting of the Brooklyn bridge with a small plaque that said they were down by Steve Rogers. I still remember the excitement I felt when I read it and found out Cap-I mean, you were an artist. It was the moment I realized that, hey, maybe I didn't need to choose. If Captain America could be both an artist and a soldier, then so could I.”

He rubbed the back of his head again and smiled apologetically at him. “Sorry, you must get stories like that all the time.”

Steve felt slightly stunned. “I-yeah, I do.” He shook his head. “Never imagined I'd become an icon. All I'd wanted to do was serve my country, not become famous. But... of all the stories I've heard from people since I woke up, I think yours might be my favourite.” He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice when he spoke. “Everyone remembers Captain America, but not everyone looks past that to Steve Rogers. They forget the little things, like how I was an artist.”

Lorne raised an eyebrow. “Was an artist?” he asked, pointedly looking at his sketchbook.

Steve laughed. “Alright, am an artist then. And, as an artist, I just couldn't resist drawin' this city.”

“Yeah, she's a beauty alright.”

“That your only painting of her?”

“Nah, I've got two other canvasses in my quarters. One day I hope I'll be able to give one to my mom, but who knows if that'll ever happen. Hey, you wanna come see them? I drew one of them back on Atlantis' original planet.”

Steve frowned. “Original planet?”

Lorne blinked. “Yeah... Atlantis has a star drive. It's basically like a giant space ship when the shields are up at full capacity.”

Steve gaped at him. Then he looked back out at the city. Slowly, a wide, excited grin spread across his face.


 

John spread marmalade over his toast, grinning as he and Clint rehashed Ronon and Natasha's epic fight from yesterday evening. Watching the Satedan thoroughly taken down by the petite redhead had been nothing short of amazing. Oh, he hadn't gone down easily, but once the Black Widow had stopped playing with him, the conclusion became inevitable. He was fairly certain he'd never seen anyone move the way she had, like the deadly mixture of a martial artist and a dancer. Next to her even Ronon looked big and clumsy and Ronon never looked anything less than graceful.

He hadn't even looked upset afterwards. Instead, Ronon's eyes had looked oddly intense, his grin feral, like he'd enjoyed the battle and the challenge to care that he'd been taken down by a superior opponent.

A tray slammed down next to them and Sam collapsed into a chair. John raised an eyebrow at him.

“You okay?” he asked.

Sam glared at him, looking exhausted. “No, I am not okay,” he groused. “I got woken up at 7:30 am Earth time by a peppy energetic supersoldier and his enthusiastic grin asking me if I want to go for a morning run. And me, half-sleep and stupid, I said 'yes'. Now I have no idea who the hell Major Lorne is, but he and I are going to have words. 'Cause telling Steve where to find the Atlantis running course is not cool, especially since, being such a nice guy, he's inclined to share and by that I don't mean sooth your ego. No, no, by that I mean run circles around you like a demented, over-caffienated greyhound puppy while you plod around at a more normal person speed that should actually be sort of impressive by anyone's standards except for the supersoldier freak you're running with! And now I'm pretty sure my legs are broken beyond repair and probably about to fall off.”

John snickered into his tea.

“You know, there's a reason why the rest of us never agree to go running with him,” said Clint. “You're the only shmuk who ever says 'yes'. Which you do, but the way, every single time.”

Sam sighed and stabbed some scrambled eggs with his fork. “Yeah, not sure if that makes me an idiot or a masochist” he answered. “So where is everyone else anyway?”

Clint shrugged. “Not a clue.”

They ate in silence, Vala and Mitchell joining them before long. They were of the opinion that Daniel had probably gotten lost somewhere in the labs with Doctor McKay and wouldn't resurface until someone dragged him away. It was a good enough theory as any.

Steve Rogers eventually walked in with Teyla, who was holding Torren and smiling warmly up at the blond man. Almost immediately they were surrounded by several Atlantis staff, all eager to get a glimpse of the baby and talk to Teyla. And to Steve, who didn't seem to realize Teyla's child was really just an excuse to approach them. John watched in amusement as the man got sucked into conversation with several marines and a Chinese nuclear physicist. It was clearly a two-sided conversation, however, so John decided to leave it be.

Suddenly, Clint whistled under his breath. “Woah, someone had a good night,” he said, looking towards the door.

John looked over to watch as Natasha Romanoff sauntered into the room. Her movements were casual, though probably still capable of being deadly at a moment's notice, but there was a looseness in the sway of her hips, a languid ease in her stance that felt... different than yesterday. John frowned, trying to figure out how it was different when Ronon walked in. Hands in his pockets as usual, he seemed to look like he was trying harder than usual to look casual, and there was an odd spring in his steps.

He and the Black Widow smirked at each other when they passed, Ronon's eyes lingering on her ass as she walked away from him towards the table. The truth hit John like a freight truck.

“Good morning,” said Ms. Romanov with a smile.

“Not as good as yours,” said Clint with a leer.

“Don't be vulgar,” she admonished gently. “Steve might hear you.”

“Yeah, god forbid we shock Captain America,” Sam muttered sarcastically, but John didn't miss the amusement in the other man's eyes. “There's probably a special place in hell for people who talk about unwholesome things in front of Captain America.”

John chuckled. “The guy was in the army,” he said, partially out of curiosity to see how serious they were being. “And during World War II when there was less political correctness and no women in the ranks.”

“And segregation,” Sam added.

“The Howling Commandos weren't segregated,” Romanov pointed out.

Sam pointed at her using his fork. “And that's totally a point in Captain all-American Whiteboy's favour.”

“Don't worry,” said Clint, looking to John. “Steve may look like the poster child for all that is good, innocent and pure, but he can swear like sailor when the situation calls for it. He usually does it in French or German, of course, but I've heard him swear in English too. He still forgets himself sometimes and says or does things aren't exactly politically correct anymore, but when he says he hates bullying he means it all-around, indiscriminately.”

“He might not love everything about the twenty-first century yet–“ Sam started.

“–We're working working on that,” Clint added.

Sam rolled his eyes. “Yeah, good luck with that. Anyway, get the guy talking about social changes and he'll talk your head off about how great it all is with no segregation, woman considered equals, hell gays getting married. He thinks it's all fucking amazing.”

John shrugged. “Well, it kinda is if you're comparing it to seventy years ago.”

“The SHIELD psychiatrists were afraid of his forties sensibilities,” said Romanov.

Clint snorted. “The SHIELD psychiatrists fucked up big time.”

John was about to ask Clint to clarify when an alarm sounded and the doors at the far end of the mess hall slid shut. Almost immediately he saw the closest person run their hand over the crystal mechanism. It didn't open.

“Goddammit,” he said between gritted teeth as he leaped out of his chair and dashed to the doors.

People stepped aside to let him through so that he could run his hand over the door. It didn't help.

“Want me to see if I can slide them open manually?” he heard from behind him.

He turned to find Steve looking at him calmly. There was worry in his eyes, but also a focus John hadn't seen in the man before. He shook his head.

“Not yet, let's see if we can figure out what this is first,” he said, tapping his comm. “Rodney, this is Sheppard, what the hell's going on?”

The response came almost immediately.

“McKay here and I don't know. I'm with Daniel in my lab, so give me a minute to figure it out.”

“You have one minute, Rodney.”

“Any idea what it could be?” Sam asked as he came up to him.

John shrugged, trying to look nonchalant despite the tension now coiling through his body. He wanted to take Steve up on his offer and just charge out into the fray, but after five years on Atlantis he knew better. Also, it was a big city and he had no idea where the fray was.

“Usually the city only goes into automatic lock-down if there's a biological or chemical breech somewhere,” he replied instead.

“Right, fair enough, then we'll stay right here and wait for your boy to tell us what's going on and whether or not it's going to make our skin melt.”

John looked at Sam in amusement. “Don't let McKay here you call him that.”

A minute passed and then another one. Finally, John couldn't take it anymore. He tapped his comm.

“McKay, it's been over over minute, what've you got?”

There was a pause and then Rodney's voice came on through the comm.

“Just hang on, I've almost got... I'm reading a biological breech on level 28 of the South Tower, but the system glitched when it tried to seal off just the tower, so it looks the city sealed everything off automatically to compensate. I'm trying to fix it... okay, got it! Turning off city-wide lockdown now.”

Seconds later, the crystals lit up again and John sprinted out the door towards the science labs, vaguely aware of the sounds of people following him.

“Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard, this is Woolsey, where are you?”

John tapped his comm. “I'm heading to the science labs to see if McKay's figured out what's going on yet. He says the system's reading a biological breech on level 28 of the South Tower.”

“That's one of the areas that was powered up yesterday, isn't it?”

“Yup.”

“Very well, keep me posted as soon as you know.”

“Understood. Sheppard out.”

 


 

The hallways were an organized mess of people, all hurrying with a calm purpose that impressed Sam. He saw fear and worry reflected on many of the faces they passed, but no one hesitated even slightly in their steps, determinedly heading towards their stations. A single glance told him most of the people he was passing were civilians.

Sam fell into step beside Steve, instantly noticing the change that had come over his friend. This was Captain America he was running beside, even if his shield was still on his back. Up ahead he heard John Sheppard radio someone and order a security team go to the South Tower and wait for instructions.

He managed to squeeze himself into the elevator with John, Steve and Clint. Ronon took one look into the elevator and told John he'd meet up with the security teams at the South Tower. Natasha decided to join him. A shorter stretch of corridor later and they were bursting into what looked like a lab. A Japanese woman looked up when they entered, and then paid them no mind as the computer in front of her claimed her attention once more. Daniel raised a hand and gave them a small wave in greeting.

In the centre of the room, Doctor McKay sat on a high chair in front of a bank of computer screens, typing furiously.

“Do you know what it is yet, Rodney?” John demanded.

“No, not yet,” McKay snapped.

“And why not? You've been at it for at least ten minutes.”

“Because the internal sensors in that area are a bit off due to, oh I don't know, maybe the fact that they haven't been used in about ten thousand years!”

“And what are you doing about it?”

“I thought I'd use the time to reprogram the alarm system to play the Macarena- obviously I'm trying to fix it, Colonel! Zelenka headed down already to see if he can get a better reading of what's going on inside the tower from an access point closer to the tower itself.”

“Has whatever this is been isolated inside the tower?”

“I have no idea and won't know until I can get the sensors up and running properly, so shut up and let me work!”

John made a small noise of exasperation, but stepped back to give the scientist some room.

“Colonel Sheppard, this is Major Lorne. We're in position. Please come in.”

John tapped his ear-piece and walked towards the doorway.

“Lorne, this is Sheppard, what's the situation down there?”

“The tower seems to be completely sealed off and none of the transporters into the tower are working. I have my men doing a perimeter sweep to double-check for any other entrances. According to Doctor Iva Zb-or-o- er, one of the biologists, Lieutenant Forbes and Captain Schwaben were supposed to meet her here to investigate the tower, but she was running late, so she thinks they must've went on without her.”

“Uh, I didn't think we'd made up parties to investigate the rest of the city yet...”

There was a pause. “No, sir, we haven't yet.”

“Any luck contacting them?”

“No sir, they're not responding to communications, but Zelenka says there's quite a bit of interference from something inside the tower so it could be disrupting communications.”

Sam exchanged a look with Steve. This would've been the sort of thing Daniel had warned them about back at the Aeneid base. Meanwhile, Sheppard ran a hand through his hair and let out an annoyed breath.

“Okay, okay, then just sit tight for now and keep me posted if anything changes.” He turned to Mckay. “Rodney–”

“I heard, and I'm still working on it.” He tapped his comm. “Zelenka, this is McKay, what have you got?”

“Zelenka here. Not much I'm afraid. Although I am picking up strong electro-magnetic readings from inside the tower that could be interfering with internal sensors. So maybe there is nothing wrong with sensors after all.”

“Which would be just my luck,” McKay mumbled. “Okay, I think I've cleared up the signal as much as I can. Transferring the program into a scanner now... and I'm heading down to meet you. Don't do anything until I get there!”

“Yes, yes, Zelenka out.”

Science geek or not, Doctor McKay wasted no time in rushing out of the lab.

“Doctor McKay!” the Japanese woman called out to him just as he reached the doorway.

McKay stopped and rolled his eyes. “What?!” he demanded. “Can't it wait?”

“I am picking up some sort of organic substances moving very fast inside the tower.”

“Organic substances... we have organic substances?” Doctor McKay hurried over to her workstation and looked over her shoulder at the screen, completely oblivious to how the woman's cheeks pinkened. “Huh. Okay, that's interesting. Apparently you're not entirely stupid. See if you can identify those readings, match them up with anything from the database. Let me know if you get something.”

“Hai, Doctor.”

And then McKay was a whirlwind of movement again as he raced out of the lab, scanner in one hand as he headed for the elevator.

“Alright, what's interesting Rodney?” John asked once they were in the elevator.

“Hm? Oh apparently the sensors in the West tower are picking up organic fast-moving organic substances in the South tower from somewhere around level 28, which is where the contagion originated from.”

“So, whatever this thing is, it might be alive?”

“Well, technically speaking, even microorganisms are alive. But in this case it mostly means whatever's moving around up there is organic in nature, not necessarily alive as such.”

“Would the scanners detect microorganisms as lifeforms or are we thinking there's some sort of monster in the tower?” John asked.

The look on Doctor McKay's face was nothing short of scathing. “Just because you insist on acting like Captain Kirk doesn't mean we're stuck on an episode of Star Trek.”

“Hey, you're a science geek, aren't you supposed think Star Trek is the greatest thing ever?” Clint joked.

The glare was transferred to Clint. “I'm also Canadian. Do I seem polite to you?”

“Hm, good point. You know I could slip into the tower through the air ducts and get a scope of the situation from there. I'm really good with air ducts.”

McKay threw his arms up as much as he could within the confined space of the elevator. “Yes, of course, because the possible biological contagion is going to naturally avoid all that lovely air duct space.”

The elevator doors opened and the scientist barrelled.

“Zelenka, please tell me you have something intelligent to say before the levels of stupidity force me to hurl myself off the nearest pier,” he barked.

There was a crowd of military personnel milling around waiting in front of a set of double doors. Ronon and Natasha stood on one side, next to a small man with fly-away curly hair and round wire-rim glasses. He turned to them as they approached and blinked at McKay.

“Well, I have managed to isolate electromagnetic readings, but they are behaving, uh, erratically,” he said with a strong accent that sounded almost Russian, but clearly wasn't. They came closer and Sam noticed a small Czech flag on his shoulder.

Ah, the land of beer and world-class hockey players, Sam thought.

“Here, let me take a look at that,” the Canadian scientist said as he grabbed the man's tablet from his hand. The short Czech muttered something under his breath and stepped aside. “Okay, that's weird. The scanners are showing wide-spread organic compounds too.”

Zelenka's eyebrows rose comically. “Wide-spread as in many little ones or one very, very big one?”

“It's not registering as strong enough to be one big one...”

“But nano-bots would not register at all, yes?”

“Exactly. Also, because they're not actually alive.”

“So, whatever we've got it's bigger than a nanobot and smaller than the abominable snow monster?” John asked. “That leaves a lot in the middle, Rodney. Any chance you can narrow that down a bit?”

McKay shook his head. “Not with this electromagnetic interference. Even I can't clear this up any more than it already is.” He pulled another, smaller scanner out of his back pocket and fiddled with it for a moment. “Okay, so good news, the lifesigns detector isn't showing anything, which means that whatever's up there, it's not actually alive so you can trash the monster theory.”

John took a deep breath and exchanged a look with Ronon and then a soldier who'd approached him as soon as he'd arrived (the man had also exchanged greetings with Steve, which made Sam think this was the mysterious Major Lorne).

“Well, then I guess we should get hazmat suits and head in,” he said.

Just then Steve stepped forward and Sam felt like kicking him before the entirely predictable words left his mouth.

“I can go in,” he said. “The serum makes me invulnerable to disease and biological contagions don't effect me for as long as they would an ordinary man. I'll go in and scope it out.”

“Uh, thanks for the offer, Cap,” said John, looking nervous. “And that's well and good for Earth, but this is the Pegasus Galaxy and I don't particularly want to go down in history as the guy who got Captain America killed by alien flu. Or caused you to be mutated into a bug or something.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Sam noticed Doctor McKay tapping his earpiece again and conferring with Zelenka. The two of them seemed to be having an intense whispered conversation. Suddenly McKay turned to them.

“Okay, okay, so the hazmat suit shouldn't be necessary,” he interrupted the stare-down. “According to Kusa..., Kusa...” He snapped his fingers several times.

“Kusanagi,” Zelenka supplied.

“Right, yes, her. Anyway, it seems whatever got out on level 28 is small, but not small enough to be a virus – in fact it's probably no smaller than your average insect and probably not any bigger than a house cat. On the other hand, there's still that electromagnetic interference that we don't know the origin of.”

“So, in other words, proceed with caution,” said John with a roll of his eyes. “What else is new?” He then looked to the Avengers. “You guys can, uh, tag along if you want... Actually Cap, if you wouldn't mind covering Rodney that'd be great.”

Steve's eyes glanced towards Doctor McKay and he nodded. “Understood,” he said as he took his shield off his back.

McKay eyed Steve and the shield for a moment before snorting. “Just my luck whatever's up there will be attracted to colourful shiny things,” he muttered.

Steve raised an eyebrow. “Then that means it'll aim for me and leave you alone.”

The Canadian seemed to perk up at this. “Oh, good point: you can be my personal decoy while I'm being brilliant and saving all our lives.”

“I'll stay back here in case you need me,” Sam told John as he cursed himself for leaving his firearms in his room. “And let me know if you find your missing people.”

John blinked once. “Medic, right. Yeah, that sounds good. Alright then, Rodney can you unlock this door?”

A few moments later, the doors slid open and the group swept into the tower, the marines fanning out behind them automatically. There was a transporter to the right and a tall, circular staircase going up the centre of the tower. John carefully walked over to the elevator and ran a hand in front of it. The crystals didn't light up.

“Rodney?”

McKay hurried over to the panel and pulled it apart expertly before examining at the array of wires and crystals inside. “It's fixable, but it'll take a while,” he finally said.

John nodded. “Get Zelenka on it.”

McKay nodded. “Radek!” he called out and Sam stepped out of the way as the Czech hurried past him.

“Clint,” said John. “You and Major Lorne get on that elevator as soon as Zelenka has it fixed and take it to level 28 with Sam. If Forbes and Schwauben are still alive, that's probably where they'll be. The rest of us will take the stairs. Fan out in teams of two and check each level; radio in if you find anything, but don't touch. Rodney, Cap and I are going to head straight to level 28. Keep an eye out for our people and the comms open. Let's go.”

Sam watched as the majority of the group headed up the stairs, with John in the lead and McKay right behind him, watching the scanner in his hands as he hustled up the stairs. It said something about Atlantis and its day-to-day operations that even the non-military scientists looked relatively calm in the face of this emergency (even if he could hear McKay complaining loudly about idiotic military grunts who should've known better than to investigate this tower in the first place).

Their footsteps became quieter as they climbed higher and Sam almost regretted staying behind, even though he intellectually knew he wouldn't have been much help to them without a weapon. So instead he walked over to where Clint and Major Lorne were standing beside Doctor Zelenka, who was talking to himself – or possibly the alien circuits – as he worked.

“How's it looking, Doc?” Major Lorne asked.

“It is, as Rodney said, fixable, but it will take me few minutes,” the man responded without looking away from the crystals.

A few moments of silence followed. Then they heard faint gun shots from far above them. Their heads snapped upwards and Lorne tapped his comm.

“Colonel Sheppard, this Lorne, what's your status?”

A moment's pause and then a staticy voice came over the comm.

“Sheppard here. We're pinned down by... little glowing tennis balls of light or some-ow! Shi-”

The comm cut out and Lorne exchanged a worried glance with Zelenka.

“Hurry up with that transporter,” Lorne told the scientist before tapping his earpiece several times. “Colonel, please respond. What's going on? Do you need back up?”

Meanwhile Zelenka shot the major an irritated look and got back to fiddling with the transporter. “Jo, jo, makám, makám,” he mumbled to himself. “Copak to vypadá, že dĕlám? Jen to tady... ježkovy voči, ktery debil to tady tak zavonačil?”

Sam shook his head and exchanged an amused look with Clint, raising an eyebrow in question. Clint shook his head: apparently Czech wasn't a language he spoke, or at least not nearly well enough to understand the scientist's mumblings. They both looked back to Major Lorne when they heard static come on over his comm.

“...Sheppard here... glowing balls of light... damn fast... causing electromagnetic interference. Found... Forbes dead, Schauben looks like he's breathing... Looks like the transporter is clear... wait for Zelenka to repair...sh... Ow, goddammit! Be careful of... weapons n-AAAH!”

The scream of pain that cut off the transmission put them all instantly on edge.

“Zelenka?” Lorne barked, stalking back over to the transporter.

“Yes, yes, just a moment! I just have to... no tak ješte kousek, ješte kousek... no tak... Aha, no konečne!” The panel in his hands lit up. “I have it!”

The transporter doors slid open and Sam, Clint and Major Lorne instantly hurried inside, the major immediately touching the back display screen. The doors slid shut after them.

“Sheppard, this is Lorne,” Lorne said into his comm. “Zelenka fixed the transporter; we're on our way up.”

They didn't get a reply.

Clint notched an arrow into his bow. Sam took a deep breath and crouched down, ready to head for the injured soldier.

The transporter stopped and the doors slid open, the sounds of gunfire (and was that a laser he was hearing?) instantly assaulted his ears. Major Lorne cautiously stepped out, his P-90 leading the way as he automatically squinted against the bright silver light that bathed the room. Sam peeked around the doors to assess the situation and had to squint as well.

Instead of the corridors he'd been expecting, he was greeted with the sight of a large room, approximately the size of a high school gymnasium. The ceiling and surrounding walls were smooth and painted a dark metallic blue colour with several silver lines running up the walls and across the ceiling width-wise, visualy dividing the room into four quarters. In the centre of the room was a round glowing ball sitting on top of a hexagonal pedestal with what looked like glass panels running down each of its sides and glowing orange-yellow.

Mckay had one of the panels open and was hunched over as he rooted inside while Steve stood over him and held his shield out to protect them both from the mass of silvery objects that were zooming around so quickly they looked like they had tails trailing behind them, like miniaturized comets.

Above him, Major Lorne opened fire as he stepped further into the room.

“Shit,” he heard Clint curse under his breath. “Fucking stop moving you assholes.”

Sam tore his eyes away from the hypnotizing movements and scanned the room. It didn't take him long to spot the downed soldiers. One of them had his mouth open, silently screaming as a burned and bloody cavity in his chest smouldered. That was probably Forbes. A second body lay closer to the corner of the room and Sam could see burn marks along the blonde woman's arms which had clearly gone through her uniform, and a single, bloody burn just above her temple. Her hair was singled, but she looked like she was still breathing.

John was slumped over by the stairwell, looking singed but not in any read danger. Next to him, Ronon was down on one knee and carefully aiming with a practised eye and a strange-looking gun with a really long barrel. Looked like something Sam would expect to find in a futuristic western movie. He fired it and a shot of bright orange plasma enveloped several of the small silvery objects.

Okay, that thing was cool.

Sam took a deep breath and ran towards the blonde woman, staying as low as he could while keeping his head up to watch for flying silver objects. He dropped to his knees once he reached her and checked her pulse. Behind him, he heard Clint whoop in victory, but only glanced up from his patient for long enough the make sure he didn't need to duck. Her pulse was weak, but definitely there and a closer look at the wound on her head showed that the damage was thankfully only skin-deep.

Sam noticed movement out of the corner of his eye and looked up, his muscles tensing. He relaxed slightly when he saw Natasha heading towards him in a crouch.

“Need some help moving her into the transporter?” she asked Sam.

“Yeah, that'd be great actually,” he admitted. “Was just trying to figure out how I was going to get her out of here. How's Sheppard doing?”

“Still conscious, but barely,” she answered as she grabbed the woman's legs. Sam grabbed her under her arms after a glance towards the others, they hurried towards the transporter. “McKay managed to turn down the power those things were generating, but Sheppard got hit by a couple of them at once, which scrambled his senses.”

“Yeah, 'cause that's what the guy needs: brain damage.”

Natasha smirked at him as they entered the transporter and Sam hit the display to take them down. The doors slid shut, blocking out the sounds of gunfire.

“So, why aren't you in the thick of things?” he asked, curious. Natasha was usually up for any challenge.

She looked annoyed for a moment. “The widow's bites are useless against the electricity those things are generating; they weren't having any effect at all and the bullets only slightly more. Everyone's basically just stalling until McKay manages to shut the device down.”

“I see.”

The transporter doors slid open and they shuffled out.

“Doctor Zelenka, could you call for a medical team?” Sam called out to the Czech scientist who was standing at the bottom of the staircase looking worried.

“Already done,” Zelenka answered. “They are on their way.”

“Good. Then we'll head back up. Sheppard's down, but he's closer to the staircase, so we'll go up that way.”

Half-way up the stairs the shooting stopped. By the time Sam and Natasha made it to the top, Steve had stepped away from McKay and the initial wary, disbelieving shock that always came at the end of a battle had faded. Sam knelt to check John's pulse, happy to note the Colonel was awake enough to look up at him, even if his glassy eyes didn't seem to recognize him.

He looked back up when he heard Clint cackle. The archer had bent over to pick up one of the small, silvery objects that been terrorizing them. It shimmered slightly in his hand and when Sam looked down at one laying on the ground by John's feet, he realized the round, silver objects were slightly smaller than a tennis ball and covered in long, silky hair.

“Well, what do you know?” said Clint gleefully. “Looks like we're in an episode of Star Trek after all.”

 


 

“It's a training room,” Doctor McKay announced when he swept into the infirmary later on.

Clint looked up from flirting with the pretty Polish nurse who'd been bandaging up the burn on his left thigh.

“A training room?” John Sheppard asked in disbelief, sounding more lucid than he had since he'd gone down.

“Well, a prototype anyway,” McKay added with a shrug. “I thought the interface looked familiar, so I went to Janus' lab and, sure enough, I found a copy of the blueprints in one of the computers. Not his design, I don't think, but it looks like he was trying to debug it.”

“He didn't do a very good job of it,” Ronon grumbled from where he was leaning against the wall, his left arm almost entirely wrapped in bandages and another one on his left hip peeking out from under his vest.

“Obviously he hadn't finished when the Lanteans decided to leave the city,” Rodney snapped. “Also, it certainly didn't help that the morons who decided to activate it managed to turn it on at the most advanced level settings and ramped the power up to way past the safety limits! This would be why we put together teams of scientists and soldiers when exploring new parts of the city.”

“I'm pretty sure all three of them were new to the city,” John pointed out tiredly, although the look on his face clearly stated he wasn't entirely sure he bought the excuse himself. Clint didn't think he was any more impressed with them than McKay was.

“And so they what, didn't read any of the mission reports or city logs before transferring in?! I thought Stargate Command made a point of only sending people who were at least somewhat intelligent!”

“Rodney, relax, Woolsey's already made the announcement telling people not to go exploring until the sections have been cleared,” said John, sounding tired and looking like he was trying not to move his head too much.

“Hang on,” Clint interrupted, already tired of the bickering. “Are you saying we got our asses handed to us by the Silver Death-Tribbles Training Program?”

John's face went blank. “No, we are not calling it that. You are not allowed to name things, ever.”

“Hey!” Clint exclaimed, feeling very offended. He was at least better at it than Stark.

“Actually, Silver Death-Tribbles doesn't sound bad, although it looks a bit like someone crossed them with Cousin It,” said McKay thoughtfully.

“Nope, no, absolutely not.”

McKay rolled his eyes. “Or we could call them Silver Tribbles of Death instead and STDs for short.”

John made a face. “I think my headache's getting worse.”

“Anyway, I'm going back to the lab to see what Daniel's managed to get through while I've been fixing other people's stupid mistakes.”

Without another word, the scientist turned and walked back out of the infirmary. Clint blinked as he watched him go.

 


 

Steve was already sitting down when Woolsey walked into the conference room at a brisk pace, taking the seat at the centre of the rounded conference area. He smiled and greeted everyone until his eyes found Sheppard sitting slumped in a chair, his hair more mused than usual and eyes slightly glassy.

“Should you even be here?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Sure I should,” the colonel replied, a slight slur to his voice. “I'm perfectly fine.”

“He's really not,” Carson said from across the room. “But I've allowed him to attend the meeting on the condition that just as soon as it's over, he's to head straight back down to the infirmary and lie down.”

“I see,” said Woolsey, both men expertly ignoring John's protests.

Doctor McKay and Daniel were the last to show up – this hardly surprised anyone, not even Steve.

Doctor McKay sat down next to Doctor Keller with a small smile to her and Carson (the Scot had refused to let Steve call him anything else, steamrolling over his objections with a jovial determination that reminded him so much of Dum Dum it made his heart hurt), while Daniel apologized to the room for being late and sat down into the remaining seat between Rodney and Steve. He nodded to Steve and then to the rest of his team, leaning back to wave at the rest of the Avengers, who were leaning against the back wall. They'd decided to let Steve speak – mostly because none of them felt like dealing with the bureaucracy – but had still wanted to watch. Ronon had joined them, leaning against the wall next to Natasha.

He sure hoped Natasha and Ronon didn't think they were being subtle. The way he kept glancing at her and she refused to glance back was really obvious. That, and he'd seen her creeping out of quarters that he knew weren't her assigned guest ones on his way from the South Pier that morning.

“Ehem, well, if we're all here then I suppose we should get started,” said Woolsey. “For those of you, whom I haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting, my name is Richard Woolsey and I am the expedition leader here on Atlantis.”

Steve wasn't quite sure what to think of the man. He almost reminded him of Coulson, except that his beneign appearance wasn't a carefully-constructed mask: he really was someone who fought with words and back room politics instead of weapons. And he couldn't quite clear his mind from the overheard remark Daniel had made to General O'Neill about how he'd accused him of conspiring with the people who'd killed his wife. Honestly he'd expected a much more sinister-looking face to the name. But Steve prided himself on at least trying to be a fair man and he couldn't deny that so far Richard Woolsey had been fair by them, giving them a chance to convince him to help them despite not having many resources of their own to give.

After spending the better part of a day talking to the people of Atlantis, he felt humbled. And amazed beyond words. The loss of contact with Earth was hurting them, he could tell, but they struggled on together with determination and an abject refusal to quit.

He'd never loved his USO costume, but never had Steve felt the stars and stripes motif on his uniform more gaudy than here, surrounded in a sea of international flags.

“Now then,” Woolsey continued, “I have spoken with SG1 and specifically Doctor Jackson at length so I believe I have an idea of what it is you're asking for, but if you could please clarify your request for the room so that everyone's aware.”

Next to him, Daniel straightened. “O f course, Mister Woolsey. Well, in a nutshell, we came here hoping to borrow one of your scientists to accompany us back to the Milky Way to take a look at what we'd found. Steve here has the ATA gene, but no knowledge of Ancient technology. I have an extensive knowledge of Ancient language and culture, but only a limited knowledge the technology and the gene therapy, as we know, doesn't work on me. Rodney has been very helpful in unlocking the tablets we found, but there's an entire section of the complex we discovered that we'll require someone with technological expertise to access, not to mention make work.”

Woolsey nodded. “Thank you, Doctor Jackson.” Then he looked to the rest of the room. “Now, I understand there have been several projects on the go since SG1's arrival. Doctor Beckett, would you and Doctor Keller like to start?”

The two doctors looked at each other and shrugged.

“Och aye, why not?” said Carson as he and Doctor Keller stood and walked up to the large computer screen they set up behind them earlier. “'Tis likely the least important bit of the lot.”

“But still very cool,” Doctor Keller added with a grin.

“Undeniably. Would you like to start my dear?”

“Oh yeah, sure.” Doctor Keller beamed at them. “Now, as you all know, Captain Rogers is the only survivor of Doctor Abraham Erskine's Super Soldier serum, which people have been trying to re-create for years with no success. And just to be clear here, neither Carson nor I have ever actually studied any of the research in-depth – although Carson has a bit of a better understanding of it than I do – so a lot of what we're saying is largely theoretical.”

Carson nodded. “When I was working on the gene therapy I consulted some of Abraham Erskine's earlier notes from when he'd still been working at the University of Berlin, before the war turned his entire focus to the Super Soldier Serum.”

“Exactly,” Keller continued. “One of the main problems most researchers have run into is the lack of samples of Captain Rogers pre-serum, making it difficult to ascertain what exactly had been there before the serum and how the serum had then changed it. Knowing he has the ATA gene puts a bit of a new spin on things, because it means we could rule that out as a product of the serum.”

“Excuse me,” Woolsey interrupted. “I'm sorry to interrupt, but how can you be sure the ATA gene wasn't a product of the Super Soldier Serum?”

“Well, canna be one hundred percent certain o' course,” Carson answered. “But it is incredibly unlikely. The gene therapy I created is essentially a virus that disseminates cloned ATA genes throughout the human body, where they then replicate. Without knowledge of the ATA gene, or a healthy specimen of one to begin with, the chances of the serum having created the gene within the body as part of the serum treatment are minuscule to none.”

Woolsey nodded. “I understand, thank you, Doctor. Please, do continue.”

Steve let out the breath he was holding. Daniel had hold him the Ancient gene inside him wasn't likely to have been created by the serum, but to have the doctor confirm it was reassuring. It was... nice to know that not everything special about him had come out of a bottle – even if this little special thing wasn't anything he could've used before now.

Carson stepped back and motioned to Doctor Keller.

“Right, anyway, with Captain Roger's permission, we took a look at a few samples of his blood to analyze...” Doctor Keller stepped back and pressed a button on the tiny remote in her hand. The screen behind her lit up to show a picture that looked artistically intriguing, but entirely uninformative to Steve. She pointed to an area on the picture. “Here we can see the ATA gene and here we have an additional enzyme that doesn't seem to be actively doing anything. Neither Colonel Sheppard nor General O'Neill have shown this enzyme in their DNA, which is what made us think this was a product of the serum.”

“The biggest problem with the Super Soldier Serum has always been its inherent instability,” Carson took over the explanation. “What we think the ATA gene has done in Steve Rogers' blood is activate the creation of this enzyme, which from what we can tell seems to be stabilizing it and thus allowing it to function the way Doctor Erskine intended.”

John raised his hand. “Hang on, Doc, does that mean I could become a super soldier too?” he asked.

Doctor McKay groaned. “Oh god, 'cause what we really need is for Captain Kirk to go Conan.”

John rolled his eyes. “You know, I don't actually have a woman on every planet.”

“No, because sometimes they start shooting at us before you've have a chance to seduce anyone!” McKay groused.

“Gentlemen, please!” Woolsey glared at both of them. “After the Wraith have been dealt with, then you can try and get the doctors researching the Super Soldier Serum.”

“Besides of which, we have already seen a sort of 'super serum',” Teyla added pointedly. “It was called the wraith enzyme.”

Both John and Doctor McKay flinched at her words.

“Aye, we did and we'll not be looking to repeat that experience again,” Carson added. “However, I don't think research into the serum would be entirely unwarranted, especially if we combine it with ATA gene research.”

Woolsey frowned. “What do you mean, Doctor?”

“Well, I've certainly no interest in creating stronger soldiers, but if we could get it to work in a slightly diluted version and in conjunction with the gene therapy, then it could potentially open up a whole new way of treating genetic disorders and chronic diseases. Severe asthma, weak or badly functioning organs, type one diabetes, possibly even diseases such as Hutchington's could potentially be cured in the same way Steven's here were after his serum treatment.”

A hush fell upon the room. Steve stared at the screen.

“Whatever you need,” he suddenly found himself saying. He met Carson's surprised eyes. “I know you're busy with your own problems now, but after – if you want to do this – I'll provide you with any samples you want. Just ask. And Tony has access to most of the Project Rebirth files; I'm pretty sure I could convince him to share...” He swallowed, realizing he was starting to babble. “Carson, I've read some of the files on what happened with the serum research after Erskine died and... well, I can't say I'm all that comfortable with that part of his and my legacy. But this is the first time I've heard anyone say that the serum could be used for more than just creating soldiers.”

He smiled crookedly. “That's a legacy I wouldn't mind being part of.”

Carson smiled warmly at him. “Nor would I, lad, nor would I. 'T would be a lovely thing to create something wonderful as that.”

“Yeah, yeah, that's wonderful, great really I happy for both of you,” Doctor McKay suddenly interrupted. “Can we get on to the important part of this meeting? I mean, you're here for hard science help, not the squishy voodoo stuff.”

“Rodney!” John protested, sounding annoyed rather than outraged or surprised.

“Hey, this is important too!” Doctor Keller declared angrily.

Beside her, Carson grinned. “Och now you've done it, lad: no nookie for you tonight.”

Doctor McKay blinked and straightened, suddenly looking interested. “Nookie?” he asked. “What do you mean nookie? That was on the table... since when was that on the table?”

“Well, it's not anymore,” Doctor Keller proclaimed, sitting down with a huff.

“Wait, no, no if you're not finished then you should continue, 'cause I'm sure the absolutely amazing scientific discoveries can wait for a few more minutes...”

Doctor Keller looked like she was having a hard time keeping a straight face. Steve heard Woolsey sigh. “Did you have anything else to add, Doctor Carson?” he asked.

Carson shook his head, still looking amused. “No, we actually were done.”

“Very well. I agree with your assessment and it certainly sounds like something worth pursuing in the future. However, to Doctor McKay's point, that isn't really the topic at hand. So perhaps, Doctor Jackson, you could give a slight overview of what it is that you've found?”

“Yes, of course, thank you Mister Woolsey,” Daniel answered. He cleared his throat. “I won't bore you with particulars, but in essence what we managed to find was an Ancient research station. Now we didn't get a chance to thoroughly investigate it, being on a time limit and all, but I think I can safely say that it's quite a bit bigger than the one in Antarctica, although possibly not bigger than Atlantis itself. However, from the data we managed to gather, we did ascertain that it was built after the fall of Atlantis by its survivors. In fact, according to Morgan, its purpose was to continue the Ancient's research into finding a way to defeat the wraith.”

John straightened suddenly from his slump. “Woah, hang on, seriously? I thought the Ancients just sort of gave up on the Pegasus Galaxy when they left?”

Daniel shrugged. “Apparently not. And whatever was being done at the base, it was important, because not only did we find evidence of research – and yes, Rodney I'll let you take over on that in a second – but the base also had its own stargate, separate from the one by the town which we used to arrive on the planet, and powered by a ZPM. In addition – or perhaps even more significantly – was the discovery of a Meeting Place of the Four Great Races, which we found completely intact.”

“That's impressive,” Woolsey agreed. “Now, I was given to understand that you brought some Ancient tablets for Doctor McKay to look at?”

“Yes, we did. Many of the core systems were locked to us, so we took what tablets we could find to bring with us hoping that when Rodney unlocked them it would give us a better idea of what's in the portion of the base we couldn't access.”

“And did you have any luck with this, Doctor McKay?”

“Of course I did. I'm me and quite frankly even Zelenka could've done this with both hands tied behind his back,” said Doctor McKay dismissively. “Most of it was boring. I think there was some poetry on one of the tablets and a cookbook or something on another, which I sent on to the soft science departments so they could geekgasm over them. And Daniel went nuts over the log we found.”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “It was the log belonging to the last station commander and, yes, it's quite fascinating.”

“Whatever. Anyway, thankfully there was some actually useful stuff in there too. One of the tablets contained technical specs for the vehicle Daniel said the townspeople use to get to and from the temple. It's sort of like a planet-side puddlejumper and I definitely want one.”

John nodded in what looked like agreement. “Anything else?”

Steve couldn't see Doctor McKay very well from where he was sitting, but the excitement in his voice was unmistakable.

“Well, the last tablet contained specs I've definitely never seen before. In fact, it looks very different from anything we've seen on anywhere on the Ancient database. Which, of course, could be accounted for by two things. One, we still haven't managed to get through the entire database yet, and two, if Daniel's right then this is newer Ancient tech than anything on Atlantis.”

“So, basically we've got the upgraded version of Atlantis,” said Cam, looking smug.

Rodney snorted. “Not that you can actually use any of it without our help. You have exactly one person with the ATA gene and he's a relic from a time when microwave ovens were the height of technology!”

Steve blinked. “Actually, microwaves came after my time,” he said.

“Really?” said Carson with an eggaerated look of shock. “Blimey, you're practically from the Dark Ages then, aren't you?”

Steve grinned. “I'm a decent plumber,” he said. “But it's true, the only technology I know how to fix is motorbikes and tanks.”

Doctor Keller blinked. “Tanks?” she asked.

He shrugged. “They were easier to steal during the war than jeeps. Only one gun instead of the three or more you got in a jeep. Sure, it packed a whollop of a punch, but if you could get past it, you were home free. And the krauts inside could only come out at you one at a time too... so, yeah, easier.”

He could see John grinning. Behind him, he heard Ronon ask what a tank was and Clint answering. He forsaw requests of tank-steeling stories in his future.

Woolsey cleared his throat. “Excuse me, could we get back to the topic at hand please?” He swept a level gaze over the room. “Doctor Mckay, are you able to make a guess based on the specs you found as to what might be hidden in the portion of the Ancient outpost in question?”

Doctor McKay rubbed his hands together, his whole body vibrating with excitement. “Now, keep in mind that we don't actually know whether these specs were purely theoretical or not – I mean, yes, based on the notes that accompanied them I don't think they were just someone's way of passing the time. And then, of course, there's the obvious hope that Daniel's glowy family isn't having us on in the most elaborate and poorly-timed practical joke in the history of forever..”

He paused. “But, if I'm reading the specs correctly, which let's face it as the smartest man in two galaxies I probably am, and if the Ancients did indeed build what the specs are showing... then, well.”

He grinned excitedly at the room.

“Then I think we might have ourselves a ship.”

Chapter Text


 

TIME

If felt like a very long time had passed since they'd last been inside Atlantis' gateroom, but it had actually been less than forty-eight hours. Steve, Clint and Natasha arrived as a group, walking into the bright, sunlit area to see that the mixed air force and marine squad Woolsey was sending with them was already there and doing last-minute checks. Major Lorne looked up and nodded to them as they descended the stairs.

“Excited to be going back to Earth?” Steve asked him with a smile.

Lorne shrugged. “I might be if it felt more like vacation and less like another day at the ranch.”

“Even the space ship?”

Lorne opened his mouth to reply and then closed it, frowning. “Well, it's not like there haven't been space ships before, and I do kinda fly the jumpers all the time, but being designated as the pilot of a potential space ship is new. It's usually Sheppard that gets those gigs.”

“Woah, hang on there,” Clint suddenly interjected. “What do you mean there've been space ships before? Oh wait, those wraith have ships, right?”

“Also, the city flies,” Steve added.

Clint gaped. “The city flies? As in through space? That's-that's just... whoa, Stark is going to be so ridiculously jealous.”

“You mean more jealous than when he finds out we can use the technology and he can't?” Natasha asked with a small quirk of her lips.

“Oh I can't wait to rub that in his face,” Clint grinned gleefully. “Screw the Iron Man suit; I can pilot space ships with my mind!”

Woolsey hadn't exactly been thrilled with the idea when Daniel suggested injecting the rest of SG-1 and the Avengers with the gene therapy, but Atlantis could barely spare the one combat unit he'd already offered to send with them. Not to mention their head scientist.

“You know, I'm pretty sure Woolsey's main reason to agreeing to any of this is because he plans to convince the SGC to let him keep the ship on Atlantis afterwards,” Daniel had told Steve after the meeting. “There've been rumbles from Atlantis for years that they should have a ship of their own stationed at the city so that they don't have to rely on ships travelling from the Milky Way.”

Steve had blinked and looked at Daniel. “Ships travelling from the Milky Way...? Daniel, does Earth actually have space ships of its own?”

Daniel had looked uncomfortable for a moment. “Er, yes. We have a small fleet now with more being constructed. And even more designs on the drawing boards – thanks to the Asgard Legacy Core we have specs for some pretty advanced stuff. Or at least we will once our scientists manage to translate and understand it. I've been helping with a lot of the translating, but, well, like with the tablet, there's only so much I can translate accurately without the necessary scientific background. Sam's been keeping an eye on the project, though, and from what she's said it looks like they're pretty much re-writing physics as we know it.”

Doctor McKay had interrupted them then. “You!” he said, pointing to Steve. “You're coming with me. I'm going to pawn you off on someone less busy than me so they can show you the chair. Just make sure you don't actually shoot anything down. I mean, you can fire the drones and get them to fly around and dance pirouettes or whatever, but stay away from property damage.”

Steve bristled at the tone of voice, but Daniel had placed a calming hand on his arm. “Look on the bright side,” he'd said quietly. “If Rodney's going to pawn you off on someone else then at least it means you won't have to deal with him.”

That had been a bright side all right. Doctors Zelenka and Kusanagi were very nice people – a bit strange in the way that all scientists were a bit strange – but very nice. And the chair was really swell. He still preferred his shield, but that wasn't exactly an option against a space ship.

It hadn't really hit him until then that there would be space ships in this fight. That ten-year-old inside of him was bouncing around and cheering with excitement.

The gene treatment had worked for all of them except Mitchell, and so Clint, Natasha and Vala had spent their evening learning to fly puddlejumpers. Carson had taken Sam around the infirmary to teach him about Ancient medical tech.

The transporter doors opened again and Sam's voice reached Steve's ears, punctuated by Carson's Scottish brogue as they went over their mental inventories out loud to make sure they had everything. It was strange seeing the Doctor in a military flak vest and army boots. Steve noted the 9-mil holstered at his hip, which looked as odd on him as he imagined it would on Bruce. Then again, Bruce had an entire Hulk to protect him, so really a handgun was a relatively benign weapon for Carson to carry.

“Good morning,” Carson called out jovially when he and Sam reached the top of the stairs and began to descend.

“Morning, Doc,” Lorne called back with a smile. Then he half-turned to his unit. “Holland, take the Doc's bag!”

“Yes, sir,” a young lieutenant answered and quickly rushed over to take the large bag Carson was carrying. He offered to take Sam's as well, but Sam waved him off.

Steve smiled. “Good morning, Carson, Sam,” he said. “You two ready to head out?”

“Oh hell yes!” said Sam with a grin. “But I only remember about half of what I learnt yesterday, so none of you better get hurt.”

Carson chuckled. “We're as ready as we'll ever be, I suppose.”

Carson had volunteered for the mission on his own and, though Steve hadn't given it much thought before, he was glad for the Doctor's presence. Sam was trained as a medic, which was helpful some of the time, but rushing an injured person to a hospital wouldn't exactly be an option out in the middle of space if they got hurt more seriously.

It had been when Woolsey looked like he'd mostly caved to their reasoning for letting Doctor McKay go with the Avengers and SG1 back to the Milky Way that Carson had suddenly looked at their group with an alarmed look on his face.

“Now wait a minute there,” he'd said with wide eyes. “You're sending Daniel Jackson and Rodney McKay on the same mission?!” He scanned the room and his eyes narrowed in thought, before nodding resolutely. “You're going to need a doctor then; I'm coming with ye.”

And that had been that, because Atlantis already had a doctor and he was therefore extraneous anyway. Woolsey had made a few token protests and then assigned them the marine unit to join Major Lorne's team. Colonel Sheppard had been incredibly annoyed he couldn't lead the mission, but neither Woolsey nor either of the doctors were willing to budge.

Two of the marines were Russian and both seemed happy to speak to Natasha in their native language. Clint stood silent next to her, though Steve was well aware that the archer spoke Russian fluently. Suddenly, Clint grinned and nudged Natasha.

“Hey, so I see you've left him alive, head intact and all,” he said.

Natasha looked to him with a frown and then turned to follow his gaze up to the command centre. Sure enough, Ronon was there, just to the left of Woolsey, his hands in his pockets, looking as casual as he could. He nodded to Natasha in greeting. Natasha nodded back and then turned to Clint.

“Don't be ridiculous,” she said. “I might try to come back one day. It would be a pity to kill him while he's still useful.”

“You should come back and we send you against the Genii,” said one of the Russian marines with a smirk.

“Da, that would be good,” said the second one. “They will not be expecting Czernu Vdovu.”

Natasha raised an eyebrow at the name, but it was Clint who asked: “Who are the Genii?”

Steve turned away and tuned out the reply, because that was when Mitchell and Vala walked in.

“Well hey, y'all ready to go?” said Mitchell loudly with a wide smile. Next to him, Vala scanned the crowd and sighed.

“Well no, we're missing Daniel and that obnoxious annoying man from Canada,” said Vala. She frowned. “That's the one with the maple leaf, right?”

“Yeah,” said Mitchell, looking at his watch. “Jackson's got exactly two minutes to get his butt down here and drag McKay with him.”

A little over three minutes later, the transporter opened again, letting out a loud stream of noise as Doctor McKay and Doctor Zelenka exited, both talking a mile a minute as they hurried out, although McKay seemed to be the loudest. Behind them, Daniel, Teyla and Doctor Keller exited at a much slower pace, obviously amused.

“And you'll have to make sure to run diagnostics on the internal sensors in those areas and make sure the door panels all work–“ McKay was telling Zelenka.

Zelenka rolled his eyes. “–Yes, yes of course and I will make sure no one touches anything until we know what it does. I was here the first time, I know about the dangers. We check everything with database.”

“And Janus' lab: I think Janus might've kept records – or possibly stolen them – for things he was interested in, so if you can't find anything in the Ancient database, then check the files in his lab.”

“Ah, yes, good point. I will remember that.”

“Good, you should. Oh and make sure–”

“Rodney!” Zelenka placed a hand on McKay's shoulder when the other scientist went silent. The look in his eyes was somewhere between exasperation and amusement – but mostly exasperation. “I will take care of her while you are gone. I promise.”

McKay twitched nervously. “Of course you will. Just... don't blow anything up.”

Zelenka threw his hands up, although Steve wasn't sure that it wasn't partially in jest. “No, I leave that to undisputed master.”

“Hey, I usually stop things from blowing up!”

“Yes, you do... and sometimes you blow up solar systems!”

“...it was only five sixths of a solar system. And it was uninhabited.”

Steve blinked as he felt Clint side up next to him.

“Uh, did that guy just say that McKay there once blew up a solar system?”

“I'm pretty sure he did,” said Steve.

“Wow, that just... wow.” Clint paused for a moment. “I keep thinking it would be hilarious to shut McKay up in a room with Stark and then stand back and watch, but now I'm wondering if that might just be the most monumentally bad idea ever.”

“I'll bring the popcorn,” said Natasha, seemingly unconcerned.

“I'll bring my Kevlar vest,” said Sam. “And possibly a brick wall to hide behind.”

“Might want to make it cement,” said Clint. “Bricks fall apart too easily.”

“Woolsey to Major Lorne, are you and your team ready for departure?” they heard come over Lorne's comm.

Lorne tapped his comm. “My team and the marines are, sir. Let me just double-check with the others.” He turned to them. “Looks like we're all here. Everyone got everything they need?”

“Oh!” McKay exclaimed and threw his backpack onto the ground. He unzipped it and began rummaging through. “Shit, I hope I didn't forget them...”

Doctor Keller went over to his side and touched his shoulder lightly. “Rodney, what are you looking for?”

“Presents! We're going to Earth, so I was thinking I'd take some time to go to Vancouver and I've been collecting stuff during missions, since according to Madison visitors have to bring presents. And, you know, why would I waste time and money on generic, mass-produced garbage when I can totally be the cool uncle who brings souvenirs from another galaxy. Even if she won't be allowed to know what a cool uncle I am until the program goes public, but it still makes me, uh, secretly cool.”

Lorne ran a hand through his hair. “Sometimes your priorities astound me McKay,” he said even as the corner of his lips twitched.

“You're taking visiting etiquette lessons from a four-year-old?” Doctor Keller asked, not even bothering to hide her fondly amused smile.

“She's six!” McKay exclaimed indignantly. “Or possibly seven. I'm not actually sure when her birthday is.”

Keller bit her bottom lip. “So, what did you get her?”

“I got her a doll... Aha!”

He carefully pulled out a cloth-wrapped package and unwrapped it to show her. Steve leaned over to get a look at the beautifully hand-carved face made out of a rather dark wood, hair that looked a lot like real hair (horse hair, Steve guessed... or whatever equivalent the planet in question had), and a dress made out of blue and purple-dyed fabric.

“She's a little girl and little girls like dolls right?” He looked unsure of himself as he looked up at Keller. “I suppose I could get her a chemistry set to go with it, but I'm not sure that Jeannie would let her play with the bunsen burner.”

“Uh, I'm pretty sure toy chemistry sets don't come with bunsen burners,” said Clint.

McKay's glare was scathing. “Who said anything about a toy? Why would I waste money on a toy? You can't do anything properly with those!”

“Rodney, she's six,” said Keller with a roll of her eyes.

McKay looked up at her in confusion. “So? I was eleven when I built my first atomic bomb-oh my god I got her a dumb-kid toy. She's going to hate me for getting her a dumb-kid toy!”

It looked like only sheer force of will was stopping Doctor Keller from bursting into laughter.

“The doll is perfect, Rodney.” She finally said before she bent over and pecked him on the cheek. “She's going to love it.”

The scientist stilled and then looked up. “You think so?”

“Positive.”

“Oh, good, then that's great.” He quickly wrapped the doll back up in the cloth and carefully put it back into his bag before proceeding to pack it back up. “I got Jeannie a pendant made out of some shiny rocks that kind of reminded me of amethyst only more pink and then I figured I should get something for whats-his-name that she married and since he's an English major I got him this cool looking quill with ink that the locals of M4P 559 make out of lizard blood. It's got this really neat greenish colour and glows in the dark.”

Keller frowned. “Isn't he vegetarian?”

“So?”

“So you just said the ink has lizard blood in it...”

“It's ink: you don't eat it!”

Keller shook her head with fond amusement, standing as McKay stood up and hoisted his pack over his shoulder. Steve had to admit he was impressed with how easily he managed it. The pack certainly didn't look light. But he'd realized yesterday that beneath the bluster and whining, McKay was much braver and sturdier than he seemed. He'd babbled and whined as they'd climbed the stairs to the 'training room', but hadn't backed down or even slowed. Even seeing what the silvery flying objects had done to Lieutenant Forbes hadn't made him turn away, only pause for a moment as his eyes widened in horror.

Steve could wish he was a nicer person, but the people of Atlantis had clearly gotten past his obnoxious exterior (for the most part), so maybe he wasn't quite as bad as he seemed. He'd made that mistake with Tony, so he was determined to give Rodney McKay a fair chance.

“Woolsey, this is Lorne,” he heard from behind him, all exasperation gone from the major's voice. “We're good to go.”

“Very well, beginning dialling sequence.”

Steve turned away as Keller kissed McKay soundly, looking instead towards the command centre, where John had joined Ronon. He blinked and then looked to the upper level. It looked like half the city had come to see them off. There were a few cat-calls from the crowd.

“Good luck, Rodney,” he heard Keller whisper a moment later.

“I, uh, thanks... you-you too.”

He heard Clint and Sam snicker. He bit back a smile of his own.

The stargate came to life and Steve noticed with interest that the dialling sequence looked very different to the ones they'd seen in the Milky Way. Lights ran the perimeter of the circle, making it look more digitized and less clunky – although now that he thought of it, so had the one inside the Ancient research facility, but somehow it was more obvious here. It was yet another amazing thing inside this amazing city.

The wormhole opened with the same splash of watery backwash and then settled into a shimmery blue portal.

“Major Lorne, SG-1, Avengers, you have a go,” said Woolsey's voice over the PA system. “Godspeed... and good luck.”

At the SGC they'd been thieves, hijackers, and the only send-off they'd had was a tiny voice from far away that only Natasha, Clint and Sam could hear coupled with the blaring intruder alarm. The people of Atlantis seemed determined to make up for that as dozens of voices wished them good luck in over a dozen different languages – some he recognized and many he didn't. Steve grinned up at them, his throat tightening.

One day he would bring Bucky here, he vowed.

Steve wasn't sure he'd ever get used the bone-deep cold he felt when he came out of the wormhole: it clung to him like half-forgotten memories of ice in the dark of night. But he took only a second to shake the feeling back into his limbs before he continued moving, knowing there were more people coming behind him. His eyes swept the familiar room and then he froze, automatically shifting his stance, as something behind one of the consoles moved.

There was a chorus of clacks as safeties were turned off. Steve reached for his shield.

A figure suddenly leapt to its feet and the soldiers immediately raised their guns.

“No, wait, put down your guns!” he heard Daniel cry out in the same moment he, too, recognized the figure.

“Do it!” he heard Mitchell re-enforce the order. “This kid's here with the local archaeologist, his apprentice or something.”

Safeties were snapped back on and the tension relaxed marginally. Not much though, because whatever the apprentice was telling Daniel was spoken with words that sounded rushed, jumbled together and breathy with barely-controlled panic. Daniel listened carefully, his eyes widening in horror.

Finally, he turned to them. “Someone came to get Hektor yesterday,” he said tightly. “A prior came through the planet's main gate.”

“Shit,” Mitchell cursed softly. “Do you think it's a coincidence?”

Daniel looked at him gravely. “I'm not sure I believe in coincidence.”

“Adria.” Vala breathed the name as though it were at once something precious and a curse. “She must've somehow known we'd been here and told the priors the address.”

“Which means they're after the Ancient outpost,” said Lorne.

Daniel nodded. “Probably.” He turned back to the boy and asked him a question Steve didn't understand. He nodded. “Okay, so Dion is apparently still here ready to transport us back- oh!” He turned to McKay. “Rodney, maybe you should take a look at the hovercrafts and see if you can turn off the autopilot!”

Doctor McKay perked up. “Hovercrafts?”

It turned out that, yes, McKay could turn off the autopilot on the hovercrafts – muttering excitedly all the while about slimmer crystal matrices and a new user interface that was not actually an improvement. Dion watched his movements like a hawk, clearly unhappy with letting anyone root through her vehicle. She put her foot down when it came to steering, categorically refusing to let anyone else touch the controls.

They ended up leaving Major Lorne and part of the combat behind to guard the outpost and Doctor McKay, whose priority was hacking into the outpost's computer system.

 


 

The journey to the village went by much faster than the original one to the temple thanks to Rodney's fiddling with the controls. And yet it still seemed to drag, fraught with anxious tension. Daniel held onto the railing with a white-knuckled grip, his teeth grinding together with fury. And guilt. Maybe the Priors would've found this planet regardless, but there was no doubt in his mind that this time they were here because of him.

More people might've already died, each new death a strike against his soul.

At least Dion seemed to be having fun. He could only see her back, but despite that he could tell she was grinning as she flew them along the river again, managing the twists and bends with ease despite the speed increase. There was also the occasional whoop and wild laughter.

Finally, the village's tower came into view, peeking over the dense forest and growing taller the closer they came. The resemblance to Atlantis was even more pronounced now, with the rest of the village hidden out of sight behind the remaining miles of foliage, allowing for the illusion that just on the other side they would find an Ancient city. Daniel's heart clenched; he really wished it was Atlantis they were heading towards.

The village was quiet as they approached. Dion manoeuvred the hovercraft around to the side, where a wide street had been built – probably for the very crafts she was piloting. It was Daniel's first real glance at the city streets. He was surprised to find that Athena's statues really were everywhere, all looking virtually the same except that some were holding a sword in their left hand and some a shield. The closer they got to the town's centre, the more people he noticed about, all walking in groups, all talking in hushed voices.

Finally, the streets gave way to the town square and the tower. The crowd of people stepped aside to let the vehicle through and Dion carefully negotiated the streets and then set down next to the tower. There was no sign of the Prior.

They didn't get the chance to ask what had happened before the Tower door was swung open and the woman Daniel recognized as the town's head of security (the literal translation of her title was Head Protector) was striding out towards them, Hektor following at her heels.

“Daniel!” the scholar called out. “You're back!”

Daniel walked forward, nodding to the Head Protector, who nodded back and then scanned the rest of his group with narrowed eyes. He then turned to Hektor. “Yes, we just returned. Hektor, what happened?”

It was the Head Protector who answered.

“A man with skin that did not look quite alive arrived through the Stargate yesterday. He wore a white robe and spoke about his gods, the Ori. I recognized the name as the ones you told us about and I told him we did not need new gods. He smiled and said he would give us a day to consider it and then he left.” She pursed her lips in disgust. “I thought then that perhaps you had spoken in bias, that anger coloured your thoughts. But this morning, all four of the guards that had been with me by the Stargate did not report for duty. They had fallen ill: their bodies weak and burning like fire. Two of them have wives and one of them two sons and a daughter, and they too had fallen ill. Since this morning we have had twenty-five more suddenly become sick.”

She paused to watch Daniel for a moment. “You do not look surprised.”

He closed his eyes for a moment, seeking refuge in the momentary darkness – away from the sheer helplessness that threatened to overwhelm him. “No,” he said after a while. He opened his eyes. “I've seen this before. When he comes today, he will offer to cure your people if you will agree to worship the Ori. If you do not agree, then he might say he will come back tomorrow and then perhaps the next day...”

The Protector took a deep breath. “And if we continue to refuse?”

Daniel chuckled bitterly. “Just how long could you stand to watch your people suffer and die before you and your council finally give in? There have been those who refused until the bitter end, but the Priors have no compassion, no sense of honour. The Ori have never cared for any life they do not benefit from. They may allow the illness to ravage you, or they may send their armies to overwhelm you and slaughter your people.”

From around him, he heard gasps and suddenly realized they had an audience. He looked around at the horrified, frightened faces – mothers holding tightly to their children; friends, siblings, lovers holding tightly to each other. More than a few faces held tears.

Daniel swallowed, an impossible lump had lodged itself in his throat. “I'm sorry,” he whispered. “It's my fault they came here. I didn't think- I was just so desperate to find something, anything to fight them with... it didn't occur to me that they would follow us here.”

“No.”

Daniel's head snapped back to the Head Protector, at the sharpness of her tone. Her eyes were hard, determined, with anger simmering just around the edges where it couldn't yet cloud her judgement. It was a look so familiar, it filled him with as much relief as it did guilt.

“No,” she repeated, her tone lower, though no less intense. “This is the evil you came here to fight. You told us of it and we listened, but we had not expected it to touch us. That was foolish. And now the battle has become ours as well. Hektor has told me some of what happened at the temple. He said you journeyed to Atlantis itself to find help, because what you search for is buried deep within.”

This time the gasps sounded surprised and the hushed whispers that followed the mention of Atlantis were excited and hopeful. Daniel forced himself not to wince.

Instead he nodded. “Yes, I hope that what is buried deep within the temple can help us stop the Ori and their followers in their tracks.”

She nodded. “I shall speak to the council.”

“We brought a doctor back from Atlantis,” said Daniel before she could turn away. “I'll speak to him about the illness. Would it be possible for him to take a look at the patients?”

“Of course. We are thankful for his help.” She gestured behind her. “Phoneas will show him the way.”

An older guard with broad shoulders and deep scars running down his right arm nodded and stepped forward, long dark pony-tail swinging behind him as he walked. Daniel nodded to him.

“Thank you,” he said. “If you will allow me, I will now explain everything to my companions.”

The Head Protector nodded and then strode back to the Tower. Daniel sighed and turned to the rest of his group.

“This place seriously needs to come with subtitles,” said Sam before he'd even started. “I mean, I got the general gist of 'not good', 'really not good', and 'still not good, but hopeful'. Oh, and the part where Atlantis is like a rockstar around here.”

“Yeah, that sums most of it up pretty well actually,” Daniel conceded, before launching into the translation of what he'd just been told.

Carson had indeed heard of the Ori plague and had even read through all the reports while he'd been on Earth. He grabbed his kit as soon as Daniel finished speaking.

“Well, what are we waiting for then?” he said. “I'm not the SGC, but I can surely do something to help these people.”

“I'll come with you,” said Vala.

He raised an eyebrow at her. “I didna know ye were a medic.”

“I'm not.” Vala's smile turned sly. She reached into one of the pockets of her flak vest and pulled out what looked like an elaborate piece of golden jewellery with a large reddish-orange stone in the centre of it. She held it up.

Carson looked slightly confused and Daniel remembered that he'd only been recruited for the Atlantis project, which meant he probably hadn't come into contact with a lot of Goa'uld artifacts.

“The hand device?” Cam said with surprise. “You went back for the Goa'uld hand device? That's what took you so long to get to the Gateroom?!”

She shrugged. “If either of you had gotten injured you'd have been happy I had it.”

“Um, what is that exactly?” Steve asked.

“It's a healing device,” Daniel answered. “It can actually heal pretty severe injuries almost instantaneously, but because the Goa'uld wanted to keep them as a purview of 'the gods' its use is tied to the traces of naquada deposited in a host's body from the parasite. Those trace elements never get absorbed into the body, which is why Vala, as a former host, can use one of those.”

Vala nodded and then turned to Carson. “I've done it before and the device can't cure the plague, but it can ease some of the symptoms for a little bit. Might give the worst off ones a bit longer.”

Carson nodded. “I'll take it, lass,” he said. “Even if all it does is buy someone an hour, that's an hour longer for me to come up with a cure.”

“I'll come with you for at least a bit to translate,” said Daniel.

“Uh, what about me?” Sam asked.

Carson considered him for a moment and then shook his head. “No son, you haven't come into contact with it directly yet and haven't been given any of the vaccinations the SGC has for its off-world teams. Best you stay away from the infected for now.”

Sam nodded. “Yell if you need me, though, Doc, got it?”

“Aye, will do.”

Phoneas took them to a large white-washed building painted all over with delicate little purple flowers. Daniel paused for a moment to look at them. Up close it was obvious that each one was painted a little differently, as though by a different hand – some clearly by talented artists, but others looked rough, simple.

“They called Resipis blossoms,” Phoneas told him.

“Resipis... possibly from the Latin word resipsco, which means to awaken, revive...” Daniel cocked his head thoughtfully and then looked to the guard. “Spring flowers?”

Phoneas smiled widely. “Yes. They bloom from vines that grow on the trees we harvest sweet syrup from and are the brightest flower to bloom after the first thaw. They are also used by the healers to help wounds heal.” He pointed to the single flower carved into a plaque just above the door. “They are our healer's symbol: a blessing to them and to those they heal.”

“Who painted them?” Daniel asked.

“Everyone.”

Phoneas walked past the door and then turned the corner around the building. Daniel followed him and saw that the flowers continued to wrap around the building, but there was still empty space towards the back. Part-way down he stopped and pointed upwards, to a flower just above his head. It was a simple outline coloured in with bright purple paint and attached to a small string of green vine with a couple leaves.

“This one is mine,” said Phoneas. “When my wife carried my second child her pregnancy was difficult and she grew very weak. Too weak, the healers worried, to give birth and live herself. I painted the flower to bless the healer's hands and bless her with strength to remain with me; I could do nothing else.”

He turned to Daniel and grinned. “Now my son is eleven and drives my wife crazy at least once a day.”

Daniel grinned, looking back to the flowers: they were beautiful. “I'm glad your blessing worked. I'm assuming they don't always.”

“Sometimes no blessing is strong enough.”

The little purple flowers covered the entrance hall inside the building as well. Here, it became more obvious that the building was a hospital, with rows of seats taking up most of the back and a reception desk at the far end. While Phoneas explained to the young man seated at the desk what they were doing here, Daniel explained the flowers to Carson and Vala. Carson was enchanted by the idea.

And then they were being led down a wide hall into the heart of the building. After the hovercraft, they really shouldn't have been surprised by more Ancient technology, but the equipment inside the treatment room they were taken to still surprised Daniel.

Carson grinned widely. “Oh, now this is grand,” he said, looking relieved. “I think I can get some real work done with this.”

Daniel stayed for about an hour translating for Carson while he settled in with the Aeneid doctors and nurses. During this time, he noticed there were several people standing by the machines but not joining in the regular hubbub of the room. He eventually approached a young woman standing by the large, Ancient scanner. She looked young: small and slender with long dark hair, the last vestiges of baby fat filling her cheeks. She was watching him, Carson and Vala with bored curiosity.

“Hello,” he said. “I'm Daniel.”

She blinked at him and smiled shyly. “Hello, Daniel. My name is Calys.”

He smiled warmly at her. “Nice to meet you, Calys. I'm sorry to disturb you, but I'm curious. You and several of the others are just standing here by the machines. I was wondering what it is you do.”

“Oh, we are Operators,” she said, pride evident in her voice. “The machines left behind by the Founders cannot be used by all the citizens, so everyone is tested on their fifteenth birthday. Those who can use them then go into special training and when we finish school we choose if we want to work in the hospital, in the fields, with the guards or operate one of the floating waggons. My father is a doctor and I wanted to help people like he does, so I chose the hospital.”

Daniel stared at her. He suddenly felt incredibly stupid. Of course some of the people here would have the Ancient gene. Hektor told him the Founders had lived here for centuries and intermarried with the human population. Puddlejumpers required the ATA gene to operate, so why wouldn't the hovercrafts?

“Do you know why you can use the Founder's machinery?” he asked, curious.

She frowned. “No,” she said and then thought for a moment. “Some people just can... often it follows in a family. My grandfather operated the floating waggons and my older brother works in the city archives, but my mother did not have the ability.”

Daniel blinked. Okay, so the ATA gene could be recessive – possibly for several generations. Carson would be very interested in that. Actually, it was interesting that no one in the town had made the connection, or that the Ancients hadn't told the townspeople about the gene...

Holy shit. That's probably why the Ancients brought humans here from Earth in the first place: to make sure that whatever was in the temple wasn't forgotten. And they brought them here early enough that they could inter-breed and leave behind people capable of using the technology. The Ancients had already been planning to ascend an entire millennium before they actually did. Why wait so long?

“Daniel?”

He shook himself out of his stupor and looked back down to Calys' worried face. He smiled at her.

“Sorry, that's actually really interesting.” She looked a bit sceptical about that. He chuckled. “Although, I do know where this ability of yours comes from.”

That got her attention. “You do?”

“Yes. The Ancients – sorry the Founders – built their machines so that only they could operate them using a tiny little part inside their blood.” It wasn't the best explanation, but given that she likely didn't know what DNA was in the first place, it was the easiest. “It was something only the Founders had. So if you have it, then that means that one of the Founders is your ancestor from thousands of years ago.”

Calys' eyes were huge and awed. “I'm related to the Founders?”

Daniel nodded with a playful grin. “Very distantly, but yes you are. See, before the Founders came here, they lived on Earth, which is where we come from. So some of our people have that same tiny part inside them.” He jerked his thumb in Carson's direction. “Doctor Beckett is one of them.”

Calys' met his eyes and grinned. Their conversation ended when Carson called him over to help translate what he was doing to the two Aeneid doctors. He left not long afterwards, needing to get back to the others.

Just as he left the hospital, his radio crackled to life. “McKay to SG1, do you read?”

Daniel's hand immediately went to answer. “Hey Rodney, this is Daniel. Any luck?”

“I don't need luck, Doctor Jackson. I managed to get past the door locks – they were a bit tricky, but nothing I couldn't figure out. And there are two ways to get down to the lowest level: the door you found in the gateroom leads to an upper platform overlooking the hanger and the elevator takes you down to the hanger floor.”

Daniel grinned. “Hanger? So it really is a ship?”

There was an impatient sigh on the other end, which didn't fool Daniel one bit. “Yes, yes, there's a ship. She's... definitely of a different construction than any of the other Ancient ships we've found to date. Smaller too. Of course, I'm guessing from the records I've managed to find in their systems that this was intended as a prototype, which might explain the size.”

Just then another voice cut in on their conversation. “McKay, this is Mitchell: is she space-worthy?”

“I don't know, Colonel, I haven't had the chance to examine her from inside yet. Just thought you might want to know that while you've been messing around with the locals, I've found what we were looking for.”

“That's awesome, Rodney,” Daniel cut back in before Cam could start arguing with the scientist. He'd learnt on his last trip to Atlantis that the trick to getting along with Rodney was to roll his eyes at half of what he said and just move on.

“Of course it is. Oh, and one more thing, there are these weird statues on either side of the hanger. I mean, they're not ugly or anything, just really out-of-place. And they're giving off faint energy readings.”

Daniel stopped where he stood, his eyes widening. “Rodney, what do the statues look like?” he asked desperately, spinning around to see if he could see... yes, there was one on the corner.

“Uh, well they look like they could be made of marble – like one of those Ancient Greek or Roman statues every museum has a ton of – and they're both women. Actually, they look like they might be the same woman. Anyway, she's got a helmet on her head and she's, like, wearing some sort of toga or something, but she's got an open book in her right hand and in her left one of them's holding a round shield and the other's holding a sword... Oh my god, didn't you say you found the tablets inside a marble statue of some Greek goddess or something?”

“Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, specifically martial wisdom.”

“Okay, yeah, this could totally be a goddess of war and wisdom.”

Daniel looked up at the statue in front of him. “Is there any way for you to tell if the ones in the hanger are hollow?”

There was a pause.

“Jackson, what exactly are you thinking?” Cam's voice came over the comm, sounding wary.

“I could try and re-calibrate the hand-scanner to get a density readout, but it'll take time...” came Rodney's reluctant reply.

“I'm not sure, Cam,” said Daniel slowly. “But these statues around town really do look a lot like the one that shattered inside the MET. Although the ship definitely takes priority, Rodney, so don't worry about the statues for now. I'll ask Hektor about them.”

“Uh, head's up, guys, the gate's just activated.”

At Sam's warning, Daniel took off towards the Tower.

“This is Mitchell, everyone get out of sight. We don't want to make it obvious that we're here.”

A chorus of various agreements followed, but Daniel knew it wouldn't matter. The Prior would likely know they weren't visible to the human eye. Daniel's recollections of own time as a Prior were hazy – which wasn't terribly surprising given that he'd also been sharing his body with Merlin at the time – but he remembered a vague sense of power, a gentle humming that filled every pore of his body and made him able to see past regular sight, into the depth of things. He remembered looking at one elderly woman and seeing the dark spots that covered her lungs as she lay in bed, remembered reaching down and pulling at those dark spots with that well of power he could feel surrounding him, and knitting the tissue up as the spots disappeared. He also remembered the heady feeling of all that power surging through him and how apart from the rest of the world it made him feel.

How it had made him feel like he was no longer human.

The Head Protector was striding across the town square when he reached it, Hektor huffing beside her. She was carrying a helmet under her arm and had a slightly-curved sword tied to her waist. Two guards followed them with a slight clink of metal from their chainmail skirts and larger shoulder armour. It was only now that Daniel realized how much more delicate the Head Protector's armour looked. She was wearing the same full chest plate, but her metal shoulder pads were shaped better to fit her body and were fitted over top of two thick leather strips that crossed just below her collarbone where a golden disk held them together – a sign of her office perhaps? The armour fit her perfectly; it must've been custom-made to fit her.

“Head Protector,” he addressed her when he caught up to the group. “What has your council–“

“–We will not abandon our past or our pride to these heartless scavengers,” she interrupted him, her expression fierce as she looked only ahead. “We will give you the time you need.”

Daniel's steps didn't falter, but it was close as relief swept through his body. “Thank you. Doctor Beckett is already working with your doctors to find a cure.”

She nodded in acknowledgement.

The Prior was nearly at the town when her group reached him. Daniel had slipped out of sight as they were nearing the edge of town and weaved his way through the gathering throng of people until he finally managed to find Cam and Steve hiding behind an ornamental wall. It was just within ear-shot of the ensuing confrontation.

“About time you got here, Jackson,” Cam mumbled as Daniel crouched beside him.

Daniel ignored him in favour of listening to the conversation between the Head Protector and the Prior, making sure to open his comm so that he could translate for everyone.

“Okay, so she's angry that he's come back and he's saying that he promised he would,” Daniel began in a low voice, his eyebrows rising in surprise as the Head Protector spoke in Ancient – she hadn't with him. “He's asking her if they've reconsidered. If they've, uh, chosen to turn away from evil and are ready to worship the all-mighty Ori. And she's – ouch, she's really mad – she's saying that evil arrived with him.” He paused for a moment, blinking at what the woman was saying. “Huh, okay, that's interesting and, I mean, tragic obviously. She's saying that her wife fell sick overnight and their doctors don't know if they can help her and isn't the only one; more are succumbing to the illness by the hour. This illness is an evil that wasn't here before he came.”

There was a pause in the conversation as the Prior seemed to absorb her words. Then his eyes left hers and swept the village.

“Damn, he knows we're here,” Daniel continued as the Prior finally began speaking again. “He's, well, basically telling her he knows we're here and sort of insinuating that she's been listening to, uh... unholy whisperers and been thus influenced by messengers of chaos.”

“I can live with being a messenger of chaos,” came a barely-audible murmur over the comm. It sounded like Clint.

“Yeah,” Daniel heard Steve agree under his breath.

Daniel watched as the Head Protector stood silent for several moments. He recognized the signs of someone struggling with their anger, forcing it to heel instead of lashing out the way it wanted to no matter how satisfying that would be. Her voice, when she finally spoke was low and dangerous.

“She's saying she's not a fool to be influenced by whisperers. She has eyes and a mind of her own, that she's capable of judging the truth for herself. And that any gods or beings that would seek, uh, entrance/welcome with such evil, dishonourable means will never find a place in Aeneid or its people. And now she's telling him to get lost... and the Prior is promising that her people will regret turning away the open arms of the Ori.”

The Prior turned and began making his way towards the gate. No one moved until the stargate had activated and the Prior had walked through. When the wormhole disappeared, the town finally let go the breath they were holding.

The Head Protector turned on her heel and strode back to the town. Daniel, Steve and Cam stood as she approached.

“Daniel, ask her if there's anything we can do to help,” Steve said, his voice low. Daniel looked to him and took in his stiff posture: jaw clenched tightly as his eyes glared murderously at the silent gate.

He nodded and hurried over to ask. The Head Protector considered his request for a moment and then suggested they could help move food and supplies into the large protective cellars that existed beneath the city.

“We are not going to be surprised by the Ori's followers again,” she declared.

Daniel frowned. “Wait, what about the temple?” he asked.

She paused and scowled at him. “What do you mean?”

“Well, the temple is further away and we've now managed to open most of it and it's definitely big enough, not to mention better fortified than the town.”

The Head Protector was thoughtful for a moment. “There is also a river and fields and forests. The transportation platforms could not move everyone very quickly, but we could at least move the children and those who cannot fight.”

“You might be able to do it more quickly than you think. How many platforms do you have?”

Her left eyebrow rose. “Four that work, but only two go to the temple.”

“What do you mean four that work?”

“There are three others we cannot repair.”

“Hm, give me a minute to talk to Cam.”

An hour later a hovercraft loaded with food and Natasha was heading towards the temple. Lorne had been warned ahead of time and told to ask Rodney to show Natasha how to turn off the autopilot. Daniel was kept busy running between the hospital, the Tower and everyone else translating so that everything ran smoothly.

Eventually Dion found him and dragged him off to a bench, where Hektor was already sitting, and handed him a stuffed flatbread and a flask of fruity liquid. Then she hurried off again. The smell of spiced meat hit his nose and Daniel's stomach growled in response. He took a large bite of the flatbread and savoured the taste. The meat was spiced with something that tasted almost nutty, but with a sharpness that reminded him of horseradish.

The two of them ate in silence, Daniel's eyes aimlessly observing the intersection in front of them. In the centre there grew a bramble of bushes covered in tiny blue berries atop a grassy mound. And in between bushes, stood yet another statue of Athena.

“Why are there so many of those statues in the town?” he asked Hektor.

“Statues?” Hektor looked up. “Ah, the warrior statues. They were found inside the temple, loaded onto one of the transportation platforms. We still do not know why the Founders had so many of them, but they were there, so the Town Council agreed to move them into the town. Oh!”

Hektor's eyes suddenly widened and the old man leapt to his feet. “By my ancestor's memories, how could I have forgotten?” He whirled around. “Daniel, have you examined the statues closely? Oh, what am I saying: of course not? You would have said something if you had. Here, follow me.”

Daniel blinked at Hektor's back and then gathered their glasses and the stiff cloths their flatbreads had been wrapped in before quickly following. Hektor lead him to a low fence which had a large, leafy tree overhanging it, partially hiding a statue with its long branches. Hektor beckoned Daniel over to the fence.

“On the other side is the schoolyard,” Hektor explained, his body practically vibrating with excitement. “As a boy I often climbed this tree. It was always a challenge to see how far you could climb before an adult saw you. I am now too old to climb it, but it should be sturdy enough to hold you. Go on.”

Daniel had never climbed trees as a child. Even as a part of SG1 he very rarely climbed trees. And yet he now did so with only slight hesitation. It was a very good climbing tree, with large, easily-accessible branches. He felt ridiculous, but Hektor was clearly excited to show him something and he was certainly curious to find out what it was. Finally, he pulled himself up to sit on a thick branch just above Athena's head.

From this angle he could see over her shoulder, directly onto the pages of the book she was holding. Daniel's eyes widened. The book had writing on its pages. Daniel reached out carefully to steady himself on the statue's shoulder as he leaned over to get a better look.

That wasn't Latin. Or Greek. There were exactly eight lines of script running across the pages: two in Ancient, two in Asgard, two in Nox and two in Furling.

Hidden from sight, Victory is the sword that protects. When wisdom fails, lay down the sword and instead take up the shield.

“I thought the scripts had looked familiar, but I could not remember where I'd seen them,” said Hektor. “It has been so long since I was climbing trees.”

Daniel looked down at him. “This is amazing,” he said. “Low level energy readings... Rodney said they were giving off low level energy readings!”

He scrambled down as quickly as he could, nearly falling as his feet missed the fence, although he managed to catch himself in time. He ran towards the Tower, where he knew Steve was helping with moving supplies into one of the cellars.

“Steve!” he called out as he approached.

Steve paused and set down a box of jars next to the open hatch at the base of the tower. “Daniel?” he asked. “Is something wrong?”

“Come with me, there's something I need you to try.”

Steve frowned in confusion, but followed Daniel to the centre of the town square, where two of the statues stood proudly upon a large, elaborately-carved marble pedestal. One held a sword, the other a shield and both gleamed white beneath the late afternoon sun.

“Okay, so this is mostly a hunch, but I think these might actually be some sort of devices,” Daniel began. “I'd like you to try and activate them.”

Steve stared at the statues for a moment. “That's- isn't it a bad idea to try an activate Ancient technology without knowing what it does?”

“Ah... well, yes, it is, but there's actually an inscription written inside the book that you can't see from this angle and based on it, I don't think they're dangerous. Might even have something to do with this ship we've found.”

Steve blinked and then shrugged. “Okay, I'll give it a try. Anywhere in particular you want me to be touchin' for this?”

“Uh, try the book.”

“Okay.”

Steve reached out a hand to the statue with the sword – the one at the MET had also been holding a sword – and closed his eyes to concentrate. After a few moments, a faint blue light began to glow from inside the book and then there was a soft hiss. Steve's eyes flew open. Daniel took a step forward, his eyes widening. Both men stared as Athena's toga pulled apart to reveal a hollow core.

And two marble tablets.

Daniel reached out with shaking hands and carefully picked one up to examine. “It's the same,” he whispered. “This is exactly the same tablet that was inside the statue at the MET.”

He looked up to meet Steve's eyes. The Captain looked stunned. Then, without a single word, walked over to the second statue and placed his hand on its book. Just like with the first one, a faint blue light glowed inside the book. A few moments later, the shield lit up bright red.

They were still trying to figure out what the shield was supposed to be doing when Daniel's radio crackled to life.

“SG1 this is McKay, what the hell are you guys doing?!”

Daniel exchanged a look with Steve.

“McKay, this is Mitchell. What are you talking about? Over.”

“I picked up a sudden energy spike about fifteen minutes ago and while I was trying to figure out what was going on, one of the statues in the hanger started glowing and giving off the exact same energy reading! From what I can tell, it's sending out some sort of subspace beacon.”

Daniel winced and activated his radio. “Uh hi, this is Daniel. Sorry, that was us. I had Steve try to activate the statues to see what they did.”

“Jesus Jackson, you tryin' to get yourself killed more than usual?! Turn the damn things off.”

Daniel rolled his eyes at Cam's hysterics. “You know, it's not like the Ori don't already know how to find this place.”

“Yeah, but we don't want them findin' it sooner!”

“Okay as much time as I don't have to be listening to you two yammer on, given that I have an entire ship to get flight-worthy on my own, but I don't think the Ori will be able to detect this signal. It's using a very odd frequency and the only reason I found it is because this ship seems to have sensors on board specifically designed to detect it.”

“Oh, that's interesting,” said Daniel. “Because the statues originally came from the temple.”

“You know what, that's great and all, but turn that beacon off anyway.”

“We're on it.” He looked over to see Steve already reaching up to turn it off. “So how's that ship looking anyway, Rodney?”

“If I have no more interruptions then I think she should be ready by tomorrow... maybe early afternoon so that I can get some sleep before we attempt to actually fly her.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Daniel saw the red light disappear from the shield. “Sounds good, Rodney.”

 


 

The sun was preparing to set for the day when SG1 and the Avengers stood in front of the Stargate again. Cam watched Daniel dial the address.

“So, you're sure about going?” Daniel looked over his shoulder to ask him. Again.

He rolled his eyes and valiantly resisted the urge to strangle the archaeologist.

“Yes, Daniel, I'm sure,” he said. “Look, you've said it yourself: I'm the best man for the job. It has to be a familiar face that goes through, and you're needed here to translate and Vala's still working with Beckett tryin' ta keep people alive. Besides, I'll be next to useless on the ship without the gene!”

“Yes, but you are the highest-ranking officer.”

Cam snorted. As if that had ever mattered. “Yeah, and as you've also pointed out, this ain't a military operation. The only reason anyone's been looking at me to lead is out of courtesy – not that that's anything unusual. I mean, the Avengers don't fit into the ranking system in the first place and you don't out-rank me only because you're a civilian! Seriously Daniel, my feelings aren't getting hurt here. In fact I'm volunteering.”

Daniel ducked his head in what looked like embarrassment, but Cam caught the small smile tugging at his mouth. He grinned and bounded up the steps to the gate where he turned and raised a hand to wave at the group that had come to see him off.

“Well, good luck guys,” he said. “And hopefully I'll see y'all tomorrow at the rendezvous co-ordinates.”

Putting their well-wishes behind him, Cam turned and walked through the gate.

On the other side, he was greeted by staff weapons. Cam calmly raised his hands in surrender and grinned at the jaffa guards.

“Hey, whoa, relax there guys!” he said. “I'm Colonel Cameron Mitchell of SG1. I'm looking for Teal'c of Chulak. He around?”

Chapter Text


 

Cassie stood on the sidelines and watched in awe as Pepper Potts took instant control of the press conference and weaved a lovely tapestry out of words and pleasant smiles, all without stumbling or losing her place as the press searched for holes and missed stitches. It was like magic.

Because it was perfectly logical for Stark Industries to want to reward their employees for all their hard work in preparation for the highly-successful launch of the newest Starkphone by giving them two days off with pay. A flash of perfect teeth and every person in the country no doubt wished they worked for Stark Industries. Oh, but of course, SI wasn't becoming complacent and there were new, exciting things in the works. Unfortunately Mister Stark was away working on something she wasn't able to speak to just yet (Cassie snickered at her choice of words, but agreed with Pepper that not mentioning that Tony was working with the air force was a wise choice – especially given they weren't entirely certain the air force knew that Tony Stark was working for the air force), but here was the head developer of the new in-home monitoring system the company was working on.

The the thin, balding man in his mid-thirties that replaced Pepper on the podium was much less put-together and stammered during his presentation, eyeing the press gathered before him as though they were a pack of wild dogs. Hungry wild dogs. Cassie winced, feeling sorry for him.

“Well, that went well,” said Pepper as she came to stand next to Cassie. There was a hint of tension around her eyes, but it was barely noticeable beneath the satisfied smile.

“That was amazing,” Cassie told her. “Unfortunately, this guy looks like he's going to get eaten alive.”

“Hm, yes, it's unfortunate that Tony can't be here: he's good at giving the press both a show and just enough relevant information to make them think they got something out of him.”

Cassie was thoughtful for a moment. “You know, I can't help but wonder how Uncle Daniel would be at something like this.” She sighed. “Not that we'll likely ever find out.”

Pepper reached down and squeezed her hand, smiling encouragingly. “Don't worry, they'll make it back.”

Cassie looked up in surprise. “No, that's not what I– oh, wait, that's right. You weren't there for that conversation.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She'd been trying very hard not to think about it. “You know they're going against orders, right?”

Pepper nodded. “Yes, but Daniel's not military, so it's not like they can court-martial him...”

“But he did sign a confidentiality agreement.” Pepper's eyes widened. “Even they save the world thanks to Daniel, he could still, theoretically be tried for treason.”

A hand flew to her mouth in horror. “But surely, they wouldn't... not if he's a hero.”

Cassie smiled bitterly. “He's already a hero many times over, Ms Potts. All of SG1 is. But he's also vocal and persistent and has made some powerful enemies over the years, people who want the focus of the SGC to be on military acquisitions. Luckily he's managed to persuade, or inspire, enough support for the historical and humanitarian aspects of the project to keep it alive, but without him that portion will probably be discontinued or at least severely diminished.”

Pepper's eyes narrowed. “I only know a little about this SGC project, but I know enough to not feel entirely comfortable with the thought of the military in complete control of it.”

Cassie nodded and then turned to watch the scientist at the podium. He wasn't sweating quite so badly anymore as he explained his research, although his eyes still watched the journalists warily. She scanned the journalists and then froze when she found one looking back. The woman was pretty with long wavy blonde hair and a calculating expression on her face. She also didn't seem to be at all interested in the new in-home monitoring system, although she turned her attention back to the podium after a moment.

“Who's that?” Cassie asked Pepper quietly.

“Christine Everhart from Vanity Fair. I'd tell you not to worry about her, but she's actually pretty clever with a good instinct for a story. She was the one who brought Tony's attention to his weapons being sold on the black market a couple of years ago...”

Pepper fell silent and Cassie looked up at her. The CEO of Stark Industries was biting her lip thoughtfully. “Cassie,” she finally said after a long pause, during which Ms Everhart had looked back to them with a raised eyebrow. “How exactly is it that you know so much about a classified government project?”

Cassie blinked. “My mother worked on it as CMO and I was, uh, directly involved with one – no, two – of their missions...” She trailed off, her eyes suddenly widening. Not thinking, she grabbed Pepper's hand. “Oh my god, I've never signed the confidentiality agreement! When it happened I was too young to legally sign anything and later I guess it just never occurred to anyone to change that – or maybe they wanted to keep my name off the books as much as possible to protect me...”

“To protect you?” Pepper frowned. “Cassie, I don't want you to do anything if it's going to put you in danger.”

She shook her head. “I'm already in danger. And quite frankly it's a miracle no one's made the connection and come after me before.”

Her eyes slid towards the reporter, who wasn't even trying to pretend she wasn't watching them closely anymore. Cassie wondered if the woman could read lips.

“Do you think she can be trusted?”

Pepper shrugged. “As much as any reporter can,” she said. “But I suppose I would trust her to tell the truth, to dig for the truth and wait until she had the big picture before she published unsubstantiated rumours. She also doesn't seem like the type to cave easily to political pressure.”

Cassie nodded. “Okay, because this truth is going to be dangerous.”

Christine Everhart certainly seemed to have an avid sixth sense for a story. She lingered after the press conference broke up and her fellow reporters had begun to rush off to their respective newsrooms, pretending to organize the contents of her satchel. After the room had nearly emptied, she slung the leather satchel over her shoulder and began to walk slowly towards Pepper, who was talking to her media relations coordinator and the scientist who'd presented in Tony's stead.

Cassie intercepted her before she'd reached the podium.

“Ms Everhart?” she said politely.

The reporter stopped and turned to her, blue eyes looking her up and down curiously. “Yes?”

Cassie stuck her hand out and smiled, trying her best to imitate her uncle. “My name is Cassandra Fraiser. Ms Potts tells me you're an investigative reporter who's not afraid of political pressure.”

One perfectly plucked eyebrow rose in surprise. “Oh she does, does she?” The reporter looked back to Pepper for a moment before apparently coming to a decision. She turned to face Cassie fully and shook her hand with a firm, precise grip. “Well, political pressure just means that there's something someone wants to keep secret.”

Cassie cocked her head at the comment. “And you don't think that some things are kept secret for a reason?”

The woman grinned, and her smile was all teeth. “Kid, everyone keeps secrets for a reason; won't stop me from digging for them. This is a free, democratic country and people have a right to know what the people in power want to kept hidden. Sure, sometimes the reasons are benevolant, but the people who benefit the most from secrets are usually the ones keeping them.”

“What if it was something so big, so... amazing and terrifying that it could change the world. What if the reason it's being kept secret is because those in charge are afraid of what will happen should everyone learn the truth? Because the truth could change the world for the better, or for the worse.”

Christine Everhart was looking at her thoughtfully. “Does it have something to do with why Mister Stark isn't here?”

Cassie blinked. She hadn't expected that question. “Uh, not really. I mean, yes, I guess at the moment that's where he is, but it's not something he's directly involved in.”

“But this isn't all rhetorical then?”

“No.” Cassie took a deep breath. “Pepper says I can trust you at least as far as being fair to the truth. Can I?”

“Of course,” she huffed. “What is this about: some sort of scam, a government conspiracy?”

“I have a story to tell you. Apparently there's a television station that has exclusive footage and such and is waiting for the go-ahead from the government to play it, but no print journalist has this information.” She met the woman's wide eyes. “Well, my aunt said that one did once, but he never made it to the presses. Died in a hit and run.”

The journalist's eyes widened even more, a hint of fear appearing for a moment, before flinty determination took its place.

Cassie smiled sadly. “Look, I know some of the people involved and while they would never do anything like that, there are others on the sidelines who wouldn't think twice. I can give you the story of the century, but you need to be aware there's risk. And that the truth really is every bit as amazing as it is absolutely terrifying.”

She fell silent and waited as Christine Everhart stared at her, eyes narrowed in thought.

“What are you getting out of this?” she finally asked.

“Let's just say that right now someone I care about is risking their life to save all of us and even if they succeed and survive, there's still a chance they'll be condemned for doing it. And I can't be there with him to help protect him, but maybe if I do this I can make it so that the Powers That Be of the government and military can't just shove everything he's done under a conveinent rug.”

Christine Everhart smirked. “You want to get public opinion on your side? Makes sense. Fair warning though, I don't play sides. If I investigate your friend then I won't go easy on him.”

Cassie grinned. “It would defeat the purpose if you did, Ms Everhart. My uncle doesn't need you to sing his praises. He's no saint, but I think his actions will speak for themselves.”

“We'll see. And call me Christine.”

Once Pepper was finished giving her staff directions, she led Cassie and Christine to the private elevator, which took them to the Avenger's common floor. They were silent on the way up and had Cassie not been deeply contemplating the best approach to the subject, she might've wondered at the tension between the other two women. The doors opened too soon. Cassie still had no idea how to make Christine believe her.

She wrung her hands nervously and then froze as a metaphorical lightbulb lit up inside her mind. She raised her hands and stared at them

“JARVIS,” she then said, looking up to the ceiling. “Could you please ask Bruce to come up to the living room and bring a blood kit with him?”

“Of course, Ms Fraiser.” There was a pause and then: “Doctor Banner says he will be up momentarily.”

“While we wait for him, I'll just go make us some coffee,” said Pepper. She turned to Christine with a pleasantly bland smile. “Would you like some, Ms Everhart?”

“Yes, please, I'd love some coffee Ms Potts.”

Ten minutes later Bruce rushed out of the elevator carrying a large first aid kit.

“Alright, what happened? Is it a toxin or...” He trailed off at the sight of three women calmly sitting around the living room drinking coffee. He blinked and looked to Cassie. “JARVIS said you wanted a blood kit.”

Cassie eyed the duffle-sized first aid kit sheepishly. “I literally meant just the blood kit.”

“Oh. Why?”

She placed her coffee cup down onto the side table beside the large armchair. “Because in a few minutes I'll need you to draw a sample of my blood. As proof.”

Bruce looked at her oddly and then nodded slowly. Across from her, where she was leaning against the corner of the sofa, Pepper's eyes widened. Christine, meanwhile, was closely watching everyone's expressions.

Cassie smiled and looked at the reporter. “Christine, this is Doctor Bruce Banner. Doctor Banner, this is Christine Everhart of Vanity Fair.”

Bruce's eyebrow rose in surprise, but he walked over to shake the blonde woman's hand in greeting. Cassie could practically see the wheels spinning in Christine's mind as she tried to figure out who Bruce was and where he fit into everything.

Bruce sat on the sofa next to Pepper and they all looked at her expectantly. She swallowed, her eyes darting down to the voice recorder resting innocuously in Christine's hand. She'd never had to tell this story before: the people who were allowed to know, already knew it. Taking one last, fortifying breath, she looked directly at Christine.

“Okay, so like I said, I have a story to tell,” she finally began. “It starts about eleven years ago in a village, a small humble farming village where no one had ever heard of a car, or television, or electricity, and their idea of running water the river that flowed a little to the west. The villagers were simple people: honest, hard-working, and faithful to their god and his decrees. It wasn't a glamorous life, but it was the way they'd lived for centuries and they were content.”

Cassie paused to take a breath and to push back the swell of emotion she could feel wanting to burst out.

“Just past the edge of the village stood giant stone circle. The villagers called it the God's Circle, because it was the doorway their god and his messengers used. One day – a sunny day in the middle of the planting cycle – the God's Circle began to spin, only it wasn't their god who stepped through that day. It was a group of four people dressed in strange clothes and carrying weapons the villagers didn't recognize. The group said they were explorers, humans just like the villager, but from another world far away.”

Cassie smiled softly, remembering the excitement she and the other children had felt at meeting people like them from another world. One of them had had a bag of liquorice and shared it with them. Cassie hadn't been able to stomach liquorice since.

“It was late in the day, so the village elder invited them to share the evening meal. The explorers were cheerful and listened closely as the elder told them stories of their village and of their god. And then the sun set and the explorers looked up at the sky and they were amazed. They told the villagers that the strange shape that had been growing in the night sky was very rare, and asked their permission to bring back some of their own equipment to study it. In exchange they offered them seeds for new vegetables that grew well in the type of soil that surrounded the village, and the design for a new type of plow that would make farming easier and allow them to make their fields larger.

I know it doesn't sound impressive, but the sky was always there and looking at it didn't cost anyone anything, but well-growing vegetables and a better plow could've easily made the difference in how many people survived the winter. The villagers agreed to the trade, the village elder giving up his own home for the explorers to set up the equipment they brought through the God's Circle two days later.”

Christine, Pepper and Bruce were watching her with rapt attention. Cassie took a deep breath before continuing.

“On the third day, the God's Circle spun again and the villagers heard a familiar noise. They looked up to see the god's messengers streaking through the sky like big black birds. The explorers were frightened, and reached for their weapons, but the villagers smiled. Then a fine mist began to fall down upon the village. The villagers rejoiced, for surely this had to be a blessing from their god.”

Cassie closed her eyes, the memory still vivid even after all these years.

“And then, one by one, they fell to the ground.”

Someone gasped and Cassie heard a soft 'Oh God', but she was too lost within the memory to pay attention to the voices. After a moment, when she felt she was able to speak again, she opened her eyes.

“All except one: a little girl, about eight years old. she watched as around her everyone in the village fell to the ground, including the animals. She ran to her parents and found them lying on the ground too, not moving. She tried to wake them up, but they still didn't move. She was scared and alone and had no idea what was happening. Time passed and then the God's Circle began to spin again, so she ran and hid in a bunch of bushes. It was another team of explorers, dressed the same as the first group. One of them was a lady with short blonde hair. She found the little girl and smiled at her with sad, horrified eyes. They her home with them through the God's Circle.

Their home was very different from the village, but the people were friendly and they tried to make the little girl feel comfortable, to take her mind from what had happened. Especially the doctor, who was always smiling even when the little girl could tell she was sad and worried.”

Cassie took a deep breath, pushing back the tears she could feel forming at those first memories of the woman who would become her mother.

“Then the little girl suddenly started getting sick. She started feeling hot and her whole body ached. She-I don't really remember much from that time.” Cassie told her audience with a wry smile. “Everything felt hot and my whole body hurt. Time passed and then suddenly I was waking up alone in the cold dark. I called out for Sam, who was the woman who'd found me in the village and had spent a lot of time sitting with me in the base infirmary. And then a light turned on and a huge metal door opened and Sam ran to me and held on.”

She swallowed and held up her hands, staring at them as though she could physically see the naquadah swimming through her veins.

“It was a nuclear missile silo,” she whispered. “I was sick because there is a metal called naquadah in my blood and it was coming together somehow, counting down... becoming a bomb powerful enough to destroy all of Colorado Springs. In the end, I obviously didn't detonate and since then the cells that create the 'bomb' have been deactivated so I'm not dangerous.”

She looked back up at them. “That's my story, Christine. My name is Cassandra Fraiser and, other than the presence of trace elements of a metal called naquadah in my blood, I'm genetically one hundred percent human. And I was born on another planet.”

The three of them looked stunned.

“This 'god' turned an innocent child into a weapon,” Bruce whispered and when he looked up, his eyes were bright green and when he next spoke, his voice seemed to echo with a second, deeper voice. “This is who the others have gone off to fight?”

Cassie shook her head, ignoring the fleeting memory of her Aunt Sam with glowing eyes and a second voice that wasn't hers. “No, the Goa'uld empire fell several years ago. The Ori have nothing to do with them. They're not even from this galaxy.”

“Wait, what do you mean gone off to fight?” Christine asked, looking both excited for the story and afraid of the answer.

“Right now, there's an alien armada on its way to Earth,” Cassie answered her. “Their technology is of a level we can't even begin to match. And my uncle, Doctor Daniel Jackson, is out there with Captain America and several of the Avengers risking his life to find that one miracle that could save this planet. He probably would've done it alone, but he ended up meeting the Avengers at the MET on the day it was attacked...”

Christine's eyes widened. “Is this a military project we're talking about?” Cassie nodded. “Then he would've broken a confidentiality agreement to tell the Avengers, which is treason.”

“Exactly. The truth is Earth isn't ready to face this armada at least partially because the people in charge were too focused on Hydra and maintaining the secrecy of their project to continue searching the galaxy for a way to defeat these aliens. We have allies out there who might've been willing to help us, but we cut all ties with them.”

She watched as the journalist took a deep breath and shook her head. When she looked back to Cassie, her eyes were sharp. “I'll need that blood make-up to verify your story.”

Cassie nodded. She'd expected as much and began to roll up her sleeve for Bruce. True to her profession, Christine took the opportunity to fire off questions at Cassie. About the village, about planet, about their god, and whether she'd ever been back. Cassie answered what she could, what she remembered. And also told her about the coming-of-age ritual the children of the village used to preform that turned out to be a way for their 'god' to gather information about his experiments.

“What can you tell me about the people who found you?” Christine finally asked.

Cassie smiled, feeling less brittle now. This was the part she'd been waiting for.

“A lot of it is classified, and some of it I can only guess at because of stuff I've overheard,” she began. “But the people who rescued me are the reason I came to you in the first place. Well one of them is, anyway. If you'll listen, I'd now like to tell you the story of Daniel Jackson, the man who opened the Stargate.”

Chapter Text


 

NOTE

Somehow, they found time to sleep that night, taking turns watching the gate. Even Doctor Beckett was eventually persuaded to lay down on a cot in one of the recovery rooms for a few hours, before his sleep was interrupted by panicked nurses. Just after two o'clock in the morning, the Ori plague claimed its first victim. It had been inevitable, but the loss hit them all hard, because they knew it was only the first. The small hospital was nearly full to capacity as more people were being brought in for treatment almost by the hour. One of the Russian marines had been the first Earth humans to fall ill.

Steve had taken over watch from Natasha, urging her to get some rest. She'd nodded to him before disappearing into the night. He sat on a log half-way between the town and the stargate, alert and watching for movement.

It was funny, really, all he'd ever wanted was to fight for what was right. And a body that would let him. Now here he was, seventy years later and millions of light years away from his birthplace, and he was still fighting bullies. And the Ori were worse bullies than even Hydra, who at least didn't bother pretending they were peaceful and caring.

The sun was just beginning to peek over the treetops and colour the sky with radiant hues of pink and purple (Steve didn't think he'd ever seen such a deep and vibrant shade of purple in the sky before), when the Stargate came to life.

Steve's eyes widened and he leapt to his feet, activating his comm immediately. They'd been told that sentries in the Tower could see the gate quite clearly, but they wouldn't tell his team.

“This is Rogers,” he said loudly. “Someone's dialling in. I repeat the Stargate is active.”

“Roger that Rogers,” Clint was the first to respond, his voice crackling like someone who'd just woken up. Steve rolled his eyes – Clint was the only one who still found that funny. “We're on our way.”

One by one they all responded, sounding alert if not particularly happy about it. Until the last radio transmission came through:

“This is Lorne, I hear ya Cap. I'll see if I can get McKay to put a rush on getting the ship up in the air.”

Steve meanwhile ran up closer to the Stargate and crouched behind a large rock for cover. The wormhole activated and he tensed, waiting to see who or what would come through. Nothing happened. The wormhole remained active for several minutes and then disengaged. Steve frowned, but remained where he was, remembering the phase-shifting armband he'd used to infiltrate the SGC with Daniel.

He tapped his comm again. “This is Rogers; the wormhole has disengaged,” he whispered. “I didn't see anything come through. Do the Ori have phase-shifting tech?”

There was a pause. “Uh, not that we've seen,” said Daniel. “They don't even have cloaks for their ships. Not that they need them...”

“Could they have sent more of that plague through the gate?” Sam asked.

“Only if it was in a vessel of some sort; bacteria can't travel through the gate on their own.” Steve was surprised to hear Vala answer. “A radio signal perhaps?”

Steve rose to his feet, figuring that if anyone invisible had come through, then hiding behind the rock wasn't going to help him since they'd have seen him just as soon as passed it on their way to the village.

“I'm heading back towards the village,” he said into the comm. “If it's meant to be a diversion then they're expecting everyone to go the stargate to see what's going on.”

“Or they just don't want to be seen,” said Daniel.

Steve stopped part-way to the village, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end as he felt eyes on him. He swung around, his shield up and ready to deflect... but there was nothing there. Nothing except the bright sunrise and awakening green. And the feeling of invisible eyes on his skin. He took a deep breath, wondering if he was really being watched, or just paranoid because he was expecting it.

Carefully, he turned and continued on towards the town.

At the edge of town he was met with Natasha and two of the marines from Atlantis. Up in the air, he saw Sam flying above the town, watching from above. None of them had seen anything. Daniel and Vala joined them a few minutes later with several Aeneid guards. Apparently, the sentries in the Tower hadn't seen anything come through and neither had the Ancient monitors.

It was a mystery.

“Is there any way to find out where the wormhole originated from?” Natasha asked.

Daniel shrugged. “Yes, in theory. In practise... well, Rodney would be able to get the information from the DHD crystals, and if any of the Ancient tech up in the Tower is rigged to monitor the gate then they should've registered the address–”

There was suddenly a woman standing in front of Daniel.

Steve and everyone around him tensed and, in with their next breath, weapons were drawn and pointed at the figure. Which was quite possibly the strangest-looking person Steve had ever seen. He was immediately reminded of the fairy tales he'd read as a child. Despite his surprise, he couldn't help that his first instinct was that she couldn't possibly be dangerous. Her clothes were simple, but made of light-weight red, orange and pink-toned cloth and it looked like a thicket of bramble was growing within her thick mane of hair.

She smiled, looking like a wood nymph who'd lost her way. “Hello, Daniel,” she said, her voice soft and oddly melodic.

Daniel had jumped in surprise when she'd first appeared, but his expression quickly turned into delight. He smiled back warmly.

“Lya,” he said. “It's good to see you again. What are you doing here?”

Then he looked around and frowned at the soldiers and guards. “Seriously guys, put those weapons down. This is Lya of the Nox.”

Steve blinked. The Nox: they were one of the Four Great Races. The pacifists who had looked at the people of Earth and called them children. He relaxed and lowered his shield. He wouldn't fight folks who were peaceful. As if following his example, the others around him also lowered their weapons.

Two more figures materialized behind her: an older man who was small and just as delicate-looking as the woman though clearly still in the prime of his life and a boy who looked to be just on the cusp of manhood.

Daniel bowed to both of them. “Anteaus, it's been a long time and Nafrayu, you've certainly grown since the last time I saw you.”

The older man smiled and bowed back to Daniel. “Indeed, we are much surprised to find you here. The Nox hadn't ever expected to return to this place. The Alterans ascended before they could complete their final plans and the beacons were left incomplete. However, we had given our word we would answer the call should it ever come and so we are here.”

“What brings you and the people of Earth to Aeneid, Daniel?” Lya asked and Steve wondered if he was imagining the wariness in her voice.

“One of those statues had been brought to Earth and I found tablets inside with this stargate address,” Daniel responded. “A race known as the Ori – ascended beings like the Ancients – are currently trying to subjugate this galaxy and force its people to worship them, thus increasing their own power. Anyone who doesn't bend to their will, who refuses to cast aisde their own beliefs and follow the Ori's teachings, is killed. Right now, they're heading for Earth. I was hoping the tablets would lead me to something that could help stop the Ori and their followers.”

Lya nodded, her expression grim.

“I sense a great sickness in this town,” Anteaus suddenly said, a concerned frown on his face.

Daniel nodded. “A Prior, one of the Ori's messengers, was here two days ago. He brought the plague to the town because its people refused to worship his gods. One of our doctors is working with their doctors to try and find a cure.”

The three Nox looked at each other and although he couldn't hear any words exchanged between them, Steve nevertheless got the impression they were somehow communicating. When they turned back to Daniel, Anteaus stepped forward.

“Show me,” he said.

Daniel and Vala exchanged looks. “I'll take you to the hospital,” said Vala and then led him away.

Lya meanwhile gazed over towards the tower. Daniel looked at her curiously. “Why did you come here?” he asked after several moments had passed in silence. “You've steadfastly refused to interfere with, uh, younger cultures, so why come now?”

Nafrayu looked up at the question and glanced at Lya for a moment before turning his eyes back to the strange town around him. The sun had by now risen high enough that most of the town was slowly waking and leaving their homes. A steady breeze brought with it the smell of meat and bread. Colourful songbirds flew above the rooftops, occasionally resting on a window sill or drain pipe. Danger felt far away.

Steve shivered. Some of the most beautiful mornings he'd ever seen had led to the bloodiest battlefields.

“Have you been to the temple?” Lya asked suddenly.

Steve watched as Daniel nodded slowly. “Yes, we saw the Meeting Place.”

Lya inclined her head with a pleased smile. “The Meeting Place here was special. It was where the scientists met. Our histories say that the Alterans wanted to create something that would kept this galaxy safe in case dangers from outside tried to invade.”

“The Wraith,” Daniel whispered. “They were afraid of the Wraith.”

“Among others.”

“And they brought humans here to settle the planet, so that after they ascended there would be someone here who could use the technology they built.”

“No, they brought them here as guardians.”

Daniel apparently hadn't expected that response. He froze and blinked at the Nox woman in surprise.

“Is that why the temple's so far away?” Natasha's voice interrupted the ensuing silence. “So that it could only be found if the people living here showed us the way?”

Lya didn't answer with words, but inclined her head like a teacher would to a clever student.

Daniel nodded to himself. “The Ancients did love their puzzles...” He made a face. “Actually, come to think of it, the Asgard have a thing for testing people too and this seems like a combination of both. Hiding things and leaving clues on how to find them, but making sure they're of the sort that only someone at a certain level of technological evolution and knowledge would be able to figure out.”

He paused. “There was more, wasn't there? But they never managed to finish it. The statues all held either a gate address to this planet, or a beacon to call you and the others.”

Lya nodded. “The Alterans began to grow sick. When they realized the plague had finally reached them, they sealed the temple and ascended, leaving the last phase of their project unfinished.”

“But they left behind just enough clues to make sure what they'd built could be found again should it be needed. Except that I still don't understand why they didn't use it. Rodney – one of our scientists – says the ship is completed and fully operational. That means they could've used it to go back and defeat the Wraith. Or the Asgard could've used it against the replicators.”

Lya shook her head. “I am sorry, Daniel, but I only know what I have read in our histories.”

Commotion from down the street caught Steve's attention. He looked up and saw Hektor rushing towards them, another old man in tow along with two of the apprentices. Daniel took the lead and introduced Lya and Nefrayu (at least that's what it seemed like to Steve, who was picking up the language in bits and pieces, but not nearly quickly enough to understand the bombardment of words coming from them). Lya, it turned out, spoke fluent Ancient.

After a while, Nefrayu wandered away from the adults and casually inched his way towards Steve, who pretended not to notice his movements. He wasn't entirely sure he succeeded, because when he finally turned to the young man once he was standing next to him, he didn't startle at all. He seemed fascinated with the shield. His eyes darted up to meet Steve's, a request for permission.

Steve smiled and held the shield out towards him. Nefrayu carefully reached out and ran his fingers along the curve of the shield. Suddenly he blinked and pulled his hand away, startled.

“It vibrates,” he said, eyes widening.

Steve stared at him for a moment. “Uh, yeah,” he said, wondering how he'd known that with just a touch. “It's made out of a metal called vibranium. It's really rare, but it absorbs impact by channelling it into smaller vibrations along the surface – or at least that's how the man who made it for me explained it.” He gave a wry smile. “He may have been dumbing it down a bit for me. I'm not exactly a scientist.”

Nefrayu grinned. “No, that sounds right.” He looked around. “You are the only one with a shield. Are you also a soldier?”

Steve nodded. “I am.” He shook his head. “It's a long story. Originally the shield was just a cheap symbol, a gimick, but I liked it. I can use this as a weapon when I need to, but I didn't go off to war to kill people, I went to protect them. Back in my day there was this group who thought they were superior to the rest of the world and wanted to use force to rule it, to kill anyone who wasn't like them. I hate bullies, always have, and they were the worst of all.”

He paused and then just shook his head: this kid could tell the properties of vibranium just by touching it, why would he care to hear Steve's story? “Yeah, it's a long story. But the shield and me have been through some tough times together.”

Nefrayu nodded thoughtfully. “So you believe that the strong should protect the weak,” he said.

“I do.”

Nefrayu's eyes twinkled mischievously. “That's what O'Neill believed as well. No wonder the Asgard liked your people so much.”

“You knew the Asgard?” Steve asked.

“I did not, but my people did. The histories say we were once close friends, but after the alliance fell apart, they became too busy to stop and visit. The Nox have always held them in great honour: we held a week-long vigil when we heard of their passing.”

“If you hold them in such high esteem why weren't you helping them to protect the rest of the galaxy?” said Sam, who'd been watching the two of them curiously since the beginning. “I mean, you were one of the Four Great Races or whatever, which means you've gotta have some really advanced tech stashed away somewhere.”

Nefrayu blinked when he looked at him and cocked his head. “Helping you or protecting you?” he asked. “You said you believe the strong should protect the weak: do you feel you are weak?”

Sam sputtered for a moment and Steve felt Natasha come to stand next to him. Nefrayu paused and shook his head.

“My grandfather says strength lies not in the destructive power of a lightening storm, but in the quiet steadfastness of the tree. No matter how vicious the storm, or how bitter the winter cold, it endures and flourishes once again when the danger has passed; knocked-off branches heal over and new ones grow in their place, new leaves and fruit sprout the next spring.”

“But strong enough winds can uproot the tree, lightening and forest fires can destroy it,” Natasha commented.

Nefrayu opened his mouth to reply, when a gentle hand landed on his shoulder. He looked up and smiled at Lya, who smiled back fondly – Steve realized she was probably his mother.

“Nothing is eternal,” Lya answered Natasha. “And every tree was once a sapling that bent with the wind and rain. That, too, is strength, but of a different sort.”

“So are we the sapling then?” Steve asked, curious.

Lya's lips twitched. “You are no longer the flexible sapling, but you are not quite yet the tree. You have the strength, but lack the years and experience from which wisdom grows. And that is not something that can be taught, only learned.”

The Nox did not stay for very long. Less than an hour later, Anteaus and Vala returned and then he and the other two departed with Daniel, the Head Protector and several council members escorting them to the gate. The people of Aeneid were understandably happy for the cure to the plague even if it still took Carson several more hours to manufacture and distribute it.

At around noon they dragged the exhausted doctor out for some fresh air and food. Daniel couldn't help but notice there were more flowers drawn on the outside of the hospital, some in patches and groups.

“It was amazing,” Carson told them around bites of marinated leaves stuff with vegetables and spiced meat. “I've ne'er seen anything like it. Anteaus just reached out an' ran his hands along the patient with his eyes closed, and he was chanting something under his breath, I think. Then he did the same to two others before going to the Ancient computers and then he touched them – didna move the buttons or so much as touch the controls, just put his hands on the machines and suddenly they were bursting to life. 'Twas all I could do to keep up with it all; like magic it was!”

Daniel felt light-headed from relief when Carson told them the plague's victims were slowly beginning to show signs of improvement. Of course, there was always the fear that a few would be too weak to recover, but the majority would be saved. If the Ori plague only took the three victims that had fallen to it so far, then Daniel – and possibly all of Aeneid – would be happy.

There was laughter as the townspeople prepared to hide from the Ori's armies. It was subdued and didn't completely drown out the anxiousness that infused the town, but it was there.

At around two o'clock their radios came to life.

“SG1 this is Lorne, please respond.”

Daniel pressed his radio. “Lorne, this is Daniel. What's your status? Have the first hovercrafts of people arrived?”

“Affirmative. I've got an entire school of kids here, a bunch of elderly citizens and three harassed-looking teachers trying to keep order. They've all disembarked now and I'm really wishing I paid more attention to learning Ancient.”

“Do you want me to talk to them?”

“That would be great, thanks.”

And so Daniel spent the next ten minutes talking to the guard that had been sent to oversee the transport, and translating between him and Lorne over the radio. After the guard left, Daniel heard Lorne's Atlantis-issued comm go off.

“Okay, just got confirmation from McKay,” said Lorne a few minutes later. “He says he's awake and the ship is prepped, so we're ready to attempt to fly her.”

Daniel grinned. “That's great! I don't think you need anything from me for that, so good luck.”

There was a low chuckle over the radio. “Thanks Doc, I'll need it even if McKay will probably claim he doesn't. Lorne out.”

Then the radio went silent and Daniel hurried off to find the Head Protector.

 


 

Major Evan Lorne walked into the hanger, although calling it a hanger seemed... unassuming. Inside it looked more like a giant cavern made of stone and metal and moulded precisely to fit the ship. Or perhaps the ship itself had taken on the shape of the cavern. It dominated the space, leaving very little room for anything else. He'd looked at it from all sides earlier, both at the bottom level and along the top walkway, but he still couldn't quite put together a finished picture, because no matter where he stood, there was always so much more ship just out of the corner of his eye.

The colour scheme didn't help either. Most of the ship was made out of a metal that was so silver it looked nearly white under the bright lights in the hanger, except for the strips of black metal (it didn't look like a simple paint job) that were so dark they blended in with the shadows. The silver metal reflected light, but the black one almost seemed to devour it. Both metals were surprisingly smooth, so different than what he'd seen on any other spaceship in either the Milky Way or Pegasus and from the ground it reminded him of the underbelly of a fighter jet. Only bigger.

Using Daniel Jackson as a long-distance translator, he'd been assured the locals didn't really need them up top for anything and so he and his team were retreating to the ship to prepare for lift-off. Not that he had any idea as to how they were going to squeeze the ship out of here, unless the walkways and engineering platforms all retracted. Which, he supposed, was entirely possible.

Evan shook his head and led the rest of his team to the ship's cargo hold. Once inside, he activated the internal controls and watched as the large bay doors closed smoothly shut. The hold was empty though there was obviously plenty of room for supplies and maybe a half dozen or so puddlejumpers.

He stopped by engineering before going up to the main bridge. McKay was hovering over the controls and vibrating in a frantic sort of way that spoke of not enough sleep and too much sugar and coffee (the scientist had somehow managed to persuade Jackson to share his coffee stash along with his surprising – but certainly not unwelcome – stash of chocolate). Lorne wasn't concerned, however, knowing that McKay had gone to sleep at some point early in the morning and gotten at least five hours in. The man was many things, but Lorne knew he could at least count on his desire not to take unnecessary risks with people's lives, especially his own.

“McKay, you good to go?” he said.

McKay rolled his eyes. “No major, nothing has happened in the last half hour that the ship has been sitting stationary in its docking port to make it less ready than it was then. If there are problems, I won't know about them at this point until we actually try to get the engines going.”

Evan nodded. “Okay, Doc, just checking. So you wanna be down here for lift-off or on the bridge?”

He actually paused in his motions for that, looking thoughtful for a moment. “I think I'll stay down here. I mean, ideally there should be someone on the bridge too, but if it's a choice then I'll need direct access to the primary systems and machinery if any problems do pop up.”

“Okay, then I'll head on up and get her started.”

Evan didn't have a lot of experience with the Command Chair as his gene wasn't natural and therefore not as strong as Sheppard's or Beckett's, but he'd had the same training all the major gene carriers on Atlantis had received. And, really, it wasn't all that different from controlling a puddlejumper except for, well, everything. Nothing beat on-the-job training.

He was just going to have to trust that McKay knew what he was doing.

Evan took a deep breath and lowered himself slowly into the chair, settling his hands over the ends of the handrests, where he knew the activation controls were located. He felt it come to life beneath him, the power reaching out to connect with him even as the chair itself leaned back and angled itself upwards. A holographic screen appeared above his head, directly in his line of sight. He read energy levels, life support, engine crystal status and drone numbers along with so many other smaller system read-outs... The sudden influx of information made him momentarily dizzy.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Concentrate, he told himself silently. There was only one system he needed right now. He opened his eyes and the screen had changed. Instead of endless read-outs, it was showing him an external schematic of the hanger and the ship nestled inside. Like he'd suspected, there was no way to get out without doing something about those walkways. But they were too sturdy to be just a temporary structure, so going on instinct, he thought about getting rid of them.

He could feel the chair grow just a little warmer as the ship responded, sending out a signal. Moments later, the walkways on the schematic began to retract. Evan smiled. But now they still had to get out. He thought about opening a doorway in the hanger, assuming somewhere there had to be a hatch or maybe a giant escape tunnel or something. He felt the ship respond, but he couldn't see anything happening on the schematic.

He wished he could see it for his own eyes.

His eyes widened as the screen changed again, this time to an external view of the ship. He amused himself for a few moments by swirling the camera around with his mind just because he could – it did give them the opportunity to get a better look around. Then he frowned, aiming it at the walls and then the ceiling, trying to figure out what had changed. Wait.

“Holy...” he tapped his comm. “McKay, this is Lorne: is that ceiling doing what I think it is?”

There was a pause.

“McKay here... did you just say the ceiling? Oh, huh. I was wondering how were going to get out of here. Okay, this is cool.”

“Wait, do you mean that until now you weren't sure we were going to be able to get this ship out of here?”

“No, I didn't how we were going to get out of here. I've been concentrating on the engines and doing system diagnostics and figuring out whether it's still a work-in-progress or not. The Ancients may not have been the greatest at note-taking and they sucked at warning labels, but they weren't dumb. You don't build a ship like this without having a way to get it above ground. But to answer your orginal question: did the ceiling and several hundred metres of soil and plants above it just phase into another – although interestingly enough still visible – dimension, then yes, that's exactly what it did. Which is, as I just said, really really cool. So you had better make sure we survive saving the Earth, Major, so that I can come back and get a closer look at this.”

Evan chuckled, shaking his head in amusement. “Got it, Doc.”

He turned his concentration to the engines, felt the system perk up. “All right then, hold on tight everyone, I'm gonna try starting this thing,” he said loud enough for the entire bridge crew (all three of them) to hear. “Let me know the second you see something wonky.”

Three 'yes, sirs' sounded around him and Evan closed his eyes to concentrate on firing up the systems. This wasn't at all like flying a jumper, where he could think of himself as a pilot; the Aeneidans called their pilots Operators, which he felt was a bit closer to the truth. It wasn't that he'd become a part of the ship, because he could still feel himself as a separate entity within the hum of energy and whirling, chaotic strands of programs, but the ship was instantly feeding him information so that he didn't need the read-outs on the holographic display for this. He knew where the sides of the ship were and how much clearance he had. He could feel the slight jolt to the systems as the crystals in the engine began to heat up and draw on power from the ship's ZPMs.

“Structural integrity is holding at maximum,” Lieutenant Mizner said from the main control panel at the front. “All other systems read in the green.”

“The crystal matrix is maintaining stable levels, manoeuvring thrusters are operating within normal parameters. You're good to go: take her up, Major.”

He could tell that everything was running smoothly – the ship was telling him that herself. But he appreciated the confirmation.

“Alright, here goes nothing,” he said.

He pushed the thought 'up' to the ship, picturing her rising out of the hanger. And with barely a shudder, she did. The world around him was vibrating slightly, but he could feel the ship steadily rising.

“Sir, on the left side–” he heard Captain Bergman begin.

“–I see it,” he said, immediately correcting the ship's slight list to the side. He watched the space around the ship, knowing there was only so much of it phased out of sync and reluctant to get the ship scratched just yet. He felt his palms sweating all over the Chair's controls as agonizing minutes passed and the ship was still surrounded by soil.

He knew the moment they breached ground-level. Evan smiled when he felt the sun shine onto the bridge from behind his eyelids, his grip on the chair tightening as he wrestled to keep a tight leash on his excitement as the rest of the ship slowly cleared the ground.

“We're clear, sir,” said Bergman, probably for everyone's benefit. A cheer rang out from the other two.

“Not bad, Major, you didn't even scratch her once: that'll give you bragging rights over Sheppard. Oh, and it looks like the ground has phase shifted back to solid again so you can land if you want to.”

Evan opened his eyes and grinned widely. “Thanks, McKay. Any reason we need to land?”

“No, none.”

“Then we should probably head on to the town.”

Before he headed off, he looked up into the holographic display and concentrated on the temple. The screen changed to an outside view from the ship. He hadn't had the chance to look at it from a distance before, but immediately recognized the classic Atlantean structures even if it hadn't been built as tall or as large as Atlantis herself. His eyes caught movement around the edge of the temple and he squinted at the screen... rearing back in surprise when it zoomed in. There were several tiny heads peeking out.

Lorne grinned and nudged the ship forward, sending her just a bit higher to avoid hitting the top of the tower. Just around the bend stood an entire school of curious children. His zoomed-in view caught their looks of amazement and excitement as, one by one, they began to wave up at the ship.

“Looks like we've got us a send off, guys,” he said loudly and his bridge crew chuckled. Evan took a deep breath and grew serious again. “Alright, let's get going.”

 


 

One of the Tower's side doors flew open and a young woman dressed in what looked like a light-weight version of the guard's uniform dashed out, stretching her long legs to their fullest potential as she sprinted through Aeneid's streets, long golden braid trailing behind her. Townspeople stepped out of her way, recognizing the silvery white sash across the front of her uniform as the mark of a messenger. They paused in their work and exchanged worried glances, wondering whether the news was good or bad.

She ignored the glances aimed at her, intent on her destination, her footfalls light and quick. In the market district there was a pile of crates smelling of sweet fruit blocking the road; she nimbly leapt across it and then ducked around the cart they were being piled into. She felt a slight burn as her right arm scraped against the corner of a market stall when she had to run around another cart being loaded with salted meat. She pushed on.

The main streets were more crowded than usual, people hurrying to pack supplies into the shelters and onto the floating transportation platforms heading to the temple. There were too many people, and they couldn't see her to get out of her way. The messenger turned into a narrow side-street. These winding backstreets were like a second home to her, but it would take longer. She pushed her legs to go faster, feeling her muscles burn and her lungs heave as they struggled to keep up with her pace.

She would rest after the message had been delivered.

Finally, she rounded a corner and spotted the Head Protector helping to load crates onto the transportation platforms next to several of the Otherworlders. Workers paused and stepped out of her way, one of them grabbing an Otherworlder and stopping him from getting in her way, though she barely noticed as she barrelled past.

Someone up ahead must have seen her, because the Head Protector was already turning when she began to slow down. Her muscles trembled and sweat poured down her face, but she remained standing: she needed to deliver the message. Her heart thundered in her ears: she could barely hear herself speak.

“Head Protector,” she said, as she gasped for air. “The Tower has seen something coming from the temple. It is large and flying above the trees. The sentries say they have never seen anything that could compare.”

“The ship, it has to be the ship!” said a man who came to stand beside the Head Protector – an Otherworlder, with short, dark hair and glass pieces over his eyes.

The Head Protector nodded to him in understanding and then turned to her. “Thank you, Mauvi,” she said.

The messenger bowed her head in acknowledgement and finally allowed her legs to crumble beneath her.

 


 

The ship was amazing, its hull smooth in a way that reminded him more of Earth sci-fi than any actual spaceship Daniel had ever seen. Parts of it were silver that gleamed beneath the afternoon sun, except for the waves of black metal that ran along either side. It reminded him of a black opal: deep, midnight black with just a hint of shimmer. Like the Aurora-class battleships, it was long and bullet-shaped, except that the front looked like it had been flattened with a mallet and then stretched to the sides, making it resemble a hammerhead shark. It even had a raised upper section that was narrow, but ran along a good third of the ship. If he squinted it looked almost like a stubby fin. The back section of the ship widened gradually and then ended abruptly where the metal created a casing around the thrusters.

The bottom of the hull was flattened between three sets of manoeuvring thrusters, although because of the metal's reflecting surface that wasn't obvious until it began to land onto the ground half-way between the town and the stargate.

“Woah, okay that thing is slick!” Sam exclaimed as he jumped down from the hovercraft the Head Protector had commandeered to get them here.

“Sam, it's a spaceship, I'm pretty sure it would be amazing no matter what it looked like,” said Steve from beside him, grinning madly.

Daniel chuckled. “Oh I've seen a lot of different spaceships before and trust me, this thing's impressive-looking. It makes the Ori ships look big and clunky.”

“Not that looks will mean much if they blow us to pieces,” Clint commented casually. He was still on the hovercraft, leaning against the side as he watched the ship settle and then finally cut its engines.

“Major Lorne to SG1,” came a voice over the radio. “Well, we're here.”

Daniel snorted and reached for his radio. “This is Jackson. We noticed: any problems?”

“Nope, she's smooth sailor, sir. Can't wait to run her through her paces.”

“Hey, can we call her the Avenging Hawk?” Clint suddenly asked.

“No,” Steve answered immediately. Out of the corner of his eye, Daniel saw him cock his head. “Besides, she looks more like a fish than a bird.”

“The Avenging Shark?”

Daniel shook his head. “Hey, has she got a name?” he asked into the radio.

“Uh...”

“Yes, her name is Viltoriaus,” Rodney's voice answered, sounding smug.

Daniel blinked, before throwing his head back and laughing. Oh, that was just perfect. He could feel the others' inquisitive stares. And sure enough, when he looked back to them, they were all staring at him curiously – all except for Natasha, whose Latin had to good enough to figure it out.

“It means victory,” he said with a grin. “The ship's name is Victory.”

Chapter Text

HARMONY

Stars sparkled far in the depths of space; giant balls of flaming gas that looked beautiful from a distance, but were deadly up close. And surrounding those stars – at that point called suns – would be planets, some inhabited, some not. The vastness felt infinite and cold, a frontier of neverending possibilities, of neverending nothingness.

But that was far away. Closer there were eight planets orbiting a single sun: the Solar System. Despite its size, it felt relatively small, isolated from the rest of the galaxy, though most of the billions of people living on the third planet from the sun wouldn't think so. Of course, most of them were looking at ground level, at their cellphones, wristwatches and sometimes at each other; they weren't looking up towards the skies. The vastness of space was too abstract to comprehend and nothing to do with them in any case.

Apocalypses and alien invasions only happened in movies.

None of them saw the blue vortexes of light that suddenly appeared at the edge of their planetary system. Or the five giant battleships that flew out of them.

Colonel Ellis was looking. Had been waiting for this moment for days, but his breath caught anyway and for several precious moments he couldn't find the words. He swallowed his fear down and straightened his back as he stood from his command chair.

“Major,” he said, his voice steady. “Contact the SGC. Tell them we have visual.”

 


 

“Fair Jane, my love, I have returned with the blessed dark beverage of the gods!”

Jane cringed at the sudden exclamation that exploded into the silence of her research lab. Her eyes slipped from the computer screen she'd been staring at to the doorway, where even in civilian clothes, Thor still somehow managed to look golden and shiny. Darcy walked in from behind him, looking amused.

“He means coffee,” she told Jane.

Jane perked up at that. “Oh, oh my god, you are wonderful!” she said, springing from her chair and running towards Thor. She grabbed the extra large paper cup from Thor and inhaled the aroma of lovely, fresh coffee. “Mmm, I love you so much.”

“So, did you and Selvig get anywhere?” Darcy asked while Jane reached up on her tiptoes to kiss Thor quickly on the mouth. And then again. “Where is Selvig anyway?”

“I think he went to get lunch...” she answered when she finally stepped away from Thor feeling a bit light-headed. She went back over what Darcy had asked before that and then frowned. “And, yes, we managed to counter-hack the hack and remove it from the satellite feed. It wasn't that difficult actually... I somehow don't think anyone was expecting us to find it.”

“That was poor judgement on their part, as your mind is quite formidable,” Thor rumbled.

Jane patted his chest, but her frown deepened. She took a long sip of her coffee while she thought about her response.

“Well, they weren't exactly wrong,” she said eventually. “I mean, we wouldn't have found it if Coulson hadn't told us to go looking for it. From what we could tell, it wasn't really doing anything. At least not actively and not right now.”

She could feel Thor frown. “Perhaps it was laying in wait for the opportune moment.”

“An ambush program?” Darcy asked as she rolled the computer chair back to the desk. She plopped down and froze. “Uh, Jane, is this the satellite feed you have on-screen right now?”

Jane blinked and turned to Darcy. “Yes, it should be?”

Darcy was squinting at the computer screen. “And it's running in real-time?”

“With a minute or so delay, yes. Why?”

“So those spaceships here are actually real?”

“The-wait, what?!”

Jane ran across the lab, Thor on her heels. She immediately leaned over Darcy's shoulder, her jaw dropping at sight that greeted her. They were tiny, barely visible on the edge of the Solar System: really, they could be anything. Shooing her intern out of the chair, she sat down and magnified the image.

Those were definitely not asteroids.

“Holy shit,” she whispered.

“I do not recognize them, Fair Jane,” said Thor quietly. He sounded worried.

She felt her pulse speed up as she counted five giant ships. “Oh my god, this is... this is...” She took a deep breath. “I need confirmation of this.”

Her purse was laying beside her desk, where she'd thrown it when she'd arrived earlier. Grabbing it, she began to rummage through it for her cellphone. She was relieved to find it charged and immediately dialled Stark Tower.

 


 

Sam saw Tony startle out of the corner of her eye and curse as he dropped a wrench when the intercom came on with the loud squeal of a barely-used system no one had bothered to upgrade in over a decade. She was used to working in labs where klaxons and alarms periodically went off for various – usually life-threatening – reasons of one sort or other. Tony obviously was not.

She exchanged an amused look with Siler.

“Attention all personnel, this is General Wellesley. We've just received word from the SGC: the Apollo has reported that five Ori battleships came out of hyperspace approximately two minutes ago. Whatever projects you were working on, people, you just ran out of time. I want reports from all project leaders immediately. Wellesley out.”

The amusement vanished from her face, a black hole of fear suddenly materialized in its place.

“Shit!” she heard Doctor Lee say from the computer station behind her.

That one word was all it seemed to take to galvanize Tony into action. “JARVIS, I don't care how you do it, but hack into the communications systems and satellite feeds,” he said, his eyes wide and movements frantic. “Keep us updated on what's going on–”

“No!” said Sam firmly. She turned to look at the suit standing in the corner. “JARVIS belay that order.”

“Hey! You can't tell my AI what to do!”

“I can in my lab!”

She looked at Tony Stark: genius, playboy philanthropist... and loner. This, she realized with sudden clarity, was a man who was every bit as smart as her and Rodney, but who'd had the resources to not have to ever depend on anyone else for a pay cheque. He'd never been a simple cog within a giant machine of people.

“Look, Colonel, I realize you're used to being a soldier and following orders, but we need to know what's going on so that we can figure out how to help them. The suit might not be able to go into space, but I can fly it into the lower atmosphere if one of the ships gets close enough.”

She snorted. “The armour wouldn't even make a dent,” she said bluntly. She looked him in the eye. “No, Tony, I realize you've never had to work on a larger team before and I don't care, because right now this is a learning curve you're just going to have to get over. The Earth doesn't need Iron Man, it needs us. Not just you, not just me: us.

Earth has its own fleet of ships waiting to fight the Ori fleet, but what don't have is the firepower to take out five battleships. No, let me rephrase that: we might be able to take out the first five battleships, but the Ori have a lot more than five battleships and this is probably just the first wave. We don't know. What we do know is that right now, there are four Earth ships with an international crew compliment of fifty to seventy-five each getting ready to put their lives on the line to stall, to give us time to finish this arch reactor and power up the phase-shift device so that we can save the billions of lives on this planet. We owe it to those people to think about nothing else but finishing this. It doesn't matter what's going on anywhere else, because we already know we've run out of time: we need that arch reactor now.”

She took a deep breath and looked away from Tony's wide eyes to Siler “Sargent, get the men to bring the palladium core into the lab. We'll fit it into the arch reactor.”

“It'll burn out,” said Tony quietly.

“I know, but it might give us just enough time to finish making the vibranium core. That's why we made it.”

“Right away, ma'am,” said Siler.

Sam turned around to the sound of the Sargent's footprints disappearing down the corridor. “Doctor Lee, how do those energy levels look? Is the converter Jeannie helped us design going to hold?”

The balding man twittered for a moment before looking down at the computer screen. “Uh, yes, uh... all diagnostics show steady energy levels.” He looked up. “It should work.”

She nodded. “Good.”

Tony had moved to look over Lee's shoulder and nodded thoughtfully. “The math is incredible I just wish we had more time to test it with the palladium core, but as it is it'll take us about another forty-five minutes to an hour to assemble everything.”

“Now that I might be able to help you with, sir.”

Sam turned to the open door to find a familiar face standing just inside it wearing military fatigues and a lab coat. Her hair was tied back into its usual pristine tight bun and her face was serious. She nodded to Sam. “Ma'am,” she greeted.

“Captain Hailey,” said Sam with a grin. “You managed to successfully complete your project?”

“Yes, ma'am. We should be able to buy us just over two hours before one of the transmitters overloads – assuming someone doesn't shoot one down first.” She stepped forward and held out a tablet for Sam to take. “Was hoping you wouldn't mind going over my figures just in case.”

Sam was certain the young captain's math would be fine, but she took the tablet anyway. This had been the woman's first large project as leader and a lot was riding on it, though being Hailey she didn't show any of her nervousness.

“It's pretty fortunate that you finished it on time,” said Sam.

Hailey smirked, looking smug (the brat). “Oh we finished yesterday, but you were still busy with the arc reactor, so I decided to get an early night.”

Tony frowned. “Is this the weapon most of your scientists were working on?” he asked. “That, uh, multi-phase ion wave cannon?”

Sam cringed inwardly. Hailey frowned. Doctor Lee blinked at Tony in confusion, before turning to Sam.

Are we working on something like that?” he asked.

“Of course we're not,” Hailey answered. “That sounds completely ridiculous, if only because an ion cannon of any sort would be a severe downgrade from the Asgard plasma beams we already have.” She turned her gaze to Sam, face perfectly blank. “Ma'am?”

Sam shrugged, glancing over at Tony sheepishly. “I needed you concentrating on this project. And, well, that was sort of the first thing that popped into my mouth.”

Tony gapped at her. “But why? What the hell is junior over there working on that you thought would take my concentration away from building an arc reactor for a phase-shifting device?”

Hailey's eyes narrowed at the moniker 'junior'. “That would be classified, Mister Stark,” she said.

Which was when the General walked in.

 


 

The phone rang, the shrill sound violently disturbing the peace within the spacious office. Sun shone into the room through a long wall of tall windows behind the desk, bathing the phone, the desk, and the man sitting behind it in a blanket of warmth. President Hayes felt a distinct chill at the sound of the phone. His front lawn had been full of crows this morning. It had felt like an omen.

He took a deep breath and picked up the phone. Maybe it was only General Vidrine informing him that something had come up and Iron Patriot was running late flying into Washington.

“Hello,” he said. “Hayes speaking.”

“Good afternoon, Mister President.”

No such luck. “Jack, I wish I could say it was good to hear from you, but I have a feeling you're not about to tell me anything I want to hear.”

“No sir. The Apollo just reported five Ori battleships exiting hyperspace at the edge of the Solar System.”

“Damn, that's what I was afraid of. Where are we with that phase-shifting shield?”

“Carter's working on it, sir.”

“And you're heading to the airfield now?”

“Yes, sir, just as soon as I hang up.”

“Well then good luck, Jack.”

“Thank you, sir. You-what the...”

President Hayes straightened as Jack's voice trailed off. “Jack? Jack, what's going on?”

From the other end of the line he heard crashes and screams followed by shouting. And something that sounded like gunshots. Then the line went dead. The President was staring at his receiver when the door to his office opened and the Secret Service walked in to escort him to Air Force One.

 


 

“Excuse me, Doctor Banner, there is a Doctor Jane Foster on the line. She claims to be a friend of Prince Thor and says she is attempting to contact Mister Stark with urgent news. Unfortunately, I am unable to contact with the Iron Man suit and thus relay the message. Would you mind taking her call?”

Bruce blinked and looked up from his microscope. The metallic trace elements he'd found in Cassie's blood were fascinating – and easily-spotted when he knew to look for them. But try as he might, he couldn't figure out how they made a bomb.

The small part of him that wasn't a scientist realized this was probably a good thing.

“Er, Jane Foster?” he said to fill space as his mind re-orientated itself away from chemical analysis to the more mundane aspects of life. “Oh, that must be Thor's 'Fair Lady Jane'. Yes, alright, put her through.”

“Thank you, Doctor Banner.”

There was a beat of silence and then a single telephone ring, followed by silence.

“Hello? This is Bruce Banner,” said Bruce tentatively into the empty space around him.

“Bruce Banner...? Oh! Of course, you're Thor's friend Bruce who turns into the Hulk: I've heard a lot about you. I'm Jane, Thor's girlfriend and astrophysicist.”

Bruce's lips curled in amusement. “Thor's spoken of you as well. JARVIS said you were trying to contact Tony, but unfortunately he's not around at the moment. Was there something I could help you with instead?”

“Do you have access to any of the Stark Industries satellites?”

“Um, I'm not sure. JARVIS?”

“Yes, Doctor Banner, I am capable of accessing the imaging from all Stark Industries satellites.”

“Then I guess I do, Doctor Foster.”

“Call me Jane. And could you aim your satellites just to the right of Jupiter and tell me what you see.”

Bruce blinked. “I... um, JARVIS, can you do that?”

“Of course, Doctor Banner,” said JARVIS and Bruce thought he sounded rather affronted. “If you would please make your way into Mister Stark's lab, I shall bring up the footage on the projection screen.”

Bruce nodded and made his way to the back of his lab, where a private staircase led down to Tony's lab and workshop. Tony enjoyed loud music to drown out the other loud noises he made while working. Bruce did not. Which was why Tony had designed Bruce's primary workspace on a separate floor, adding in the staircase so that the two of them could easily move between their labs without feeling like they were leaving their 'sacred science-bro space'. Of course, Tony frequently forgot the staircase was there and used the elevator anyway, but Bruce liked having it there.

When he arrived in the workshop, JARVIS already had the satellite feed projected onto a large blank wall. Bruce stood in front of it and stared.

“I'm looking, Jane, but I'm not seeing anything unusual.”

There was a pause. “Oh! You might want to check the satellite's base code. I found a small program in mine that looked like it was waiting for a command to disrupt the feed. Maybe you've got one too.”

“Alright, I'll take a look,” he said slowly. “JARVIS, bring it up on one of the terminals.”

“Yes, sir. I'm bringing it up on Terminal Three.”

Bruce sat down in front of the computer with a sense of foreboding. Daniel had told them an alien armada was headed to Earth, shortly after which Tony took off in the suit to meet Cassie's Aunt Sam, and now an astrophysicist was calling and asking them to look at what amounted to deep space satellite imagery. It was too much to be a co-incidence. But, Bruce was a scientist, so he would stay calm and get all his facts before he decided whether or not there was reason to panic.

He and JARVIS found the small program – it was well-hidden in the system files – and was neither uploading nor downloading images, just looping the satellites' previous images. Tony would've likely had the problem fixed in half the time it took Bruce, but with JARVIS' help he still managed to shut off the program in about fifteen minutes.

He refreshed the satellite feed and looked back to the projection. The sense of foreboding became cold fear.

He took a deep breath. “Jane, I'm assuming you're talking about the space ships.”

He heard her in-take of breath over the phone. “Crap. I was sort of hoping it was a glitch. I-we have no idea who they are. Thor doesn't recognize them.”

“I'd imagine they're the Ori.” It looked like Steve and Daniel were going to be late. “JARVIS, can you transfer everything up to the conference room and tell everyone to meet me there?”

“Right away, Doctor Banner.”

“Thank you.”

Bruce ran to the elevator. The doors opened to an anxious-looking Pepper.

“Bruce, I just got a call from the air force,” she said before the doors had shut. “They told me to go home and pack a bag, that they're coming to pick me up in about half an hour. They're here, aren't they: the Ori?”

“I'm afraid so.” He paused thoughtfully. “Or rather, I hope those spaceships on the satellite feed aren't from a second alien race that wants to kill or enslave us.”

Pepper chuckled nervously. “Good point.” She blinked. “Wait, you can see them on the satellite feed?”

They arrived in the conference room minutes ahead of Cassie and Ms Everhart. Cassie took one look at the projection on the wall and paled. Ms Everhart looked annoyed. Bruce tried to remember if she'd gone home yesterday. He assumed so as she'd taken the vial of Cassie's blood he'd given her.

“You called us here to watch sci-fi movies?” she said, crossing her arms in front of her.

“That's not a movie,” said Bruce calmly, his hands in his pockets so he could ignore how much they were shaking. “That is real-time satellite footage. Well, mostly real-time.”

“Daniel's late,” Cassie whispered.

“Well, classically the hero doesn't arrive until the very last minute, when all hope is lost, so he's technically still got some time,” said Pepper absently. “Although personally I'd rather keep my hope intact.”

“I need to call my editor,” Ms Everhart said, though she made no immediate move, her eyes glued to the giant warships heading steadily towards Earth.

Chapter Text


 

CRESCENDO

“And you're heading to the airfield now?” President Hayes asked.

“Yes, sir, just as soon as I hang up,” Jack answered, quickly glancing to the corner of his office, where his pack was still sitting in the exact same spot he'd put it in several days ago (it felt like longer). It felt like he'd been waiting for this moment for years.

His eyes snapped to his closed office door at a sudden noise from out in the hallway. It had to be fairly loud if he could hear it in here.

“Well then good luck, Jack.”

“Thank you, sir,” he replied, frowning. He'd instructed his staff not to cause any panic and that meant no noise or commotion. There would be time for everyone to panic later – after it became clear they couldn't keep the aliens and their giant honking space guns a secret.

Suddenly, his office door slammed open and two black-clad commandos with P-90s stormed into his office. He heard gunshots from the hallway as his staff fought back against the intruders.

“You- what the...” he began, but quickly dropped the phone and took cover behind his desk just in time to avoid getting shot as the men opened fire.

Bullets hit the desk as he slid the bottom drawer open and grabbed the loaded handgun stowed there. Flattening himself to the floor he turned off the safety with a quick flick of his thumb, aimed and fired at the closest man's ankle. The man screamed and went down. Jack didn't wait to watch, scrambling immediately to his knees and out from under the desk. Daniel could make all the jokes he wanted, but Jack wasn't ever again going to laugh about his bullet-proof desk.

He took a deep breath and then straightened to fire two shots at the second man in his office. His knees twinged at the movement, but he ignored it: adrenaline really was the best painkiller. The man's bullet-proof vest caught the shots, so Jack fired a third at the man's right bicep. The bullet hit and the man's arm jerked backwards, but as he ducked back down to avoid the first guy's bullets, Jack already knew it hadn't penetrated.

“Shit,” he said under his breath. These guys had some top-notch body armour. Ex-SHIELD, he guessed, which of course meant Hydra. Wonderful, just what he needed.

He reached to the holster at his boot and took out his knife. Carrying it was habit more than anything... and it made him feel a bit more like he was still a soldier instead of just an old, desk-riding bureaucrat. Its weight was familiar in his right hand as he gripped his hand gun in his left. He sat back and listened. The steady crunch of boots on pieces of glass and plastic was coming from the right. He crouched and waited.

The commando came into view and Jack sprang, instantly grabbing the guy's trigger-arm as he threw his entire weight against him, throwing him off balance. He heard a shout from the downed soldier as he thrust the knife into the commando's neck. He then fell backwards, twisting their bodies so that the other soldier's bullets hit his fellow's back. When the barrage ended, Jack let the body slump to the ground, grabbing the P-90 as it fell and pointing it at the other commando, who was down on one knee, blood seeping into Jack's beige office carpet from his ankle.

A single shot between the eyes and that commando was falling too.

Jack quickly reached down to strip the corpse of its back-up ammo and ran to the door. He cautiously looked around the corner. And saw the large black object coming at his head.

He ducked, but his reflexes weren't quite fast enough and his head swirled for a moment as the butt of the gun clipped him along the top side of his head. He fell to the ground and rolled onto his back, immediately opening fire onto the new target. The commando jerked as the bullets hit him and went down, the impacts having apparently managed to hit something vital even if the bullets themselves still didn't penetrate the body armour.

Something cool touched the side of his face and Jack froze.

“Not bad, old man,” said an amused voice. “The reports said you were good; I'm glad to see they weren't written by complete morons. But now it's time to put the gun down and surrender.”

Jack heard the tell-tale clicks of several more safeties being unlatched. Gritting his teeth and keeping his expression neutral, he slowly placed the gun down onto the ground beside him.

“Good. Now, get up and keep your hands where I can see them.”

At least he wasn't being told to kneel, Jack thought to himself and did as he was told. He thought about the zat in his pack and really wished he'd thought about it sooner. Damn secrecy.

“Now turn around.”

Jack rolled his eyes. “So, tell me,” he said as he slowly turned around, doing a quick visual sweep of the corridor and resolutely not flinching at the slumped bodies leaning against the walls. “Did you guys consult your crystal balls this morning or something? 'Cause, seriously, you have the worst timing in the history of... timings.”

His captor was still looking amused once Jack was able to properly see him. He wasn't a large man, but he was stocky and obviously well-muscled, with the stance of a marine: he was former SHIELD black-ops or Jack was a Goa'uld pleasure slave. And he'd obviously seen quite a bit of action if the scars on his face were any indication. Looked like something had exploded in his face; he'd probably been lucky to have survived it.

“Missing out on lunch with the President, General?” the man sneered at him.

Jack raised an eyebrow at him. What exactly did these grunts think he did? “Of course not, it's two o'clock in the afternoon.”

The man snorted. “Good, we weren't going to stop for food anyway.” He motioned with his gun. “Now move.”

Jack debated with himself for a few moments. It wasn't like his people wouldn't be able to find him what with the subcutaneous transponder embedded in his shoulder, but... “Uh, yeah no, I've got somewhere I need to be right now,” he said instead of moving.

His captor blinked in surprise for a moment and then stopped looking amused. “I would've thought you'd know how this works by now, General O'Neill. I give the order and you obey or I blow out one of your knees.”

“Then you'd have to drag me.”

“That won't be a problem.”

Damn, this guy was good. If they'd all been like this, then no wonder SHIELD hadn't noticed the infiltration until it was too late. Jack sighed, barely resisting the urge to run his hand through his hair in frustration. He was glad he'd had the foresight to transfer command to Landry when he'd been on the phone with him, just in case they came across interference while in the air. Their ships were all needed to stand against the Ori – there would be no quick transporter beam out of this situation. Maybe take a page out of Daniel book on how to deal with hostile aliens?

“Look, I don't say this lightly but the fate of the entire world actually is at stake right now. If I don't get to where I'm going right now then your perfect world definitely won't happen because my imperfect world won't be there to tear down or whatever it is that you Hydra guys are trying to do. The world domination rhetoric all starts sounding the same after a while.”

The man was frowning at him, as though trying to figure out just how much Jack was bullshitting him. Jack only wished he was.

“I'm assuming your people managed to get a hold of at least some relevant information, whether from the NID, the Trust or hell maybe someone close to the Avengers betrayed them after Daniel spilled whatever guts he spilled to get Captain America to help him. The look on your face tells me they either didn't get enough info, or didn't decide to share it with you, and really I don't care which it is. You know what I'm in charge of, though, right?”

The man's frowned deepened. “Homeworld Security,” he answered eventually.

Jack waited, patiently (he was really good at pretending to be patient... when he had to be), for the man to put the puzzle together. He could tell by the widening of his eyes when he did.

Two gunshots resounded inside the hallway, felling two of the Hydra soldiers next to Jack. He immediately ducked down and took the handgun out of one of the soldier's side holsters. That was quicker than he'd expected an SG team to get to him. He fired the gun at their leader, but the impact was taken by the body armour with only a small grunt from the man inside. Jack dodged the answering bullet and decided he'd had enough.

Firing several more shots at the soldiers around him and knocking one to the ground with a blow to the trachea, he dove back into his office. He heard shouts coming from the hallway, but his sole focus was on crossing the room and getting to his pack. His knees protested the impact when he landed heavily on them and unzipped the main compartment. He slipped his hand along the right side and grabbed hold of cool metal.

“You're lucky my orders are to take you in alive,” he heard the scar-faced man growl from the doorway. “Should've known you were just stalling for time.”

Jack stood up with a wince. “Yeah, you should have.” He activated the zat in his hand and met the man's eyes. He saw his eyes dart down to the zat curiously. He fired it at the man's thigh. Blue energy engulfed him and he twitched for a moment before dropping to the floor, unconscious.

Which was when the windows in Jack's office blew up.

Jack threw himself to the floor and shielded his head with his arms. When the sound of glass falling stopped, he looked up – in time to watch as a futuristic metal suit with the flag tattooed all over it flew into the space. It hovered its way into a standing position and then lowered itself to the ground. There was a slight hiss and the face mask came up, revealing Colonel James Rhodes.

“Are you alright General?” Rhodes asked.

“You know, some people use doors when they enter a building,” Jack groused and then waved him off. “Yes, yes, I'm fine. Go help take care of the Hydra goons outside.”

In the time it took Jack to tuck the zat away again into his pack, heft the pack over his shoulder and walk back out into the hallway, the fighting had stopped. What was left was about a dozen unconscious or injured Hydra soldiers, and War Machine standing in front the tactical strike team, who was most definitely not from the SGC, both eyeing each other warily.

Jack noticed the symbol on the shoulder of one of the operative's uniforms and groaned.

“Are you kidding me?” he exclaimed as he walked out into the hallway. “Did you guys have to decide to come play on my turf today of all days?”

An Asian woman turned to him with a scowl. “General, we were informed of a Hydra plot to kidnap you, so we came to make sure that didn't happen,” she said sternly.

Jack rolled his eyes. “And I'm grateful, really.” He pointed his thumb in the direction of his office. “Just don't forget to tie up the guy sprawled out on my office floor. Pretty sure he was in charge of all this and he's only unconscious.”

She nodded and passed by him to tie the man's arms behind his back before turning him over. He saw her eyes widen.

“It's Brock Rumlow,” she announced. “Coulson will be glad to hear about this.”

“Good for him,” Jack muttered. Movement from out of the corner of his eyes caught his attention and he looked over to the figure that now leaned against the office door, relief flooding through him. “Major Davis, good to see you're still alive. How are you feeling?”

“Thank you, sir,” Davis answered. “I'm a bit dizzy, but I'll live. Sir, your transport is waiting outside for you.”

Jack nodded. “Thank you, Major. I'll leave things here in your hands. Make sure anyone who needs it gets medical attention – and that includes you. Also, please contact the President and let him know I'm fine and that War Machine came through just in the nick of time. Oh, and that I'm commandeering him temporarily on behalf of Homeworld Security.”

Davis sighed. “Sir, it's Iron Patriot now,” he said.

“Don't care. War Machine sounds better; Iron Patriot makes him sound like a steam locomotive.”

Beside him Colonel Rhodes burst into a sudden coughing fit. Jack looked over to him thoughtfully.

“Actually... Colonel, is there any way for someone to right side-along with you?”

Rhodes blinked and looked at him warily. “Um, if I fly very carefully, sir. And I wouldn't recommend it for long-term travel.”

“Sir, the President specifically said–“

“–Major, the suit isn't experimental and I won't be the one flying it, so there's no way I'm breaking the President's directives. And I was just thinking to the airfield.”

Rhodes looked amused at the exasperated look on Davis' face (at least Jack imagined it was there – Davis seemed to get that expression a lot around him for some reason). “Er, that shouldn't be a problem sir.”

Jack rubbed his hands together. “Excellent. Then let's get going.”


 

Colonel James Rhodes didn't fly while carrying other people often. It threw off his balance and made the ride bumpier. Turned out that didn't really matter with General Jack O'Neill, who spent the entire ride grinning from ear to ear beneath his borrowed motorcycle helmet and safety goggles.

The General looked stiff and walked his first few steps back on the ground with a pronounced limp. In the background, Rhodes recognized Air Force One taking off and frowned. He'd been on his way to meet with the President when he'd gotten a call from his aide telling him to redirect to the Pentagon, where he'd then detected gunfire. This seemed like a rather disproportionate response to a relatively small Hydra attack.

“Is something going on, sir?” he asked.

General O'Neill snorted as they continued towards a waiting plane. “That would be an understatement, Colonel.”

An airman met them half-way to the plane... that didn't look like anything Rhodes had ever seen the air force use. It was painted dark grey except for the symbol inside the round blue circle on the tail where the American flag should've been: a two-sided triangle with a circle at its top. He suddenly got the feeling he was venturing into something he hadn't signed up for when he got up this morning.

The airman saluted the General, his eyes shifting over to the War Ma-Iron Patriot armour. “General O'Neill, your BC-305 is ready, sir. Air traffic control has cleared your flight and the pilot is ready for lift-off.”

O'Neill returned the salute quickly. “Thank you, Airman. You're dismissed.” He waved Rhodes on. “Come on, Colonel, as much as I hate it, we've gotten reports that Hydra has fighter jets and we can't afford to stop for a dogfight. So you get to ride along for now.”

Rhodes nodded. “Understood, sir.”

He watched as the General climbed into the strange-looking plane and was waiting for the hatch to close to take off himself, when O'Neill popped his head out of the plane with an annoyed look on his face.

Inside, Colonel,” he said.

“Oh. Uh, sorry sir.”

Entry hatches on planes weren't designed for the suit and this one seemed an even tighter fit than most, but with a bit of manoeuvring, Rhodes managed to get inside. The inside of the plane was definitely designed for utility rather than comfort. Benches ran along either side of the hold with enough room to comfortably fit about eight people. The back also had a rather large space for cargo, what looked like a small fridge and several closed compartments Rhodes guessed likely housed weapons and first aid supplies.

General O'Neill strapped himself into the seat next to a wall-panel and pressed one of the buttons. Rhodes picked a seat opposite him, but didn't bother to strap in – in the armour he was too big for it.

“We're all here, Lieutenant, get us out of here.”

“Welcome aboard, General. I've been told to deliver a message from the President, sir. He says he's not amused.”

O'Neill rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. Never grow old, Lieutenant, you get people telling you you're not allowed to do any fun stuff and then trying to convince you it's all for your own good.”

“Yes, sir. Prepare for lift-off, sir.”

Rhodes wondered how it was that he'd never met this particular general before. Of course, judging by the plane he assumed O'Neill was in charge of something classified, but still. Most of the air force generals had needed – or wanted, more like – War Machine/Iron Patriot at one point or other. It had been a bit like playing musical generals at one time, before President Hayes came into office and put a stop to it.

Then Vice-President Kinsey and his one thousand snide questions had disappeared and it had gotten even better.

He felt the plane's engine come to life with a deep purr, its vibrations travelling through the armour like tiny waves lapping against a beach shore (as amazing as the armour was, he still sometimes missed flying planes). Across from him, he saw the general tapping at the buttons on the wall-panel again.

The plane took off. He felt the familiar bumps and grinds of tarmac and then, far too quickly in his experience, they were gone and they were flying. His inner ear had never given him problems, but he still felt the steady increase of pressure as they rapidly ascended.

“Hello?” he heard from from across the aisle, the voice was male and sounded out-of-breath and harried.

“Landry, it's O'Neill. I'm in the air and on my way.”

“Oh thank god, Jack. Apparently you can take a guy off SG1, but you can't take SG1's unique brand of luck out of the guy.”

O'Neill grinned. “Hey, I didn't think of it that way! Almost makes me feel better.” He sobered up immediately. “How are things?”

“Well, Carter says it'll probably take at least another hour to get the shield up. They ran into some sort of snag with the power source and had to make sure connecting it into the shield didn't make it blow up.”

“I'm glad they've managed to fix that itty bitty little snag. And the others?”

“The Apollo is tracking the Ori fleet and it doesn't look like they suspect anything yet. They'll be in position for the ambush in about fifteen minutes. The Ilya Muromet and the Odyssey are both in position and ready to join the attack formation. What's your ETA?”

“About three hours. Any word from Daniel's group?”

There was a pause. “No.”

O'Neill sighed and shook his head. “Keep me posted if anything changes.”

“I'll be sure to do that, Jack. Good luck.”

“Hey, I've already survived one attack from an evil organization hell-bent on world domination today. I'm on a roll here!”

Landry chuckled and then the line went dead. The humour on O'Neill's face died and fierce determination took its place. Rhodes saw his left fist clench tightly.

“Sir, if I may ask, where are we heading?”

The General looked up at him and blinked. “Oh, I didn't tell you? Antarctica.”

He blinked and then frowned. “Antarctica, sir? I didn't think there was anything important at Fort McMurdo.”

O'Neill smirked. “Aah, well, it's not actually Fort McMurdo we're going to. And you didn't think there was anything in Antarctica because what is there is highly classified. You may or may not have paperwork to sign later, 'cause I have a feeling that Daniel's right as usual – but don't tell him I said that – and by time the dust settles 'top secret' isn't going to be worth the price of that classy red stamp they use in the movies.” He smirked. “Ready or not, Colonel, your world's about to get a lot more interesting.”

Rhodes' eyes widened. He definitely hadn't signed up for this. Just as he was beginning to wonder what his chances were of making a clean break now, his mind paused and went back over the conversation he'd overheard earlier.

“Hang on,” he said with a frown. “You said our ETA was about three hours. Not even the fastest fighter jet could make it from Washington to Antarctica in four hours. Hell, the armour couldn't make it in seven. Sir, you're just pulling my leg.”

The General grinned. “This isn't a fighter jet, Colonel. And it can make it to Antarctica in three hours if it's got sub-light engines. The geeks would kill you for comparing this baby to an ordinary airplane.”

“Sub-light engines, sir? Wait... this is a spaceshuttle?!”

“Not quite, but close enough. The BC-305's designed as a transport ship. And no, we're not borrowing this from NASA; we're putting NASA out of business. Ever wonder why their funding keeps getting cut?”

“Not until now I hadn't.”

“Ah, well, it's a long story, Colonel, but we've got three hours to kill so why don't I fill you in.”

 


 

“Okay, this is way more boring than I would've expected it to be,” said Clint, leaning against a bridge console. “I mean, they make hyperspace sound so exciting on TV.”

Lorne snorted from the command chair. “Wouldn't make for good entertainment if they concentrated on the hours you spend in hyperspace twiddling your thumbs,” he said. “Outer space is a good name for it, 'cause there sure is a lot of it. You guys have those screens figured out yet?”

“It's a point and shoot game basically,” Clint answered with a gesture towards the weapon's console. “I mean, do I understand the words on the screen? Hell no. But do I know which buttons to press to make the other guys go boom? Yup, absolutely.”

“I, uh, think I've got it,” said Steve from where he was sitting at the main control console, looking much less certain. He really wished he could at least read what it was saying instead of just having to trust himself that in the heat of the moment he would remember which button did what and which reading could never, ever be allowed to go into the red.

Lieutenant Mizner, who'd been looking over his shoulder and teaching him how to read it smiled at him encouragingly. “You're doing just fine, sir. Really.”

“If you say so. I'll just be hoping the worst doesn't happen and that no one needs me to pinch-hit for them.” He looked over to the panel behind him, where Daniel was tapping away and reading the displays with undisguised curiosity. “Or they decide to just call Daniel instead.”

The Lieutenant chuckled. “Well, if half the stories about SG1 are true, then I this wouldn't be the first spaceship he's flown.”

Steve blinked. “Really?”

Apparently Daniel wasn't quite engrossed enough to fail to feel their gazes on him and he looked up. “Hm?” he asked, blinking in surprise. “Was there something you needed?”

“Lieutenant Mizner here says you've flown spaceships before,” said Steve slyly.

“Wait, seriously?” he heard Clint say in the background. “Why have we not heard this before now?”

“The name Hans Olo comes to mind, sir,” said Mizner with a twinkle in his eye, which prompted snickers from several people around the bridge. “Also the Great and Powerful Oz.”

Daniel made a face. “I wasn't actually flying in the second one, just working communications and providing distraction. Jacob Carter was doing the flying.” He grinned. “Threw the Tok'ra into a huge panic, apparently. By the time Jacob arrived at the meeting, they'd spent nearly two hours arguing over why no one knew anything about this new System Lord. He bust a gut laughing when he realized what they were arguing about.”

Evan burst out laughing. “Man, the look on their faces must've been something.”

“According to Jacob, it really was.”

The smile on Daniel's face turned sad for a moment and Steve wondered if this Jacob was yet another friend Daniel had lost. He was about to ask when the intercom came on.

“This is McKay. Rogers, Lorne, one of you meet me at the upper aft corridor... uh section 22F on the elevator wall panels. I think I found something really cool.”

“He sounded excited,” Natasha said after a slight pause.

Evan sighed. “Which means it's probably a useful something and we shouldn't just ignore him no matter how much we might want to just to annoy him.”

Steve smiled. “Ah, so it's not just me?”

Daniel snorted as he rose from the control console, relinquishing it back to the Captain who was now back from his short break. “No, it's definitely not just you. Rodney has that effect on people.”

The Command Chair made a hissing noise as it pulled back into an upright position and Evan stood, wincing. He lifted his arms and stretched until his back popped.

“Okay, I'm actually glad for the excuse to go take a walk,” he said. “Captain, I've put her on autopilot. Let me know when we're ten minutes away from the rendezvous point.”

“Understood, sir.”

Steve gladly gave Lieutenant Mizner back his seat and followed Evan, Daniel and Clint into the elevator. It turned out they had to take two elevators separated by a long stretch of empty corridor to get to where McKay had told them to go. Around them the ship was quite, its endless metal corridors cold and lonely. Steve tried to imagine it crowded with personnel, as it was meant to be.

They reached the correct section and the door slid open to reveal a large, circular space with smooth black floors and concave black walls that created a solid dome above a wide round dais in the centre of the room.

“Woah, is that a secondary Command Chair?” Evan asked, sounding genuinely surprised.

“Not quite,” McKay answered him from behind a console to the far right of the chair. “It's completely cut off from the rest of the ship's operations. In fact, it's even running on its own ZPM. That's how I found it, actually: I was going over the ship's energy outputs when I realized the two readings I was looking at weren't for the two ZPMs in the engine room, but rather one of the readings was for both of those ZPMs – one being a back-up – and the second reading was for a third, separate ZPM. So I traced the source and found this.”

He stopped in his explanation to frown at something on the console in front of him.

“So, if it's not connected to the ship's system's, then what does it do?” Daniel asked after a few moments.

McKay looked up and blinked. “Oh, it's a weapon's platform. Or rather, the platform for a very specific weapon. Daniel, remember in the blueprints on the tablets there were those drones that didn't really seem like drones because their proportions were off and they seemed to have a magnetic frequency that made absolutely no sense?”

Steve looked to Daniel, who just looked confused. “Uh, sure,” he said.

“Anyway, it looks like this chair is directly responsible for them. And the reason for the magnetic readings we saw on the tablet, is because they're designed to spontaneously become high-powered supermagnets, but along a very specific oscillating electrical frequency so that they don't attract any other objects except for each other. In short, they're individually half the size of regular drones, but come together to work in tandem with each other and form larger objects. It allows the chair operator the flexibility of changing their shape based on the target and multiplies the strength of each individual drone.”

Steve shook his head. “So, if I understand it correctly, the drones aren't each a weapon, but they're building blocks which the person in the chair can use to create a weapon?”

McKay opened his mouth to say something – probably give a scathing dismissal – and then closed it again. He shrugged. “Huh, that's actually a good way of putting it. Although, it would be wrong to say that each smaller drone can't be used as a weapon; it just can't do as much damage as one of the regular drones.”

“Remote controlled replicators,” said Evan.

McKay glared at him. “That is a horrifically bad analogy.”

Evan shrugged, not looking at all disappointed. “So, why is this chair on its own grid?”

The scientist looked back to the control console in front of him. “Partly because making all the little drones become bigger weapons will require more concentration than firing the regular drones, but I think the main reason is power consumption. Creating the electromagnetic frequency required to run these things and then deploying them through the chair uses a lot more power than the regular chair and we need a ZPM to run that. I won't know for certain until we test this, but I have a feeling it actually has the potential to drain a ZPM over the course of several extended uses. Which would explain the ZPM cache in the facility.”

“But wouldn't it be dangerous to have the user be completely cut off from the rest of the ship?” Clint asked.

McKay pointed to the console in front of him. “That would be why this is here. I'm thinking the weapon is meant to be run with two people present: one to sit in the chair and actually control the drones and the other to monitor readings from the rest of the ship.”

“Is it ready to go?” Evan asked.

“I'll need to run a few diagnostics to make sure everything got connected and troubleshooted before it was abandoned. And I think we should obviously test it if we can once we arrive at the rendezvous co-ordinates so we know if there are any bugs before we get people shooting back at us, but otherwise we should be good.”

He nodded and looked to Daniel. “Jackson, this is your party. What do you think?”

Daniel blinked. “Uh, no that sounds good. If this is a weapon no one else has ever seen, then it's the perfect thing to take to the Ori. They've seen everything we have to throw at them, except for maybe the Tollan ion cannon, but I don't think that'll make much of a difference...” He looked at Evan. “You seem to have the hang of the ship, so maybe have Steve take the chair?”

Evan smiled. “That would've been my suggestion.” He looked to Steve. “Whadda ya think, Cap?”

Steve looked over to the chair and grinned. “That sounds swell,” he said.

 


 

When they reached the rendezvous co-ordinates, they were greeted with empty space.

“So I guess our date isn't here yet?” Clint asked, leaning over one of the bridge consoles as though the extra two feet would give him a better view of the vast emptiness.

Natasha made a point of rolling her eyes at him. “That gives Steve a change to try out the new weapon,” she said.

“Major Lorne, long-range sensors are detecting a hyperspace signature coming towards us,” said Captain Bergman.

Natasha saw Major Lorne blink and then frown. “Hyperspace signature? We can detect those now?”

“Yes, sir. I can't tell how many ships there are, but if they continue along their current path, they'll reach our position in approximately one hour and forty-six minutes.”

“Hopefully, that's Cameron with backup,” said Daniel. He exchanged a glance with Lorne.

“Well, Strugacky, if you wanna come hold the fort for a bit, I'm going to go grab dinner while I have the chance,” said Lorne, easing the chair into its upright position and getting off. “I noticed the locals sent you off with fresh food supplies and I've been eating nothing but MREs for the past day and a half.”

Natasha's lips quirked.

“Try the meat buns,” Daniel suggested.

“I will.” Lorne tapped his comm. “McKay, this is Lorne. We've got about an hour and a half to sit tight at our present location. You and Steve can go a head and test the weapon.”

“McKay here. We were just getting ready to do that, Major. And I want to be here for the testing, but someone else will also need to learn these controls because I'll be in engineering during the battle.”

“Right.” He looked around the room. “Any volunteers?”

There turned out to be no shortage of those and the Major ended up choosing an air force Lieutenant who was fluent in Ancient. Natasha approved of the choice: the woman was a long-haired brunette with a no-nonsense attitude about her. And Natasha didn't fail to notice how her eyes gleamed with excitement at the thought of working with Captain America (or possibly the new weapon, it was difficult to tell). She would definitely spend some time around the two and maybe plant a few seeds, get the conversation going...

Maybe her problem before had been choosing women who were too close, too convenient. A little spontaneity might help: two people coming together in the heat of battle... it sounded like something out of those romance novels Clint read and then left scattered around her apartment to make it look like they actually belonged to her.

It wasn't difficult to claim curiosity to go see the new weapon in use. Like everyone else, she was surprised to walk into the room to find the dark, drab walls were gone and instead they were walking into the middle of outer space. Even the floor was black and covered in distant stars, making it seem as though they were suspended in the middle of space. Natasha squinted at a tiny planetary system to her far left.

“It's a holographic projection of the view from outside the ship,” McKay explained when he looked up, visibly pleased at their reactions. “As far as I can tell it'll instantly reflect changes visually. My guess is that it's to make it easier to shape the mini-drones. Or possibly someone just thought it would be really cool which, you know, it totally is.”

“It's a bit freaky too,” said Clint. “I feel like I'm going to start falling. Good thing I don't have vertigo.”

Natasha snorted. “You wouldn't be able to do your regular job if you had vertigo. And since when are you afraid of falling anyway?”

“Since I can't see the ground!”

“Don't be ridiculous,” McKay interjected. “There's no gravity in space. You wouldn't fall, you'd just float forever – actually your body would explode before then, so bits of you would float forever.”

“That's so reassuring. Thanks.”

Watching Steve trying to get the hang of the weapon started to get boring after a while. Eventually they all ended up using Major Lorne as an example and grabbing dinner while they could.

“Man, I'm going to miss that spiced meat,” said Clint as he looked down at his empty cloth napkin forlornly. “We need to figure out a good excuse to come back again.”

Natasha nodded solemnly in agreement. Although, she wasn't quite as concerned with the meat as being able to make this not-fruit, not-herbal juice-tea the people of Aeneid had sent several jugs of with them along with the buns and several jars of preserved fruit.

On the table beside her, Daniel chuckled. “Well, we still haven't even scratched the surface of everything that's in that temple, not to mention the actual Meeting Place in the tower. There will definitely be a solid argument for returning with a scientific and archaeological team.”

Clint nodded thoughtfully. “And their bodyguards, of course.”

“Oh of course.”

Just then, Sam raced into the room, wide-eyed and pale. “Have you guys looked out the window?” he demanded. “'Cause there are five honest-to-god fucking flying pyramids–“

“–Oh good, they're here!” said Daniel, jumping off his seat and dashing past Sam, Vala at his heels.

“–And apparently we're expecting them.” Sam finished, throwing his arms up in exasperation. “Of course we're expecting them.”

Natasha looked to Clint and smirked at his incredulous expression. “Seriously? Flying pyramids?”

“Go take a look,” said Sam, swiping several buns from the cloth-lined crate sitting in the centre of the table.

Daniel and Vala were already in the transporter when his comm activated.

“This is Major Lorne. Doctor Jackson, please come to the bridge.”

“Already on my way,” he replied. “Sam saw them through the window.”

He heard the man chuckle on the other end. “That must've made for an interesting reaction.”

Daniel exchanged an amused smile with Vala. “Uh, yeah, actually it did.”

Lorne turned the chair around to face him when he walked out onto the bridge.

“So apparently, these guys have decided to be difficult and hail us in Goa'uld, which none of my guys speak.”

Daniel grinned, bouncing on the balls of his feet with anticipation. It felt like a lifetime ago since he'd last gone into battle along side his Jaffa friend. “Can you play it for me please?”

And then the bridge was full of a familiar deep voice speaking in the language of his people: “We are the people of the Free Jaffa Nation. I am Teal'c of Chulak. Unknown vessel, identify yourself as friend or foe.”

Aah, so Teal'c was ready to help, but was being cautious – understandably so.

“Hail them back,” said Daniel and then at the officer's nod, spoke loudly to make sure his every word was clearly heard. “Dal shakka mel.” He paused, letting the symbolic greeting of the Jaffa Resistance hang in the air, before switching back to English. “I am Doctor Daniel Jackson of SG1 and the Ancient ship Victory. I greet you as friend and thank you for coming to our aid.”

“Sir, we have incoming visual,” said Lieutenant Kelley from the communications console.

“Let's have it.”

And then the small army of ha'taks was replaced with Teal'c dressed in battle mail in all his imposing glory. Cam grinned on his left and Master Bra'tac looked amused on his right. A few steps behind them, Daniel was surprised to recognize the Tok'ra leader, Delek.

“Daniel Jackson, my friend, it is good to see you once again,” said Teal'c.

“You as well, Teal'c,” said Daniel before nodding to the other two men. “It's been a while, Master Bra'tac, Delek. I trust you are both well.”

Delek inclined his head in greeting.

“I am very well, Doctor Jackson, thank you,” said Master Bra'tac with a smile. “Colonel Mitchell's arrival came at a very opportune time during a meeting of our allies. I believe I speak for all of us when I say that we are looking forward to – as you Tauri put it – kicking some ass.”

Daniel laughed. “Well, I think I speak for all of us when I say we're in complete agreement.”

“Oh hell yeah!” he heard Clint exclaim from somewhere behind him.

“I must say, I was expecting Teal'c and maybe one ship,” said Daniel after a moment. “So I am in awe of your five.”

Teal'c raised a single eyebrow. “In the months that the Tauri have spent laying about, I have been rather busy.”

Daniel raised an eyebrow of his own. “Uh, excuse me, I've been a bit busy myself.”

“Indeed,” Teal'c deadpanned, but Daniel could tell he was laughing inside.

“Yes. Indeed.” He took a deep breath. “Thank you, all of you, for coming to our aid.”

Teal'c smirked. “Undomesticated equines could not keep us away, Daniel Jackson.”

Chapter Text


 

SYMPHONY

Colonel Ellis watched the screen like a hawk, conscious of the tension in the air around him as the all of Apollo waited with baited breath. The comms were wide open on a secure frequency and in the background he could faintly hear the hustle and bustle of the SGC operations room. On screen the five Ori battleships seemed to inch forward. They seemed cautious, and he wondered if their last encounter with the Odyssey had shaken their supreme confidence just a little.

Or possibly the entire set-up screamed too much of 'trap' for even the followers of the all-mighty Ori to ignore.

The tension built, but Colonel Ellis didn't dare move a muscle – not even to wipe away the beads of sweat that were beginning to trickle down his brow.

And then, finally, General Landry's voice spoke: “That's it, they're in position. You have a 'go'. Good luck and may God be with you.”

“Amen to that,” said Ellis softly, hearing Colonel Jiang Li acknowledge the command from the Sun Tze.

He tapped his earpiece. “Attention all hands, this is Colonel Ellis. We are heading to engage the Ori battleships. I repeat, we are engaging the Ori battleships. Prepare for battle!”

He switched it off. “Alright, fire up those engines. I want us to gain as much speed as we can. Leiutenant, don't drop the shield until my mark. Captain, ready the weapons. We won't have the element of surprise for long, so we need to take advantage of it while we can.”

“Yes sir!” echoed in three voices across the bridge.

He sat back into his command chair. They'd practised various ambush routes relentlessly for a week until his crew could all do it in their sleep. Hell, they likely didn't even need him giving the orders anymore, except that his words were their cues, and their call to arms.

He felt the ship come to life around him.

“Engines online, sir. Beginning approach pattern beta.”

The visual changed from partial satellite footage to full screen as the Apollo flew forward. The gas clouds of the planet below them swirled violently in contrast to the open space visible beyond. It took them ten minutes to round the planet, steadily gaining speed as they went, and then they were finally seeing the Ori ships with their own eyes.

“Sir, we are leaving Venus' orbit... now.”

“Drop cloak, raise shields!”

The Apollo sped towards the ships.

“Sir, we're in weapon's range!”

“Fire at will!”

Two streaks of orange-gold light shot out towards the Ori battleship and Colonel Ellis watched with mesmerized focus as they covered the distance that was at once an eternity away and yet within reach. Part of his mind was already calculating their next move, their next evasive manoeuvre, but part of it saw nothing but the streaks of light as they flew through the dark nothingness between the two ships.

The first plasma shot hit the Ori shields and scattered across their surface. The second shot hit parallel to the first seconds later. The Ori's shields held. Although... Colonel Ellis squinted at the screen as the golden glow of the shields seemed to waver for a moment.

“Sir, Ori shields are holding, but sensors registered a brief power fluctuation.”

“Sir, the Ori ship is powering weapons!”

“Evasive manoeuvres!” Ellis commanded. “Cavendish, target that same spot!”

“Yes, sir!”

“Sir, the Sun Tzu has finished its approach and dropped its cloak,” Lieutenant Weissman announced.

Ellis nodded. “Good. Send the subspace signal.”

“Yes, sir.”

On the screen the side of the Ori ship lit up and a narrow beam of light shot out towards them. The view tilted as the Apollo attempted to get out of the way. Moments later, the ship shook with the impact, but Ellis could tell by it hadn't been a direct hit.

“We've been hit across the port side,” Weissman announced. “Shields are holding sir.”

“Nice flying, Captain,” he said, his eyes on the screen as the Apollo's plasma cannons answered the hit.

The Ori ship was too big to move out of the way entirely and the beam hit along its side. Ellis suppressed a triumphant shout as it penetrated the shields.

“Sir, we have two more Ori ships closing in; they'll be in weapon's range in one minute.”

He took a deep breath. They were going to need a lot more than one good hit to win this fight.

 


 

He hated when people were right about him, Tony decided. And yet... Well, no, he had to admit, Sam had been entirely spot on. He knew the arc reactor like the back of his hand – or like the scar on his chest, you could say – its miniaturized, more efficient form was his baby, the greatest thing he'd ever created. Next to the Iron Man armour, of course. And JARVIS. Okay, it was one of the greatest things he'd ever created.

It was great, wonderful, but it was old hat for him: undeniable proof of his genius, yes, but he could build the things in his sleep (and probably often did). And he, like his father before him (the bastard), was a magpie to new and shiny science. Still, Tony dared anyone to just shrug their shoulders and walk away after two beautiful and highly-intelligent women mentioned setting up a time dilation field.

There should've been fanfare, drums, thunderclaps, a marching band, something to accompany the revelation. There wasn't. There was just Tony, staring at Sam and the other air force scientist as they explained what was going on to the tall, heavy-set man with hair that was so white it would've gotten lost in a blizzard, and two stars on his lapels that wouldn't have gotten lost at a halloween party. The General clearly had no idea what the two women were explaining to him, but he nodded along grimly to their explanations.

Ah yes, the joys of dealing with air force brass; he remembered the revelation he'd had at ninteen when he realized that all the 'oh look at me, I'm brilliant' science talk was really just window dressing for when he said 'and it will go boom'. Or something to that effect.

“Good job, Captain,” the General said after Captain Haddy/Halting/Hatsfield/whatever had finished explaining how the Phoenix (whatever that was) had finished placing the last relay three hours ago. “And everything's been checked?”

“Yes, sir,” the Captain replied, the cant of her chin just a hair's short of defiant, as though insulted that the general thought she wouldn't have checked every single calculation, tested every signal and gone over each line of code before telling him it was working. “There are twelve relay terminals and each of them is syncing with the others on the testing frequency. We've run the diagnostics on them both as a group and individually; everything is running smoothly, sir.”

“Then I'll go inform the President and the SGC. Prepare to initiate the field.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tony trailed behind them as Sam followed the Captain down the hall, slipping silently into the elevator that took them two floors up and then down another boring corridor until they came to a room lined with computers and radar telemetry and satellite images. Tony was a mass of thrumming, jittery suppressed silence by this point. But he could, occasionally, be patient.

It paid off when the Captain finally put her tablet down on one of the work stations. Tony smoothly picketed it up as he sailed past, heading towards the bank of satellite images being manned by several uniforms. Not even the shiny science could override his desire to catch his first look at their enemy.

“Is that them?” he asked, quietly coming up behind one of the airmen manning the computers.

The young man spared him a glance and then nodded as his eyes returned to the read-outs in front of him. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Those are Ori battleships.”

“And are they seriously as big as they look on screen?” They were beautiful, almost regal-looking: curved, elegant lines in platinum with gold detailing and a giant swirling globe in the centre that looked like it was probably a power source of some sort.

God, Tony wanted to see that up close. His fingers itched to sketch a possible design, but for once he honestly didn't know where to start. A power source of swirling energy? Did the Ori have the capacity to create a dense enough centre to keep the energy from dissipating outwards or had they built a strong enough material to contain it inside?

Oh, right, containing things. Tony shuffled a few steps to the side and turned away from the hubbub at the monitor. The great, grand flipping of the switch didn't interest him; he wanted to know how they'd built the time dilation field in the first place. Breaking into the tablet was, okay not entirely dead-easy – the encryption on it was actually half-decent although it clearly hadn't meant to keep out anyone as good as Tony – but it still only took him a few minutes to find the most recent projects.

And holy shit on a swizzle stick, this was labelled Asgard tech. Except... when the hell had Thor's people had contact with the US Air Force? Suddenly Tony remembered Sam correcting him: Asgard, not Asgardian. It had been an odd correction, but he'd let it slide because there'd been more important things to worry about at the time. Now he was thinking it was definitely something he'd have to go back to. Later, after he was done staring at the shiny math.

And the math was shiny. It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful. He hadn't realized math like this existed! He felt humbled in its presence, his estimation of Sam and the young Captain having gone up exponentially. He no longer wanted to drag Sam back to SI and his workshop. Instead he wanted to go collect his bots, coffeemaker, a case of scotch and move in.

His eyes ran over the equations, lines of code and the schematics he managed to find. Of course there were things that could've been improved, places where the equations could've been tweaked for more efficiency. And arc reactors powering every relay terminal would've given them a near indefinite life span... or at least several years. Oh, he realized when the next file opened a wholly alien-looking schematic, the dilation field was supposed to run off only one device centrally located within the field. Hmm. Energy requirements: it all came down to energy requirements and maintaining the stability of such a large field, it seemed.

Suddenly, the tablet was snatched out of his hand. Tony squawked in protest.

“Hey, science!” he protested, looking up to meet the furious eyes of the tablet's owner. He looked to Sam. “Sam, she's taking away the science,” he whined.

Sam rolled her eyes. “You shouldn't have stole it from her in the first place.”

He sighed theatrically. “I don't ever get any sympathy,” he said.

“No, you don't,” said Sam, amusement dancing in her eyes. “But thanks to Hailey and her team, you do get an extra two hours or so to finish the arc reactor.”

Tony nodded. On their way back down in the elevator, he suddenly had a thought. “Wait, isn't this going to disrupt satellite communications?” he asked.

Sam winced. “A bit, depending on how high up in the Earth's orbit the satellites are travelling. Hailey placed the terminals as far from the Earth as she could, but there's a limit to how far she could stretch it.”

“Wow, okay, so how exactly does anyone plan to explain that away?”

“That,” said Sam pointedly, “is thankfully not my problem.”

“Fair enough.”

 


 

Jane and Darcy both screamed when the satellite feed went dead. One second they were watching as a second ship suddenly materialized on the opposite side of the Ori fleet, and the next the screen was blank.

“Oh my god, what the hell!” Jane exclaimed, immediately grabbing the keyboard and began to type furiously.

“What is it?” Selvig asked. “Has something shot down the satellite?”

“I don't know! Give me a minute to... There's no signal. I'm not receiving a signal!”

“So it could be shot down.”

“Maybe the government's figured out we were watching and cut it,” Darcy suggested. She blew a cherry-flavoured bubble, shrugging as the others turned to her. “What? It's not like the aliens would care about some stupid research satellite.”

“This isn't the X-Files, Darcy,” said Jane with a frown.

“You're sure 'bout that?”

“...no. Dammit.”

“Look, there has to be a logical explanation,” said Selvig. “Does Stark Tower still have feed?”

Jane frowned, looking at the second computer monitor they'd hooked up in order to chat with Bruce and the others. “They didn't send any messages...”

Jane opened the Skype dialogue window, making a frustrated grunt when it was being slow to load. Darcy took her phone out and began to typing her own message. Minute after aggravating minute passed, until they all jumped at the shrill ringing that exploded into the silence. They swung around to stare at the landline phone hanging on the wall. Selvig ran over and picked it up.

“Holy shit, since when do we have that there?” Darcy asked.

“I didn't think it worked,” said Jane absently before turning back to the computer, finally giving up on Skype and trying a regular internet window. That opened much more quickly. “Hm, I can't open a dialogue window with Stark Tower, but our internet signal's still working apparently.”

“It's not just us!” Selvig announced as he joined them again. “All the other labs are having problems with their satellite feeds too. And Professor Jennings was in the middle of a call to Doctor LeBlanc in Vancouver when the line just suddenly went dead. When she tried calling again it said it was unable to connect.”

“My cellphone signal's down too,” said Darcy as she looked down at her phone in annoyance.

Thor stood from his chair, where he'd been watching events unfold with an ever-deepening frown. Jane looked to him with a raised eyebrow.

“My friends, I shall contact Heimdall,” he announced. “Perhaps he shall know something of this disturbance. And as my elder, he may also have some knowledge of these Ori who have arrived to threaten us.”

Jane nodded to him and turned back to her computer. Suddenly, she snapped her fingers. “Radio!” she said urgently. “Is the radio still working?”

Darcy blinked. “You want me to go start up the car and check?”

“No need, I've got a small radio in my office,” said Selvig and rushed off.

“And television,” Jane added, looking to Darcy. “Go check the lounge TV to see if there's still a television signal.”

“Sure thing,” Darcy said with a shrug.

Meanwhile Jane got her phone and tried calling Bruce again only to find it didn't have a signal either. She tried the landline. No luck: the call wasn't connecting. On a whim she dialed the curry place they got take-out from on a regular basis (Thor loved curry almost as much as he loved poptarts, said it tasted like nothing from Asgard).

“'ello, Tandori 'ouse, what can I 'elp you wif?” said a female voice from the other end.

“Oh, sorry, wrong number,” said Jane quickly and hung up.

She put her cell down thoughtfully as her mind connected the dots. So it was cellphones and long-distance calls that weren't working. She logged into the university system's server and found her way to the data uplink low-orbit satellites. Cassiope should've been transmitting data for that joint-Canadian project not long ago...

 


 

It wasn't long after an air force helicopter had arrived to take Pepper to the airport that the screen went blank. Bruce blinked at the screen.

“Crap, hang on a second, Eric, I think we're having some sort of problem with our signal,” Christine said into her cellphone as the screen went blank. There was a pause. “Eric?”

Bruce looked over to see her frowning at her cellphone. She looked up at Bruce and turned her screen to face him.

“I'm not getting a signal,” she told him.

On the other side of table, Cassie dug her phone out of her pocket. “I don't have one either,” she said.

Bruce frowned. “JARVIS?” he asked.

“I am sorry to say I am unable to make contact with any of the Stark Industries satellites. I am running diagnostics now, however I don't believe the fault to be on our end. I'm afraid the tower's internet server is down as well as Mister Stark has it connected via satellite internet.”

Cassie rolled her eyes. “Of course he does,” she said. “Which means we can't check with Jane to see if it's just us or not.”

“JARVIS, can you connect to someone else's wireless internet connection?” Christine asked.

“I am attempting to do so now, although I warn the connection will be much weaker than usual.”

“Even a weak connection is better than nothing,” Bruce pointed out.

“Indeed, Doctor Banner.”

Bruce sighed and turned to Cassie. “Do you think this is something the SGC has done?”

Cassie shrugged. “I have no idea. I seriously know next to nothing about what's been going on in the project. I mean, yeah, I know a lot more than some people, but it's been running for almost eleven years now and no one's ever discussed technology with me. Uncle Daniel did tell me Aunt Sam was working on something to protect the Earth... maybe it's a shield of some sort? It would probably take a massive amount of power to cover the entire planet, but it could be possible I guess.”

“Your guess would be correct, Miss Fraiser,” JARVIS said out of the blue. “Doctor Colonel Samantha Carter appeared as a hologram in sir's workshop two days ago in order to enlist his help, because she required a power source for the Dimensional Phase-shift Device she had built. One that would create a field large enough to encompass the entire planet and phase it into another dimension where the Ori could not reach us.”

“A Dimensional Phase-shift Device?” Bruce repeated, stunned... and just a bit jealous. “She wants to phase the entire planet into a parallel dimension? Yes, you would need quite a bit of power for that, especially if you wanted to make it large enough to cover the entire planet. And if the satellites got stuck outside the field then you'd certainly lose all communication with them...”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Christine nodding. “That's actually pretty amazing if it's true,” she said. “But it doesn't explain why they bothered with the ships then if they could just hide. I mean those two tiny Earth ships we saw didn't look like they stood a chance against the gigantic Ori ships.”

“Maybe there's more of them waiting on the side-lines for an ambush?” Cassie suggested. “I mean, maybe the shield – if it exists that is – has a lifespan. Like it'll only hold for a couple hours or a day or something, so they need to make sure the Ori are gone before then.”

“Hm... JARVIS, could you please upload the images from the satellite onto a memory stick for me?” Christine asked. “I think I've got enough for a story... Come to think of it, I wonder if the government's made any statements yet? Either way, I need to figure out if local stations are being affected as well.”

“Why wouldn't they be?” Cassie asked with a frown.

“The satellites they use are in lower orbits around Earth... if not there's always radio and the internet, except for the satellite stations, which run off satellites in geosynchronous orbits like the SI ones probably are.”

“The Stark Industries satellites are indeed operating on a geosynchronous orbit at an altitude of 31,000 kilometres from the surface. I would also like to point out that I now have internet access, however it does not seem that the government has made any statements yet as to the disruptions.”

Christine nodded and paused where she'd been about to turn off her laptop. “Then I can use e-mail.”

“Are you planning on contacting the air force for a quote?” Cassie asked, looking curious.

Christine shook her head. “And broadcast that I have information I'm not supposed to have? Hell no. We'll do that after we've broken the story: once JARVIS uploads the images for me I have proof and – oh, actually could I please get Doctor Foster's e-mail address? As an astrophysicist, she's both an expert in the field and an eye-witness. So while, yes, the story's not complete, but if we're dealing with people willing to kill to keep their secrets, then we need to play it safe.”

“Killing you after the story's out would be counter-productive,” Bruce agreed with a nod. “It would only make them look worse.”

Christine grinned. “Exactly.”

“Um, Bruce?” Cassie said, standing up. “I think Jane's trying to contact us.”

Bruce looked over to the screen and noticed the Skype chat tab was flashing. He went over to the laptop and sat down, opening the window.

Bruce? Have you lost satellite feed?

Bruce blinked at it. “Looks like Jane's lost her feed too, so it's definitely not just us.”

“No, according to Eric, no one's able to make long-distance calls either,” Christine added, before abruptly shutting the computer. “Anyway, I'm off to the NBC station. I'll be in touch. Please tell Jane to check her e-mail in about half an hour.”

 


 

“Sir, we've lost satellite communications,” the pilot announced mere moments after Jack had ended his call with Landry.

Jack pressed the comm button. “It's alright, Lieutenant, Carter and the geeks have managed to buy us some time. Just keep flying. Maybe speed it up a notch; I'm sure they've managed to free up the air space by now.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jack leaned back and sighed. So Carter's protege managed to get the time dilation field working. It was a shame it would only give them about two hours, but if they stepped on the pedal for the last bit of their journey, once they were past the major air traffic routes, then they could shave off quite a bit more time.

He looked to Colonel Rhodes, feeling slightly sorry for the man. He was holding up fairly well, all things considered, but Jack could tell by the tense twitch in his jaw that what the man really wanted to do was get out of the heavy metal suit and pour several bottles of hard liquor down his throat. Most people freaked out in one way or another when they heard about the Stargate Program.

Well, Jack hadn't, but at the time Jack had mostly seen it as a means to a premature end. By the time he'd gotten past staring at his gun and longing for release, he'd already been to another planet, killed a god that travelled in a giant flying pyramid, and come home to divorce papers. By then it had been a bit late for freaking out.

So he'd retired instead.

“Do I even want to know what a time dilation field is, sir?” Rhodes asked, looking both resigned and weary. “Or how it's going to buy us two hours of time?”

Jack shrugged. “You'd have to ask the geeks anyway. All I know is that it's like a bubble where time moves differently. Two hours inside will be like seconds outside.”

“I have a friend who would trade her entire sizable and extremely expensive shoe collection for one of those.”

Jack thought about it for a moment. “Huh, never thought of it that way. I bet Daniel would just love a person bubble for his office. Then he could spend hours inside without anyone realizing he'd just spent ten hours with his precious rocks eating nothing but coffee and chocolate. It's a good thing we don't have that technology perfected.”

Rhodes chuckled. “Yeah, got a friend like that too.”

Jack stayed silent, anticipating the next question. He didn't have to wait too long; Rhodes was obviously sharp that way and seemed to have realized that Jack wasn't going to bite his head off for asking questions. Well, not today anyway.

“Uh, sir, isn't the lack of satellite connections going to cause problems?”

Jack shrugged. “It's not all the satellites, just anything above the dilation field. As soon as the Ori were spotted, Protocol Clear Air went into play along with... well, one other thing. A bunch of other things actually, but that's not the point. The point is that Clear Air means that thanks to the all-purpose umbrella called 'National Security', we're now securing all airports and restricting any and all air traffic by grounding all civilian air craft and most of the military ones. And it's not just us, it's all IOA countries, which is, you know, a lot of them. All over the world.”

Rhodes just nodded, no doubt wondering what his buddy Tony Stark's reaction would be to the satellite blackout. Colonel Rhodes' friendship with Stark had been a blessing back when Stark Industries was manufacturing weapons for the air force, but had turned into a double-edged sword after he'd high-tailed it out of the arms business. On the one hand, it meant the air force still had a small tie to Tony Stark; they'd gotten War Machine out of it, after all. However, it also meant they were unable to send Rhodes out on anything too classified. By all accounts Rhodes was a fine officer and, if not for his nosy, technologically-saavy friend, he probably would've been offered a position at the SGC a long time ago with or without the fancy metal suit.

Jack knew that even now, with the Ori breathing on their front doorstep, reading Rhodes into the project had been a huge risk. Then again, Jack wouldn't have gotten where he was today if he hadn't taken risks – not that he had any idea why that qualified him as general material, which meant it was probably the lucky clover nestled in his sock drawer that was the real reason. He'd taken a risk on Sheppard, and that had panned out beyond his wildest dreams.

“Sir, how exactly is the air force planning on explaining the disruption?” Rhodes asked.

Jack blinked and then shrugged. “I think this week's excuse is a solar flare. It's fascinating how much people will happily chalk up to a solar flare.”

He mentally sent out yet another plea to whatever higher power was listening (provided they weren't a power-hungry evil alien and/or entity pretending to be a god), that Daniel was doing okay. The Ori had sent five ships to Earth. Jack didn't trust five ships; the Ori had to know they could handle five ships. Not easily, but they could handle them. Besides which, the Tok'ra had counted a dozen heading towards Earth.

Whatever miracle Daniel was unearthing, he needed to hurry the hell up.

 


 

Jane's fingers flew over the keyboard as Selvig, Darcy and what looked like half the university's science department looked over her shoulder. No one questioned the amount of people still at the university despite the late hour. They were scientists; it was expected. Or at least it certainly wasn't surprising anyone.

Word had gotten around that she'd captured some interesting images on the satellite feeds before they'd gone down. 'Interesting' clearly hadn't covered alien spaceships and the first computer screen was playing the satellite video feed on repeat for the benefit of each gaping newcomer. A group from the engineering and computer sciences department had meanwhile formed a huddle around a laptop where they were analyzing the line code of the program Jane had discovered hidden inside the satellite's core programming.

Bruce and his group had come up with some interesting theories. The scientists behind Jane seemed to be having a ball arguing just how plausible some of them actually were, or under what conditions could they be made possible. There was a dozen laptops covering every spare surface of Jane's lab, each with the volume on high as their respective owners anxiously waited for the tell-tale pings that would signal new e-mails from various colleagues at other institutions.

When Thor strode into the room, eyes hard and jaw tense, Darcy was the only one who noticed.

“Heya, big guy, you don't look too happy there,” she called out. “Bad news from Heimdall?”

That got everyone's attention and voices quieted as they turned to Thor anxiously. Thor shook his head.

“I was unable to contact Heimdall,” he said, his voice grim. Jane gasped and Thor held up a hand to forestall any panic. “Fear not, my lady, as I have little reason to believe something has happened on Asgard. In fact, I believe the source of this disturbance comes from Midgard itself.”

“Why do you think that?” a white-haired man asked.

“Because if something had happened on Asgard I would still feel my connection to my home even if none answered my call. However, the connection is not just silent, but vanished as though it had never been there.”

The scientists breathed sighs of relief and some of the tension that had risen with Thor's initial pronoucement eased off. The large Asgardian had become a permanent fixture around the university, endearing himself to the faculty by cheerfully helping to carry large heavy equipment, boxes and eating all of Mrs Throton's homemade lardy cakes (it wasn't that they weren't good, but there were only so many a regular human could eat...). They more or less considered him one of their own at this point.

Jane frowned thoughtfully. “Hm, that's can't be good,” she conceded. “And it means that if it is a barrier of some kind, then it's definitely more than just something made out of energy...”

“Maybe it's emitting an electromagnetic frequency that's knocking out everything,” another woman added.

“It'll take a bit more than that to knock out the connection between Asgardians,” Selvig pointed out. “If Jane's theories are correct, then we're talking about something capable of disrupting an Einstein-Rosen bridge.”

“You know, I heard a rumour that some yank is developing a method to create a Einstein-Rosen bridge and utilize it to combat global warming,” said a tall, skinny man, his long red hair tied back in a ponytail.

Jane had been in the middle of adding to Selvig's comment, when she paused and looked to the skinny man – she was fairly certain he taught applied mathematics. Darcy would probably know.

“How exactly could the Einstein-Rosen bridge help against global warming?” she asked him with a frown.

He shrugged. “Not a clue, love. To be honest it sounds a bit barmy to me and we'll probably read all about after he's blown himself up.”

“Oh I don't know about that,” said Professor Jennings, the short, blonde in charge of the Space Sciences department who Jane consulted with on occasion. The woman's eyes were sparkling with excitement. “Have you heard about that horribly hush-hush military project that's recruiting all sorts of scientists and engineers from around the world. According to the rumours, it's mostly US military, but has the support of most of the world's powers including the EU, Russia and China. Remember Peter Grodin?”

“Quiet, polite, mind sharp as a tack, looked like he spent all day at the beach?” the white-haired man said with a grin. “Yes, I remember him very well indeed; knew how to hold his scotch that lad.”

“Well, he was recruited into the this project, spent a year at some US military base with minimal contact, then completely disappeared off the face of the planet. I spoke to his mother – she teaches at Cambridge, you'll remember – just last month and she told me that one day, about four years ago a strange man came to see her to tell her Peter was dead. Died in an explosion apparently, no body recovered.”

The white-haired professor sighed and hung his head sadly. “What a shame. That poor boy, he had such a shining future ahead of him.”

“The man told his mother that he couldn't tell her the details surrounding Peter's death, but that he had died a hero, helped save hundreds if not thousands of lives.”

“Was he military?”

“No.” Jennings grinned slyly. “She said it was Doctor Rodney McKay.”

“What?” the white-haired professor exclaimed. “That bloody bugger's still alive?”

“So it would seem.”

Jane blinked. She remembered Rodney McKay, had met him at a conference years ago. They'd bonded amiably over some truly amazing coffee and eclairs – for about five minutes. That was how long it had taken them to fall into a science discussion, which then rather quickly devolved into a screaming match that only ended when security arrived to break them up. Which had been a shame, because Jane remembered finding it rather exhilarating even if the man had been a complete asshole. Had it really been that long since McKay had published anything?

A shadow fell over her and she looked up into Thor's worried face.

“Do you truly believe that it is someone from your world who is blocking Heimdall's gaze?” he asked.

Jane thought about it. “It's possible. I mean, we were watching space ships fighting in the middle of the Solar System a little while ago, so I'm willing to expand my definition of what is possible.”

From her perch Darcy snorted. “Pretty sure we've been doing that for years,” she said.

Just then, Jane's computer pinged with an e-mail. The sender was a Christine Everhart. Jane blinked and opened the e-mail.

“Huh, it's a reporter,” she began. Her eyebrows rose as she read on.

“Which newspaper?” Darcy asked.

“Vanity Fair.”

“Not who I was expecting, but coolio.”

“She says the US government is claiming the satellites are out because of a massive solar flare,” Jane announced loudly for the benefit of the room.

“Rubbish, that's absolute rubbish,” said Professor Jennings immediately. “And you can tell her she can quote me on that.”

 


 

One hour and forty-seven minutes after the time dilation field had been activated and thus disrupted the world's connection to its high-orbit satellites, NBC New York interrupted the newest episode of The Voice with a special news bulletin. Like many historical events – Pearl Harbour, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11, the Chitauri attack – it was something people would talk of for years to come, remembering where they'd been and what they'd been doing when they saw it or heard of it from others. And New Yorkers, being New Yorkers, they would never let the rest of the world forget that they'd heard it first.

In Forest Hills, one young man had just returned home exhausted from a full school day followed by filling in for the sick Bugle photographer who was supposed to have been covering the NYPD's Annual Toy Drive. He kissed his aunt and gratefully accepted the warmed plate of food she offered him before plopping himself onto the couch and turning on the television. Two minutes later, he was wide awake and calling for his aunt to come make sure he wasn't crazy.

In Hell's Kitchen, a tall man wearing dark sunglasses, a grey business suit and carrying a thin white stick tucked under his elbow, let himself into his quiet apartment. His footfalls were soft as he made his way to the kitchen, where he deposited a brown take-out bag that smelled of Chinese food onto the table and placed his leather briefcase onto an empty chair. The only sounds in the apartment were his breathing, traffic noises coming in through the open living room window, and the television program coming through the wall he shared with his half-deaf elderly neighbours. He was on his way to his bedroom when his sharp ears picked up the abrupt change in programming. He froze at the words 'exclusive ground-breaking news report'. Moments later, his eyes widened and, before he'd consciously made the decision, he was dashing towards his little FM radio.

In Manhattan, a woman was pouring herself a glass of wine with a slight smile. Her husband was busy with his latest project, but instead of being annoyed, she was determined to take advantage and settle onto the sofa with some wine and cheese, and a random season of Sex and the City. She groaned when she heard the elevator door slide open in the hallway followed by the familiar sound of her brother's footsteps. Oh well, it wasn't ideal, but one look at what she was watching and he'd roll his eyes and go find something else to do. Possibly bother her husband. Which would serve him right. She smiled slightly and took a sip of her wine as she reached for the remote. The television turned on to show a reporter she recognized as having done a human interest piece on her and her husband a year ago or so ago for Vanity Fair. She listened out of curiosity, her eyes slowly widening in disbelief. She didn't notice the wineglass slipping out of her hand until it shattered on the hardwood floor.

In Times Square, a man with long dark, unkept hair shuffled his way through the thinning crowd, his hands stuffed into the pockets of the dirty trenchcoat he was wearing, gaze fixed onto the pavement in front of him and shoulders hunched. When the words 'We apologize for the interruption to your regular programming' cut through the usual distracted din of the city, he paused and looked up to see that the perfume ad on the video board had been changed for the not-yet-familiar background of NBC news. He vaguely took note that the blonde who took over the newscast was rather pretty. Trained to always be aware of his surroundings, the man noticed when the usual movement around him ceased as everyone else also stopped to hear the report.

NBC New York posted the video of the broadcast on their webpage. The site crashed fifteen minutes later. While their IT department worked at the problem, the station's Twitter and Facebook accounts broke records in hit counts.

 


 

“Good Evening New York, I'm Chuck Scarborough.”

“And I'm Sibila Vargas. We apologize for the interruption to your regular programming, but we are here to bring you an exclusive, ground-breaking news report possibly connected with the current satellite signal disruption. And thanks to this disruption, all of you in New York will be the first in the world to hear the news. A word to the wise: you might want to sit down for this. Chuck?”

“Thanks Sibila. Earlier this evening a guest researcher at University College London, astrophysicist Doctor Jane Foster, found an unknown program inside the code to the university's deep-space research satellite. Shortly after removing the code, the satellite caught some rather shocking images. Christine Everhart from Vanity Fair is with us in the studio with the rest of this incredible story.”

“Thanks guys. It's an honour to be here to break this story. As you've mentioned Doctor Jane Foster found an unknown program inside her satellite's code. She describes it as having been benign at the time with no obvious purpose. This happened at around 5 pm New York time, 9 pm London time. Not long afterwards, the satellite began picking up these images:...”

“Wow, I've seen this video already, but I still can't believe it. I'd just like to interject here that the entire video is about 23 minutes long, right Christine?”

“That's right Sibila. We've cut it down for this broadcast, but the entire video will be available on the NBC New York website shortly after this broadcast. I would however like to bring your attention to one of the smaller ships... okay, there it is doing a fly-by... and if we pause it and magnify the image...”

“That's a US flag.”

“That's right, Chuck. We've been unable to get a clear enough image for the second smaller ship, but this one is clearly flying under a US flag. I would also like to point out that, although Doctor Foster was the first one to notice the images, the video we're seeing here is thanks to Stark Industries satellites. I happened to be inside Stark Tower working on a different, though related, story when Doctor Foster contacted Doctor Bruce Banner, a renown nuclear physicist and biologist working with the Avengers.”

“Well, we already knew aliens existed thanks to the appearance of Thor and then the Chittauri attack last year, but these ships look completely different again. Do we know what's actually going on here?”

“According to an inside source, the large white ships belong to an alien race known as the Ori. They are a race of highly-advanced beings who were once flesh and blood like us and managed to figure out how to 'shed their mortal coil', so to speak, and ascend to a plane of existence where they are made up entirely of energy. And now they're pretending to be gods. Those ships, Chuck, are full of their followers who have embarked on a crusade to spread their religion across the galaxy. From the inside sources' words, the Ori give people two choices: accept the wisdom of the Ori, or die resisting it.”

“And does Doctor Foster think the satellite disruption is related to this attack?”

“Both Doctors Foster and Banner say they can't confirm it for certain, but they do believe it's possible. My inside source says there's a high likelihood that whatever's disrupting the satellites isn't caused by the Ori, but is rather some sort of defence and therefore originating from Earth. The US air force has released an official statement claiming the satellite disruption is due to a particularly strong solar flare. During a conversation I had with Doctor Foster and several of her colleagues in London, they dismissed the explanation as nonsense. In fact the head of University College London's Space Sciences Department, Professor Molly Jennings, wanted to go on record saying the explanation was “Rubbish, absolute rubbish”. Astronomer and expert in space weather, Doctor Richard Puck, added that thanks to the recent research being done in the field, a solar flare massive enough to cause this sort of wide-spread satellite disruption would've been anticipated long before it happened. Chuck?”

“Thanks, Christine. A more in-depth breakdown discrediting the air force's official statement will shortly be found on our website, including scientific analysis by the experts Christine mentioned.”

“Rest assured, New York, we will be following this story closely and bringing you up-to-date information as it becomes available. And please make sure to join us at eleven for our regular evening newscast where Christine will be joining us again with more information, including clips from her interview with her inside source: a seemingly ordinary young woman with an extraordinary story to tell.”

“Thank you for your patience, we now return you to your regular programming.”

 


 

Captain Haliey frowned as she watched the readouts. She glanced quickly at the clock. It had been two hours and eleven minutes since they'd initiated the field. That was in-line with her calculations, though she had hoped she'd been conservative with her estimates. She tapped her earpiece, glad that most of Area 51's projects had been put on temporary hold thanks to the crisis, thus enabling her to use the receivers.

“Colonel Carter, this is Captain Haliey, please respond.”

There was a pause, and then: “Carter here. Are we reaching the end of our borrowed time?”

“Yes, ma'am, I'm seeing an increase instability in the readings and I've got two relays looking like they're on the verge of shorting out – or possibly blowing up. Are you ready to go, ma'am?”

“We're good to go with the palladium core. The vibranium didn't react well to the energy waves emitted by the Dimension Phase-shift Device so we need to insulate its casing a bit more before we use it.”

“Understood, ma'am. I'll let you know when the field comes down; I estimate as little as five minutes.”

“Understood, Carter out.”

Hailey then stood and used the phone to call General Wellesley to inform him of the timeline. When she returned to the monitoring station, one of the technicians pointed out a third relay whose readings had suddenly destabilized at a rate faster than the two she'd been worried about. Sure enough, seven minutes after she'd called Colonel Carter, the third relay blew.

“Turn the rest of them off,” she told the technicians and then stepped back to tap her ear comm. “Colonel Carter, General Wellesley, one of the relays just blew. I repeat, the Time Dialation Field is no longer active.”

The response was almost immediate. “This is Wellesley. Thank you, Captain. Colonel Carter, you have a go.”

“Carter here. Preparing to bring the Phase-shift Device on-line in three... two... one... now!”

Hailey held her breath during the pause that followed.

“Device is operating within normal parameters, the energy flow is stable and the pocket dimension has extended to its projected size, encompassing all objects in geosynchronous orbit.”

Haliey let out the breath she'd been holding. Okay, good, that meant their part was done. The rest was up to the ship captains. She made her way back to the screen where the Apollo and the Sun Tze had resumed their flight patterns.

 


 

Darcy was making another round with the coffee pot, which the scientists scattered around the room embraced like the caffeine camels they were. Thor was perched on top of the heavy-duty equipment table, absently rubbing Mjolnir and looking out the window thoughtfully, while Selvig was busy ordering a truly astonishing amount of Chinese take-away. Jane and several of her fellow scientists sat around her computer working on the finishing touches for an article in which they cheerfully cut apart and debunked the US Air Force's solar flare explanation.

It was all in all a rather relaxed, easy-going atmosphere despite the underlying layer of anxious tension. It was easy to set aside the impending doom presented by five giant alien spaceships when confronted with the more immediate mystery surrounding the satellites.

Sudden movement out of the corner of her eye got Jane's attention. She looked over to the other screen and her eyes widened.

“Oh my God, the satellites are back!” she exclaimed, causing instant chaos as nearly a dozen scientists leaped from their positions and rushed to get a good view at the screen. Meanwhile, Jane frowned.

“Hang on, this a repeat?” Darcy asked. “'Cause I could've sworn we'd already seen this part.”

Jane looked over the video feed. “No, this is live.”

“But nothing's changed,” Jennings pointed out. “Even the positions of the ships were almost identical to where the feed had cut out.”

“That's not all: the satellite's looking at the same position too,” said the tall skinny man. He reached into his pocket and took out his phone. “Hang on, I've got a mobile signal now: let me just call a mate of mine who works at the observatory.”


 

“Excuse me, Doctor Banner, Miss Fraiser, I would like to inform you that I am now receiving a satellite signal.”

Cutlery clattered against china and wood, while chairs scraped harshly on the tiled kitchen floor, nearly toppling over as Bruce and Cassie dropped everything and bolted towards the conference room. Sure enough, the previously-blank holographic video screen was once again showing two Earth ships battling against the Ori invaders.

“Huh,” said Bruce. “I would've thought there'd have been more developments than this.”

Cassie also frowned at the screen. “Yeah... also, the SI satellite's moving in a geosynchonous orbit, so if two hours have passed, should we still be looking at the exact same spot? I mean, I'm no astrophysicist, but I definitely remember learning somewhere in elementary school that the Earth rotates.”

“Your observations are correct Miss Fraiser. The current position of the Earth relative to the rest of the solar system would seem to be consistent with 6:27 pm, which is approximantely two minutes after we lost contact with the high-orbit satellites. Furthermore, the data I am retrieving from the satellites indicates a minor system malfunction, and reports a loss of contact lasting 2.58 minutes.”

“Holy shit what the hell did they do: create a time bubble?!”

Cassie looked to Bruce, both realizing with astonishment that her ludicrous idea might not be quite so ludicrous.

They turned back to the screen to watch as the American spaceship (at least, the one they knew for sure was American) swerved to the right, passing over the Ori ship they'd been firing at, then looped around, avoiding a hit from one of the other ships. A second shot glanced across its shields and shook it, but neither stopped nor slowed the ship's acceleration as it doubled-back at its original target. Two beams shot out from the front of the ship. The first one looked like it hit an energy barrier, but after a pause, it obliterated the resistance and hit the ship itself. The second beam flew unhampered directly towards the Ori ship.

As the US ship flew out of the satellite's visual range, the Ori ship it had been fighting blew up in a spectacular burst of flames.

Cassie cheered.


 

Major Paul Davis didn't need anyone to tell him the satellites were working again. He found out all by himself when the relative silence of the Homeworld Security offices, was broken by the sudden cacophony of shrill noise as every single phone in his immediate vicinity began ringing off the hook.

He answered the first couple calls and then decided he needed to see what was going on for himself.

Now he sat and stared at his computer screen with a feeling of numb shock. They all knew their luck was bound to fail one day – in fact, statistically speaking, it was a damn near miracle that the project hadn't yet been outed to the public in some way. Still, seeing a photo of the Apollo fighting an Ori battleship placed bold and centre on the NBC New York homepage, felt surreal at best. Paul quickly found himself scanning the attached article, his eyes steadily growing wider – in direct proportion to his sense of dread.

He picked up the phone on his desk. The General needed to know.

Chapter Text


 

Colorado greeted her with a dark and rainy evening as the small plane touched down smoothly onto the tarmac. Pepper shivered and took a few moments to appreciate the poetic touch before she unbuckled her seatbelt and got her carry-on from the overhead compartment.

It had a been a beautiful sunny day when the Chitauri had attacked New York. She wasn't sure which she preferred.

She had one suitcase, a large purse and her waterproof ski jacket. She'd taken Sam's advice to heart and was wearing jeans and a pair of sturdy, well-worn hiking boots she hadn't touched since before becoming Tony's PA. And she hated it. Hated how strangely vulnerable she felt without the suits she wore like an armour. In a business suit and heels, she was Pepper Potts, CEO, with all the responsibilities and expectations that came with the title. To be free of that mantle should've been liberating, but instead she felt out-of-place, lost to the tide of an element that wasn't hers to command.

She flowed along with the procession of people disembarking from the plane, glad for her boots as the stairs were slick from rain. They were at a military airport, so the other two passenger planes were easy to spot: one bearing a Russian flag and the other, further away, looked like it was possibly Canadian.

A large bus waited for them at the edge of the tarmac to take them along the next leg of their journey.

Along the way, Pepper peeked at her fellow travellers, trying to get an idea for how many people knew why they were here. Based on the grim faces, she guessed quite a few, although everyone was looking at least a bit scared (she supposed this would be even scarier if she didn't know what was going on). To her surprise there were even a few children – the youngest looking about six or so.

She checked her phone for the umpteenth time, letting the hum of hushed conversations wash over her. Tony still hadn't responded.

She carefully slid the phone back into her purse, gritting her teeth as she tried to will her hands to stop trembling. She'd know the promise was empty the moment it had passed his lips, known that so long as the Earth was in danger and there was anything he could possibly do, he'd be out in his suit. She'd continue hoping until the end, but even as she'd packed his suitcase, she'd known this was a lifeboat Tony Stark wouldn't be on.

Damn the stupid, reckless son-of-a-bitch.

Just for that she'd give his vintage rock t-shirts to one of the teenagers she'd seen in the back... no, she'd give it to the mother of that six-year-old. Then she's watch vindictively as the kid got it all dirty: mud, spills, grubby muddy fingermarks, maybe even some crayon. That'd show him. Maybe she'd even go marry an alien – one from an advanced race that was several times smarter than Tony. He'd really hate that.

Pepper took a deep breath and wiped away the stray tear that was trying to fall. The numbness and shock were wearing off, but she refused to allow herself the luxury of falling apart just yet. If they were forced to evacuate, there would be plenty of time to despair later.

They hadn't lost yet. And Daniel, Steve and the others were still out there.

The buses took them past the first security checkpoint at Cheyenne Mountain and through a long tunnel, eerily lit with artificial lights every few feet. The noise in the bus got louder as the few people and kids who weren't entirely aware of what was going on, started getting antsy, and Pepper was surprised to realize how many foreign languages she suddenly recognized. Russian she'd expected based on the plane, but she also heard French, German and Italian among them. Thankfully, they were soon pulling into a parking lot, where they were all let off again.

Not being immediately surrounded by a military unit with guns seemed to do a lot to relieve the tension, and while there were soldiers with guns in their vicinity, the men and women approaching them to help carry luggage were obviously cadets.

“Excuse me everyone!” a voice called out and she turned along with the others to find the speaker, a well-built older man with salt-and-pepper hair. “Welcome to Cheyenne Mountain. I'm Colonel Louis Ferretti and I'm here to take you down into the base. To those of you who don't know what's going on, I promise General Landry will explain everything downstairs. Now if you'll just follow me, we have several security checkpoints to clear and we need to get through as quickly as possible so we can free up the elevators.”

There were two teenage boys – both looking somewhere around thirteen or fourteen years old – and they seemed to naturally gravitate towards each other in the melee that followed. She could hear them in the background comparing outrageous theories about what was going on. Not that anything was going to be more outrageous than the truth. She hid a smile as they walked into the large military complex and the boys both recognized the logo in the foyer as NORAD.

“Mommy, are we going to visit Uncle Mer?” asked a small voice directly behind her as the line inched its way towards the first security checkpoint.

Then the line stopped as the long line of elevators along the far wall were filled to capacity and sent on their way. So Pepper was able to glance back to see the six-year-old she'd noticed earlier looking up at a woman with wavy reddish-brown hair, curious and a little apprehensive. The woman smiled down at her.

“I don't know, honey,” the woman answered. “Maybe. And if we're not right away, we might be able to later.”

The little girl's eyes lit up with excitement. “Really? Uncle Mer said he works really far away and that's why he can't visit.” She paused and frowned as she thought about something deeply. “But mommy, if we're going to visit then we need to bring presents. Do we have presents, mommy?”

Pepper bit her lip. She noticed the little girl's mother doing the same.

“No, Madison, we didn't have time to get presents. We had to leave in a hurry, remember?”

Pepper hadn't even noticed the tall, dark-haired man standing just behind the two of them until he put a hand on the little girl's shoulder. Without turning, the little girl leaned her head back to look at him.

“Now you'll remember the first time Uncle Meredith came to visit he didn't bring any presents either,” the man – her father, Pepper assumed – said smoothly.

“Besides, he'll get to see you and that'll be the best present ever,” the woman added.

The little girl giggled. “Really?”

“Oh yes, Uncle Meredith will be absolutely thrilled to see you.”

“Oh, okay,” the little girl said, beaming happily, the sarcasm in her father's voice completely going over her head.

“Yes, he will be very happy to see you, honey,” said the woman, the tone of her voice indicating that she would not accept anything less than complete, unadulterated joy from this uncle at the sight of his niece. After a few moments she looked back up at her partner and smiled. “Although to be fair, I think we've all grown on him. In his last e-mail he was describing the new and improved mobile he'd built for Teyla's son and the plans he had for some toys he was going to build him for when he was a bit older. I think there might've even been a remote-controlled stroller involved so that she could take him with her when she went jogging.”

The man rolled his eyes. “If she doesn't watch out, it'll probably fly too,” he said under his breath.

Pepper decided then and there, that whoever this Uncle Mer was, she would do everything in her power to make sure he and Tony never met. And that was also when she realized that her apprehension had faded and the shaking she'd felt as she pushed down the panic, was gone.

The woman must've finally felt her gaze on them and looked up to meet Pepper's eyes. For a moment, she felt embarrassed for having intruded on a private, family moment, but she wasn't sorry. She smiled apologetically.

“I'm sorry to eavesdrop,” she said. “I honestly couldn't help myself. Everything's just so crazy right now and you were so... normal.”

Pepper faltered. She wasn't really sure she knew what had drawn her attention except that it had been something else to think about while she waited to find out whether or not the world was going to hell. The woman, however, seemed to understand what she was trying to say and smiled sympathetically.

“Sometimes a bit of normal helps,” she said and stepped forward, holding her hand out to Pepper. “I'm Jeannie Miller and this is my husband Caleb, and my daughter Madison.”

Pepper shook her hand. “Pepper Potts,” she said, relieved not to have to explain anything more in words.

Jeannie cocked her head. “Pepper? As in Tony's Pepper?”

Pepper blinked. “Um, yes. You know Tony?”

“I was up 'till three am my time helping him and Sam with a power conversion issue.”

“Oh. So, you're an engineer then?”

“No, I'm a stay-at-home mom.”

Pepper blinked again. Anyone who could help Tony with anything – not to mention Sam, because she could tell even over the phone that Tony considered Sam his equal and that didn't happen to just anyone either – wasn't someone ordinary.

“So being a genius is a hobby then?”

The woman burst into laughter. Caleb and Madison exchanged grins.

“A hobbyist genius?” Jeannie said. “I like that.”

And then the line was moving again. No longer skating the cold edge of panic, Pepper finally took a good look at the lobby and noticed the curious stares their group was getting from the NORAD personnel. Which meant they didn't know what was going on either. Or maybe this was just another oddity in a long list of strange things to pass through this lobby and down into the depths of the mountain.

She and the Millers were packed into separate elevators and when the elevator doors closed, the cadet at the controls pressed the button to the bottom floor.

Which still wasn't their final destination.

From the elevators they were lead past another security checkpoint, where two guards sitting at a desk verified their identities and checked them each off a list. Then they were lead down a long winding corridor that ended with a small, innocuous-looking door with a keypad and hand scanner. The soldier guarding it was dressed differently from the others they'd seen. He was wearing battle fatigues and a kevlar vest with a symbol she didn't recognize stitched onto his right shoulder, right above a British flag. She also didn't recognize the black device he was holding, except that he held it like a weapon. Or possibly a scanner, but she was betting on weapon.

Upon seeing them, the soldier unlocked the door and held it open while they passed through into a large warehouse. The cadet leading them brought them to the service elevator – probably to save time since there were so many of them, Pepper guessed.

She recognized Colonel Ferretti as the one manning the controls of this elevator. When their entire group had squeezed inside, he dismissed the cadets and closed the doors. And then the elevator went down. And down. And down.

“Holy shit, just how far down are we going?!” she heard one of the teenage boys say quietly.

“Travis, language!” a man admonished him, though she could tell his heart wasn't in it. Like her, he probably echoed the sentiment.

Finally, the elevator stopped and the panels at the front slid open to reveal a plain, drab corridor with guards stationed at either side of the door. Both were wearing the same uniforms as the one at the warehouse door, except the flags on their shoulders were American. These two were also armed with semi-automatic rifles in addition to the black devices.

Colonel Ferretti then led them into a large conference room. There were seats set up facing a podium in the front. The room was already quite packed, but Pepper spotted a long table laden with refreshments along the back wall and headed to the coffee pots, where a line-up had already formed. The coffee was terrible, of course, but not quite as bad as she'd expected. She was spoiled when it came to coffee: Tony insisted that Stark Industries only use high-quality beans in their employee cafeteria. Even the night watchmen were issued their own private stash of coffee from the company's shipment.

She found Jeannie sitting in one of the seats along the side, Madison sitting on her lap drinking chocolate milk from a bright pink twirly straw. Pepper wondered why the military had twirly straws on hand.

“So, how much do you know about this project?” Pepper asked her after she sat down.

Jeannie looked at her with sharp, assessing eyes for a moment, before shrugging. “My brother's been involved for years and some mathematical calculations I did in my spare time one evening ended up being related to something he was working on... so I was read in.” She paused. “I've been to visit him a few times, so I know quite a bit about his side of the project and he's told me stories, but there's a lot more going on I don't know much about at all.”

“You say 'visit him' as though that in and of itself means something...”

Jeannie smirked. “Oh, it does. Like Madison said earlier, Meredith lives very far away right now.”

“As in, on another planet?” Pepper asked, holding her breath for the answer. She knew Daniel had told the Avengers a lot more than she'd overheard, and probably hadn't told them nearly everything, but there was something exciting about the idea of people from Earth living on another planet.

“As in, in another galaxy.”

Pepper froze. Another galaxy. “The Ori are from another galaxy,” she whispered, remembering Daniel saying that.

Jeannie blinked. “Uh, yeah they are, but Mer's project has nothing to do with them. Trust me, I think we might have the better deal with the Ori as opposed to what Atlantis has been dealing with.”

“Did you just say–”

“Travis, what are you doing over there?!” a man's voice suddenly demanded loudly.

Pepper and Jeannie turned to watch a balding man with glasses making his way through the crowd towards the two teenagers, who had found a television in the corner of the room and were fiddling with the channels. One of them was turning towards the man with an annoyed look on his face.

“Gregory Patterson!” another man's voice said loudly. The other boy flinched.

“Jeannie?”

Pepper looked up to see Caleb handing his wife a coffee. She smiled at him gratefully.

“Thanks dear,” she said. He nodded and smiled back at her.

Pepper couldn't help but admire the man for his calm. It was his wife who was the one involved with the project, but he seemed content to silently support her. She tried to imagine Tony in his place and couldn't. Tony was a force of nature, never silent unless he was absorbed in a project. And then he had the things around him make that noise for him.

She didn't want to go to another planet without that force of nature.

She turned away from happy family and looked back where the teenagers were trying to explain to their respective fathers that they'd just wanted to find out who'd won the Red Sox game. Pepper couldn't help but shake her head at their priorities.

“Travis, trust me, right now it really doesn't matter who won the damn game, now turn it off!”

The boy grumbled something under his breath, but turned around to turn the TV off anyway. As he shuffled to the side, Pepper caught a glimpse of the screen. She froze, her eyes widening. Behind her, she heard Jeannie gasp.

“Oh my god.”

Pepper looked back to watch as Jeannie scooped up her daughter in one arm, holding her coffee cup in the other as she began to push through the crowd. Pepper immediately got up to follow.

“No, wait!” she called out to the teenagers and their parents (and woman had now joined the second man by the teen named Gregory). “Turn it back on!”

The two teenage boys looked confused. “Why?” Travis asked. “There's just some stupid sci-fi show on there right now.”

He exchanged a bewildered look with his father, who shrugged and nodded at him. The boy leaned down and turned the television back on. A familiar picture took its place, complete with an even more familiar logo.

“That's not a sci-fi show,” Pepper found herself saying numbly, recognizing the anchors immediately. “That's the NBC.”

“And that,” said Jeannie, pointing with her coffee cup to one of the smaller ships that was flying around the giant Ori war ships, “is the USS Apollo.”

Suddenly, they could see what looked like a build-up of blue energy and another ship appeared.

“Is this in real-time?” Pepper asked.

“I don't know,” Jeannie answered.

The two teenagers were staring at them – actually, when Pepper looked around, she realized they'd drawn a considerable amount of attention. She looked towards the door and saw Colonel Ferretti frowning at them. He pushed himself away from the wall and made his way towards them.

“Everything alright here?” he asked when he'd reached them.

Jeannie glanced at him and then motioned towards the TV with a quirk of her head. “Does General Landry know about this?”

He blinked and looked to the screen. His double-take was almost comical and his eyes widened as he took in what he was seeing. He said something under his breath that Pepper didn't understand, but caught the meaning of very clearly.

“Was that Goa'uld?” Jeannie asked him, sounding amused.

He winced. “Sorry, occupational hazard, ma'am.”

“No, that's fine. I just don't think I've heard that one from Sam before.”

Colonel Ferretti narrowed his eyes at her. “I believe I missed your name, ma'am.”

“No, you didn't ask.” She raised an eyebrow at him. In her arms, Madison was looking between her mom and the US air force Colonel with a worried look on her face. “I'm Jeannie Miller, Doctor McKay's sister.”

Understanding crossed the man's face just before his eyes turned wary. Pepper once again wondered about this mysterious Uncle Mer: Doctor Meredith McKay. She didn't think the name sounded familiar. Maybe Tony would know it. If he ever got here.

“It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs Miller,” said the Colonel politely. Then the General stormed into the room and he turned around to call to him: “Hey, General, have you seen the, uh, NBC broadcast, sir?”

The General was an older man (as all generals inevitably were) with greying black hair, bushy eyebrows and a no-nonsense air about him. His eyes narrowed at the question and he changed his course to march directly towards them, a path clearing in front of him without him needing to ask.

“Yes, Colonel, I've heard about the broadcast,” the man said tersely when he reached them. His eyes were hard, anger burning within them like a loaded cannon waiting to be fired. And he aimed them directly at Pepper. “Ms Potts, did you know about this?”

Pepper raised an unimpressed eyebrow at him and smiled. It was her business smile, the smile that made Tony pause and try to remember what he'd done this time.

“General Landry, what exactly makes you think I know anything about this?” She was curious. Did this have something to do with Tony or Daniel, or was he guessing?

General Landry gestured towards the screen. “Because the footage is being provided by Stark Industries satellites.”

Pepper blinked and looked back to the television screen. Sure enough, in the top right-hand corner there was a watermarked SI logo. Bruce and Cassie had been busy apparently. And Christine Everhart, of course, Pepper reminded herself as the scene shifted and the woman herself appeared on-screen. She wished she could hear what was being said.

She turned back to the General, the small, confident smile back on her face. She'd faced down businessmen, military brass, politicians and evil villains. This man wasn't going to come even close to riling her.

“Did I know Bruce and JARVIS had found that little program you'd put into our satellites' programming to disrupt the video feed?” she started, because he expected her to defend herself and the best defence had always been a good offence. “Oh yes, I was there when Doctor Foster phoned Bruce about that. Did I know about the alien spaceships they saw on the live feed? Of course. I have eyes; I can see them there. Did I know they were going to take that footage and hand it over to Christine Everhart, who happened to be in the tower, to take to the NBC? No, I was probably on the plane when they did that.”

She took a sip of her coffee, letting the silence linger for a moment.

“But don't mistake me, General, I'm not condemning them. You and your superiors have put this entire planet at risk because of your own fear. I'm not going to pretend to know everything that's going on in this project, but you've been lying to the world for a long time. After so much secrecy and so many lies, how is anyone supposed to believe the truth you finally decide to spin out into the world? Especially after everything that's just happened with SHIELD?”

She smirked, noticing the twitch of his eyebrows that told her that beneath his impassive expression, this big important man was starting to sweat.

“You're lucky I met Daniel Jackson before I heard about any of this – and, more to the point, heard about him. I know General Ross and I can imagine the sorts of favours Daniel would've had to call in when he went up against him in military court. And, yes, he did it for his niece, but he also did it to right an injustice, to exonerate a man he barely knew. For that reason, I'm willing to give his project the benefit of the doubt. But if you want to stop the lynch mobs, you're going to have to start telling the truth.”

General Landry was silent for a very long moment. “I'll take that under consideration Ms Potts, but it's not my call to make. You've worked with the air force before, you should know how that works.”

“Oh, I do General. But most people won't. They'll just see–”

“Holy shit!” Colonel Ferretti suddenly exclaimed. “Kid, turn the volume up on that TV!”

Travis fumbled with the remote in his hand and suddenly the volume rose. Pepper blinked at the image that had appeared at the bottom right hand corner of the screen. It wasn't the whole interview, just clips and snippets of speech cut and pasted together with Christine's narrative.

“My name is Cassandra Fraiser and, other than the presence of trace elements of a metal called naquadah in my blood, I'm genetically one hundred percent human. And I was born on another planet.”

Pepper imagined she could feel the entire room take a deep breath.

“Who is that girl?” General Landry demanded quietly.

“Cassie, Doc Fraiser's kid,” Colonel Ferretti replied. “SG1 found her and brought her back through the gate... We buried the reports, her existence, and Carter created a bullet-proof identity for her.”

“What? Why would you do that? Did General Hammond–”

“–He ordered it, sir. To keep her safe and out of any potential dissecting hands.”

“Right now, there's an alien armada on its way to Earth. Their technology is of a level we can't even begin to match. And my uncle, Doctor Daniel Jackson, is out there with Captain America and several of the Avengers risking his life to find that one miracle that could save this planet.”

“Well, she's certain done everything she can to undo all your hard work,” said the General. “Who'll be able to protect her now that all those 'potential dissecting hands' know about her?”

“The Hulk,” said Pepper and smiled slightly. “Apparently your Doctor Jackson has a gift for making unusual friends.”

Colonel Ferretti snorted. “You don't know the half of it,” he said. “His biography's gonna make millions one day and every single person who reads it, is gonna wonder how much of it's been exaggerated. And the thing is that none of it will be. I was there for that first trip and that's the sort of shit pulp science fiction movies are made of, pardon my French.”

Then he nodded to the screen. “She's wrong by the way,” he said casually before winking at the two boys. “We're totally a match for the Ori.”

General Landry glared at him. “Colonel,” he growled.

“Sorry sir.”

General Landry turned to address the room. “I'm afraid I don't have a lot of time, but I will attempt to give you a short background on what's going on. Before I do, please be assured that we have our best people doing everything in their power to defend this planet.”

“That's really great, General,” a voice from the back called out. “But we're not soldiers. So why exactly are we here?”

The General's face turned impossibly grimmer. “You're here in case we fail.”

Chapter Text


 

SPARK

“Colonel Carter, General Wellesley, one of the relays just blew. I repeat, the Time Dilation Field is no longer active.”

Tony took a deep breath. Everything that could've gone wrong with the project, had gone wrong. Well, except that it hadn't actually blown up. That would've sucked. Also, probably killed them all, so on the whole Tony was really glad that not everything had actually gone wrong. First there was the energy transference problem, which they solved thanks to super math-mom, and now the vibranium, which never reacted to anything ever – except apparently for strange alien devices. That he at least knew how to solve with a bit more time. Time they were going to get by using the palladium core.

Now here they were, at the Zero Hour – or Zero Hour plus two bonus hours if you wanted to be technical about it – and he and Siler had just finished placing the core and he was inspecting the arc reactor one, last time.

“This is Wellesley. Thank you, Captain. Colonel Carter, you have a go.”

Tony looked up and met Sam's questioning eyes. Tony nodded. The reactor was functioning normally. They were as ready as they were going to be. He picked up his datapad to monitor the read-outs more closely. Behind him, Sam tapped her comm.

“Carter here. Preparing to bring the Phase-shift Device on-line in three... two... one... now!”

Tony watched the numbers. There was a slight spike when the Phase-shift Device turned on, but otherwise they remained steady. He looked up and grinned at Siler. The engineer didn't grin back, but the look on his face was definitely pleased.

“We're golden,” he called out over his shoulder to Sam. She glanced up to him and he could tell she was trying very hard not to grin as she and Doctor Lee looked over the read-outs in front of them.

“Device is operating within normal parameters, the energy flow is stable and the pocket dimension has extended to its projected size, encompassing all objects in geosynchronous orbit.”

“Excellent work, Colonel Carter, Mister Stark. How long do you expect the palladium core to last?”

Tony looked down at his datapad. “I'm thinking about an hour and twenty-ish minutes,” he said.

Sam nodded and told the General.

“Very good. I'll inform Stargate Command. Wellesley out.”

Sam tapped off her comm. Then her face split into a grin. “Well, we did it.”

“Now we just need to do it again,” said Doctor Lee with a slight frown.

Tony rolled his eyes. “God, you're such a party-pooper. Enjoy the moment, Lee. We've managed to keep the world safe for another hour and a half.”

“I thought you said it was an hour and twenty minutes?” said Sam with a raised eyebrow. She looked amused though.

He waved her off. “Whatever. It's not like it'll take us even half that time to rig up the stronger casing, right Siler?”

“Yes, sir. Shouldn't take us more than half an hour, ma'am.”

“In that case, I'll get someone to bring us dinner from the mess. We're not likely to have time to eat later.”

 


 

“Sir, the Ori warship has been destroyed,” Lieutenant Weissman announced to the bridge.

It would've been the perfect moment for cheering, except that it wasn't. One down, thought Colonel Ellis, watching the screen as the Apollo flew past the explosion, veering out of the way of shooting debris. Farther away, he caught a glimpse of the Sun Tze flying past the Ori ships, plasma beams shooting out like deadly disco lights.

“Sir, we're being targeted!”

“Captain–“

“–On it, sir.”

“Cavendish, pick a target and fire at will!”

“Yes sir!”

He watched as Major Erika Cavendish's hands settled over the controls. Rumour had it she'd prepared for her post by spending two weeks of leave in Nevada playing space shooters until she could out-shoot her brother and all his gamer friends, breaking records they hadn't known could be broken. Now the blonde's pretty blue eyes were sniper-focused and fierce in a way that gave Ellis chills even after having her under his command for months. She paused for a few seconds and then her fingers exploded with movement.

Two plasma beams shot out towards the Ori ship they were approaching. The ship pulled forward, but the beams connected.

“Direct hit to the Ori ship's aft thrusters,” said Weissman even as another plasma beam was fired at the ship. “Their shields are holding.”

Suddenly, the Apollo veered to the left. A moment later, it shook from an impact and Cavendish's shot went a little off-course.

“Sir, direct hit along the port-side; shields are holding.”

“Ori ship's shields are down, sir!”

Just as Ellis was about to order them to turn the ship around to make another pass, the Apollo shook again, and this time he had to grab hold of the armrest to keep himself from flying off his chair.

“Sir, the hyperdrive engine's been hit! Shields down to sixty percent.”

“The Sun Tze's has destroyed one of the Ori ships, sir.”

Ellis' mind flew through his options. “Deploy the F-302's. Tell them to keep the disabled ship busy, do as much damage as they can until until we can get back to their location. Captain, turn us about and let's face this tail. Major, as soon as you have a clear shot, take it”

“Yes sir.”

He felt the ship's sub-light engines fire up as they spun them around. The Apollo was already firing at the Ori ship before it showed on the viewscreen. Unfortunately, this particular Ori ship seemed to have a talented pilot at its helm and the warship narrowly avoided getting hit by the first two plasma beams. The third shot hit them square into the curve of their massive bow.

Unfortunately, the Ori ship fired at them at exactly the same time. The Apollo dipped down, but not quite quickly enough and Colonel Ellis' teeth rattled at the impact. The shields were weakening.

“Shields down to forty percent, sir!”

He tapped his comm. “Engineering, this is Ellis: can you do anything about the shields?”

There was a slight pause. “Colonel, this is Michaels, we're re-routing power from minor systems and the lower decks. I should be able to get us back to sixty percent in a few minutes. If you could just do me a favour, sir, and stop taking hits?”

Ellis snorted. “We'll do our best if you do yours. Ellis out.”

“Sir,” said Lieutenant Beauchamps at communications. “We've received a message from Stargate Command. They're initiating the Phase-shift Device.”

“Acknowledged.”

“Sir, we're showing five hyperspace windows opening just outside the Solar System, same entry point as the Ori warships!”

His eyes snapped to Major Levi, who was manning the long range sensors. “Are they Ori?”

Levi's eyes never left the screen. “One moment, sir...” Then he looked up. “Yes, sir, they're definitely Ori. And they're approaching at full sub-light speed. In firing range in about two minutes, sir.”

Ellis took a deep breath. Unlike the first wave of ships, these guys weren't going to take their time. And their backup hadn't arrived yet. Damn.

“Well, it's not like we weren't expecting them,” he said with more confidence than he felt. “Cavendish, finish this one off quickly. Weissman, how's the crippled ship?”

“They've deployed one-manned fighters to combat the F-302s, sir,” came the immediate reply. “The ship has restored minimal shielding, but our squadron managed to take out their manoeuvring thrusters before that happened.”

“Sir, shields are back up to fifty-eight percent.”

Which was just in time as the ship was rocked by another impact. He watched as the Apollo sailed up and above the Ori ship: Cavendish caught the ship in a two-blast volley.

“Ori shields are down, sir!”

At which point a final plasma blast hit it right into the centre of the large swirling blue power supply. The containment field around it shattered.

“Captain, sub-light at full!” Ellis cried. “Get us out of the blast zone!”

“Yes, sir!”

He felt the momentary hum of the ship's engine firing up and then they flying away from the explosion. The Apollo did a wide arc to bring them back towards the main fight, far enough away to avoid being hit by the large pieces of debris that were flung from the exploding warship. Smaller debris peppered against the shield, but Ellis knew the impacts weren't a problem.

“Sir, hyperspace windows opening–“

“–Oh shit!”

Ellis' didn't snap at the Captain for his language, too busy staring at the blue tendrils of an opening hyperspace window that were right in front of them. Suddenly, the Apollo veered sharply to the side and the view screen spun. When it stopped spinning, Ellis forced himself to relax his grip on the edge of his armrests and glanced to his pilot.

“That was some fancy flying there, Captain Cross,” he said, still feeling a bit shaken. “And I appreciate not going out in the most dumb-ass case of bad timing ever, but next time, leave the loop de loops for the F-302s. I'm pretty sure this ship's not meant to move like that.”

“Er, yes sir,” said the red-haired Captain, his face pale. “Sorry sir.”

“Sir, the Odyssey and the Iliya Muromet have just dropped out of hyperspace.”

Ellis let out a small sigh of relief. “About damn time. Captain, bring us about.”

The Apollo came about and flew at the Ori fleet. Outside he could see the Odyssey flying ahead, guns blazing, towards the nearest Ori ship. The Iliya Muromet, meanwhile was flying towards the ship the Apollo had crippled earlier. The crippled ship managed to avoid the first plasma blast by the skin of its proverbial teeth and shot back with one of its own cannons, which hit the Muromet's shields.

“Sir, one of the Ori ships is moving to intercept.”

“Cavendish, get those trigger fingers ready. On my mark.”

“Yes, sir.”

His eyes narrowed as he watched the white behemoth – could almost imagine the sun's reflection from the golden trim as a malicious gleam in its eye – as it came towards them smirking, confident of its victory. Ellis knew they were the underdog in this battle, but goddammit they weren't going to lose. They couldn't afford to.

Although... why had this ship suddenly decided to break its formation? Ori ships almost never broke formation.

“Levi, what are the other Ori ships doing?”

There was a pause and then a panicked: “Sir, two of the warships are firing up their sub-light engines! They're on a course directly for Earth.”

“Dammit! Captain, manoeuvre us around to intercept them!”

“Yes, sir!”

Easier said than done, Ellis realized, because he doubted the ship heading for them was going to let them do that. Sure enough, the Apollo turned to move around the Ori ship and the ship matched them.

“Sir, I'm reading a build-up of energy at the centre of their bow,” said Weissman.

That wasn't good. “Cavendish, target that area. Beaton, divert everything you can to the shields.”

Two 'yes sirs' rang through the bridge and moments later, he watched as two plasma beams shot out at the Ori ship. The first one hit it directly and the second skimmed its shield as the Ori warship turned to follow the Apollo's course. He could see the energy build-up now: a swirling mass of golden sparks that should've looked beautiful. It was beautiful. And it filled him with dread.

Energy shot along the sides of the Ori ship and then it was coming for them.

“Evasive–“ was all he had time to call out before the massive forward beam that only SG1 had survived to tell the tale about, hit.

The ship rattled like a dinghy riding the wave of a tsunami. He was sent flying from his chair and hit the metal deck, left shoulder exploding in pain. If he cried out, it was drowned by the all-encompassing noise that rattled, crashed and screamed around him. Consoles on either side of him exploded into flames, sending sparks flying across his vision. People screamed. Metal screeched.

And then the shaking stopped and there was silence.

Ellis lay on the ground panting for a moment. Then he dragged himself to his unsteady feet. The bridge was devastated. There were several small fires and part of the ceiling had given way at the front, exposing metal beams and wires. One of the beams had fallen directly into the weapons system's controls. All he could see of Cavendish, was one hand hanging limply from her chair.

He tapped his comm. “Medical team to the bridge,” he said hoarsely. He cleared his throat and stumbled his way to his chair, hissing at the spikes of pain shooting up from his shoulder.

“Status report!” he barked, his voice a muffled echo across the bridge. He watched as his crew shook off their shock and got to work assessing the damage to their systems.

“Shields are down, sir.”

“Short-range sensors are down, sir.”

“Sir, they hit us along the front starboard side,” Sergeant Beaton reported from the engineering console. “Front starboard thrusters are nonoperational and the blast took out the hull on decks 14-20, which have been sealed off. We're also venting atmosphere on decks 13-11.”

Ellis took a deep breath. Yup, they were in trouble. “Any good news?” he asked.

“We're still here, sir,” said Beaton.

“And that's nothing to sneeze at, Sergeant. The question is for how long. What's that Ori ship doing?”

“Long-range sensors are a bit distorted, but they're working,” came the report from Major Levi. “I think it's being engaged by one another ships.”

“See if you can clear them up,” he immediately answered. “I want to know what's going on.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sir, we're being hailed by the Iliya Muromet.” He nodded to the Lieutenant to take the hail. Unfortunately, while Colonel Ivanna Petrovska was a talented commander, her English was only marginally better than Ellis' Russian. Thankfully, Lieutenant Beauchamps spoke fluent Russian. After a few moments, the Lieutenant turned back to him. “Sir, Colonel Petrovska says to get out of the fray. The Iliya Muromet is engaging the Ori ship.”

Ellis nodded. That explained why they hadn't been finished off yet. He knew Carter had theorized that the warships needed some time to recharge their 'forward lance beam' (he was fairly certain that name was Mitchell's fault), but any sensor data that had been gathered during that initial confrontation by the supergate had been lost along with all the ships that had encountered the weapon. The only reason they knew about it at all was because SG1 had managed to survive.

Through the view window, he watched as F-302s flew around his ship, keeping the Ori's fighters away from the Apollo. The shape they were in, even the one-manned fighters were a threat.

“Alright then, Sergeant, tell Petrovska we thank her for her help. And make sure she knows that two of the Ori ships are on a course for Earth. Captain, get us out of the way.”

“Sir, Colonel Petrovska says the Odyssey has already engaged the Ori ships on their way to Earth.”

“Good.” He tapped his comm as he felt the ship move. It was sluggish and the view out of the window a bit lop-sided, but she was moving. “Engineering, this is Ellis. How long until we have shields again?”

 


 

Cassie gasped and grabbed Bruce's arm tightly when the Ori ship heading for the American one shot what looked like a massive laser beam. She couldn't hear anything, of course, but years of sci-fi had provided her with enough sound effects to accompany the impact as it tore into the smaller ship. Pieces of the ship's hull went flying.

When the debris settled, the ship looked crippled, half-dead as it hung limply in space. It had always been grey, but now the grey looked dull, the angle of the satellite capturing snatches of corridor exposed to open space. She felt her eyes tearing even as she tried not to wonder how many people that instant exposure had just killed.

Her eyes flew to the Ori ship as it finished its turn towards the smaller one.

And then one of the newly-arrived Earth ships flew just above it, shooting a beam of light at it from its opposite side. It flew around the Ori warship, an obvious ploy to divert warship's attention from its wounded comrade.

“JARVIS, did you see that?” Bruce suddenly demanded. “Can you get a close up?”

“One moment, Doctor Banner. I don't believe that will be a problem.”

The holo-projection on the left continued to show the satellite footage, while the one on the right was paused and rewound to show the new ship flying by. It zoomed in and the pixels adjusted. Cassie's eyes widened.

“That's a Russian flag,” she said softly. “I knew Daniel said he'd been working with the Russians, and he'd been to Moscow and Siberia a few times for talks and such, but this...”

“This is a bit more than just talks,” said Bruce. “JARVIS, send the enhanced image to the NBC studio.”

“Of course, Doctor Banner.”

Cassie had been steadfastly ignoring the NBC newscast as they began playing audio clips from her interview with Christine. It wasn't the whole interview – there wasn't time for that and most of it had nothing to do with the Ori attack anyway.

Then she saw two Ori battleships pull out from between the gap in their formation and head towards the satellite. Smaller white fighters buzzed around them like a swarm of flies, but the Earth fighters were tenacious and clearly giving them a run for their money. It was easy to see that even though the Ori fighters out-numbered them, the Earth fighters had much better pilots.

And then a third Earth ship was there, flying at the two Ori ships that were breaking away from the side, guns blazing at the closest one. The ships changed course to get into a better firing position. The closest one fired first, but the Earth ship's shields easily absorbed the impact.

“Bruce, Cassie, we got a close up of the other ship!”

They both turned to the open Skype window they had with Jane and her group.

“Yeah, so did we,” said Cassie. “It's Russian.”

“Huh, what? No it's not, it's Chinese.”

Bruce and Cassie looked at each other.

“Are we talking about the same ship?” Bruce asked. “We got a close-up of the one that just went to the rescue of that American ship.”

“Rescue? Which... oh, okay... oh wow, that looks really bad. No, we meant the other one from the original two that were here. It's got a Chinese flag on its side. Darcy's sending the image to Christine. Oh, and apparently, the BBC's newscast team should be here in a bit, so we're going to be surrounded by weird British people soon.”

They heard a soft snort from somewhere in the background.

“I hate to break it to you, luv, but I'm afraid you're surrounded by weird British people. Well, except for Sajan and Muka; they're foreign. Oh, and Mac: he's Scottish.”

There was laughter in the background. Followed by a loud “Hang on, I'm Canadian!”

“Well, that's almost English.”

“What? I was 'almost American' last week!”

“Then make up your bloody mind!”

Cassie rolled her eyes, glad that at least someone was managing to keep from panicking. She looked back to the ships on screen. Both Ori ships were converging on the Earth ship, moving to try and get it between them. She narrowed her eyes, wondering if they'd come out like that on purpose.

 


 

Times Square was uncharacteristically silent. Cars had stopped, and many of their drivers gotten out to stare at the NBC New York broadcast. Far away, horns honked repeatedly – probably people who didn't listen to the radio and therefore had no idea what was going on.

“This just in from the University College London and Stark Tower, we have close-up images from two of the Earth ships.”

Two images overlaid the satellite image of the space battle they'd been watching. One was slight blurrier than the other, but it was still clear enough for anyone with eyes to know what they were looking at. Two flags: one Chinese and one Russian.

The Asset stared up at the screen. Russia. He knew the flag; it meant something to him. Images of uniforms bearing that flag raced across his mind... his mind shrank away from the images, away from the cold fear that made him break out into a sweat.

He'd been to Russia, the Asset knew, and he didn't want to go back. The 'why' wasn't important. He just knew. Just like he knew he was James Buchanan Barnes – Bucky, Captain America had called him. He was Bucky. He didn't know what that meant; the name was nothing but a few snatches of memory and half-remembered dreams. And Captain America, the great hero of the American People, was Cap, or mostly Steve. Except that sometimes in his dreams Steve was small and scrawny and needed the Asset – needed Bucky – to protect him.

The Asset was used to not questioning things. Orders were orders. He knew Steve was not the enemy, he was... where pain didn't happen. He was someone to protect. The Asset knew this deep in a place he hadn't remembered was there until his world had fallen apart with the sounds of explosions and screeching metal, and the words ''till the end of the line'.

Like he'd known that New York wasn't just a place to go to: it was a place to go back to.

But the lady on the screen said that Captain America wasn't here. She said he was away helping a doctor (the Asset frowned; he hated doctors) save the world. She also said the information was coming from Stark Tower. Stark... that name also sounded familiar. Maybe the people there would know where Steve was.

Inexplicably, part of the Asset didn't want to turn away from the screen. He found himself staring up at the large billboard video screen and there was a very odd feeling inside him. Eventually, he forced himself to turn away and begin his walk towards Stark Tower.

 


 

Colonel Jiang Li grit his teeth as he stubbornly held onto his chair with his right arm. His left arm hung limply at his side, pain shooting up with every motion, every jolt, but he refused to be given anything that would dampen his mind. He'd served for many years, more years than many of the fresh faces on his crew had been alive for. Pain he could deal with. A mind clouded from medicines made mistakes.

Around him, the ship shook with another impact and he couldn't help the sharp cry of pain that escaped his lips. Bright spots danced around his eyes and he wondered if perhaps the medicines would've been a wise choice after all.

“Sir, we've lost containment on levels eight and nine,” the thin Sergeant to his right said. Jiang thought of him as the City Boy, the one from Beijing with nimble fingers that played the violin. “Shields at fourteen percent.”

Fourteen was an unlucky number.

“Weapons are down, sir,” Lieutenant Xiu announced.

Jiang Li had been born the son of a navy captain, but where his father had once said he looked at the ocean and saw nothing but endless possibilities, Jiang had looked up to the sky and saw freedom. For as long as he could remember, he'd wanted to touch the clouds. Below, on the ground, life would always find yolks to burden men with – it was what it did and there was no point in arguing – but up in the sky, only the elements held control.

And so he'd joined the air force. And he flew.

And then one day they'd told him he could not only fly among the clouds, but beyond them to the stars. He could not believe it: that was a dream beyond a dream, saved only for those few truly reflexive moments he had to himself while stationed in places where the night sky wasn't covered up by ugly smog. They'd given him the Sun Tze and he knew that he would never again feel such an honour. The first time he'd seen the beautiful, gleaming ship, he'd vowed that he would never disgrace this honour.

And the ship had spoken to him: I will fight with you and together we will protect that which is important.

The Sun Tze shook with another impact. Behind him, he heard an explosion and then a terrible scream of pain.

“Shields are down!”

It seemed the dream had come to an end.

In the distance, he saw two Ori ships slipping ahead of the others, heading towards Earth. The planet was now hidden away inside a pocket dimension, but it was still there. It could still see. And the field would not hold forever.

The Odyssey flew in and its plasma beam tore through space towards the first ship as it planted itself directly in their way. Jiang knew the Odyssey could not help the Sun Tze and he refused to die uselessly. He thought of his wife and his son, who were even now preparing for his son's wedding.

The engines seemed to be the only things that were still working, he thought grimly as his pilot – and the only woman on the Sun Tze's bridge crew – narrowly managed to avoid the next hit.

He tapped his comm. “This is Colonel Jiang Li to all personnel,” he said loudly, in a voice that refused to falter. “You have all shown great honour and fought bravely, but now we have only one course open to us. It has been an honour to serve with each of you. Prepare to abandon ship! I repeat, follow evacuation procedures and abandon ship!”

Outside the bridge, he heard suddenly shouts and clanking footsteps. The bridge crew didn't move.

“Colonel Li, this is engineering. We stand by for your orders. What do you want us to do?”

Jiang let out a soft breath. Yes, the crew had been chosen well. He hoped that one day, their families would learn of the honour and bravery they had shown today. And if not, then they all at least left this world knowing they had died well and that would have to be enough. He thought of his family one, last time.

“Reroute all available power to the sub-light engines and set the core to overload,” he commanded. Then he met the brave, yet terrified eyes of his crew. “Major, set a collision course.”

 


 

Cassie gasped as she watched the Chinese ship collide with the giant Ori warship. Moments later, her eyes widened as a second explosion tore them both apart. Giant fragments of the ships flew in all directions. An especially large chunk from the front of the Ori's hull careened towards the three ships locked in battle further away. It clipped the back of the American ship and hit the side of one of the two Ori ships. Cassie saw a brief flicker of light as the Ori shields caught the impact, but it left behind a burned, darkened mark on the ship's hull.

The Skype window had gone silent.

“How many people do you suppose were on board?” Bruce asked softly.

“I have no idea.”

“At a guess you could probably fit a crew of about one hundred and fifty aboard those things,” said a voice behind them.

They glanced to the doorway, where Maria Hill and Happy Hogan stood staring at the holo-screens. Bruce gestured them closer and both came to stand next to them. Cassie could feel their eyes scan her curiously. She was going to have to get used to that, she supposed.

“They died well, my friends,” came the distant rumble of Thor's voice over Skype. “For their honour and courage, may their souls be welcomed within the hallowed walls of Valhalla.”

Cassie's eyes flickered to the NBC broadcast, where the newscasters were looking as stunned as she felt, as though their words had suddenly abandoned them. And really, what could they possibly say to this? Finally, they managed to pull themselves together. Chuck Scarborough was the first to turn back to look at the camera.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, to those of you just tuning in, we're watching a real-life battle taking place within the Solar System using Stark Industries satellites. And what you've just seen looks like a last-resort kamakazi run by a ship we've identified as flying under the flag of the People's Republic of China. We have no idea how many people were aboard the ship, or even its name, but whoever they were we know they died bravely, protecting our planet with their last breath. May they rest in peace.”

“Yes, may they rest in peace. You know, Chuck, I can't help but be amazed at the very thought that those flags are even together. I mean, the Cold War might've ended decades ago, but I certainly never thought I'd see the day when I would report on a joint, well, attack force flying US, Russian and Chinese flags simultaneously.”

“You're right, Sibila, I guess that's pretty incredible all things considered. Christine, do you have anything to add– hang on...”

Chuck Scarborough, put a hand to his ear, to show that he was listening to something over his earpiece. Suddenly, his eyes widened and he looked up to his co-newscasters.

“Sorry, it seems we have a call coming in from a General Jack O'Neill from, apparently, Homeworld Security. Go ahead, General, you're on-air.”

Cassie's eyes widened. Beside her, Maria Hill frowned. “General Jack O'Neill, isn't he...?”

“About time,” groused a very familiar voice. “Look, I have an ETA of seven minutes to my destination and I can give you six of them. We're all a bit busy to give statements at the moment, because of the, well, the big-ass alien spaceships attacking the planet. They're a bit of a priority you understand.”

“Yes, we understand General, thank you for taking a few minutes to talk to us. Now, you actually called us. Why?”

“Because the secret's out and since everyone who's not living under a rock probably knows about the attempted invasion by now, I wanted to come out and officially assure everyone that we've got the best minds in the world working on this. Have had the best minds in the world working on this for years, in fact.”

“General O'Neill, this is Sibila Vargas. How exactly did the US come across the technology to travel to other planets?”

There was a chuckle. “You need a lot more than five minutes to tell that story, Sibila. Let's just say we've had the technology for years, but it took one extremely brilliant young man to figure out how to use it.”

“Would this man be Doctor Daniel Jackson?” Christine Everhart piped in for the first time.

“For now, that's still classified, Ms Everhart.”

“Then what can you tell us, General?”

“I can tell you that ship that was just destroyed was called the Sun Tze and the Russian ship is the Iliya Muromet. You understand I can't give you the names of our allies' personnel without their approval. However, American ship number one is the Apollo, commanded by Colonel Abraham Ellis, and number two would be the Odyssey, commanded by Colonel Davidson – both of the USAF. And they're not Earth's only line of defence. As of, oh twenty minutes ago or so, the geeks at Area 51 have successfully activated what they call a Dimensional Phase-shift Device, which in a nutshell means we're now in our own private little bubble dimension. It's temporary, but it means that right now those ships out there can't see us or touch us even though we can still see them.”

“Wow, that's... extraordinary.”

“Wait, General, does this mean you're confirming the existence of Area 51?”

“Huh? Oh yeah, sure. And for the record, there are no preserved alien bodies being kept there. Seriously, I don't know where that rumour came from and it's just creepy.”

“Good to know you think so, General. Tell me, what exactly is Homeworld Security?”

“Homeworld Security is pretty much exactly what is sounds like. It's a department dedicated to overseeing the security of the world from extraterrestrial threats. Aaand my pilot is giving me 'we have reached our destination' signals, so I've gotta go.”

“Wait, just one last question General: would you say you have the situation under control?”

“Sibila, we won't have anything under control until it's over. And believe me, there's not a single person working here believes losing is an option. Like the crew of the Sun Tze, we're all ready to our lives to keep this planet safe. We've also got a few tricks up our sleeves you and the Ori haven't seen yet.”

There was a pause.

“Okay, I've got one more thing to add: the ship that's about to launch, new and shiny from the shipyard, is called the USS Phoenix. This is her maiden voyage, so wish her luck.”

“Thank you for the statement, General. And good luck.”

“Thanks.”

“So... was that your uncle Jack?” Bruce asked after a moment's pause.

Cassie nodded. “Yeah, that was him.”

“I think I've met him,” said Maria Hill with a frown. “Lean, short grey hair and dead-pan sarcasm?”

Cassie couldn't help but snicker at the description. “Yeah, that's Uncle Jack.” Suddenly, her cellphone rang. She took it out a grimaced at the call display. “And so is this.”

She took a deep breath and answered the phone. “Hi, Uncle Jack, how's it going?”

“You are in a lot of trouble, young lady.”

Cassie winced at the growl in his voice. “Not legally,” she tried. “I never signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement, you know.”

“Well, we were sort of under the impression that you would be smart enough to understand the importance of keeping your personal history secret. If only to make sure you didn't end up as someone's science experiment.”

Cassie paled. That hadn't even occurred to her. “I... I was trying to protect Uncle Daniel. He broke confidentiality when he told the Avengers and I know you've all said he has enemies and they could've had him executed! I couldn't let that happen!”

There was another pause followed by a deep, heartfelt sign and Cassie imagined Uncle Jack running a hand over his face.

“Cassie, do you really think we would've let that happen?” Jack demanded quietly, a scant tremble of anger audible in his voice. “That I would've let that happen? Yeah, Daniel's got enemies – some of them powerful – but executing Daniel? Seriously? Not gonna happen. We'd probably exile him before we'd execute him and that'd only be a problem for him for the two minutes it took him to dial Dakara. Or the Land of Light, or one of the other dozens of planets in the galaxy full of people who owe him one.

We have too many allies who would be downright furious at us and we can't afford to piss off the Jaffa or the Tok'ra. I mean, as much as I hate those snakes, they've been feeding us info on Ori movements: it's how we're ready for them as much as we are in the first place. And Teal'c might be our friend, but don't fool yourself, he'd turn his back on us in a microsecond if we did something that he deemed dishonourable.”

Cassie closed her eyes, fighting off tears. She thought she'd been doing the right thing: had she made it worse instead?

“The truth was going to come out anyway when the satellites went out,” she whispered desperately.

Jack snorted. “Do you have any idea how many times we've used excuses that shouldn't possibly have worked and no one noticed? Hell, we have projects outsourced to a whole bunch of different places and only a few have ever thought to wonder where the hell we're gettin' the blueprints or research for them.”

She blinked. “You're out-sourcing projects? How are you–“

“Not the point. The point is that you wanted to help Daniel. I get it, I really do, but you don't know most of the story. In fact you don't know the biggest part of the story.”

“I was just trying to help! It's not like I can fight or heal people or... or... anything.”

She cursed internally as rubbed the frustrated tears out of her eyes. A gentle hand squeezed her shoulder and she looked into Bruce's worried eyes. He looked mostly confused, but she saw a sliver of green in his eyes. She tried to smile at him.

“We'll be okay, Cassie. I mean, seriously, what's the worst that could happen? Daniel dies? Big deal: it's not like he's never done that before.”

Cassie burst into laughter. “I thought the worst that could happen was the Ori destroying the planet.”

“Well, yeah, there's that too. Actually, that would serve Daniel right; let's see how he likes it when everyone else dies for a change.”

Cassie giggled. “Vengeance would be ours.”

“Exactly. Now, I gotta go and do general-ly stuff, like yell at people and save the world. Also, War Machine's starting to give me funny looks. You... stay safe. We'll deal with everything else afterwards. And you had better be alive to help us deal with it, 'cause you're not getting out of it that easy.”

“You too, Uncle Jack. I love you.”

“Love yah too, kiddo. Oh, and make sure to cheer doubly for the Phoenix. She's Sam's ship.”

“Really? Wow. Will do, Uncle Jack. Good luck!”

The line went dead. Cassie stared at her phone for a few moments before slowly putting it away, telling herself this was not by far the last conversation she would ever have with Jack O'Neill.

 


 

Tony looked up when Captain Hailey ran into the lab. She glanced to him and Siler briefly before looking over to Sam.

“Sir, the Apollo has had to duck out of the battle for repairs and we've just lost the Sun Tze,” she announced.

Sam's eyes widened. “Damn. The Odyssey and the Iliya Muromet?”

“The Muromet's covering for the Apollo and the Odyssey's taking on two ships that were on a course for Earth.”

Tony frowned. “Does it matter if they make it to Earth? We've got the Phase-shift Device working.”

Sam nodded her head in acknowledgement. “Yes, but it'd cause panic if a giant space ship suddenly floated through, say, downtown Manhattan even if it wasn't able to cause any actual damage.”

“Besides,” Hailey added. “The Ori have a tendency to attack targets from space. The Dimensional Phase-shift Field will prevent damage from that and from any stray debris that might otherwise get pulled into the Earth's gravitational field.”

“Right, got it.”

Sam reached for a clunky satellite phone sitting on her desk and picked it up. Tony raised an eyebrow, wondering what she was doing. And why the hell was she using something so hideously ancient to do it?

“Kavanaugh, it's Carter. How long until you've got her space-ready?” She paused for a moment and then rolled her eyes. “Kavanaugh! I don't need everything perfect. What I need is the Phoenix ready five hours ago! Make short-cuts, run patches, I don't care... We don't need the hyperdrive! We need shields, life support, sub-light engines and weapon's systems and I know the life support, shields and weapons are ready, so what's the hold up?”

She listened for another moment. “How long? Okay, good, I'm about done down here. Prepare for launch in ten.” Her expression turned irritated. “Just get it done!”

She hung up and sighed as she ran a hand through her hair. “You know, I never thought I'd see the day when I could honestly say I missed McKay, but damn I wish he were here.”

Lee shrugged, and Tony noted he looked more sceptical. “Well, he always got the job done at least.”

Sam chuckled. “Yeah. He whined and complained, but he got it done. And he's not as bad as he used to be.”

“So I keep hearing.”

Sam shrugged and then turned to Tony and Siler. “Are you guys almost finished?”

“Yeah, more or less,” said Tony. “Now we're basically just waiting for the palladium core to fail so we can replace it.”

Sam nodded. “And you don't need me for that, right?”

Tony blinked. “Uh, no, not really. Why?”

Sam looked to Hailey. “Captain Hailey, take over for me?”

“Yes ma'am.”

Sam tapped her comm. “General Wellesley, the adjustments to the vibranium core are complete. With your permission, I'd like to hand command of the project over to Captain Hailey and report to the Phoenix.”

“Acknowledged, Colonel. Permission granted. Good luck and Godspeed.”

“Thank you, General. Carter out.”

Tony's eyes narrowed. “What exactly is the Phoenix?” he asked.

He had his suspicions, of course. In fact, there was literally no way he could possibly be wrong about what the Phoenix was (and that would definitely explain where all the scientists and engineers had disappeared to). And if she thought she was leaving him behind, she was crazier than he was. He glanced towards the suit, gauging the distance and calculating how long it would take him to get it on. He was fairly certain he could beat her to the elevators.

“It's my ship,” she answered, following his eyes to the suit. “The crew and engineers have been working around the clock to complete it.”

Sam smirked, picked up the satellite phone again and dialled again. “Phoenix, this is Carter. Beam me aboard.”

Tony's jaw dropped as her body was suddenly bathed in bright light. Then she was gone.

 


 

Colonel Carter looked around the bridge of the USS Phoenix and took a deep breath. She smiled at Lieutenant Colonel Marks and thanked him as he handed her a comm unit, immediately putting it into her ear. Impressing Tony Stark had been fun. Actually, working with him had been rather fun too if she got right down to it. Maybe she'd manage to convince Jack to out-source a few projects to SI she could be a liaison for.

Well, assuming they all survived this.

She tapped her comm. “Attention all crew: this is Colonel Samantha Carter taking command. Initiate pre-flight checks and report on your status.”

Chapter Text


 

FLAMES

The Odyssey dove to avoid being caught between the two Ori ships. Colonel Ian Davidson cursed.

With the Sun Tze gone and the Apollo severely crippled it was just them and the Iliya Muromet against the remaining Ori ships. He could see their tentative control of the situation slipping through their fingers; all the upgraded tech in the world didn't help them against the sheer numbers. Especially when the Ori commanders seemed to have learnt some military tactics since their last encounter.

It was clumsy, their attempt to corner the Odyssey and if the Odyssey hadn't been determined to stay within weapon's range, it probably wouldn't have worked at all. But it was more than they'd ever done before, when none of Earth's weapons could touch them.

“Lieutenant, get us out of range and then turn us about,” he said. Time for a little game of chicken. “Let's see who blinks first.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sir, one of the Ori ships has just sent a sub-space communication.”

Damn, that was probably the call for reinforcements. They were still missing two of the twelve ships from the original reports, after all.

He watched as the viewscreen shifted as the ship swung about to once again face the Ori ships. One was facing him directly, the other was sailing past it, off to the side. He narrowed his eyes at it. Oh, they were so not doing this.

“Captain, target the first one,” he began barking orders. “Lieutenant, turn the charge into a fly-by at the last second possible and head to the second ship. Captain, switch targets as soon as it's in range. One's not good enough. We need to stop them both!”

Amazingly enough, it worked like a charm. They didn't quite get enough hits with the plasma beams to disable the first ship's shields, but there were two good hits that at least shook it up for the moment. Their shields held against the shots that banged at their belly as they flew upwards and swung towards the second ship, which was definitely trying to make a run for it. Three good hits to its aft starboard side took its shields down and the Odyssey turned about to finish the job.

Only to get mid-turn by a forward lance beam from a third ship that had been hanging back from the fray until now.

The ship rattled and shook and Davidson felt the vibrations in his bones. He saw sparks fly out of the corner of his eyes. But the ship held.

“Status report!” he barked when it was over.

“Sir, shields are down to forty-eight percent, but they are holding!”

“Good! We can all toast to the Asgard when this is all over.” He grinned.

The Odyssey's upgrades had been done by the Asgard themselves and the little grey aliens had definitely known what they were doing. Everything else in the small Earth fleet were copies. He had the best ship available and he knew it – as did everyone else aboard.

“Don't get distracted, Lieutenant, we need to keep those ships from reaching Earth,” he said firmly. “Turn her about and target that second ship. Sub-light engines at full!”

“Yes, sir!”

In one smooth turn, the Odyssey put its back to the third ship and was heading back to deal with the one whose shields they'd just taken out. Davidson hoped Carter and her geeks had been right and the Ori ships needed a bit of time to recharge their massive forward beam The Odyssey could probably take one more hit from that thing, but then they'd be in trouble. And they absolutely couldn't afford to let that ship repair its shields.

It had started to move to the side, probably to make itself the less-accessible target, but the Odyssey flew directly to it, a little high so that their weapon's could target the massive power core. The ship shook as the Ori ship behind them shot at them with their regular weapons and the Lieutenant at the helm began to weave slightly as they flew.

The ship they were heading towards began firing from the front just as soon as they were once again in weapon's range, but they must've hit her targeting systems when they took down her shields because the shots went wild. The one that managed to hit them seemed more like an accident.

Two Asgard plasma beams later and the Ori ship's power core exploded.

“Good job, people,” Davidson said with a tight grin. “Now let's get rid of this one chasing us.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Sir, the first Ori ship is continuing on its approach to Earth.”

He nodded. That was also a problem, but they couldn't very well let the ship following them go.

“Acknowledged, we'll get to that one once we've taken care of–“

He didn't manage to finish as the Odyssey shook like it'd just passed through a storm. One of the consoles on the right exploded into a rain of sparks and the officer in front of it cried out in surprise.

“What was that?”

“Sir, we've been hit on the port and starboard sides. Shields are down to forty percent.”

“Oh? Teaming up on us are they now? Well, now that's just not fair.” He grinned and it was all teeth. “Continue to our original target and fire at will!”

“Yes, sir!”

“Sir, Lieutenant Colonel Pratt says they'll try and keep the second ship busy until we can get to it.”

Davidson raised an eyebrow. Pratt and half the Odyssey's F-302 pilots were transfers from Britain's RAF. He was a good man and an excellent pilot – and smart. As much as it chaffed at Davidson that half his fighters weren't American, he couldn't in any way complain about their skills. Pratt had a way of seeing the skies and reading his enemies that made even Davidson a bit jealous. The man didn't boast or talk big either: if he said he was going to do something, he went and did it.

“Tell him we'll be grateful for whatever he can do,” he told the communication's officer.

The Odyssey evaded another shot and sent a volley of their own. Beams of light shot forward like fancy fireworks, shaking as the Ori's returned shots hit their marks.

“Sir, our shields are down to thirty percent!”

“Ori ship's shields are wavering, sir!”

“Short-range sensors are down!”

Davidson tapped his comm. “Engineering, we need the shields back up!”

“Understood, sir, we're working on boosting power by re-routing it from–“

“–Do it! Whatever it takes, Major; we need those shields!”

“Yes, sir!”

“What's going on with the other ship?”

“The F-302s are slowing it down, but it's continuing on a course for Earth.”

“Damn.”

Well, it wasn't like the Ori ships were a Death Star (he knew for a fact the scientists and engineers had spent days going over the scans they had just in case there was an easily-exploitable weakness that a one-manned fighter could use), a swarm of F-302s wasn't ever going to be able to do much more than slow it down.

“Sir, there's a disruption at the edge of the Dimensional Phase-shift field...” His eyes snapped to the captain manning the short-range sensors. “I think something's coming out of the field, sir!”

“Can you put it up on-screen?”

“Yes sir.”

It was a strange sensation, looking at the ominously empty space where the Earth was supposed to be. Even though he knew it was perfectly safe inside the field, the sight still sent chills down his spine. Then he noticed the movement, like the ripple in a pond.

“Magnify the image,” he said and then gripped the edge of his seat as the Odyssey shook.

The image zoomed in and once it had sharpened again, he watched as a distinct shape emerged from seemingly nowhere. He blinked in surprise and then a grin spread across his face.

“Son of a bitch,” he said quietly. “They actually managed it.”

“Sir we're being hailed.”

“Open a channel.”

“This is Colonel Sam Carter of the USS Phoenix. Sorry for being late.”

“Better late than never, Colonel,” he replied. “I'm amazed they managed to finish your ship on time to join in at all.”

There was a chuckle on the other end. “Well, I'm not sure 'finished' is the right word, Colonel. I've got no hyperdrive and some of the internal systems are a bit mcgyvered together. I've got life support, shields, weapons and sub-light engines, though.”

“Sounds like you've got everything you need, then. And we could certainly use the hand. Think you could take care of that bastard trying to give us the slip?”

“I think we can manage that. Carter out.”

“Sir, the Ori ship's shields are down!”

“Then blast her out of the sky, Captain.”

“Yes, sir.”

 


 

They took the service elevator in deference to Rhodey's suit. He tried not to listen in as General O'Neill called someone named Cassie – the Cassie from the news reports they'd watched on the BC-305 he imagined. It became a bit difficult to pretend not to, though, when he started joking about their friend Daniel dying all the time. Because really?! Was this some sort of alien thing?

Yeah, he was giving the General weird looks. He was a bit worried that there might actually be people who wouldn't give him weird looks.

The service elevator stopped and they got out. Two guards stationed on either side of the elevator came to attention, but the General just swept past them. Around them, the corridor looked like it had been carved out of the ice and Rhodey could feel the cold emanating from all around him, making him shiver despite the suit. Thick ropes of wire were strung up along either side of the corridor, with mining lamps stuck into the ice wall every few feet.

It looked like the set of a sci-fi horror flick.

General O'Neill had obviously been here before, because he easily navigated the blindingly white corridors, which turned into more familiar – though equally indistinguishable – grey corridors. Except... these didn't look like the usual military design. There was embellishment in places that looked oddly out-of-place. Nothing fancy, just simple geometric designs carved into the walls that didn't seem to have any sort of practical use.

An officer met them at the end of one of the corridors and handed the General a military-issue parka and an earpiece.

“Thank you, Major,” said O'Neill. “Anything new to report?”

“The Phoenix has successfully taken off and joined the fight, sir,” the Major answered immediately. “And the Odyssey has managed to destroy another target.”

“Good, those are all things I like to hear. And how are things here?”

“The Chair is prepped and ready to go, sir.”

“Excellent! Now I don't suppose you could get someone to scrounge up some food from the cafeteria for the Colonel and me?”

“Right away, sir.”

“Thank you, Major.”

The Major hurried off while he and the General got into another elevator. Rhodey had expected yet another corridor when the doors opened, so he was surprised to find himself just outside a large room.

“Don't touch anything,” O'Neill told him before waltzing further into the room.

There seemed to be more people huddled inside the fairly large room than there had been in the corridors. Some of them looked up when the General entered, before quickly turning back to their work. A few greeted him with a smile and a simple 'hello'. Rhodey blinked at the lack of response, then shook his head as he realized most – if not all – of the people in the room were civilians. Scientists, by the look of things.

The General hadn't been entirely clear on what this place was, except that one of the most powerful weapons at their disposal was housed here. He supposed if he was looking for the US air force's super weapon, Antarctica would be the last place he'd look... Except possibly for the moon.

No, yesterday the last place he would've looked was the moon.

An odd-looking chair stood on a small pedestal just off-centre to the room. He took a few steps closer, curious. It seemed to have similar geometrical embellishments to the walls outside, and certainly looked like it was made of the same material. There wasn't anything particularly strange about it, except for the large glass/crystal armrests. It was fairly large, almost throne-like, with a high back and very little padding. It felt alien.

“Pretty cool, huh?” said O'Neill as he came to stand next to him.

“What is it, sir?” he asked. “Is it... is it alien?”

“Yup,” the General answered, popping the 'p' at the end of the word. “They tell me this base was abandoned thousands of years ago, when Antarctica froze over and they couldn't use it anymore.”

Rhodey blinked. They? “Why didn't they just move it?”

O'Neill shrugged as he watched several scientists scurrying around the Chair. “The Ancients have a real problem with compulsive littering. Leaving their stuff all over the galaxy for people to trip over: it's sort of annoying. But, you know, not complaining since we now have a cool toy to play with.”

He paused. “Unfortunately, the tech only works for people with a specific gene and I'm sorry to say you don't have it, Colonel, although I think you're one of the ones the gene therapy should work for.”

Rhodey looked at him. “With all due respect, sir, just how exactly do you know what sort of genes I have?”

The General chuckled. “Remember about, oh, two years ago, when medical took an extra vial of blood from you during your annual check-up? I think they said it was to double-check for some sort of virus that was making the rounds or something.”

Rhodey vaguely thought he remembered something like that. “I think so.”

“Yeah, that was a lie. We were actually checking everyone's blood for the presence of the ATA gene. It's important for one of our projects, so the more natural gene-carriers we can send them, the better.”

“General, it's all hooked-up and ready to go,” called one of the scientists.

“Stay and watch the light show, Colonel. After that, I'll need you to head off to Colorado Springs and meet up with the F-302 squadron out there. If the Ori manage to penetrate the dimensional bubble, then that'll be their first target. It's where the gate is.”

“Understood, sir.”

O'Neill nodded and hiked up the sleeves of his parka as he sat into the Chair, carefully placing his hands over the crystals on the armrests and closing his eyes. Almost immediately, the Chair lit up and the pulled back with a sharp hiss. A holographic display appeared in the air above the Chair and Rhodey couldn't help but think that Tony would kill to get his hands on this tech. As advanced as all of Tony's crazy holograms were, they all still looked like projections of light. This looked like a display that happened to be hovering in mid-air.

It shifted a few times, until it settled as a picture of the Solar System, the Earth looking like a water-marked stamp. There were tiny space ships fighting between them and even though logically Rhodey knew there was still several hundred light years minimum between them and the Earth, they still looked unnervingly close.

“Hey, cool, I can see past the dimensional bubble!” O'Neill declared happily. “Can I fire the drones that far?”

“Sorry, General, but from what we can tell you'd lose control of them just as soon as they left the bubble – I mean, the Dimensional Phase-shift Field,” one of the hovering scientists answered. “Which means they'd probably deactivate and become inert.”

“Damn.”

Suddenly, the water-marked Earth flickered briefly before becoming fully visible again.

“Okay, what just happened?” the General asked.

The scientist beside him hummed. “Hmm, the palladium core on the arc reactor must've burned out. Don't worry, they should have the vibranium replacement one ready to go, so the Dimensional Phase-shift Device should be back up and running in a few minutes.”

Rhodey's eyebrows rose at the scientists words. “Arc reactor? How the hell does the air force have access to an arc reactor?” he demanded, glaring at the scientist.

“That's a very good question, Colonel. Doctor Smith?”

“Uh, w-well, because Tony Stark built us one. He and Sam have been working on it at Area 51 for the past few days...”

Tony Stark at Area 51. Rhodey didn't think his nightmares ever covered that scenario.

“What the hell?” the General exclaimed. The display above his head wavered for a moment. “Who gave authorization for that?”

“Er, you did, General. Colonel Carter said you told her she had blanket approval to use any resources she needed... right?”

Rhodey couldn't help but respect that sort of underhanded cleverness. O'Neill gaped at the scientist for a few moments.

“I never should've let her and Daniel become friends,” he grumbled under his breath after a while. “No respect for command, none at all. Traitors, all of them.”

Rhodey bit down on his smile. Now he really wanted to meet these people. His eyes slid towards the fully-visible, and all-too-vulnerable Earth.

Assuming they lived that long.

 


 

Jeannie watched General Landry stride out of the room. She felt sorry for the man. He had a lot on his plate right now between organizing the potential evacuation of the base and telling several dozen scared people that if the worse should happen, they were going to be mankind's last hope. Not to mention being in charge of coordinating the Earth's defences. He'd managed to not blow up at Pepper, however, and keep the entire room from panicking, so he wasn't doing too badly.

Jeannie barely knew the man, having dealt with him directly only once while at the SGC recovering from being injected with nanites. He'd come to see how she was doing, but she'd been too groggy at the time to remember much past the impression of a friendly smile. Meredith thought he was an idiot, of course – but Meredith's list of 'people who aren't idiots' was almost as short as his 'people who are almost as smart as me' list. But Sam spoke highly of the man, so she was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Jeannie certainly didn't envy him his position just now. With the Stargate Project leaked to the world, he and General O'Neill would be bearing the brunt of the worst publicity. If they managed to save the world, they likely wouldn't even get the chance to celebrate properly. Or sleep it off for that matter.

Colonel Ferretti had been left behind to answer questions and keep people calm. Which comprised mostly of being quizzed by the teenagers, all five of whom had gravitated towards him after Landry left. The two youngest were the boys who'd turned the TV on in the first place. The other three looked like they were somewhere around sixteen to eighteen years old. One of the girls spoke very broken English and her facial features looked Eastern European. Having been to Atlantis, this didn't surprise Jeannie the way she knew it surprised Pepper.

Colonel Ferretti, it turned out, was great with kids. Also, he'd been on the very first Stargate trip with Daniel Jackson and then-Colonel O'Neill. The entire room was half listening to him and half watching the broadcast.

Suddenly, the satellite stream on screen flared. Ferretti frowned.

“Attention all personnel, this is General Landry. The Dimensional Phase-shift Device is temporarily offline. I want all SG teams suited up and on stand-by. I repeat, all SG teams suit up and remain on stand-by. Landry out.”

Around them, Jeannie could feel the mood shift as people realized what this meant. Ferretti suddenly found himself bombarded with questions. Reassuring civilians, he was less good at. Jeannie turned to Caleb.

“Here, take Madison,” she said, handing her daughter over to him. Caleb raised an eyebrow, but easily took on the little girl's weight.

“Mommy?” Madison asked.

“Don't worry, sweetie, I'm not going anywhere,” Jeannie said with a smile. “You'll be able to see me the whole time, I promise.”

Then she turned around and climbed up on top of one of the chairs so that the whole room could see her. “Excuse me everyone!” Only a few people turned her way and she frowned, suddenly wishing she had inherited her father's vocal chords the way Meredith had.

Actually, that wasn't a bad idea. There weren't many social things Mer was good at, but he certainly knew how to get people's attention. She took a deep breath.

“Hey!” she called out at the top of her lungs. “Everyone shut up!”

That got the room's attention. Heads turned to her and she glowered them further into silence.

“There is nothing wrong with the Dimensional Phase-shift Device,” she announced. “They knew this was going to happen: there's a Stark arc reactor powering the device and the core is made of palladium, which burns out very quickly. I'm not sure why they used the palladium, but I know that Tony Stark and Doctor Colonel Samantha Carter were creating a better core for it that would last a lot longer. Maybe it wasn't finished. Either way, the problem's under control.”

She hoped. Sam had made it sound like they were close to being done with the vibranium core. Something must've gone wrong for them not to have used it in the first place.

“Uh, Jeannie?” she heard Caleb ask. He was looking at the TV screen. “What's that?”

She looked to the screen and blinked at six blue-ish spots that were fluttering at the edge of the picture. Her eyes widened.

That is a problem,” she said as six more Ori ships dropped out of hyperspace.

 


 

The Phoenix came out firing and Sam grinned as the ship that had been making a break for Earth was torn apart in short order by her ship's beams. For the Phoenix, she'd modified the Asgard plasma beams from their original design and changed the firing mechanism to allow for smaller blasts at a more rapid succession. It had taken the Ori ship by surprise.

Granted surprises like this only tended to work once, but that was one less Ori ship heading towards Earth.

“Colonel, I can see the Earth!” exclaimed a panicked voice from the right. “The Dimension Phase-shift has failed, sir!”

Sam cursed that so much of her time had been taken up by the Dimensional Phase-shift Device, not allowing her to get to know her crew. She snuck a peak at the insignia on the young woman's uniform. “Relax, Lieutenant, we were expecting this. Siler and his team just have to change the reactor's core; they'll have it up and running in a few minutes. In the meantime, we need to make sure none of the ships get within firing range of the planet.”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“And scan the area for any survivors of the Sun Tze. Colonel Li would've at least attempted an evacuation. If you find any, beam them aboard if you can.”

“Yes, sir.”

She looked down at the small read-out in front of her that showed a layout of the Solar System. “Captain, head for the Ori ship– ”

“–Sir, I'm picking up six ships dropping out of hyperspace just out of Neptune's orbit!”

That was between them and Earth. Sam surged out of her command chair. “Turn us about, sub-light engines at full speed! Ready weapons and prepare to fire as soon as we're within range!”

“I thought the Tok'ra said they counted twelve Ori ships heading towards Earth,” said Lieutenant Colonel Marks.

“Apparently they miscounted,” said Sam through clenched teeth as she willed the Phoenix to go faster.

Six ships. The Phoenix was so new she didn't even have an F-302 compliment yet. She'd taken a peek at the scans of the Apollo and it wasn't going to be much help anytime soon unless the shields had somehow taken less damage than the rest of the ship had. The Odyssey had taken a beating, but was still fighting fit for the moment and the Iliya Muromet was limping on one side thanks to damage to its starboard thrusters.

A miracle was what they needed.

“Sir, weapon's range in five... four... three... two...”

“Full spread weapon's fire! Target major systems and bring those shields down!”

“Yes, sir!”

The screen lit up as the closest Ori battleship's shields were peppered with a hail of plasma beams. It immediately retaliated and Sam watched the beam of light head towards the Phoenix. The ship shook, but the shields held firm and its course never changed.

Suddenly, the left side of the screen lit up as a pillar of light enveloped the farthest Ori ship. Sam's eyes widened and she grinned at the miasma of swirling light. Well, she'd asked for a miracle, hadn't she?

“Wow, those are beautiful,” she distantly heard Marks say.

“They sure are,” she agreed. She shook the awe away and set her jaw. “How are the Ori's shields?”

“They're barely holding, sir.”

“Then bring them down!”

There was an explosion from within the column of light and the mass of swirling drones broke apart. Like an intergalactic swarm of glowing bees, they swerved around and descended upon their next target. The Ori warship tried manoeuvring out of their way, its weapons frantically firing at targets too small for its massive guns.

“Sir, we're being targeted from behind!”

“Evasive manoeuvres!” Sam commanded, hoping that didn't mean the Odyssey had been taken out. She had a soft spot for the Odyssey, even if she didn't remember the fifty years she'd spent stuck on it. “How's the Odyssey doing?”

“The Odyssey's still being tag-teamed, sir... Their shields are holding, but their weapons systems seem to be down.”

“Damn.”

“Sir, the Ori ship is following us!”

“Double damn,” she grumbled as she considered her options. She looked down at her read-out and winced. There was no choice, really. “Sub-light engines at full speed: run an intercept course with the warship closest to Earth.”

“Yes, sir!”

Sam had just turned to sit down again, when she was thrown off her feet as the world around her shook. Metal screeched as it rubbed together, and Sam heard someone in the background scream. As soon as the floor stopped moving, Sam scrambled to her feet even though her insides felt like they were still shaking.

“Report!” she barked. “What the hell was that?”

“The ship following us fired its forward lance weapon, sir!”

Sam let out several choice Goa'uld expletives. Then her eyes narrowed at the screen. “Alright then, fine. Captain, turn the ship around. Weapons at full. We don't have time to play, so give them a full volley as soon as you've got a lock.”

The Earth disappeared from the screen as the ship turned around. She gripped the edges of her armrests as she watched the screen intently for the first glimpse of the other Ori ship. They couldn't afford to take their time. Every second they took destroying this ship, took the other five closer to Earth. The Ancient Chair was an amazing weapon, but even it had its limits.

The first plasma shots were already being fired by the time the Ori ship began to appear on the screen. The Ori ship's shields held against the impacts. A beam from the ship fired back at the Phoenix and the ship shook again.

“Sir, we've received a direct hit to the port-side forward thrusters.”

“Shields?”

“Holding at sixty-four percent, sir.”

She nodded and watched as the Ori's shields were peppered with more plasma shots.

“The Ori ship?”

“Its shields are barely holding, sir.”

“Good, continue shooting on the fly-by and then turn her around to finish the job.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Understood, sir.”

“Sir, one of the Ori ships is breaking away and heading towards us!”

“What?” Sam glanced down at her little read-out screen. Her eyes widened at blip on the screen that represented one of the Ori ships that had been heading to Earth – only it wasn't heading to Earth anymore, but right for the Phoenix.

Suddenly one of the other Earth blips began blinking violently. She held her breath, unable to turn her eyes away as she waited for it to go dark. That was the Odyssey.

The Phoenix shook with another impact and she glanced up to the screen.

“Glancing blow across the starboard side, sir, shields holding steady.”

“Sir, engineering is reporting that environmental controls on the lower decks are down.”

Sam winced. Those were one of the systems they'd had to cobble together to get the ship off the ground. “Life support?” she asked.

“Life support is working, sir.”

“Good. Marks, have them evacuate the lower levels. There are parkas in storage; anyone who has to go down there can use those for now.”

“Understood, sir,” said her second-in-command and then immediately stepped away, tapping his comm to relay the order.

“Sir, the second ship is in weapon's range!”

“Single shot fire at each of them!” she commanded, mentally crossing her fingers that the switch worked the way it was supposed to.

They hadn't exactly had the chance to test the weapons systems' ability to switch from the short-burst rapid fire to a single, more powerful plasma shot. The single shot wasn't quite as powerful as the regular Asgard plasma beam, but it had a lot more power than any of the individual rapid-fire plasma bursts and still had a faster deployment.

The shots went off and she breathed a sigh of relief. Then she glanced down at the display screen. The Odyssey was still blinking and there was another Earth blip circling between it and the Ori ships that had managed to tag-team the Odyssey: the Iliya Muromet. Thank God.

She looked back to the screen as the Phoenix veered to the left to avoid a shot from the newly-arrived Ori ship. Far in the background, she caught a glimpse of the swirling mass of bright light, looking no less brilliant from a distance.

Suddenly, the lights went out.

An impact rocked the ship and Sam gripped her chair to keep from falling out of it. In front of her, she saw the Lieutenant at the long-range sensor console get flung from her chair. A console to her right exploded in sparks and she heard a man cry out in surprise and pain.

“Return fire!” she called out before the ship had stopped shaking. Behind her, she heard Marks call for a medical team.

“Damage report!” she barked to the major manning internal systems.

“Shields took a hit, sir, but they're holding at forty-six percent,” he began. She listened with half an ear as he listed the damage: is wasn't nothing, but they could handle it and continue to fight.

By the time he'd finished, the Lieutenant manning long-range sensors had managed to get back to her station, wincing as she sat down.

“Sir, the Earth is no longer visible on any scanners,” she finally announced.

“The Dimensional Phase-shift Device was re-activated,” Sam concluded. She'd known that between Tony and Siler, they'd manage easily enough. “The Ori ships?”

The silence for a moment too long.

“Lieutenant?” Sam prompted her firmly.

“Sir,” the young woman said uneasily. “I-I've lost track of two of the ships... sensor data indicates they were in Earth's orbit when the device came back online.”

Sam's eye widened, but she didn't get the chance to despair as another impact rocked the bridge.

 


 

'Stay and watch the light show' General O'Neill had said. And up until the far wall exploded in brilliant white light, Rhodey had expected giant laser beams.

He hadn't even realized the far wall had been made up of a row of large windows that looked into another chamber until he was running towards them. Awed, he watched as hundreds of mechanical fireflies swarmed upwards into the clouds. Yeah, that was a light show alright.

“What the hell was that?” he asked no one in particular.

“Ancient drones,” a tall thin woman to his left answered. When he raised an eyebrow at her, she gestured back towards the General. “General O'Neill is controlling them using the Chair. It's a weapon's platform, you see. Well, among other things. Theoretically it does a lot more than that, but we'd need to have the rest of the outpost operational to test it.”

Rhodey blinked at her and turned back to look at the General. The Chair was glowing, illuminating the older man in soft, white light. His eyes were still closed, his face tense with concentration, looking like he was, well, trying to save the world with his mind.

The holographic display still hovered above his head, although the picture had changed slightly with the addition of a swirl of bright light. Rhodey walked over to look at it.

On the display they looked like tiny little pin-pricks, creating a moving wave of light drawn in pointillism. They surrounded one of the newly-arrived Ori ships and congealed into a moving mass of light that grew brighter for a moment. Then the Ori ship exploded.

“Yes!” he heard Doctor Smith exclaim happily. When he looked over, the man was beaming. “We'd hoped the drones could take out an Ori ship, but this is the first time we've actually been able to test them against one.”

“Well, then I'm sure glad you were right, Doctor,” said Rhodey.

He watched with bated breath as the Ori ships crept closer and closer to Earth. One Ori ship down, the drones then moved onto the next one. This one attempted to resist as they swarmed it, but resistance, it quickly learned, was futile. One of the Earth ships had managed to take out another of the Ori warships, but then had to turn away to deal with an especially irritating tail. Rhodey held his breath as he watched one of the remaining three Ori ships break away and head towards the Earth ship to catch it from behind.

It was two-on-one, but the much-smaller Earth ship wasn't giving any ground. It took all his effort to stop himself from breaking out into loud, enthusiastic cheering that the people on board those ships would have no hope in hearing. It wasn't the only Earth ship being tag-teamed, though, but the other one seemed to be in much worse shape: it was barely moving and not returning enemy fire.

“Goddammit, Carter!” General O'Neill suddenly exclaimed. “No, wait, Carter's on the Phoenix... Goddammit, Stark! Took you long enough and you couldn't wait five more minutes!”

Rhodey looked to the General and noted that whatever had happened, the man looked highly annoyed, but not out-right angry. He looked back to the screen and immediately saw that the Earth was back to being its previous water-marked outline. On one side of it a mass of small, black dots floated aimlessly.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Half my drones were outside the field when the bubble went up again,” O'Neill groused. He opened his eyes, jaw tense. “Which means I'm down half my fire power and we've got two Ori warships inside the bubble with us. Colonel, go back up top and get the 305 to take you to Colorado Springs immediately. And tell the pilot to step on it. If you get the chance to, report to General Hank Landry, otherwise consider your standing orders to help wherever you're needed and protect civilians.”

Rhodey stood at attention. “Yes, sir.”

“Good luck, Colonel.”

“You too, sir.”

Rhodey ran back to the elevator and resisted the urge to press the button for the top floor continually to try and make it go faster. The Major who'd gone to get them food earlier was waiting at the top of the elevator holding an overflowing tray. He blinked once at Rhodey, but didn't ask any questions after getting a glance of his face.

“Follow me, Colonel,” he said and hurried off down the corridor.

Rhodey couldn't help but wonder if the people around here could read minds, but he certainly didn't protest the guide through the creepy frozen corridors. When they finally arrived at the elevator that went up to the surface, the Major handed him a bottle of water and an apple and wished him luck.

 


 

“What in the world is that?” Bruce asked as he stared at the screen, mesmerized by the bright lights converging on the first Ori warship.

“I have no idea,” said Cassie, wide-eyed and equally mesmerized by the sight.

“I'm going hazard a guess at some sort of weapon,” Maria Hill commented after the Ori ship exploded.

There was a pause and then Thor's voice came on over the speakers, sounding slightly awed: “My friends, never have I ever seen nor heard of such a weapon: not on Asgard, nor any of the other realms I have visited.”

“It's definitely the prettiest weapon I've ever seen,” said Darcy. “No offence to Mjolnir.”

“I assure you, none is taken, Lady Darcy.”

“It's impressive is what it is,” Happy spoke for the first time. He was frowning. “But if they have something like this, why didn't they use it earlier?”

“The dimensional phase-shift most likely,” said Bruce thoughtfully. “If whatever that is, is being controlled from Earth, then the signal connected to it most likely wouldn't cross over to another dimension.”

“Makes sense,” said Maria Hill.

The lights – and at this point it had become clear it wasn't a single wave of light, but a wave made up of hundreds of small lights – destroyed another ship and then headed relentlessly towards their third victim. However, just as they reached the ship, the tail of the wave went dark.

The remaining lights continued to attack the ship as it passed by the satellite.

Cassie's eyes widened. “Hang on, if that ship just passed by the satellite...”

“Then that means its reached a geosynchronous orbit with Earth,” Hill finished, her eyes widening. “Shit!”

They exchanged looks. “What the hell do we do now?” Cassie asked, her voice trembling.

“Excuse me, I apologize for interrupting, but I am receiving a call from the Baxter Building.”

Bruce blinked. “The Baxter Building?” he said. “What's in the Baxter Building?”

“The Fantastic Four,” Hill answered.

“Oh. Well then put them through, I suppose.”

 


 

General Hank Landry stared at the screen in horror. The worst had happened: two Ori warships had made it past their defences. And to make matters worse, it looked like about half their Ancient drones were stuck on the other side.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He let it out slowly.

No, the worst hadn't happened yet. They still had the chance to prevent that.

He opened his eyes. “Sergeant Harriman, alert the airbase. I want all F-302s up in the air immediately. And contact Colorado Springs PD and emergency services. Tell them to fall into a state of emergency. Lock down all schools, hospitals and public spaces. Get people to shelter: basements, sewer systems, as far down as they can go.”

“Yes sir!”

He grabbed the microphone and turned on the intercom.

“Attention all personnel! This is General Landry speaking: the Dimensional Phase-shift field has been compromised. We have two Ori warships within the field. All SG teams prepare to defend the base. I repeat, all SG teams prepare to defend the base!”

He flicked the button off and looked back to the screen. As he watched, tiny dots that signalled one-manned fighters spilled out of the two ships. Half the fighters headed directly inland. Landry traced their path with his eyes.

“Major!” he barked at his aide. “Contact Area 51; tell them they have incoming.”

“Yes sir.”

Then he looked back to the ship the fighters had come from. Sure enough, its current course was taking them directly to the SGC. He only hoped that a half-force of drones managed to take it out before it got here.

“Now would be a really great time for SG1 to live up to their reputation,” he said quietly.

“Sir?” Landry turned to look at Sergeant Harriman who was just returning. “Don't worry, sir, they will. SG1 always comes through.”

He gave the Sergeant a half-smile and a nod. The smile fell off his face once the other man was seated at his station. That was the problem with heroes and repeated miraculous saves. People began to expect it, but everyone's luck ran out eventually.

One day SG1 would leave and come back too late. Or not at all.

 


 

The Phoenix rocked with another impact. The last one had taken out their sub-light engines, but Kavanaugh and the engineering team were already working on repairs. The flickering life support on decks four to ten was a bigger problem. But the shields were, somehow, still holding and they had weapons. Sam coughed and waved her hand in front of her face to dispel the smoke lingering on the bridge like a bad dream. The fire that had exploded from one the science stations in the back had been put out, but the bridge still smelt of electrical fire and burning hair.

She watched as the Phoenix shot out another round of plasma bursts at the Ori ship on the left. The last one impacted with the gleaming white hull.

“Sir, the Ori ship's shields are down!”

“Finish her off!” Sam spat viciously, her voice sounding hoarse and muffled by the smoke.

“Sir, I'm picking up more ships coming out of hyperspace!”

Sam's eyes widened. “What? How many?”

Even through the smoke, she could see the Lieutenant swallow heavily as she operated the controls on her console with shaking hands. When she looked up to meet Sam's eyes, they were wide and terrified.

“Six, sir.”

“Holy Hannah.”

The Phoenix rocked again from another impact as the second Ori ship flew in to intercept and prevent them from taking out the first one. Sam barely felt it as she thought about having to fight six more ships. She would do it. They didn't have a choice. Jack would protect the Earth with his dying breath, so would Teal'c and Daniel – wherever they were. She could do no less.

Years ago, her grandmother had taught her and her brother the words to the Lord's Prayer. Her eyes had been kind and her words sure, full of faith in the words she was speaking, and inspiring her two grandchildren to learn each and every word dutifully. Now, staring out at the enemy she was almost certain would be her last, needing the reassurance of those words, of her grandmother's quiet faith, she found she couldn't remember a single word.

Chapter Text


 

BLAZE

Thor watched the battle in space intently, feeling both amazed and proud to bear witness to Midgard's true strength. To think the All-Father and his brother had both thought them weak and primitive. Midgard, it seemed, was full of surprises even to him.

He knew those around him would never believe him were he to speak of it, but he could feel the changes in the air around them, like the subtle hint of energy before a storm. The invasion of the Chitauri had not changed this realm nearly so much as his friends would think. This, however, these Ori and the revelation of Earth's hidden might: this would change the world. Time would tell whether it be for good or for ill.

He could've gone and joined the battle – not even his shield-brothers, the Avengers, truly understood just how different from them he was – but that same feeling had stayed his impulse to battle. No, he realized quickly, he did not belong in that battle in space, glorious though it was. He relished the chance to hear the no doubt many tales that were to come from those who fought in it – and in the ones that came before it, for ships such as those did not spring from nowhere. Nor was such prowess learned anywhere but in battle.

He had never questioned his claim on Midgard: his right to protect it. Until now. When bright lights flew up from the planet like a swarm of angry faeries from Vanaheim, and a ship had taken flight from the planet, taking away what little doubt that the ships were not from Midgard. All of it was far beyond anything he'd seen in this realm. T'would seem he had not been the first to wish to protect it.

Most importantly, what he'd kept to himself above all else as he'd watched and listened to the brave Midgardian named Cassandra Fraiser, was that he'd travelled across the nine realms, and met merchants and travellers who'd gone even farther. He'd even smuggled away with the Warrior Three for his five hundredth birthday to Nowhere, where even Heimdall's sight did not reach.

He had never heard of the Goa'uld. That such evil had been allowed to fester in any realm was repulsive to him. But how could it have done so without his knowledge of it? Surely Odin would not have let such evil grow under his watch?

But this was not the time to ask such questions. As he watched the Ori ships sail past the Midgardian watch towers they called satellites, he knew his time had come. The Midgardian warriors brave enough to fight among the stars had done their part well. Yes, they had failed in keeping the Ori away from the planet itself, but the odds they'd fought against were nigh on overwhelming.

Whether or not Midgard was truly his realm to protect, protect her he would. While there was breath in his body, he would continue to protect the home of his friends and of his lady love. So he had once sworn, so he would now act.

Thor stood, grasping Mjolnir tightly. “My Lady Jane, friend Bruce, do you know whence these ships are headed?” he asked loudly.

There was a pause and then a voice he did not recognize, said: “By my calculations, they seem to be headed towards the United States. One is headed north, but the other is going towards the mid-west, I believe. There also seem to be smaller fighters heading towards, well, I'm going to assume Nevada and Area 51 because quite frankly it's the only place that makes sense.”

“Colorado Springs,” he heard Cassandra say with a gasp. “The second ship, it has to be headed towards Colorado Springs. That's where the SGC is.”

Thor nodded. “Then it is time for me to depart and join the battle,” he declared solemnly.

Jane's head snapped up. “You're sure- oh, what am I saying? Of course you're sure.” She stood and went over to him. For a moment, Thor lost himself in her eyes. “Just, be careful, okay?”

“Fair Jane, I promise to return to your side,” he told her and then leaned down to capture her lips, to memorize their feel, their sweet tenderness, one last time before he left for battle.

She looked dazed when they parted, a look Thor thought well-suited her. He ran his hand through her hair and then stepped back and nodded to the rest of the room.

“Upon my word, Midgard will not fall this day!” he declared and then spun on his heel, exiting the room in a swirl of red robes.

 


 

Apparently, 'step on it' meant flying from Antarctica and across the Atlantic ocean in just over ten minutes. Rhodey was sort of glad the pilot was in the cockpit and thus unable to see him gaping at the radio after being informed they'd just received new orders and were being re-routed to Area 51 to help with the defence and potential evacuation of the base.

“I'm sorry, could you please repeat that, Lieutenant 'cause I could've sworn you just gave me an ETA of six minutes,” he said, still staring bug-eyed at the internal comm unit on the wall beside him.

“Affirmative, sir. We are being ordered to change course and are currently heading towards Area 51, ETA five minutes and thirty-two seconds.”

Oh, of course, because those thirty-two seconds made all the difference.

“So if this thing can go this fast, why the hell did it take us hours to get to Antarctica the first time?” he asked, because anything else was making his head hurt too much.

“IOA regulations on planet-side travel, sir. General O'Neill is one of three people allowed to override them in times of great emergency.”

Part of him couldn't wait to tell Tony the air force had something that went faster than his suit. The other part just wanted to go back to bed and start this day all over again. He was sure he'd handle it all much better the second time around.

“And this counts as a great emergency, does it?”

“Yes, sir. We take alien invasions very seriously, sir.”

Rhodey raised an eyebrow at the speaker next to his seat. “And how many alien invasions have you seen exactly?”

“Four, sir. I flew an F-302 during Anubis' attack on Earth, was at the SGC for debriefing during on the BC-305 program when the base was knocked out by a group of wraith who'd taken the mid-way station in Pegasus, then the Chitauri Invasion and now the Ori.”

“I think I'm sorry I asked.”

“You get used to it, sir.”

“That's a terrifying prospect, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir. Sir, we are approaching Area 51.”

“Any sign of the alien fighters?”

“Scanners indicate their ETA is about one minute, twenty-one seconds.”

“Okay, then. Anyone else in the area?”

“Yes, sir, there's a squadron of F-302s just ahead of us, sir.”

He had no idea what an F-302 was, but he'd take all the backup he could get. A few moments passed in silence and Rhodey had just enough time to realize he was about to go up against alien space fighters, when the comm came on again.

“Sir, we are flying a parallel course just below the F-302 squadron. Would you like me to open the back so you can join them?”

“Uh, this might be a stupid question, Lieutenant, but won't that destabilize your flight pattern this high up and at this speed?

“No sir, the containment shield is fully operational.”

Containment shields, of course they had a containment shield. “You're enjoying this, aren't you Lieutenant?” he said dryly.

A pause. “A little, sir.”

Rhodey shook his head. “Well, okay then, open that hatch and wish me luck.”

“Good luck, sir.”

“Thanks, you too.”

Rhodey stood and put his helmet on, waiting until the familiar hiss indicated it had been sealed shut. Then he clanked his way to the back of the 'plane', where a hatch was sliding open. The movement shook the 305 slightly, but otherwise it continued on a steady course. Rhodey took two seconds to be amazed at the smoothness before he jumped. He didn't let himself fall too much this time, activating the repulsors almost immediately and using them to push himself upwards.

Sure enough, just like the pilot had told him, there was a squadron of dark grey fliers just above him. They were at least recognizable as fighter jets; he wondered how often they'd flown overhead and he – and other people – had just assumed that's what they were. The engine thrusters in the back were massive and their wings were wide, taking up nearly the entire width of the aircraft before being cut off with a blunt edge, making them shorter, stumpier than they should've been for a plane their size. And they were pointed downwards.

Rhodey opened his comm. “F-302 squadron leader, this is Colonel Rhodes with War Ma– I mean, Iron Patriot. I'm under orders from General O'Neill to join you and render assistance.”

“Copy that, Colonel Rhodes. This is squadron leader Major Carol Danvers. Welcome to the Snakeskinners, Colonel.”

“Thank you, Major. What's Area 51's status?”

“The base is currently evacuating all non-essential personnel through the regular base exit. Their shield is fully operational and ground defence forces are en route. We are under orders to protect the base at all costs so long as the Dimensional Phase-shift Device is operational. Should it be destroyed, we are to proceed with covering the full evacuation and then return to protect the SGC.”

“Copy that, Major Danvers. Any tips on how to fight these bastards?”

“Hit them with everything you've got until you can get their shields down, then aim for the thrusters and power source at the back.”

“Thanks!”

“Good luck, Colonel. Danvers out.”

“Yeah, good luck,” said Rhodey to himself. “I'm gonna need more than luck.”

He looked up and got his first look at the Ori fighters. They were pretty sleek-looking: long, dark flattened ovals with a massive circular glowing light at the back, which had to be the power source and engine Major Danvers had mentioned. There was going to be nothing easy about this fight, so he was at least glad that finding his target wasn't going to be a problem.

And then the Ori fighters were right in front of them and Rhodey had no more time to think about anything.

Dogfights were always barely controlled chaos at the best of times. But these machines moved differently than anything he'd ever seen before: fast, manoeuvrable and with no wings to clip. They also packed one hell of a punch and were protected by some sort of energy shield that deflected his repulsors like they were nothing but pot-shots from a pellet gun.

Within two minutes, Rhodey had gone from being the height of military tech to next to useless. He was not appreciating the feeling. So he improvised.

He flew in next to one of the F-302s and opened his comm. “Hey, this is Iron Patriot here, I'm gonna distract them while you shoot 'em down.”

“Roger that Iron Patriot.”

The look on the Ori pilot's face when he landed on top of the see-through dome above his head was priceless. Just for kicks, Rhodey aimed a repulsor right at the pilot's head and fired it at point-blank range. The impact threw him backwards, but he stabilized himself just in time to see a rapid-fire volley of laser shots (he wondered if they were actually called phasers) shoot the Ori fighter out of the sky.

“Yes!” he exclaimed.

“Nice work, sir, thanks. That was so much easier.”

It wasn't quite the same as blasting them out of the sky himself, but he was helping. He did it again a few times before deciding to switch up his tactics. So flying above the main part of the fray, he aimed for one flat oval and then dropped down onto its back end, using his hand repulsors to give himself more speed. It disrupted the fighter's flight pattern enough that it didn't quite manage to avoid the shot aimed at it. Rhodey flew off again before the closest F-302 hit its power core. He did, however, hear the explosion.

Suddenly, a mayday sounded over the comms. He had his HUD zero in on the signal and then deftly twisted and swerved his way through the moving throng of fighters. He found the F-302 easily, its engine had been hit from the side, making making the pilot lose control of his craft and apparently seizing up the emergency release mechanism.

It was slightly irritating to know that no matter how advanced the tech became, there would still be glitches.

Finally reaching the plummeting F-302, Rhodey positioned himself just underneath it and braced himself against its belly. His foot repulsors turned on to full power, and he grit his teeth against the strain as the suit tried its best to defy gravity.

It worked. It seemed to take forever, but their descent slowed until Rhodey could let the F-302 land on its own with only a small wave of sand and one bent wing as the cost. The suit thankfully didn't betray how light-headed he felt afterwards as he propelled his way up to the control pod and helped the young man trapped inside open the cabin hatch.

“Thank you, sir,” said the pilot as he staggered out. “Thought I was a goner back there. You saved my life, sir.”

“You're welcome, Lieutenant,” he replied.

Just then the earth shook. Rhodey's head snapped up and he spotted a large cloud of dust and sand to the south-west.

“You just continue broadcasting your mayday and sit tight until someone comes to get you,” he ordered the pilot. “I'm going to go check that out.”

“Sir?” Rhodey turned to the young man, who was now looking in the direction of the cloud with grim, worried eyes. “That's where the main part of Area 51 is, sir.”

He blinked and cocked his head. “Really? I didn't think I'd seen anything when we were flying overhead...”

The pilot's lips quirked in amusement. “That's because it's underground, sir.”

He sighed. “Of course it is,” he said and took off just as another explosion shook the ground.

 


 

Sue Richards watched as her husband argued with Doctors Banner and Foster (and half the University College London's space sciences department by the sounds of it) over the plausibility of the science of what they were seeing.

“Uh, why are they wasting time arguing about this?” Johnny asked as he came to lean against the console next to her. He crossed his arms over his chest. “We can see the alien spaceships, so why does it matter whether or not the dimensional field thing makes scientific sense or whatever?”

Sue rolled her eyes. “I think Reed's mostly just annoyed that Tony Stark figured out there was an extra code in his satellite's programming before he did. Besides, I'm pretty sure they're back to the time dilation field now.”

Johnny frowned. “But he didn't: Banner said Foster called to tell them about it. And Stark's not even there anyway. Also, isn't there enough proof to show that the time dilation field somehow worked even if it was 'cause of crazy alien magic?”

“You would think so.” She sighed and looked at her husband with exasperation. She loved the man, quirks and all, but sometimes...

Heavy, booming footballs announced Ben's arrival and both siblings looked up to see him appear at the top of the railing with his girlfriend in tow.

“Do we know what's going on yet?” he asked sounding slightly out-of-breath, eyes wide and clutching Alicia's hand as tightly as he dared.

“Nothing beyond what NBC's been broadcasting,” said Sue. She gestured towards where Reed was typing madly as he continued to argue. “Reed's on the line with Stark Tower, but they've been the ones feeding NBC info in the first place.”

Ben glanced at Reed and rolled his eyes. “Yeah he looks like he's helping alright,” he said and then headed for the stairs. “So what happened in the last ten minutes?”

“Did you manage to catch the interview with the general in charge of Homeworld Security?” Sue asked.

“Yeah, we left right after to get here.”

“Well, that ship he mentioned, the Phoenix, joined the others just before the pocket dimension field temporarily failed. Which was when six new alien spaceships appeared. Two got destroyed by a swarm of bright lights.”

Ben raised an eyebrow. “A swarm of bright lights? Seriously?”

Sue smiled. “Yeah, it was actually quite beautiful. Anyway, two of the alien ships managed to get into Earth's orbit before the field went up again.”

“Shit, that's not good.” Ben's eyes flicked to the side. “Where are they heading?”

Sue's fists clenched and she forced herself to relax. “One's heading to Colorado Springs according to Cassie – that would be the girl from the broadcast – but we're not sure where the other one's going.”

“They're heading for NORAD?”

“No, the secret base underneath NORAD.”

“You're shitting me.”

“Not even a little bit.”

Ben ran a hand over his scalp and Sue forced herself not to wince at the sound of rock scraping against rock.

“Uh, hey guys?”

They both looked to where Johnny was now looking at Reed's satellite map – the one he'd set up to track the movements of the alien ships. He was looking thoughtful, but there was a tremble in his voice and his eyes were just a fraction too wide.

“Yeah, Johnny?” Sue called.

“So, if you were an alien invading force that wanted to take over a planet of over ten billion people, where would you start?”

Sue blinked. “Um, the capital city...?”

“Of the country with the most industry and weapons,” Ben added. “Which would probably make Beijing my target, wouldn't it?”

“Unless whatever that base under NORAD is, has something way more advanced – I mean, apparently they've got some way of travelling to other planets...” Sue pointed out.

“Yeah, right. Control the country with the most advanced tech. So, Washington.”

There was a pause during which Reed's voice was the only sound in the room.

“But how would an alien race that's never been to Earth know which city's the capitol?” Alicia asked.

Sue felt her eyes widen involuntarily. “They wouldn't, so they'd pick the largest, most densely populated one,” she said with dawning horror.

“Shit, and between us and Stark Tower we're like two beacons of the most highly-advanced tech on the planet.” He grimaced. “Well, the most advanced, non-alien tech on the planet.”

Sue heard Johnny take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yeah, that's sort of what it looks like they're thinking too,” he said and she could hear the clenched teeth behind the forced lightness in his voice.

Unable to put it off anymore, Sue walked over to look at the map her brother was studying so intently. Sure enough, while one of the alien ships was heading inland towards Colorado, the second one was continuing steadily along the coast. If it continued along its path, it'd be in New York soon.

Sue pushed Johnny out of the way and sat down at the computer console and began imputing parameters. The math wasn't difficult – she could've probably done it with paper and a pencil had she trusted herself not to fumble in her barely-controlled panic.

“Damn,” she said quietly when the numbers came up.

“Okay, we're officially screwed now,” said Ben.

“Hey, hey, don't go saying that!” Johnny suddenly exclaimed, looking scared but determined. “We're the Fantastic Four. Between us and the Avengers we'll make those aliens regret choosing this planet to invade!”

“Aveng-er,” Sue pointed out. “The only one in town at the moment is Doctor Banner. The rest of them are away, remember?”

She saw Johnny's bravado slip for a moment, but then it was back along with a mischievous grin. “Well, I guess that's fair. They got the last aliens that tried to invade the city; this time's our turn.”

Ben let out a huff of laughter. “And the Hulk's hardly the weakest link.”

“Exactly! And maybe they'll take one look at Ben's ugly mug and run! Problem solved.”

“Why you little...”

Sue's lips quirked as she stood, leaving her brother and Ben to deal with their nerves by getting on each other's. Walking over to where her husband was still arguing with the other scientists (although now they were apparently doing so over Skype), she planted herself directly behind him and placed her hands on her hips.

“Alright, enough!” she said firmly, feeling a rush of satisfaction at how Reed jumped at the sound of her voice. She raised her eyebrows at him and then met the eyes of both Doctor Banner and Doctor Foster – noting there were several others she couldn't place gathered around them. “This is pointless! From what we can figure we have about twenty-five minutes before that second alien ship reaches New York, so this really isn't something we have time for!”

“By my calculations, it's 23.6 minutes to be precise,” said a smooth voice with a British accent from Stark Tower.

Doctor Banner blinked. “It is? Since when do we know that?”

“Since about two minutes into your pointless argument with Mister Fantastic,” said a slim woman with dark hair and a military-style posture in the background.

“Oh.”

“Well, Thor's already on his way,” Doctor Foster offered. “Not sure when he'll get there, though.”

The hark-haired woman nodded as she typed away on her tablet.

“Mister Hogan's already gone to start evacuating everyone in the tower into the basement bunker. I've sent out a message to the NYPD and – Coulson, finally!”

She held the tablet a bit father up and walked out of the room to presumably talk to whoever she'd been calling.

“Excuse me, I thought you would like to be made aware that I have re-established contact with Mister Stark.”

Doctor Banner looked relieved to hear that. “Can you put him through?”

“Not at the moment, I'm afraid. It appears that Area 51 is under attack.”

The young woman standing beside Doctor Banner gasped. “Oh my God! They're trying to take down the phase-shift field!”

Sue's head snapped towards Reed's own satellite images of the battle in space and she did a double-take as six new ships suddenly appeared. Her blood went cold. Their tiny Earth fleet had been fighting hard and standing their ground even as they were dwarfed and out-numbered by the alien ships, but six more...

Although these ships were different...

“You seriously have got to be shitting me,” she heard Johnny say. “This is either the coolest thing ever or the most cliche thing ever.”

Someone in the Skype conversations shrieked.

 


 

“I've spoken to General Harper at Fort Carson and he's sending out anti-aircraft support, heavy artillery, combat chopper, and three of his four combat-ready brigades to help secure the city and to engage Ori forces in case they land,” said General Landry to the briefing room. It was a full house, no standing room available.

“SG2, I want you, SG4 and SG5 to meet them and provide support with the alien tech they've never seen before. Each of you grab some of those anti-prior devices and work with the Green Berets. SG11, you're going along with them. Your job is to figure out a way to disable the ships from the ground. Take whatever odd-ball tech you think you might need – within reason. The rest of the F-302 squadron should have left Peterson five minutes ago.”

He took a breath, needing the two seconds of reprieve before issuing the next order.

“Doctor Lam, you're in charge of field medical. Put together a team and take whatever you need. Secret's out anyway, so there's no point in pretending we don't have more advanced stuff than anyone else. Co-ordinate with local hospitals if you need to. SG10 will go with you to provide back-up should you need it.”

“Yes, sir,” said Doctor Lam and the General moved on to the next point before he had a chance to think about how he'd just ordered his daughter into a war zone.

“We know Area 51's under attack and from our last reports they're holding their ground, but all the Ori need is to do is take out the Dimensional Phase-shift Device and we're all in big trouble,” he said. “They certainly won't go down easy, though, so I'm not counting them out just yet. The bigger problem is that second ship. By our estimations, we think they're likely heading to New York. Between residual radiation from that damn portal the Chitauri got through last year and atypical energy readings from Stark Tower, it's probably managed to catch their attention in a big way. SG3 you take SG8 as emergency medical along with teams 17 to 21 and get your gear. You're heading to New York. There's a 305 on the way to pick you up and Fort Weston is already mobilizing to send you backup. Unfortunately, unlike Carson they weren't put on alert so it'll take backup a bit longer to get there. In the meantime, I know you'll do what you can.”

He looked around the room, meeting everyone's determined eyes and wondering how many of them he'd be seeing after this was all over.

“Everyone else is remaining to defend the base. Any questions?”

“No, sir!” they said in one voice.

Suddenly, the door to the briefing room flew open and Sergeant Harriman poked his head it.

“Sir, six new ships have just entered the Solar System!”

The bottom fell out of General Landry's world, making him dizzy with despair. “Ori?” he asked, forcing his voice to sound strong hoping like it he was succeeding. He couldn't afford to look anything less than confident in front of his people. Not now.

“No, sir... you should really come see for yourself, sir.”

Landry blinked and clamped down on the hope that threatened to take hold. The SG teams parted as much as they could in the cramped space to let him get through first. Then they followed him into the control room. He didn't bother to order them to do otherwise as he hurried to the main screen.

He stared at it for a moment, unaware at first of the smile that split his face while the rest of the room erupted into cheers. “Those bastards,” he said quietly. “They did it again.”

“Told you they would, sir.”

He looked over Sergeant Harriman. “That you did, Sergeant,” he said. “And I'm glad you were right.”

General Landry took a deep breath, relishing the hope that made him feel lighter than he had all day. He forced the smile off his face several moments later and turned to face the rest of the room.

“Alright people, you have your orders now get to it: we've got a world to save! Dismissed!”

“Yes, sir!”

He watched with pride as the smooth machine that was the SGC got to work. These men and women were the best in the world, he'd stake his commission on it. He wasn't happy with Ms Fraiser for spilling the SGC's secrets to the world, but at the same time he was looking forward to finally being able to publicly acknowledge the amazing people under his command.

 


 

Sam Carter couldn't turn her eyes away from the screen as she watched six hyperspace windows open into the Solar System. The moment of entry would be when they'd be most vulnerable.

“Target the entry points and prepare to fire as soon as you confirm that they're Ori,” she said. Not that they were likely to be anything else...

Six ships were spit out of hyperspace. She didn't recognize the first one, but the other five...

“Ha'taks,” she heard Marks say incredulously from behind her.

Just then the black sides of the formation's first ship exploded with white light as hundreds of drones swarmed towards the Ori ship closest to the Phoenix. Sam's jaw dropped. The ship didn't look like any Ancient ship the SGC had ever come across and yet those were the most recognizable of the Ancient's weapons. The Ori ship came apart under their onslaught.

The ha'taks spread out, two immediately heading towards Earth's location and the others began targeting the Ori's one-manned fighters.

“Sir, the fleet's being hailed on open communications!”

“Open a channel,” she heard herself say through the buzzing in her head.

“Hello, this is Daniel Jackson of the Atlantis ship Victory. Uh, sorry we couldn't be here sooner.”

Sam laughed. “Daniel, you're just in time,” she said. “And is that Teal'c you've got with you?”

“Indeed it is, Colonel Carter. I am most gratified to see you are still in one piece.”

“Thanks Teal'c. It's good to hear your voice. Both of you.” She forced her happiness down and became serious once more. “We've got the Dimensional Phase-shift Device working, but it was down a little while ago and two Ori ships managed to make it in before it went back up.”

“I'm picking up inert drones, so I'm assuming that means the Antarctic chair is short?”

Sam blinked. “Major Lorne?! What are you doing there? Daniel, how exactly did you get to Atlantis?”

“Hello Colonel Carter, nice to see you too ma'am. As for me... well, they needed someone to pilot this beauty.”

“It's a long story, Sam. After we're done saving the world we can go grab a beer and I'll tell you all about it.”

“It's a date. Carter out.”

Sam didn't bother to hide her grin. Physically there were still light years between them, but SG1 was once more fighting together on the same battlefield. They could do this.

“Are the Ori ship's shields still down?” she asked.

“No sir, it looks like they've managed to at least partially restore them, though they are weak.”

“Then swing in closer and take them down again!”

“Yes, sir!”


 

They exited hyperspace into the middle of a battlefield.

Daniel couldn't stop the sharp intake of breath at the sight of floating debris from ships that had been destroyed or damaged in the fight. He immediately recognized the Odyssey floating dead in space while another Earth ship was defending it from two Ori battleships. Then, a little closer to them, an Ori ship had flown itself in-between a fellow ship and an Earth one Daniel didn't recognize.

“Oh don't tell me, the bit white monsters are the Ori?” said Clint.

“Yeah, that'd be them,” Daniel confirmed.

“They really are quite dramatic, aren't they?” said Vala.

“Anyone got any problems with me testing out the drones on one of 'em?” Lorne asked.

“Nope, go ahead,” Daniel answered.

“You mean, like the ones we dragged to Atlantis that they went all googly-eyed for?” Clint asked.

“Uh, yeah those...” Daniel glanced to Lorne, who smirked slightly as the Command Chair activated with a hiss. The airman closed his eyes, furrows appearing on his brow as he concentrated.

“Doctor Jackson, the Jaffa are deploying their ha'taks into positions.”

“Thanks, Captain.”

Just then light erupted onto the screen as drones poured out of the side of the ship, sweeping by them like twin rivers of light. They descended onto the second Ori ship and cocooned it into a mass of constantly-moving light particles that bombarded the ship from all sides.

“Woah,” he heard someone say.

He looked over and smirked slightly at Clint and Sam's awed expressions. They both blinked as the Ori ship exploded.

Clint shook his head. “Okay, nevermind, googly-eyes totally justified.”

“Gee thanks,” said Lorne dryly.

Daniel snickered and then turned to the airman at the communication's console. “Lieutenant Kelley, could you please hail the fleet?”

“Right away, sir.” There was a pause and then: “The ship ahead of us has responded to the hail: go ahead, sir.”

Daniel took a deep breath. When he'd hailed the ha'taks earlier he'd introduced the Victory as a Ancient ship, but afterwards realized she wasn't really. Yes, the Ancients had built her, but it had been a joint project between the Four Great Races. And the Ancients weren't around anymore – at least not physically in this dimension. But at the same time she certainly wasn't an Earth ship. Looking around the bridge, he suddenly had an epiphany. This ship had been created with one cause in mind.

“Hello, this Daniel Jackson of the Atlantis ship Victory,” he said in a strong voice. “Sorry we're, uh late.”

He recognized Sam's laughter immediately and grinned. So that made the mystery Earth ship the Phoenix; Sam hadn't been sure if it would be finished on time. It felt good to hear her voice, like yet another puzzle piece was sliding into place. The only one of their little circle missing was Jack.

“Doctor Jackson, we've got one of the Ori ships heading towards us,” Lieutenant Mizner announced after Sam had signed off.

The smile slid off Daniel's face and he nodded. “Okay, then let's get to it. Sam's got this one here. Lorne, you wanna take the one heading for us and Steve, help the Odyssey and the Iliya Muromet?”

“Sounds good, Doc.”

“So just aim for the gigantic white ships?”

“They're huge Steve, you can't miss,” said Natasha.

“Seriously, like a barn door,” Clint added with a grin.

“So basically if I miss you'll laugh at me.”

“'Till the end of forever, Cap, count on it.”

“Then I'd better not miss.”

Daniel held his breath as the Victory turned to face the on-coming Ori warship. He tried not to think about how many people there were aboard. Ordinary people who'd once been farmers, weavers and merchants, until the Ori had taken them from their peaceful existence and sent them to war on a senseless, wasteful whim. It was that, above all else, he could never forgive the Ori.

Drones surrounded the large ship, battering at its shields in a chaotic jumble of unstable energy. Suddenly, a beam of light flew out of the jumble and headed right towards them. He heard Mizner swear just before the ship tilted to the right and swerved slightly to the side. They flew past the drone-covered ship and Daniel caught sight of the Odyssey, floating dead in space, the Iliya Muromet in front of it.

“Sir, Iliya Muromet's starboard thrusters are damaged and shields are low – less than twenty percent,” announced Captain Strugacky. “And Ori ship is powering front beam.”

“Damn,” said Daniel.

Just then a holographic screen popped up just in front of the top left corner of the viewscreen. It showed the outline of a side view of the Victory. The top of what almost looked like a stubby dorsal fin opened and hundreds of tiny specks poured out. Daniel's eyes widened as he watched them assemble just above the ship, combining into a flat, round disc. The specks were dark on the holograph until the last one joined the group and then suddenly the disc lit up and began spinning.

Daniel grinned as he saw it fly by them on the main viewscreen, tilting onto an angle as it curved to avoid hitting the Iliya Muromet. The disc plowed into the Ori ship and Daniel swore he saw sparks fly as it spun against its shields for a few moments. The shields collapsed and the disc of light buried itself into the side of the Ori ship.

When the disc's movement finally stopped, the light went out and it dissolved into thousands of mini-drones.

“Okay, that was cool,” he heard Lorne mutter.

Immediately, three ha'taks converged on the damaged Ori ship, their weapons battering at the power core. Ori fighters swooped in to defend it, the ha'taks shaking amidst their barrage until a squadron of F-302s flew out from where they'd been clustered around the Odyssey. The bottoms of the ha'taks opened and four alkesh flew out of each, immediately joining the fight.

Lorne's drones flew at the Ori's fighters.

“Lieutenant, hail the Ori ship,” said Daniel.

“Yes, sir!” A moment. “The hail's been answered, sir, and I have visual.”

“Thank you.”

Another, slightly larger holoscreen appeared in front of the viewscreen. The grey, sickly face of a solemn-faced prior took up most of it, but in the background Daniel could see the familiar sight of the bridge.

Daniel cleared his throat. “I'm Doctor Daniel Jackson of the Atlantis ship Victory,” he said loudly. “I want to offer you the chance to surrender. If you do so I promise you that neither you nor your people–“

“–Hallowed be the Ori!” the prior interrupted him, the familiar light of righteous madness shining from within the depths of his eyes. “Death will come to the unbelievers, to those who dare to turn away from their light as it is written in the Book of Origin so shall it–

“Cut him off,” said Daniel and the holoscreen disappeared. He closed his eyes, feeling sick. His body numb and he could barely feel his right hand as he clenched it into a tight fist. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. “Okay Steve, go ahead and finish it.”

A hand closed around his fist and he turned to look into Vala's knowing eyes. Of course. Somewhere, on one of the many Ori ships were the villagers she'd lived amongst for several months, others with whom she'd travelled to the Milky Way. No matter the pain the experience had caused her, Daniel had always been aware that she hadn't entirely hated the people she'd been surrounded by. The Ori had used her, but their followers had been kind to her.

He gave her a small smile and opened his fist to squeeze her hand in return, in understanding. They dropped their joined hands and turned back to the viewscreen just as the mini-drone disc lit up again and resumed its spinning.

Steve had apparently been paying attention to the ha'taks, because he sent the disc flying directly at the power core. The other ships and fighters flew out of the way as the core was easily split apart by the disc. The explosion flung debris in all directions.

“Sir, the two ha'taks in near-orbit position to Earth are being attacked!”

Daniel's head snapped to the side. “Steve?” he said.

“Uh, sure thing Daniel. I think I can- oh hey, I didn't know it did that!”

“What? What did it do?” Rodney immediately demanded.

“The, uh, room projection shifted to show me the pyramids from closer up”

“Huh. Like a proximity zoom: neat.”

He saw the glowing disc fly by along the corner of the view screen. The display on the small holoscreen changed, the outline of the Victory suddenly shrinking and moving to the bottom of the screen in order to show the two ha'taks and the Ori warship the disc was heading towards. He watched as the Ori ship shifted towards the disc. There was a build-up of light at its bow and then a beam of light flew out. The disc suddenly stopped mid-flight and swerved so that it faced the beam.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Rodney screamed over the comm.

The Ori's forward lance beam hit the disc and the light intensified for a second before the drones suddenly went dark