Clint Eastwood

a Stargate: Atlantis story

by dirty diana

dirtydiana78@hotmail.com

This originally started out in my lj as a teeny apocalypse birthday story for serial karma, and then turned into...a much bigger apocalypse birthday story for serial karma. Kisses and massive amounts of beta appreciation go to Liss and sffan, without whom I would totally give up after the first draft.


un

thirty-four litres of water

Elizabeth's skin and hair smell constantly of seawater. She's tanned dark from the relentless sun that hangs low in the sky, golden brown from head to foot.

McKay usually has sand in his shoes, a fact that he is constantly sharing. Lieutenant Ford wanted to call it Sandonia, but he was outvoted.

"You have to admit," Elizabeth tells John, "there must have been a planet with less beach."

Johns stare is deadpan. "Yeah," he agrees. "There was the one with the dinosaurs."

John won't say so, but he likes it here. He goes swimming every morning, stripped down to his shorts, before the sun has completely risen. He's nearly as dark as she is. His skin, too, smells of the sea. Tastes like it, when she licks a small stripe at the back of his neck.

"Elizabeth," he says, because they have rules, they have an agreement, and she's breaking one of them right now, with McKay trying to sleep only two feet away.

McKay does equations in his sleep, underneath his breath. John says he always has.

thirty-four litres of water
4 pounds of fish

Elizabeth doesn't sleep that much. Instead, she makes lists. She's comparing what they have with what they need, calculating how she's going to keep the team alive another day.

Team. Survivors. Seven scientists. Seven Marines, and John. And her, struggling every day with a list that grows longer. And the baby, Miko's tiny baby girl, with slitted and curious eyes like her mother's, and cool, pale skin. Miko won't say who the father is.

Elizabeth hopes that he was one of the ones that they had a chance to bury. Teyla went with her people. It was her duty, she said, and Elizabeth understood.

"I think my team should take a trip tomorrow." John leaves his burning torch of bound branches in the sandy dirt outside her tent as he enters.

"Where to?"

Their stargate, just through the clusters of trees on a narrow strip of land, will take them across the Pegasus Galaxy. But there aren't a lot of places left to go. Most civilisations are in no position to help them, as decimated by the Wraith as they've been. Others just don't want to.

McKay is working on a way to make the gate dial an eight-symbol address. But a gate needs power, and so they search, the same as before. "Forget the ZPM," John would say, with a grin that never touched his eyes. Elizabeth notices. "I'm looking for the planet where they've invented the warp drive."

"P3X-355." John exhales a sigh as he sits beside her. He looks tired. "Maybe they will want to trade us something," his heavy fingers tickle the base of her spine, "something that's not fish."

"Fruit," she says automatically. "We could use some fruit. As much as they can spare."

"Fruit," he repeats obediently. "Got it."

Then she kisses him, and he lets her, with a cool grin before leading her out of the tent. With his other hand he picks up his torch, to light his way through the trees.

Elizabeth doesn't for a moment think that John's shyness has anything to do with her. It's about the men, his men, men who might never again see their wives or girlfriends.

She lets John lead her through the dark.

"Water," she says suddenly, as her bare feet stumble in the sand, a few minutes down the beach. "Don't forget to ask about fresh water."

"I won't forget," he says, and then his hands are on her waist, urgently tugging her down to the ground.

She's on her back, arching up as he kisses her, and his scent of salt and sun and sweat surrounds her, making her gasp. Sometimes, Elizabeth thinks, it's like saying goodbye. Tonight it's like saying hello, frantic and warm. John's hands search her skin, inside her fraying uniform, breasts and waist and hips. He pauses to brush her hair from her face as he kisses her.

She thrusts lazily, pushing her thighs against his. She can feel the strength of him in the arms and chest that press against her, holding her close.

She smiles, touching her fingers to his mouth, and he draws his lips across the palm of her hand, curved in a grin. Then his hands pull at her uniform, no longer teasing, pulling the fabric all the way down. With his knee he pushes her bare thighs apart.

She groans, breathless, and knows that he is just as lost as she is, moaning against her ear as her long fingers sneak beneath his shirt, scratching hard. Her other hand caresses the inside of his thigh. She finds the hard length of him, rising against her hand, and strokes rhythmically, up and down.

"Elizabeth," he groans, and the moonlight casts shadows on his face. He pulls aside the last of his uniform, rolling with her onto his back. The sand still clings to her skin.

She digs her knees into the sand and guides him into her, groaning as he pushes inside. She's warm and slippery, moaning with need.

He is saying her name still, over and over, his hands digging into her skin. Dizzily she thrusts, over and over, craving the heat of him that warms her all over.

When she climaxes, it's with a muffled cry, struggling not to be heard, mouth pressing into his skin. John watches her carefully, his hands softly stroking the dip of the waist, and then he holds his breath and comes inside her.

"Sir?" The crackling of John's radio startles them both. She can feel all the muscles of his body tensing as he reaches for the radio, tossed carelessly behind him. "Sorry to disturb you. This is Bates. We've got incoming gate activity."

John's fingers press down, as he brings the radio to his mouth. "Hostile?"

"Negative, sir. People. They claim Teyla sent them. They say they have news."

"Alright." Already John is standing. He reaches for his uniform. "I'm on my way."

"Yes, sir."

"And be nice."

This time, the pause is noticeable. "Yes, sir."

Elizabeth is cold, suddenly. She shivers. John reaches out a hand to help her up, and she takes it, until they are standing face to face.

"Back to work," he murmurs.

Elizabeth nods. She's already thinking about her lists. "Water," she reminds him.

He nods, and picks up his torch, still blazing in the sand. "I'll ask them."

Elizabeth zips her uniform up to her chin, to keep out the wind that's blowing in off the incoming tide. She follows him back home.

deux

"John, I think it's a mistake."

She only uses his name at certain times, times like now, with more meaning held behind it. John shakes his head. "How else..."

"Not that anyone consulted me," Rodney cuts them off, with his mouth full of fried fish, "but I don't see why we're still talking about this."

John only glances at him briefly before turning back to Elizabeth, whose expression hasn't changed. "According to Teyla's people, that planet is held pretty securely by the Wraith."

Ford fumbles the empty nine-mil cartridge that he's been playing with. It bounces off his fingers and into the sand, but he doesn't say anything.

Sergeant Bates speaks instead. "Dr. Weir is right, sir. It's a risk." He pauses. "Assuming we can trust the intel."

John doesn't even bother to turn his head. Some days Bates is right, and some days John's had enough. "It comes from Teyla," he says slowly. "I trust it."

"And you don't wonder why she didn't come herself?"

"I trust it," John repeats, closing the topic. "Anyway, the whole purpose of this mission would be to sniff out how accurate the information is. It's a simple recon mission." He says this more to Elizabeth than anyone, and she sees it.

Elizabeth's eyelids flutter at the word 'simple'. "You're the one who told me we need to try not to the engage the Wraith again."

"We're not engaging them." He knows he sounds like a broken record. "That's why it's called reconnaissance."

"That's why it's called boredom," Rodney cuts in. He is still eating, cheeks swollen as he chews. "This debate is stupid. If there's even a remote chance that this planet has a ZPM like Teyla's message says, then we need to go there. Not me," he adds, in his next breath. "You guys."

"Selfless of you," John says.

"Please." Rodney rolls his eyes. "I really don't think my bravery is in question at this point. Someone's got to finish work on the gate, and no one else here has the skills..."

Elizabeth's mouth is tight with unhappiness. "I still think..."

John has stopped listening, despite himself. He doesn't like undermining her, not in front of the rest of them. Her leadership is all that she has left, and he gives it to her. There isn't a lot else that he has for her, since they lost Atlantis. Since he lost Atlantis. But the fact is that they had been in a military situation for close to a year now, a situation that isn't easing. Some days, she is blind to that. Some days, he can't seem to hold his frustration down.

She seems almost to read his mind as she turned to him. She looks good, tanned dark with the sun on her skin, her eyes somehow brighter in her face. "You really think we should do it?" she asks quietly, as he nods. "Your team..."

Has been decimated. Destroyed. By the Wraith, by their failure to fight back hard enough. He knows. He holds each man's tags in a box that he keeps, buried for the moment beneath his sleeping bag. Until the day that he can bring it home. John shrugs casually. "We need the power."

"We can do it, ma'am," Bates adds, with a confidence that John can't bother to mimic. "The team is ready."

Elizabeth nods. "Then go," she says, and the meeting is over. John goes for a swim.


Rodney has a headache, and he snaps another piece of fruit out of his stash, scowling at the notes that lie in chaos around him. The tiny, tangy berries that grow in shaded places around their island are a welcome burst of sugary flavour in his mouth, and they will have to do for now. Rodney would kill for a Mars Bar, he thinks. He would happily die now for a Mars Bar. Or coffee. A sweet, bitter double espresso.

"Fuck." Rodney swears, and scratches out his last line. The equations are only making the headache worse. The work that Radek began on the DHD is proving helpful. Unfortunately, much of it is in Czech. The other half is scribbled in English, accompanied by microscopic numbers, scrawled backwards and forwards across the page.

"Is long shot," Radek explained, his hands pointing to his notes, to various bits of Czech, as he gave the briefing.

John's eyes narrowed, leaning forward. "How long of a shot?"

Rodney had rolled his eyes, out of habit. The military fascination with exact odds was something that he had never learned to deal with. "Right," he said. "We could all just learn to fish."

"I'm only asking..."

Radek's scowl cut them both off. "I am saying, is possible. Trick DHD into thinking it has extra crystal. Will take work."

That had been weeks ago, and now Radek is gone. Rodney is hungry most of the time, and short on sleep, but he isn't any closer to deciphering the DHD.

And they still need power.

"How's it going?"

Major Sheppard has an annoying way of popping up out of nowhere. Rodney scowls, and nearly drops his snack. "I'm fine," he says, stiffly.

"Yeah?" John asks him, scratching his head and shifting his feet in the sand.

"Fine." Rodney scowls, but John doesn't seem to notice.

John is studying him silently, slipped quietly into threat assessment mode. It's taken practice, but these days Rodney recognises the look. They have this conversation every morning. A residual commanding officer thing, Rodney guesses, but can never seem to sneak away in time. It's keeping him from his work.

"You sure?" John persists. "Getting enough to eat?"

"Yes. There's a twenty-four hour IHOP right behind that palm tree." Rodney waves a hand, marked carelessly with blue ink. "Do you actually want something?"

"You're sure you're fine."

Rodney sighs.


The excursion to 355 yielded fruit. Not a lot of it, but enough to make Rodney grin. John watches Elizabeth's long fingers digging under the bright, thick skins, peeling the edible pulp away from the seed. Juice runs down the groove in the centre of her palms and across her wrists. She smiles, to catch him watching her. "Not hungry?" she asks.

"Not really." He sits beside her on the ground of her tent, watching her face. "Ford and I have come up with a pretty solid plan. We're leaving in the morning."

Elizabeth shakes her head slightly, and he can see in the grace of the movement that she's scared. "Morning," she agrees.

"Yeah," he says, and wants to kiss her. But he won't, not here.

"Come back," she whispers quietly, a matter of fact instruction, like 'don't forget your umbrella'.

John reaches out his hand, to lead her to the beach.


Kate Heightmeyer shivers in the early morning breeze, as she rises out of the ocean, her feet finding the slippery sand. She pulls at the black bra and panties that stick wetly to her skin. Her other hand grips a roughly carved wooden spear, its sharpened point still empty.

She shakes the water from her hair, and bows her head, preparing once more to dive under.

"You look like a mermaid."

She jumps, stumbling as she turns around.

"Sorry." Lieutenant Ford says apologetically, pushing up the brim of the hat that hides his eyes. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"You didn't," she tells him, with only a slight hitch in her voice. "But I didn't catch what you said."

"I said you looked like a mermaid." Aiden grins, a comfortable sight after these many months. "Coming out of the sea like that."

Kate laughs, despite herself. "Some mermaid. I'm a terrible swimmer."

Aiden's eyes don't leave her. Neither does his smile. Still, she doesn't feel naked, despite his eyes, and despite the cool wind. "I noticed," he agrees. "Still. You're out here a lot."

She shrugs, indicating the spear in her hand, holding it upwards in her flat palm. "I have to do something. I'm not good for much else."

"Sure you are. You make people feel better."

Kate shakes her head. She tried for a while, after the end, to pretend that the job could still mean something. Her medical training held some use, too, but was so many years out of date that she felt like a fraud. But only time would heal the rest. Time is the one thing they aren't short on, anymore.

"You make me feel better," he adds.

Kate smiles, despite herself. Aiden's attempts to flirt are clumsy, but they are real, and she sees no reason to try to stop them. If she could. "You look like you should be somewhere else," she says.

Ford nods. His combat boots dig deep into the sand. His BDUs look washed and pressed, as neat as the day that they left Cheyenne. "Just a simple recon. I'll be back in time for dinner."

"You better," Kate says. "There'll be plenty of fish."

Her skin breaks out in goosebumps as she dives back into the water.

trois

The stale air in jumper three smells faintly of burning metal. Miko bundles the jacket of her uniform into a wad of material large enough to sit on, and squats down again to take a look at the exposed underbelly of the power console.

They figured out - Dr. McKay figured out - how to transfer some of the power used by the jumper to some of their more necessary Earth technology. Flashlights, radios. Miniscule amounts of power, relatively speaking. And the jumpers are almost relics now, hidden by the tree line near to the gate; they are fast running out of pilots to fly them.

Miko hums to herself as she works. A jolt of power strays out of a connecting wire, and stings her fingers. Miko curses, high and briefly, in Japanese, then pushes the sore fingers into her mouth, sucking at them, running her tongue along the tips.

Her daughter's name is Hope. A good American name. She is just learning to turn herself over, on the ragged military blanket that she loves, spread like a bed in the sand, underneath the shade of a wide-leaved tree.

A tiny shout reaches Miko's ears, and she is on her feet in an instant, dropping her pliers. Dr. McKay glares at her as he looks up, from behind the dismantled guts of the device that he works on. "What are you doing?"

Miko hesitates, wiping sweaty hands on the pockets of her pants and bowing her head. "Baby..." she begins.

"Oh." Dr. McKay waves his hand carelessly, as her daughter's eyes track the movement. "Charity's fine. We're discussing string theory. She agrees with me completely."

In a different light, without the distraction of a ragged beard, and dirt that smudges his face, she might have thought his expression was a smile. She glances again at the blanket. "But..."

"Are you done charging the equipment?" Dr. McKay asks her, "or are you just hoping that we'll all spontaneously develop the ability to see in the dark?"

"No." Miko shakes her head vigorously. "Soon. I finish."

"Good." Dr. McKay turns, back to his work. "Sometimes I think I'll have to do everything around here myself. God."

His words dissolve again, into a torrent of incomprehensible English. When he speaks that fast, the words are indecipherable to her, and so she has simply learned to listen for the sound. His clipped, brisk tone might be mistaken for anger, if not for the offhand lilt with which he ends each sentence.

Wriggling on her belly, Hope watches him, and gurgles her approval.

Miko inclines her head and steps back inside the jumper, scratching absently at an insect bite on her upper arm. The storm clouds are moving in quickly now, the way that they do almost every morning. The rain will be brief, but hard.


Elizabeth always retreats to her tent when it rains. She zips the opening tight, and listens to the drops pounding on the roof. The rain here has its own unique rhythm, a sharp and violent drum. She's thinking about John.

She's got more on her list now, and she's trying to learn new things everyday, like how not to second-guess every choice that she's made. It's difficult, and it gets harder with waiting. John doesn't make it any easier.

"Just who do I have to talk to get some help around here?" Rodney pokes his head in without hesitation, undoing her tent flap. His hair is rain soaked, plastered to his head, though he barely seems to notice. "One little rain cloud and the entire camp goes underground."

Elizabeth likes this time of day. It's the quietest, and feels the most like home.

This morning when John got dressed, he was still damp from the sea. She came to watch him, as he shook the sand out of his boots, and checked and rechecked his artillery.

She watched, and he let her, silently. She didn't make him promise to return. That was last night, and this was the cool glare of a new morning. They both had other things to worry about.

Lieutenant Ford came running up from the beach, and it was time to go.

"Take care of them," Elizabeth said, quietly.

John nodded. His gaze fell behind her, to the camp that was just waking. "You too."

Rodney is reciting his demands. Elizabeth crosses her arms and forces herself to listen.

"I'm sure he'll be fine." The words stumble awkwardly out of Rodney's mouth, and he's just as quickly back to his complaints.

Elizabeth nods. "Come inside till the rain is over," she tells him, and together they wait out the storm.


The first thing John notices about the planet is that it is hot, too hot. The distant sun bears a faintly orange glow, but the air is the worst, damp and thick. John swears as he picks his way through the thick foliage, and checks behind him for his team. Four Marines, and Dr. Durocher, probably the sharpest shooter among the physicists. John's first instinct is to leave the scientists at home. But they don't have the numbers for that, not anymore. And he needs someone to tell him where the ZPM is hiding.

If there is a ZPM. The second thing he notices is that it's quiet. Too quiet, with no noise except the rustling of a wind that doesn't cool the air.

"It's too quiet, sir."

John doesn't turn around again. "And yet I can still hear you, Bates."

Ford chuckles silently, but says nothing. There is silence after that.

They move silently towards the crest of the hill in front of them, in single file, with Bates taking point, Durocher in between them. Ford leads the rest of the team, tracking a path to the right. If one group is captured, the other team's orders are to run like hell. John would hear no arguments.

John drops down to the ground, the grass scratching his hands, and reaches for his binoculars. The valley below them is flat and barren.

"Dead end, sir." Bates has crawled up beside him. "There's no one here."

"Don't think so, sergeant." Join points briefly, then passes the binoculars. The earth is flattened in places, scorched in others, as far as he can see.

"Dart fire?" Bates asks.

John shoots him a glare, already scrambling down the hill. Rocks and dirt come loose, tumbling after him, as Bates and Durocher do double-time to catch up.

John hits his radio. "Ford."

"Sir."

"We're taking a closer look. Stay put."

He can hear the hesitation, something he never would have imagined a year ago. He can't stop to worry about it. "Yes, sir. Got you covered, sir."

John continues down.


The building is built right into the hill, the entrance hidden by its design. The mouth could easily be mistaken for another crevice in the hill, until John's boots kicked the dead leaves and grass aside, checking the frame to the entrance for stability.

"Wraith made?" Bates asks him.

"Nah." John shakes his head, as he enters first. The walls feel familiar, in a way that he won't bother to describe. "Definitely not the Wraith."

Durocher is tapping at her scanner, frowning. She always seems to talk in a whisper, and both men lean in to hear her. "There's nothing here," she says. "No energy readings."

John shakes his head. "There's something here." He can feel it.

"Sir..."

"Let's just look around a little longer." John squints into the cavern, bringing up his flashlight. The darkened space appears to go on forever. "Bates."

The sergeant nods and steps back outside to guard the entrance. Durocher follows him deeper in.

John barely hears the footsteps that echo his. He's studying the room, as his flashlight sweeps across it, thinking quietly. "Teyla's message said there were people here," he says. "Didn't she?"

Durocher nods. "But not for a while, she said."

"It's clean."

Her brow furrows. She's still studying her charts. "What's clean?"

"This place. It's clean, like someone's been here." John's fingers move over a flat table surface, free of dust. He feels it again then, the tingling. "You don't see it?"

Durocher shakes her head. "Yes. But..."

He recognises, then, the sound of Sergeants Bates rifle going off, and the shout. John runs, with his fingers on his trigger.


There are three of them. One girl-Wraith, and two males, coming over the hill just above Major Sheppard's position. Aiden fumbles for his radio, but gets no response when he calls. Finally Bates' voice comes through, crackling uneasily. Ford can see him, a dot below, in the pit of the valley.

"Radios must be dead inside," he says. "What do you have?"

Beside him, Stackhouse is shuffling, impatient to move. "Sir..." he begins.

"Fuck it." Ford drops his hands from his radio, reaching for his rifle. "Let's go get them."


Sergeant Bates sees Ford and Stackhouse and McLaughlin when they start to move, rushing down from the hilltop. "Sir," he shouts, and then he's squeezing his trigger empty, at two enemy targets that have appeared out of nowhere. He sees one stumble, but not fall. He sees Ford releasing the pin on the grenade in his hand, sees the Wraith in front of him go down in the noise and fire.

He never sees the she-Wraith, until she picks him up off the ground. He's lasted longer than he thought he ever could, is the thought that crosses his mind, and then the world fades into slow motion.


"Ford!" John has to put one hand out, to stop Durocher from tumbling out of the entrance ahead of him. "What the fuck is going on?"

"Wraith, sir," Ford spits into the radio, and then Ford is there, with Stackhouse and McLaughlin behind him. "Cover!" Ford yells, and there's a Wraith exploding to his left, blown into the air in front of him.

To his right, Sergeant Bates is dying.

Behind him, Durocher is squeezing the trigger on her nine-mil, at the ghost-figure of a Wraith, her hands like claws digging into Bates' chest.

Towards the horizon, a farther distance than John can measure, a hive ship makes no noise as it moves into the sky.

"Ford!" he yells, but already knows the answer.

"There's no way, sir. I'll take the both of them out."

John takes a breath. He leans against the wall of the cavern, still trying to tell him something. Run, run, run.

As the hive ship rises, it blots out the sun.

Bates makes a whimpering noise, still struggling despite the lines of weakness that grow deep in his face. The Wraith seems not to notice anything but him, now intent on feeding. Her eyes glint with an obscene light.

John switches into single shot. His hands don't shake at all.

"Run!" He yells to the others, to Ford and Stackhouse and McLaughlin, to Durocher behind him.

When he takes the shot, he doesn't stay to watch Bates fall.

By the time that they reach the gate, the hive ship is the only thing visible in the sky. The Darts are deploying, one by one. John stays till the last, and sees his team home.

quatre

Kate's face is the first thing that Aiden is aware of when he wakes out of deep black dreams, hovering over him like a mercenary angel.

He doesn't realise that he has spoken this aloud until she laughs at him. It's a slight sound, and doesn't match the pounding in his head.

"Yeah, right," is all she says, leaning in to listen to his heart. Her hand is cold, in the centre of his chest, and he doesn't notice for a moment that it's almost the only thing that he can feel.

"What happened?"

Her eyes narrow worriedly. "You don't remember?"

Aiden thinks. "I remember we got ambushed," he said finally.

"You got hit by a stunner blast," she tells him, and that starts to come back to him, the loud sound of his own fear as he ran. His eyes fall from her face.

"Yeah," he says. "That, I remember."

"Good," she says. "Feeling returning?" Her cool hands press solidly into his side, pushing away the fabric of his shirt.

"I don't know, doc," he says slowly. "Try it again."

Her hands fall away, as she glares at him, and lifts her stethoscope to listen for the sound of his breathing. He tries hard to control it, to slow down the restless inhale-exhale.

"I guess Sergeant Bates was a friend of yours."

"We were okay. He didn't talk about himself that much."

"But he seemed like a nice man."

"He was," Aiden agrees with a stubborn smile, watching her scribble a set of numbers onto a page of paper that bears his name. "Shouldn't you stick to one kind of doctoring at a time?"

She smiles, but makes no denials. "I thought you might like to talk."

Aiden wriggles his fingers, feeling the sensation that is returning in drops. Talking is the last thing on his list. He watches Kate working, watches her pretty blue eyes, and thinks of other things that he'd like to do with her. Things that might stop him thinking for fifteen minutes, about being eaten alive.

Kate looks up curiously, and Aiden realises that his face is warm with heat He won't ask her, anyway, too unsure of what she'll say. Instead he lies on his back, searching for the feeling in every patch of skin, and lets her bring him a cup of water.

"Lieutenant Ford."

"Major Sheppard." It's hard to stand at attention when he can't feel his toes, so he settles for leaning his head back, and trying hard to focus.

If he's waiting for a thank you, it never comes. Major Sheppard's voice is hard, and surprises him. "You shouldn't have been there."

"You were in trouble." The memory is faint, still, but he remembers cold Wraith eyes. Sergeant Bates dropping, into the dirt.

"You shouldn't have been there. You had orders."

His voice takes a moment to find itself. Kate still has one comforting hand on his shoulder, as she kneels into the sand, and he thinks that she might be glaring at Major Sheppard, beneath long lashes. Aiden hesitates, still. But they're a long, long way from Parris Island, and he knows he's not wrong. "We couldn't just leave you there."

"Not your decision. If the Wraith had," here the Major's voice slows, changes pitch, "captured us, who would have made it back to look after the others? Did you think about that?"

"I wasn't just going to watch you get eaten."

Dr. Weir shows up out of nowhere. "Gentlemen. I can hear you from across camp."

"We were...debriefing." Major Sheppard almost cracks a smile, and he's staring at Dr. Weir in a way that Aiden doesn't understand. He knows about them, of course, everybody in camp knows, but this look doesn't quite match up to that, with something curious and distant behind it.

"I could hear that." Dr. Weir smiles back at him, and turns her attention to Aiden almost immediately. "How's he doing, Kate?"

"He'll live," Kate answers, and Aiden hears a smile on her mouth. "He's stubborn."

"Yes. I think that's going around."

Dr. Weir's slim body drops down to his level, and Kate drops instinctively back, out of the frame, to let them talk. Aiden is immediately sorry that she's gone. "So?" Dr. Weir asks them both. "What happened?"

Major Sheppard scratches the back of his neck, where his hair has grown long, and shrugs. "When we got there, the place appeared deserted. Looks like it had been that way for a while. The one building we found was..."

"I don't understand." Dr. Weir cuts him off, but doesn't seem to notice. "The Wraith were hiding?"

"Tactics, ma'am." Aiden wishes badly that he could stand, wishes that the major weren't glaring down at him. He searches for the blonde dot at the edge of the sea that is Kate, and tries to focus. "They weren't hiding, so much as waiting for us."

Major Sheppard clears his throat, but Aiden pretends, dizzily, not to hear him.

"You know they were, sir."

"And the building?" she asks, directing her questions at him now. "Ancient design?"

Major Sheppard speaks anyway. "Definitely."

"So there probably was a ZPM there."

"Maybe," Aiden says.

"I'd bet my life on it," Major Sheppard says.

"And now it's gone?"

"According to Durocher."

"Wraith?"

"What else?"

"What would the Wraith want with a ZPM?" Aiden can't help asking.

Dr. Weir stands, brushing the sand from her frayed uniform, looking at Major Sheppard. Aiden sees the answer cross both of their minds at the same moment.

"They don't want the ZPM," she says.

Major Sheppard nods. His mouth is a hard, blank line. "They want us."

"Why?" Aiden asks. "There's hardly any of us left." He hates the sand, the vacant edge of nothing. But he doesn't want to think about running, not again.

"Because we pissed them off," Major Sheppard says, at the same time as Dr. Weir answers.

"Earth."


Kate is scared. Terrified, actually. Though she can't put her finger on why, other than men have fallen out of the stargate again, moving too fast and bruised. Her hands shake as she slices the guts out of the pale flesh of another fish with a borrowed army knife, tossing it into a bucket with the rest of her work.

"Hey."

Kate nearly jumps out of her skin. "You scared me half to death," she tells Aiden, stopping her work to cover her trembling hands. "And what are you doing out of bed?"

"I'm bored," he answers, looking at her seriously. "And I feel fine."

"Fine, huh?" She throws a wide-eyed fish at him, and he winces as he reaches for it, too slow to catch it. "If you feel so fine, maybe you should do some work."

He ignores the knife that she's extending, smiling easily at it. If it were only the smile, she thinks, clutching the knife too tightly. "Well," he begins lightly, "when I say fine..."

"You always have an answer, don't you?" she asks him, rubbing one absent hand against her bare arms, pricked rough with goosebumps. The breeze is heavier, this late in the afternoon, coming in over the water. "It's like hanging out with my little brother."

"Ow," Aiden drawls slowly, not taking his eyes from her face. "Damn. If the Wraith hadn't knocked me out, that sure would have."

She blushes, looking down. "I didn't mean..."

"Yeah, you did," he says, nodding. "But it's okay, because you're wrong, and I'm going to prove it."

She looks at him then, her eyes squinting to see him, but he's only smiling. She rubs again at her bare shoulders.

"You're cold."

"No," she lies, without thinking.

"I'll go get you a jacket," he says, and he's on his feet before she can call out his name.

"You almost died." It isn't what she meant to say.

"Nah. I'm fine. I promise. I'll be right back. I'm so fine, I'll even help you with dinner."

Grinning still, and Kate knows that he means it.

She inhales, praying silently for strength. She reaches again for the bucket of fish. She still can't keep her hands steady. She's too old for this, she thinks, too old by far.


It's later when Elizabeth finds John on the beach.

"You were hard on him," she says, her only greeting.

He doesn't turn to look at her, standing perfectly still, in silhouette from the dipping sun. "Was I?"

"He's a kid."

John doesn't move. Elizabeth resists the urge to reach out and touch him, to pull him close.

"He's scared."

"I should fucking hope so."

She creeps forward then, and puts a hand on his shoulder. His skin is burning hot, as he turns to look at her.

"I'm scared," she adds, and that softens him slightly, bringing a smile that she knows is only a performance for her. Still, she kisses his mouth to see it, and he lets her, his warm lips opening to greet her.

"Jumper one," she says. It's half a command, half a question.

"Five minutes," he agrees, and then her hand slips from his skin and he's gone, back inside himself, further down the beach.

She gets there first. She waits, in the stifling heat of the close space, her bare feet on the metal floor, covered with the sand that's been tracked in. When John arrives, he's in an invisible hurry, grabbing hold of her hand. The door snaps shut behind him.

"Want to go up?" he asks her.

She nods, knowing that he does. The sky is never far from his thoughts, especially on days like this.

They're far above the flat, blue sea when John thinks the autopilot into consciousness, his hands sliding from the controls.

"Here," he says, roughly, and drags her to the floor. She follows him down willingly, the hunger burning a knot in her stomach that won't come undone.

Elizabeth gasps when he kisses her. She wants this, needs this, and for a moment she will pretend that there is nothing else, no one else in the world. It's hard, but his skin makes it easier, when she presses her mouth to the hard muscle of his left bicep, and bites gently.

The jumper shifts suddenly, noticeably, Elizabeth's discarded jacket skidding lightly along the floor. She gasps again, clinging to him.

"Turbulence," he tells her, and it's the last thing that he says for a while. She can hear his quick, shallow breathing. His eyes are dark and filled with want, as he pulls away the last of her clothing and spreads her thighs apart. He is in charge, in here, for always, holding her close. His mouth presses solidly against hers, as he presses inside her, fucking her with a rhythm that has no meaning. Elizabeth closes her eyes, and can only hold on.

Afterwards, there is never enough time. Elizabeth looks past John, to the clear blue sky that they are floating through.

"I didn't know what else to do." His hands have fallen from her skin. "Every time that it happens, I never know what else to do." His voice sounds angry.

She nods understanding. "You couldn't..."

"No, don't. You weren't there, Elizabeth. You have no idea."

"I suppose I don't," she agrees, and waits for him to speak again.

"I didn't want to come here," he says quietly, finally. "This goddamn mission."

"I know. You wouldn't return my messages." She smiles, but he doesn't smile back. The air inside the jumper is only marginally cooler than that on the ground, and the sweat runs in elegant drops down the length of her back, tickling her skin.

He raises his eyebrows briefly, and he nods. "I'd forgotten that."

"I was surprised when you said yes," she adds. "And relieved."

"I was too. Surprised, I mean."

She nods, watching him carefully. The warmth of their encounter hasn't yet left her, yet she doesn't know what to make of him when he's like this, ice-cold and quiet. "What's your point, John?"

He shrugs, and spreads his hands, empty. "Nothing. Only that I'm glad I came. I am," he repeats, at her choked laugh. "I'm glad I came, I'm glad I met you, and I'll be a hundred times as glad when I get us home."

His eyes challenge hers. Elizabeth sits up straight, resisting the urge to cover herself. Suddenly, she's cold. "We can't do it, John. We don't have the manpower. We don't have the resources. We..."

"Fuck that." He speaks so quietly that she has to strain to hear him. "I'm tired of this, Elizabeth. I'm tired of sitting around, waiting to die."

"We're not," she says, and only the light turning in her stomach makes her wonder if it's true. "We're getting home."

"Damn right, we are."

"John."

"We're going to get that ZPM back."

She shakes her head, licking her lips. She feels nausea coming on, in a heady wave. There's sixteen of them, now. Sergeant Andre Bates, Chicago, USA, another letter that she will have to write. "I won't approve that. It's a suicide mission."

"Elizabeth." He sounds desperate. But not for her permission, she knows. John doesn't need her permission. He never has.

Elizabeth reaches for her uniform, and knows that this has been the last time.

"I'm getting us home," he says quietly.

The fear pricks her skin, and she shivers. The jumper dips easily, towards the sea.

cinq


The sunsets are long here. The sun sinks endlessly down, draping the sky in a seamless painting of gold and dark wine reds. Teyla watches the sun peacefully from the opening of her tent, one finger tapping the ceramic rim of her mug, warmed by the fragrant tea.

"I believe we shall see rain, soon."

She gestures with an arm, and Halling bows his head and steps into the tent beside her. He has always possessed more skill at reading the weather. She has neither the eyes, nor the patience.

Teyla sips her steaming, bitter tea, and nods. "We could use it."

They arrived late in the year, for planting crops. But they still tend carefully to their hosts' farms, hoping to stretch the food meant for few, into food meant for many more. Teyla scavenges daily with the children, for the fruit that grows freely in the forest. Her fingers are stained with juice, dark and red, dirt crushed under her fingernails.

One of the children runs towards her now, small feet kicking up dust on the dry ground.

"Teyla Emmagan," she says, breathlessly. "Visitor. Through the ring." Then tugs nervously on her skirt, as Teyla smiles and touches her hair.

John Sheppard is brown, his skin weathered, looking older than she remembers. Halling hovers beside her as she exits her tent. Trust has never come easy for him, and he trusted less at the end of Atlantis. He does not understand her choices still, she knows, but it is nothing that they talk about.

She extends a hand towards John as he comes up to meet her, and he takes it.

"Let us go for a walk," she says, and they leave Halling behind, walking into the sunset.

They walk in silence, until they are out of sight of the village. She takes his arm.

"You look good."

Teyla only smiles. She has missed John, missed his personal style of what he calls small talk. "As do you."

"Yeah, well." His voice trails off, and she waits a moment before pressing him further.

"John," she says, her words cool, as she readies herself for the request she guesses is coming. "I know you did not travel here to compliment my dress. Perhaps you should tell me what it is you wish to discuss."

John pauses. "That intel you sent us. I wanted to thank you."

She nods. "I know your search for the ZPM continues."

"The intel was good," he tells her. "A little late, perhaps."

"I am sorry to hear that."

"Not your fault," he says, his hold on her arm tightening to lead her towards the west. The tension in his voice eases, and that tells her most of all that the news is bad. "They were waiting for us. Bates didn't make it."

"I am sorry." She touches his arm in a gesture of sympathy, but he ignores it.

"We're going after them."

Teyla is not surprised. She recognised the look in his eyes from the moment that he approached the tent, the stubborn lines in the set of his jaw. She only shakes her head. "They will be waiting again."

"Sure," John agrees, too casually. "But that's not our problem."

He stops suddenly, and she stops with him. He reaches into the grass, gripping a pink flower by its stem. He presses it gently into her hand, and she smiles.

"It is beautiful, John. Tell me what the problem is."

"We can get on board one Hive ship. With a little effort," he adds at the look on her face, "but we can. But we don't have the manpower to search them all."

"I see." Teyla strokes the petals of the flower, feeling suddenly nauseated. She had thought that this was over, all of it. "You wish me to tell you where they hold the ZPM."

John's eyes cloud suddenly with worry. "Can you do that?"

"Perhaps." She studies the flower. The darkness is falling. "It will be hard."


"You okay?"

Aiden jumps. It's her turn to surprise him, Kate thinks in satisfaction. She kneels down beside him as he sits on the beach, and without even asking for permission begins examining the bandages she reapplied just yesterday. "Sure," he says.

"You seem kind of quiet."

"I'm fine, doc."

"I know you are." She smiles, trying to ease the tension. "I hear Major Sheppard is planning a new mission."

He winces, and she knows that it's not from the pressure that she's applying to his injuries. Her fingers are light on his skin. "News travels fast around here."

"I guess it does." She doesn't tell him that she listens carefully to the undercurrents that sweep like wildfire through camp, for any mention of his name.

He's quiet for a while, until Kate is satisfied in her inspection, and her hands drop to her lap.

"Well?" His eyes meet hers, seeking reassurance, and the hint of a smile returns. "Will I live?"

"You're recovering well," she tells him quietly. "Though if Major Sheppard asks, I don't know that I'd see fit to release you for duty."

His eyes meet hers, surprised, and she knows that she's hit the mark. "You would do that?"

She shrugs, with a calmness that she doesn't feel. "If you don't think you're ready to go out there," she says, "then you're probably not." She doesn't say that she's not ready to watch him go. She's only been through the gate twice. The last time, Atlantis was falling, sinking for the last time into the sea. She still remembers the aching cold.

He watches her for a moment, then shakes his head. "I can't let them go out there without me."

"Yeah?" she asks him, brushing her hair out of her eyes, a nervous gesture that she thought she'd gotten rid of. Storm clouds are moving in, sure to bring the afternoon rain. "And who's taking care of you?"

He smiles. "You worried about me, Kate?"

She looks away, to the darkening horizon. "Not really."

"You are," he persists. "I'm growing on you."

"Maybe," she says finally. "A little."


John returns after dark. Alvares and Baxter, on sentry duty, salute him without a word. John knows better than to try telling them that they don't have to bother. He knows better than anyone how thin the things are that keep each of them held together.

He's hungry. He takes a place by the campfire without speaking, and reaches for the leftovers.

He can feel Elizabeth watching him. "How did it go?"

John throws his bones into the fire. "It went."

"How's Teyla?"

"Good."

"Good," she says, and then they both are quiet.

If she's waiting for him to apologise, he won't, and he thinks she knows it. If he's waiting for her to change her mind, he knows better. That doesn't stop him from watching her, across the firelight.

Shadows dance across her face. Her eyes are tired, and her mouth is tight with thinking. She's still beautiful, though, enough to make John wish he could be wrong about this. Wrong about the Wraith, about everything.

He's been thinking about home lately. His memories of home are nothing more than a collection of motel rooms and Air Force bases, not since he left. No more a home than Atlantis, or this place. No less a home either. A collection of things he could depend on. Like the ocean, like Elizabeth.

But Ford's got a home. Stackhouse, and McKay, and Heightmeyer. Elizabeth has a home, one that she whispers for in her sleep.

He watches as she gets up from the fire, and retires into the dark.

six

In the peace of the dawn, Elizabeth Weir holds a sweetly sleeping baby. Hope cried through the night, but now in the glow of the rising sun it seems nothing can wake her. Elizabeth's lips brush Hope's forehead in a light impulsive kiss, and then she shifts the baby's weight in her arms.

Miko sits down beside her, without a sound, but makes no move to take the baby. She bows her head softly, in a routine greeting.

"Pretty," she says. She is talking about the dawn, spreading light and grace over the sea.

Elizabeth nods. She knows Miko has been awake most of the night, but she shows no sign of it, with bright eyes that follow every rise and fall of the baby's breath even as she talks.

"You do not sleep," Miko says, as if tracking her thoughts.

Elizabeth did sleep, briefly, hours ago, but she awoke to the dark sky and a restless, nagging anxiousness. "No," she agrees.

"Is no good. You worry much." Miko frowns, and then corrects herself. "Too much."

Elizabeth's smile is faint, because she can hear the echoes of John. John checks on her, every morning before breakfast, the way he did before. A routine thing, a soldier thing. He tells her to sleep more, eat more, worry less. Elizabeth can only look at him.

They don't seem to talk much less than they did before. Elizabeth thinks they may never have talked that much at all.

Miko seems to follow her thoughts still, and reaches with both hands to take Hope from her arms. Then mother and daughter both retreat to their tent, leaving Elizabeth alone to stare at the sea.


On sentry duty the Marines won't say a word unless spoken to. John stifles an early morning yawn, and patrols a little further away from the gate, across a sandbar where island meets island. Almost the edge of the world.

It's almost oh six hundred, and then the day watch will begin. His muscles ache. His body craves sleep, even the small relief he'll find on the rough, cold ground of his tent.

The shout from Alvares brings him running back. On full alert, his weapon pointed, but Alvares is only crouched over McKay, who squats beside the gate's dialing device, tugging at the wires that connect it to his laptop, and pointing at something on the screen.

"I thought I told you to get some sleep, McKay."

Rodney makes a face, dismissively. "You did tell me that, yes. It's a good thing I didn't listen to you, isn't it? Or I wouldn't have figured it out."

Alvares' grin is wide. "He's done it, sir."

"Done what?" John asks slowly.

"Wasn't me alone." Rodney's voice dips unexpectedly. "Radek did most of the math. Though I did improve his calculations to reduce the..."

"Wait." John interrupts. "You mean you've done it?"

"Found our way around the DHD's crystal requirements? Yes." McKay waves excitedly at the unintelligible numbers lighting up the green of his laptop.

"Are you sure?"

McKay's nose wrinkles, and he's offended. "Fairly sure, yes. Sure as I can be, without the power needed to test it out."

"We'll get your power," Alvares says, and John doesn't realise he's frowning till the confident smile on the Marine's face disappears.

"Fairly sure?" John asks.

"Yes." Rodney scowls. "Pardon me, but I thought you'd be more exited about this."

"I'm excited," John says, shrugging.

"You don't look it," Rodney answers, with a scrutinizing glare. "This is good news, John. Really good news." He taps his monitor again, then tugs on the wires, and it's a stray jolt of power that sends him tumbling backwards. A string of stray curse words let John know that Rodney's okay.

"Yeah," John says quietly. "Good news."


"Do you know when you'll be leaving?" Kate asks.

Aiden shakes his head. He's angry, a little, and it makes him afraid to say anything, afraid it will show.

His anger fades, when he looks at her. Dead perfect, always, even in this hell. She is stretched out now on the floor of his tent, covered by the spare sleeping bag Aiden keeps there now, commandeered out of a supplies bin so that she won't feel the cold.

She seems peaceful, though, lying here, and if Aiden is still enough maybe she will forget to move, and fall asleep here, next to him with her head on her hands, fingers interlaced.

She doesn't let him touch her, not really, not yet, not now. But he has kissed her, twice, and her mouth was sweet and light.

His mouth catches the edges of hers now, hesitantly, and she smiles in response. Her eyes are falling closed. "You're changing the subject."

"It doesn't seem like there's anything to talk about," Aiden answers, honestly. Kate's not the only one. They all ask him questions like this, what the Major is thinking, what he's doing, what's next.

"Doesn't he tell you?" Kate is asking now. "You're his second in command."

"It's a stupid rank. Doesn't mean anything."

Kate's eyes open, suddenly, looking at him. "You think that? That it's stupid?"

He shrugs. "Sometimes. Here."

"Here, where?" she asks him, and she's teasing him now.

"Here, here," he tells her, and tries kissing her again.

She kisses him back, with a smile that he can taste on her lips.


She comes in the middle of the night, the way that John knew she would. He can hear her footsteps in the sand before she taps at the entrance to his tent.

He unzips and lets her in without saying anything. She looks at him, arm folded across her chest.

"Say it," he tells her.

She shrugs. She obviously hasn't planned this out, whatever this is. He can see, too, that she hasn't slept properly in a while. He resists the urge to take her hand, to lay her down and wrap her in his jacket until her eyes are closed and she's breathing softly.

But he doesn't think about that for too long.

Elizabeth takes a deep breath before she begins. "Telling you not to go didn't work, John. So I'm asking you."

John hesitates. He doesn't understand, and that's making this that much harder. "Do you want to die here?" he asks her, and she flinches.

"I want to live here." She stresses the difference with a gesture of her hands. "I don't want to lose any of us. Not any more." I don't want to lose you. She doesn't say it. John wonders when she became afraid to say things to him.

"You won't," he says.

"You can't promise me that."

"Elizabeth." The sound of her name catches her attention, and she freezes, watching him. "You can't ask me to believe that there's nothing we can do."

When he kisses her, it's not on purpose. When she cries, he knows he's not meant to see. When she pulls away she only shakes her head, and then she's gone.


Teyla arrives in the morning, a look of quiet resignation on her face. Elizabeth greets her with a hug.

"Want something to eat?" John asks her, and she shakes her head.

"Let us begin.

Kate takes her hand. "I'm afraid I won't be as skilled at this as Dr. Beckett was."

"I am sure you do fine," Teyla says. "I fear it is I who may let you down."

"Never happen," John says, and Elizabeth watches as they all smile, showing a strength that she can't match.

sept

The Wraith have begun to feed.

They circle her in the dark. She is floating, above the spectre of a lush green planet, guarded against the dark by spinning twin moons. With obscene smiles, bright eyes to watch her die. One, two, three. Four. Five. Six. Too many to fight. The Wraith have begun to feed, but Teyla does not scream. She is braver than that. Her father's voice is with her, the human part of her that holds her to the ground.

Teyla awakes from the restless sleep, coaxed into day by a pale-faced Dr. Heightmeyer, and throws up over the side of the blanket, into the sand.

John holds her hair back from her face. The planet still spins in front of her eyes, around a sun that burns red.


Elizabeth tidies the camp, though it's not necessary. The Marines pick up after themselves. So do the scientists, most of them used to relying on themselves. But the act makes her feel better. It's something to do. She gathers a new store of firewood, and sweeps away the sand that has been tracked into the tents.

Now comes the waiting. Waiting was always the hardest part.


Aiden wouldn't let Kate say goodbye. He pulled away, and his eyes were dark inside the shadows of his tent.

"You think I'm not going to make it."

She shakes her head. Nods. Can't think, suddenly, for her quickly beating heart. He smells like earth, and she wants to draw her fingers along his skin.

"You think I'm not going to make it," he repeats, with more certainty.

She doesn't know what to say. "I thought you weren't scared."

"I'm not," he says. It's impossible to believe him. "When I get back..."

She exhales, a breathless laugh, against his shoulder. She doesn't remember reaching for him again, but it steadies her. "You don't want me," she says, suddenly.

He doesn't laugh at her. Aiden's eyes widen, and he shakes his head. "That's stupid," he says, quietly, and holds her. "When I get back, okay? When I get back."

She hears what he's saying, and doesn't quite believe it. Doesn't know what she's done to deserve it.


"You sure we're invisible, sir?" Lieutenant Ford asks, for the third time.

"Positive," John answers, with a hardness audible in his voice. Rodney frowns at him for a moment, but doesn't say anything. Their approach to the Hive ship's docking bay is slow, floating in underneath the radar. Below them, a green planet spins.

"As much as I hate to admit it," Rodney says suddenly, "Ford's got a point. We really need a way to tell if we're invisible."

"We'll know if we're not invisible," John says, lightly. The light tone he uses when all hell's about to break loose.

Rodney pauses. He doesn't know what to say to that. He doesn't know exactly what he's doing here, except that John made an impassioned speech about Klondike bars and McDonald's. And seemed to think they needed him. Rodney's not used to being needed.

He'd asked Elizabeth her opinion. She had shrugged, looking at him steadily. "Do what you think you have to, Rodney."

John and the lieutenant don't talk again, and neither does Rodney. There are other things that they don't know, and won't be able to tell until it's too late. Rodney believes in odds, but knows better to think about that right now.

He coughs. "Doesn't it bother you that we're essentially walking into a trap?"

"Essentially?" John asks, and almost cracks a smile.

"I see." Rodney looks down at his hands. He wishes he'd brought a snack. "And is this where you make a pithy football analogy, to rally the troops?"

John shakes his head. "Hadn't thought of it, no. Would it help?"

"No."

"Then let's skip it," John says, and they've landed.


The hive ship stinks. John trains himself not to hold his breath. The reek is sticky and rank, of violence and human fear and sweat. John lets Ford guard the rear, while he takes point. Rodney and Stackhouse in the middle. He leaves two soldiers guarding the still-invisible jumper in the cavernous landing bay. His skin is crawling.

"Are we sure this is it?" McKay asks, in a theatrical whisper, and John hits him in the shoulder, to keep him quiet.

Rodney gives him a hurt stare, but he gets the message, shutting up quickly.

McKay's got a point. The place is quiet, with no sign of movement, only that stink of people suspended between life and death. The faces leer out at him as they cross the hallway, wide-eyed and silent.

Ford stops in front of one, an older woman with her arms crossed in front of her chest, too late to defend herself. John doesn't have to think before he shakes his head.

First they have to save themselves.

John gestures to McKay, who gestures to his scanner, and points forward. John shrugs, and follows the instruction.

He's watching his own scanner too, propped over the sight of his rifle. Only four of the dots are moving. So far, so good.

Forward it is.


When the wind starts to blow in from the sea, Kate comes to sit beside Elizabeth, to help her tend the fire. Clouds have already begun to darken the afternoon sky, a day like any other.


The dots have started moving. John wonders if the Wraith can sense them, if they smell like food, like chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven. No order, though, no groups. Not yet.

McKay, with his head down, eyes on his equipment, makes a sharp turn left without checking for hostiles. John glances down, and sees two dots following the opposite path.

Lieutenant Ford, following too closely, has caught sight of the warning. He gestures in the other direction, the one from which they came, dark enough for hiding.

John shakes his head.

"Sir." Whispering between clenched teeth, Ford breaks the silence. "Wraith."

"Duh," Rodney whispers back, and John glances at him sideways.

"That's the way we need to go." John can hear the tension in his voice. Not from the oncoming hostiles, but from having to explain himself. "We're not here to run."

"I thought we were here to get the ZPM."

"Exactly," John mutters, and gestures his team forward. They're not putting it to a vote.

Home. John can feel it, popcorn and Ferris wheels, and football fucking Sundays before the rain sets in. It's third and goal, do or die time, and all the other stupid analogies he still remembers from years of being the second string quarterback. None of them seem quite valid, though, in this galaxy where none of the old rules apply.

Third and goal. It's the last thing he thinks before the world goes black.


If McKay is asked what happened, later, he won't be able to say. Won't be able to separate the cascade of noise and movement apart, but he'll think the explosion came first. Like one of Lieutenant Ford's flash bangs, mostly light, but with enough concussive force to knock him sideways. The Wraith, next, three of them, and he'll remember thinking that they were coming from the wrong direction, and with Lieutenant Ford yelling, urging him backwards, he can't think at all, until Lieutenant Ford goes down underneath the largest of the Wraith, and then Rodney can't see him at all.

Stackhouse is firing at anything moving, reminding Rodney belatedly to draw his own gun. On the edge of the explosion area, Major Sheppard is moving quickly.

Rodney will remember thinking that he's going in the wrong direction.


"Where'd he go?" McKay's yelling, heedless of the noise that he's making. "Where'd he go?"

"How the fuck should I know?" Aiden snaps. His hands are shaking. The Wraith underneath him has gone cold, and Aiden has to work to separate them, the angular, barely human hand inches from his chest. He's fighting to get his breath back, and then he stands.

Stackhouse blinks slowly. He hasn't spoken since they got in the jumper. "We should go."

"We should what?" McKay demands, saving Aiden the trouble.

"We should retreat," Stackhouse says, and his eyes are as quiet as his voice. "You said it first. Sir."

"The plan," Aiden begins. Automatically he's scanning his team for injuries, what's left of it. McKay looks fine. Stackhouse looks fine too, but it could be shock talking. Concussion. Near as he can tell he's the only one bleeding, and he wipes the back of his hand on the leg of his uniform, ignoring the sting.

Stackhouse is shaking his head. "What fucking plan? You want to search every deck for a mythical ZPM, fine. We've still got zero chance of finding Major Sheppard." Stackhouse pauses, and Aiden begins to wonder if it's the most he's said in months. "And when the Wraith figure out they missed us, they'll be back."

Ford squints down the hallway. With nowhere to go, the smoke is settling in, hanging low over the dead Wraith. Two of them. He doesn't know who killed the other one. He hesitates for a moment, and knows that they see it, McKay and Stackhouse. He wonders what the fuck Major Sheppard would do.

And thinks, for a second, of Kate. Waiting.

"Doesn't matter," he says quietly. "We won't be here. Major Sheppard wouldn't leave any of us to get eaten, and you know it. Everyone comes with me."

Stackhouse eyes him carefully, as if he wants to say more. "Yes, sir. But we still don't..."

Aiden cuts him off. "Little dot thingies still flashing, Dr. McKay?"

McKay blinks. "Little dot thingies. Yes."

"Then I know where he is," Aiden says.

He guards their sixes as they go.

huit

John imagines for a moment that he is underwater. Diving off the southernmost pier of Atlantis on a windy day, the icy water raising goose bumps on the back of his neck, with explaining to do if Elizabeth ever heard of it. But it reminds him of other days and other piers, places warmer than Antarctica, driving down the coast before the sun rises.

John thinks he must be underwater, and then he comes around, and it's blood in his mouth that's choking him. He spits, a terrible sound, and then his head hits the ground.

It's dark wherever he is, and he doesn't see the ZPM at first. Or the Wraith that just dropped him, with something like a smirk on its face. Looming, watching him with dark eyes. The blood is warm, running down the side of his face.

Long fingers touch the ZPM, caressing the surface. John wants to snatch it away, to break the bones holding his zero point module. Can't even move.

"This is what you are after, I believe."

"You're very," John has to spit again, to clear his throat, "perceptive."

"We too dream of home. A home for everyone. For all of us."

John thinks this bug may talk the most of any Wraith he's ever met. He bites the inside of his mouth, to keep from passing out. "Can't have ours."

"My team."

"By now? Dead." A hand settles on his chest, and John can't breath again.

Anger is not his first reflex. The fear is instead, rushing to swell his brain, something he hasn't had access to in a long time. It's been anger, mainly, and frustration, living on the edge of fucking nowhere, waiting to die. Anger, and in the middle of it Elizabeth, a cool smooth centre that only made the rest worse.

And if his team is gone, and he's about to die, about to get the life sucked out of him on this goddamned hive ship, then the waiting is almost over.

And for the first time in a long time, John is afraid.

His gun hand moves almost without his permission.

The sharp sound of bones cracking returns to him almost at once. The two smallest fingers on his right hand sear with pain so immediate John almost passes out again.

The Wraith doesn't stumble, but it's enough of a distraction for him to grab the ZPM and bring it with as much force to the Wraith's throat.

"You humans. You never learn. Thousands of years, and you never learn." Barely an audible gurgle, out of a windpipe not taking in enough air. John breathes, and steels himself to strike again. "You have lost."

"Yeah," John murmurs, quietly. "That's what makes us dangerous."

There is blood on his hands when he is done. He is vaguely aware, through his daze, of an alarm sounding throughout the ship.

"Ford!" He's yelling over the radio, and doesn't know why. "Ford, goddammit, come in." If they're dead, then...

"Sir."

Jesus. John lets himself take a breath. "Ford, where the fuck are you?"

There is a pause that he can't quite decipher. "Coming to rescue you, sir."

"Forget it."

"Sir?"

"Get your asses back to the jumper. I'll be right behind you. If I'm not there in twenty minutes, you give McKay the wheel and get the fuck out of here. Do you copy?"

Another pause, longer this time. "CFB, sir."

John loosens his radio, and turns the ZPM over in his hands. Strange. Strange, to think he's come all this way.


They were moving forward again even before the connection was cut. Aiden looks behind him, to find he's being stared at, neither Stackhouse or Dr. McKay moving.

"What are you looking at?"

Stackhouse shakes his head. "Nothing."

"He said we couldn't go get him. He didn't say we couldn't help a little." Aiden glances down. He doesn't remember grabbing the scanner from Major Sheppard's hands.

"Hold this," he says, and tosses it to McKay, who looks startled. "Anything moving?"

Dr. McKay nods dumbly, pointing. There's a cluster of them, Aiden notices, moving starboard. Probably responding to the persistent buzz that keeps sounding over his head. Fewer than he thought, though, and he wonders why he didn't notice that before. "Let's go."

Stackhouse only nods, but Dr. McKay eyes him suspiciously. "What are you planning to do?"

"Even the odds," Aiden says, and McKay laughs a little to himself.


John's chest tightens as he moves, as fast as he can go, not fast enough to be called a run. This ship looks the same, all of it. He follows the tracks of his own blood, staining the floor.


If they could get down into the belly of the ship, Aiden thinks, that would be the best spot to lay the charges. Blast away the control room, causing enough chaos to keep the bugs off their tracks. But they've got no time to go scouting, and no guarantees they won't just drop out of the sky, burning up in the orbit of the green planet.

Not enough time. There's never enough time. This will have to do.

With steady fingers, Aiden presses the C4 against the entrance to another corridor, laying the charge neatly against it. His eyes fall, unwillingly, on the figure of a man, his face barely distinguishable in the webbing that binds him to his cocoon. Aiden closes his eyes for a moment, and prays.

"Sir." Stackhouse interrupts with an unwilling whisper. "They're getting closer."

"In position?" Aiden asks hoarsely.

"Almost."

A stunner blast hits the wall right behind them, the first Wraith emerging from around the corner.

When he opens his eyes again, he's ready. "Cover," he says quietly.


John can hear the explosion from two decks above, throwing him briefly to his knees.

"Goddammit," he mutters, clutching the ZPM with the last of his strength.

One of them has to make it out here. At least one.


They got every Wraith that was closing in on them, leaving gaping holes in everything, turning the Hive ship into a jagged jigsaw puzzle. Ford doesn't know how many. He doesn't stop to count body parts. There's never enough time.

"What do you think?" McKay points at one dot, moving hesitantly through the corridors.

"I think that's him," Aiden says easily. "Anything on his tail?"

McKay squints. "Not so far. Maybe we got them all."

"Yeah. Maybe." Ford does a mental count of what he's got left in his pack.


It was a single Wraith, coming out of nowhere to attack from the front. John squeezes the trigger on his gun until he's out of bullets, his hands damp with sweat and blood, slipping from the surface, and only then does the Wraith drop, like a stone, to the ground in front of him.

He's losing blood still, and dizzy. But he can't do anything but keep moving forward.


The jumper is where they left it, the two waiting Marines white-faced with waiting.

"Shit." Stackhouse's words are slow. "He's got it."

Rodney nods numbly. He'd seen the movement on the scanner, but didn't believe it either, not really. But this is irrefutable empirical evidence, John limping towards them clutching the ZPM as if he can hardly believe it either.

Ford starts to move forward. Without thinking, Rodney reaches out a hand to stop him. "He's going to make it," he says, quietly. Knows it.

The stunner blast that knocks John to the ground comes from behind him. The Marines are already firing before the Wraith - both of them - come clearly outlined into view.


"Hold fire!" Aiden yells, and doesn't check to see if he's been obeyed before running forward. Major Sheppard is pale, his skin damp and too cool when Aiden touches him. He ducks another stunner blast, and then launches the grenade in his hand forward, almost into the lap of the first bug, covering his head at the bang.

The weight of Major Sheppard's body is almost too much to carry, but then Stackhouse is behind him, grabbing some of the weight from his hands.

Aiden pulls the pin on his last grenade, and fires.

"In the jumper!" he screams, with the last of his breath, and then the world in front of his eyes goes white.

The rest is peace, and no pain. Aiden Ford believes in heaven.


The jumper skidded through the gate so fast that for a moment Elizabeth saw nothing, just a burst of sand and sky. She ducked down, out of instinct, but there was nothing coming in behind them, and then the gate shut down, and they were alone.

Rodney is first out, and he's got the ZPM in his left hand and his gun in his right.

Elizabeth is frozen to the spot.

"Medic!" Rodney screams, and that's when Elizabeth counts the men exiting the jumper, Rodney, Stackhouse, supporting a pale and bleeding John.

One's missing. "One's missing," she says aloud, under her breath, before the name clicks into place. "Aiden."

Rodney is standing beside her now, shaking his head.

"Okay," she says. Her head is spinning, but she's got things to take care of, first. There's nothing she can do for John, not just now. "Good new first."

Rodney looks a little stunned. There is a cut on his left cheek that he doesn't seem to have noticed. "Good news."

"Yes, Rodney." Elizabeth exhales, through her mouth. "Please tell me that there is some."

Rodney shakes his head. "It's full," he says quietly.

"Or nearly. We've got enough."

"Enough power?" she asks.

Rodney nods, and there's more than a little of the old Rodney showing there. Elizabeth's heart untightens, just a little. "We're going home. As soon as I can fuse the zero point module to the..."

Elizabeth isn't listening.


John didn't need Dr. Heightmeyer fussing over him. Didn't want it, not when her face was still pale with counting the numbers, pale with knowing.

Always the worst part. She fussed anyway, though, bandaging and stitching until Elizabeth's arrival shooed her away.

Elizabeth.

"You forgive me?" he asks her, and then closes his mouth. Didn't mean to start with that.

Her face pales at that. John can't help but notice. "Now you sound like you're planning to die on me, John."

"Bullshit." His hand reaches up then, and cups her face. "Just thought I'd ask when you couldn't possibly say no."

"Arrogant bastard," she murmurs, and lies down beside him.

He doesn't even hear the whoosh of the Stargate activating, beyond the line of trees. Elizabeth's heart is beating, a steady thump that matches his own.

"It's been a ride, hasn't it?" she asks him softly.

"It's not over yet," he answers, and it's a promise.

~fin.

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