It is a difficult time, that much is absolutely true, but no one has given Vala a better offer and Sheppard is hardly a pet — no matter how pretty he looks in the leather outfit she picked out for him. That's why she doesn't regret kneeing Quitos in the balls or zatting him three times when his guards turn out to be working for the Lucian Alliance and turn on him too. She spares a thought for his host, but not for long. Sheppard's already loose by then, and even has a weapon, so they run.
It's absolutely unfair that it's a loose flagstone that kills her, Vala thinks in the precious instant between tripping and the impact of the staff weapon blast. The dogleg corner is right there, Sheppard is providing cover fire with a beautifully intent look on his face and she's going to make it, until her toe hits that stupid bit of protruding rock.
Fire sears through her back, through her chest, up her spine and down her legs. She can feel it fill her throat and burst out as a scream that chokes off because all her breath has burnt away.
Next, the stone floor is cool against her cheek, soothing the ache left from hitting her face against it. The tickle on her lips is blood, dribbling out to form a sticky puddle. Her hair is in it, which is going to look terrible. That thought is inane, but better than thinking about why she's lying face down on the floor, dust and ozone tingling in her nose. The rest of the pain is there just beyond her scrambled thoughts, politely waiting for her to return to complete consciousness before hitting her again.
The P90 firing above her sends a patter of spent brass onto her shoulders and head. She can smell her hair burning from one of them. One eye is peeled open enough to watch them roll, bright, bright by torchlight, toward the corridor crossing the one they're in. The one they were making for when her clever plan went to hell.
Shrieking, horrible, terrible, stopstopstopIwon'tfightanymoreQetesh pain stabs through her as Sheppard's hand closes around her upper arm and pulls her up. She can't beg him to leave her and falls against his chest, eyes and mind gone in red explosions of agony as he puts one arm around her to hold her up.
"God damn it," she hears him curse. "Vala! How bad — "
He head lolls against his shoulder.
"Okay, bad, but we've still got a chance, damn it, now which way do I go at the next cross corridor?" Sheppard demands. He sounds impatient and his hands won't let her slide down to the floor. It's the grip of man who won't let go and that's almost comforting. If she wasn't dying.
Vala doesn't want to die. She certainly doesn't want to stay dead.
"Left," she manages to say, even though that won't take him to their target.
On the other hand, she happens to know Quitos has a sarcophagus at the other end of that hall.
Daniel is droning on and on about some icky stones SG-14 brought back from some boring world with nothing left but potsherds and eroded rocks that show chisel marks or something equally useless. If Sam was still here instead of in Atlantis, Vala would lean over and pretend to take a nap on her shoulder. It used to make Sam get wide-eyed and rigid as well as sending Landry's eyebrows climbing his forehead like two caterpillars and making Daniel stutter to a halt before yelling, "Vala!"
But Sam's gone off to the shiny city in another galaxy and Teal'c has gray in his hair and while the Priors haven't been any trouble in some time, the Lucian Alliance shows signs of proving humans can be just as nasty as the System Lords ever were.
"I believe these tablets indicate the Ancients may have left another Repository of Knowledge on Nomos Mareotis," Daniel says.
Vala sits up. "Oh, I know that planet."
Daniel nearly glares at her.
She sits back with a pout. "Well, I do, Daniel. You needn't act like I've wrecked your surprise."
Unfair how they always listen to Teal'c if he mentions something useful from his days as First Prime to Apophis. Her experience as host to Qetesh could be just as valuable, but none of them ever want to listen to her. They say things have changed since she came back from the Ori galaxy, since she helped them against Adria, but it's all just words. One day they won't be enough and she'll go. Though she'd prefer to wait until the galaxy is a little more settled and she can have some fun.
He frowns at her and then pushes his glasses back up his nose, turning back to Landry ostentatiously. She used to think Daniel could be fun if he'd just loosen up. Apparently she was mistaken. Cameron's mouth is twitching in that way that means he's hiding a smile. Teal'c is opaque as ever. Truthfully, Cameron and Teal'c are both more fun than Daniel and she's not even sleeping with either of them. She's not sleeping with Daniel either and she's starting to really, really miss sex.
At night, alone in her quarters, she'll even admit she misses Tomin.
"Sir, I think we should — "
"Qetesh knew the Goa'uld that held it," Vala interrupts.
Daniel actually glares this time. She considers baring her teeth at him, but instead, "What, that isn't useful intelligence?" she asks, giving him her most innocent look.
"There's Goa'uld on this planet?" Landry asks.
Vala nods, then stops, thinking about it. "Well, there was."
Landry frowns. "Dr. Jackson, I think — "
"Sir, I accessed a repository without significant difficulty once," Daniel says quickly. "Also, SG-14 indicated that it appeared scavengers had been excavating on PXF-993. They may have uncovered other evidence of the repository. Do you want the Lucian Alliance getting their hands on the knowledge of the Ancients?"
" — I think we should let Vala tell us what she knows about this planet and the Goa'uld that was there before we make any decisions," Landry finishes, leveling a quelling look at first Daniel and then Vala.
She ignores the look and grins at him, pleased.
"All right," Daniel says. He leans back in his chair, looking at her expectantly.
"Quitos wasn't a particularly powerful Goa'uld, just a minor ally. Nomos Mareotis was his only stronghold. I don't know what happened to him after the Tok'ra removed Qetesh, but what you should all know is that he built his palace on top of the Gatebuilders' ...thingie. It's a funny little building and no one could ever get in it. The Goa'uld tried everything to get inside." She sits back and finishes dreamily, remembering the glowing silver-blue octagonal pillar hidden away in a stone chamber. Qetesh had been frustrated when her efforts to break into it didn't even leave a mark. "I always knew there must be some wonderful treasure hidden inside."
"Well, knowledge is a treasure," Daniel admits.
"If the Goa'uld couldn't get inside, then how are we going to?" Cam asks.
"Perhaps it requires someone with the same genetic component as the Ancients," Teal'c suggests just as Daniel lifts up one finger, his mouth opening to talk again. Daniel pauses.
"That's very possible," Daniel says after consideration. "The only reason I could operate the repository left by Myrddin was that he'd modified it to respond to someone who had been Ascended. The other two we encountered only worked on Jack."
Myrddin, Vala repeats to herself, frowning a little. Oh, right, that's Merlin. Daniel insists on calling him Myrddin. Daniel can be so tiresome sometimes.
"I do not think General O'Neill would be interested in repeating the experience a third time." Teal'c says it so dryly the sarcasm flies right by Landry.
"General O'Neill is no longer part of SG-1," Landry comments, a faint sour note in his voice. He'll never be held in the esteem O'Neill and Hammond were, no matter if he orchestrates peace through the galaxy, not considering the stories that are told around the SGC about them. It must grate sometimes, Vala knows, the way it grates when Daniel looks at her and obviously thinks of Sha're. Daniel's doomed marriage and pursuit of his stolen wife are the stuff of legend in the halls and labs of the Mountain. Vala's heard at least twenty different versions of how Sha're was taken as a host and how she died. How Daniel will never love another woman. She ignores them. The past is gone, a land unreachable, and she considers it better to live in the here and now. Experience is useful, and knowledge, but regret for how she obtained both is a burden she chooses not to shoulder.
"I can get into the palace, of course," Vala tells them. "But not with SG-1."
"Why not?" Cam asks.
She gives him a look. "Bounty hunters? Goa'uld? Lucian Alliance? They all know and hate SG-1. You'd be recognized in an instant. There are pictures of you out there, holograms, even."
"So how will you get inside the Goa'uld's palace?" Cam asks.
It makes her smile, just thinking of it. "I'll be a guest once I offer whoever holds the palace to split whatever treasure is inside."
Daniel looks like he wants to protest, but Teal'c's eyebrow goes up, stopping him cold.
"So, we need to get someone with the ATA gene to go along with Vala," Cam says, ignoring Teal'c. "If we take the Apollo, once they've opened the Repository Chamber they can radio us and we beam in."
Vala bounces in her seat. "Oh, I know! Get that lovely man from Atlantis, Colonel Sheppard."
"Colonel Sheppard can't just be yanked from Atlantis," Landry objects. He needs to eat more fiber, Vala decides from his constipated expression.
Cam has his arms crossed over his chest and a mulish expression. "Just as long as he knows who is in charge of this team."
Teal'c gives him much the same look he just gave Daniel. "Indeed."
"Sheppard has experience with using gene-activated Ancient technology and off-world experience, I suppose. He is stationed in Atlantis," Daniel adds thoughtfully. He taps his finger on the conference table. "Couldn't we borrow him for one mission?"
Landry grumbles something about asking Colonel Carter and making sure they don't send McKay with Sheppard.
"Oh, this is going to be so exciting," Vala declares.
The lid of the sarcophagus slides open and she opens her eyes. Sheppard is looking down at her, his expression a mixture of delight and disbelief. "Hey," he says and takes her hand to help her out.
Everything in her body is zinging and singing and alive, alive, alive-oh, so she just follows that tug right up into his arms, planting a wet, happy, hungry kiss on his mouth. Instead of shoving her away, he gives as good as he gets, deep and dirty, as though he's on the exact same page as her. It's heady and delightful, with her fingers closed on his biceps, biting into surprising muscle through the thin cotton of his shirt. His mouth is clean and sweet — the Tau'ri obsession with cleaning their teeth and general hygiene is one Vala heartily approves of — and he cups her face with both hands, but they're gentle, just there, and he doesn't fight for control. They kiss until she just has to move, because the sarcophagus has her high and fizzing with energy.
Not to mention the whole not-dead after all part.
She paces around the room, knowing she's nearly bouncing, licking her tingling lips without thinking about it. She feels hot wherever she'd pressed against him and her fingers itch to touch him again. A sidelong glance tells her he's reacting to the sudden chemistry between them, too. The leather pants are probably distractingly uncomfortable at this point.
She wants to tackle him straight to the ground, climb on top and have her way with him. There's just the matter of the thugs trying to kill her, the Ancient device they're here to steal, and the Apollo arriving soon to pick them up stopping her. She has no idea what's stopping him, unless it's those same things. This is rather a bad time and place.
"That thing really works," Sheppard comments, eyeing the sarcophagus. "Don't suppose we could get one to take back to Atlantis. Could be useful in an emergency, even with the side effects."
She eyes him, thinking perhaps another time. She likes him, likes the way he looks amused when anyone else would be so very, very serious.
"Well, I wouldn't object," Vala says. Daniel made the Tau'ri all paranoid about the sarcophagus. Qetesh used it more than once and it didn't make Vala into an evil person. She doesn't think so anyway and, really, she'd rather be alive to worry about being addicted than the alternative in any case.
"No, you wouldn't." He grins at her, matching the tease in his drawl. "You know, this doesn't look like any Ancient gizmo."
Vala looks around the room. It's decorated in typical Goa'uld fashion: hieroglyphs praising the God who built it — Quitos in this case — too much gold and a lot of dank stone. It doesn't look anything like Atlantis or anything the Ancients made.
"Fancy that, I must have got turned around. I was in terrible pain."
Sheppard just laughs and shakes his head, still obviously teasing her. "Good thing I read all those mission reports or I wouldn't have known what it was."
Vala stares at him, though, eyes widening, because she certainly hadn't factored that into her spur of the moment plan. What if he hadn't recognized the sarcophagus? She shrugs it off, though. If he hadn't known, she wouldn't be here now, and wouldn't be alive to care. Moot point.
"So, shall we get out of here, get what we came for and get back to the Apollo before our friends with the guns find us again?" Sheppard asks.
"You Tau'ri are always in such a hurry," she remarks, but touches his arm as she goes by, murmuring, "Thank you."
"Glad to be of service."
"Just what I love to hear a handsome man say."
In the after-action report, John sums up the mission as a qualified success — neither Goa'uld or Ori or Lucian Alliance in possession of the objective — and signs off. It's harder than usual to strip out his own emotions and there are things he's glossing over. The paperwork takes several hours, even working with a laptop he brought from Atlantis, fingers flashing over the keys faster than ever before; using something that hadn't been customized by McKay would have added hours to it. He spends the next two days trying to write down everything he knows now. It's an impossible task, there's too much, and by the time he passes out over the laptop the third night, he's thinking in Ancient and struggling to translate the concepts into English.
Lam gives up after another exam. She hands him more painkillers for the headache that's taken residence behind his eyes, and makes notes into his medical file. "I'd really like to keep you here. There must be something else we can do," she says.
John hops off the exam table. There isn't anything more for anyone on Earth to do. He already knows that. "I'd really like to get out of here."
She looks up. He can see the surprise on her features. "I'm sure General Landry would arrange emergency leave for you."
"Nah, I want to get back to Atlantis."
"What about your family?"
"No one here," he says. "Look, if there's anyone who might figure out a way to fix this, it's McKay. And if there's any place with the technology to do it, it's Atlantis."
He doesn't really think there is a way to fix it. The SGC is flat out of Asgard, even Hermiod is gone, and they were all that saved O'Neill according to the reports John's been given access to, so he's pretty much screwed. He knows he's supposed to want to take a last look at all the things on Earth that make it worth fighting for, but he doesn't really care. He just wants to be back in Atlantis again. That's probably why Landry's never liked or trusted him. He knows John and the other first wave expedition survivors went native years ago.
"I'll tell General Landry," Lam promises.
John flashes a grin at her before walking out. "Thanks."
Landry can't wait to get rid of him. A couple of hours after Lam lets him go, he's loading Earthside goodies aboard a jumper before heading through the gatebridge and already thinking of how McKay is going to yell at him. What have I told you about touching things, Colonel!? Not that John touched the damned thing. He and Vala were working on detaching it from the wall when it grabbed his head and everything went white in his brain. Not that McKay will believe him — no, McKay will believe him, he just won't pay any attention. McKay doesn't accept excuses. If John hadn't taken a day to buy the things on McKay's list in Colorado Springs and pack them before he shipped out with SG-1 on the Apollo for the mission, he'd be going home empty-handed if not empty-headed and hear about that too.
The sizzle of an energy bolt hitting the stone over her head has Vala jerking back. Ow, that would have hurt. She ducks lower and fires her zat around the edge of the doorway blindly. They had just reached the door when their Lucian Alliance competitors came around the corner and saw them.
"Darling, it would just be wonderful," she calls out casually, then raises her voice to be heard over the fire pouring in the doorway, finishing with, "if you would get that thing open!"
"I'm working on it," Sheppard tells her from his place at the blue-white octagonal structure that sits within the stone basement under the main palace Quitos built several thousand years ago. She can tell he's gritting his teeth. His fingers flash over the holographic typepad that appeared after he set his hands into the plates marked for them. He'd done that with a hissed in breath, remarking, "Last time I saw a guy do this, he keeled over from poison."
"I thought you knew how to work Ancient technology?" she shouts as she ducks around the doorway and shoots back. There are a lot of them out there. She has no idea how they're getting out of here, because the two of them have no chance of shooting their way through the crowd.
"Sort of," Sheppard mutters. "McKay's the one who understands it."
"Then I wish he was here," she snaps.
"Believe me, so do I!"
The stone near her head chips off with a splatter of sparks, but Sheppard is yelling, "Gotcha!" and the octagon is opening a darkened doorway big enough to let them through.
"You first," Sheppard tells her.
Vala fires the zat once more, then dives inside the octagon, despite the darkness, followed by Sheppard. It immediately closes up behind them.
There are no lights. She can feel Sheppard just behind her, heat coming off his body, his shoulder brushing against her as he steps forward, and the damp movement of air shifting with his body. They're both panting and it sounds loud in the blackness.
"Okay, this isn't what I was expecting."
"If we had been expecting blindness, I don't think either of us would be here," she remarks.
He chuckles. "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition."
"Well, if you're a Goa'uld, you should," Vala replies, making him laugh again. Just because she and Cam have a moratorium on Tau'ri cultural references doesn't mean she doesn't recognize one. Teal'c showed her all the Monty Python movies, in between showings of Star Wars.
Sheppard's breath stirs through her hair, reminding her that she still has blood matted in it, along with a big charred hole in the back of her leather top. Sheppard's hand makes sudden startling contact with her bare skin there as he reaches out. He recoils immediately and she jumps, regretting the loss of contact immediately. She'd like his hands all over her.
"Do you have — "
"Just a second — "
Lights spring to dim life in the corners of the octagon, columns of horizontal bars. Only a few of them glow, though, and they flicker.
"That's as good as it's going to get," Sheppard murmurs. "This thing is about three steps away from dead."
Vala turns her head slowly, taking in the interior. The octagon is empty beyond the banks of lights and on the far wall what she figures has to be Daniel's Repository of Knowledge.
"Looks like that's it," Sheppard says, stepping around her. "I don't think any of our buddies outside are going to get in here, so we may as well get it down and ready for transport up to the Apollo." He peers at the device, twisting his face up. "Let's just hope the radios work through this thing."
Vala taps her ear piece, activating the mike. "Apollo, this is Vala Mal Doran. Come in."
A tiny, tinny voice echoes through her earpiece. "This is Apollo. We read you very faintly."
"This is Sheppard. We're in the chamber," Sheppard says. "The device is here, but we've got some unfriendlies outside, so it would be nice if you could beam us out."
"Copy that, Colonel Sheppard. Are you secure?"
"Safe as houses, Apollo. Is that Colonel Mitchell?"
"Yes, it is. Why don't you sit tight? We won't be in beaming range for another couple of hours, unless we break our low signature approach."
"We'll see about removing the device and having it ready for transport then."
"Good plan. We'd like to keep radio transmissions to a minimum for security purposes, so unless there's anything else?"
Sheppard glances at her. "Vala?"
She shrugs. "I'm fine, though I can't wait to get a shower."
"Apollo, we'll be waiting to hear from you. Sheppard, out."
"See you soon, kids. Mitchell, out."
Sheppard gives her a lazy smile. "Guess we've got a little time to kill. Want to sit down and catch your breath for a minute or two?"
Vala is busy trying to secure her top a little better and nods absently. Some of the straps are gone, the only thing still holding it on are the pieces attached to her collar at the front.
Sheppard drifts toward the Repository. "I swear, I can feel this thing. It's a little like the jumpers." He bends closer, looking at it. "Uh oh."
Vala snaps her head up in time to see the device on the wall telescope out an amazing distance and clasp Sheppard's head, dragging him up to the wall.
"Oh, crap," she blurts, as light flares around the edges of the stupid thing, Sheppard moans, and then the lights go out. Completely. "That was not good."
Sheppard doesn't answer her, but she hears a painful-sounding thump and another moan, so she makes her way over to the wall. She nearly trips over him. He's on the floor. When she kneels next to him, she has to use her hands to learn that he's curled into a fetal position on his side, clutching at his head.
"Colonel Sheppard," she says. She traces her hands over his face, feeling for damage, then down his neck to check his pulse. It's racing and skipping in a nasty way. "Colonel?"
He just moans again.
"Colonel, do you think you could get the lights on again?" she asks, though she rather suspects he can't. It doesn't hurt to ask.
"I'll take that as a no," she tells him. She settles down on the floor, rearranges her legs, and draws his upper body up enough to rest his head in her lap. His hair is cool and silky under her fingers and she strokes through it, trying to offer a little comfort when he groans again. If she could get out of here, if there weren't a bunch of Lucian Alliance thugs waiting outside anyway to stop them, she'd drag him to the sarcophagus.
He moans a couple more times than flails a hand out. She catches it as he asks, "Why're the lights out?"
"You tell me, Colonel."
He's gone stiff, probably from realizing she's been playing pillow for him. She runs her hands through his hair again and hears him catch his breath.
"I think that thing burned out the last of its power on me."
"Daniel isn't going to be happy."
"No, I guess he isn't," Sheppard murmurs. "That sort of sucked, but the headache's disappearing already. I actually feel kind of good." He laughs softly. "This kind of thing always happens to me — Oh, boy, this isn't good."
"That thing downloaded everything into my head. I think it took the Asgard to fix O'Neill when that happened to him," he whispers. "McKay is going to be so pissed at me. He's always telling me to not touch stuff."
"It grabbed you," she points out.
"Like that'll make him any happier."
"Colonel — "
"You could call me John under the circumstances."
He hasn't moved since she started petting his hair, in fact, he's relaxed against her. He turns his head and instead of his hair, her hand is caressing his jaw, the soft rasp of his beard loud in the muffled darkness. It makes her shiver and flush. The darkness makes it easy to make up her mind.
"John," she says and drifts her fingers over his mouth in the dark. It's an unmistakable invitation. After all, they have nothing to do now for several hours and no one to do it with but each other.
"Vala — " She hears his breath catch, feels his lips brush over her fingers, then his tongue. "Vala, are you — ?"
"Are you always this slow?" she asks, bending to kiss him.
"Just so you know, this is just — "
"Sex," she says, slithering out from beneath him so that she can lie next to him. Her fingers find and busily begin undoing his belt.
"Sex," he laughs, his hands tangling with hers, finding her top and pushing it aside, then moving on to her breasts. The gun calluses make her shiver. "Because we're both alive, right?"
"Absolutely," she tells him, then kisses him so they won't have to talk any more.
He hasn't seen Vala since they were both escorted to the infirmary for the post-mission examinations, but then she's there as he turns back from the jumper's open hatch, reaching for the last pack. Separate from the things Rodney and Zelenka requested, he's got a mental health package in there for Carter: bottle of Scotch, two bottles of extra strength aspirin, and a couple of pounds of good coffee and chocolate she can use as barter on the city blackmarket. She's going to need it and more.
He blinks, startled — he didn't even hear the door open for her — and more than a little pleased, then smiles. From what John's observed over the last week, Vala's energy usually fills any room she's in; she demands attention, so it's surprising to realize how quietly she can move, though he knows after the mission they shared to Nomos Mareotis. It wasn't a lack of stealth that led to the firefight with the Lucian Alliance raiders — that was strictly the fault of their greedy Goa'uld host trying to sell them out.
John sets his pack down and looks at her. She's in baggy BDUs and a black T-shirt, the basic wear of every gate team member in Cheyenne Mountain or Atlantis. Her hair is in those pigtails that soften the harsh lines of her features. It's just another distraction. He recognized her skill at it the first time they met, on Atlantis, introductions all around before a briefing. She isn't smiling back at him.
"Hey," he says.
She surveys him blatantly and instead of straightening up, he leans against the side of the jumper, letting her look her fill, his pulse picking up speed. Last time, after all, and maybe instead of trying to write down everything the Ancients knew, he should have been figuring out where her quarters were and taking up where they left off back in the room with the Repository of Knowledge. His entire body tightens at the thought.
Flashes of her in that skintight leather outfit she wore for the mission into Quitos' fortress flicker through his thoughts. She had looked incredible and she'd given him this same look when he walked into the conference room.
Vala cocks her head and then lets that wicked smile light up her face. "Colonel Sheppard," she says, throaty and amused. "Weren't you going to say good-bye?"
"I hate good-byes."
"Funny," she says, "so do I," stepping closer and looping her arms around him. He bends his neck, half intending to do the Athosian forehead touch, but she pulls him closer and kisses him, ending with a nip to his lower lip. He definitely should have said fuck you to the debrief and fucked her again instead.
John pulls her closer, soft breasts against his chest, and kisses her again, taking the lead this time. Some expensive perfume tugs at his senses, reminding him of the way her loose hair fell forward while she rode him, the scent the same. It's a good memory. He'd be incredibly pissed that he's going to lose it if he let himself feel that much.
There are surveillance cameras in the jumper bay and the corridors and every office and room in the base. No place to get any privacy and getting both of them cleared to leave the Mountain would take too long. He thinks about it for about two seconds, until Vala slides one hand inside the waistband of his pants. Then he leads her into the jumper and to the padded bench in the cargo section, murmuring his invitation in Ancient. The hatch closes behind them automatically.
Vala raises an eyebrow. "Darling, I have no idea what you just said," she remarks, and then, when John drags his shirt over his head, "but I think sex is a marvelous idea."
It's every bit as good as the sex they had while locked in the Repository Chamber, waiting for the Apollo to approach close enough to lock onto their subcutaneous transmitters and beam them aboard. Better because he isn't banged up and there are no streaks of dried blood over Vala's sarcophagus-smoothed flesh. Better, but bitter, because he has a pretty good idea why she came to the jumper bay, to do this. He's no stranger to 'we're still alive' sex and this lacks the exultation and elation of that. It's more desperate, a farewell to the physical, he supposes, a going away gift in the most terminal sense, now that they know there's no easy fix.
"Condom?" he asks breathlessly at one point, but Vala is intent, shaking her head, almost magnificent, murmuring, "Implant," and he forgets that last caution in the next moment as he slips inside her. She rolls her hips and clenches around him, setting a fast, urgent rhythm that ends with a flutter deep inside. She murmurs in Goa'uld through it. John answers in guttural imperatives, reverting to the most basic language he's ever known, barely aware of the words, just the urgent need pushing him into her. He comes with his eyes closed, sweat slick between them, and a sensation not unlike kick starting a universe.
He presses a kiss to her collarbone because it lets him not look her in the face, his breath still coming in harsh pants, his back stinging from her nails, not quite ready to withdraw.
She rests two fingers on the nape of his neck, right where a Goa'uld would enter, and he shivers. No one brought up that possibility, of finding the Tok'ra and seeing if a symbiont could save him. Not that he would have been willing to try it, but no one in the SGC would trust any other species with the knowledge that's in his head now. For now.
He finds some English words among the blur of Ancient taking over his brain and says, "Jackson's an idiot," as they both dress again. He really means the man is a prick toward her as far as he can see, but she must know that too.
Vala grins at him, unoffended. "Thank you, John."
"Avete," he calls as she strolls to the hatch control and opens it.
Vala glances over her shoulder once and keeps going. John drags the last pack inside, seals the jumper and radios the control room that he's ready to go. It takes more concentration than he likes to keep it all in English and the jumper interfaces are all displaying in Ancient, bypassing the translations McKay and Zelenka installed early on for non-proficient pilots.
With the jumper aimed at the gate, he can't see the observation window, just the rippling blue of the wormhole. A display shows him Landry's face though. "Good luck, Sheppard," he says.
The radio relays the radio message from a galaxy away. "This is Atlantis. You are cleared to come through, Colonel Sheppard."
"On my way," he says. "Sheppard out."
He gives the jumper a silent goose and leaves Earth behind for the last time.
The news from Atlantis is bad. Enough so that jumpers are evacuating most of the population through the gatebridge in relays. Vala hangs around the infirmary, hoping to hear something, but Lam sends her packing when the wounded start arriving in a slow trickle at the end of the third day. She takes to standing in the back of the control room, behind Harriman. Cam and Daniel are already there and no one says anything.
Landry leaves his office on the fifth day as the trickle turns to a small flood and takes a place just a little to the side and behind Harriman, where he can look over the man's shoulders. One last jumper exits the wormhole and it winks out, leaving the ring standing empty, just a concrete wall beyond it.
The jumper settles to the floor and the hatch clangs down, hitting the metal ramp leading to the gate. The sound rings through the reinforced glass in front of the control room, making everyone jump.
Three men exit. Vala recognizes the big one with the dreadlocks and muscles, even though he's bloodied and draped over the little man with the fly away hair and spectacles, obviously barely conscious. Ronon Dex. She looks for someone else, for Sam's shining head, but no one else exits. The third man has a major's insignia on his collar. He looks up to the window and lifts empty hands.
"That's it," the microphones in the gateroom pick up. "No one else is coming. Colonel Carter and McKay have started the self-destruct."
Landry leans forward and opens the intercom. "Please join us in the conference room once you've been cleared by Medical, Major Lorne."
Teal'c is already in the conference room when the rest of them arrive to listen as Lorne stolidly reports Atlantis' last hours. Vala is the last through the door, trying to sidle in without being noticed. There had been a few lightheaded, queasy moments when she thought she might have to sit down in the corridor. It's all too damn familiar, even if this time she at least knows how it happened. But she doesn't know for sure and she's not going to think about it yet, not until Lam confirms it.
"McKay wasn't ready to give up, not until we lost power to the labs," Lorne tells them. His next words explain: "That's where they had Colonel Sheppard in stasis." Lorne shakes his head. "The East Pier took a hit. I don't know if there was anything even left, but without power that stasis pod must have been the same as a coffin. It sort of broke McKay, I think. At least, that's when he agreed to set the self-destruct. Teyla took off before anyone could stop her, trying to get down there. I don't know if she made it. I had to stun Ronon to get him into the jumper. I'd have stayed too, if Zelenka could have piloted it."
"You did the right thing, Major," Landry tells him.
Lorne doesn't notice.
"McKay and Colonel Carter stayed behind to disable the programs for using the gatebridge and make sure the Asurans didn't manage to infiltrate the city and stop the self-destruct countdown," Lorne finishes. "They were going to overload the ZPM, so there'll be nothing for the Asurans to salvage."
Lorne pauses and rubs his face. Everyone waits for him. "They said they were going to gate out to the Athosian's planet at the last second."
Each of them knows that Lorne didn't believe that. They don't either.
"Hey, if I could do it, you can," Rodney tells him. They're sitting on the floor while Rodney tries to guide John into the right frame of mind to Ascend. A half dozen of the candles Teyla is always giving him are burning, the curtains installed by whichever Ancient off the Tria who occupied his quarters during that interminable six weeks everyone was displaced are wavering over his window and John is not getting it. He can't concentrate and Rodney's wide open fields are not helping. The now always present headache isn't helping either.
"The problem is that I don't want to," he tells Rodney. In Ancient. Crap. He frowns and says it again in English.
Rodney grimaces. "Damn it, Sheppard."
"I'm running out of time, I know," he says. He gets to his feet and crosses the room to his desk. Picks up the envelope there and weighs it in his hands, then thrusts it at Rodney. "Here. I'm — This has got everything in it, will, insurance...Anyway, I want you to..." He gestures helplessly. "You know."
Rodney takes the envelope like it's a death sentence.
"This is you getting back at me for asking you to give my eulogy, isn't it?" he demands waspishly.
"Yes, Rodney, it is."
"You're such a bastard."
John looks at him for a long moment. "Yes, I am."
Rodney, for all his arrogance, isn't half the bastard John can be and when it comes down to it, John thinks he's probably the braver man, too. He pulls John into the most awkward, embarrassing, touching hug he's ever known, patting his stiff shoulder with the hand still clutching John's 'In the Event of My Death' envelope, until John gives in and hugs him back.
"Okay, look, just try the stasis pod thing," Rodney says as he draws away from John.
"What difference is it going to make?" John asks, feeling tired. They've been through this argument already a dozen times.
Rodney snaps his fingers and points at John. "Exactly!"
"What difference is it going to make, except let me and Teyla and Ronon and Sam and everyone who gives a damn a chance to feel a little better. Give us a chance to figure something out. If we don't..." The smug drains out of Rodney's voice and his face, leaving just a heavy sadness. "What difference does it make?"
John gives in. He already knew he was going to anyway. "Okay, fine, whatever. Turn me into a popsicle."
"It's a stasis pod, not a cryogenic chamber, Sheppard," Rodney tells him snippily.
"Whatever you say, Rodney."
The alarms blare through the Mountain regularly. Vala has grown used to them, but when the emergency lights flash red and Harriman's voice echoes down the concrete corridors, "Unauthorized offworld activation," this time everyone is put on extra alert, adrenaline pouring through their veins. If the Asurans took Atlantis, they may be knocking on Earth's door.
Vala bolts out of the cafeteria behind Cameron and Teal'c, glad for an excuse to get away from the smell of food and coffee.
They reach the control room in time to see the video screen displaying a wavering picture of Sam and Rodney McKay. She spots the Athosian woman standing behind them. The control room of Atlantis is filled with shattered glass and metal and all three look exhausted.
" — the energy signature matches the one we recorded when 'Athar' wiped out the Wraith over Proculus," McKay is saying. Sam may look relieved and happy, but he looks like he just lost his best friend.
"You're saying the Ascended wiped out the Asuran attack fleet?" Landry says.
"That's the only explanation that fits, sir," Sam replies.
McKay shakes his head. "Not the Ascended. One Ascended. Sheppard."
Vala catches her breath, suddenly nauseous again. Not suddenly, she's been nauseous for days and not ready to face it. Cam steadies her, giving her a concerned look. It's his damned aftershave that is making her want to upend her stomach all over him, so she steps away, shaking her head, and swallows hard. She's intent on hearing what McKay and Sam have to say.
"Colonel Sheppard ascended?" Landry asks. "How is that possible?"
McKay glares. "Well, since we didn't have any Asgard to get the Ancients' knowledge out of his head, we tried using the ascension machine I'd already had experience with. We hoped the accelerated brain evolution it caused would help him deal with the data overload, and it did, up to a point."
"I suppose we should be grateful now," Sam adds.
"Don't I just look so grateful?" McKay asks in a deadened voice.
"You're sure?" Landry asks.
The Athosian woman steps forward, coming into closer camera range. She looks as exhausted and devastated as McKay. Her voice is quiet and sure, though. "I witnessed it. Colonel Sheppard appeared to ascend in the same manner as others I have seen do so."
"And you believe — "
"The first thing he did was swat the Asurans and save the city and us," McKay interrupted. "Of course."
"So he's dead?" Vala hears herself ask. Before she can hear an answer, the nausea is too much and she makes for the conference room, where there is a garbage can she can throw up in. She finishes with someone holding her shoulders and drawing her hair away from her face, realizes it is Teal'c, and leans back against the solid warmth of his chest, letting him support her.
So, she thinks, he's dead or close enough to not matter, the smile and the easy charm all snuffed out, whatever secrets he hid secure from anyone's prying. She knows how hard it is to mourn the Ascended and pities McKay and the others who knew and loved him better than she ever did. She only had a glimpse of what they lost, but even that was enough to leave her hurting.
She keeps her eyes closed until she hears Cam say, "Here," as he wraps her fingers around a sweating glass of cold water. She stares at it for a minute then raises the glass to her mouth, rinses and spits into the garbage can, making him wrinkle his nose. After that she swallows some water, taking it slowly.
"Are you okay?" Cam asks, all compassion and concern. "I didn't realize you were so close... Damn. I'm sorry, you shouldn't have had to hear that way."
Vala stares at him and then almost laughs. He thinks hearing that John Sheppard ascended made her sick. It was the atmosphere and the tight quarters in the control room, simmering with heat from the computers and too many bodies jammed inside. John did not break her heart; it's still whole, if a little dinged. She liked John, though it was never love, because John was too much like her for love.
No use hiding it any longer, though. She's said nothing, contemplating the option Lam had offered the day before, of an abortion, but now she knows she won't resort to it. John is gone; she won't erase the last bit of him. Maybe, even if she wasn't in love with him, she did love him a little, after all.
"I'm not sick, you idiot," she tells Cam, handing him the empty glass. "I'm pregnant."
Cam almost fumbles the glass, then his face blanks. "Okay," he drawls, and then, "So, McKay and Sam are coming back to debrief before people start heading back to Atlantis. McKay says he wants to talk to you."
Teal'c pats her shoulder. "I am sorry," he says and sounds sincere.
Vala isn't sure if he meant for John's loss, her pregnancy or an impending meeting with Rodney McKay. Life is full of questions like that, but she isn't going to ask for an answer.
McKay carefully guides her up the path to the door of the suburban home. He's been quiet since they left the registrar's office. The quiet isn't a new thing. It's grown over the last months of frustration and grieving. Vala's found that with him, she doesn't feel compelled to fill the silence either, which is new for her. At first, he'd tried to tell her stories about Sheppard, but that had bored her, frankly. He'd been convinced they would find Sheppard somewhere in Pegasus, descended and perhaps memoryless, but essentially the same. Well, it happened with Daniel, so she hadn't argued, instead joining his search along with Teyla Emmagen and Dex.
All of McKay's conviction had drained out of him when Atlantis' long range sensors recorded the destruction of a hive ship that dropped out of hyperspace into their solar system a week before. Afterward he insisted on bringing her back to Earth. He hasn't explained why, but Vala knows. She's no slouch at hacking systems, and it didn't take much effort to get into Atlantis' servers and compare the energy signature that destroyed the Wraith to the one that wiped out the Asuran fleet.
So instead, they're on Earth, in Canada even, and she really needs to put a stop to this habit she has of marrying men because she's pregnant. It's embarrassing.
She looks around, taking in the cut grass in front of the house, the flowers in pots, the car in the concrete paved driveway. McKay's sister lives in a 'good' neighborhood. All the other houses on the street have a similar look. Affluence. Perhaps the people living there don't think so, but Vala has perspective they lack. This is normal life, by Earth standards: homes, families, medical care, jobs, and choices. It is anything but normal anywhere else in the galaxy. Three galaxies, she can say now, after several months in Pegasus. They don't know what they've got, but telling them would only destroy it.
It's charming, she decides. In a month it would drive her stark staring crazy with boredom, of course. She can't imagine John here either and knows this is why he returned to Atlantis to take his chances.
McKay presses a button next to the door and something inside rings. He keeps pressing it until the door is opened, revealing a blond woman with his eyes and forehead, still clutching a tea towel in one damp hand. She's surprisingly pretty considering how much she resembles McKay, Vala thinks. The blue eyes narrow and the woman finishes wiping her hands dry.
"Mer? Why are you here?"
Her gaze moves to Vala, who smiles weakly at her. This probably won't be pleasant. But it wasn't Vala's idea this time. It isn't like with Tomin. It was McKay's idea. Vala's only willing to go along because she knows McKay won't try to hold her if she changes her mind. The damned sarcophagus on Nomos Mareotis healed her birth control implant right out of existence. Considering what happened with her last child, she's been nervous about how the SGC might deal with this one. Its father is Ascended and had the nearly complete ATA gene complex, that might make it a valuable property.
McKay must have thought of the same things or he wouldn't have suggested marriage. They discussed it just once.
"He asked me to take care of things after he died," Rodney says. She guesses that includes her now. "John's child should be a citizen of somewhere on Earth. Unless you want to stay and give birth in the US. This way you can come back to Atlantis and stay out of reach of the NID and the rest of the alphabet agencies."
"Jeannie, this is Vala," McKay says. "I wrote you about her, remember?" He has his arm around Vala, though it's a stretch these days. "We're married."
Jean Miller stares at her. "You're not Mer's type." Vala winces, even if it is true. Sam is McKay's type. She wonders what Rodney told his sister about her, too. Nothing that evokes a friendly face, apparently.
McKay glares at his sister. "No, she's Sheppard's type, okay? Just shut up and let us in — "
"John? Where — "
"He's dead," McKay snaps. Then he sighs. "And he's not coming back."
Vala closes her eyes, wondering what exactly John had to give up for the Others to leave him to guard Atlantis. She knew him, she knows he did it, made that sacrifice, like she once closed an Ori supergate. Maybe the cost was any chance of descending. She thinks McKay knows somehow, but he hasn't said. She's wise enough not to ask.
She touches her belly where it's swelling. Jeannie's gaze snaps down for an instant and speculation flickers behind her eyes.
"Oh, Mer," Jean whispers. "I'm so sorry." She pulls him into her arms, in a pained hug that turns real as he leans his face against her shoulder, back bowing. Jean stares at her while rubbing her brother's back. "I'm so sorry," she says again, this time to Vala. "The baby's John's, isn't it?" She's figured it out, which isn't surprising: she's McKay's sister and just as smart.
Vala nods, then winces as the baby kicks.
Jean lets go of Rodney, pulls the door open wider and says, "Come in. Tell me what happened."