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Summary: In the beginning of their fourth year on Atlantis, the Expedition has survived the attack by the Asurans' wormhole-powered satellite, and successfully flown Atlantis to a new planet with little damage and no casualties. But the city has barely landed when Rodney McKay receives a devastating message, and that's just the beginning of a new and terrible threat.

Now, with all the Gifted on Atlantis in danger and Rodney facing imminent death, Rodney, Elizabeth Weir and John Sheppard are in a race against time to save the most powerful and vulnerable members of the Expedition. For John, that means confronting his deepest fears about his Gift—and even that might not be enough to save Rodney's life.

Updated: 01 Apr 2010; Published: 01 Apr 2010

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Story Notes:
This story is part of the Gifts AU, where ten percent of the Earth's population have 'Gifts'—special abilities.

Stricken takes place after Aegis and Enthrall, which were both also written for the SGA Big Bang. We highly recommend that you read both these stories first to be able to understand this one.

There are also three other stories set in the Gifts universe, which may be found here. They all take place between Aegis and Enthrall, but don't need to be read in order to understand Stricken, though we hope you'll want to read them, anyway. :)

We've used dialogue from "38 Minutes" in Season One, and "The Daedalus Variations" in Season Five.

We would very much like to thank our wonderful, wonderful betas: spes_abrin and dossier, who each read through this sucker twice and yet remained gentle, kind and eagle-eyed. You were both extremely helpful, and hugely appreciated.

We would also like to thank nacbrie for her thorough BritPicking.

We would also like to give a special mention of gratitude to springwoof, for her encouragement about my sister squeakyoflight and me (Leah or taste_is_sweet) writing this story together.

2. Hit or wounded by a weapon, missile, or the like.
3. Beset or afflicted, as with disease, trouble, or sorrow
4. Deeply affected, as with grief, fear, or other emotions.
5. Characterized by or showing the effects of affliction, trouble, misfortune, a mental blow, etc.



USMC Colonel Marshall Sumner stepped out of the wormhole and breathed his first breath of the real, outdoor air of the Pegasus Galaxy. Unlike the recycled, conditioned atmosphere of the submerged city, this air smelled crisp, sharp, slightly cold—the familiar scents of autumn on a world he'd never set foot on before. This was why he loved his job, loved working for the SGC, hell, even loved the gene that meant he'd been conscripted before he'd finished high school. He loved the taking of new worlds.

Marshall breathed deeply again. He didn't smell any immediate danger, but he did smell...potential. He glanced around him, the night vision goggles assisting him to see the grassy field around the Gate and the forest beyond it. Behind him, the rest of his men emerged from the wormhole. He signaled a standard recon configuration and his team fanned out in disciplined formation.

Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard sauntered up beside him, and Marshall gave him a tight smile.

"Brave new world, huh?" Sheppard said, grinning. Marshall was sure he winked behind his goggles even though Marshall couldn't see it. "This is so cool. I've never been off-world before." He put his hand on Marshall's shoulder, leaving it there companionably. "I'm just glad that we've got someone with your knowledge and ability leading us. I'm sure you'll be really happy to take me under your wing."

Marshall nodded despite himself, though he at least resisted the urge to smile back. It was common knowledge at the SGC that Sheppard was dangerous. He used his Ability casually and without remorse to get whatever he wanted, including ranks and positions he didn't deserve. That was why he was a light Colonel and flying 302s for the SGC, even though men— good men, even if they were Mundanes—had died because of him, because he hadn't felt like risking his own ass to save them. No one had ever been able to prove he did anything wrong, though, and after Sheppard smiled at them, no one wanted to.

The fact that he was also a thief and a rapist was a given, but it was impossible to press charges when his victims were convinced they'd wanted what he did.

Even now, Marshall could feel Sheppard's charm oozing its way into his mind, trying to twist his emotions until he wanted to help him, to do whatever Sheppard said he needed. He could smell the candle-wax scent of effort coming from Sheppard as he used his Ability.

"I think we're going to be great friends," Sheppard said, giving Marshall a bright, welcoming smile. Marshall smelled grassy satisfaction and the soapy reek of smugness.

Marshall shrugged off his hand, quickening his pace a little. "Just do your job and we'll get along fine." He pushed his goggles up to wipe the sweat off his forehead, gritting his teeth and forcing himself not to look back. He didn't trust Sheppard farther than he could throw him, but Sheppard was damn powerful, and Marshall didn't know how long he could hold on before Sheppard charmed him into his orbit just like he'd done to everyone else. Even knowing intellectually that Sheppard was bad news wasn't helping the treacly warmth he felt at the idea that Sheppard might like him. He forced it down, but it took work.

Behind him, he heard Sheppard laughing.

Marshall was concentrating so hard on fighting off the remnants of Sheppard's Ability that the two figures bursting out of the woods came as a surprise. His goggles were still on his forehead, so he heard a noise but didn't see anything until Lieutenant Ford shouted a warning and started firing.

Marshall had his goggles back in place and his gun up almost instantly, but it was already over. He ran with the other men to the assailants' position, grimacing a little to himself at how easily Sheppard loped past him.

"They're kids," Parker said when they reached the bodies. He prodded one with his foot. "Looks like Ford got them both."

Marshall could smell how pleased Ford was with himself. "That was a stupid move, Lieutenant," he said as he hunkered down next to the nearer body, inhaling how Ford's scent changed to musky chagrin. "The modus operandi is to take prisoners. We can't get any information from them if they're dead."

"Yes, sir," Ford said. He started reeking of fear; as well he should, considering how he would be punished for this. They were out here to try and find ZPMs for the city, which meant any killing had to be judicious and purposeful, not pell-mell destruction.

Marshall pushed his goggles up again, turning on the light on his M90 to get a better look. They definitely were kids, something that was immediately obvious from the smell even before Marshall flipped one over. The boy didn't look more than twelve, like he and his buddy had been out playing after dark. Except that they were wearing uniforms— simple and severely cut and dark brown in the light, reminding Marshall a lot of his own. They were carrying weapons, too. Marshall picked one up by the barrel, tugging it out of the kid's lax grip. It looked like some kind of energy weapon, though it was possible it was a toy. He slipped it into the back of his belt, then took the second kid's weapon and instinctively handed it to Sheppard.

Sheppard smirked. "Thank you, sir," he said with mock-sincerity.

Marshall managed to ignore him. "Whoever these kids are, I doubt they came out here alone." He straightened, repositioning his goggles so he could see further into the trees. "We need to head back to the Gate before we run into their squad."

"Or their parents," Kaufman said, and snickered.

"Can it, Boomer," Sheppard said, and naturally Kaufman shut up, though Marshall wasn't exactly dismayed by it. "But we just got here," Sheppard said silkily to Marshall, as if he actually cared.

Marshall was about to reply when he heard a sound like a distant clap of thunder. Sheppard's head snapped back in a spray of bone and blood and he dropped like a stone.

"Take cover!" Marshall hollered before Sheppard's body hit the ground. He could smell that Sheppard was as dead as the boys even before he saw the glistening mass that used to be half the Charmer's head, and Sumner didn't try to pretend he wasn't relieved. Then the new, acrid smell of danger nearly overpowered everything else.

He didn't feel the shot that got him, but suddenly he was on the ground, goggles and M90 lost, clutching his side as agony ripped through him. The smell of burning wasn't his Ability; it was his flesh.

Marshall distantly heard Kaufman's whoops of excitement and then the explosions that followed. The boy was a psychotic asshole, but right now he was the best chance of getting the rest of Marshall's squad back to the Gate.

He tried to stand, but the attempt to roll onto his good side caused his vision to narrow down to a red line, and he could smell the crushed-rose scent of his own dying underneath the char. Marshall tried to call out to his men but didn't have the breath for it, and they'd all been trained never to look back anyway. Returning for someone was just a way to lose more men.

It took him a moment to realize that the forest was quiet, no more sounds of gunfire or energy weapons or Kaufman blowing the shit out of anything in his line of sight. He hoped that meant his people had won, or at least escaped.

Marshall could tell by the ozone smell of curiosity and the burning-metal smell of rage that the person approaching him wasn't one of his squad. He groped for his sidearm, hissing in pain as he moved. His hand was slick with blood, but he managed to pull it out of the holster and cock it.

The woman—the female scent was unmistakable, though he could barely see her in the dark—kicked the gun out of his hand before he could aim. He could see the gleam of her weapon in the light from his M90, lying nearby in the grass.

Another shape came up behind her, a man built like a small mountain. He had Kaufman slung over his shoulders. Marshall couldn't see Kaufman's face, but he could smell the particular odor Boomer always exuded when he'd used his Ability, like burnt-out matches. Boomer wasn't moving, but he still smelled alive.

"Should we take him prisoner too?" the big man asked the woman. Her scent of authority marked her as the leader.

"No," she said. Her voice was melodic and rather pretty, really. "He won't survive the journey. She turned her attention to Marshall. "Why did you attack our cadets?"

"Didn't— didn't know..." Marshall said, panting. He could hear and smell others coming up behind the woman, more kids. Figured they'd stumbled onto a damn training exercise. Fucking Ford.

The woman kicked him in the side where he was wounded. He howled, clutching desperately at the burn, trying not to throw up. The scent of his own pain was almost overwhelming, nearly enough to make him pass out. He clung onto consciousness, queasily trying to focus.

"You have attacked our children on neutral territory," the woman said. "This is an act of war. Know that your people have made an enemy of the Athosian Empire, and that you die having condemned them."

The last thing Colonel Sumner ever smelled was her contentment at ending his life.

USAF Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard groped his way slowly back to consciousness, sleep dropping away in heavy layers until he was finally able to open his eyes.

His vision blurred for a moment. He blinked a few times, and then he was looking up at Rodney.

"Hey, welcome back," Rodney said. He looked exhausted, stress deepening the lines at the corners of his eyes, but his smile was bright and real.

"Hey," John said, not surprised by how his voice croaked. His throat hurt in a way he recognized from all the other times he'd been intubated.

Rodney grabbed a cup of water off the tray table and held it for him. John drank slowly, using the straw. Swallowing hurt, but the cool touch of the liquid was wonderful.

"The plan worked, before you torture your throat by asking," Rodney said just as John opened his mouth, but Rodney was smiling. "The Asuran satellite exploded in a pleasant display of light and sound. Albert was released to his quarters yesterday. He's still off-duty but he'll be fine." Rodney's smile dipped a bit. "Kaufman's on life-support, but, well, we were expecting that. Carson said his prognosis is excellent, and he's planning on taking him off the ventilator tomorrow."

John nodded his thanks, grateful that Rodney had known to tell him about his men first. He sipped more water and raised his eyebrows, hoping Rodney would understand he had another question.

"Right, yes," Rodney said. He suddenly looked distinctly unhappy and John's empty stomach clenched painfully around the cold water. "My calculations were correct. We acted quickly enough that there was still sufficient power in the ZPM to get us to the new planet we agreed on."

John kept looking at Rodney, because it was obvious he was stalling. 'But?' he mouthed, and even that hurt a little.

"But Major Lorne flew the city," Rodney said sadly. He squeezed John's hand. "I'm really sorry. I know how much you wanted to do it."

John nodded. He squeezed Rodney's hand in return, to let him know he wasn't upset. The priority had been getting Atlantis away before the Asurans could track them, not waiting until he was healthy enough to take the city for a joyride. Still, he had been looking forward to taking Atlantis into space as soon as he and Rodney had come up with the idea of leaving the planet, and he might never have another chance. He knew realistically that would be a good thing, but still.

"I'm sorry," Rodney said again. He smiled crookedly. "If it's any consolation, he hit the water like a brick." He squeezed John's hand again. "But I'm so sorry it wasn't you."

"S'okay," John whispered.

"I'm just glad you're all right," Rodney said vehemently. "Now I know what it must have been like for Carson, when Albert linked you and me up so you could shield Atlantis." He shook his head, expression haunted. "You said you could see the satellite through Lorne's eyes, looking out the Jumper. You were concentrating, and then all three of you, just collapsed. He snapped his fingers. "Just like that. Albert was mostly all right, but you had a seizure, and Kaufman's heart stopped for almost a minute. The Great Dane nearly did himself in, bringing the poor bastard back." Rodney let out a breath, misery with a touch of annoyance. "Elizabeth should never have let Olivetti leave. You'd all be fine by now if he'd been here to heal you."

John raised an eyebrow, hoping it conveyed he's allowed to have a life outside of the Stargate program, Rodney, without him actually having to say anything. Olivetti had gone to visit his family in Italy for his annual leave and came back engaged. His bride-to-be was a schoolteacher with no knowledge of the Stargate program. Olivetti had asked for a transfer back to his old regiment, and they were thrilled to have their prodigal Healer returned to them.

John wished him a long and happy marriage, though he privately agreed with Rodney that Atlantis sure as hell still needed him. Johansen's Gift was better than nothing, but in the Pegasus galaxy, that wasn't saying much.

"I know he's allowed to fall in love, Sheppard!" Rodney groused tartly. John grinned. "But he didn't have to be so inconvenient about it, did he? Surely he could have waited until we found another Healer to replace him."

John stared at him.

"Oh, fine," Rodney huffed. "Love conquers everything, blah-de-blah-de-blah. And meanwhile Kaufman's in a coma and you were unconscious in the Infirmary while Major 'Evil Knievel' Lorne nearly pulled an Edmund Fitzgerald in the New Lantea ocean. Forgive me for not exactly being all sweetness and light!"

John smirked, then winced. He raised an eyebrow again.

"Okay, so the Edmund Fitzgerald was a boat. Whatever," Rodney said. "I think you're missing the point, here."

John's second eyebrow arched to match the first.

Rodney looked at him for a moment, and then let out a defeated breath, slumping in his chair. "I just hate worrying about people," he said. "Especially you. And if Olivetti was still here, I wouldn't have to worry as much."

John swallowed, steeling himself. "Kaufman's okay?" he asked, then coughed, wincing again in pain.

"I just said he's going to be fine, didn't I?" Rodney grumbled. He held the water for John again. "But in the mean time, I have to worry about everyone. It sucks."

John reached over with his free hand and patted Rodney's wrist. "Love you, too."

John was dozing comfortably on Rodney's bed, the late afternoon sunlight slanting orange through the windows, when Rodney bustled into his quarters. He had one eye on whatever he was clicking through on his tablet and humming happily to himself, but he stopped when he saw John.

"Oh, I forgot you were there," he said, looking concerned. "I'm sorry." He gestured vaguely behind him at the door. "Did I wake you?"

"No, s'okay," John said, which wasn't really a lie since he hadn't actually been sleeping. He scratched his stomach, idly wondering if he should get up or not. He decided not. Today was his last day of mandatory rest before he went back on normal duty schedule, and he couldn't even remember the last time he'd been able to do nothing and not feel bad about it. He stretched, thrusting out his arms and letting it ripple all the way to his bare toes, then relaxed, feeling a little more awake. "How'd the data burst go?"

Rodney was staring at him, kind of wistfully, John thought. Rodney shook his head quickly and looked back down at his tablet. John grinned.

"Fine," Rodney said. "Jeannie finally sent me her contribution to one of my projects that she had promised me, oh, three weeks ago, Sam sent me the latest physics journals and a personalized note of her undying devotion, and..." He trailed off dramatically, looking at John. "Torchwood sent me a message."

"Oh, yeah?" John said. He was interested, but not quite enough to make it worthwhile sitting up or anything. All he knew about Torchwood was that they were based in the UK and most of the Commonwealth and dealt with alien threats, kind of like the SGC. But while the SGC sent people to other worlds to do the exploring, examining and neutralizing, Torchwood waited until the things to explore, examine or neutralize came to Earth. Rodney had told him all that easily, because apparently Torchwood's existence was an open secret in the UK and anyone who knew about it at all knew that much. The details, however, were left to people like the President, O'Neill, and Dr. Rodney McKay. Even Elizabeth barely knew more than John did. John didn't even try not to feel smug about that.

Not that having a boyfriend with the highest level of security clearance would let him know what Torchwood's message said. Which was kind of annoying, because it meant Rodney would lord it over him for days.

"What does it say?" John asked casually. He stretched again, just to make Rodney look at him, then scratched his stomach, this time purposely pushing his tee-shirt up. "Harkness still desperately crushed because you won't go back to the Mosonee Hub?"

Rodney smirked. "Like he thinks I'd ever go back to Northern Ontario." But he was remotely transferring the data from his tablet to the laptop, and barely glanced at John.

John sighed gustily, stretching out enough with one leg to prod Rodney in the thigh. "Well?"

Rodney brushed his foot aside and sat down in front of his laptop, already clicking keys. "No, he gave up on that a long time ago. Now he just wants me to go to Cardiff."

John blinked and then sat up, scooting down to the end of the bed. "But you're telling him you're staying here, right?" He winced inwardly at how his voice came off a little less cool and certain than he wanted and a little more anxious and pathetic.

It was probably testament to how long they'd been together that John found Rodney's glance of withering disdain so reassuring. "Please. As if they could possibly offer me enough to move to Cardiff."

"Hey, I hear Wales is pretty nice in the summer," John drawled, hopelessly relieved. He blinked innocently when Rodney rolled his eyes.

"Sorry, Colonel. You're going to have to do better than that to get rid of me," Rodney said. He gave a beautifully artful put-upon sigh and turned his attention back to the computer screen. "Now shut up and let me read this. Go back to sleep or something."

"Okay," John said. He got up and stood behind Rodney, leaning down so he could put his chin on the top of Rodney's head. "So, did they catch any cool aliens? That blowfish guy come back?"

"Quit it," Rodney said, trying to shake him off. "Stop that. Shoo." He finally spun around in his chair when John put his hands over Rodney's eyes. "Seriously, will you quit it?" Rodney said, looking a little exasperated. "You're not allowed to read this! Either go lie down or do something else or I'll have to kick you out of my room."

John could tell he was serious, so he stepped back, putting his hands palms-up in surrender. "Okay! Okay, fine. I'll leave you alone." He leered. "I'll just be on the bed."

"Good," Rodney said, already distracted. "You do that."

John snorted and flopped back onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling with his hands on his stomach. "You're no fun at all."

Rodney grunted something, not listening.

John sighed. He was thinking vaguely about jacking off—that would sure as hell get Rodney's attention—when he heard Rodney give a tiny, choked cry.

John bolted upright instantly. Rodney was still reading, his hand over his mouth. His face was absolutely white.

"Rodney! What is it? What happened?" John said, standing. He went to Rodney and put his hand on the back of Rodney's neck. "What happened?"

Rodney swallowed. He blinked, and John was startled by the tears in his eyes. "It's..." He took a long, unsteady breath. "Some friends of mine," he said quietly. "Tosh and Owen." He swallowed again. "They're dead."

"Oh, God, Rodney," John said. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." He knelt on the floor so he could pull Rodney into his arms.

"I can't go. It's too late in the day, and, and I'm much too busy here. So you'll have to take the annual report by yourself," Rodney said. He had his arms crossed and his chin up, the way he did when he was trying to brazen his way through something, but Dr. Elizabeth Weir was a Receiving Empath, and she could feel the grief and sorrow his stance did nothing to hide. His eyes had the wide, liquid horror in them of a newly-lost child.

She pushed his grief aside, making sure to keep her voice as gentle as possible. "I don't know what you received in Torchwood's message, but I can see that it was bad." She didn't mention that she could feel it too, because she didn't want Rodney to feel violated by something she couldn't help. "But I'm afraid that unless it was your own family, whatever happened won't be considered reason enough to keep you from fulfilling your duties as liaison."

"It wasn't my family," Rodney said tightly, and Elizabeth let out a silent breath of relief. "But I can't go. I just—" He looked away. "I can't. Please don't ask me to do this."

Elizabeth pulled in a breath. "Rodney, you know I don't have high enough security clearance to go by myself. Perhaps if O'Neill were available, but as it stands—"

"You can get clearance!" Rodney said quickly, like he'd known this would be her argument. "You're the leader of Atlantis! It won't be a problem!" He was so desperately hopeful that Elizabeth nearly winced, his emotions prodding her.

"I don't know if it can be arranged that quickly, Rodney," she said. She rubbed a temple, feeling a headache coming on. Dealing with Rodney at the best of times was always a little bit like standing at the center of a maelstrom. She dropped her hand and then clenched both her hands in front of her so she wouldn't cross them over her chest in a mirror of Rodney's stance. "Has it occurred to you that your friends might need you right now?" she asked. "It's a lot harder to weather tragedy alone." She hoped saying that wouldn't reveal too much of what she knew. After all, Rodney hadn't denied that something bad had happened.

Rodney swallowed. "They don't need me," he said. " know how bad I am at this."

Elizabeth smiled warmly at him. "I don't think any of us are particularly good at grieving, Rodney. But you can be there for them, as a friend. I think they'll appreciate it more than you know."

The idea made Rodney afraid, Elizabeth could feel it. But Rodney was also brave. Elizabeth could feel his resignation, too, and determination, and the faintest touch of hope. He knew he had to do this, for his friends at Torchwood, if not himself.

Elizabeth reached out and put her hand on his. "You'll get through this, Rodney," she said. "They'll help you." She smiled. "And so will we. You know we're always here for you."

Rodney's smile was sad but genuine, his determination now stronger than everything but the sorrow dragging on him. Elizabeth mentally prepared herself to feel that for a long time, wishing there was some way she could make his grief easier for him, wishing she even knew what had happened.

"All right," Rodney said, nodding. "I guess I—"

"Dr. Weir, Dr. McKay, we've got a new contact," Chuck said to them both over their radios. "Looks like a ship."

"It's the Daedalus," Rodney said to John as John walked into the control room. "It just popped into orbit above the planet."

"Wait a minute," John said. "How come we didn't detect it?
"I don't know," Chuck said. "We didn't even detect the hyperspace window. It just appeared out of nowhere."

"That doesn't make any sense," John said. He looked at Rodney and Elizabeth. "The Daedalus is on its way back to Earth."
"It is," Elizabeth said, confirming it just as Rodney opened his mouth. "We'll have to contact Earth to verify it, but—"

Rodney interrupted, "We don't think that's our Daedalus.. He looked wide-eyed, John realized, in a way that didn't mean anything good. "At least, if it is then something really bad must've happened. There aren't any life signs."

John felt his own eyes widening. "Open a channel," he said to Chuck and then waited for the Sargeant to nod. "Daedalus, this is Atlantis. Please come in."

No one responded.

"Daedalus, please respond," John repeated. He looked at Rodney, who just stared back, too freaked to even say 'I told you so'. "How could there be no one on board?" he asked. "Don't tell me that thing flew here by itself."

"I'm not!" Rodney said, sounding a little indignant. "I don't have the first clue how they got here, but there's no one on board." He looked pained. "At least, no one alive."

"Or able to answer," Elizabeth cut in with her, 'let's be optimistic' voice. She looked at Rodney. "They're expecting us to arrive at Midway within the hour," she said.

Rodney nodded. His expression was a weird mix of relief, disappointment and guilt. "We need to check this out," he said.

Elizabeth nodded, smiling resignedly. "Looks like you're off the hook after all, Rodney. I'll let the SGC know."

"Great," Rodney said. He started rubbing his hands together. "Okay," he said to John, "we'll need Ronon and Teyla, of course, and you'll need to get Lorne back here, since all three of us will be gone..." He turned back to Elizabeth. "Oh! Um, thank you. For this. And before, too. Thank you." His smile was a little shy.

Elizabeth put her hand on his arm and smiled back. "You're very welcome," she said. She sighed. "Now if you'll excuse me, gentlemen." She looked at Rodney, one elegant eyebrow quirked. "I apparently need to call General O'Neill and arrange for some security clearance." She smiled at both of them. "Have fun with our mystery ship. Be careful."

"We're always careful," John said soberly. He grinned to himself as Elizabeth rolled her eyes.

"Don't I wish," she said as she turned away. "Take care."

Chuck radioed while they were still in the Puddle Jumper, to let them know that they'd verified with Earth that the Daedalus was indeed in the Milky Way and safe and sound. So this ship, despite its unique IFF and unmistakable shape, really wasn't the actual Daedalus. Or at least it wasn't theirs.

The F-302 bay was empty. The ship was functioning but as cold as a tomb.

Dr. Rodney McKay was in Engineering with Ronon, trying to get the life support working at something above bare minimum levels. It wasn't going well.

"What's wrong?" Ronon asked, coming over after Rodney swore viciously for the forth time.

Rodney sighed and heaved himself out from underneath the console he'd been struggling with, pulling himself heavily to his feet. His breath came out in gouts of steam, like Canada in midwinter. "Normally, it'd be a snap to get the life support back online, but look." He gestured with the screwdriver he was holding, encompassing the scorched edges of the console, the places that had been blackened by heat or melted. "If I didn't know better, I'd say it'd been hit by weapons fire."

"How do you know it wasn't?" Ronon asked. He kicked at the tool box next to the console, making it scrape across the floor. "There's not much else that would cause that kind of damage."

"Do you mind? I was using that!" Rodney scowled at Ronon, who just smiled unrepentantly. Rodney shook his head. If he didn't know that John had intended for Ronon to protect him, he would have thought John sent Ronon just to piss him off. Rodney still wasn't entirely sure that protection actually was John's main motivation.

Rodney hooked the tool box with his foot and pulled it back, glowering at Ronon the whole time. "You happen to be right, except I do know better. This wasn't a blast, this console was melted. I bet you a Gifted person did it."

Ronon looked at the console again, head cocked as he considered. It made him look like a big, shaggy dog, not that Rodney would ever say that to him. "Some kind of—what do you call them—fire-maker?" he asked. He looked at Rodney. "Why would they use their Gift like that?"

"Pyrokinetic," Rodney corrected automatically, "though I'd guess by the look of things that this person just generated heat, rather than actual fire. But I have no idea why they would do this, unless it was done on purpose. Though if it was done on purpose, that doesn't explain why they'd be trying to fix it." He pointed at the tool box. "I found that here, with the proper tools already out and scattered around. Whatever happened, they left before they could finish the job, or even put the tools away."

"Weird," Ronon said. He nudged the console with his foot. "So, can you fix it?"

"No," Rodney said.

Ronon just looked at him. "You can't fix it?"

"Well, of course I can! Given enough time, I can fix anything," Rodney said. He looked at the half of the console where it seemed like someone had taken a flame thrower to it. "But unless you want to camp here for a few days, the answer's still, 'no'."

"Okay," Ronon said. He started walking towards the bulkhead doors. "Let's go."

"Hey, wait!" Rodney called after him, offended though he really couldn't say why.

"McKay, Ronon, this is Sheppard", came over his radio suddenly, startling him. John sounded a little spooked.

"Yeah, what is it?" Rodney said. Ronon was long gone already.

"You guys need to come see this",John said. And yeah, he was definitely spooked. Rodney felt a small, unpleasant chill that had nothing to do with the frigid temperature on the ship.

"On my way," he said. He slid the borrowed screwdriver into a pocket of his tac vest, then unplugged his tablet. He'd probably be back in Engineering soon, but he didn't want to chance leaving anything behind.

"Jesus Christ!" Rodney said, stopping dead.

"Yeah," John said grimly, blowing puffs of steam into the air. "That's pretty much what I said."

John had led him to one of the bigger holds, a place normally used on the Daedalus for large requisitions, like medical equipment. It was full of bodies.

There were about fifty of them. All laid out neatly on the floor. Two were in body bags, but most were covered with simple bed sheets, likely from the crew quarters.

"That...that's a lot of dead people," Rodney said.

John nodded. "My guess is that they ran out of space in the morgue."

"What killed them?" Teyla asked. She shivered, and Rodney suspected it wasn't just the cold. She looked at Rodney, soft brown eyes wide with alarm. "If it was a disease..."

"I doubt it could've survived in this kind of cold," Rodney said, though he took a healthy step back from the bodies just to be safe.

John was staring at the nearest corpse as if it was going to sit up any second. "We looked at the most recent ship logs. The commander was a Colonel Sobol. I've never heard of her, but her last log was about the survivors abandoning ship." John looked at Rodney. "I figure that all these people died in some firefight, like what caused those scores on the hull."

"Makes sense," Ronon said. "A lot of stuff in Engineering was too busted to be fixed, and the console was burned."

"Maybe they starved, or ran out of water," Rodney said quietly.

"Perhaps we should look at the bodies, to see what killed them," Teyla said.

Nobody moved.

"Right," Rodney said, nodding. "Well, uh..." He gestured vaguely at his tablet. "I downloaded everything I could from engineering, so..."

"We should get out of here," Ronon said.

"Good idea," John said. He looked at Teyla. "We can get some of the medical-types out here with hazmat suits. But we probably shouldn't stick around here, in case it's dangerous."

"Yes, right," Teyla said on an exhale.

Rodney was the first one out the door.

The Roald Dahl Plass was just off to the south of Cardiff's Millenium Centre.

Elizabeth stood in front of the large glass doors of the Millenium Centre, looking out at the surrounding urban landscape, and marvelling at the modernity of its structure.

The water tower stood a solid seventy feet above the plaza, its streams of liquid glistening in the late afternoon sun, a statement of the power of technology to contain the elements. Rodney had told her that the base of the tower was deep inside the plaza, going all the way down to the Torchwood Hub itself.

In front of her the main square was paved with interlocking bricks reminiscent of old cobblestone streets, but well-fitted, like an open box of unused sugar cubes. Deliniating the edges of the plaza were two tall rows of rounded white metal. The lights at the top surrounded in circles of gleaming silver wire were standing like sentries, ready to guard against the night.

The building itself was oval and sloping, with a thick, curved metal section in burnished bronze, jutting up across the front, both imposing and playful at the same time. It was carved with big, blocky letters that acted as windows for the theatre inside; a poem in Welsh and English: In These Stones Horizons Sing.

Elizabeth smiled to herself. It wasn't the horizon that sang in those stones. It was a spacetime rift, and she was here to find its keepers.

She wasn't in a rush to do it, however. She'd been procrastinating since she'd arrived via the Daedalus' transport beam earlier that afternoon. She'd chosen to check into her hotel first and took the time to unpack her few belongings before walking back to the Plass. She had been standing in front of the main entrance for the last few minutes, steeling herself for the meeting ahead.

It wasn't that she was nervous exactly, it was just that she'd heard a lot of stories from Rodney, and most concerned how incredible the members of this team actually were. So incredible, in fact, that even Rodney was a little bit in awe.

Elizabeth smirked. Okay, so it was really only one team member that Rodney was in awe of: their leader. Captain Jack Harkness.

A man, Rodney told her, who was dangerous to underestimate and impossible to forget, and then he had sighed, his blue eyes going distant and misty. The emotions that had rolled off him were enough to make her blush.

She took a fortifying breath. The members of Torchwood Three might deal with the magic and alien, but they were only human, and she had negotiated with Wraith, after all. The rush of nervousness she was feeling wasn't truly necessary.

Using Rodney's map, she found the path along the outside of the building to the nondescript brown doorway with the 'tourist information' sign and pushed it open. Inside was a small room dominated by a large reception desk with lighted panels. Every available surface was covered with pamphlets advertising attractions in and around Wales. The far wall contained a board full of notices, each one at a careful angle and distance from the other. In fact, everything in the room was organized and neat, practical and asthetic all at once.

Rather like the young brown-haired man behind the counter, assessing her with piercing blue eyes.

Elizabeth put on her best diplomatic smile. "Hello," she started.

"Good evening, Dr. Weir," the man said, interrupting her smoothly with the lilting accent of Wales. He moved from behind the desk to stand in front of her. "We've been expecting you."

"Good evening," Elizabeth echoed, feeling the smile fading from her mouth. The man's clothes were a perfect combination of wild and proper; a dark suit and collared shirt in a deep rose colour that emphasized the lightness of his eyes. His expression was also perfect, polite interest with just a touch of steel to his gaze, but his emotions were not nearly so calm. Grief, she felt, sorrow, and the power of it had her blinking back tears even as she followed him through the inconspicuous door at the back of the information centre and down the stairs to the depths of the fortress hidden below.

It truly was a fortress.

The massive, gear-like door rolled back to reveal a huge, round room, whose ceiling reached up all the way to street level. The Hub was as far down inside Cardiff as the SGC was in Cheyenne Mountain. Some amazing act of space-time enabled her to reach it by going down what felt like only a few flights of stairs. It was well-lit for being so far underground, spacious and sparse with a strange mixture of ultra modern technology and dorm-room-type furniture. There was a couch and bottle-strewn coffee table set comfortably against a tiled wall that spelled 'Torchwood' in large blue letters. She smirked. As if she could possibly forget where she was.

The room was dominated by the base of the water tower, which was clearly much more than a decorative statue this far underground. To her left was what looked like a glass-encased armory with more weapons on display than she had ever seen at the Smithsonian. Flights of stairs spiraled up to computer banks on the second tier, and open doorways led to other rooms, barely visible from below.

The air smelled damp, but not unpleasantly so, and it was apparent the scent came from the moat of water that encircled the lowest level of the Hub, the source for the water tower so many feet above.

She knew she was gawking, but couldn't help it. The room was more astonishing than anything she had ever imagined. It felt like a place untouched by the reality above its vaulted ceiling, somewhere outside of space and time itself. The world could end, she thought, and this Hub would still be here.

"You won't see her, you know."

Elizabeth started, and turned.

In one glance, she knew it was him.

"See who?" she said, returning his relaxed smile and sliding easily into the set-up he had created. She could feel his excitement at meeting her, a near-giddiness that she had asked the right question. There was an intensity about him, an energy so thick that she felt like it was both pushing against her and buoying her up, an emotion beyond emotion—the primal nature of his being, shooting off him like sparklers in July.

"Myfanwy, of course," he replied, blue eyes shining and a dimple popping in his cheek.
Elizabeth found herself grinning back, the tip of her tongue intruding on her upper lip, her gaze becoming more seductive. The man was made of sex.

"And, I'm supposed to ask, 'who is Myfanwy,' correct?" she said, "and then you'll say—"

"Our pterodactyl," Captain Jack Harkness replied. "Ianto found her in a warehouse about two years ago. She likes to live in a nest somewhere near the ceiling. Now's her nap time, so..." He shrugged.

"I won't see her," Elizabeth finished for him. She glanced up through her lashes, a trick she hadn't resorted to since she was a college freshman. "Rodney didn't mention you had a dinosaur in residence."

"Rodney didn't mention a lot of things," the Captain said, letting his gaze roam slowly over her. She was dressed conservatively in a dark grey wool suit and a red crew-neck shirt, but she still felt thrillingly undressed by his eyes. "Like how hot you are, for instance." He raised his gaze to meet hers, his smile even broader. "Dr. Weir, I presume."

"Captain Jack," she replied, holding out her hand.

He shook it, firm but not painful, then slid his fingers sensually out of her grasp. "The pleasure," he said, putting just enough emphasis on the word to make her blush, "is all mine."

Someone cleared their throat behind him. "Ah! Ianto!" Jack said, gesturing expansively at the young man who had greeted her at reception. "Ianto Jones, may I present the illustrious Dr. Elizabeth Weir."

Ianto's reply was curt. "We've met."

"Don't mind him," Jack said, turning back to her. "He's just the jealous type." He turned again to look behind him, eyes searching up towards the second level. "Gwen!" he called, "Gwen! There's someone here you should meet!"

"Coming!" a feminine voice came from somewhere up above, and in moments a young, pretty woman came running down the steps, long brown hair flying out behind her. "Sorry!" she said to Elizabeth, her Welsh accent making the vowels large and round, "I was just confirming the energy spike we were looking at earlier."

Jack's expression suddenly became completely serious. The force of his emotional change was enough to make Elizabeth take a step back. "What did you find?"

Gwen shook her head. "Nothing. I can't find any trace of it, Jack."

Ianto shrugged. "Hopefully it really is nothing."

Jack turned to him, eyes narrow. "It's never 'nothing', Ianto."

Ianto blinked. "I think I'll go double-check, then?" He turned and bolted up the stairs.

"And make some coffee while you're up there!" Jack called after his retreating form. "Elizabeth likes it—"

"Black with two sugars, medium-hot," Ianto called back. "I know."

Elizabeth looked at Jack, eyebrow raised.

Jack smiled. "It's his Gift," he said. "Anything you need to know? Ask Ianto. He'll find it."

"That's why Jack sent him to double-check my readings," Gwen said. She smiled, showing a charming gap between her front teeth. "Gwen Cooper, Police Liaison Officer."

"Dr. Weir," Elizabeth replied, "but you can call me Elizabeth."

"You're an Empath, aren't you?" Gwen asked. "It's strange, but I can 'feel' you reading me. Rather like looking in a mirror."

Elizabeth smiled. "I see what you mean. You feel good, and it makes me feel good, and then you feel that, and it keeps reflecting." She grinned. "You're obviously an Empath, too."

"Yes," Gwen said, "but not nearly as strong as you are. I can just sense the emotions that are on the surface, anything deeper is hidden from me. Plus, I can turn my Gift off if need be." She spread her arms and the feeling of emotional multiplication shut off, drying up like turning off a tap. Gwen smiled. "Better?"

Elizabeth nodded. "Much."

Now that the extra layer of feeling was gone, Elizabeth could feel it in Gwen as well: the nearly overpowering sense of grief and loss, suppressed just beneath the surface, reminding Elizabeth of hearing someone crying in another room.

Jack, on the other hand, was like standing next to a hurricane of sorrow.

"That's why Rodney didn't want to come," Jack said. He was eyeing her intently, clearly reading something of what she was feeling on her face. "He didn't want to deal with it. What we're going through." Jack gave a half-smile. "So predictable, our Rodney. Brave enough to stand up to any monster, but terrified of a little human emotion."

Elizabeth swallowed, her throat tight with unshed tears that weren't hers. The conversation she had with Rodney before she left now made perfect, tragic sense. "What happened?"

Gwen immediately looked to the Captain. "Jack?"

"It's okay, Gwen," Jack said. "Elizabeth's a friend. She can know."

"Okay," Gwen nodded. She took a deep breath. "It was Tosh, and Owen. They died. Tosh—she was shot, and Owen, well, he was already dead, but his body was destroyed in a nuclear meltdown."

The feeling of sadness grew and expanded, until it felt like Elizabeth was breathing it in instead of air. She wanted to ask about Owen being dead and then dying again, and about who shot Tosh and how and why, but the air in her lungs was too heavy with grief to force past her vocal cords. Jack's eyes had become liquid, and Gwen was crying, wiping at her tears furiously, almost angrily as they crept down her cheeks.

"I'm so sorry," Elizabeth managed. "They meant a lot to you."

"They were both something special," Jack said. "To us, and to Rodney as well. Tosh and Rodney shared the unique bond of their genius, and Rodney enjoyed Owen's...particular view of humanity. Every time Rodney came to give us the annual report, he would always spend a few days with the two of them." Jack smirked, the warmth of the memory radiating off of him like actual heat. "The three of them were quite the team, and it always made me a little nervous that one day, Rodney would be able to woo them away from me. That the idea of 'Atlantis' would be more captivating than the reality of Cardiff."

"But he never did," Elizabeth said.

Jack shook his head, letting his gaze drop to the floor. "No, he never did. And now it's too late."

Guilt, like a rusty wire, threaded its way through Jack's sadness. Elizabeth put her hand out, placing her palm on the rough blue wool of the old-fashioned coat he wore. "It's not—"

"My fault they're dead because I didn't let them go to Atlantis?" Jack said, eyes snapping to hers. "I know that. I can't even wonder what might have happened if they had gone, because that's just one reality that I'll never see. God knows we needed them here." He looked up somewhere above Elizabeth's shoulder. His voice dropped to a near-whisper. "The whole world needed them here."

"I'm sorry," Elizabeth said again, the words as empty and hollow as the first time she'd said them.

She heard Ianto as he entered the room, the unmistakable smell of coffee preceding him.

"Coffee?" he said, lifting a steaming white mug off a tray and placing it into her hand. "Careful, it's hot."

"Thanks, Ianto," Jack said, tone light once more and all hint of grief buried under layers of delight. "Your timing is perfect."

"I aim to please," Ianto said, without a hint of sarcasm as he looked deeply into Jack's eyes. The intensity of his feelings for the other man was as clear on his face as they were to Elizabeth's Gift.

Gwen giggled, and Elizabeth cleared her throat.

"Well," Jack said, removing his mug off of the tray, "since the world isn't ending imminently..." he glanced at Ianto who nodded in confirmation, "let's take this up to the boardroom and get down to business." He gestured to Gwen and Elizabeth. "Ladies?"

"Right-o," Gwen said, leading the way.

Grief trailed behind her, twining around Elizabeth as she ascended the stairs.

"What do you mean, it just disappeared?" Sheppard asked incredulously.

"What, just now?" McKay said at almost the same moment.

They were both standing in front of USAF Major Evan Lorne, who was feeling a little put-upon. He was still wearing his off-world gear, since he and his team had been forced to hot-foot it back to the Gate to make sure Atlantis had someone able to command the military.

"Yes, sir," he said, answering Sheppard though he was looking at both of them. He wondered if they had any idea that they were both standing in exactly the same way with their hands on their hips, the same irritated and confused expressions on their faces. "Just now. It blinked off the sensors while you were putting the Jumper down in the landing bay."

"That doesn't make sense," Sheppard said. "There wasn't anyone to fly it, and it was dead in the water. Did it open up a hyperspace window?"

"No." Evan shook his head, curbing his annoyance. It wasn't like he'd made the ship disappear to piss off his CO. He shrugged. "I'm as stumped as you are, sir."

McKay hit his radio. "Simmons!" he barked into it. "Are you busy? Good," he went on too quickly for her to possibly have answered. "Make yourself comfortable and see if you can find the Daedalus. Yes, I know it's in the Milky Way. Another one showed up in orbit about two hours ago. See if you can find that one. I'll wait."

He waited, tapping his foot impatiently with his hand still hovering next to his ear. "Oh, hey, Peter," he said suddenly. "Is she okay? Okay, good. Good." He nodded to himself. "But she couldn't find anything, eh? Damn it." He tapped off his radio and focused on Sheppard and Evan again. "Simmons couldn't see it with her Gift, so either it really did open a hyperspace window and we somehow couldn't tell, or..." His eyes became distant in the way Evan knew meant he had a sudden idea about something. That wasn't always good.

"Wait a second," McKay said. He was carrying his tablet and he flicked it on with his thumb, looking so closely at the screen his nose was practically touching.

Evan and Sheppard waited, Sheppard with obvious growing impatience and Evan just getting more annoyed.

"Look, sir," he said, "since you're both here now, I really should—"

"Yes, I knew it!" Rodney said. He looked up again, though his eyes were a little too wild to be triumphant. "It was the Daedalus. Just not ours."

Sheppard rolled his eyes. "Thanks for the update, McKay. We already knew that."

"Yes, well, of course we did," McKay said, looking kind of embarrassed. "But what I meant is, it came here from an alternate reality."

"So, you were able to destroy the Asuran satellite?" Jack asked.

They were all sitting around the conference table on the upper level, discussing the events that had occurred with both Stargate Command and Torchwood the year before. Elizabeth had explained how they had very recently survived a vicious attack by the Asurans, supposedly 'enlighted' Replicators created by the Ancients who wanted to destroy every aspect of humanity in a bitter exaggeration of revenge.

"Yes." Elizabeth grimaced. "If it wasn't for Major Lorne, Sergeants Conroy and Kaufman and Lieutenant. Colonel Sheppard, the Asurans would have been able to completely destroy Atlantis. As it was, we still had to move the entire city to another planet to ensure we could remain hidden."

"You moved the city?" Jack said, incredulous. "Who flew it? Sheppard?"

"It was Major Lorne, actually." Elizabeth smiled. "Major Sheppard was unfortunately in the Infirmary. He'd already exhausted himself working the Chair." Elizabeth's smile broadened. "Evan had never flown anything that big before, but he did a good job."

"So, what happened exactly?" Gwen asked, her brown eyes wide. "Tell me again, how did they help save Atlantis?"

Elizabeth took a breath. "Blair Kaufman's Gift is a kind of pyrokinesis that allows him to explode things just by thinking about it. Albert Conroy is a telepath who can connect people's minds together in a link with him as the conduit. We discovered the first time the Wraiths attacked Atlantis, that Albert could link people together in a way that would enable them to use each others' Gifts. In this instance, Albert linked John and Blair together, allowing John to both use Blair's Gift and amplify it by using the Command Chair, so John was able to blow up the satellite." She looked at Gwen's bemused expression. "It sounds more complicated than it was."

Gwen looked at Ianto. "What's a Command Chair?"

Ianto rolled his eyes. "I'll draw you a picture later."

"But I still don't understand about how the city could fly," Gwen continued. She turned back to Elizabeth, "How is that possible?"

"If Rodney were here, he could explain it properly—" Elizabeth said.

"And in excruciating detail!" Jack cut in with a laugh.

She shot him a look and continued. "But suffice to say, the city was built to also act as a giant spaceship." She shrugged. "Evan was even able to take it into hyperspace."

Gwen sat back in her chair. "You live in a flying city," she said, then grinned. "Wouldn't Owen and Tosh have loved that!" Suddenly, she realized what she had said and her smile fell. She looked down at her hands.

Elizabeth didn't need to be an Empath to know they were thinking about their fallen teammates, Toshiko Sato and Dr. Owen Harper.

Jack had filled Elizabeth in on how they had died while saving Cardiff from the cruel revenge of Gray, Jack's brother. The road-work Elizabeth's taxi had passed on the way from the airport was the least of the repairs that were currently going on all over the city, fixing the remains of fifteen explosions that had ravaged the Welsh capital. One of those explosions had caused the reactor meltdown, requiring Owen's infiltration to halt it. Tosh had been shot by Gray while she had been talking Owen through repairing the reactor's overload mechanisms. The delay caused by her wound had ultimately resulted in Owen being trapped in the reactor and obliterated by radiation. Tosh's body was currently cryogenically frozen in the vaults in the lowest levels of the Hub. Owen's remains had ceased to exist.

"Owen was a gifted healer," Jack said quietly. "Not just Gifted—although he could heal any infection with just a touch—but actually gifted, able to solve all sorts of medical problems the way that Tosh's Gift helped her fix circuitry." Jack shook his head ruefully. "They were both brilliant."

"I wish I could have met them," Elizabeth said. Jack's sorrow was as enormous as before, but the longer she spent in his presence the better able she was to shield herself from the brunt of it. Her heart ached with their loss, but it was no longer quite so overwhelming.

Jack's grin was sudden. "I think you would have liked Tosh, but you would've hated Owen! He was a womanizer who wouldn't say something nice unless a gun was pointed at his head. And he was a pessimist and a cynic." Jack's grin widened. "The two of you together would have been like oil and water."

Ianto looked thoughtful. "Which would have been the oil, do you think?"

Gwen smacked his shoulder. "Less of that!"

"Now that the updates are over," Jack said, pushing the encrypted memory stick Elizabeth had given him towards Ianto, "we can get to the good stuff. How's Rodney?"

Elizabeth smiled. "Rodney's good," she said. "He's doing well."

"Still no after-effects from the memory wipe that happened last year?" Jack asked.

"No," Elizabeth shook her head. "His memories came back almost immediately after Colonel Sheppard rescued him. And physically he's completely recovered as well. He's fine."

"Sheppard!" Jack grinned. "Rodney brought John with him on his last visit. They're such a cute couple." He picked up his coffee cup. "They still together?"

Elizabeth cleared her throat. "Um."

Jack rolled his eyes. "Don't go all 'American Military' on me, Elizabeth. Rodney certainly didn't try to hide his relationship while he was here, and you're an Empath. I know you know."

"It's one of those secrets everyone knows but doesn't talk about," she said. "It's a hard habit to break." Jack eyed her over his coffee mug. "Yes," she sighed. "They're still together."

"Damn," Jack said. Ianto shot him a look that could cut stone, and Jack laughed. He took Ianto's hand and squeezed it gently. "You know I think it's hot when you do that."

Gwen caught Elizabeth's eye. "Yes," she said. "They're always like this."

"How're the rest of your crew?" Jack asked. "And specifically, would Dr. Zelenka or Dr. Simmons be interested in a change of location? Now that..." He swallowed, and Elizabeth gripped the handle of her mug as yet more sadness poured over her. "Tosh is gone, we're desperately short of an expert in alien technology. Rodney would be my first choice, but..."

"Sorry," Elizabeth said, "but I don't think either of them is going anywhere." She raised her eyebrows in feigned innocence. "I'll ask them when I return, if you want."

Jack burst out laughing. "Liar!"

"They actually might like it here," Ianto said seriously. "Cardiff is an extremely cosmopolitan city with a lot to offer."

"Plus there's the risk of imminent death from hostile aliens on a consistent basis, just like their current job," Gwen said with a wide, sardonic smile.

"You gotta admit, Cardiff is way better than Mosonee," Jack added. "And Rodney spent four years there as a member of Torchwood Five."

"Mosonee?" Elizabeth asked. "Where is that?"

"Northern Ontario," Ianto said immediately. "Latitude fifty-one degrees North. Almost exactly the same as Cardiff."

"Thus the huge amount of Rift activity they experience," Jack continued. "The perfect place for a Torchwood Hub."

"I had no idea he'd spent so long with Torchwood," Elizabeth said. "I'll have to ask him about it when I get back."

"Speaking of which," Jack said. "How long are you staying? We could show you around a bit, see the sights as long as the energy spike we saw remains completely benign." He glanced at Ianto again as he said it.

"Nothing so far," Ianto said. "I set the alarm."

"Excellent." Jack smiled at him, then turned the weight of his gaze on Elizabeth. "Well? Want to hang around for a while?"

The emotions coming off him had nothing to do with sight-seeing, and Elizabeth was very, very tempted. Captain Jack was gorgeous. With his piercing blue eyes, even features and strong jaw, he looked like the consummate image of an old-time movie star. But it was more than that. He was sexual and sensual with an intensity that was nearly irresistible. He did more than caress you with his eyes, he caressed you with his aura.

And he was decent and intelligent, with an athlete's body that she would not mind getting to know a little better. Rodney was right. This man was dangerous. Ianto cleared his throat. Elizabeth refocused to realize that Jack was looking at her, a knowing grin on his face.

"Well?" he said again.

"Actually," Elizabeth said, trying to pretend she hadn't just been fantasizing about Jack without the uniform, "there is something that I do need to do while I'm here."

"See Cardiff Castle?" Gwen said with a grin.

"Go to the National Museum," Jack said, winking.

"You'll want to see Tegan," Ianto said with the unerring accuracy of his Gift. He reached into his pocket for his cellphone. "I think it's time to order a pizza."

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows as Ianto made the call. "Tegan?"

"She's a Healer," Jack supplied. "Works at the pizza place around the corner." He looked at her quizzically. "I thought Atlantis already had a healer. More than one."

"We do," Elizabeth replied. "Well, we did. But Captain Olivetti went back to Italy on leave, fell in love, and decided to stay there. We still have Sergeant Johansen, and while his Gift is incredibly effective, it works slowly and takes a lot out of him." She shook her head. "Unfortunately, due the extreme amount of injuries we have on Atlantis, we need another Healer of Olivetti's calibre, and honestly, I was hoping you'd have someone you could recommend."

Ianto finished ordering and snapped his phone shut. "11,271 healers on the planet and you can't find what you're looking for? Pizza's on the way, by the way," he continued. "I ordered 'Mediterranean Delight'. Your favourite."

Elizabeth couldn't help laughing. She turned to Ianto. "Your Gift is extraordinary."

"Only thirty two of us in the world." Ianto smiled. "Your Dr. Kusanagi has a very similar talent."

Gwen leaned closer. "So why do you need our help finding a Healer? Doesn't Stargate Command already have several of the type you're looking for?"

"No." Elizabeth smiled, shaking her head. "Dr. Frasier is the only Healer of true note, and even if she wasn't on indeterminate leave to look after her daughter, there's no way they would allow her to come to Atlantis."

Gwen cocked her head. "But can't they help you find one?"

"They haven't been able to locate one so far," Elizabeth said. "Healers who can fix injuries and diseases the way Frasier and Olivetti can are highly prized by their own governments, as you can well imagine. So either they're already in a situation where we can't hire them, or they're hiding so they can't be found."

Gwen shrugged her shoulders. "Not everyone is cut out to be a hero."

"Very true," Ianto said. He turned to Elizabeth. "Tegan is a Healer—of a sort—but she may not be what you're looking for." He smiled apologetically. "I hope you won't be too disappointed."

Elizabeth looked at Ianto. "What do you mean?"

"Let's put it this way," Jack said. "I haven't bothered recruiting her for Torchwood, and she works right across the street."

"Oh," Elizabeth said. She sighed. "Not cut out to be a hero?"

Gwen shot Jack a look. "She has potential."

A buzzer rang somewhere in the Hub.

"Pizza's here!" Ianto cried and leapt out of his chair. "Back in a mo'."

Jack leaned back in his chair grinning wickedly. "I hope you're hungry."

She was pissed.

Dr. Garret Corrigan surreptitiously watched Sergeant Ayida L'Heureux as she went through her workout, practicing her kick-boxing. Her eyes were narrowed, her beautiful mouth pulled back into a grimace of anger and effort.

She kicked the bag hard enough to cause its chains to creak, and then jumped up and slammed her tiny fist into it with a yell of pure rage, landing gracefully on her other foot in a move that had 'Ronon trained her to do that' written all over it. She turned and kicked again, looking far more violent than Garret had ever seen her.

Then again, he'd never gotten her quite this angry before. Her aura was so dark with her emotions that it had taken on the colour of dried blood.

He sighed deeply and pushed back from the pedals of the exercise bike, giving up all pretense of working out. "I said I was sorry."

"Not interested!" she shouted, driving her fist deep into the bag's solid red leather surface. He winced.

"Look, I didn't know it meant so much to you," he said again, repeating the same words he'd said to her in their shared quarters earlier that morning. "You never said—"

"Never said?" she yelled, whirling away from the bag to face him. "Never said? We've been going out for nearly three years! Three years! And you think I had to say something?"

"Well, I didn't know!" Garret said, indignation sliding unbidden into his voice. "I thought I was just going with you to meet your sisters. I didn't know it had more significance."

"Significance?" Happy growled incredulously, and for a second Garret wondered if she was so angry she could only repeat his words back to him. "I took you to meet my family! How much more significant do you want?"

Garret stepped off the platform that held the exercise bike and moved closer to her, his hands held up in what he hoped was a placating gesture. "Okay," he said, "okay. I clearly, completely misunderstood what was expected of me here. And once again, I'm sorry."

"Mis—?" Happy started, and then stopped. She closed her eyes as she took a deep breath, and suddenly it was like all the anger drained out of her, leaving her looking small and fragile and as heart-breakingly beautiful as he'd ever seen her.

"Happy," Garret said, his voice suddenly rough. He moved closer to her, gently putting his hands on her shoulders, wanting desperately to bring her closer to him, to let her know what he felt for her, had always felt, and should have told her on the first day of their trip home to Montreal, not the week after they'd come back to Atlantis. "Happy I—"

"Don't touch me!" she snapped. She winked out, using her Gift to teleport away from his touch. She materialized a few feet from him, eyes blazing.

"Happy," Garret tried again. "I'm sorry. I really am. Please—"

She shook her head. "Je m'excuse," she said sliding into her native French. She looked up as she blinked rapidly to hold back the beginning of tears. "Je ne peux plus."

"What?" Garret breathed. "You can't take it? Take what?" She looked at him, eyes dark and heavy and incredibly sad. "Our relationship? Happy! You can't be serious!"

"I think we've gone as far as we can together," Happy said, her voice thin and wavering. "Clearly, we have..." She swallowed. "Different expectations, and I'm not sure you can live up to mine."

Garret's heart stopped, and then started beating again with a sudden, painful roaring of blood through his ears. "What?" he repeated, loud and disbelieving. "No! We are not going to break up over this!" He strode over to her and grabbed her shoulders again. "I love you, Happy! I love you! And I'm not going to let you do this!"

"But you don't want what I want," Happy insisted, turning her face up towards him. "I can't keep waiting—"

"You won't," Garret said. He pulled her close and kissed her, letting all his love for her, his fear of losing her, everything she meant to him come through.

She resisted for an instant then melted against him, her arms going up and around his neck, her fingers twining through his hair. He wrapped his arms around her and pressed her tighter against him, feeling every inch of her body with his own. They fit so perfectly together. He never wanted to let her go.

Reluctantly, he broke the kiss and smiled down at her. She was looking at him, her dark eyes big and vulnerable, an uncertain smile on her garnet coloured lips.

Garret could see her aura twining around him; it's essence like light through a glass of red wine.

He smiled. "Happy," he said, his voice uneven with the intensity of the emotions rocking through him. "Will you ma—"

She teleported away.

Garret whirled, eyes scanning the gym to see where she went, stretching out with his Gift to see if he could find her aura to tell where she rematerialized, his brain trying to understand why she would run from him, when it finally looked like he was going to get it right. She was gone for two heartbeats, but it felt like forever.

He felt her aura the second he heard her scream. He turned, his eyes widening in horror.

She had rematerialized back in the gym. The handle of one of the exercise bikes neatly skewered her torso. Blood was seeping around the edges of the wound like water seeping through sand.

"Help me," she whimpered. Her toes were barely scraping against the floor.

Garret was by her side in the next instant, holding up her weight with one arm while he frantically searched for his radio with his other hand. "Hold on!" he said to her. "Hold on! I'll get help!"

His radio wasn't in his ear. They'd removed them when they'd started their workouts.

Garret threw his other arm around her, supporting her as best he could. She gasped in pain. "Sorry!" he cried, changing his grip. The bike handle was protruding through her side, just to the left of her navel. Her white gym shirt was turning a slow, bloody red.

"I love you," she whispered, just before going limp in his arms, her head lolling heavily against his neck. He couldn't feel her breath.

"No," he said, and then screamed, "No!"

"Help!" he cried, searching for someone—anyone—who might be nearby, looking for any energy signature close enough to call to.

The hallways were empty, blank. The only auras he could sense were back in the main part of Atlantis.

"Help!" Garret cried again, knowing it was useless without someone there to hear it. "Help!"

USMC Sergeant Albert Conroy dragged his spoon listlessly through his cereal and wondered if he should just give up on pretending to eat and go back to his quarters. He was feeling blue as all hell, and he had a headache to boot, which wasn't helping. He got headaches a lot, but this one hadn't gone away, not even after he'd eaten a handful of glucose tablets and taken two of the extra-strength Tylenol he carried around with him.

He knew it was because of the thoughts of everyone else around him. He didn't know if there were more people in the mess this morning or what, but for some reason it was...well, 'louder' was the best word he could think of. More oppressive, like a waterfall in the back of his head, instead of the constant rainfall he'd learned how to almost tune-out over the years.

"Conroy. Hey, Al. You awake over there?"

Al looked up from his bowl, a little started. "Yes, sir," he said automatically.

He'd heard Evan's voice, but he'd figured he was just hearing his thoughts, not that Evan was actually talking to him. Al had been with his team so long that their thoughts were loud and distinct to him all the time, just the way Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard's and Dr. McKay's were from way back when he'd used his Gift to link the three of them to shield Atlantis during the Wraith siege. With his team it'd been more gradual, but all the same after nearly four years together it'd gotten so he had trouble sleeping, sometimes, unless he could feel David's, Evan's and Tulio's thoughts, like a steady gentle pressure in his mind.

Of course, Tulio Olivetti had left a couple weeks ago to get married. Al and the rest of Tulio's former team would be going to the wedding in a month or so.

He was happy for Tulio, sure. Tulio was his best friend next to Teyla, and it was great that he was going to be safe and have a family and all. But Al missed him something fierce. Not just his physical presence, but his mental one, too. Al kept realizing he was unconsciously trying to hear Tulio's thoughts, and then the emptiness where his friend had been would hit him all over again.

It hadn't been a good couple weeks, for sure. Al figured he'd get over it eventually, but it was hard.

Al looked up again, blinking. Evan had just nudged him in the shin.

"I said, you seem a little out of it," Evan said, obviously for the second or third time. He leaned towards him, his expression concerned. Al could hear the murmur of his worry in his thoughts. "What's going on?"

"Nothing, sir," Al said. He gave up on his breakfast, pushing it aside. "I'm just not all that hungry, I guess. I'll get something later." his answer was more in response to Evan's thoughts than to the Major's expression.

Evan nodded unsmiling. "All right." He looked at Al, as if trying to figure out what to say. Al could hear Evan thinking that he'd lost weight again, the touch of impatience that he still hadn't gotten over Tulio's leaving, then the guilty reminder that it hadn't been that long. Evan rubbed his temple, and Al could hear that he was getting a headache too. Maybe they were both coming down with something.

"We'll be able to return to M4l-85 this afternoon," Evan said, which seemed to come out of nowhere but Al knew was just the trail of Evan's thoughts. Evan forked up his first bite of waffle. "Parrish told me you had a good time helping him find samples." He smiled as he chewed, though Al knew he was really thinking that Al needed the distraction of a mission, something to keep his mind off their missing fourth.

"Yes, sir," Al said. He wasn't much into plants, but he always enjoyed spending time with the biologist. "David's pretty easy to work with."

Evan chuckled. "Better you than me." His thoughts said otherwise, though. The Major was kind of like Sheppard in that way, always pretending not to care as much as he did. Evan took a swig of his coffee.

"Yes, sir," Al said. It felt like the noise in his head was getting louder. He figured he'd excuse himself in a minute, maybe go ask Teyla if she was free to meditate with him. Listening to the structured calm of Teyla's mind always seemed to help.

"I'm glad that whatever we were called back for wasn't serious," Al said, because he could hear Evan worrying about him again and he didn't need that. He made himself smile. "I mean, David was fixing to blow a gasket about leaving all those samples behind as it was."

Evan smirked over his coffee cup, then took another sip. "Yeah. It wasn't serious, but kind of weird, though. Another Daedalus showed up in orbit over the city. McKay said it came from an alternate reality."

Al blinked. "No kidding?" Everyone on Atlantis was used to alternate reality stuff by now, especially after another McKay had come through a rift or something about a year ago. But that didn't make the idea of a duplicate Daedalus any less strange. "Do they know what...Sir?"

Evan had gone still, looking at his coffee. Then he looked around at everyone in the mess. "Oh my God," he said. He dropped the cup onto his tray as he stood, ignoring how it tipped and spilled. He hit his radio, his face going white. His thoughts were like the shrill of an alarm. "This is Major Lorne," he said to whoever answered, voice tight and urgent. "I think the entire city's been poisoned."

"Did your headache start before or after you had the coffee, Major?" Dr. Carson Beckett asked.

Evan was sitting on an examination table, looking a neat combination of angry and worried. Carson shone his penlight into Evan's right eye. Evan grimaced, but his pupils responded perfectly.

"Before," The Major said. "It started when I woke up this morning. I'd hoped that breakfast would clear it up, but my Gift activated before I got to eat anything." He moved his tongue against his teeth, probably trying to get the taste of coffee out of his mouth. He'd told Carson once that his Gift kept working as long as he had any of the substance on his tongue. "You're really saying that there was nothing wrong with it?"

"Aye," Carson said, nodding. He smiled at his assistant as she brought him a tray table with everything he needed to get blood samples. "I've got some toxicologists going over my findings to be certain, but there was nothing in the coffee to be a danger to anyone, not the water, nor the grounds themselves. And the galley staff said they've been using the same beans since the Daedalus brought them. So if they were truly toxic, I suspect people would have fallen ill by now." He smirked. "I'd imagine Rodney would be at death's door about ten times over."

Evan smirked as well, but it was short-lived. He winced then watched impassively as Carson slid the needle into a vein on the inside of his arm. "That doesn't make any sense. I swear my Gift told me nearly half the people in Atlantis would have a potentially deadly reaction to the coffee, me included. And no one on my list has ever pinged before unless it was true."

"I know," Carson said. He also knew that Evan had done what he called 'listing' for everyone in Atlantis, creating an extrasensory awareness of them with his Gift, so that he would immediately know if he ate or drank something that might be toxic to someone else. He called that 'pinging', but he'd never had this kind of reaction before to anything. Evan was right; it didn't make any sense.

Carson fit another rubber-capped vial over the needle still in Evan's arm. "Just one more after this," he said, smiling reassuringly. He took a breath. He could only imagine how little Evan would want to hear this, but it had to be said.

"There have been cases where people's Gifts have been expressed differently, due to such things as sickness or emotional states," he said carefully. "It's well documented that just the fact of having a Gift can make someone more susceptible to certain mental illnesses, such as depression, which in turn might make a Gift not work correctly."

"You're saying this is all in my head, Doc?" Evan's question was mild, but Carson could see his darkening expression, felt how he unconsciously tried to pull his arm back while Carson finished drawing blood.

"Not at all," Carson said, sighing inwardly. "I'm just suggesting that since everyone here lives and works in an extremely high-stress environment—"

"That my Gift is on the fritz because I'm going nuts?" Carson put a wadded-up cotton ball and a bandage over Evan's inner elbow. Evan snatched his arm back as soon as Carson let him go. He was scowling, obviously furious. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Doc."

"Ach, of course I'm not saying that!" Carson snapped, scowling back at him. He ripped his gloves off angrily and tossed them on the tray, then put his hands on his hips. "All I'm saying is that it's completely natural for stress to sometimes cause Gifted people difficulties. Especially the Gifts classified as 'Mental', and a Gift manifesting itself in an unusual way is a very typical example of that!" He huffed out a breath, calming himself down. "Even the most benign, least energy-intensive Gifts are a burden to the human endocrine system, Major. And sometimes that makes our Gifts work incorrectly, even under stresses we believe we're handling just fine." He spread his hands. "Humans simply weren't meant to have super powers."

Evan looked at him for a long, uncomfortable second then sighed gustily, rubbing the back of his neck. "Things have been kind of rough with my team since Tulio went back to Italy," he said. "Maybe I am just stressing out. I've definitely been way more worried about my guys getting injured on missions." He smiled humourlessly, "Maybe my Gift's just telling me to cut back on the caffeine."

Carson smiled back at him, taking the roundabout apology for what it was. "I'm sure you'll be fine, Major." He drew himself back a little, recreating the necessary professional distance. "I am, however, prescribing a session with Heightmeyer, and something to help you sleep, if necessary."

Evan nodded glumly. "Sure." He attempted another smile. "Thanks." He slid off the table, rubbing his forehead. "How about something for my head?"

Carson chuckled. "I'm certain I can find some Ibuprofen around here. Just give me a moment to bring these samples to the lab."

He had just turned to the tray when his radio went on, Dr. Garret Corrigan screaming that there was a medical emergency.

"I tell you, you are being ridiculous," Dr. Radek Zelenka said. "Carson made the announcement himself that the rumors were completely unfounded. There is nothing wrong with the coffee."

"Right," Rodney scoffed. "Like I'm going to believe that." He took another long gulp of the Red Bull he'd purloined from Dr. Okoro, as if to underscore his conviction. "Carson probably just doesn't want to incite panic," he said over Radek's snort of annoyance. "I mean, if people realized they really couldn't drink the coffee, there'd be a mutiny on our hands."

Radek rolled his eyes. "Of course, so Carson would rather poison the entire city than deal with a few cases of caffeine withdrawal." He pointed his finger at Rodney. "That is what's causing your headache, you realize. Poor Dr. Okoro's entire cache of Red Bull would not be sufficient to make up for how much coffee you normally drink."

"Ha," Rodney said sourly. He glared at Radek, narrow-eyed over the top of the can. "Well, unlike you, I'm too intelligent to trust my health to a sheep-loving Voodoo practitioner instead of the very reliable Gift of Major Lorne. So until he says the coffee is safe, I'm not going to drink it."

"You are insane," Radek said sadly, shaking his head. He took a long drink of his coffee, which had gone tepid while they were arguing.

"Yeah, well, tell me that again when you're lying on the floor frothing at the mouth," Rodney said. "Of course," he added with mock-thoughtfulness, "you do that on a normal day, so..."

"You are a repugnant little man," Radek said. He pulled his laptop towards him, perversely enjoying how Rodney winced at the screech it made on the metal table. "I hear Red Bull causes kidney failure," he added casually.

"It does not!" Rodney said loudly, though Radek smiled to himself at the worried squeak in Rodney's voice. Rodney twisted around on his lab stool. "Hey, Simmons, Red Bull doesn't cause kidney failure, does it?"

"Only in irritating Canadians," she said dismissively. She was leaning forward over her table, squinting at her computer screen.

Rodney huffed and turned back to his own laptop. "I'm sure it doesn't cause kidney failure."

"I think I saw an episode of CSI Miami where Red Bull caused kidney failure," Peter Grodin said. "I've nearly completed going through the video logs of the alternate Daedalus, by the way," he added, "just in case you two aren't more interested in arguing about caffeine."

"Oh, you have?" Rodney asked, apparently forgetting the argument entirely. He slid off the lab stool and went over to Peter, leaning over his shoulder to look at the screen. "Well? Have you found out anything interesting? And what the hell's wrong with you?"

That last part definitely got Radek's attention. He went over to Peter as well. Peter looked sick, Radek noted: pale and like he might be in pain. "Is your head also hurting?" he asked him.

Peter nodded, smiling grimly. "Yes. For a little while there I thought I was going to have one of my visions. But so far, nothing." He shrugged. "I'll get some Paracetemol when I go to lunch."

"It's the coffee!" Rodney exclaimed. "I'm serious!" he said when Radek lifted his eyebrows and even Peter shook his head. "Why else would everyone be having headaches?"

"I am certain my headache is because of you," Radek said to him.

Rodney glared. "Very funny. But you won't be laughing when I'm proven right!"

"Peter!" Simmons said suddenly, making everyone look at her. Her head was lifted, eyes staring sightlessly at a high point on the opposite wall. Her face was slack with surprise. "I can see your house from here!"

Rodney stared at her in obvious confusion. "Is that some kind of a joke?"

Simmons keeled over, falling onto her side on the floor. She started seizing.

"Oh my God!" Rodney thrust the stool aside, dropping to his knees beside her. "She's in hypoglycemic shock!" He rooted in his jacket pocket then yanked out his Glucagon injector, but she was shaking too hard for him to be able to use it. "Help me!" he called to Radek and Peter, and immediately the two men knelt beside him. They held down one of Simmons's legs so Rodney could stab the injector into her thigh.

Finally the poor woman's seizure stopped. There was white foam dripping out of her mouth, and when Radek checked her pulse it was very fast. Sweat was soaking into her hair. All of them textbook signs of fatally low blood sugar.

Radek hit his radio. "Medical emergency to Lab six!" he called into it as soon as someone answered. "Dr. Simmons is in hypoglycemic shock!"

The woman on the other end of the radio was just telling him someone would be on their way when Radek heard the explosion in the background, loud and brutally clear.

"She'll be right," Sparky said softly to Garret in his thick Kiwi accent. "She's a strong chook, eh? No worries."

USMC Captain Aiden Ford knew his teammate was trying to be comforting, but Sparky's multicolored lights were flashing around him like startled bees, showing just how scared he was.

Garret didn't answer. He was sitting slumped in one of the chairs in the waiting room, eyes staring at nothing. Aiden was sure all he was seeing was his girlfriend, bleeding to death with a chunk of metal through her body. Garret had told them he'd been forced to let her go, so he could get his radio. He said he'd been able to hear her body tearing itself apart.

Aiden shuddered and swallowed, looking away. He caught Sparky's eyes and gave him a quick, small nod, and got a thin, shaky smile in return. Aiden's whole team was there—Sparky, Boom-Boom and Johansen—and of course Garret, Markham and Stackhouse from Happy's team.

Happy had been taken into surgery a few minutes before to remove the handle of the exercise bike from inside her body. Aiden still couldn't believe that she'd teleported into a piece of equipment. That made no sense. Garret hadn't been able to explain it, either. She'd just winked out while he was talking to her, he'd said, no reason at all.

Most of the time not being Gifted didn't bother Aiden, especially since he had the best Gifts in Atlantis on his team, far as he was concerned. But when someone got hurt and he couldn't do anything about it...well, then he wished that maybe he could've been a Healer too, or able to predict bad things in time to stop them happening like Peter Grodin did. Something like that.

Anders Johansen kept looking at his watch, then sighing and running his fingers through his blond hair. Aiden knew he'd been asked to use his Gift to give Happy a jump-start with her healing once the docs finished surgery on her. He was also sure that Anders wanted to be in the operating room right now, helping the docs. But his Gift worked so slow, and took so much out of him that Aiden knew he'd never be called in unless things were going south so fast they couldn't afford for Anders to save his strength. Aiden figured it was a good thing that no Anders hadn't been radioed yet.

Boom-Boom was sitting next to Aiden, kitty corner to Sparky and Garret, with his elbows on his thighs and his head in his hands.

"What's the matter?" Sparky asked him.

"I'm worried," Boom-Boom snapped. "And I've got a bitch of a headache." He rubbed his temples. "Crap. I think I'm getting a migraine."

"A migraine?" Sparky sounded surprised. The number of lights around him increased a little bit, enough that for a moment Aiden couldn't even see his face. "Since when do you get migraines?"

"Since never," Boom-Boom said, sounding irritated and scared and unhappy. "But then again, I don't have friends of mine normally teleporting into fucking exercise bikes either." He shook his head. "Fuck." He looked up. "How do we even know that she's not going—"

The wall in front of him exploded.

Aiden threw his arms across his face; an automatic reaction as the blast tossed him backwards, somersaulting him onto the floor. He lay there dazed for a moment with his ears ringing and blinded by multicolored afterimages, bright as Sparky's lights.

He rolled over onto his belly, adrenaline rocketing so high that he didn't even notice the shrapnel sticking into him until they pressed in further under his body's own weight. He cried out and scrambled up as quickly as he could, then grasped the two pieces of metal with shaking fingers, pulling them out of his abdomen. They hurt like a motherfucker, but luckily they hadn't gone deep. He saw that his forearms were streaked with blood as well, and thought with distant panic that he'd probably saved himself from being blinded, then shoved all that aside and lurched to his feet, going to help his friends.

Sparky was unconscious, so swarmed by his lights that Aiden couldn't tell how badly he was hurt. Garret was with him, starting first aid even though he looked pretty shell-shocked himself. Danny Stackhouse and Jamie Markham looked okay, too, mostly dazed. Jamie was already using his Gift to teleport some of the larger debris away, so the medical team could get through.

Anders was with one of the nurses. Aiden hadn't seen the nurse come into the waiting room, but he must've been in the doorway just as the wall blew up. The nurse was lying on his back on the floor, eyes wide and startled. Anders had his big hands over the laceration on the guy's neck, blood leaking through his fingers. Aiden wanted to help him, but he was worried he'd break Anders' concentration if he did. There really wasn't anything he could do for the nurse, anyway. He was in the best possible hands.

That left Boom-Boom as the only one unaccounted for.

He'd somehow ended up underneath an overturned table, and was curled up on his side when Aiden yanked it off him. His skin was streaked with blood the way the rest of them were, and for a second Aiden thought he was unconscious until he saw that he'd slapped his hands over his eyes.

"Blair!" Aiden threw himself to his knees next to him, reaching for his hands. "What happened? Can you see? Are you all right?"

"No!" Boom-Boom yelled as soon as he felt Aiden's hands on his wrists. He twisted his body away from him, curling up further. He was shaking like a leaf in a storm. "Don't! Don't touch me! Don't make me open my eyes!"

"What are you talking about?" Aiden pulled his hands back, clenching them helplessly against his thighs. A medical team had come running through the wreck of the doorway, and he could hear feet pounding as other people came pouring in, alerted by the blast or someone sounding an alarm. "Are they hurt? Did you get something in them?"

"No," Boom-Boom said immediately, breathing shallowly. "It's my Gift. I can't control it!"

Aiden heard running behind him, and turned to see John and Ronon. They were both dressed in workout gear, panting like they'd already been running when this went down.

"What the hell happened?" John said.

"I think Bo—Sergeant Kaufman caused an explosion, sir," Aiden answered quickly. "He says he can't control his Gift."

"Yeah," Boom-Boom said. He had his teeth gritted, his hands pressing so hard on his eyes Aiden was worried he really was going to blind himself. His arms were trembling with the effort. "I'm sorry! I wasn't trying to do anything!" He swallowed painfully. "Stun me. Knock me out, please! I mean it—I can't look at anything or I'll blow it up again!"

Aiden looked at Ronon.

"Didn't bring my gun," he said.

John licked his lips. He crouched down so he was nearer to Boom-Boom. "Okay, Kaufman," he said, and Aiden could tell he was using his charm Gift by the way his voice changed, going lower, kind of silky. "I need you to listen to me."

"Yes, sir," Boom-Boom whispered.

"Good," John said. "You're going to be all right. We know this was an accident. No one's blaming you, but you need to relax. Why don't you get your head down? Close your eyes and go to sleep."

Boom-Boom went limp, his hands falling away from his eyes with a light thunk as they hit the metal floor. Aiden startled, reaching for him, but Boom-Boom was already asleep, out cold.

Aiden looked at John, who looked just as startled as Aiden felt. His mouth was open, like he'd been going to keep talking.

"That was fast," John said.

"I guess using his Gift took a lot out of him, sir," Aiden said. "Are you all right?" he asked, because he was sure John had put a lot of effort into his Gift, and he knew that always wiped him out.

"Yeah," John said, still looking surprised. "Just a bit of a headache."

A couple medics rushed up then, and Aiden stepped aside to let them do their work. He looked around quickly, mentally noting that medics were with Sparky. Garret was standing aside, looking stunned. Jamie and Danny were still clearing debris.

John stood there for a second, blinking down at Boom-Boom and rubbing the back of his neck. Then he looked at Ronon and Aiden. "Let's start clearing this stuff away."

Aiden nodded, but he'd barely taken a step before he heard Anders' scream of terrified denial.

The three of them pelted across the small space between them and Anders, but it was obvious there was nothing they could do. Anders had his fingers still pressed to the nurse's neck, his eyes wide. He was repeating, 'no, no, no, no, no, no, no', over and over again, and other words in Danish that Aiden couldn't understand, but were perfectly clear in their horror and panic.

The nurse's body was shaking, his eyes wild with desperation as he struggled to breathe. His lips were turning blue.

Anders threw himself away from him. "Help him!" he shouted. "His throat! I closed up his throat!"

Anders stayed on his knees as the medics scrambled around the nurse. Aiden watched as they tried to perform a tracheotomy, but it wasn't doing any good. The skin on the side of the nurse's neck where shrapnel had sliced him was all wrong: thick and swollen like a tumor, like the cells had grown out of control.

Anders started crying, watching the man die. The Nurse's eyes went blank and he stopped struggling. The medics were still working on him, but Aiden knew there was no point.

Aiden didn't speak Danish, but he could tell Anders was saying, 'God help me, God help me'. It sounded almost the same.

"What's going on, Sheppard?" Ronon asked John.

John just shook his head. He looked numb. Aiden knew exactly how he felt.

Rodney loped down the corridor towards the nearest transporter. Radek was puffing along at his other side, Simmons's slack body slung between them. Peter was running behind.

"I didn't see it!" Peter said. He sounded stricken. "I haven't had a vision in weeks! I don't understand—!"

"You can't predict everything. Save your breath," Rodney snapped at him, panting. Next to him Radek was truly labouring. Rodney hadn't really thought about the ancillary benefits of nearly four years of field work before now, but he wasn't exactly in a position to gloat about it.

Simmons wouldn't stop seizing, even after Rodney used his second Glucagon injector on her, and then one of her own. They'd finally just grabbed her anyway, carrying her as best they could while she shuddered and thrashed. Rodney was fairly certain that he'd broken her wrist, but there was nothing he could do about it. Radek had confirmed Rodney's assumption that the Infirmary couldn't send a medical team. Between the explosion and an emergency operation they had no one to spare. It was up to them to drag Simmons to the Infirmary before she died. A torsion break was the least of her problems.

She'd stopped seizing a minute ago. Now she was just hanging completely limp, her feet dragging along the floor. Rodney was frightened she was dead, but they didn't dare stop to check.

"Rodney." Radek was gasping with their pace and Simmons's weight. "We must slow down, please."

Rodney gritted his teeth. "We're almost at the transporter," he said, but he slowed down as much as he dared anyway. He didn't want Radek collapsing on them as well.

They finally reached the transporter and Rodney gratefully hauled both Simmons and Radek inside. He leaned against the wall with his chest heaving. Simmons's head was lolling, her blond hair curtaining her face.

Peter hit the location of the Infirmary on the map. "The Daedalus," he said, just before they were dematerialized. "The logs I was reading," he continued as soon as the doors opened again. They spilled out into the corridor. "They mentioned an illness..."

"Yeah, so?" Rodney wheezed. He glanced behind him then nearly yanked Radek off his feet when he stopped.

Peter had gone stalk still, with his fingers pressed to his temples. "Oh, dear," he said faintly, and then fell to his knees.

"Fuck," Rodney breathed. He looked at Radek, who was red-faced and blowing like a whale. "Stay with him!" he ordered.

Radek looked at him, wide-eyed. "But how can you—"

"I'll manage! Stay here!" Rodney barked. Peter's Gift took a hell of a toll on him at the best of times, the last thing Rodney needed was for him to start seizing as well. He took a last, worried glance at Peter, who was now curled into a ball, then grunted as he was suddenly carrying all of Simmons's weight.

"I'll send someone back for him," Rodney promised, then lurched onward before Radek could answer, dragging Simmons. She was dead weight, and he tried to pretend it didn't feel like her body was going cold. At least the Infirmary wasn't so far now.

He staggered to the end of the corridor and into the remnants of the explosion: medical teams swarming around the injured, other military and civilians removing pieces of wreckage.

"John! Ronon!" he called, desperately grateful to see them. "Help!" he said as soon as they turned around. He noticed that Aiden was there as well a second later, but he didn't see any members of Aiden's team.

All three of them ran to him, taking Simmons gently from his arms. "We need medics over here!" John called over his shoulder, and Rodney was pleased to see how many detached themselves from what they were doing to race to them. He stood, breathing hard, watching as John checked Simmons's pulse then stepped back to let the medics take over.

"Radek and Peter are behind me," Rodney said quickly, still panting. "In the corridor. They need help."

John nodded. "Go," he said to Ronon and Aiden. They took off down the hallway like rabbits. Rodney hoped to hell it meant that at least Peter would be all right.

"What happened?" one of the nurses asked John. Rodney thought her name might have been Yin or Yau or something.

"She went into hypoglycemic shock," Rodney said. "I think she was using her Gift and overextended it. She said she could see something in the Milky Way before she collapsed." He looked at the other medics, one using a bag to pump air into Simmons's lungs, the other trying to restart her heart with chest compressions. "Is she going to be okay?"

"We're doing everything we can," Yau said.

Rodney nodded dully. "I thought it was a joke," he said. His eyes were still on Simmons. One of the medics had attached an IV bag of glucose to a large-bore catheter he'd stabbed into her arm, but it was too late. Rodney could see that she wasn't breathing.

"I thought it was a joke," Rodney said again. He blinked, realized there were tears in his eyes. He reached up to clear them away with his palm. And his hand hit a barrier. Gold light streaked in front of his face.

"Rodney?" John said, his eyes widening. "Did you just put up your shield?"

"No," Rodney said. He turned it off then tried to touch his eyes again.

More sparks. The shield was still there.

"Rodney?" John put his hand on Rodney's chest. Gold streamers spread out from where his palm was touching. "Why aren't you taking your shield down?"

"I can't," Rodney said. He looked at John, his shock mirroring Rodney's. "I'm trying, but I can't do it! I can't drop my shield!"

It had been a wonderful night.

Tegan had never materialized with Ianto when he collected the pizza, and even though Elizabeth had been disappointed, she had truly enjoyed her dinner of a slice and a beer with the Torchwood team.

And then, in a gallant gesture, Jack had offered to walk her home.

Elizabeth sighed and stretched luxuriously, feeling a comfortable ache in her muscles. She was tired, but refreshed in the way that only a night of great sex could bring. She rolled onto her side and propped her head on her hand, resting on her elbow, watching the muscles in his back flex as he put on his socks.

"Morning," Jack said, shifting to look at her, his eyes as warm as his smile, the dimple she had grown to love showing on his cheek.

"Morning," she replied, reaching out and stroking him from shoulder to hip, mourning the fact that his pants were back on. He half-turned, lifted her hand and brought it to his mouth, planting a gentle kiss on her fingertips.

"I wish you didn't have to go," she said, realizing that she was nearly pouting and tried to hide it behind a smile.

"Me too," he said, and there was such sincerity in his tone that she could ignore the sense of relief that wafted from him. Almost. They locked gazes for a moment then both laughed.

He shook his head ruefully. "I should know better than to try to lie to an Empath."

"It's okay," she said. "I knew this wasn't forever."

His smile dimmed. "You wouldn't want forever with me, Elizabeth." He looked down. "Hell, I don't even want forever, and I'm living it."

"I know," she said.

He looked back at her, his expression light, but his emotions showing his need for reassurance. "No regrets then?"

Elizabeth smiled as she shook her head. "None." She put her hand out again and rubbed his arm, trying to convey her complete honesty. "Last night was a gift I'll cherish forever, Jack. Thank you."

He smiled, almost shyly, and pulled on his other sock. "I need to go."

"Yes," Elizabeth sighed, and rolled back onto her back. The clock by the bed was showing nine AM, but it felt much later. For a moment, she tried to imagine what time it was on Atlantis, but the time change from Colorado to Cardiff was too hard to translate to Atlantis time. She guessed it was earlier there. "I should go take a shower." She said, and for a moment debated whether or not to wrap the sheet around her when she got up, but decided against it. If he didn't like the view in the morning, it was his problem. She stood and turned towards the bathroom.

"Wait," Jack said, grabbing her arm. Gently, he pulled her down and towards him so that she had to put her hand on his shoulder for balance. The kiss he gave her was worth it, deep and soulful and thrilling to her toes. They broke apart slowly.

"Mmmm," she murmured.

"Mmmm is right," he said, running his hands over her bare breasts, caressing her to her hips and back up in long, sensual strokes. He sighed. "I really have to go."

"I know," she said again, and kissed him lightly before righting herself and walking back to the bathroom.

His wolf-whistle was extensive and gratifying, and she laughed out loud as she shut the door.

When every speck of her was clean and lightly scented, Elizabeth turned off the water and stepped out of the shower, humming quietly to herself and smiling with memories of last night. The towels were thick and soft and she enjoyed the luxury of not needing to rush anywhere. There were no alarms ringing, no 'unauthorized Gate activation', not even the clicking of her radio indicating that someone somewhere needed her immediate attention.

She dried herself slowly and stepped out of the bathroom, feeling more relaxed than she had in as long as she could remember.

And let out a shriek, clutching the towel tightly to her.

"Come now," Ianto said. He was perched on a corner of the mattress and didn't look up from the newspaper he was reading. "I can't be the first strange man you've found in your bed."

Elizabeth glowered at him, feeling her heart pounding in her chest. "Usually the men are invited," she said pointedly. "What are you doing here?"

He gestured to the small table against the wall. A large take-out cup and a paper bag were sitting on it, their green-and-white labels instantly recognizable. "Grande mocha latte, half-foam, extra sweet, extra hot, and a chocolate croissant." Ianto flipped the page of the newspaper and continued reading. "I left you the entertainment section."

"Thank you," Elizabeth said. He had brought her absolute favourite breakfast indulgence. Sugar and fluff all at once. She hadn't had anything like it since before she had first gone to Atlantis almost four years ago. It was both incredibly sweet and a bit unnerving for him to have known exactly what she would like. Ianto's Gift was kind of awe-inspiring.

"Go ahead, get dressed," he continued. "I promise I won't look." The fact that his emotions told her he had exactly zero plans of breaking that promise wasn't precisely flattering.

She crossed her arms and leaned against the doorframe of the bathroom. "Ianto," she said, using a tone that she normally reserved for John when he was walking the fine line between amusing and annoying, "why are you here?"

"Captain's orders," he said, still not looking up from the page he was reading. "Jack asked me to take you to Tegan's house this morning." His eyes flicked to hers and then back down to his page. "He mentioned it before he," he pursed his lips, "walked you home."

"Ah," Elizabeth said. She studied her guest. He was wearing brown leather sneakers and loose-fitting jeans, topped by a white button-down shirt and a dark-blue windbreaker with a hood. He looked comfortable and casual and showed not a bit of the tension that was nearly burning the air around him with its intensity. He was hurt and angry at what she was certain he perceived was Jack's betrayal, but trying hard to keep it all inside. Elizabeth couldn't help but admire his effort. Too bad it was wasted on an Empath.

"I know you're angry," she said after a moment. She had debated getting dressed before having this conversation, but he was sitting between her and her suitcase and she didn't feel like crawling over him to get to her clothes.

"Angry?" Ianto repeated, turning the page of the newspaper with far too much force. "What is there to be angry about?"

"I had sex with your boyfriend last night," Elizabeth said baldly. "I could see how that might piss you off."

Ianto stood, glaring at her, the paper landing in a rustling pile at his feet. "He's not my bloody boyfriend!"

"Lover, then," Elizabeth said. "Either way. Jack and I had sex last night, and you're angry about it. I understand."

"How could you possibly understand?" Ianto sneered at her. "I love him, and he knows it, and yet—" He made an abortive gesture towards her with his hand. "Do you have any idea how that feels?" He turned from her, pinching the bridge of his nose with one hand, breathing deeply. She could feel the depths of his anger and hurt, and the weaving of despair that laced through it all. Elizabeth ached for him, and Jack, and the tragedy of their relationship. She sighed.

"He loves you, you know," she said.

Ianto whirled back to her. "And how the hell would you know that?"

Elizabeth smiled. "I'm an Empath, remember? He couldn't hide it from me if he tried."

"Oh," Ianto said. It was clear from his expression that he had forgotten her talent. His eyes were big and full of longing. "Truly?"

"Promise," Elizabeth said. "Emotions don't lie, Ianto. I know it."

"Oh," Ianto said again. He sat back down on the bed, rubbing at his mouth with his hand, staring into space. "Well, I guess that's good to know."

"This is a conversation you should have with him," Elizabeth said with finality. She pulled the towel tighter around her and moved towards her suitcase, nudging his knees with her legs. "You mind?"

"Sorry," he said absently, and reached in, pulling out the exact outfit she planned to wear without even turning his head.

"Okay," she said, and turned back to the bathroom. "I'm going to get dressed now."

"You should hurry," Ianto called, still looking at nothing. "Tegan is going to be at her house for only another hour and a half. Plus, your coffee will be tepid in seven more minutes."

Elizabeth chuckled as she shook her head. "Your Gift is amazing, Ianto."

"So is yours," he replied, and something in his tone made her turn to look at him. His gaze locked with hers, his emotions changing from hurt to wonder, and a little like hope. "Thank you."

She smiled warmly. "You're welcome," she said, and slipped into the bathroom, sighing with relief as she closed the door behind her. She had had a great night with Jack, and an interesting morning with Ianto thus far, but she couldn't help but hope that meeting Tegan would be less...eventful. Not all Welsh people can be this intense, can they? she thought to herself as she pulled on her clothes. At least she had five more minutes before her coffee was cold.

They gathered in the Infirmary, pretty much because everyone who needed to be in on the emergency meeting was already there, and Carson wanted more blood samples, anyway.

"I implemented quarantine an hour ago," Rodney explained to Carson, filling him in on what had happened while he was in surgery. "And all off-world teams are reporting to the Alpha site, and all non-essential personnel have been told to remain in their quarters until further notice, with orders to check in with the medical staff every two hours. If we're really, really lucky that will keep this spreading further, or at least minimize the damage some of the Gifts might do."

Carson nodded. "Good thinking, aye." He looked tired, Rodney noted, though that made sense since he'd just come out of a marathon three-hour operation that had started at eight in the morning. Sergeant L'Heureux had apparently teleported into a piece of exercise equipment, which meant she was one of the first to get sick.

Of course, Simmons had been dying at pretty much the exact same time, though no one had been aware of it yet.

"Yes, I know," Rodney said distractedly, trying not to wince. His head was killing him. He wished to hell he could take some of the painkillers Carson had been handing around like candy. "We'll need to schedule rounds for the non-Gifted personnel, to bring meals and such to the people in quarantine."

"And to check on anyone who doesn't call the Infirmary on time," John added.

Rodney nodded again. "Yes, yes, of course," he said. He was pacing, trying to ignore the flashes of gold every time his feet hit the floor. "We've already..." he winced. "Neutralized anyone with a Gift that's potentially lethal to themselves or anyone else." He couldn't help glancing over at the Infirmary bed where Sergeant Kaufman was lying, still deeply asleep after John had charmed him. The young man looked like he'd been carried out of a war film, with the thick gauze pads over his eyes and the gauze bandage wrapped around them. He'd be effectively blind when he woke, but at least he wouldn't blow up anything else. Peter was in an artificial coma to prevent his Gift from using up his blood sugar and killing him, the way it had Simmons. Dr. Gordon Sparks had been put in the stasis chamber. It was the only way to keep him alive, since the number of his lights increased when he was unconscious. When Rodney had seen him being taken out of the Infirmary an hour ago, Sparky was surrounded by so many lights, it was like he was on fire. It was actually painful to look at him.

"Peter said that the alternate Daedalus's logs were talking about an illness," Radek said. He hadn't shown any symptoms yet, but Radek had mentioned a headache earlier, so Rodney suspected he was in pain at the very least. But Rodney suspected that Radek was starting to get sick as well; he kept glancing at all the medical equipment as if the machines were whispering messages only he could hear. "We will have to verify that of course, since Peter is unfortunately not able to help us,"—and Rodney determinedly did not look back at the Infirmary bed where Peter was lying unconscious, as grey and unmoving as a corpse—"but it does seem reasonable that the Colonel's team brought the disease back from the ship, and now it has spread to the entire city."

"We don't know that for sure, Radek," John said. "We never looked at the bodies we found there. They might have starved to death or died in a gunfight or something. Maybe Lorne's team brought it back from off-world. He was one of the first people to come down with symptoms, after all." John shrugged. "It could just be a coincidence."

Radek looked like he was considering that, and then shrugged. "That's true," he said musingly. "I don't know why that did not occur to me before." He looked hopefully at Carson. "That would make it easier to find a cure, yes?"

"Aye," Carson said, nodding. "But that was the third time Major Lorne's team has come back from M4l-85, and they've always been clean, before."

"Yeah, well, maybe they dug in the wrong soil this time," John said.

"No," Lorne said, head shaking. He'd boosted himself up onto an examination table, and had a bottle of water clasped between his hands. He had streaks of dirt on his face from helping to clean up after the explosion. "Even the botanical samples we were taking were ones we'd gotten before." He looked at John. "Besides, sir, none of my team was anywhere near Happy."

"Neither were we," John said.

"No," Teyla said quietly, "but I myself spent time with Garret Corrigan last night after we returned from the Daedalus. He has been very interested in collecting Athosian folktales, so I have been telling him the ones I remember."

Carson sighed. "I have to say that I've rarely found a true coincidence in the Pegasus Galaxy, Colonel," he said. "Obviously we'll have to make sure the disease didn't come from M4l-85, but I think we have a case of it looking and sounding like a duck."

"What?" Ronon asked.

"He means that it makes the most sense to go with the easiest conclusion," Aiden said. Rodney was impressed by the coherency of his explanation, so much so that he might have said something if this was so obviously not the time. None of Aiden's team had died or even been seriously hurt, but Rodney doubted he felt particularly lucky at the moment, with two of his team down and the third on suicide watch. Rodney had only caught a glimpse of Sergeant Johansen as he'd been ushered into the Infirmary, but Anders had looked like someone had torn out his soul.

"So, we're plague-walkers?" Ronon asked, in the toneless voice that Rodney knew meant he was truly upset. "Why aren't we in quarantine, then? Save everyone else?"

"Because it's too late," Rodney said bitterly. "We came back here last night and we've been blithely spreading germs ever since." He tried to scrub his face with his hand, only to end up hitting the shield. "Even the quarantine is most likely a delaying tactic at best." He pointed upwards, twirling his finger. "It's probably in the air ducts now, which means it's everywhere."

"Yeah, I don't get that," Lorne said. He carded his fingers through his hair, and Rodney suddenly wished he could do that so much that his scalp started itching. "I mean, it was just overnight. I know that there are viruses and germs on Earth that can spread and start affecting people this quickly, but don't you usually have to be coughing up a lung or something?"

"That's actually a good point," Rodney said, ignoring the Major's bland glare. "That reminds me of something—why just the Gifted people? Why are we the only ones getting sick?"

"Not to mention that the only real symptom is a headache," John added. "I mean, normally when there's something going around, people get sicker than that."

Carson nodded. "I've been wondering that myself. Now that I've got several blood samples, I hope I'll be able to find out what this wee bugger is and identify what will kill it." He looked at Rodney. "It's very odd, though, that it's only affecting people with Gifts, and not just anyone who, say, has an ATA gene."

"Yeah," Rodney said grimly. "I'm thinking that's not so much with the coincidence."

"What do you mean?" Teyla asked.

"I mean, that this might not be a naturally-occurring illness," Rodney said flatly. "A disease that only attacks Gifted people? That doesn't just spring up by accident."

Teyla's eyes widened. "You mean, this sickness was created? Why would anyone wish Gifted people harm?"

"Not Gifted people," John said. He looked as grim as Rodney. "People from Earth."

"We're probably not the only Gifted population in Pegasus, sir," Lorne said.

"Come off it, Lorne," John snapped. "We've met a grand total of two planets where anyone even had the ATA gene, let alone...Major?"

Lorne had slid off the examination table. He stood there blinking, like he wasn't sure what he'd just done.

Rodney swallowed. "John," he said tightly, "you've started charming people without meaning to. You need to stop talking."

John looked at Rodney, confused, and then Rodney saw the slow wash of horror across his face. "No," he said, too quickly. "I'm not doing anything. You have no idea what you're talking about."

Rodney blinked. "You're right, I don't," he said. "Sorry." He was wondering how he'd even thought he understood John's Gift. Of course it was perfectly reasonable to assume that John hadn't been affected. It wasn't like Rodney was an expert on this, or anything—

"Colonel!" Lorne said urgently. John's head swung towards him. "Sir, can't you see that? You just charmed him! You have to stop talking, sir!"

"What?" John said. He looked from Lorne to Rodney. "No! I—" He stopped and shut his mouth so fast that Rodney heard his teeth click. "Oh my God," he said softly. "I'm sorry, Rodney. Of course I know you know what you're saying. I—"

"John, shut up!" Rodney barked. "Please!" he added, because this wasn't John's fault, and he looked hurt, and Rodney couldn't bear it. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. But you need to stop talking!"

John shut up like Rodney had hit him, his eyes big and startled and terrified. He took a step back with his fists clenched, as if just his presence alone would hurt them.

Rodney reached out for him, automatically wanting to give comfort, but he couldn't touch him anymore.

John looked at all of them, then at Rodney. He opened his mouth and Rodney tensed before he could stop himself. He knew John had seen it.

John walked away.

Rodney was going to follow just as Carson's radio buzzed.

"Oh no," Carson said, listening. His eyes were wide and suddenly bright with water. "Bring her here, please. I'll tell them."

"What is it?" Teyla asked, concerned.

"Captain Vega is dead," Carson said. "It seems she electrocuted herself with her Gift."

"That's three dead already," Evan said, his face pale. "Jesus. She was only twenty-eight years old."

"Three, and it's not even noon yet," Rodney said. He looked at his hands, feeling sick. They seemed completely normal, but that would only last until he touched something. He turned to Carson. "I'm dead, aren't I?" he asked him. "This—my shield is really going to kill me this time, isn't it?"

"Rodney!" Carson said sharply. He looked horrified.

"You must not think like that!" Teyla said. "If you give up, we are all lost!"

Rodney swallowed. His throat was already dry; he was very thirsty. He was suddenly reminded of John, snapping at him in the back of a Puddle Jumper: Stop using your mouth and start using your brain.

"I'm sorry," he said, feeling oddly guilty. "I just...I react to certain doom in a certain way. And, um..." He raised his hand and wiggled his fingers. Even though his shield wasn't visible, he knew everyone understood what he meant. "This looks kind of certain, doesn't it?"

"Nothing's certain, Rodney," Carson said, as if that meant anything.

No one else said anything at all.

John left the Infirmary and just started walking. He didn't have a destination in mind, nothing more concrete than just getting away, escaping from Rodney, from everyone.

You've started charming people without meaning to. That was his worst nightmare, right there. That was the monster that had chased him since he was a teenager and RT had killed himself because John had rejected him. That was the monster he'd become when Carson's retrovirus had mutated him, and it was happening again. It was happening to him again.

John abruptly changed direction and went down the nearest corridor leading to a balcony, plowing through the doors and all but running to the railing. He wrapped his hands around the cool metal and stood there with his eyes closed, breathing in the crisp salt of the ocean until he was sure he wasn't going to throw up from the sick dread churning in his stomach.

He couldn't speak anymore. Not until they cured this disease, if they ever did. John wondered what it would be like if he could never speak again, if every word out of his mouth became an irresistible command. Would he have his vocal cords cut? Would he kill himself? John knew without question that he would rather die than use his Gift to inadvertently hurt anyone again. He didn't want to die, but he couldn't, wouldn't become dangerous to his own people, or anyone he cared about.

John leaned over the edge a little. It was a long drop. John smiled bitterly down at the water, even though he knew he wasn't going to do anything. Atlantis needed him, and he could keep his mouth shut, and Carson and Rodney would find a cure. Everything would be just fine.

And if it wasn't...

John glanced back at the balcony edge as he made his way inside. If it wasn't, he'd just eat his gun. It'd probably be easier than jumping, anyway.

"Rodney, Radek, Evan," Carson said after Teyla, Ronon and Aiden had gone to begin their newly-assigned rounds. "Don't leave just yet, please." He smiled apologetically, though it was hard to keep his eyes on their faces, when their genetic codes were hovering next to them like biological ghosts. To him his Gift felt mostly like knowledge being fed into his brain, though it was limited and specific. But there was a visual component as well: the actual double helices of Deoxyribonucleic acid, turning like kaleidoscopes and just as beautiful, twirling with a riot of colour that seemed to be completely random and yet to Carson made a gorgeous, glorious sense—the primary building blocks of everything alive. When he was younger and fancied himself both philosophical and intelligent, he had often thought that this was what the world must look like to God. He didn't presume to put himself in the same place as the Lord anymore, but he had never stopped feeling blessed for what his Gift allowed him to see.

Right now, however, he dearly wished he could turn it off. It was distracting as the devil, and was doing nothing for his headache. It was like someone waving a torch right next to his eyes.

Case in point. He realized he'd been staring at a place just above Radek's shoulder, and probably looked right daft. He shook his head and smiled. "Sorry," he said. "My Gift's running a bit amuck at the moment." He blinked his eyes a few times, and succeeded in re-centering himself somewhat. "All right," he said to the three men in the room. "I asked you to stay because you're all going to have trouble with your blood sugar very soon, and I want to discuss what we can do to alleviate the problems your Gifts are causing. Major," he said to Evan, "I know your Gift first became oversensitive at breakfast with the coffee, and you didn't actually eat. Have you had anything since?"

"No," Evan said, smiling ruefully. "I tried a Power bar, but..." He grimaced. "Everyone's still pinging." He passed his hand back and forth next to his head. "It's like having a siren in the back of my skull, makes me nauseous as hell." He shrugged. "I'm kind of hungry, but not enough to make eating worth it, you know?"

Carson nodded. "Have you been able to drink, at least?" He hadn't failed to notice that while Evan had the bottle of water, he hadn't drunk any.

Evan's smile turned guilty. "I, um, haven't wanted to try, Doc." He raised the bottle, shaking it slightly. "Plastic."

"Everything is toxic if you have enough of it," Rodney said in sympathetic understanding. Then he snapped his fingers, his shield sparking over their tips. "We'll send you off-world!" he exclaimed, looking excited and hopeful. "If you're far enough away from people, they won't ding on your list or anything, right?"

Evan nodded with obvious reluctance. "Yeah, but, I want to stay, Doc. I can't help anyone if I'm stuck by myself on another planet."

"Yeah, well, you can't help anyone if you collapse from hypoglycemic shock, either!" Rodney shot back. "I've seen that, Major. And..." His face fell, and Carson knew he was thinking of Dr. Simmons. "And believe me, that isn't something I'd wish on anyone."

"Breakfast was only about three hours ago, Doc," Evan said, sounding a bit exasperated. "I'm not going to starve to death in a few hours or even a couple days. And my Gift won't go off if I don't eat or drink anything."

Carson arched his eyebrows. "Ah, so you're just going to dehydrate yourself, are you? Would you like to know exactly how many hours you can go without water before you become incapacitated?"

"Um, not really," Rodney said.

"Oh, bloody hell," Carson muttered to himself. He looked at his friend. Rodney's eyes were very round. "I'm so incredibly sorry, Rodney. Here you are in actual danger and I'm making jokes!"

Rodney raised his hand, waving it dismissively. "Don't worry about it, Carson." He attempted a smile. "'I'm already painfully aware of the fact that I've got about three days, if I'm lucky." His smile became crooked, awkward and terribly fake. "Of course, I'll probably die of hypoglycemia first."

"You can't think like that, Rodney!" Radek said fiercely. "We will have solution to this long before you're in danger."

"I'm in danger now," Rodney complained, but if he didn't look mollified he at least seemed somewhat comforted, and Carson knew that would be the best the could do for him at this moment.

He turned back to Evan before Rodney's spiraling DNA became too compelling to ignore. "I'm afraid I'm making that a medical order, Major," he said. "You've one of the very few Gifts where you'll be able to function normally as long as you're away from the city, so that's where you'll go." He smiled, but kept his eyes hard, to make sure Evan didn't try to argue further with him. "I'll give you a half-hour to pack while Rodney finds a suitable planet. If you're not in the Gate room after that, I will find some burly, non-Gifted Marines to hunt you down and carry you bodily through the Gate. Am I understood?"

Evan was seething and doing a poor job of hiding it. "I'm not going," he said. "Colonel Sheppard can't even speak right now. He needs someone to help him deal with a city under quarantine. I'm his 2IC, Doc. There's no way I'm running."

Carson felt his eyes narrowing. He was becoming truly angry. "You're being ridiculous! I'm sure Captain Ford can fill in for you, especially since he doesn't have the gene. I'm certain you're competent, Major, but no one is so bloody irreplaceable that it's worth risking your life!"

"I'm not 'risking my life' if I don't eat or drink for a couple days, Carson!" Evan said, loudly enough that Carson wondered if he'd forgotten they were in the middle of the Infirmary. "I'm not shirking my responsibility to go fuck around off-world while my city's in danger!"

"And how much help do you think you'll be if you collapse?" Carson shot back. "I'll not just stand around and watch you be harmed, Evan! Not when I—"

"Carson!" Rodney interrupted him. Not loudly, but forcefully enough that Carson turned to him.


"Evan knows what he's doing, Carson," Rodney said simply. "And..." He took a breath. "And he's right. John can't talk to anyone. He needs someone who understands him, and who can interpret his commands."

Carson snorted. "You can set him up with a bloody whiteboard for that!"

"And I will," Rodney said. "But if Evan's willing to stay, I want him here. I know John would, too."

"You know damn well that John would kick his arse through the next wormhole," Carson said. "He wouldn't want his men in jeopardy any more than I would!" But it was either the terrible earnestness in Rodney's expression, or the steadfast anger in Evan's, but Carson finally puffed out a breath in defeat and pushed his fingers through his hair. "Och. Fine, then," he said to Evan. He gestured at the so-far untouched bottle of water in Evan's hands. "Drink all of that down, and I'll let you stay unless you become too sick to perform your duties." Then he crossed his arms and glared at Evan, waiting.

"Sure," Evan said easily, but Carson saw how he visibly steeled himself before he unscrewed the cap, and then hesitate before he put the bottle to his lips. He barely got two swallows in before he gagged and almost chucked the water back up right there, but he was able to regain control and start drinking again. He gagged twice more before he emptied the bottle, and then sat very still with his eyes closed for nearly a minute, swallowing convulsively and breathing hard through his nose. "There," he said at last. His voice was a tad shaky, but he opened his eyes.

"Aye," Carson said sardonically. "Went down a treat, that did." But he sighed and waved him away. "But you did it, so off with you. I expect you back here the moment things get worse, though, you ken?"

"Yes, sir, absolutely," Evan said seriously, nodding.

Carson knew Evan didn't mean a word of it, but he didn't say anything else, just let Evan go. The Major fairly fled; Carson couldn't help thinking it was to the nearest water closet so he could throw up. He made a mental note to be certain Jennifer kept an eye on him when Carson himself was too debilitated to be able to.

"Now then," he said briskly, turning to Radek. "I'm sending you to the Athosians, since you have no problem being around people and the Athosians have no Gifted to infect and almost no technology."

Radek was staring at a portable scanner on a nearby shelf with a look of rapt fascination. He didn't respond until Rodney snapped his fingers soundlessly in front of his eyes.

"Yes? What?" Radek asked, blinking owlishly behind his glasses.

"You, New Athos, now," Rodney said. He pointed at the door. "Go. And take the long way. I don't want to find you humping a console in the Control room."

Radek fairly bristled like a dunked cat. "You are just wishing that you could, you repulsive little—"

"Yeah, yeah, save it for the Athosians," Rodney said. He snapped his fingers again, making gold sparks. "Come on now, get packing. I'm sure the Athosian kids are dying to braid your hair or something equally humiliating." He sounded entirely too gleeful for someone who had been bemoaning his fate just a moment before, but Carson couldn't help laughing at the black look Radek gave him, along with what sounded like a vociferous and probably vitriolic stream of Czech.

"You are just lucky I cannot touch you," Radek sniffed. He sighed. "I can't help but think that I should stay, too. You will need help."

"Right." Rodney rolled his eyes. "Because you dropping dead will be so incredibly helpful. Unlike Major Gag Reflex, you risk hypoglycemic shock on a good day just doing your job. If you start going all circuit-whisperer on us, you'll probably keel over in about two minutes."

Radek looked like he still wanted to argue, then saw Rodney's set, worried expression and just let out a breath. "You will take care of my city, yes?" he said to Rodney.

"Our city, Radek," Rodney said loftily, but then he smiled, though his eyes were serious. "Always."

Radek nodded, equally solemn. He held out his hand for Rodney to shake then seemed to realize what he was doing because he reluctantly pulled it back. "I am sure you and Carson will find a cure, Rodney."

"Of course we will," Rodney said. "Get going, already."

Radek gave another small smile and nod, then left. He looked back once, as if he thought he was never going to see Rodney again. Carson hoped to God Radek didn't have the right of it.

"Well," Rodney said as soon as Radek was out of sight. He clapped his hands together, looking like he was holding a lightning storm. "We'd better get to work, eh?" His smile was bitter and did nothing to hide the fear in his eyes. "I've got, what? About a day before I collapse? Less?"

Carson swallowed. "I really don't know, Rodney. I'd say maybe as much as three days, if you weren't using your Gift, but with it shielding you constantly..."

Rodney's shoulders slumped. "Right." He sighed, tried to rub his forehead but his fingers just met the shield. "Thanks. I forgot just exactly how very, very screwed I am."

"Rodney," Carson said, hating seeing his friend so defeated, but when Rodney looked up Carson realized he didn't know what to tell him.

Jennifer ran up at that moment, saving Carson from having to grope for platitudes. The expression on her face made his heart sink just that much further in his chest. Even then, he had to force himself to look at her face, rather than the helices turning enticingly next to her.

"It's Dr. Corrigan," she said worriedly. "He was sitting with Sergeant L'Heureux, and when I went to check on her he told me he can't see anymore. He's blind. All he can see are auras, nothing else."

"Bloody hell," Carson muttered, feeling a right fool. "I clean forgot about his Gift. The poor lad must be terrified." He started walking towards the post-op recovery section of the Infirmary, looking back at Rodney. "I'm going to need another safe, uninhabited world to send him, Rodney. I know—"

Someone screamed over the radio; very loud and very, very clear.

John had paced the pier for almost half-an-hour, and had barely cleared the doors back into the city before he heard the scream on his radio, loud and female and obviously very, very frightened.

He slapped his communicator automatically, not even thinking about it. "Control, this is Sheppard. What was that?"

He remembered a second later that his voice was dangerous now, and stopped dead in the hallway, clenching his fists and desperately going back over what he'd said. He'd just told Chuck who he was, asked what was going on. That wouldn't hurt anyone, would it?

God, he couldn't do anything like this. How was he even going to function?

"We're tracing the origin of the broadcast right now, sir, please stand by," Chuck answered. He sounded exactly the same. John hoped to hell that meant he really hadn't accidentally done anything to him. "Okay, yeah. It's Dr. Heightmeyer, sir. According to the life signs detector she's just left her office and there's someone else right beside her."

John swallowed, hesitating. "Who?" he asked finally, because he couldn't think how the single word could do Chuck harm. He started running towards the East wing of the city, where Hightmeyer's office was.

"Sergeant Bates, sir," Chuck answered almost immediately. "I pulled up Heightmeyer's appointment schedule for today. She isn't counseling him anymore, but she doesn't have a client right now. My guess is that he was going to meet her for lunch."

"Great job, Chuck," John said. "Thanks." He broke the connection and started running faster. He still had no idea if he'd charmed Chuck or not, but at least he'd told him something good. Maybe that would make it okay.

He skidded around the corner and pulled himself up short before he ran headlong into Major Lorne. Heightmeyer's office was just a few yards away.

Heightmeyer and Bates were standing in a large, loose ring of military. Bates had his arm around Heightmeyer's neck and his 9mm pressed against her temple. Heightmeyer looked like she was terrified, but holding it together by the skin of her teeth. John was sure her scream had been as much surprise as fear, but now her professionalism had kicked in, and she was still wide-eyed but eerily calm.

Bates was calm too, which was pretty fucking scary considering what he was doing. He was sweating, his dark skin ashen. He looked very sick and very, very angry.

"Come on, Thomas," Lorne said. "I think we all know you really don't want to hurt anyone. How about you put down the gun so we can talk about what's bothering you?" He had his hands up and spread out, the only person there besides John who didn't have a weapon drawn and pointed. He sounded almost exasperated, like this was no big deal but he'd rather go have lunch or something. John wondered if that was a tactic; John didn't know. He'd never had to talk anyone down before.

"You're lying," Bates sneered. He looked around deliberately at everyone surrounding him, but pressed the gun harder to Heightmeyer's head the second anyone so much as shifted on their feet. "You're all liars! Every one of you!"

"No one is lying to you, Thomas," Heightmeyer said. Her voice was tight but still calm, though she kept wincing. Bates was really hurting her. "You're sick. You've caught a disease just like every other Gifted person in the city. All your abilities are becoming oversensitive, telling you things that aren't true."

Bates let out a noise nothing like a laugh. "Right, like I'm supposed to believe that? Like I'm supposed to believe any of you when I know you're lying every time you open your mouths? And you," he said directly to Heightmeyer, tightening his arm around her neck a little more. "You're the worst one of all, pretending to understand us and care about our problems. Pretending to be in love with me! Everything you say is a lie! You don't care about me! You don't care about anyone!"

"That's not true! Please, Thomas," Heightmeyer said. Her eyes had started glistening. "Listen to what you're saying! Have I ever lied to you about anything before? About us? About how I feel about you?"

Bates was quiet for long enough that John saw everyone around him tensing, not knowing if he was going to stand down or just snap, pull the trigger. "You're lying," he said finally, his voice rough. He blinked and tears started running down his cheeks. "I can't...I can't trust anyone anymore. Everyone—no one says anything real. It's all lies, all the time." He swallowed. "I can't trust anyone." His grip tightened on Heightmeyer's throat.

"Thomas Bates," John said carefully, stepping forward. He heard Lorne's short intake of breath, probably thinking that Bates was going to lose it right there. But Bates' attention snapped towards John, just like John knew it would. He was using his charm, concentrating on it, putting as much force into it as he could. "You can trust me, Thomas. You know you can, just like I know you're trusting me now. And right now I need you to listen to me, okay? I need to talk to you."

"I'm listening," Bates said. He sounded guarded, but he hadn't done anything else, and he wasn't accusing John of lying, either.

John felt his heart speeding up and fought to keep his voice even and calm. "Great. Okay, Thomas, here's what I need you to do. Put the gun down and let Kate go. You need to put the gun down, and let Kate Heightmeyer go. Put the gun down and let her go. Now."

Bates stepped back from Kate, hesitantly, like he wasn't entirely sure what he was doing, but he kept his eyes on John the whole time, even when he slowly knelt to put his gun on the floor.

The instant the gun was out of his hand he was stunned by two different Wraith blasters at once. He didn't even make a noise before he fell.

Heightmeyer was standing there rubbing her neck almost absently, looking down at Bates with eyes that were still way too big and full of tears. John had known she and Bates were in a relationship—for some reason Bates had thought John needed to know —and he'd been happy for them, up until this second. Bates was very obviously not in his right mind, but he'd put a gun to his lover's head. John had no idea how Heightmeyer could get over that, or if she ever would.

"Please be careful with him," Heightmeyer said softly as two of the Marines picked Bates up. The Infirmary was still too busy to send out medical teams, especially with some of the staff being Gifted themselves. John made a mental note to recommend Bates be put in a safe room, then remembered that if he recommended it, whomever he spoke to would take it as a direct command. And all the momentary relief and happiness at having helped Heightmeyer left in a rush, so fast John felt like he'd been emptied.

Physically, he felt better, though. His headache wasn't hurting quite as much.

"Good job, sir," Lorne said. He was smiling, but John didn't miss the wariness in his eyes.

John nodded then pointed at Heightmeyer, jutting his chin in her direction. Go take care of her. But he didn't dare say it.

Lorne looked from Heightmeyer back to John. "Yes, sir," he said smartly, as if he'd really understood. But John watched as he went over to the counselor and gently took her arm, so maybe he had.

John stood there, mute, watching everyone—his people, his men—deal with the aftermath of the hostage situation. And he'd never felt so helpless, or useless, or alone.

Teyla ran to Sergeant Conroy's quarters, Corporal Kemper pounding along beside her. He was a brand-new expedition member from the Daedalus, and she had only met him once when she was helping John and Ronon evaluate the combat training of the new recruits. He had seemed amicable enough at the time.

Now they were together because neither of them had Gifts, which meant they were immune to the disease currently attacking the city, at least as far as Carson and Keller could determine. Teyla dearly hoped that they were right. The sickness was taking a terrible enough toll on the city as it was, there had to be some people left who would be able to help.

They reached Albert's door and Teyla sounded the chime, hoping that he would answer. Rodney had instructed all Gifted personnel to check in with the Infirmary via radio every two hours when he had initiated quarantine. Al had missed the first one.

He didn't respond to the chime, even after the third time Teyla activated it. She pounded on the entrance to his quarters. "Albert! Albert! Can you hear me? It's Teyla. Please open the door!" But there was no answer.

She glanced at Kemper, taking in the worry on his face, then keyed in the lock code. The door slid open and they both went inside.

The room was dark. All the lights were off and the curtains closed. A faint glow of noon sunlight barely lit the room. She could see almost nothing, but it was easy to hear Albert in the silence: his soft, continual murmuring and the steady thump of something hitting the wall.

"What's that noise?" Kemper asked her, voice hushed. Teyla just shook her head, meaning for him to stay quiet.

Kemper palmed on the lights, but he was smart enough to keep them dim, so they wouldn't hurt Albert's eyes.

He wasn't in the main room of his quarters, nor in the bedroom, though it was equally dark. In the end Teyla followed the noise into the bathroom, Kemper walking softly behind her.

Albert had wedged himself into the back of the shower stall. He was sitting with his knees drawn up tight, like a child seeking self-protection. He had his hands pressed tightly over his ears.

He was saying, 'shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up', repeating it like a litany or a prayer. He was hitting the back of his head against the wall, over and over and over again. There was a small red stain behind him, where he'd beaten himself to blood. His hair was damp with sweat and his eyes were wild and blank, seeing nothing.

"Whoa," Kemper breathed behind her. He had frozen in the doorway.

Teyla ignored him. "Albert," she said quietly, crossing the room. She knelt in front of him, and put her hands on either side of his face. "Albert! It's Teyla. I'm here to help you. Can you hear me?"

Albert kept whispering to himself, staring at nothing. It was as if she weren't there. His head hit the wall again, making the circle of blood larger.

"Albert!" Teyla held him more firmly, forcibly turning his face towards her, looking at his eyes. "Albert! It's Teyla! Can you hear me! I'm right here—we're going to help you. Can you answer me, please?" But there was nothing.

She closed her eyes, concentrating. Albert, my dear one, can you hear me? I'm here with you. I am right here. Please, listen to me. Follow my voice.

He didn't answer, and she opened her eyes again. His face was still vacant.

Teyla looked over her shoulder at Kemper, who was staring with wide, worried eyes. "Help me move him," she said. "We must bring him to the Infirmary."

Kemper nodded mutely, and she turned back to Albert.

"We're going to help you, Albert," she said to him. "You're going to be all right." She leaned in and kissed the corner of his moving lips, tasting salt. Then she backed out of the tiny shower so Kemper could go in and lift him. Albert was unresisting, a limp weight as Kemper pulled him upright so he could drag him out of the small space. Albert was still whispering, seemingly completely unaware of what was going on. Teyla helped Kemper pull Albert across his shoulders, and they left his quarters.

"What's wrong with him?" Kemper asked, grunting under Albert's weight, even though Teyla knew he was lighter than he should be. Albert found it almost impossible to eat the amount of food he needed to match the energy required by his Gift.

"He hears thoughts," Teyla said simply as they went into the hall. She wished they could have called a medical team, but they were all either busy with other Gifted patients or overcome themselves. She was also concerned about Carson, though at least his Gift was not one that she thought could become dangerous. "He cannot control it. Sometimes the constant voices in his mind overwhelm him, though it hasn't happened for a long time before this."

"Whoa," Kemper said again. "That sucks." He adjusted Albert across his back. "What can they do about it?"

"I don't know," Teyla said honestly. "I think the only way to help him would be to send him through the Stargate, to an uninhabited world."

She put her hand on Albert's bleeding head as they walked. She would volunteer to go with him, of course, at least for as long as she could be spared from the city. She just hoped that would be enough, that the damage done by his Gift hadn't become permanent. There were too many things she had not yet said to him. Things she had waited for him to say first, as befitted her people's traditions. But Albert was too polite and too shy—he had never even used his Gift to find her feelings for him in her mind.

I love you, she thought, wishing he could hear it. Hold on, my love. Hold on.

She remembered the rows of bodies on the Daedalus, more than would fit in the ship's morgue. And shivered.

Tegan hadn't been at her house, either.

Ianto's emotions were dark with frustration as he slammed back into the SUV. "She must've changed her plans after she delivered Pizza last night, or I would have known she wouldn't be there. I left a card with the landlord," he sighed, "but he doesn't expect her back before half-five this evening."

Elizabeth grimaced. "Let me guess—now we go back to the Hub, do some work and order more pizza for dinner once she's on shift?" She did up her belt and sat back.

"Exactly," he said as he started driving. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "But this time, you get to pay."

"I'll expense it," she muttered, and Ianto actually laughed. He fished in his pocked and held out his cell phone. "Here," he said, "call Gwen and ask if she's hungry for lunch."

Elizabeth arrived back at the Hub in good spirits. She could tell from Ianto's emotions that he was no longer thinking of her as a rival for Jack's affections, and that they had started the easy slide from 'no longer enemies' towards 'friends.' She was looking forward to lunch and interesting conversation with the Torchwood team, and perhaps some sightseeing while she waited for Tegan to be available.

The feelings that met her when she and Ianto entered the Hub therefore, took her entirely by surprise.

Ianto took one look at Jack's face and turned towards the stairs that led to their second level. "Gwen," he said conversationally on his way up, "why don't you come give me a hand with the takeaway in the kitchen?"

"Right-o," Gwen replied, and bolted for the stairs, her mood shimmering with unease as she passed.

Elizabeth slowly took off her coat and draped it over her arm. Jack's normally mobile face held a firm expression, his mouth drawn down in a hard line. His emotions were rolling with distress and concern, strong enough to make her feel sick. She swallowed and mentally prepared herself. Lifting her eyes, she met his gaze unflinchingly.

"What happened?"

"Stargate Command sent an emergency message," he said.

Elizabeth felt a flare of panic. "What happened?" she repeated.

"I don't know," he said. "The message was meant for you."

"Okay," Elizabeth said. She could feel her heart speeding up, the hard crush of fear making her mouth go dry and sucking the air away from her lungs. She looked around the Hub, eyes searching. "Where...?"

"Up here," he said, putting a hand on the small of her back and gently guiding her towards the stairs. "I've set it up on one of the computers ready to go."

She nodded, forcing herself to walk calmly up the stairs and not run pell-mell towards the computer. Dimly she realized that she no longer had her coat over her arm and that Jack must have taken it. She had no recall.

He pulled the chair out for her, and she thanked him absently as she sat, aware that he remained standing behind her. The screen flickered, and suddenly Rodney's face filled the screen. Her flare of relief that he was alive was immediately eclipsed by how he looked: drawn and too pale. His eyes were deeply shadowed.

"Elizabeth," he said, his voice sounding dry and thick. He raised his hand to rub his forhead, but as it touched light spread over his features, shimmering gold where it met his shield. "Elizabeth, there's a disease on Atlantis."

She felt herself lean forward, straining to listen to what Rodney was saying.

"We're experiencing an outbreak of an unknown pathogen," Rodney continued. He blinked, his voice cracking on the next words. "Three of our people have died."

Elizabeth closed her eyes against the sudden rush of dizziness his flat statement had caused. Radek! she screamed inwardly, the feeling of panic becoming stronger. Ruthlessly, she shoved it back down and focused on the screen.

"Dr. Simmons died from severe Gift-induced hypoglycemia, and Captain Vega electrocuted herself with her Gift in the shower, both just this morning," Rodney spoke again, "and Josť Prieto, one of the nurses, was killed when Corporal Anders' Gift went out of control."

Not Radek, Elizabeth thought, but the relief was only momentary as she grappled to understand what Rodney was saying, through a databurst sent via Stargate from a galaxy thousands of light years away.

"We don't know what this disease is," Rodney said, "but what we do know is that while everyone's infected, it seems to only affect those with Gifts. The Gifts get turned 'on', and then increase in power, and..." He paused and rubbed his face again, causing a rippling of gold over his skin. "And we can't turn them off."

Elizabeth felt her mouth drop open in horror. Gifts used up a great deal of energy. Every Gifted person on Atlantis carried several packages of glucose tablets at all times to prevent the deadly drop in sugar that occurred all too easily with the use of their Gifts. But Rodney had just said that this illness caused everyone's Gifts to become both more powerful and erratic. Every Gifted person in the city would be drained by their own abilities until they died, just as certainly as if the Wraith had been let loose in the City.

It was a death sentence. All it required was time.

Rodney was speaking again: "It hasn't been easy, but so far we've got things under control." He began counting off his fingers. "John, Radek and Carson are so far, so good. John's trying not to speak, unless it's totally necessary. Radek couldn't avoid going near Ancient tech, which would be a little hard, considering where we are, so he's gone to visit the Athosians. Carson is seeing people's DNA whether he wants to or not, but he's trying to ignore it and mostly succeeding. Major Lorne's Gift is making him puke if he tries to eat or drink anything, but he's still on his feet." Rodney gave a small shrug. "So, our department heads are still able to lead their departments, more or less. Good news." He licked his lips, and even through the computer screen, Elizabeth could see that they were dry. "I could go into more detail about how everyone else is doing," Rodney said, "but suffice to say it's a long list and kind of boring." He swallowed. "And I've already told you about the ones who have died. Carson and Jennifer are working like crazy to find a cure, and everyone else is being really good about it. We're okay. Not good, but okay." He smiled as he said it, but it was small and fleeting.

After a moment, he turned to look directly into the camera, his blue eyes dark. "You can't come home, Elizabeth," he said, and she actually started with the force of his words. "Not until we've figured this out. It's too dangerous for you to be here. Please," he said, shifting closer to the camera, shield sparkling as he moved. "Please listen. Stay with Torchwood. You'll be safe. Don't—'' He stopped, closed his eyes in a gesture so helpless that Elizabeth gasped. "Stay there," he said again. "I'll...someone will contact you later. Once we know more. Rodney out." He moved his hand towards the camera, and the screen went dark. Rodney was gone.

"His shield is up," Elizabeth said. "He can't control it." She turned around to look at Jack, feeling tears pooling in her eyes. "He can't eat or drink."

"Oh God," Jack said.

Elizabeth nodded. "Three of my people are dead," she said. Just last evening she had been teasing Jack about not letting Dr. Simmons leave Atlantis. And now Dr. Simmons was gone. Elizabeth's voice broke on a sob, and suddenly she was in his arms, crying as he held her. She could feel his grief from the loss of his teammates, now magnified by the peril that Rodney and the other expedition members were facing.

"No!" she said, pushing away from him. "No! I will not accept that there's nothing we can do for my people!" Angrily she wiped the tears from her cheeks and turned to face him. She was the leader of the expedition. Her strength was their strength. She might not be with them, but she wouldn't let them down. And Rodney and Radek and John and Evan and Carson and Peter and Chuck and all the other Gifted members weren't dead yet. They might be sick, even very sick, but where there was life, there was hope. She'd always believed that. Now was not the time for mourning.

"Now, Captain," she said, "what else did you receive from Stargate besides Rodney's message? They must have sent something else. Something with details, who's in danger and who's not, what they've done and what they're doing and what they're going to do." She looked at him, holding his gaze, willing him to move beyond his sadness. "I need to know it all."

"All right," he said, looking at her intently. He smiled, and the relief from his emotional onslaught had her closing her eyes briefly once again. "Come on," he said, taking her hand and gently pulling her towards him. "You've got work to do."

David Parrish looked wary, Evan thought, when he opened the door to his quarters, but he beamed as soon as he saw who it was. "Hello, Evan," he said brightly, then stepped back in that jangly way he had. "Come in, come in. How are you? Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, David. Good to see you." Evan smiled. When he'd first met David, the biologist's exuberance and chattiness drove him crazy. But over the years he'd come to like it, or at least not mind it much. Now as he walked into David's quarters it felt like a miraculous piece of normalcy in a day that had started pretty damn badly and had just gotten worse. Sometimes Evan wondered if Sheppard ever felt like that—like as long as the team geek could be his usual, talkative and kind of irritating self, then everything was still mostly okay.

"I'm glad to hear it," David said. He was going to the little mini-fridge he'd stashed in his living room, but he beamed over his shoulder at Evan. Evan couldn't help smiling back, despite the fact that he was starving and still had the headache from this morning slamming around behind his eyes. When David smiled he always meant it. In his own way the man was just as transparent as McKay, except McKay tried to use belligerence to hide how he felt, and David didn't care.

David yanked open the fridge and pulled out two bottles of the organic iced tea he ordered whenever the Daedalus was allowed to bring personal supplies. "Here," he said, smiling brightly as he offered one. "I've already had lunch, I'm afraid, or I'd be happy to share with you. Can you stay awhile? Talk, maybe?" His smile became self-conscious. "I, uh, I've been trying to catch up on my field reports and such, but I haven't been able to concentrate very much." His smile fell completely. "I'm just, well, somewhat concerned for everybody. And, um, well, I miss my plants." He seemed to suddenly realize he was still holding the two bottles. "You don't want anything?"

"No, thanks, I'm good," Evan said. Just looking at the brown liquid in the clear bottles had managed to both remind Evan of exactly how thirsty he was and make his stomach lurch with nausea at the same time. He was relieved as hell that David had already eaten. Evan quickly wiped the sweat off his forehead when David had his back turned to put both bottles away.

"Well then, if I can't offer you anything, would you like to sit down, at least?" David gestured meekly to his couch, as if he felt Evan had to make do with it or something, when Evan had the exact same furniture in his own quarters. "If you have the time, I mean," he added hastily, face clouding with concern. "I suppose that everyone's been extremely busy dealing with this illness, especially with so many people in quarantine."

"I can take a few minutes," Evan said. He smiled through his headache and continually roiling stomach and flopped gratefully down onto David's couch. He wished he could just lie back and sleep there for a few hours, but McKay had announced another meeting in less than an hour and Evan wanted to get one more quarantine round in before then. The majority of the most at-risk Gifted had either been snowed under like Peter and Sparky, or put in Atlantis' safe rooms, like Bates. But there were a few people who were sick but not in danger yet that Evan was still worried about—like David. Not so much because of his Gift, which shouldn't kill him if he kept away from plants, but because Even knew how much the man hated being alone. David could worry himself into knots if no one was there to talk him down.

David looked so delighted for his company that Evan felt guilty he hadn't come by earlier, though realistically he hadn't been able to spare the time. He still made a mental note to come by as often as possible, or ask one of the non-Gifted to visit, since at this point everyone in the city was already infected and there was no fear of the disease spreading anymore. Now quarantine was being used to protect the Gifted from using their Gifts by accident, and anyone they might inadvertently harm. Teyla had brought over some of her people to help run the city while so many were down; Evan was sure at least one of them wouldn't mind hanging out with an excitable biologist.

"So, um, how is everyone? Everyone not in the Infirmary, I mean," David said. He rubbed his earlobe, a big tell that he was anxious as if his general demeanor hadn't been enough. "Kate and I were speaking on the radio a bit—on a strictly private channel, of course, not to bother anyone—and she told me most of the science department are fine, except for, um, except for Simmons..." He trailed off with a sigh, looking so forlorn Evan could practically feel his misery radiating off him.

"Yeah," Evan said quietly. "I heard about that. McKay's still pretty torn up about it. But the ones who are worst off are in the Infirmary being looked after, and pretty much everyone else is either in their quarters like you or off-world. Things are going okay." That was only for the moment, of course, but that was the last thing Evan would tell him.

"Well, that's good," David said nodding. He didn't seem any happier, though, and his smile was a weak flicker. "I just wish I didn't have such a headache."

Evan blinked at him. His head had felt a bit better for a while, after he'd had the water, but it somehow hadn't occurred to him that David might be in pain too. "Do you need Tylenol?"

"What?" David blinked at him, then smiled again. "Oh, no, thank you. I have some. It just doesn't seem to be working as well as normally." He gave a loose shrug. "Perhaps it's just that I'm anxious." He sighed again. "I'm very worried about Albert," he said. "Kate told me she'd heard from one of the nurses that he was completely unresponsive in the Infirmary, and his head was bleeding."

Evan winced, rubbed his forehead. "Come on, David! You know better than to believe rumors like that! Al's going to be fine. He just...things got a little loud for him for awhile there. But he's off-world now and he'll be a lot better without the whole expedition in his head."

David stared at Evan, looking like he very badly wanted to believe him. Evan kept his expression as neutral as possible, willing David to accept the lie. The truth was, Al had been exactly that bad, and was still nearly camotose even after being taken to the Gamma site. Even a bag of glucose hadn't helped.

Evan and Teyla had set up a tent for him with food, water and other supplies, but after they'd come back to Atlantis no one else had gone through to check on him yet, in case even one mind would fry Conroy's brain. But if he didn't respond at the next radio hail, Evan had already determined to go back through to him, no matter what.

"Well, that's good," David said, though he still looked a little dubious about it. "But, I don't like it, him being off-world all by himself. I mean, I know it's necessary right now, because of his Gift, but, well, I can't help imagining of how lonely that would be." David wet his lips. "I was thinking, I should join him." He looked hopefully at Evan. "He's told you how my thoughts don't bother him, hasn't he? He told me they're quite ordered and very calming." David grinned like he'd been given a prize. "So, so I think I should go. To keep him company."

Evan felt himself goggling. "Are you nuts? An entire planet full of nothing but God-damned plants and you think going there would be a good idea? You almost strangled yourself this morning when that tentacle thing grew into a fucking Triffid when you touched it!"

David opened his mouth to argue, then obviously reigned himself in. He shifted on the couch instead, clasping his hands earnestly in his lap. "I would hardly call being wrapped up by a few vines being strangled, Evan," he said startchly. "And the Celastrus pegasi is rather far from a Triffid, even if its tendrils are somewhat, ah, aggressive. And, um." He looked down at his hands. "I miss them. The plants. I feel...I don't feel right, not having them." He looked around the main room of his quarters with a sigh. David kept his place so clean it was impossible to tell where each of the pots had been, but it had taken nearly an hour to move them all out of David's quarters. Evan hadn't been able to help much because of his other duities, but he'd come by to move a couple plants, and then ended up puking twice. Whatever molecules made up their various scents could also be tasted, apparently, if your Gift was strong enough, and naturally they all pinged as toxic for everyone. "I miss the green."

Evan sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "I'm sorry, David," he said. "I really am. And if it wasn't so dangerous, I'd let you go in a heartbeat, you know I would. But Al's Gift is so haywire right now that you might hurt him anyway, no matter how calming he finds your brain normally. And all those plants there..." Evan shook his head. "You'd die, David. Your Gift would grow everything and you'd run out of blood sugar and die. Just like Simmons did." He put his hand on David's bony shoulder, shaking it gently. He grinned lopsidedly. "I'd kind of prefer to have you alive."

David smirked sadly. "Of course. I do understand. It's just been difficult." His lips thinned again as he obviously turned over an unpleasant thought. "And I expect it will get worse, won't it? This longing?"

"I don't know," Evan said honestly. He had no idea if David's wanting plants around was part of his Gift or just the man himself. Evan kept thinking about eating and drinking stuff himself, but he figured that was just because he was hungry. He squeezed David's shoulder before he pulled his hand back. "Beckett and McKay will figure this out soon, and then everything will go back to normal. Al will come waltzing through the Gate and we'll be a team again."

David's smile was even sadder, if anything. "I wish Tulio were here." He frowned. "Though actually, it's lucky he's not, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Evan said on a breath, thinking of Johansen. The kid was still on suicide watch, last Evan had heard, so depressed he was barely speaking. He was more thankful that Tulio had been spared that than he could say. "Yeah, it really is."

Rodney was in Lab six, standing in front of the laptop Peter had been using before Simmons collapsed and everything went to hell. He was reading the logs they'd copied from the rogue Daedalus. He'd had to borrow one of Teyla's Athosians to reopen the file for him, since he couldn't actually hit the computer keys or use the touchpad with his shield up. The young man had since left to go bring someone in quarantine late lunch or something, unfortunately, because Rodney would really have liked to pause the video files so he could stretch a bit. He made a mental note to have someone set up a computer to take voice commands.

He would have loved some lunch too, of course, not to mention a cup of coffee or six. Though right now just a glass of water would have been like heaven.

Rodney sighed then sucked on his tongue until he had enough moisture to swallow. He supposed they were lucky that Atlantis was a city in the middle of an ocean. The air was still humid enough that his throat didn't hurt too badly yet.

"Oh, hey, fantastic," he said, genuinely happy to see John walk in out of the corner of his eye. "I was just thinking how great it would be for someone to—yes, yes. Just like that." John hit 'pause' on the video stream with a single, casual tap of his finger, and Rodney sighed again. It was astonishing that something so simple was beyond him, and astonishing that something so simple could be so unbelievably necessary.

"Thank God," Rodney said, gratefully arching his back. He couldn't even sit anymore, at least not on the stools because he kept sliding right off them. He straightened and smiled tiredly at John. "Lorne told me you were seriously badass during the hostage situation." He gestured at his ear. "I heard the screaming, of course, but by the time Carson and I got there it was all over."

John smiled, though it was barely a curve of his lips. He opened his mouth then closed it again almost immediately, looking defeated. He rubbed the side of his head.

"Here," Rodney said quickly. He pushed the laptop at John. "Just pull up Notepad or something. You can type, right?"

John gave him a sour look, but he seemed marginally happier to have a way to communicate. He leaned over the computer, fingers tapping uncertainly at the keys. Rodney had almost never seen John using a keyboard, but he'd been sure that John wouldn't know how to type. Watching John trying to write quickly while doing hunt-and-peck was horribly frustrating, but Rodney kept viciously reminding himself that John had no choice and held his mouth shut.

"I've uh, sent someone to go find you a whiteboard," Rodney said.

John nodded, part of his mouth pulling upwards in a soundless, humorless smirk. He turned the computer back to Rodney.

Bates is okay. Well hes crazy, but not hurt. Kates shaken but shes okay too. He is locked in safe room so noone can lie to him. Carson thinks he will have to sedate him soon

Rodney read the message. "Your spelling and grammar are remarkably terrible for someone who could have been in Mensa," he said, earning another glare. "I'm glad that ended all right, though," he added. He looked at John. "Thank God you were there," he said seriously.

John shrugged, looking uncomfortable. He pulled the computer back to him again. His typing was a little faster this time.

i made him trust me

Rodney read over John's shoulder. "I know," he said. "Lorne told me."

John let out an explosive breath. He turned his head to look at Rodney, unsmiling. Then he started typing again.

didnt want to but kate maybe dead if not

"I know, John," Rodney said quietly. He put his hand on John's back, watching the traces of gold crackling out from beneath his fingers and palm. He didn't know if John could feel it. "You did the right thing, though. I hope you know that. You saved Kate's life."

John shrugged, but kept typing. what did u find?

Rodney blinked. "Oh! The video logs."

John looked at him, lifting an eyebrow.

Rodney narrowed his eyes in return. "Hey, I'm a little stressed here! Not to mention that it's past lunchtime and I haven't eaten anything since eight this morning!"

John's eyes widened a little, and Rodney shook his head quickly, taking his hand off John's back so he could wave it dismissively. "Never mind," he said. "I'm fine, really. I mean, I'm probably going to drop dead in another day or so but I'm still fine. Tip top shape." He smiled weakly.

John just stared at him. He opened his mouth—Rodney could see the word being shaped by his lips—but then John winced and shook his head.


Rodney read the words on the white screen, almost wishing that John had said them out loud, so Rodney might actually believe them. "We should watch the logs," he said.

John looked at him again, as if waiting for him to say or do something else, but since he couldn't speak Rodney didn't know what that might have been. But in the end all John did was slide the laptop back over to him.

"You'll, uh, have to control the playback," Rodney said.

John's lips tightened, but he nodded and pulled up the video file. Colonel Sobol's face was frozen in mid-word, grimly leaving a message she couldn't have known anyone would see. John tapped the touchpad, starting the file playing again.

"...Now understand why Atlantis succumbed, despite our superior firepower and the number of Specially Able in the expedition," she was saying, staring unflinchingly at the recording lens. "We believe the pathogen must have been brought on board with the control crystal and other equipment that we salvaged from the city, though it's nothing like any other disease we've encountered." The Colonel's lips compressed on the screen, and Rodney wondered how many deaths she'd witnessed by the time she made this last recording, how many friends she'd lost. He glanced at John, but John's face showed nothing but concentration. "Dr. Lam reported that everyone in the crew is now carrying the illness, but only the SAs were infected by it." Colonel Sobal said. "She believes it might have been specifically engineered to kill SAs, but she doesn't have the necessary equipment to test her theory." Sobol drew in a deep breath, and Rodney could imagine her steeling herself for what she was going to say next. "At this moment, however, the origin of the disease, or the exact motive behind it, are no longer relevant. Britney Kaufman immolated herself at oh-eight-hundred hours today, taking four of the Infirmary crew with her. She had been the last Specially Able survivor."

"Britney Kaufman?" Rodney murmured. "He's got a sister?" John glared and Rodney shut up.

On the small computer screen, Colonel Sobol was still talking. "...Possible that if the Alternate Reality Drive were still functioning properly, we would have been able to return to Earth in time to find an antigen that might have saved at least some of the SA crew and the Mundanes who have died as the results of the Abilities going out of control, but Dr. Lam is certain that since we're all now carriers of the disease, we will infect anyone we come in contact with. That would ultimately mean that, if we were to return, we would cause the death of every SA person on Earth." "Oh, no," Rodney said softly. "I was afraid of that." He heard John suck in a breath beside him. "But with our current situation, drifting from reality to reality without any ability to either navigate our way home or stop the drive from functioning, I've been forced to give the order to abandon ship. Preparations are almost complete. We've beamed down the last of our supplies and any equipment we think might be useful. I'll be taking the last F-302s down myself. Of course, we haven't had time to do a proper survey of the planet's surface, but it seems habitable enough—plenty of fresh water, arable soil—not that different from our own. We won't be rescued, per SGC protocol, but it's become obvious that we no longer have the option of staying on and attempting to return to our reality. This is Colonel Sobol, commander of the Daedalus, signing off."

The file ended and the screen went black.

"Well," Rodney said unhappily, "that's nothing we didn't know, really, with the small caveat that the timestamp on this message is only about forty-eight hours after the first log about the disease!"

John didn't need to say anything for his expression to be eloquent.

"What I'm saying, because I know that's what you're asking since the disease has obviously started affecting your higher brain functions," Rodney snapped, "is forty-eight hours, give or take, before every Gifted person on Atlantis is dead! That's it! That's all the time we have!" He turned away to cough, his throat dry and burning.

He didn't know if John tried to touch him or not since he couldn't feel it, but he was startled into whirling back around by the loud thump of John's fist hitting the lab table. John's expression was exactly the kind he used when he thought Rodney wasn't focusing, though Rodney didn't think he could possibly be any more focused on this than he already was.

John grabbed the laptop and started typing again, his fingers moving so fast that Rodney was sure whatever he managed to write would be illegible.

They dnt hv Carson or Jennifer. We hv mre hlp. We will fnd cure

Rodney read John's sentence, and then blinked and gaped at him. "In two days? Are you crazy? Even if this pathogen isn't bio-engineered, which I strongly suspect it is, how the hell do you possibly think Carson could find a cure for this in forty-eight hours? He's going to die of this himself, in case you hadn't noticed! What do you—"

"Rodney!" John barked.

Rodney shut up instantly, his attention fixed entirely on John.

John licked his lips. He opened his mouth again, hesitated. Then Rodney saw John's expression harden.

"Drop your shield, Rodney," John said.

Rodney's shield disappeared in a small flash of gold, as anticlimactic as a blink.

"Oh my God," Rodney said. He looked at his hands then patted them along his chest. He could feel the cloth of his jacket; feel the pressure of his palms. He looked up at John, grinning in amazement. "You're a genius! You're a fucking genius! You did it!"

John's grin was luminous. He hauled Rodney to him, kissing him exuberantly, joyously, his hands fisted in the panels of Rodney's jacket as if he was afraid to let him go.

Rodney kissed him back just as hard. His mouth felt like hot sand and probably tasted worse, but he didn't care and it was sure as hell that John didn't.

Rodney was the first to end the kiss, gently pushing John back. "Water. I need water," he said as John blinked at him a little dazedly.

John's eyes widened in understanding and he nodded and stepped back, letting Rodney go. Rodney all but ran into the bathroom off the lab, opening the tap and snatching up the metal cup he kept there and filling it. He drank greedily, barely pausing to breathe with the water still running. Then he filled the cup again and drank that one, too. He only stopped long enough to grin at John's reflection in the mirror. John put his hand on the back of Rodney's neck, his thumb brushing gently over the sweat-damp bristles of Rodney's hair. He was looking at Rodney with such tenderness that Rodney swallowed and dropped his eyes to his cup.

He was filling the cup for a fourth time when his shield came on.

The cup shot out of his hand in a blast of gold sparks. It hit the mirror and bounced away onto the floor, spilling water. John yanked his hand away with a small, truncated noise of pain.

John's reflection gaped at him, and then his eyes narrowed. "Drop your shield, Rodney," he said.

Rodney obeyed instantly, absolutely. There was no question of refusal even if he'd wanted to. And Rodney's shield flickered out, and then almost immediately flashed back into existence again.

"Stop it!" Rodney snapped when he saw John opening his mouth again. "Stop it! There's no point! You'll just exhaust yourself." He turned around, but the devastation on John's face was no easier to take when Rodney was looking directly at him. "There's no point," he said again. He held out his hands then clapped them together so John could see the sparks. "I can't make it go away anymore, not even if you tell me to." He smiled, sure it looked nothing but sickly and sad. "At least I was able to drink some water."

John nodded. He didn't smile at all. He swallowed heavily then turned away. Rodney saw his hands closing into fists at his sides.

"We should tell Carson about the information in the logs," Rodney said quietly. "And, uh, I guess we'll need to break it to all the non-Gifted that uh, they probably can't go home."

John nodded, his expression as grim as Rodney had ever seen it.

"Thank you," Rodney said. "Thanks for helping me." He reached out to touch him, but pulled his hand away, his shield flashing against John's chest.

"I'm sorry, Rodney," John whispered. Rodney watched him walk out of the room.

She'd barely touched her food.

Elizabeth paced beside the table in the conference room, feeling close to snapping. It had been six hours since she had heard the news about Atlantis. Six hours of useless, worthless waiting. Waiting for a twenty-something dropout to come in for her dead-end job at a pizza parlour. A twenty-something drop-out who could potentially save the life of everyone on Atlantis. Everyone who Elizabeth loved.

The takeaway that she had helped Ianto pick up earlier for lunch was stone cold, and turning into a congealed mess in tupperwear in the small fridge in the Torchwood kitchen. Elizabeth had forced herself to have just enough to prevent herself from passing out from hypoglycemia, but she couldn't make herself eat any more. The idea of her chowing down while Rodney starved to death behind his shield made her feel sick. Jack had wordlessly handed her a bottle of Gatorade, and the compassion in his eyes had nearly caused her to start crying again. Nearly, but she'd held it together, and planned to do so until she had convinced Tegan to join her, and they had rescued every person in Atlantis.

As soon as the fucking girl came on shift.

"What time is it?" Elizabeth asked again, stopping behind one of the chairs and gripping it tightly. She felt like she could break something with her bare hands.

"Half seven," Ianto said. It was late afternoon in Atlantis, then. God only knew what was happening. "She'll be arriving at work any minute now."

"Don't worry," Gwen said softly, coming up to Elizabeth and gently putting a hand on her shoulder. "We'll get her this time. She'll come."

'"Thanks, Gwen," Elizabeth said. Her smile was a weak attempt, but Gwen returned it. Even with Gwen's Gift off, Elizabeth could tell the other woman knew what she was going through.

She stopped herself from asking what time it was again, and continued pacing, wishing the physical activity would help her nerves. A couple of hours ago, Jack had offered to take her for a walk by the waterfront, but she'd refused. Since she couldn't be on Atlantis the only other place she wanted to be was in the Hub, ready for any new scrap of information that might come from the SGC.

She had just turned to pace back the other way when the phone Ianto had placed on the table rang.

"Torchwood," Ianto said into the receiver. He'd grabbed it before it'd even finished its first ring.
Elizabeth immediately stopped pacing. Ianto had said 'Torchwood', when he'd picked up the phone. That meant he was expecting the call. She held her breath.

"Where are you?" Ianto asked, tone more soothing and gentle than she would have thought he was capable of. He paused, clearly listening. "Right," he said. "We'll be there directly." He hung up and looked at her. "That was Tegan," he said. "She was on her mobile. She got my card. She's heading towards the office upstairs."

Carson woke up on the floor of his office, with Marie Yau, the charge nurse, and Dr. Keller kneeling next to him. It was obvious by the sting in his thigh that one of them had used a Glucagon injector on him. He was so sodden with sweat that he felt he was fairly swimming in his lab coat and uniform, aching all over and weak as a kitten, with the mother and father and grandparents of all headaches skirling like bagpipes behind his eyes.

He tried a smile, not even thinking about getting up yet. "I, ah, gather I overdid it a wee bit, then?"

Jennifer nodded, eyes wide. Her DNA helices seemed to be spinning faster, as if in harmony with her agitation. Carson felt his eyes sliding over to what his sight was showing him, rather than looking at her face. He was too tired to fight it, and it made him feel a little better, anyway.

"You fainted," Jennifer said, though even Carson, addled though he was, found that somewhat obvious. "Marie and I heard the crash and ran in here. You were unconscious, in the early stages of hypoglycemic shock."

"Ah," Carson said, biting his tongue so he wouldn't point out that he had already guessed as much from the fact that he'd woken up on the floor. Aggression was definitely a symptom of hypoglycemia, a sign that the body was producing more adrenaline to compensate for low blood sugar. "I suppose I'd better have some glucose then." He lifted his head, then set it back on the floor with a groan. "Perhaps in a few minutes."

"I'll hang a bag for you, Doctor," Marie said. She smiled sympathetically at him and bustled off.

Jennifer stayed where she was. Surely her knees were beginning to hurt. "What were you doing? What happened? I thought you were staying in your office specifically so you wouldn't use your Gift."

Carson nodded. "Aye, I was." He didn't mention that he'd started feeling a compulsion to seek out people just so he could see their DNA, and that it was becoming well-nigh irresistible. Right now it was all he could do to follow Jennifer's conversation, instead of becoming lost in the beautiful intricacies of her genetic code. It certainly didn't help him to resist when using his Gift eased the pain from the illness. "But I was trying to analyze the pathogen in some of the blood samples we took from our patients by looking at its DNA."

Jennifer looked puzzled. "I thought you couldn't read anything lower than vertebrates."

Carson nodded again, then wished he hadn't. "No, you remembered that right," he said. He smirked. "Nothing without a face. But technically, there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to read lower-order organisms."

Jennifer's brow knit in a pretty moue of disbelief. "And you thought now would be a good time to try it?"

"As our very own Lieutenant Colonel would say, it seemed like a good idea at the time," Carson said, smiling ruefully. He didn't tell Jennifer that he'd known intellectually that attempting to read bacteria under these circumstances was foolish and quite possibly dangerous, but that he hadn't been able to stop himself anyway. Even now, if he so much as glanced at his work table, the Petri dishes with Major Lorne's and Poor Dr. Simmons's blood in them would sprout the genetic codes of their progenitors like swiftly-blooming flowers. He'd been almost completely absorbed in watching the helices in their slow, stately turning; Carson more than half suspected that part of the reason he was on the floor was forcing his attention to the infection alone. He reached out his hand to Jennifer, hoping it was close enough to her that she wouldn't notice he could barely see. "Be a love and help me up? I'd much rather be on a bed if I'm to be lying down for an hour."

"Here," Jennifer said, and he felt her hand on his arm, another one behind his shoulder, gently easing him upright. "Can you stand?"

"If you and Marie would be so kind as to help me, aye." Carson nodded. "Has she found the IV bag yet?" It seemed that the woman was taking a long time.

"She's here," Jennifer said, and he felt Marie's strong hands around his other arm as he spoke. Jennifer talked him through what they were doing as they helped him up to his knees and then his feet. He swayed for a moment once he was standing, but he was only a bit lightheaded, and got to one of the beds before the world started spinning in earnest.

"I'll set up the IV, Marie," Jennifer told the nurse. "Can you go get a privacy curtain, please? We need to keep Carson from seeing the other patients."

Carson lay back and closed his eyes, wincing only a little when Jennifer stabbed the IV catheter into his arm. He knew he had much less painful technique, but then he'd had at least ten years more practice than her. Almost immediately he felt the odd coolness of the glucose sliding into his veins, and sighed, anticipating an uncomfortable sugar high in a few minutes, though it was far better than the alternative.

"That feels better, huh?" Jennifer asked rhetorically.

"Aye," Carson said, nodding. He kept his eyes closed, though Jennifer's DNA helices still glowed like a bright light through his eyelids. He could hear Marie and Jennifer setting up the privacy curtain, and hoped it helped. He wasn't sure how much longer he could keep himself from looking for people just so he could stare at their genes, then snorted at the inadvertent pun.

"What?" Jennifer asked him. Carson could hear the smile in her voice.

"Nothing, just a stray thought," Carson said. "Oh! I should tell you!" he added urgently, realizing that between waking on the floor and getting to a bed he'd completely forgotten about what he had learned from the disease. "You'll have to verify this yourself, since I really can't—I'm not good enough with my Gift, I'm afraid—but I'm almost certain that the disease was indeed man-made. It's a chimera. That's why it was able to survive so long in the ship without a human host."

"I'm already late for my shift," the girl said.

She was standing just inside the entrance, wearing an oversized black dress that ended above skinny calves cased in huge black boots. Her black hair hung down in limp strands by the side of her face, her bangs a long straight curtain nearly concealing her eyes. Her face was pale, her skin hidden by white foundation. Her lips were painted a thick black that looked as unattractive and artificial as the colour of her hair. Her eyebrow, nose and lip were all pierced with thin silver rings that glinted dully in the light of the reception area. Her arms were crossed and her face was twisted in a hostile expression.

Everything about her screamed: Don't touch me! but Elizabeth knew the truth. The girl reeked of self-disgust and failure, guilt and shame, and underneath it all, the fierce pulse of white-hot fear. Elizabeth found herself smiling, impressed by her courage.

Maybe Gwen was right. Maybe Atlantis would be just what she needed to reach her full potential. I hope so, Elizabeth thought as she felt her expression harden. Because that girl was coming to Atlantis, even if Elizabeth had to drag her there by the scruff of her unflattering frock.

"Hello Tegan," Jack said, stepping closer to her. He was smiling at her, tight and controlled. "Welcome to Torchwood Three. An organization dedicated to the investigation and control of Extraterrestrial Threats. My name is Captain Jack Harkness. These are my associates, Gwen Cooper and Ianto Jones," he said, indicating his teammates with a gesture. He took a step towards Elizabeth. "And this is Dr. Elizabeth Weir, Commander of the expedition currently residing in the lost city of Atlantis in the Pegasus Galaxy." He paused, letting that sink in, then continued. "And we need your help."

Tegan licked her lips, her tongue tracing the ring with practiced ease. "I don't understand," she said with a nervous laugh, her eyes moving to each person in the room. "Are you taking the piss?"

Jack shook his head. "Nope," he said. "We deal with hostile extraterrestrials and Dr. Weir lives in the city of Atlantis, in a completely different galaxy." His smile was thin and challenging.

Tegan's eyes narrowed behind her hair. "Fuck off," she said, and turned towards the door.

Gwen shot Jack a speaking look. "Wait, Tegan," she said, moving closer to the girl. "I know it's hard to believe, I didn't believe it myself when I first got here, but everything Jack said is true." Her dark eyes were beseeching, and as heartfelt as her emotions. "We really do need your help."

Tegan turned back towards them, every angle of her body stiff and disbelieving. "So," she said, "let me get this straight. You lot fight—" She made quotes in the air with her fingers—"aliens?"

"Yes," Ianto said. His arms were crossed in a mirror to hers, but his expression was much warmer. He looked sympathetic and kind. "And Dr. Weir lives in a ten-thousand-year-old city on another planet."

Tegan tossed her head, her lips curled in a sneer. "Bollocks." She turned her head to look at Elizabeth. "And what about you, Dr. Weir?" the way she pronounced Elizabeth's name made it sound like an insult. "You really live in a city up in space?"

Elizabeth forced herself to smile with her eyes. "Yes," she said, infusing her voice with as much sincerity as she could. "It's true."

"Bollocks!" Tegan shouted. "That's fucking bollocks!" She pointed one shaking finger at Elizabeth. "Now, I don't have the first fucking clue why you lot left your card at my flat, but you won't be getting nothing from me!" She turned towards the door in a swirl of black cloth and put both hands on the door handle and yanked. Nothing happened.

"It's locked," Ianto said mildly. "It locked behind you as soon as you came in."

Tegan turned again and put her back up against the door. The fear that Elizabeth could sense just beneath the surface was now apparent on the young woman's face. "Let me out."

"No," Jack said. He stepped towards her, his hands held loosely at his sides. His shoulders were relaxed, but the air of menace around him was palpable. "No," he repeated. "You're not going anywhere until you've heard Dr. Weir out." He gestured towards the door that led to the Hub down below. "That way, please." It was an order, not a request.

"No," Tegan said, voice shaking. "You're going to kill me if I go down there!" She suddenly seemed to realize what she had said and her eyes grew huge. She clutched one hand to her chest, the other turning the doorknob uselessly. "Please don't kill me," she said in a near whisper. "Please."

Gwen went to her, close enough to comfort but far enough away to not crowd her, and Elizabeth could feel the strange mirror-image sense of her emotions reflecting as Gwen turned her Gift on. "You're not going to die," she said. "No one is going to hurt you, Tegan. We just want to talk with you. That's all."

Tegan looked at Gwen, her expression a pathetic mixture of hope and uncertainty. "You just want to talk?"

"Yes," Gwen nodded. "Just a simple conversation down in the Hub."

Tegan's eyes widened again and Elizabeth felt the spike in fear at the same moment that Gwen read it as well. "No!" she said, "I don't want to go down there! I don't want to go anywhere with you!"

"Look," Gwen said quickly, pulling out her cell phone and holding it out to Tegan, "Here's my mobile. Why don't you use it to call your mum to let her know where you are?"

Tegan took the phone as if it would bite her. She looked at Gwen, her bottom lip trembling. "My mam's dead."

Gwen's hand flew to her lips. "God, I'm sorry—""

"Your dad then," Jack interrupted. "Or your best friend, or your priest for God's sake! I don't give a rat's ass who you call, but make it quick because people are dying!"

"Please, I don't know anything," Tegan said, her brown eyes wide and turning liquid. "I promise I won't tell anyone anything! Promise."

"For fuck's sake!" Jack swore. He grabbed her roughly by the upper arm, his large hand spanning its diameter. "No one is going to kill you! If we had wanted you dead, we could have killed you ten times over by now! Now come on!" She let out a pathetic mewl of protest but didn't fight him as he dragged her towards the stairs that led down to the Hub. He flung open the door and stormed through it, Tegan pulled along in his wake.

"Oh God, he's going to bollix this all up!" Gwen shouted at no one in particular and took off down the stairs after him.

Ianto and Elizabeth looked at each other. Ianto raised his eyebrows. "After you," he said with a grand gesture towards the stairs.

"Thanks," Elizabeth muttered and entered the stairwell. This might be a little harder than she had originally thought.

"Take a good look!" Jack shouted as he pushed Tegan closer.

Jack had dragged Tegan from the reception area down through the Hub to what was called the Vault area in the lowest level. It was a dank, creepy hallway filled on either side with cells, each with a locked, thick plexiglass door as tall as a man. Most of the cells were closed, but one, Elizabeth had been surprised to note, contained a...creature, for lack of a better word. A strange, thick-headed alien beast with a large, bulbous bare skull and teeth big and sharp enough to make her think of an animal as vicious and unpredictable as a wolverine. The fact that the creature was hissing and growling didn't help make it seem any less frightening. It was dressed in a shapeless blue overall, and it stared at them through the plexiglass, malice apparent in every line of its ugly alien features.

"It's a Weevil," Ianto whispered into Elizabeth's ear as she stared at it. Even with all her experience with the Wraith and the Iratus bugs and all the other hideous aliens of the Pegasus Galaxy, the Weevil was still enough to make her shiver.

Tegan was petrified. Her hand clutched spasmodically at the front of her dress, her mouth open silently in fear. She was staring at the Weevil with a look of blank horror in her eyes, her terror so strong that Elizabeth felt her own heart start to pound.

Jack still held her other arm in a death grip. "See?" he hissed right by her ear. "This is an alien. A killer. A creature so inhuman that it would rip your throat out without a second thought. And it's only one of hundreds of aliens that are roaming around Cardiff." He shook her, causing Tegan to nearly lose her balance. "Still think we're 'taking the piss'?" he continued. "Well, we're not, Tegan. This is about as real as it gets."

She made an unintelligible noise as she nodded, clearly scared beyond speech.

"That's what Torchwood does," Jack was saying. "We track down things from outer space. Things that don't belong in Cardiff, and we make sure that it's either contained or destroyed. We risk our lives every damn day to make sure that you and all the other people out there never have to worry about anything worse than whether or not it's going to rain, or what to watch on the telly. I lost two of my team saving this planet!" he snarled, "Two of my team! There's a whole fucking city of people out there, sick and dying from a disease you can cure. And I'll be damned if I let you walk away from them!"

Tegan nodded again, the movement causing a tear to roll down her face.

"Jack—" Gwen said, moving towards them.

"And now on to Atlantis," Jack said, ignoring Gwen as he turned and dragged Tegan back up the stairs.

Gwen sprinted after him with Ianto and Elizabeth taking up the rear.

"What's he doing?" Elizabeth asked Ianto as they climbed the steps from the lower level of the Hub up to where the computer tables were. "Doesn't he realize he's scaring her to death?"

"I don't think he cares," Ianto said apologetically. "He did something similar to Gwen when she first came to Torchwood. Of course, he didn't exactly drag her around, mind you, and he seemed less angry."

"Did it work?" Elizabeth queried as they reached the top of the stairs. Jack had sat Tegan down in one of the chairs in front of a computer. His hands were on the arm rests on either side of her, effectively trapping her in place. Gwen stood off to one side, glaring at him but not interfering, although her emotions told Elizabeth she wouldn't be quiescent for long. "This is Atlantis," he was saying as Elizabeth and Ianto came up behind him. "Here. Look at it. Look at him."

Jack was playing the video of Rodney that Elizabeth had seen earlier that day. She had watched the image several times already, trying to glean as much information as she could from her chief scientist's terse sentences. Seeing Rodney like that, shield flashing and face haggard with worry and illness still felt like a sharp jab to her stomach. She inhaled sharply, hand on her abdomen. "Please listen." she heard Rodney say again. "Stay with Torchwood. You'll be safe." She closed her eyes briefly, her own fear and concern heightened by Jack's powerful reaction to seeing the video again as well.

"Steady," Ianto murmured, hands on her shoulders. She nodded and opened her eyes. He waited a moment before moving his hands, a silent show of support.

Tegan was sitting in the chair, crying quietly, a wad of tissues crushed in one hand. Gwen was kneeling by her, arm around her shoulders. Jack had moved to stand on her other side, his arms crossed and expression dark.

"Again," he said and pressed the play button.

They all watched it through a second time. The only sound was the tinny audio of Rodney's voice and Tegan's muffled sobs.

"Again," Jack repeated. He reached for the button.

Tegan raised her hand. "No. Wait."

Gwen stood as Jack stepped back. Tegan licked her lips, a flick of her tongue that bent her lip piercing before disappearing back into her mouth. She seemed to come to some decision, because she sat up straighter. Elizabeth could feel it, the coalescing of courage along the young woman's spine.

She turned her head to meet Elizabeth's gaze. "He's dying?" Tegan asked. "I mean, I'm right, aren't I? He's on Atlantis, right now, and he's dying?"

Elizabeth nodded, her throat suddenly too tight for her to speak.

"Oh," Tegan said. She looked at Jack. "And that's the person you want me to heal? You want me to go to Atlantis to help him?"

"Him and many others," Jack said roughly. He was as deeply affected from watching the video again as Elizabeth herself had been.

"I'd like to help him," Tegan said slowly. Here tears had stopped, and she dried the remnants from her cheeks. "I really would."

"He could really use your help," Jack said, his emotions raw and sharp with anguish.

Tegan shook her head. "But I can't," she said. She looked up at Jack, eyes imploring. "Please understand. I'd really like to help. Really! But I can't do it."

Jack blew up. "What the hell are you not understanding?" he yelled. He put his fists on the computer table, leaning towards her in a move that was intended to intimidate. "You need to go to Atlantis, and you need to go now!"

"No!" Tegan cried, close to tears again. "I can't do it! I won't!"

"What the hell do you have to stay here for?" Jack shouted. "Your mother's dead! You said so yourself! You've dropped out of Uni and you're working a shitty dead-end job living in a rat-infested hell hole in Splott for Chrissakes! They need you in Atlantis this second!

"I can't go!" she repeated, voice hitching. "Please stop asking!"

Gwen stepped in front of Jack, forcing him to move back. She knelt again so that her eyes were level with Tegan's. "Why not?" she asked gently. "You're a Healer, Tegan. Exactly what Atlantis needs right now. It would be a grand adventure for you, with a very happy ending for innocent people who wouldn't end up dying from a terrible illness. Why can't you go?"

"Because I'm not a Healer!" Tegan cried. "I'm not!"

"You're right," Ianto said suddenly to Tegan, drawing everyone's attention to him. His eyes looked unfocused, as if he were reading something only he could see, and Elizabeth realized she was actually witnessing him using his Gift. He was pulling information out of Tegan as she sat, uniting it into a whole. "You're correct," he said. "Our database is wrong. You're not a Healer after all."

The room was completely silent as everyone looked at Ianto.

"Excuse me?" Gwen said at the exact time Jack and Elizabeth both said, "What?"

"She's a Potentiater," Ianto said. "She doesn't heal people. She increases or strengthens biochemical or physiological actions. She helps them heal themselves."

"No," Tegan said, shaking her head. "No, no I don't. I don't help anyone heal themselves." She turned her eyes to Ianto, her gaze beseeching. "I tried that! It didn't work!" She burst into tears, of sadness and shame, Elizabeth felt with some surprise, not fear.

"I'm not a Healer!" Tegan repeated. "Don't you understand? I can't heal anybody! I killed a man!"

"Shhh, shhh," Gwen crooned, putting her arms around the young woman in a comforting embrace. She spoke a long, soothing-sounding sentence in Welsh. Elizabeth felt Jack battling to get his rage under control. Elizabeth knew without a doubt that his fury at Tegan was based on his fear that Rodney, too, would die, and that he'd be forced to mourn yet another colleague and friend. It was a fear that Elizabeth knew all too well. She felt her resolve to get Tegan back to Atlantis firm inside her as she watched Tegan cry against Gwen's shoulder.

"What happened, love?" Gwen asked.

"I tried to save someone," Tegan said. Her gaze dropped to the tabletop. "He was one of my patients, when I was in school. I tried to help him."

"It's okay," Gwen said, giving her shoulders a squeeze, "you can tell us. You're among friends."

"I thought I could help him," Tegan said softly. "I was sure of it." She paused, licked her lips again, gaze slipping back towards her lap. "I'm Gifted, yeah? There's a fucking name for it." Her laugh was short and humourless. "I thought I could heal people, help them get better if they were injured or sick." Her voice dropped until Elizabeth had to strain to hear it. "But it wasn't true. I can't."

Tegan's emotions were heavy with despair. Elizabeth could feel her own patience wearing thin. She understood Tegan's sadness and guilt, even empathized with her on some level. They had both lived through the same thing after all, the knowledge that they had caused the death of someone they were only trying to help. The history of the Atlantis expedition was rife with those examples. Their terrible mistake with Michael Kenmore was only one of them.

But Elizabeth wouldn't stand by and let anyone else die. Not if she could help it. "It doesn't matter if you think you can help or not," Elizabeth said firmly. "My people need you. I need you, and we will do whatever it takes to help you control your Gift. Regardless of what you think, you are a Healer."

Tegan's eyes flew to Elizabeth's. She could sense the conflict in Tegan's feelings. Her intense hope at war with her self-loathing and despair. "You are a Healer," Elizabeth said softly. "You are."

Tegan licked her lips again. "I could really learn how to use my Gift?"

"Absolutely," Elizabeth said. "Not only that, I have a fully-trained medical staff on Atlantis, several of whom are Registered Nurses. I'm sure we could arrange for you to finish your nursing training with them."

"Really?" Tegan breathed. "I would like that."

"As a member of the expedition, Ianto said, voice lowering as if he was sharing a great secret, "You get paid, too. A lot of money."

"Really?" Tegan said again, her brown eyes wide.

Elizabeth felt something loosen in her chest. Tegan might not have realized it yet, but her emotions had signaled her acquiescence. She was on her way to the Pegasus Galaxy. Elizabeth inhaled deeply, her relief so vast she almost felt faint.

Let's hope it's not too late to save my people, Elizabeth thought. "Now, let's go to the conference room," she said to Tegan just as Ianto slipped her a pad and pen. "I need a few more details from you before we get this show on the road."

"Ah, finally. Thank you for showing up, Major," McKay said as Evan walked in to Weir's office. McKay's shield flickered as he adjusted his crossed arms, and just looking at it sent Evan's stomach roiling again. His Gift had activated so often since that morning that even when it wasn't working now Evan felt like he was having a migraine, and the motion of McKay's shield was enough like the pitch and roll of an ocean that it was actually making Evan feel seasick. But he swallowed the rush of saliva in his mouth and gritted his teeth until he was sure he could speak without going into yet more dry heaves.

"Sorry," he said curtly. He didn't explain that he'd been held up because he'd gotten so thirsty that he'd gone to one of the city's restrooms and gulped down water from the tap, even though he knew it would set off his Gift, and then he'd pretty much instantly upchucked it all into the sink. He felt better for a bit after that, but he'd had to swing by his quarters afterwards to change his shirt, which was wet through with his own sweat. He would've taken a shower but he hadn't had the time. The smell of the soap would've probably made him sick again, anyway.

Jennifer shot a reproving glance at McKay. "How are you feeling?" she asked Evan. Her voice and expression were sympathetic and worried.

Evan automatically straightened his shoulders a bit. "I'm fine," he said, managing not to snap at her. He crossed his arms the way McKay had, feeling kind of like he was daring her to say otherwise. He was sure she could tell just by looking at him exactly how much he was lying, but she just pressed her lips together and nodded mutely. He nodded back, trying to show his thanks.

Teyla and Sheppard were there as well. Teyla gave him one of her typically warm smiles, which he did his best to return. Sheppard was the only one besides Evan and McKay not in one of the chairs. He was leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets, standing behind McKay's shoulder like a bodyguard. He gave Evan a single, sharp nod, but didn't say anything. Evan wondered why for a second, until he remembered that now John's voice was dangerous.

"All right," McKay said briskly. He rubbed his hands together, making his shield crackle gold like static. "Carson will be telecommuting this afternoon," McKay said, "so since the rest of us are finally here," He shot another look at Evan, who just narrowed his eyes in return, "We can get started." He walked to the front of the room. It felt a little strange to see McKay there instead of Weir herself, but it wasn't as if Weir would mind McKay using her office. "This is your briefing before the main meeting." McKay began. "Since I'm going to repeat a lot of this in that meeting in about twenty minutes, I'm just going to give you the Coles Notes version now. This disease definitely comes from the alternate Daedalus. They were pretty sure it was biological warfare, though they didn't have the equipment available on the ship to verify that. And here's the best part—Every Gifted person on the Daedalus was dead within two days of showing symptoms."

Evan blinked, too stunned to be scared or feel much of anything at all. His first, automatic response was to think that McKay couldn't be right. Evan was sick as hell right now, sure, but he wasn't dying. He glanced at Sheppard, as if part of him was sure the Colonel would snort or roll his eyes and say that McKay was full of crap. But Sheppard's expression was grim.

"Are you certain that's what the logs said?" Carson asked over the radio. Evan imagined him in his quarters, probably sitting at his desk, staring worriedly at whatever relevant information McKay had for sure forwarded to his computer screen.

"Of course not," McKay snapped. "Because everyone knows I'm prone to making wild errors when it comes to reading timestamps. What do you think, Carson, that I called you all here because I was lonely? I'm trying to figure out how to break it to a quarter of the expedition that it's practically assured they'll all be dead in about forty hours, unless we're somehow miraculously smarter than our alternate selves!"

"While I'm still not convinced of the timeline," Carson said through their radios, "much as I hate to say this, I fear he's right that all our Gifted are in grave danger. The pathogen is indeed a chimera. That is to say, it's definitely man-made. Because of that, so far none of our antimicrobial treatments have had any effect on it, and I'm speaking of our entire inventory." Evan could hear his defeated sigh. "Simply put, we don't have anything that will even slow it down, and at the speed with which it is progressing, I don't think we have enough time to make one. "

"Wait," Jennifer said. She looked like she might be trying to keep herself from crying, and Evan felt a stab of sympathy for her. "We shouldn't be giving up, here! I mean, we've already given our most at-risk Gifted treatments that probably weren't available on that other Daedalus. So, it might not be that desperate for us, right? We might have more time to figure something out." She looked at them all helplessly. "Did they say what they'd attempted?" she asked McKay. "Because, maybe we've done more?"

"Funnily enough, they didn't make a comprehensive list of all the useless medical procedures they'd tried between carting bodies to the morgue," McKay snarled. "Hey, I'm just as into self-delusion as the next guy facing imminent and agonizing death, but the point here is that it doesn't look like Voodoo's going to cut it—we need to look at plan B."

"Rodney," John said. His voice was low and mild, but Rodney whirled like John had smacked him upside the head.

"What?" Rodney demanded. John just arched an eyebrow. "Fine," Rodney said, sounding like he was grinding the word between his teeth. He turned back to Jennifer. "I'm sure it's remotely possible that all the Gifted on Atlantis aren't going to drop dead roughly two days from now. But my point is," he glared at John, "that we don't have a luxury of time here." He turned back to the rest of them, looking less annoyed and much more worried. "Some of us, of course, have less of a luxury than others."

Evan took a quick breath. "We'll have to appoint our successors," he said. It was only logical, though he felt weirdly detached from all this, kind of as if this was a movie and he was just saying the appropriate lines. It also felt strange to be saying things he knew would be coming from Sheppard, except that Sheppard couldn't speak. He was still leaning against the wall, eerily silent, eyes fixing like hawks on anyone who said anything. It made Evan wonder what he was thinking. "Major Stonetree's off world, so Ford's going to have to take over until Stonetree gets back when..." When we're dead, was what he'd been about to say, and it had hit him suddenly, what that really meant. His heart started to pound, making his headache worse. "When we're incapacitated," he said instead. "Stackhouse should be Ford's 2IC," he went on, mind racing. "We'll need to brief them on all the command codes for critical functions, like lockdowns or the self-destruct. We should probably send them to Stonetree now, in an encrypted burst, or something." He looked at McKay. "You can do that, right?"

McKay stared back at him, a little bug-eyed. "And Sheppard says I'm pessimistic? Take it easy, Major Downer. Believe me, when it's time to write the obituaries, I'll let you know. And anyway, Stonetree isn't part of this equation. If he comes back to Atlantis he'll become a carrier just like the rest of us." He smiled grimly. "Ford's going to get the surprise of his life in a few minutes, when he becomes the next military head of Atlantis."

"Wait," Evan said, headache rateching up a notch. "What do you mean that 'he'll become a carrier just like the rest of us'? Who cares if he's a carrier?"

Rodney's look was complete scorne. "I think Stonetree might. Since it means he and his team won't ever be able to go to Earth again."

Evan heard Jennifer gasp. His head bobbed back in surprise. "What?"

"Try to keep up, Major!" Rodney sneered. "Gifted people get sick and die. Non-Gifted people get the sickness and spread it to other Gifted people, who get sick and die! Understand?"

Evan opened his mouth to snap back at Rodney when Teyla spoke.

"What of my people?" she said, and even he could hear the trepidation in her voice. "Radek is with them now, and several of them have been on Atlantis since the illness started. What of them?"

"They're never going to Earth," Rodney snapped. "But since that wasn't an option for them anyway, they'll be fine. Gifted people die, remember? And since the likelihood of there being other Gifted in Pegasus is just about nill, you don't have to worry about Jinto being able to visit granny for the next harvest festival. They don't have a problem—we do."

"So it is only the Gifted people in Atlantis who are in peril," Teyla said. She was working out exactly waht Rodney meant, Evan thought distractedly. His mind was still reeling from what Rodney had said. Even if they weren't going to die, the rest of the expedition members might never get home to Earth again.

"Oh, yeah, totally in peril," McKay said like there wasn't any question of it at all, and Evan's heart sank a little further. "But I was just getting to plan B, remember?" He waited just long enough for everyone to nod. "The alternate Daedalus wasn't just a plague ship, it was also a Flying Dutchman. They had what they were calling an 'Alternate Reality Drive'." He made finger quotes, as if he thought the name was inaccurate or just stupid. "Designed by myself, as it happens." He didn't look nearly as smug about that as Evan figured he would. "Regrettably, in their haste to get to Atlantis in response to the city's distress call, they put it into the Daedalus before it'd been properly tested. It was meant to draw power from alternate realities to make the ship go faster, much like how the ZPM helped our Daedalus get here in four days instead of eighteen. But it broke on the way back to Earth. Instead of drawing power from the other realities, the Daedalus started bouncing through them, until the surviving crew were forced to abandon ship."

"So where does the new plan come in?" Jennifer asked.

McKay scowled at her. "I was just coming to that. As it turns out, we are miraculously smarter than the other Atlanteans. And by 'we', I of course mean myself. We can't synthesize a cure of our own in time, so we're going to go to the alternate reality where the disease was made, and get the cure."

Now he did look smug, though it was still easy to see how pale he was. It suddenly occurred to Evan that the scientist would be the next one of them to die. Evan and all the rest of them would be able to get glucose and saline and whatever else the docs could manage, but McKay was literally untouchable, trapped behind his shield, and Evan didn't think it would shut off before McKay was too far gone to be brought back.

His eyes shifted involuntarily to Sheppard, still standing against the wall like a sentinel with McKay as his only charge. Evan realized with horrible clarity that the Colonel was there because, unconsciously, maybe even instinctively, he was trying to protect McKay. But there was nothing he could do.

Evan hissed in a breath and looked away again.

"That seems like a very risky plan," Carson said over the radio. "Do we even know if they have a cure?"

"Not to mention that we have no idea which reality we're talking about," Evan said.

McKay's glower was apparently for both Evan and the radio. "And to think with Peter laid up, I thought I wouldn't have anyone to point out the obvious. Of course we don't know if they have a cure, Carson!" he snarled. "But what the hell other option do we have? Bloodletting? And no, Major," he turned his vitriol on Evan, "we have no idea what reality we're talking about. At the moment. But if you can keep it in your pants for a few minutes, I'll get to how we're going to overcome that particular setback, okay? Or would you rather I wasted what little time I have left repeating myself?"

Evan's eyes narrowed. He was way too sick to have patience for McKay's crap. "Hey, maybe if you cut the God damn theatrics—"

"Major," Sheppard said it so softly it was nearly a whisper, but Evan stopped talking instantly, his attention pulled completely to his CO.

"None of us have time for useless squabbling!" Teyla admonished both Evan and McKay, though Evan didn't miss the quick, quelling glance she tossed in Sheppard's direction. "Rodney," she said, giving her attention back to him. "You are saying that you're going to build one of these engines?" Her expression was a mix of disbelief and hope, her hands clenched in her lap.

McKay snapped soundlessly, his fingertips flaring gold, and pointed at her, grinning. "That's exactly what I'm saying." He checked his watch. "You can sign off, Carson, '' he said. ''Time to go to the big meeting, everyone. Get your game faces on."

"So," Rodney said, golden streaks flashing as he leaned up against the whiteboard. "Do you want the good news or the bad news?"

Dr. Jennifer Keller shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Considering that the Ancients were meant to have been so enlightened, she wondered why they'd continued to make such annoying furniture. The seats were as cold and hard as anything she remembered from her undergraduate days in university.

The terrible seats were where the similarity ended and at that moment, she would have given almost anything to be back there, in the safety of her youth and innocence, believing that Earth was the only inhabited planet and that being a doctor meant she could save people's lives. Instead, she was sitting in a make-shift classroom, in a city hundreds of millions of light-years from Earth, watching her friends slowly dying.

"Is there actually good news?" Dr. Naveed Gupta said. He looked as uncomfortable as Jennifer felt as he crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair, dark eyebrows pulled low in consternation. "Because that would be good news in itself."

"Well, there's good and good," Rodney said. "And I wouldn't get too excited by the idea of good right now." He turned to the whiteboard fixed to the wall behind him and picked up a marker, shield sparking as his hand make contact. The marker bounced from his fingertips and hit the floor. "God damn," he muttered. He sounded completely defeated.

John was standing near him, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. His Gift was so strong now that it was dangerous for those around him if he spoke, which must have been why he was standing near Rodney but away from anyone else, just like he'd done before in the smaller meeting. He looked like he hated watching Evan do his job for him. He uncoiled as soon as the marker fell, but Evan got there first.

"I'll get it," Evan said, moving easily beside Rodney and scooping the marker off the floor. He pulled off the cap like he was doing it automatically, then grimaced at what must have been the potent smell hitting his tongue. He reattached the cap and put it back on the tray by the board, turning to lean against it, eyes on Rodney.

They look really sick, Jennifer thought, then felt herself blush at the stupidity of that statement. Of course they were sick, that was the whole problem, wasn't it?

"Okay," Rodney said, turning to face his audience again. "Here's the good news. You're all now department heads or 2ICs. Congratulations."

There was a murmur of discontent from the crowd. "What do you mean?" Captain Ford said from where he was sitting, forearms on his knees. He gestured at Evan. "Major Lorne's right there!"

"I know that!" Rodney snapped and then coughed, wincing. Jennifer winced along with him, thinking of how dry his throat had to be by now. "I'm sick, not blind." He shook his head. "The Major, along with myself, and Sheppard and Dr. Beckett and every other Gifted person on Atlantis is going to cease being able to function properly in a very short period of time. We have to be prepared for that and putting you guys in charge now is the best way to facilitate the transfer of command with the least amount of disruption."

"But you're going to find a cure, right?" Aiden continued, his distress obvious. He sat up and looked around the room, his expression beseeching. "I mean, this is all just in case, right? No one is really expecting us to need to take over—"

"Actually, we are," Evan said. He was still leaning against the board, arms crossed, his gaze leveled on Aiden. "Dr. McKay is right. The Gifted members of Atlantis who are still standing are getting worse, me included." He smiled ruefully. "I'd rather do this now."

"So, let's get to it, shall we?" Rodney said, but he was looking down at his laptop and not really asking the audience for permission to continue. "Your new positions," he continued, "in no particular order. Naveed," he said, looking up at the man in the front row. "You're now head of the science department. Congratulations."

Naveed looked completely shocked. "Me? I'm an Anthropologist!"

Uh, yes," Rodney said. "But besides Drs. Weir and Corrigan, and, of course, me, you are our foremost expert on the Ancients. Plus you've been a department head for two years and your paperwork's always been in on time, your reviews are excellent, and your people are, well, happy. It might be a nice change, actually. Anyway, Cooper's your 2IC. She can handle the real science."

"Oh," Naveed said. He and Dr. Alice Cooper exchanged a look that Jennifer could easily interpret as joyless acceptance. His 'thank you' was perfunctory at best.

"'Welcome," Rodney said automatically. He turned back to his laptop. "Military command will go to Capt. Ford." Aiden voiced a denial, but a sharp look from Evan shut him up. "Sergeant. Stackhouse will be your second."

Danny's head snapped up. He was sitting beside Aiden, and Jennifer knew the two of them were good friends, despite the difference in rank. It was obvious he wasn't seeing this as a good thing either. "What?" he said.

"As of now, you're a First Sergeant," Evan said. He smiled, but it was pallid and sad. "You deserve it, Danny, no matter what the circumstances."

"Thank you, sir," Danny said, "but I don't want it." His voice cracked, and Aiden put a hand on his shoulder. Danny, like Aiden, was the only non-Gifted member of his team. Danny's own 2IC was confined to quarters, gauze over his eyes to prevent him from accidentally telporting objects at random. His other military member was sedated in the Infirmary, recovering from unintentionally transporting herself into a handle of an exercise bike. And his aura-reading scientist had been exiled to the Beta site in a desperate attempt to prolong his life. Jennifer looked away, feeling a sympathetic lump forming in her throat.

"Trust me, the feeling's mutual," Rodney said brusquely.

Evan nodded at the young man. "You'll do fine."

"Anyway," Rodney said, "it's not like your job will be too taxing. The military command has been divided in two, with Ronon taking over as director of training and Corporal Kemper as his second."

"No way!" The Corporal exclaimed. Jennifer turned to look at him from where he was sitting in the back row. She didn't recognize him, although with his light brown hair, deep brown eyes and strong, handsome features she was sure she would have if she'd seen him before. Carson must have done his physical, she thought then momentarily squeezed her eyes shut at the thought of her boss and friend. It had only been that afternoon that she'd been forced to help him off the floor.

"What's the problem, Josh?" Evan asked, expression open, but there was a hint of steel in his voice.

"It's just," Josh paused. He looked unsure, his shoulders raised in a half-shrug. "I just got here. I've only been here two weeks."

"Yeah, well, Ronon likes you," Rodney said.

From the far side of the room, Ronon grunted his agreement. "You weren't easy to take down," he said. "Could teach the others a lot."

A faint red tone coloured Josh's cheeks. "I know some martial arts."

Rodney huffed, and Jennifer turned back towards him. "Good. Glad to see you've got a black belt in talking. Next up." He checked his laptop. "Ah yes. Jennifer, you're head of medical with Marie Yau as your 2IC." His gaze met hers and he smiled. Jennifer smiled back weakly.

She turned to look at Marie, who was sitting beside her. The nurse's dark eyes were wide with shock. Even though she had been the head nurse of the Infirmary for the past three years, clearly she hadn't expected to be put into this position. Jennifer leaned over and gripped her arm in what she hoped was a comforting gesture. "We'll be fine," she said. "And besides, it's' only temporary, right?"

"Yeah, right," Marie said, smiling with more concern than happiness. Jennifer gave her arm a quick squeeze then turned back to Rodney once again. He was still talking.

"Civilian command of Atlantis goes to Teyla, with Kate Heightmeyer as her backup."

Jennifer's eyes went to Teyla, who was standing beside Ronon and John. She dipped her head gracefully in acquiescence but remained silent.

"Isn't Elizabeth coming back?" Kate asked. She was sitting beside Naveed in the front row and looked equally as agitated as the anthropologist had upon hearing of his promotion. "If she is, then shouldn't she—"

"Gifted, remember?" Rodney snarled. "Even if Elizabeth is so stupid as to make her way back here after I specifically told her not to, she'll probably be wearing a hazmat suit and won't stay long. The promotion stands." He looked up, gaze taking in everyone in the room. "These promotions may be unexpected, and probably unwanted," he said, all trace of sarcasm gone from his voice, "however, they were not given out lightly. You were all chosen for a reason. We know you'll do well."

Jennifer's heart warmed looking at him. When she had first met Rodney, she'd been terribly intimidated by his gruff manner and sarcastic wit. But over time and his numerous trips to the Infirmary, she'd been able to see his softer, gentler side, the side he kept hidden. She knew now that he was kind, and sensitive, and brave. Incredibly brave, if his actions of this day alone were anything to go by. In fact, she had thought she might be in love with him for a while, before she realized that he was already involved with the Military Commander, and she didn't have a chance. Sometimes, when he was being, well, so Rodney, she remembered that crush, and remembered why she'd had it.

Naveed raised his hand. "So, what's the good news again?"

"That was it," Rodney said. "It only goes downhill from here, and speaking about the end of the good news, I'd like to ask Jennifer to come to the front to discuss what we actually do know about the illness." Rodney gestured for her to come up.

Jennifer smiled wanly, feeling her heart start thumping uncomfortably in her chest as she stood and crossed the short distance from her seat to the whiteboard. Rodney moved aside, and Evan sat down in one of the vacant chairs in the front row. Jennifer swallowed.

She hated speaking in front of large groups, and now, as the bearer of bad news, she felt nervous enough to faint. Carson should have given this piece of the meeting, but his abrupt collapse a few hours before completely prevented him from being able to participate. She knew that she understood as much about the illness as Carson, but she wasn't him.

Then again, she had just been handed command of medical services merely moments before this meeting began. She wasn't expected to be Carson; she was expected to replace him, which was somehow even worse. She took a deep breath.

"The pathogen," she started. Her voice squeaked on the word, and she coughed, swallowed, and tried again. "The pathogen, we have discovered, is not a natural phenomena." There was general murmuring among the audience at that, but Jennifer didn't stop for the questions she knew were forming in her colleagues' minds. "It is actually a created chimera, which uses the efficiency of a highly pathenogenic bacteria, such as Neisseria meningitides, and the environmental contamination capacity of a spore-forming fungus." She paused, letting that information sink in. The three young Marines in the room were already looking a bit overwhelmed by the information, but her scientist colleagues were clearly following along. Belatedly, Jennifer realized she probably should have dumbed it down to ensure that everyone would understand, but she had always resorted to acaedemic speech when she was nervous. Hopefully they would ask if anything confused them.

As if on cue, Aiden raised his hand. "Um," he said, looking frustrated. "What does all that mean, Doc? I don't get it."

"It means that the disease is really, really easy to catch," Rodney said. "And unless you've suddenly received an MD in the last few mintutes, you don't really need to know the details, do you? Now shut up and let her talk."

Aiden slammed his jaw shut and slumped back down in his seat.

Jennifer looked at him with what she hoped was an apologetic expression, but he wasn't looking at her. She sighed and started talking again. "So, anyway, the disease is extremely efficient in its transmission. It looks like Sheppard's team was exposed on the alternate reality Daedalus, and then accidentally infected themselves with the pathogen through touching contaminated hands to their mucous membranes." At Danny's blank look, she continued in a rush. "Basically, they put the disease into their eyes, noses or mouths." He nodded his understanding and she went on. "The incubation period is really, really short, and once the disease is inside a host, it seems to change its mode of transmission from contact to airborne, which means that, once infected, the host begins to breathe the bacteria out whenever they exhale. The bacteria is capable of suriving on virtually any surface it comes in contact with, and isn't damaged by any of our cleaning agents. It just waits until it's picked up on someone's hands, and the cycle starts all over again."

"Holy shit," Josh said quietly from the back.

Jennifer nodded. "Yeah. Like Rodney said. Really, really easy to catch."

"So we truly were infected before we left the Daedalus," Teyla said. Her eyes were dark with anguish. "And it was indeed I who caused the infection in Dr. Corrigan and Sgt. L'Heureux." Teyla seemed to still be processing the news from the pre-meeting, and it was apparently hitting her hard. John looked just as grim as she did, his jaw clenched tight against whatever it was he wanted to say.

"It was all of us,"' Ronon said from the far wall, his voice low and rough. "Plague-walkers from the minute we stepped off the ship."

"Um, yeah," Jennifer agreed. "Although it really wasn't anyone's fault. The disease was designed to do what it does, which is to enter the blood stream, invade the brain, and turn the person's Gift on until, well..." She let her voice trail off, her gaze on Rodney's, suddenly unable to voice the terrible conclusion aloud.

"Who did this?" Alice asked. Her deep brown eyes were wide with horror. Jennifer didn't know much about Alice, except that she was a chemical engineer and clearly had earned Rodney's respect.

"We don't know," Evan said darkly. "But we're going to find out."

"You've mentioned this alternate Daedalus, " Naveed said, one arm raised . "How do we know that this illness is from there? Couldn't this be an attack from the Pegasus Galaxy here, in our reality? Perhaps from the Wraith themselves?"

Rodney started shaking his head half-way through Naveed's question. "No, no way," he said vehemently. "The logs I downloaded from the alternate Daedalus make it very clear the disease came from there." He waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the sky. His knuckles brushed against the whiteboard in a flare of gold sparks. "The logs talk about a distress call from an Atlantis under attack. The Daedalus charged to the rescue, using the untested Alternate Reality Drive to try to shave a few weeks off of their travel time, which we now know ended up being a disaster. When they arrived there was no one left, just the missing and the dead. So, they did what we would do—took the command crystal from the DHD, and went home."

"But it was infected," Kate said quietly. "And they brought the disease on board."

"Not just the crystal," Rodney said. "Naturally they had brought their computers to download information, and they brought artifacts and equipment back with them, and of course, their clothing, their shoes, their glasses, their skin, their hair. Everything that had been anywhere on Atlantis was covered in these bacteria-spore things." He shrugged. "Then it was only a matter of hours before their Gifted first started showing symptoms."

"What about their non-Gifted?" Aiden said. "You said the ship was empty when you found it. Where did they all go?"

Rodney huffed out a breath. "A lot of them were killed in the chaos. The rest left. Abandoned ship."

Aiden's brows creased together. "But why? Why wouldn't they stay to tell their SGC what had happened?"

Rodney glowerd at him. "Didn't you—Oh, right. Wrong meeting, sorry." He gave his head a short, quick shake. "The Alternate Reality Drive on the Daedalus broke on the return trip. Instead of getting them to Earth faster, it started bouncing them through alternate realities. They couldn't stop it, so their only choice was to abandon ship before they ran out of water or food."

"Whoa," Aiden said, though he still looked confused. "Why didn't they just Gate home?"

"We don't know why they didn't," Rodney said. "Maybe they didn't have a ZPM or Gate bridge." His expression turned thoughtful. "Not having that kind of direct contact between Atlantis and Earth would actually explain why their Daedalus had been sent in the first place. They wouldn't have known to stay away."

"Wait," Josh spoke up from the back. He sounded scared. "What do you mean, 'stay away'? What are you talking about?"

Jennifer felt her eyes go wide as she exchanged glances with Rodney and Evan. She had forgotten they were going to have to mention this part, maybe it was because she was really hoping it wouldn't be her to have to break the news. Rodney raised his eyebrows a little at her in a silent question. She shook her head minutely. This she knew she couldn't do.

Rodney sighed, immediately accepting responsibility. "I mean they couldn't go home," he said.

Jennifer tensed, waiting for the next question.

"Why not?" Aiden said. He looked at her, and must have seen something of her distress on her face. He sat up straighter, looking her right in the eye. "Why couldn't they go home?"

"Because they were infected too!" Jennifer blurted, and to her horror, felt the sting of tears against her eyelids. "The disease kills Gifted, but it infects everyone." She wiped at her cheek with the side of her hand. "We're all carriers now. Every one of us. We can't go home. I'm sorry."

The room went completely still. "What?" Josh said into the silence.

"For those of you who obviously didn't get the memo," Rodney snapped, "we are all infected with this illness that kills Gifted people. And for those of you who may not remember from high school sociology, nearly ten per-cent of the population of Earth is Gifted. That, for the mathematically un-inclined, is approximately six-hundred million people. All of whom will die if even one of us steps through the Gate. That's why you can't wait for Major Stonetree to get back here and relieve you of the burden of command, Adien," Rodney said to him. "If we don't get this figured out, Stonetree and Cadman's teams are going to have to use the bridge to get back to Earth from the Alpha site. If they come here they'll be infected as well." He took a breath. "Unless we find a cure, none of us will ever go home. Ever. Understand?"

All of the colour seemed to have drained from Josh's face. "I have a little sister..."

"Yeah, well," Rodney said, his eyes flicking to Evan's, "don't we all."

"The good news is," Evan said, "that none of our little sisters are here right now, and we're still alive to be able to do something about this illness. So," he said, pulling himself up straight and looking every inch the military commander, "here's the first order of business. Dr. McKay is going to build another Alternate Reality Drive. Once that's done, we're going to find out which reality to drive to,"—he sent Rodney a quick glance and Rodney smiled slightly in return—"and we're going to get those son-of-bitches to give us a cure to this disease they've made. Then, we will cure everyone on Atlantis, Gifted and non alike, and we can all go home to those little sisters. Okay?"

"Yessir!" Josh, Aiden and Danny replied automatically. They looked marginally more relieved with Evan so obviously taking control.

"The Daedalus must have travelled through any given number of realities before it ended up in ours." Naveed said. "How could you possibly know which one spawned this disease?"

"Ah!" said Rodney, and his smile was the first genuine one Jennifer had seen on his face since all of this had begun. "Because," he continued, holding up a small yellow screwdriver he pulled out of his vest pocket, "Chuck Campbell is going to tell us."

"If he's still alive to do it," Aiden muttered.

"So," Alice stood up. "Time to go build that engine."

"Yes it is," Rodney said. "But not with you. You and Dr. Gupta need to go familiarize yourselves with Atlantis' systems. Once I'm," he paused, "gone, dead, whatever, you will need to know everything from how to fix the shield fluctuations to how to maintain the septic system, and don't forget memorizing the command codes and emergency lock-outs. You need to get started on that while I'm still alive to answer any questions that might not be in the database." She looked aghast. "Chop chop," Rodney said, making a shooing motion with his hands. "Time's running out here. Let's go."

"It's okay," Naveed said, taking Alice gently by the wrist and drawing her out of the room. "Rodney will be all right." He looked at Rodney straight in the eye as he passed by. "Take care."

Rodney nodded. "I will." He turned to Kate. "Your job is to take a look at the details of civilian command."

"Yes. Sure," she said uncertainly. "I'll contact you or Teyla with questions."

"I will assist you, Rodney," Teyla said, moving towards him. John nodded, and moved with her to where Rodney and Evan were. Jennifer felt herself pushed slowly back, away from where the command team was standing, until she was outside their circle, suddenly at a loss of what to do.

"Come on, doctor," Marie said, appearing at her elbow. "I've made a list of supplies we need that we should send to Stargate Command as soon as possible. I'd like you to check it over. Then it'll be time for patient rounds and at least an hour more of research on the disease before dinner." She smiled, the lines around her eyes suddenly visible, and Jennifer realized that Marie was older than she was, and more experienced. She wouldn't have to do this all on her own.

"Thank you, Marie," she said. "I really appreciate it." She hoped Marie knew it wasn't just for a list of supplies.

"You're welcome," Marie said. They left together.

Less than two days until all the Gifted are dead, Jennifer thought as she and her new 2IC turned towards the Infirmary. It was the most frightening thing Jennifer could possibly imagine.

"Oh my God!" Rodney shouted. He smacked the side of the Jumper for emphasis, sending out golden tendrils like lightning from his hand. "Why the hell did they bother to send anyone besides me on this expedition? I swear I could've done better with monkeys. Big, stupid monkeys! At least they have opposable thumbs!"

"Sorry, Doc," Evan said with surprising patience, Teyla thought. "It's a little hard to figure out which 'that one' you mean when there's twelve crystals in the same place and configuration."

Rodney made a noise frighteningly close to a growl. "'That one' means, THAT ONE. As in, The one next to the one I told you not to touch! Seriously, I know that geological engineering is about one rock layer away from a soft science, but you can not possibly be that stupid!" He swallowed painfully, grimacing.

"Rodney," Teyla said sharply, "we are all doing our best to help you. Berating us when you failed to be clear is not going to get this engine built!" She took a deep breath, forcing herself to remain calm. "We are all equally tired and anxious, but we must work together if we hope to accomplish anything!"

"Thank you, Oprah," Rodney snarled. "How about a group hug? Oh, wait—we can't because if we don't finish this within the next thirty-odd hours, every Gifted person on Atlantis is going to be dead! So how about you cut the Kumbya recital short and actually do something?"

Teyla was about to snap a retort, but then she noticed how very pale Rodney was, despite the livid spots of anger coloring his cheeks. His hands were trembling so much that Teyla doubted he could have done any of the intricate physical work he was demanding of them even if his constant shield didn't prevent it. Teyla knew from long experience that Rodney's temper became more ferocious the hungrier he became, and her own momentary anger vanished completely, to be replaced by concern.

"It's okay, Teyla," Evan said. He wiped sweat off his forehead with a hand that Teyla saw was also trembling minutely. "I think I figured out what he wants." He slid back down to his side on the floor of the Jumper bay, then grunted in effort as he reached into the engine, attempting to connect the wires Rodney had brought to the rack of crystals. Teyla did not even try to understand what these things were supposed to do, but Rodney had told them that he had devised a 'fast and dirty way to kludge ourselves an alternate-reality drive', and that he needed help to do the work he himself could not.

John, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor, banged his small whiteboard on the metal several times, until even Rodney gave him his grudging attention.

"What? Don't tell me I wasn't clear enough for you," Rodney snapped. "A freaking Orangutan could do your job! I specifically gave that job to you because you can't talk to ask me stupid questions!"

John glared fiercely, but all he did was uncap his marker with his teeth and write something in quick, slashing lines.

knw wht im dng. Lrn dng bst he cn, 2. U r nt hlpng

Rodney scowled at the whiteboard for a moment, then snorted. "Much as I'm enjoying your LOL-speak, I really don't give a shit if I'm hurting Lorne's tender feelings. You can all go bawling to Elizabeth if we survive, which we won't if we don't get this finished. So can we get back to work, please?"

John barred his teeth and flipped the whiteboard away from him so that it landed on the ground with a clatter. He went back to work in the same eerie silence with which he'd come into the Jumper bay. John had never been a particularly talkative man, but Teyla was astounded at how much she missed the sound of his voice.

"Thank you," Rodney said caustically. He turned back to his laptop, shaking his head. He swallowed a few times and winced, and Teyla was sure it was because his throat was painfully dry.

"Chuck, there's something wrong with the connections you're working on. Come here," Rodney said, not looking up from his computer. "Chuck? Is that hoodie blocking your ears? I said—God damn it!" Rodney turned around as he spoke, and Teyla followed his gaze. Chuck was sitting on the Bay floor much as John was, hunched over some kind of circuit box with a small screwdriver in his hand. Teyla had thought he had fallen silent because he was absorbed in his work, but now she realized he wasn't moving. His eyes were glazed and distant, focused on something internal unspooling in his mind.

Rodney dropped his laptop to the floor. It landed so hard that Teyla thought he might have broken it. Then he picked up a pair of needle-nosed pliers, one of the few tools large enough for him to hold, and threw them at Chuck's head. They hit Chuck right on his cloth-covered ear, and he startled so badly the box bounced off his legs and he dropped the screwdriver.

"That's it!" Rodney shouted at him. "I can't work with someone who's wearing dishwashing gloves and keeps getting distracted by his own clothing!" Rodney pointed at the far doors, leading out of the Jumper Bay and down to the Control Room. "Get out," he snarled. "Go eat something, take a nap, I don't fucking care. Just get out of here. Give your work to Teyla and go."

Chuck scrambled to his feet, his hands fisted. They truly did look ridiculous in the bright-yellow gloves, but Teyla could find nothing funny in this. Chuck looked furious and hurt, and she could only imagine his sense of betrayal and frustration.

"I'm doing the best I can, Dr. McKay," he said tightly. "None of us can control our Gifts. This isn't my fault."

"I don't give a fuck if it's your fault or not!" McKay shouted. "I don't want you here! You're useless to me! Teyla barely knows her ass from an alternating current, but at least she doesn't have a God-damned zone-out every two minutes!" He coughed and then swallowed again with obvious pain. "Go," he said more quietly. "Just go, Chuck. Get the hell out."

For a moment Chuck looked so angry Teyla tensed. She saw John doing the same out of the corner of her eye, but Chuck merely turned and stalked out without a word.

Rodney didn't watch him leave. "I can't believe I'm actually wishing Kavanagh were here," he said. He bent to pick up his fallen laptop and then put one hand on the side of the Jumper, obviously to keep himself from falling. He put his other hand to his head, light shooting like electricity where the shield met.

"Rodney!" John cried, hurtling to his feet.

Rodney snapped upright so fast he fell back against the Jumper, and probably would have tumbled to the floor if Teyla hadn't leaped forward to steady him. Her hands stung against his shield, but she was able to hold him until he got his balance back.

"Fuck," he breathed. "John," he said wearily, looking at him. "You've got to stop doing that."

John nodded his apology, jaw tight.

"Okay," Rodney said on a breath. "Teyla, take over for Chuck, if you please. We'll get back to the polarity in a minute."

"Very well," Teyla said. She crossed the room to where Chuck had been sitting, and knelt next to the work he had been forced to abandon and picked up his screwdriver. "What do I need to do?"

Rodney opened his mouth, then closed it again and sighed. He came over and sat heavily on the floor next to her. "See that crystal housing right there? Unscrew it enough so that you can pull the crystal out."

Teyla bent to the task. She wanted to ask how Rodney was feeling, but it was quite obvious he wasn't well, and she was terrified that he didn't have long before he collapsed.

John whistled to get Rodney's attention then showed him the neat rows of crystals he had rearranged in their housings.

Rodney looked at it and gave John something close to a real smile. "Huh. Looks like you actually did it. Will wonders never cease?"

John sneered, but Teyla could tell it was good-natured. He erased the whiteboard with quick wipes of his sleeve then scribbled something else.


Rodney blinked at the words, then at John. "What the hell are you talking about?"

John blinked back at Rodney for a moment, then grimaced, erased the words and began writing again.

It was going forward to get here, right? So, THROW ENGINE INTO REVERSE. GO BACK WHERE IT CAME FROM.

Rodney stared at him, trying to make sense of what he was saying, and Teyla felt her heart speed up in growing alarm. She knew Rodney would normally have no problem understanding something like this, but he was weakening by the moment. She wanted to explain what John had written, but she didn't want to undermine Rodney's confidence, when he was trying so hard.

"He means, that the alternate Daedalus was skipping from reality to reality, away from its original one, right?" Evan interjected. He cleaned the sweat off his upper lip with a swipe from the back of his hand, and then went on before Rodney could confirm what he'd said. "So we need to go backwards and make the ship go through the realities in reverse, return to the starting point."

"I know that's what he means!" Rodney barked at Evan, though Teyla could see by Rodney's face that was a lie. He looked back at John. "Uh, yeah. Nice try, Columbus, but it's a little more complicated than that. This is a space ship, in case you hadn't noticed, not a train. We can't just reverse engines and end up where they began!"

"Damn it," John hissed, "will you listen to me?"

Teyla dropped what she was doing so she could devote her full attention to John. She stared at him, rapt, waiting for what he had to say. Behind her, Rodney and Evan did the same.

She saw his eyes go wide. "Um, I mean, it's okay!" he said quickly. "You don't have to listen. I'm not forcing you to listen to me. You can listen if you want."

Teyla blinked, feeling as if a compulsion had just been lifted from her.

"Whoa," Evan said, sounding a little dazed.

"I'm sorry," John said softly. He bent his head and covered his eyes with his hand.

"It's okay," Rodney said to John with surprising kindness. He took a breath. "Okay, um. I didn't want to do this, but I think it's time to get Radek back from New Athos. You could probably use a break, John, so how about you go get him?"

"Will he not be in grave danger, coming here?" Teyla asked.

Rodney looked at her, his expression derisive again. "Yes, he will be in grave danger. But we're all kind of in grave danger here, in case you haven't been paying attention. I'm sure he'd rather be scarfing glucose tablets than dead, right?"

Teyla nodded reluctantly. Though he was being extremely abrasive, she knew Rodney was right.

Rodney let out a gusty sigh, and looked at John. "I really need Radek, John," he said. "Otherwise I'll never be able to get this done."

John nodded quickly and jogged to the nearest Jumper.

Teyla watched John leave, then glanced back at Rodney. He was leaning with his forehead against the Jumper, as if already defeated. The golden streaks of his Gift circled his head with a halo of light.

"God damn fucking Doctor McKay!" CF Sergeant Chuck Campbell swore as he stalked away from the Jumper Bay back towards his quarters. He slammed his hand against the wall of the corridor, feeling the impact jar up his arm.

He purposely didn't look at his hand. His gloved hand, and the reason why Dr. McKay had kicked him out of the Jumper Bay in the first place.

Chuck's Gift was out of control. Again. Like the last two years had never existed.

"Fuck!" Chuck yelled, causing the two scientists ahead of him to jump and scurry out of the way. He scowled at their backs as they fled, hating them for not being Gifted. Hating the fucking dishwashing gloves he had to wear when he'd thought he'd be free of wearing any kind of glove at all, forever. Hating his life.

"Suck it up, Sergeant." Chuck muttered to himself, taking a deep breath. He went to rub his face with his gloved hand, and stopped. His face was the only skin that he had left uncovered, and if he touched glove to skin, his Gift would activate, and he'd 'read' everything his gloves had come in contact with since they were first turned from raw materials into personal protective equipment, and he'd keep reading until all his sugar burned up and he died in the hallway, yellow dishwashing glove pressed to his face like some kind of brain-eating starfish.

The image made him smirk, but he jammed his hands into the pockets of his hoodie to reduce the temptation to touch. It was bad enough that he kept feeling whispers from the inside of the gloves themselves, or the radio tucked into his ear, or the lining of the hood of his sweatshirt as it brushed against the side of his face. Hell, he could even feel his uniform pants against his legs—his socks; his underwear. A constant sense of the history of the clothing he wore, diminishing his energy, zapping his will to live.

He was going to die here, along with the rest of the Gifted in Atlantis, because he couldn't stop his Gift from interfering with his work. He might be a military man, but the irony of that didn't escape him.

Angrily, he pushed his hood back, and rubbed fiercely at his hair. His hair was short, but it was thick, and prevented his gloved hand from touching his scalp, and the air on his head felt good. Atlantis was always temperature controlled, but it was hot wearing a hoodie all the damn time.

Feeling resigned, he thought open the lock to his room and went inside. He could read the latest copy of Esprit du Corps that had arrived with the Daedalus, or maybe even get some sleep, since it was the middle of the night. Althought what with Dr. McKay being sure they'd all be dead in just over a day, he wasn't sure how much sleep he'd really get.

"You're back early?"

Chuck whipped his head around towards the source of the voice, his face breaking into a smile. "Hi, baby."

"Hi," Martine Fraser said. She stood, marking the page of her book and leaving it one the couch. She tucked a curling strand of blond hair behind one ear. It was damp with her sweat, though Chuck didn't think the room was all that warm. Martine's hands were covered with the same awkward yellow dishwashing gloves as his. "I was feeling lonely in my room, so I came here." She gestured at the couch. "I hope you don't mind."

"No." Chuck shook his head. His mood improved almost instantly just from seeing her, and it had been like that for the past year and a half. It was her training that had helped him be able to finally get his Gift under control for the first time since he was nineteen. She had been the first person he'd kissed in over twelve years.

She took a step towards him, and he put his hood up, hating the look of dismay that crossed her lovely face.

"I'm glad you're here," he said, and opened his arms. She rushed into them, leaning into him, her forehead pressed against the cloth of his hood, not a single scrap of skin touching. He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering how good it felt the first time he had allowed himself to touch her without his gloves. We'll get that back, he promised himself. Or they'd die trying.

"I missed you," she said against his chest. "I've been cooped up in my room so long..."

"I missed you too, baby," he said. He could feel the warmth of her skin even through the layers of clothes he was wearing and he frowned. "How you feeling?"

"My whole body hurts," she said. "And I'm so hot. I feel really sick."

He rubbed her back, pressing her tighter to him. He wished there was something he could do to help.

"Colonel Sheppard's gone to get Zelenka from New Athos," he said, hoping at least the information would make her feel better. "And he and McKay work great together. They'll get this new engine up and running. And then they'll find the cure and we'll all be fine. It won't be long now."

Martine stood back to look at him, and he gazed into her blue eyes. They were glassy with fever. "Weren't you meant to be working with them?" she asked, "don't they need you?"

He sighed with frustration. "McKay kicked me out."

She looked aghast. "Why?"

He held up his gloved hands and shrugged. "I can't help right now," he said. "Too much Gift, too little manual dexterity for the job."

"I'm so sorry," she said, and pressed herself back into his arms.

He smiled. "It's okay," and moved back until she could see his face. "At least I get to spend some time with you."

She smiled back, but her eyes were still sad. "I really miss you."

He felt his smile falter and slide away. Martine looked as miserable as she probably felt. "I'm right here, baby. I'm not going anywhere."

"But..." she paused, shook her head and raised one hand, showing him her own glove. "But it's not the same. I can't touch you. I can't touch anyone!"

"I know," he said, pulling her back into his arms. "It feels really shitty, doesn't it?" Martine's Gift allowed her to sense injury and illness in others through her hands. Normally it was a useful medical tool, but now it was clearly killing her. And the fact he was useless to help her was killing him as well.

"Yes," she said, voice muffled against his hoodie. His fucking hoodie. I will burn this piece of shit when this is all over, he promised himself.

"I've never felt anything like this," Martine continued, cheek tight against his chest. "It's like the worst kind of addiction I can think of. It's overwhelming. It hurts. I don't know how long I can fight it."

She was crying softly, her breath hitching. He was desperate to brush the tears from her face, to feel her skin beneath his fingertips. He squeezed his eyes shut against the intense rush of craving that image produced. "I know what you mean," he said.

She turned her head upwards, the curls on the top of her head brushing against his chin. "Would it be so wrong?" she whispered. "To use our Gifts on each other?"

His heart banged. His hands sliding over her, his lips against hers, their bodies intertwined, skin to skin, reading her like a book. "No," he said, dropping his hands and stepping back. "No, we can't do it. It would kill us. We can't."

"But..." she said, eyes wide and pleading. "But I want to. With you. I want to touch you, Chuck. To read inside you." Slowly she pulled off one glove, than the other, letting them fall to the floor. "I miss you."

Chuck gritted his teeth. Seeing her hands, small and naked for the first time in nearly a day seemed more erotic than anything he could remember. His fingers twitched. Hell, his skin was burning with the desire to make contact. It wouldn't be so bad, would it? he thought.

"I don't want you to die!" he said in a rush, fisting his hands. "If you touch me, you won't be able to stop, and I won't either. We'll die."

She looked crushed. Her eyes blue lakes of tears. "I don't want to live like this," she said. "I can't." She reached out for him.

He stepped back. "I don't want you to die," he repeated. "I love you."

"If you loved me, you'd let me touch you!" she screamed. She put her hands to her face, her shoulders shaking with the force of her tears.

"Martine!" he said, grabbing her shoulders. "Stop it! You've got to fight this!"

She threw herself at him, bare hands outstretched towards his face. "Chuck! God damn you! I don't want to live like this! Let me touch you!"

Chuck used his grip on her shoulders to push her away from him. Then he shifted his hands to her forearms and in one move, had pinned both of her wrists together in one of his hands. He keyed the radio in his ear, ignoring the way it caressed the skin of his cheek. At least it was his own personal issue since his first day on Atlantis, so the story on it was now all his and hardly compelling. "Security!" he barked. "I need someone to escort Nurse Fraser back to her quarters, now!"

"You bastard," she hissed, her eyes full of betrayal and rage. "You total, fucking bastard!" She pulled at her wrists, but his hands were large and he was stronger.

"See you in three," Chuck finished, and keyed the radio off. "I will not let you do this," he said to her, forcing his voice to be calm. "It's the disease, it's controlling you. You're not thinking straight."

"Shut up!" She kicked at him. "'You said you understood what I'm going through, but you don't! Your Gift works all the time! You read everything you touch! I need to touch someone! I needed to touch you!"

"I can't let you," he said. "I'm sorry."

She glared at him, tears streaming down her face. "'Sorry?'" she spat, contempt twisting her mouth. "I'm sorry I ever met you."

He let her go, feeling like the remains of his heart were bleeding out through his stomach.

"Please pick up your gloves," he said, jerking his chin at the discarded yellow scraps on the floor. "You don't want to accidentally touch the security detail when they get here."

With stiff dignity, she picked up her gloves and pulled them on, then stood waiting, not looking at him. The door chimed, and Chuck thought it open with his gene.

"Sergeant?" one of the Marines said. Chuck thought his name might be Kemper, a new arrival from the Daedalus and clearly not Gifted.

"I'm the one you're here for," Martine said, brushing by Chuck and heading towards the door. She didn't look at him, her rigid back silent testimony to her hurt and anger.

"Please, take her directly to her room," Chuck said to Kemper. "And make sure she doesn't touch anyone." He swallowed. "Lock her in."

Martine's eyes flew to his, wide with surprise. But then they narrowed to ice blue slits, all warmth and affection now hard and cold as stone. "I hope your Gift kills you."

Chuck sucked in a breath but kept silent. He would be strong enough for them both.

Kemper took her by the arm and nodded once to Chuck. Then they left, the door sliding shut behind them.

Ronon barged into the Jumper Bay sometime around Oh-one hundred, carrying a tray with two carafes of coffee, a cup of tea, and a ridiculous number of sandwiches considering only two of them were either able or willing to eat.

John had drunk four bottles of water and eaten three Power bars by then, and he still felt like a wet rag, and so hungry it was like his stomach had wrapped around his spine. Just as it had been with Rodney, John could only charm Radek for a few minutes at a time before Radek's Gift started taking over again, drawing Radek's focus inexorably away. Radek would slow down, his fingers going lax and clumsy as his eyes closed, his head tilting puppetlike in whichever direction the internal components of the nearest Jumper or transporter or the city itself was calling him. He'd get this dreamy little smile on his face, like he was hearing something beautiful.

Then John would have to charm him into going back to work on the damn engine. Again and again and again.

"Oh, great," Rodney said in a dispirited version of his usual sourness. He made a show of looking at his watch. "We've got, oh! Roughly ten minutes before we all die a horrible, agonizing death, and you've decided it's tea time! I'm sure those of us who can actually eat anything will be grateful in the seconds before they drop dead!"

"Can it, McKay," Lorne muttered. "You don't have to shit on our picnic just because you can't eat." He was sitting on the floor, holding something for Teyla while she moved crystals with her small, deft hands. He glanced at the tray Ronon was carrying and looked away immediately, swallowing like it hurt and wiping sweat out of his eyes.

Rodney just rolled his eyes, but John bristled on his behalf, and he almost barked some reprimand before he remembered that Lorne would react literally.

"He is frightened for us, Evan," Teyla said simply, but the look she shot Lorne made him mutter something passing for an apology and duck his head.

"Don't worry about it," Rodney said. He had his eyes on his tablet again, holding it as best he could in his shielded hands. "Dead men can't hold grudges."

Ronon gave John one look, banged the tray down onto the lab table they'd had brought in, then scooped up a sandwich and all but shoved it into his hands.

John smiled wanly by way of thanks, looking at it. It was turkey, normally his favourite, but the idea of eating anything was making him feel kind of like puking his guts out.

"You better eat it," Ronon said over his shoulder as he handed another sandwich much more nicely to Teyla. "Jennifer told me to take you to the Infirmary if you didn't."

John glared at him. "You—" he froze. "It's okay," he said instead. "I'll eat it. You can do whatever you were going to."

Ronon blinked and turned away from him. John let out a slow, silent breath. He'd been about to say, You're not going to do that, and use his Gift on Ronon. It was very hard not to just give in and do it. It felt so much better when he did.

He took a large bite of the sandwich, far more to distract himself than because he really wanted it. He almost gagged, but managed to force the first bite down. After that it got easier.

Ronon brought a sandwich to Lorne, and for a moment Lorne looked like he was going to take it, but then he shook his head. "No thanks," he said ruefully, wiping more sweat out of his eyes. "It'll set my Gift off, and I'll just end up puking it all over the floor."

"Sorry," Ronon grunted. He put the sandwhich back on the table.

John leaned against the wall as he finished his sandwich, mostly trying not to watch Ronon and Radek. Ronon didn't try to feed Radek anything, probably guessing that Radek couldn't concentrate enough to eat it. Radek was barely paying attention to Ronon as it was. John wasn't even sure what he was doing, but Radek was sitting cross-legged on the floor, some arcane piece of the Jumper engine in his lap, soldering circuits to crystal housings. His eyes were closed, as if he were blind and working by touch, but John remembered that Rodney said Radek could see where circuits went with his mind.

Ronon sat down facing Radek, popping the tab of a can of Ensure then dropping in a small straw. "Hey, Radek," he said gently. "It's Ronon. Open your eyes, buddy."

Radek's eyes slid open, surprising John. He smiled warmly at Ronon, though his expression was frighteningly blank. He said something in Czech that sounded like a question or an invitation, as if he couldn't find the English words in his brain anymore.

"That's right," Ronon said, still smiling. John had no idea if Ronon knew what Radek had just said, or was just trying to keep Radek mentally present with his voice. "You got to eat, though. Here." He carefully pushed the straw in between Radek's lips. "It's vanilla, your favourite."

John thought about charming Radek into drinking, but Radek started doing it automatically, or maybe it was because of Ronon. Either way, he at least finished the whole thing and then drank obediently when Ronon did the same thing with one of the water bottles. John saw how Ronon held the bottle with astonishing tenderness for such a large, gruff man, and he felt an unwelcome sting of envy. Not for either Radek or Ronon, but because Ronon could touch Radek; because he'd just increased Radek's lifespan by being able to slip a straw into his mouth.

"That's good," Ronon said when the last bit of water from the bottle was gone. He carelessly dropped the bottle onto the floor next to him. Then John watched in some surprise as Ronon cupped Radek's face in his large hands and kissed him. John had known, well, suspected anyway, that Ronon, Radek and Elizabeth had a kind of...thing going on between them, but he'd never figured that Ronon would be so easy with it that he'd plant one on Radek in the middle of the Jumper Bay, four other people looking on. John realized he envied that, too.

Radek kissed Ronon back, though he never touched Ronon with anything but his lips. And when Ronon pulled away from him, Radek's eyes had closed, his face slack as if his mind was absent.

"Radek!" Ronon boomed, making everyone else jump. Rodney's arm flailed against the Jumper, shooting sparks. Radek's eyes shot open. "Pay attention!" Ronon growled. "You're the one who's going to save us, but you have to pay attention to what you're doing!" His voice softened, expression losing some of its ferocity. "You have to pay attention, Radek. We need you here."

Radek murmured in Czech. John wasn't even sure Radek was reacting to what Ronon had said. His eyes closed again.

"Radek!" Ronon yelled. But this time Radek didn't respond at all.

"You, ah, will probably have to charm him again," Rodney said quietly to John. "Sorry," he added guiltily, as if this were somehow his fault.

John tried to smile at him, let him know it was all right, but it froze on his lips and faded. Rodney looked terrible: pale and weirdly fragile, despite the solidity of his body and the strength of his shield. Like he was dying.

Rodney looked down at his tablet as if he'd been chastised. John gritted his teeth.

"Radek!" he commanded, a little too loudly and angrily. Radek's attention snapped to him, the empty blue eyes shooting open, something like a presence behind them again. "You're working on the Alternate Reality Drive, Radek. Nothing except the Alternate Reality Drive. You don't want to work on anything else, because you know we're depending on you. You're going to build it and save us all, aren't you, Radek? I know you can do it. You're the only one who can, so you're not going to get distracted." John could practically feel the thrum of his Gift, pulsing like a living thing beneath the words. It would be so easy not to stop, to make Radek do anything—

John shut himself up and turned away, blood hammering in his temples. The need to use his Gift was becoming so fucking bad he had no idea how long he could keep this up, charming people but not too much, before he just lost it and made everyone sing or do somersaults or run off balconies, just to ease the awful craving in his head.

At least it seemed to work. Radek didn't answer this time, but he smiled and went back to whatever he'd been doing with whatever it was sitting on his thighs. He was looking at it at least, which John decided was a good sign, though it still seemed like Radek was only partially aware of where he was. Radek started humming a meandering, eerie tune to himself while he worked. It made John's skin crawl.

"Radek?" Ronon said one more time. He touched Radek's face gently with his fingertips, his dark brown eyes large and childlike with anguish.

Radek reached out blindly and absently patted Ronon's chest. He spoke softly in Czech, sounding fondly dismissive.

Ronon gently kissed Radek's forehead, then made a sound raw with pain and pushed himself away and to his feet. He turned eyes dark as coals with anger on John. "You'd better fix him, when this is over," he said. The 'or else' was unsaid, but the threat of it was just as apparent.

"Hey! John didn't do this!" Rodney protested. He sounded almost normal, so indignant on John's behalf that John nearly smiled. "It's the sickness! John hasn't done anything!"

Ronon sent Rodney such a glare that Rodney actually shrank back a little, even though Ronon couldn't possibly hurt him.

"Rodney is right," Teyla said tartly. "John is not responsible for Radek's distraction, and if he is responsible for the illness, then we too are to blame. You will achieve nothing with this, Ronon," she spat. "Either help us to complete this engine, or leave, but do not cast spears where there are no enemies!"

The glare Ronon gave Teyla was just as fierce as the one he'd thrown at Rodney. She matched it imperiously, until Ronon finally dropped his eyes and nodded.

"We all are frightened for those we love," Teyla said gently. "Help us, so we may save them." It sounded like a supplication; she even held out her hand.

Ronon didn't take it or anything, but he nodded again.

"Great," Lorne said on a puff of air. "We could use the help." He leaned back against the Jumper and bent his neck to dry his face against the shoulder of his tee-shirt, though the cloth was wet through. He kept glancing at the food and water Ronon had brought then turning quickly away, like he wanted to have some but didn't dare. "Is it hot in here, or is it just me?"

Not just you. Ache? John wrote on his whiteboard, holding it up for Lorne to see. He'd been feeling overly warm for at least a couple hours now, though he wasn't sweating nearly as much as Lorne was. But his body had started hurting as well, a difuse, pervasive ache.

Lorne glanced at the board then smiled grimly. "Yeah," he said. He rubbed his neck, grimacing. "I haven't felt this lousy since I caught some kind of flu off-world when I was still at the SGC. I thought I was going to die."

"You are going to die," Rodney said flatly. His eyes, bloodshot from exhaustion and underlined with grey, were still glued to his tablet.

"Nice," Lorne muttered. He sighed, cast a short, longing look at the food and water again, rubbing an eye with the heel of his hand. "If I could just use my Gift—"

"No!" Teyla exclaimed immediately. "No, you must not, Evan," she said when he looked at her. "You just said yourself, it will only make you more ill."

Evan blinked at her. "I feel pretty damn sick now."

"I know," Teyla said sympathetically. She put the circuit board she was working on aside so she could go and crouch next to him. She put her hand on his arm. "I can only imagine how you must feel, but if you begin to use your Gift you may not be able to stop, and it would kill you."

Evan rolled his head to the side to look past Teyla to John. "Sheppard's okay."

Rodney snorted. "First of all, as if. Secondly, continual use of a Gift would mitigate the symptoms, wouldn't it? Even while you're killing yourself by burning up all your blood glucose. Like the tuneless wonder over there." He pointed at Radek. "He'll likely outlive all of us, as long as Ronon keeps pouring Ensure down his throat. I mean, he'll probably end up permenantly brain damaged, but—"

"That's not going to happen," Ronon said, as if insisting it ferociously enough would make it true.

Rodney looked like he was going to snarl something back, but then just took a breath and rubbed his forehead again, making gold static. "Sure," he said, like he didn't have the energy to even pretend to believe it. He took a deep breath, turning his attention back to his tablet. "Well, maybe you won't have to order the drool bibs yet."

"What is it, Rodney?" Teyla asked.

He ignored her, eyes glued to the readout of his tablet. "Hm," Rodney grunted absently. "Okay, Ronon," he said. "Much as I hate to overwhelm anyone with the force of my optimism, if you and John can keep Radek focused, we might actually finish this thing."

John's attention snapped to Rodney. Really? was on the tip of his tongue, but he bit it back before he said it. God only knew how anyone would react to it. For the first time since he'd heard the explosion yesterday morning, the twist in his guts came from hope, not fear.

"Wait, you mean Zelenka's building the thing all by himself?" Lorne asked, using the words John couldn't.

"No, not by himself!" Rodney shot back. John could practically see him bristling; Lorne's innocent question had hit Rodney where it really hurt. "The schematics came from me, remember? He's just putting it together because I can't touch anything!"

"Hey, cool your jets, Doc," Lorne said tiredly. "It was just a question."

"We know you are contributing as much as you are able, Rodney," Teyla said soothingly, ever the diplomat. She was still crouched near Lorne, like she thought she'd have to physically prevent him from licking something. Which was kind of funny, and also disgusting.

"Right. Well, it's nice to be appreciated," Rodney said, sounding a little contrite. "I mean, since I'm going to be dead soon."

"None of us are out of the woods, McKay," Lorne snapped. He sagged back against the side of the jumper, putting his hand to his forehead. "Jesus," he murmured.

"Evan?" Teyla moved nearer to him. "Are you all right? Do—"

Lorne grabbed either side of Teyla's head, pulled her to him and kissed her full on the mouth.

"Hey!" Ronon shouted, rocketing to his feet.

John leapt up as well, ignoring the momentary hit of vertigo. "Major Lorne, let her go!"

Lorne shoved Teyla away from him. John saw the flash of gold as her butt hit the floor, Rodney shielding her. John glanced at Rodney, but his shield was crackling where his hand was resting on the Jumper. He shouldn't have been able to make two shields at once.

"I'm fine," Teyla said quickly, her arms out towards both John and Ronon as if ready to stop them from attacking. Her eyes looked a little wild. "He didn't hurt me."

"I'm sorry," Lorne said. He'd pressed himself back against the Jumper, looking even more freaked out than the rest of them. He licked his lips. "I'm sorry. The taste—I didn't—I just—" He closed his eyes, as if trying to hold back a wave of nausea or pain and suddenly he turned completely white, the way people do just before they pass out, so bloodless he could have been made of stone. He choked, gagged, then barely managed to turn his body away before he started heaving so hard John was half sure he'd lose his stomach along with its meager contents.

"Evan!" Teyla went to him again. She put one arm across Lorne's chest, trying to support him, but it flared gold. "Rodney!" she called to him. "Drop your shield!" It blinked out. She looked desperately back at John. "He's bleeding!"

There was definitely blood coming out of Lorne's mouth, turning to drops of brown where it mixed with the green bile on the floor. For a second John was frozen with horror, convinced that he'd done that somehow, that Lorne was going to die because he'd used his Gift on him. Just like Babs and RT.

No. That wasn't your Gift. You didn't kill them.

The words sounded so much like Rodney that John's eyes snapped to him for a second, but Rodney hadn't spoken.

Lorne finally stopped heaving. He stayed on his knees, head down, blood and saliva dripping from his chin. His whole body was shaking. Then suddenly he sagged forward, unconscious, nearly pulling Teyla with him to the floor. She yanked backwards, struggling to keep them both upright.

"Help me!" she called.

"Ronon!" Rodney barked. "Get him to the Infirmary, now!"

Ronon was already moving. He stepped uncaringly into the mess of blood and bile on the floor, then grabbed Lorne and hauled him up over his shoulders. He trotted out of the bay without a word, Lorne's arms dangling.

The only sound after Ronon's footsteps had faded was Radek's creepy humming.

"Well, kissing Teyla was obviously a stupid idea," Rodney said finally. He sounded kind of numb, probably because he was thinking of himself, gagging from hypoglycemia, stomach heaving with nothing coming up but bile and blood.

"Is he dying?" Teyla asked them both.

"Yes," Rodney said, as John shook his head. "All of us Gifted are. Especially me." Rodney's smile was slight and crooked. "But the blood...He, uh..." He gestured at his throat. "Probably just popped a vessel. It happened to me once, when I ate too many strawberries."

John nodded when Teyla looked at him. He'd once puked so hard he'd burst blood vessels in his eyes. He was sure Lorne would look like he'd been hit a few times in the face when he woke up.

"Very well," Teyla said. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, obviously centering herself. John wished he knew how to do that. Right now he felt like a rat in a maze, nothing but electric shocks in every direction. He would love to call the Infirmary to see how Lorne was doing, but he couldn't even do something that simple. He hoped Ronon would report to let him know if his 2IC was okay.

I'm sorry, he thought, but didn't dare say it.

"Right, well. Back to work," Rodney said, probably going for brisk and only hitting resigned.

John stayed where he was for a minute, heart thundering, then walked shakily over to the table and grabbed a bottle of water. He drank it quickly, noting absently that his hands were trembling. He knew he'd need to eat something else soon, probably chew on some glucose tablets as well, especially if he was meant to keep charming Radek for God only knew how long.

Speaking of which, "Radek, get back to work on the engine," John said. Radek's eyes had closed again, his humming very loud in the quiet. John was suddenly so dizzy he had to grab the table to keep from falling. He fumbled for some glucose tablets and then popped four of them into his hand, hesitated before adding another two. He chewed and swallowed as quickly as possible, grimacing before he washed the taste away. The idea of having to keep doing this was enough to fill him with more than a little despair. At least using his Gift so often helped him to feel more in control. Mostly. Better than Lorne, anyway. God only knew what pinged as toxic on Teyla's lips.

"John?" Rodney asked. He sounded confused and John swung around to look at him. "I don't remember what I'm doing." He was still holding his tablet, hanging from one gold-static hand, but when he tried to lift it the computer it abruptly slid out of his fingers. It hit his foot, sending off more sparks, and then bounced to the floor, miraculously unbroken.

"Rodney?" John couldn't keep the name behind his teeth, but Rodney either hadn't heard him or couldn't react. He staggered, putting one hand uselessly to his head. He tried to catch himself against the Jumper, but his hands just slid right off and he sat heavily on the floor, gold streaking out like lightning with the impact.

"Oh," Rodney said faintly. He looked dazed, like he wasn't entirely sure how that had happened.

Oh, no, John thought, terror like a hot wire in his lungs, through his heart. No, no, no, no, no. Please.

Teyla was looking between him and Rodney, the same terror in her eyes. "John, you must do something!"

John gritted his teeth, looking between her and Rodney. He could see the sweat rolling down the sides of Rodney's face, a sure sign of impending hypoglycemic shock. Next would come unconsciousness, like Lorne. And then seizure; then coma; then death.

John was still standing next to the lab table. It took no time at all to grab two blister packets of glucose pills and snap all of them into one hand, then snatch up a water bottle with the other. "Rodney," he said as soon as he turned around, walking towards him. "Rodney, listen to me."

Rodney's face was white and bewildered, but of course he obediently turned towards John.

John swallowed, both grateful for and loathing how easily he could still capture Rodney's attention. He concentrated, pulling up as much of his Gift as he could, felt it rising.

"Listen to me, Rodney," he said. He knelt on the floor in front of him, like Ronon had sat in front of Radek. "Drop your shield."

Rodney did.

John heard Teyla's gasp of surprise behind him as he shoved the water and tablets against Rodney's chest. Rodney grabbed them automatically, staring dully at him.

The second his hands closed around the water and glucose, Rodney's shield flared back to life.

John ended up on the floor, trying to suck in enough breath to scream. His right hand was in agony, surging like lava up his arm. He could feel the bones moving under his fingers when he held it against his chest, snapped like kindling.

"John?" Rodney blinked stupidly, as if he couldn't understand what had happened. "Are you all right?"

John glanced over at Rodney, registering through the pain that he'd expanded his shield into a dome, which meant he could at least touch his mouth with his hands. He'd be able to eat the glucose tablets.

"I'm fine," he gritted, knowing that he sounded anything except okay, but that everyone would believe him anyway. He levered himself upright, every movement making it feel like sharp currents were arcing through his nerves, but it wasn't so bad, now that the initial shock of the break had passed. He tried to bend his fingers but there wasn't enough strength in his hand.

"Oh, good," Rodney said, accepting John's answer completely. He still had the water bottle and handful of glucose tablets, held so tightly in his fist that John was a little concerned he would crush them. He looked at them vaguely, still barely tracking. "Did you give me these?"

"Eat the pills, Rodney. Then drink the water," John said. He watched a little blearily as Rodney obeyed him, grimacing over the pills then gulping the whole bottle down.

"Great," John mumbled. "That's great. You did a good job." Relief was washing through him, and he felt scoured out, lightheaded and hollow. He was dazed with exhaustion and pain. The back of his shirt was soaking, sticking to his skin, and he realized he was shivering.

He tried to climb to his feet, but it was like there was no strength left in his body, all of it sucked away by the flood of adrenaline. He couldn't even get to his knees.

"Teyla," he said quietly, pausing as she turned to him. "Could you help me get to the Infirmary, please?"

Of course she did.

"So, they are truly dying," Teyla said.

It was a statement, not a question, and Jennifer felt herself nodding in response. "Yes," she said, and it was amazing how hard that one word was to say. "Everything we're doing, everything we've tried, nothing works. Nothing's been working at all."

"I've never seen anything like it," Marie Yau, Jennifer's newly-appointed 2IC added. "It doesn't respond to any antibiotic, antiviral or antifungal medicines we've used, and even controlling for symptoms is a temporary measure at best." She inhaled sharply, and Jennifer was surprised to notice that Marie's eyes were wet. "I've never felt so helpless in my life."

"I think we're all feeling that way," Kate Heightmeyer said, turning an empathetic gaze towards Marie. Marie nodded, and quickly blotted her eyes with a tissue she produced from a scrub pocket. "It's very natural to feel overwhelmed when we're faced with something so clearly devastating."

Thank God she's here, Jennifer thought. Kate always seemed to know the exact right things to say to help make someone feel better and more in control. It was a skill that Jennifer felt she was sorely lacking, especially now, when everyone was under so much stress.

"But, beyond our colleagues already lost, no one else has died," Teyla said with her resolute calm. "Since we know from Rodney's investigations that the disease normally kills extremely fast, we may assume that at least some of our interventions are actually working." She turned to Jennifer. "I have seen the effects of hypoglycaemia on Evan and Rodney today," she said, meaning the incidencts that had brought Major Lorne to the Infirmary for IV fluids and Colonel Sheppard in in bad need of glucose and cast for his broken hand. "John was able to help Rodney temporarily, but I'm afraid it will not last." She looked at Jennifer, "Is there anything that can be done to help him?"

Jennifer shook her head, feeling an almost paralyzing sense of defeat. "Colonel Sheppard's Gift is the only way we have of getting food and water into Rodney. And if that stops working before we figure out something else, he'll die." She laughed, but felt no mirth in it. "So far, we haven't been helping him very much."

"I see," Teyla said after a moment, a small frown creasing the skin between her eyes. She shook her head minutely as if to dispel thoughts of Rodney dying. "What of the others?"

"Well, we all know about Lorne and Sheppard," Marie said ruefully, "but at least their short-term prognoses are good. Peter and Happy are currently sedated to keep their Gifts from going off spontaneously." Marie indicated their red-coloured files. "Happy's already injured herself through uncontrolled teleporting, and Peter's Gift takes such a toll on him normally that if he were conscious, it would probably take only minutes for fatal hypoglycemia to occur if his Gift activated." She turned to Jennifer again.

"The sedation isn't really working, though." Jennifer said. "They're far too restless for people who should be deeply asleep, and we can't sedate them any more without possibly causing serious complications. Worse, their body temperatures are steadily increasing with fever. We're controlling for their pain and fever, but..." She realized she was wringing her hands together, and eased them apart, resting them on the desk instead. "It's like the disease has made them drunk," she said, and then waved her hand as if to erase it. "That's wrong. It's not like they're drunk, more like the disease is behaving like alcohol. Consuming alcohol makes you fall asleep faster, but your sleep is not as deep and you're easier to rouse. They're in a more awake state than they should be, which means they're Gifts could actually go off at any minute, despite their being kept unconscious." Jennifer found that she'd begun to wring her hands again, but couldn't seem to stop herself. "They're already on IV glucose, but we don't know how long it will continue to help. They could die at any time."

"What about the Stasis chamber?" Teyla asked.

"It's being used by Sparky," Marie answered. "His lights don't turn off, even when he sleeps, so sedation won't work for him." She sighed. "His brainwave activity has been increasing as well, but at least it will take months before he's at risk. By then, hopefully we'll have found a cure."

Jennifer scraped her teeth along her bottom lip. By then, Sparky might be the only Gifted survivor in Atlantis.

"As you all know, there are also several Gifted people in quarantine who are coping well as can be expected under current circumstances," Kate said. She turned to a small notepad that she had carried to the meeting. "For example, Miko has decided to finish knitting a sweater that she started for Rodney a-year-and-a-half-ago as a way of both satisfying the cravings to use her Gift and also simply occupy her time. However, there are others who will need more support." She began to tick off her fingers. "Blair Kaufman is handling the need to wear a blindfold so far, but Jamie Markham is definitely not. In fact, he contacted me before nightfall to tell me that he 'had' to remove it. I managed to convince him to wait until after sunset so at least his room would be too dark to see anything, but all the same the danger to himself and others is immense. We need to do something."

Jennifer started tearing at the nail on her thumb. "Did he say if he was feeling feverish?"

Kate shook her head. "No, but he definitely sounded sick."

Jennifer nodded slowly, thinking. "We could bring him here and sedate him..."

"I was thinking, since he's here anyway, that we could ask John to charm Jamie into believing he was blind," Kate said. At Marie's horrified expression she continued quickly, "I know how it sounds, but if he believes he can't see, he won't be able to use his Gift, and it prevents the risk of him removing a blindfold again. John could say something to make sure that the effect was only temporary, maybe along the lines of Jamie being able to see once he's been cured. I think it would really help. At least in the short term." No one needed to say that if they couldn't find a cure it wouldn't matter anyway.

Teyla nodded. "You mentioned that others also need help?"

"Yes," Kate said. She ticked off another finger. "Anders is in crisis from accidentally causing the death of one of the nurses. We need to ensure that someone checks on him regularly so that he can't slide further into depression and harm himself."

"If he's in that much danger, should we move him to the Infirmary?" Marie asked.

"That'd be like a kid in a candy store!" Jennifer exclaimed. "He's a Healer, I think the temptation to use his Gift would be too much."

"Exactly," Kate said. "He should be away from people physically, but have frequent radio contact. And it wouldn't be a bad idea for it to be members of his team."

"Aiden is the only one in no danger," Teyla said quietly.

Kate smiled, but it was sad. "Perhaps Blair can check in with Anders as well. It might help them both."

"I will discuss this with Aiden," Teyla said. She gestured gracefully at Kate. "Please continue."

Kate flipped through the notepad on her lap. "Garret and Albert are checking in regularly, and they seem to be coping well so far. Our two Gifted botanists are also doing all right, though David said he was getting 'twitchy', according to the Athosian who checked on him, and he said he felt hot." She turned a page, then put the pad in her lap and drew in a breath. "Martine went to Chuck's room this afternoon and attacked him in an attempt to use her Gift."

Marie gasped. "Martine? No! She's your assistant!"

"I'm afraid so," Kate said sadly. "It seems this disease can even make the most stable of our colleagues behave in very unpredictable ways. Take Thomas, for example—"

And then, to Jennifer's horror, Kate's face crumpled and she started to cry.

Teyla snagged the box of tissues off of Jennifer's desk and moved her chair closer to Kate's, gently placing a wad of tissues into Kate's palm. "I cannot imagine how difficult the events of this morning must have been for you," she said. "You and Sergeant Bates love each other very much."

"I'm sorry," Kate said as she wiped her eyes. "I'm really sorry. I don't usually do this." Her smile was watery. "It's just, he's come so far, you know? This is such a huge setback."

"I do not believe that Thomas has had a 'set back,' Kate. Teyla said kindly. "He is sick, and not in his right mind."

"He'll go right back to the way he was, once he's cured," Jennifer jumped in quickly, grateful that Teyla had given her an idea of what to say. "It's not him that's having problems, it's the disease making it seem that way."

Kate shook her head. "He pulled a gun on me!" she said, tears starting again. "I know that he didn't mean it, that he couldn't have meant it, but he tried to kill me!" Kate covered her eyes with the remains of the tissue. "I'm sorry," she said again. "God, my job is to deal with things like this! I'm such a mess!"

"It's okay," Jennifer said, feeling terribly unequal to this but wanting to help her friend. "If you can't cry with us, who can you cry with?" She turned to catch Marie's eye. "Heck, I must have broken down here myself, what? Like a hundred times?"

Marie nodded. "It's true. Jennifer cries in here all the time."

Kate laughed, but she was still daubing her eyes.

"It is much as when John was affected by the Iratus bug virus," Teyla said. "He, too, ended up threatening you, as well as injuring Elizabeth and Albert. It was a very difficult time."

"I remember," Kate said, nodding as well. "It was awful."

"But you did not blame him," Teyla said.

"No, of course not," Kate said, shaking her head. "That wasn't really Sheppard. And I know this isn't Thomas." She breathed in shakily. "I know this isn't really him."

It is a good reminder for all of us," Teyla said. "There are many Gifted people in Atlantis, and all of their Gifts are beyond their control right now. We must be patient, and above all, forgiving."

The three other women murmured their agreement.

"I think it is time to return to the others," Teyla said. She looked at each of them in turn. "If there is nothing else to add, I suggest we meet again? Perhaps in four hours?"

"I'll be here." Marie smirked mirthlessly. "It's not like I could go anywhere else."

Teyla stood. "I need to continue helping Rodney," she said. She smiled at them all. "I will see you in four hours. Hopefully we will all have better news." She and Kate left together.

Jennifer let out a puff of air. "Right," she said, looking at Marie. "Time for us to get back to work. Let's go see if that damn disease has decided to tell us anything more useful, shall we?"

Marie smiled sympathetically. "While you're banging your head against a wall, I'll do rounds on our patients."

Jennifer sat back, surveying the desk before her, with its piles of papers and journal articles strewn everywhere. This mysterious illness had overtaken her life within moments of its arrival, and it certainly looked like it would get worse before it got better. She stood, intending to head to the lab at the back of the Infirmary, but stopped. "Please, let me find something useful," she whispered to the quiet chaos of the room. She wasn't sure which deity might hear her so far out in the Pegasus galaxy, but she hoped it might be merciful.

John crept silently into the room.

Jamie Markham's living quarters were pitch-black, the blinds drawn tightly against Atlantis' moon outside. He paused, waiting, but couldn't hear anything, not even the sound of breathing.

His mind flashed to the description of the death of Captain Vega, how she was found in her shower, body still sparking from the overload of electricity her own Gift had caused, and he clenched his fists. The last thing he wanted to do was to trip over a body.

"Don't be frightened, Jamie," he said into the darkness, wincing at how loud his voice sounded. He hoped the Sergeant wouldn't react by turning on the lights and teleporting someting big and heavy into him. John could practically feel the charm in his voice, coating and dripping off every word without his conscious thought. "It's me, John Sheppard. Are you there?"

"I'm here, sir," Jamie answered from somewhere in the dark of the room. "I'm not frightened. But—but please, don't come any closer. Or turn on the lights! I don't want to hurt you."

He sounded terrible, his voice thin and reedy with illness and exhaustion. The Sergeant was a steady pilot and good on the ground, and was excellent at taking orders, but clearly he'd reached his limit.

"Dr. Heightmeyer sent me," John said, picking his words carefully to try to avoid any suggestion of command. "She said things had gotten a little rough for you, and you'd taken your blindfold off." His charm was oozing in between his words, and he gritted his teeth. "How are you doing now?"

"It hurts, sir," Jamie said, automatically responding to the question. "I'm real hot and everything hurts. And, and I couldn't be blind any more. I thought it would be better to just sit in the dark. But I haven't turned my light on!" he said loudly. "I swear!"

"I believe you," John said. "You don't need to worry. I know you won't turn your light on."

"No, sir, I won't," Jamie responded quickly. "The lights will stay off, sir!"

John tried to rub his temples and only manged to conk himself in the head with his cast. He grimaced, feeling his headache flare as he fought to control his Gift. He wanted so badly to order Jamie to turn cartwheels or sing an aria, or fly—anything to help silence the snarling animal in his head. It felt so good, made everything stop hurting for a little while. "That's good, Jamie. You're doing a good job."

"Thank you, sir," Jamie said, words smart with military precision. John heard him take a quivering breath, but it was still too dark to see him. "It hurts, sir. My head—my skin. It hurts so much!. I'm fighting it, sir. I promise I won't use my Gift. But—but it's really hard."

"I'm going to help you with that, Jamie," John said, hating how much he was looking forward to this. "I'm going to make it very easy for you to not use your Gift. But you need to listen. You have to listen to me, Jamie."

"Yes, sir!" Jamie said.

"Okay then," John said. He closed his eyes, even though the room was still too dark to see. "You're blind, Jamie." He said, and Jamie's sharp intake of breath was like a knife of guilt right in John's stomach. "You won't be able to see anything at all until you're cured." The stabbing guilt was making him feel almost nauseous. He swallowed. "You understand?"

"Yes, sir," Jamie said, and the fear in his voice made John's fist clench tighter until his unbroken hand ached. "I'm blind."

"I'm going to turn the lights on now," John said. "Remeber, you can't see. You can't teleport anything because you can't see." He thought the lights on, blinking against the sudden glare.

Jamie was sitting on a corner of his bed, hands pressed against the edges of the mattress, staring straight ahead. He obviously had no idea that the lights had turned on.

"You won't be able to see until you're cured," John said. Jamie's blank nod made John cringe. "Um. Do you need anything?"

Jamie turned his head towards John, his sightless gaze coming to rest somewhere beyond John's left side. "Would you mind asking Sergeant Stackhouse if he could come and keep me company?" Jamie asked softly. He sounded so young and so frightened that John winced again.

"Yeah, okay," John said. He was suddenly desperate to leave. He turned towards the door. "I'm going now." It wasn't meant to be an order, but Jamie would have to take it that way, John realized. But how could he not speak to someone who couldn't see?

"Yes, sir," Jamie replied. His mouth moved into a brave attempt at a smile. "Thank you for helping me, sir."

"No problem," John said roughly, guilt knifing a hole through his gut. He fled.

Jaegerkorps Sergeant Anders Johansen lay on his bed, staring into the dark.

It had been nearly eighteen hours since he had killed someone.

He was only twenty-six years old, but he had been Gifted since he'd turned thirteen. The day he'd discovered he was a Healer had been one of the best days of his life. He'd chosen to study paramedicine in the military and dedicated his life to the health of his teammates, the world and then the Universe beyond it. Anders knew his Gift was weak, that it took a long time for him to heal an illness or injury, but he had accepted that years ago. Sometimes he hadn't liked his Gift much, but he had always been been grateful for it regardless.

Until yesterday morning, when his Gift had turned into an instrument of death. He would never be able to forgive himself for what he had done.

Anders took in a shuddering breath, feeling the now-familiar stab of tears forming in his throat. He had been crying on and off for hours.

He wiped the tears from his face, feeling his fingers against his skin. The contact sent a tremor through him and he ground his teeth together then shoved his fisted hands beneath his pillow and rolled onto his side. Twice already he had found himself half-way to his door, a vague idea forming in his mind of heading to the Infirmary, of laying his hands on the sick and injured and using his Gift on them. He knew that anyone he touched would die, but that hadn't mattered; he could feel the need steadily growing, like an animal, snarling to be fed.

But anyone he touched would die, and that alone was what prevented him from making the short journey to the Infirmary. Anders no longer cared whether he lived or died, but he refused to take anyone else with him.

He snorted mirthlessly. How unfortunate that he couldn't heal himself.

The radio on his night stand cracked. "Anders? You there?"

Anders looked at his radio and sighed. He reached out and snagged it with his hand, and inserted it into his ear in one slow movement. "Yes Blair," he said dully. "I'm here."

"Oh, hey, cool," Blair said. "I didn't think you'd answer." He paused and there was a soft purr of static. "How're you doing?"

"Fine," Anders replied automatically.

"Good. That's good," Blair said. There was another space of static. "So, what've you been up to?"

Anders felt a flash of irritation. Normally he had much more patience for the irrelevancies of his team's 2IC, but Anders felt anything but normal. The grudging respect that Anders had first held for the other man had evolved into an appreciation and finally actual friendship over the three years they'd been working together on Team Ford, but they had never been close. Anders heard the sharpness in his own voice when he replied. "What do you want?"

"Nothing," Blair said. "I was just, you know, wondering how you were. That's all."

"I'm fine," Anders repeated. "In fact, I was sleeping." His conscience twinged with the lie, but he ignored it. "So, if you don't mind—"

"Wait!" Blair said, and there was a sound like panic in his voice. "Don't go, all right? I—I just wanted to talk with you, okay?"

Anders closed his eyes in frustration. "What do you want?" he said again.

"I want to tear this fucking gauze off my eyes and blow up every piece of shit in my room," Blair said with shocking suddenness. "I'm jonesing so bad, it feels like my skin is peeling off, and I'm scared that I'll do it. I'm scared I'm going to do it, Andy!" Blair repeated, and there was no mistaking the ring of panic. "I'm like, two seconds away from doing it and I know it'll kill me and I don't want to die!"

Anders sat up, feeling the weight of adrenalin thudding through his chest. He pressed one hand to his radio, the other still fisted against the desire to go to Blair's room and heal him. He swallowed thickly, closing his eyes and holding himself rigid until the craving had dropped to something he could more-or-less control. "Blair," Anders said, panting over the drumming of his heart. "You mustn't remove the blindfold, Blair. Don't do it. Just leave it alone and you'll be fine. You have Tylenol in your room, yes? It will help. You should use it." It hadn't helped Anders very much, but he wasn't going to say that.

"I can't see!" Blair snarled over the radio. "I can't find the fucking Tylenol!" He stopped, breath short and hard. "It's like my brain and my Gift are totally unconnected. I feel...My Gift is controlling me, not the other way around." Anders heard Blair take in a long breath. "And it hurts so fucking bad. My head, my back—my whole fucking body feels like it's burning up. This—this is worse than anything...I don't know how long I can hold it back."

"Colonel Sheppard charmed Jamie into thinking he was blind," Anders said, remembering the conversation he'd had with Aiden a few minutes ago. "He can't use his Gift at all now, even if he wants to." He stopped talking to gulp more air. His hands opened in sudden spasm, as if he were touching a wound. It felt like his entire body were pulsing with need and pain.

"No!" Blair shouted."Don't get me wrong," he continued more quietly, the words coming out in a rush. "I like Jamie and everything, but I don't—I don't want to do that." Static crackled with Blair's laboured breathing. "I can handle this without Sheppard," he said finally, but Anders could hear the uncertainty in his voice. "I can handle this, right?"

"Yes, absolutely," Anders said, trying to put as much conviction into his tone as possible. "You are very strong, Blair. Strong enough to handle this. You will not tear off the gauze."

Blair's voice was quiet. "I've been thinking about Sparky," he said suddenly. "He's in that stasis thing, you know?"

"Yes, I know," Anders said. "I'm worried about him too."

"Do you think he's in pain?"

"No," Anders lied immediately. He had no idea if people in stasis could feel pain. "I'm sure he's not."

"I'm glad you're okay," Blair said, and Anders could hear the thickness of tears in Blair's throat. "It's kinda tough, being here, blind, you know? And thinking about Sparky..." Anders could hear Blair's breath shuddering even over the radio. "It's better knowing you're okay."

"I'm fine, Blair," Anders lied again, wondering when he had gotten so good at it. "You don't need to be concerned for me."

"Yeah, okay," Blair said. "I think I'm gonna try to sleep now." There was another soft sound of static. "I'll call you later, alright?"

"Yes," Anders replied. "I'll be here." He heard Blair's radio click off. He gently removed his own from his ear and laid down. ''

He had promised Blair he'd be there the next time he called, and Anders never broke his promises.

His hands spasmed again as his Gift snarled. "Shut up!" he hissed in the dark. Now he would have to live at least for a few more hours. No chance to heal himself from the terrible thing he had done.

John couldn't write anymore, since he'd broken his dominant hand, and he couldn't weld or solder or even hold anything to Rodney's exacting requirements without both his hands operational. John had been tempted to charm Johansen into healing him without giving him extra fingers or something, but then he'd remembered how short a time it was that Rodney's shield had actually stayed down, and he thought about the nurse Johansen had accidentally killed, and he had decided he didn't want to risk it.

But that meant the sum total of his usefulness had been reduced to riding herd on Dr. Radek Zelenka like some nanny from hell: making sure he ate and drank, keeping him focused on the ARD. And John was punchy enough by now that 'ARD' was sounding like a pretty cool TLA, or maybe a nickname. Ardy. Though that sounded too much like Artie, RT, and that was someone John really, really didn't want to think about.

"Radek, you only want to work on the Alternate Reality Drive engine. Radek, I know you're doing a great job working on the engine. Radek, you're focused entirely on the engine. Radek, you're not interested in anything else. You're doing an excellent job building the ARD." John was lying on his back on the floor of the Jumper bay. He'd been muttering about how much Radek wanted to keep focused on the ARD for hours. The disease had heightened Radek's Gift so much that he could only keep his attention on the ARD for seconds at a time.

Luckily, John's Gift had gotten more powerful too. Otherwise John was fairly certain he would have died from hypoglycemic shock by now. As it was he'd been scarfing glucose tablets like popcorn and he still felt as weak and shaky as an underfed kitten. He couldn't keep his eyes open, and figured he might be more than half-asleep. Sleep-talking.

He was still talking when Ronon kicked him hard in the ribs from where he was sitting.

John bolted upright, brutally alert even though the sudden movement made his head swim. He looked at Ronon, almost said what? out loud before he swallowed it back.

"We're done," Rodney said flatly. He looked mostly like John felt—wrung out and still too pale, rough-looking stubble along his cheeks and throat.

John blinked at him, completely unable to understand what the hell Rodney was talking about. Done in, was his first thought. Done like dinner. That was really bad.

"Done with the drive!" Rodney snapped, probably seeing the evolving horror on John's face. "The engine! The engine is finished! You understand?"

John nodded automatically, still blinking. He stared at the Jumper. There was a big, cylindrical thing on the floor in front of it, looking like the bastard child of a windmill and a turbine. It was surrounded by the detritus of desperate invention, bits of tools and pieces of machinery John couldn't even begin to name. Radek was half-lying on the floor, his upper body in Ronon's arms like Radek couldn't figure out how to sit up anymore. His eyes were pale and empty as the sky.

Teyla was sitting cross-legged with her back leaning against the Jumper the way Lorne had been before he hacked up his stomach. He was still in the Infirmary. Teyla's eyes were closed, but she only looked tired, not relaxed. The line of her shoulders was like iron.

No one looked happy at all.

John picked up his whiteboard one-handed, balancing it across his thighs. He fumbled the pen into his left hand, then scribbled, W00T and a big question mark.

Rodney bent his head a little, reading upside down despite John's crappy off-hand printing. He smirked ruefully. "Actually, hotshot, I'd say the other team owns us, considering we don't even know if this stupid plan will even work, let alone if Glassy McAbsent managed to build something that will really jump realities, rather than, say, blowing us to bits."

John looked at him for a moment, then started writing again, painstakingly with his left hand. wut now?

Rodney sighed. "Now, Ronon takes Radek and you to the Infirmary. And if you argue with me, Colonel, I will murder you in your sleep, I swear to God. After you're capable of three-word sentences again, you're going to take that screwdriver I liberated from the alternate Daedalus, grab Chuck and Martine and go to wherever the hell Albert is, and talk them into making sure Chuck can tell us which reality, exactly, is the one this disease came from, so we can use our engine of mass destruction to find it again." He snorted mirthlessly. "No pressure,"

John just stared at him.

Rodney shrugged, hands spread. "And then, um, woot. Possibly."

John nodded. Possibly. Or possibly they'd all be dead in a few hours. Or days, maybe, depending. God, he was beginning to sound like Rodney.

John might have laughed, except Rodney would ask him why, and John couldn't tell him.

Albert didn't remember how he ended up here.

His last memory had been of crawling into his tiny bathroom, his head splitting with pain, wishing there was something—anything—in the whole city that would stop the noise of everyone else's thoughts in his brain.

His next memory after that was waking up on a cot in a tent on one of the alternative Alpha sites, with the strange realization that his wish had somehow, miraculously, come true.

Albert had felt almost giddy as he'd sprung off his cot and out of his tent. Except for the pile of supplies someone had left for him, and the tent itself, there was no other hint of people anywhere.

Not a single stray thought on the entire planet.

His mind was totally clear for the first time in four years.

Albert wasn't sure if he had laughed or cried then, but he had found himself sitting cross-legged on the ground, head in his hands, cheeks wet and shoulders shaking.

The joy had lasted all of three-and-a-half hours.

The craving started up slowly. At first he thought it was just the ache from the big goose-egg on the back of his head, but when it got worse, and more, and suddenly he was thinking about dialing back to Atlantis just to hear someone, anyone's thoughts, and he figured he had a problem.

He gave up on the crosswords first, then the magazines he was sure Teyla had packed for him. David Parrish must've borrowed someone else's MP3 player, since Albert knew David liked classical music a lot better than country or bluegrass. It had been real nice of him to get it, but Albert had to give up listening after only a few songs. The music and lyrics were grating.

He went for a run, but after about ten miles his headache was pounding with every step and he couldn't continue.

Sleeping didn't help, and by the time he thought of eating he was too nauseous to put the MREs into his mouth. He ended up back on the ground, staring at the Gate and biting his knuckles until they bled so he wouldn't actually try to go through it.

Sunset came, and then night and the change from day to dusk to inky blackness was a small comfort. The stars were huge and infinite, covering the sky like a blanket of diamonds. It reminded Albert of his home in Killeen, when he and his buddies had gone camping outside the city limits, in that one long summer before he turned seventeen and joined up and left Texas forever.

The memory held him for a while, but by the time midnight in Atlantis had come and gone, Albert was bundled up in his sleeping bag, shaking from fever, fists pressed to his temples, begging himself not to break.

When the Gate flashed in the early dawn and the five people suddenly appeared through the event horizon, Albert nearly sobbed with relief. Their thoughts felt like water to the fire in his head and body, and he stretched out his Gift, greedily gulping in the sensation of being reconnected.

"Tell me what I hafta do again?"

Conroy rubbed at one of his temples with his hand, his eyes nearly shut, his face a rictus of pain and confusion. He was sitting on the dew-damp ground in front of his tent, huddled in a sleeping bag like a child, like he had no idea where he was. He looked like death, sweat darkening his hair and running into his red-rimmed eyes. His knuckles looked like animals had been gnawing on them.

John, Fraser, Campbell, Teyla and the new guy, Kemper were waiting for Conroy to figure out what the hell they wanted. It was taking a long time.

John felt his teeth grind together as he looked at Teyla, flicking his head in Conroy's direction. She narrowed her eyes at him, but when she turned back to Conroy her face showed only kindness and understanding.

"We need your help, Albert. We are asking you to link Martine and Chuck together," she said evenly. "Exactly as you have done before." She moved closer to him, kneeling on the ground so their faces were level. She gently took his face between her hands. "This is all we need, Albert. I know you can do this."

Conroy shook his head, and Teyla let go. He moaned, wrapping an arm around his stomach, like he was going to be sick. He started rocking back and forth with his face screwed up in pain. "I can't I can't I can't I can't!" he chanted. "There's too many people. Too many people. I can't!"

Teyla looked back at John, her expression defeated. She lifted her eyebrows in a silent question. He nodded, pressing his lips together. This sucks, he thought, and opened his mouth.

"Albert Conroy, listen to me," John said, trying hard not to think about the last time he had Charmed Conroy when his Gift had been out of control. Then, he had been turning into some sort of hybrid Iratus bug, and had used his Gift to try to kill him. Now, he only wanted the kid to focus, so that their lives could be saved. But the similarity was too close for comfort. John fisted his hands, but but had to stop when his right hand flared in pain. He glanced down at the snot-yellow cast covering it, and thought of Rodney's shield rushing up, even after John had charmed him. His resolve hardened. "You've done this before, Conroy, lots of times. It's a walk in the park for you. Easy as pie. You can do this. You can."

"Yessir, yessir," Conroy repeated. His hand was still curved around one temple, but he was no longer clutching his stomach. He squinted, seeming to notice the others who were there with them, looking on expectantly.

"Who're you?" Conroy said, looking at the Marine standing beside Fraser.

"Corporal Josh Kemper," the young man said, sounding like he was giving roll-call rather than answering a simple question.

"Josh was with me when we found you in your room," Teyla explained, her voice low and soothing. Conroy swung his head back towards her, looking like it was almost too heavy to lift. "He is a friend."

"Didn't recognize his thoughts," Conroy muttered. He looked at Campbell. "Hey, Chuck,"

"Hi, Albert," Campbell replied. He was standing at an 'at-ease' position, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up over his head and his hands clasped behind his back, the bright yellow of the dishwashing gloves clearly visible against the brown cloth. He looked ridiculous and uncomfortable, but still in control. John nodded to himself. He could wait to charm Campbell until it was absolutely necessary.

Fraser, however, John thought, might be another story entirely.

She was standing deep inside Kemper's personal space, dishevelled and pale, her eyes wide and bloodshot like she hadn't slept in a week. She looked fragile and ill and delicate, and she was batting her eyes and dimpling at Kemper as if the Corporal was the best thing in uniform she'd ever seen. Kemper was doing his best to remain professional and pretend like he was immune to Fraser's charms, but even John could tell that the Marine was more interested than he should be, especially given that Fraser's yellow-dishwashing-glove-covered hands were shackled together at the wrists. John didn't need to be an Empath to know that Fraser was probably trying to use her own, normal charm to get Kemper to release her hands so that she would be able to use her Gift, and probably he'd be her first target. John was very aware how much this disease made you want to use your Gift, no matter what the consequences to yourself or others, but Kemper was being an idiot, the way he kept glancing at her and smiling. It was putting himself and Fraser at risk. John fingered the Zat gun in its holster on his thigh, eyeing Fraser. He'd wondered if he'd have to use it.

He closed his eyes briefly, steeling himself. He knew he was going to have to say something.

Teyla saved him from it by standing and deftly maneuvering herself in between Kemper and Fraser, holding Fraser's wrists. She ignored Fraser's loud protest and looked pointedly at John. "Are we ready to begin?"

John nodded. "Martine," he said, and she whipped around to face him, "you will easily focus on helping Chuck to find and identify exactly which alternate reality this disease comes from. Chuck," he said, and the Sergeant looked up expectantly. "You will easily focus on using Martine's Gift alongside your own to help you use the screwdriver to find exactly which reality this disease comes from. Albert," he said, and Conroy tilted his head up, blearily focusing in John's direction. "I know you're not going to have any trouble keeping your focus on linking Martine and Chuck for as long as they need to do this." He reached into his right tac vest pocket with his undamaged left hand, pulled out the innocuous yellow screwdriver and handed it to Campbell. "I know you'll do your best, Chuck," he said, looking the Sergeant straight in the eye.

"Yes, sir," Chuck said. He pulled off one glove, and took the screwdriver in his other hand, ready to move it into his uncovered one as soon as the link was established.

Teyla had already unlocked Fraser's cuffs, and was leading her over to Campbell. Campbell visibly stiffened, but he turned towards her, pulling up the sleeve of his hoodie so that bare skin was exposed above his uncovered hand. He cleared his throat. "Martine."

"Chuck," she said coolly.

"Are you ready, Albert?" Teyla asked.

"Yes, Teyla," Albert said. His voice was nearly inaudible.

"You all can do this, we're going to be just fine, here," John said, then winced as he realized he had accidentally charmed Teyla and Kemper as well.

"Y'all might want to close your eyes," Conroy said. Campbell transferred the screwdriver to his bare hand as Fraser placed her ungloved hand on his wrist.

John gritted his teeth. Here we go.

We need your help, Teyla said, and he tried to listen, but it was so hard. He could feel Colonel Sheppard getting angry with him, the man's thoughts as hard and dark as Albert had ever felt them, but Albert couldn't help it. His focus kept slipping from the background static of Teyla's voice to the bright waterfall of her thoughts. Chuck and Martine were also there, and he pushed into their minds, listening to whispers of unspoken conversation, ideas half-formed, emotions not completely realized.

He figured the Colonel probably charmed him, because all of a sudden he found himself focusing on linking Martine and Chuck together. But he didn't mind. He wanted to help.

He just hoped that Colonel Sheppard didn't know he couldn't do it.

Albert was trying, he really was, but it was too hard to link only Martine and Chuck. He kept pulling in the Colonel, and Teyla, and even the new Corporal, and then having to push their thoughts out again. Just to have it start over the next time his concentration slipped. And it was slipping all the time. He was helpless to stop it. It felt so good to be using his Gift, after so many hours of pain.

I'm not going to let go, he heard Martine think, and the Colonel's head snapped up, hearing it too.

I am so proud of him, Teyla was thinking, and Albert knew she meant him. I hope I can help him. I hope he will recover. She was like sunlight, warm and beautiful as the dawn, and she was so proud of him, and so worried, and she loved him...

She loved him. Albert gasped. Teyla loved him. As much as he loved her. He hadn't known.

I love you too, Teyla, he thought, but he couldn't tell if she understood.

I can do this, Chuck was thinking, concentration and uncertainty in every word. He was pushing himself, using Martine's Gift to help his own so he could pinpoint where the disease came from. He was sick and exhausted, and he didn't know if he could do what Shppard wanted or if it would kill him first.

Teyla heard Chuck too, and she carfully put some glucose tablets into his mouth.

Get on with it! That was the Colonel's voice in his head, impatient and angry. His mind was like snarls of wire, full of thoughts of Dr. McKay and the doctor's shield flashing bright gold, Dr. McKay unshaven and tired and hungry. Dr. McKay dying.

"I'm trying, sir," Chuck said through clenched teeth, glancing at the Colonel. Colonel Sheppard looked surprised, then nodded.

I hate this, Martine whispered in her mind. I have no control.

"You are doing very well, Martine," Teyla said, placing her hand gently on Martine's shoulders. Albert felt the Colonel's thoughts turn to the Zat gun on his thigh, and how he would use it if he had to.

She's cute! Kemper thought, clearly focused on Martine. Nice tits, sweet little ass. She's totally into me! We are so hooking up when this is all over. He was thinking of her naked, open and pliant in his arms, all the things he was sure she'd be willing to do—

Chuck dropped the screwdriver, stalked over to Kemper and hit him in the mouth, hard.

Kemper reared back, cluctching his jaw, but his next move took Chuck out at the knees, Kemper's body reacting more quickly and automatically than thought. Chuck landed hard on his back and Kemper leaped on him. Chuck's eyes widened as their link that bound them all let him read Kemper's thought, and he put his arm up to block the blow just as Kemper's fist came down at his head. Chuck swung and hit Kemper in the side of the face. Kemper recovered fast again and with two punches, he had regained control of the fight.

"No!" Martine cried, but it wasn't because Chuck was hurt. Her mind was full of the loss of contact, the pain that had come back as soon as she stopped using her Gift. She came at Albert, hands up, ready to throw herself on him.

The Colonel shot her with the Zat gun and she dropped.

"Stop!" Colonel Sheppard yelled, and Albert went completely still, barely daring to breathe. Teyla froze crouched next to Martine, hands stretched out towards her.

"Teyla, Albert, you can move," the Colonel said. Fuck! his thoughts shouted. He glanced at Albert. "Unlink us."

Albert dropped the link as fast as Martine had fallen to the ground.

Kemper and Chuck were like statues, Kemper's fist raised to strike Chuck in the face, Chuck's hand on Kemper's throat. Only their eyes were moving, and their chests as they breathed. Chuck's cheek was beginning to bruise under one eye. Kemper's lip was split, and blood was seeping from the corner of his mouth.

The Colonel made a sound like a growl. "Kemper. Campbell. Get up."

They stood immediately. Albert could hear the rage in the Colonel's thoughts, and how much it was taking for him to keep from screaming order after order at the two soldiers, how badly he wanted to use his Gift on them, to give into his own awful need and punish them with it. The fingers of his wounded hand twitched, but none of the Colonel's thoughts showed in the cold expression on his face.

"Sergeant Campbell," he said tightly. "Report."

"Corporal Kemper's having inappropriate thoughts about Martine Fraser, sir—"

"I don't care about that bullshit!" Colonel Sheppard barked. "Sort it out later!" The two men looked at each other, and Albert cringed at the violent, vengeful nature of their thoughts. The Colonel was still yelling. "Campbell, what did you see?"

"I think I found the Reality, sir!" Chuck responded immediately. "I can bring us right there!"

"You've got to let me out of here."

Jennifer pushed a lock of hair back from her face and sighed. "We've been over this before, Major. You know I can't."

Evan looked up at her from where he way lying in one of the cramped beds in the Infirmary. He felt like hell. The session of puking he'd had in the Jumper Bay a few hours earlier had turned his throat to sandpaper and strained all the muscles in his abdomen so badly that it actually hurt to breathe. He was glad there were no mirrors around because, if the good doctor was to be believed, his eyes had so many broken vessels they looked like they were bleeding. His head was pounding like a hammer on an anvil. But he knew he couldn't give up.

"Please," he said, hating the begging sound in his voice. "Dr. McKay has just reported that they've finished the AR Drive. They're getting ready to leave right now. I need to go with them. You know I do."

Jennifer shook her head, her blond hair spilling into her face a second time, causing Evan to wonder yet again why she didn't just pull it back into a pony tail. "And I'm telling you, you could die if you leave here right now. Why is it so hard for you to understand that?"

Evan took a deep breath, forcing the harsh retort back behind his teeth. She's not military, he told himself for what felt like the millonth time since he'd woken up in the Infirmary half-an-hour ago. "I'm Sheppard's 2IC," he said, making every word as clear as possible. "And Colonel Sheppard is about to leave on a life-threatening mission. I need to be with him." He felt his eyes narrowing. "Why is it so hard for you to understand that?"

"Because you could die!" she shouted at him, and her voice was loud enough to cause one of the nurses to turn in alarm. "I am so sick and tired of you Gifted people not getting this! Beyond the most basic of supportive measures, there is nothing I can do to help you! Not a single medicine or antibiotic or treatment or anything that makes a damn bit of difference with this disease! And maybe, if Carson or Anders were better, or if Tulio were still here, they would be able to do something I can't. But they're not here. It's just me. And as your doctor, I am telling you, that if you leave this Infirmary, and get into that spaceship, and travel God knows how far across this galaxy to another God damned reality, and if you have another attack like you did in the Jumper bay, you will die! She leaned towards him, her eyes snapping. Do you understand me now?

"Yes, sir!" he snarled. "Dying here or there, what's the difference?"

Jennifer's eyes widened like he had slapped her, then narrowed. "The sedative I added to your IV is the difference, Major. Like it or not, you're not going anywhere."

"You bitch!" Evan spat, as much in shock as anger. "You—"

An Athosian and one of the non-Gifted Marines burst through the Infirmary entrance, dragging David Parrish between them, his long arms limp across their shoulders. He wasn't moving.

"We found him like this in the Botany lab," the Marine said, breath heaving under David's weight. "It's like the fucking Amazon in there!"

Jennifer dropped Evan's chart on his bed and ran to help.

David! Evan bolted upright, heart thudding in fear. He grabbed for his IV, thinking to pull it out, but a wave of dizziness hit him so hard that he sagged back, eyes squeezed shut as the nausea rolled through him. He swallowed convulsively, holding down the non-existent contents of his stomach by force of will alone. A coating of fatigue so thick it felt like a blanket sagged down on him, dragging his eyes shut.

Evan was still trying to get to the IV when sleep overcame him.

Chuck was muttering to himself, tucked away in the corner of the jumper. Something about thread counts and someone's angina, interspersed with snatches of flying lessons, an ongoing argument about repairing the Jumper engine, bits of Ancient and a scattered exegesis about the martial problems of the guy who designed the screwdriver Chuck had clutched loosely in his one bare hand.

Rodney was sitting next to John in the copilot's seat, his eyes on the tablet keeping track of the readings from the ARD. He glanced back at Chuck again and sighed wearily. "Pull him away from the bulkhead, would you?" he asked Ronon. Chuck was still wearing his hoodie and the ridiculous dishwashing gloves, but his Gift had become potent enough that he was starting to read things through the material.

Ronon grunted and hauled chuck forward by the scruff of his neck. Chuck didn't seem to notice, too absorbed in the histories of whatever was touching his skin to register the world around him.

"Melena!" Chuck screamed suddenly, his eyes round and filled with horror.

Ronon let go like Chuck's sweatshirt had scalded him. Chuck continued on his tilting trajectory towards the floor, and Rodney automatically shielded him before he hit. Chuck landed on the deck in an unharmed heap, still holding the screwdriver.

It felt really good to use his Gift. Rodney had been shielding the Jumper surreptitiously for the past hour; not even John had noticed it. Rodney had never been able to shield more than one person or area before, not without help, like when he and John and Albert had shielded Atlantis from a Wraith attack. Now he was shielding three: Chuck, the Jumper and himself, and it was as easy as breathing. If it wasn't for the physical symptoms—the thirst, shakiness and pounding headache—he might actually be enjoying this. As it was it just felt like he was giving into a need that only kept getting worse. He wondered how bad the craving would be if he wasn't able to use his Gift at all, then he thought about Evan grabbing Teyla in the Jumper bay, and realized he knew the answer.

Rodney was sure John was feeling the same thing he did, every time John used his Gift. It was a wonder John hadn't suggested they all skip out the back hatch by now, just to keep the awful wanting at bay. Rodney glanced at John out of the corner of his eye. The Colonel was a very brave man.

On the floor, Chuck went back to talking about the problems with the dye vats, and how they'd never have their shipment ready if the new material for the boot soles didn't arrive by Friday.

"Please tell me we're going to jump soon," John said from the pilot's chair.

"We're going to jump soon," both Rodney and Ronon said at once. John gritted his teeth so hard that Rodney saw the muscle in his jaw contract.

"It's okay," Rodney said. "I know. I know how hard it is not to speak." He tried a laugh. "I think I would have killed myself by now."

John just looked at him. Rodney had to turn away from the bleakness in his eyes.

"Right, wrong thing to say. Sorry," Rodney said uncomfortably. He tried to come up with something else, anything else that might actually add the levity he'd been trying for, but couldn't do it. He wished Teyla were there, but John had told her she had to stay to lead the city in case they didn't make it back. And of course Teyla had done what he'd wanted her to do.

"I'm okay, really," Rodney added after a moment. "I mean, the pills and water helped a lot. Thanks." It wasn't the first or even the fifth time he'd said it, and each time he kept hoping that the words might make John smile, or at least look less grim. But John just nodded once.

"We, ah, are actually going to be able to jump in about two minutes," Rodney said, as much to change the subject as to warn John. "You, uh, better..." He let the sentence go, settling for flicking his head in Chuck's direction, as if not saying it would somehow mitigate the reality of what John was going to have to do.

John swallowed. "Campbell," he said, eyes still fixed on the space in front of him. On the floor, Chuck bolted upright, Rodney's shield shimmering gold as the tech moved. "Concentrate on the screwdriver in your hand, Campbell," John ordered him. "You're going to tell us when we're in the right reality. You won't have any problem telling realities apart, or knowing which one matches what you've read from the screwdriver in your hand. You can do this, Campbell. Get ready now."

"Okay," Chuck said.

He sounded a little too vague to Rodney, but then the power levels in their kludged ARD rose high enough that he yelled "NOW!" and Ronon leaned over and hit the key that would trigger the drive.

The ship jumped in a wash of bright light, still blinding no matter how often it happened, and they'd jumped so many realities in the two hours since they'd left Atlantis that Rodney might've lost track, if his brain would ever let him do such a thing. He was almost certain John could remember the exact number of realities they'd skipped through himself, but he couldn't say it.
They were doing exactly what John had suggested on the whiteboard when they had been about a day less close to death. John had written that they should go in reverse from the point where the alternate Daedalus, had appeared over Atlantis. The problem was, they had no real idea how long it had been travelling before it had appeard in space over their Atlantis. As it was, if they were truly following the time-line of the other Daedalus, all the Gifted in the city would be dead in the next ten to tweleve hours if they were unsuccessful.

The light faded and they were in exactly the same place they had been, except unlike the last reality, the Jumper's long-range scans showed Atlantis on the blue planet below the instant John thought the screens shimmering into the air in front of him. He pointed wordlessly, his fingertip disappearing into the image of the planet.

"Yes, I see it." Rodney nodded excitedly. The stab of nostalgia at seeing Atlantis' original planet again was a little unexpected, considering why they'd left. But unlike all the other realities they'd passed through to this point, this planet wasn't empty, Atlantis had never moved. "I am such a genius," Rodney said. He turned his grin on John. "Look how beautifully the drive worked, eh? We got here, what? In half-an-hour from the nearest Gate?" They'd used the ARD in the way it'd been originally intended, before it had gone FUBAR on the alternate Daedalus, making it power the Jumper's brand-new hyperdrive that Rodney and Radek had been experimenting with months before the Asurans' attacked. John had taken the Jumper through the Stargate on Atlantis to the nearest Gate to their former home, and then they'd used the Jumper's freshly-built Alternate Reality Drive to power the hyperdrive to fly them back to their old planet. And then they'd started reality-jumping. The hyperdrive had worked perfectly, and so had the ARD. Hopefully all that had finally gotten them to the reality they needed.

The fact that the ARD had worked so flawlessly meant that Rodney was even smarter than, well, himself. Although even he was capable of admitting that it would have been impossible to recreate the other McKay's design and correct the inherent flaws without the help of Radek's enhanced Gift, and the circular irony of that certainly wasn't lost on him.

All the same, looking down at the direct result of his brilliance was one hell of a kick.

"We still don't know if it's the right city," Ronon said.

John pointed to a different readout on the same floating display. "No life signs," Rodney murmured. "I have no idea if that's good or bad."

John shot him a look.

"Of course it's bad!" Rodney groused back at him. "I mean, is it bad for us, or just the Atlantis of this reality?"

John shrugged. "Campbell," he said over his shoulder, and Chuck's attention fixed on him again. "Find out if this is the reality we need to be in."

"Okay," Chuck said again. He closed his eyes, gripping the screwdriver. "Console's burned out, complete slag," he murmured. "We're never going to get home—"

"Campbell!" John snapped, and just the sharp tone of his voice made Rodney jump and whirl to face him. "Find out if this is the same reality the screwdriver came from!"

Chuck's eyes flew open, but he was either too tired or sick or lost in his own head or too far under John's sway to show anything on his face. "Yes it is. It's the same. It feels the same."

"It is?" Rodney asked, blinking. "Really?" It felt too easy, and Rodney realized that he'd been sure this wouldn't work at all. He was almost at a loss for what to do, now that it had.

"Campbell, are you sure?" John asked Chuck. "Check again."

Chuck did, concentrating so hard that the hand he had wrapped around the screwdriver started shaking, either from hypoglycaemia or fatigue. When Chuck opened his eyes again his face was white. "I'm sure, sir," he said. "We're here."

"Great job," John said mechanically. "Campbell, have some glucose tablets."

"Right," Rodney said. He was envious that Chuck was going to be able to eat something, but most of him was just creeped the hell out by the tech's automatic, unthinking compliance. John's Gift had impressed Rodney before, even awed him, but it had never scared him. It was beginning to scare him now. The fact that John was just a much a victim of his Gift as the rest of them didn't matter as much as Rodney knew it should.

Rodney took a breath. His heart felt off-kilter, thudding wildly like he'd been given a shot of adrenaline. Exhaustion catching up with him, he knew. He forced himself to shut off the shield he'd thrown around Chuck so the man could eat, then turned off the one around the Jumper as an afterthought. He pretended it made him feel less tired. "Better hail them, before we go in."

John nodded as Rodney hit a few keys.

"Atlantis, this is Jumper one, please respond," John said. They'd already agreed he would do all the talking. His Gift was unique in that it worked over electronic relays, not just in direct conversation. If there had been anyone capable of answering, there was no way they wouldn't have. But no one did.

John looked at Rodney and Ronon. Ronon shrugged.

"I don't know," Rodney said. "It's promising, in a ghoulish kind of way." He pointed down towards the glittering blue planet. "Normally I'd say we should take the Jumper down to one of the far piers, but I don't think we have that kind of time." And the idea of walking all that distance was more than he could bear.

John nodded. He tilted the yoke in his hands and the Jumper started gliding in.

This Atlantis was still powered, which was both convenient and disturbing as hell, as if whoever had been there had either left too quickly to turn out the lights, or they had all died before they could shut anything down. The ceiling hatch opened for them as smoothly as an eye, and they glided into the Jumper bay.

"No Jumpers," Ronon said.

"Maybe they tried to escape," Rodney said, looking at the eerily empty platforms.

John said nothing, just continued steering them down to the bay floor. The hatch opened at another inputted command, and the Jumper sank through silently until it landed in the Gate room. Nothing else moved.

Rodney keyed open the back hatch, and the Gate room lit up as soon as Atlantis sensed the presence of humans inside.

Rodney recognized the pervasive stench of rot as soon as the hatch opened enough to allow them to breathe the unfiltered air. Rodney's shield did nothing to protect him from the smell and he almost gagged.

"I uh, guess we know what happened to them," he said, mostly for the comfort of his own voice in the omnipresent, deathly silence.

John grimaced, but just twitched his head at Ronon and they left the Jumper first, guns up and ready. Rodney immediately threw a shield around both of them, earning a furious glare from John as soon as he realized what Rodney had done.

Rodney just glared back, daring John to charm him into turning them off, half terrified that he would. But John just looked away, shoulders tense, and said nothing.

The Gate room was littered with bodies.

The corpses had mostly mummified in purified, cycled air of Atlantis, and they hadn't been killed by Wraith. None of the bodies were brittle enough for that.

"Jesus Christ," Rodney breathed, the air rasping painfully in his throat. He looked around. There were scorch marks everywhere, shell casings rolling underfoot as they walked. Some of the bodies—very few of them—had coloured stripes on their sleeves. Civilians, Rodney thought, though all the uniforms were otherwise identically styled: military and severe. Whoever had attacked them hadn't spared anyone.

"They left the weapons," Ronon said impassively, looking around. Rodney didn't know what that meant, and said as much. "It means they just wanted to kill," Ronon said. "The ones who did this, that was the only thing they cared about." Rodney saw him doing a quick head count. "Doesn't look like they took prisoners."

"Oh." Rodney swallowed, did his best to ignore how much his throat hurt. "Well, that, uh, that fits with the disease," he said, trying not to think about being in that situation, knowing there was no escape, no hope. He couldn't imagine that kind of terror. He looked at John. "Who the hell would want anyone dead that badly?"

John just looked at him, unable to say that he didn't know.

John took a breath. "Campbell," he said, and Rodney tried not to wince as the tech obediently jogged out of the Jumper. Rodney managed to stop himself from automatically shielding him too, since Chuck's Gift required direct contact. "We need to know who killed these people."

"Sure," Chuck said. He walked over to the nearest body and knelt next to it, deliberately pulling off his second ugly yellow glove.

John sent a speaking glance to Ronon, who aimed his gun at Chuck's spine.

Chuck put his hands on the mummy's back, and Rodney grimaced, thinking of how unsanitary that was. Chuck closed his eyes and Rodney could practically feel him focusing his Gift, directing its enormously expanded power on the corpse to find out what had happened.

All at once Chuck's eyes flooded with tears, spilling down his face like the opening of a dam. "Jamie," he said, like the name hurt.

Rodney felt his breath hitch. It hadn't even occurred to him that he might know these people, different versions of them. But he recognized that name, and then he tried not to see Daniel Stackhouse in the sunken remains under Chuck's hands.

John glanced at him, and Rodney could see what he was feeling reflected in John's face. "Campbell, I need to know how Jamie died," John said with surprising kindness.

Chuck sobbed like a child, drowning in this other Daniel's grief. He shook his head mutely, unable to speak.

"Buck up, Campbell!" John barked at him, and Chuck's head shot up.

"Sorry, sir," Chuck said, sounding perfectly calm. For some reason his sudden equilibrium made Rodney's skin crawl.

"Campbell, you're just watching this," John said, and Rodney could tell by the tightness around John's eyes how much he was concentrating. "Nothing has to affect you. You can see everything, but you're fine. You're completely separate from what happened, Campbell. You're fine."

"Yes, sir, I'm fine," Chuck said hollowly.

"Good," John said. His smile was thin and tight as a wire. "You're doing a great job, Campbell. Now, tell me how Jamie Markham died."

"Colonel Lorne shot him when he got sick and lost control of his Ability, sir," Chuck said.

"What?" Rodney blurted. He gaped at John. "Did he just say Colonel Lorne—"

"Rodney," John said, and Rodney shut up so he could listen.

"Campbell, what made Jamie Markham lose control of his Gift?" John asked. "I mean, his Ability?"

"He got sick," Chuck said. "All the Specially Able did."

"Guess we're in the right reality, then," Ronon said.

John nodded. He looked only barely relieved. "Campbell, tell me how Jamie got sick," John said, and when Rodney glanced at him he saw that John's face was set in lines of cold rage, as if these were his people and he'd personally failed to protect them.

Chuck swallowed thickly. "Holy fuck," he said suddenly, making Rodney jump. "Is that Boomer?" he said it like he was speaking to someone else, like he'd become someone else again. "I thought he was dead! I saw him go down, sir! I thought—" He gagged suddenly, swallowed it down with obvious effort. "Oh, God. Blair. Jesus, what they did to him...What did they send him back, for? Is he still—Oh my God, his eyes. They ripped out his eyes!"

"Campbell, tell me who tortured Kaufman." John demanded, his rage unmistakable.

"The Athosians," Chuck spat, and Rodney had no idea if they were listening to him or to this Daniel, months dead. "They're no better than animals."

John's eyes widened. He took a step back, like was staggering under the weight of what Chuck had just said.

"No." Ronon was shaking his head. "No way. The Athosians would never do that! Teyla—"

"This isn't our reality, Ronon!" Rodney snapped at him, taking refuge in anger because he felt exactly the same way John and Ronon did; like Chuck's Gift had somehow betrayed them.

"Campbell, tell me who killed Daniel Stackhouse," John snarled, as if Chuck had been lying.

"Athosians," Chuck repeated instantly. He'd begun shaking a little, but Rodney couldn't tell if it was from exhaustion or what he was reliving in his head. "The Athosian Empire. Athosians did this. Athosians. Athosians—"

Ronon fired his gun, and Chuck fell over instantly, stunned.

Rodney whirled on Ronon. "What the hell did you do that for?" he yelled. "It's not his fault that our best allies are this reality's version of the Genii! Did you think shutting him up would make any difference?"

"You told me to stun him after we got what we needed, so he wouldn't keep using his Gift until he died," Ronon said. He would have looked like he didn't care at all, except Rodney had seen that fury kindling in his eyes too many times not to recognize it now.

"Oh, right," Rodney said, chagrined. He'd forgotten that he'd only explained that to Ronon about five times on the journey here. "Sorry. Um, good job."

"Teyla didn't do this," Ronon said, as if it were a fact.

"You don't...!" Rodney ended up just sighing, automatically reaching to rub his forehead, remembering too late that he couldn't. But it did help him remember to drop his shield around Ronon and John.

"I'll take care of him," Ronon said as he went over to Chuck. He scooped him into his arms with surprising gentleness, considering how angry he obviously still was. He carried him into the Jumper.

"We should go to the planet where you met Teyla first," Rodney said to John, even though he was sure John had already thought of it. "It's possible that they never went there in this reality, but it's a good place to start, anyway."

"You're staying here," John said to him.

"He can't," Ronon said as he came out of the ship, though Rodney had no idea why Ronon would argue about it. Of course Rodney was staying, if John wanted him to. "He needs to shield us."

"John told me to stay," Rodney said reasonably. "So I can't."

Ronon just rolled his eyes. "You don't get it," he said to Rodney and John both. "You're sick, right? If Rodney doesn't shield us, we're going to spread the sickness to everyone who comes near us. And then it'll get all over this galaxy. And maybe there are other Gifted people here. They'll die."

"There's been no evidence of any other Gifted people in the Pegasus Galaxy," Rodney said. He thought he sounded very sensible considering there really wasn't anything to argue about. John had told him to stay, so he would.

"You said this isn't our reality, right?" Ronon said. "Just because you haven't met any Gifted people here, doesn't mean there aren't any."

"Oh," Rodney said, blinking. "That's true. But I have to stay."

John pulled in a long, ragged breath. "It's okay, Rodney," he said. "You can come." He turned to Ronon. "But you can't, Ronon. You need to stay with the Sergeant. If he wakes up you need to make sure he eats something, all right? Just like Radek. You took such good care of Radek, when he was building the ARD. Now you need to take care of Campbell."

"Sure," Ronon said. He nodded, then went into the Jumper again.

"Great," John said, though his smile was obviously forced. "I'm sure you'll do a terrific job." He looked at Rodney, his expression going even tenser as he focused. "Rodney, listen to me," he said, and he was Rodney's entire universe. "Nothing I say is going to charm you. You don't have to do anything I say."

Rodney blinked at him. "Okay," he said.

John sucked in a breath. "Jump up and down, Rodney," he said.

Rodney only jumped once before John told him to stop.

John swallowed thickly. He looked terribly sad. "I love you, Rodney," he said. "Just, remember that, okay? Please?"

"Of course I'll remember that," Rodney groused. "I already know that." He gestured at the empty Gate impatiently to hide how freaked out he was, though he wasn't sure what was freaking him out more, if it was the impending meeting with the Athosian evil Empire or the fact that John had just said he loved him, with Ronon and his freakishly good ears nearby and all of them surrounded by dead bodies. Maybe the disease was really meant just to drive them all insane. "Oh," it occurred to him. "I love you too. But you should really know that by now."

John smirked, which naturally made Rodney smirk as well, which stole John's smile completely.

"Rodney," he said, fierce with concentration, "when we go through the Gate, you can't hear me unless I'm talking to you. You got that, Rodney? Unless I'm speaking directly to you, you won't be able to hear anything I say."

"Got it." Rodney nodded. That sucked, though. "But I want to hear your voice."

John closed his eyes for a moment, ducked his head. Then he looked at Rodney again, cupping his cheek with his hand. The shield crackled between them.

"I hope you'll forgive me, when all this is over," John said.

He went back into the Jumper before Rodney could tell him that of course he would, John would always be forgiven.

Brigadier Teyla Emmagan had been sitting hunched over maps and field reports for so long that her back ached. She longed to be done with this, to go out into the cool of the twilight behind her grand tent and dance with her Bantos rods, the way she had as a younger woman. Even now, there were more than enough handsome, eligible men who would spar with her and be graceful in their losing, but sparring was a child's game, and her Empire had a war to win.

"Ancestors curse it," she sighed. She put her hands on her lower back and arched her spine, then stretched her arms over her head until she heard the pop in her shoulders.

Ronon looked at her from where he was standing with his arms crossed, leaning against a thick support beam, a faint, enigmatic smile turning his lips. He'd just come back from a reconnaissance mission to a planet that was, according to these maps and everything she knew about it, not much more than dirt and barren rock. And yet all evidence suggested that it was being used as a refuge by the last of the Lanteans.

"I were them, I'd've moved on weeks ago," Ronon said, as if hearing her thoughts. "They have to know we're looking for them." He scrubbed his nails through his thick, dark brown hair, which he'd cut so short that it looked black next to his scalp. Flakes of mud scattered onto his shoulders, joining the stains on his battledress.

"I'm certain they do," Teyla said, watching bemusedly as more dirt joined the earthen floor of the tent. "But unless they are capable of magic, I can see no way they could have hidden themselves this successfully for this long." She shook her head in frustration, slapping her hand down on the map as if punishing it for disobedience. The holographic image on the paper flickered under the blow and then smoothed out again. "Unless they've drilled their own tunnels in this rock and are hiding deep within them."

"None that we found," Ronon said.

"Their technology was formidable," Teyla said. "It's possible they did just that." She grunted in irritation, then grabbed the map and started rolling it into a cylinder. The image faded and turned off as she turned the paper in her hands. "We'll send another Tracer at first light. If that still returns with nothing, we'll move on."

Ronon stretched his arms out like limbs of a tree. "Council won't like that."

"Then the Council can search for survivors themselves," Teyla responded sourly. She didn't remind him that it was by far the Satedan members of the Council who wanted the Lantean defilers dead to the last of them. Her own people's rage had begun and ended with strangers suddenly appearing and killing their children. If the Lanteans had surrendered and pledged loyalty, Teyla was sure that the Athosian members of the Council would have been content. They certainly had been content when the city had been purged of all those who had survived the illness their Hoffan allies had created. But the Satedans had always been much less pragmatic and far more interested in blood.

Ronon snorted a laugh, then gave a great yawn with his head thrown back and lips wide around his large, white teeth.

"You should sleep," Teyla said, smiling. She fought the urge to yawn herself, instead running her fingers through her own hair, musing that she needed to cut it again. "We both should. There will be plenty of time to hunt the Lantean stragglers." Or let them be, she thought tiredly. Whatever remained of their numbers would never be a threat again, nor would their deaths return any of her or Ronon's people from the dead.

She was just rising from her chair when Jarren burst through the flap of the door, his youthful face split in a wide grin.

"Brigadier Emmagan!" he exclaimed happily. "New—" he froze, smile sliding from his mouth as he saw the guns pointed at him.

"Hold, Ronon, the boy means no harm," Teyla said calmly, lowering her own weapon. "But he will be punished for his intrusion," she added, looking at Jarren. "The next time you rush in here like that I will let Ronon kill you," she said.

Jarren nodded, his face going white, doubtless because he knew what was in store for him. "Yes, my Brigadier," he said, and Teyla could see the effort it cost him to keep his voice steady.

Teyla nodded then crossed her arms. "What is it?"

"There were men at the Ring!" Jarren said, regaining some of his enthusiasm. "New allies! They're on their way! I ran ahead to tell you," he added proudly, and Teyla reminded herself how young he really was. She made a mental note to have Ronon go easy on him.

Still, there was no virtue in indulging foolishness. "The Council determines who will be allies," Teyla said, "not Ring guards who aren't old enough to shave their heads."

"Yes, my Brigadier." Jarren nodded, blushing. Then Teyla heard the steady tromp of boot steps along the packed earth outside, and drew herself up full, putting her hands behind her back.

Krissa and Gent came through first, grinning and happy just as Jarren had been. Teyla exchanged a quick, shocked glance with Ronon, because the two should have been at the Ancestor's Ring. It was standard procedure to guard the Ring whenever the Empire used this planet, as had been implemented ever since the Lanteans had first come and killed Jinto and Wex without warning or provocation. The punishment for leaving a guard post was death, and Krissa and Gent were well aware of it, and yet they seemed to be gaily sacrificing their lives.

And then two men came through the tent flap behind them.

They both were in uniforms: the first dark grey with slashes of blue, the second entirely in black, as if each of their military was completely different from the other. They both looked tired, Teyla thought at her first, brief glance, especially the one with blue on his jacket, and the black-clad one's right hand was obviously injured. They were unkempt and unshaven, as if they had ended a long and arduous journey. Their features were pleasant, she noted, despite being so haggard. The one in black was undeniably handsome.

They in turn were gaping in shock.

"Oh my God, it is Teyla!" the one in grey said, and Teyla had her gun up and aimed instantly, because she did not know these men and they should not have known her name.

Nor should the other have been carrying a gun; he should have surrendered it at the Ring or died with it in his hands.

Ronon shot first, though Teyla was only an instant behind. It was impossible to miss at this distance, and the beams struck the black-clad one perfectly in the center of his body. But all that happened was that streaks of gold spread out like spider webs where the energy hit, and the man remained completely unharmed.

"Lanteans!" Ronon yelled. He fired three more times, but his weapon did nothing.

And then, "Drop your guns," the one in black said. His voice was calm as clear water, and it was as if the Ancestors themselves had given the command. Ronon and Teyla let their weapons fall immediately.

"Thank you," he said, smiling. "I know you don't want to hurt us. We're your friends."

Of course they were, this beautiful, smiling man and his poor, weary companion. Teyla smiled back at him, stepping forward to take him into the traditional Athosian embrace, which was only given to family or the closest of allies. But his shoulder sparkled gold when she touched him, and her fingers couldn't reach his skin.

"Sorry about that," he said, and it was the sincerest apology Teyla had ever heard and he was instantly forgiven. "I know how much you want to welcome us, and that you're going to help us by giving us whatever we need." He grinned warmly, and Teyla felt as if she were being bathed in love. She would do anything for these men, because he wanted her to. She would die for them.

"What do you need, my friends?" she asked him. Ronon had come up beside her, beaming at the two strangers as she was. She understood, now, why the Ring guards had followed them, why Jarren had come into her tent uninvited. How could any of them have done otherwise? Nothing mattered except these two men before them.

"I'm so glad you asked," he said, smiling sweetly at her. "You see, we're sick. We're really sick and we're going to die, unless we have the cure for this disease. Now, is there a cure?"

His smile was so hopeful that Teyla rejoiced that she could give him a favourable answer. "There is a cure," she said, smiling back at him, but then she remembered something, growing concerned. "It was distributed among our specially blessed allies months ago. How is it your people never received any?" Her heart ached at the thought that these two had not been inoculated already. Only the Lanteans had been meant to die.

"Oh, thank God," the one in grey murmured, but Teyla's eyes were for the black-clad man alone.

"You don't need to worry about that," he said kindly, and Teyla relaxed, relieved. "I know you're going to help us by giving the cure to us, because we're such good friends. And I know you and Ronon, and you'd never let your friends die when you could help them."

"Never!" Ronon agreed vehemently, but he looked pained. "We don't have the cure here, though. It's on Athos."

Their other friend, the one in grey and blue, muttered something angrily, but the grin of the beautiful one faltered only slightly before he was smiling fully at her again. "Well, then, I'm sure you'd be happy to take us to Athos, right? I'll bet you know exactly where the cure is and how to get it."

"Oh, of course!" Teyla nodded eagerly, thrilled that she could help. She should have realized that these men weren't the hated Lanteans, but among the few specially blessed by the Ancestors. "We can go now! I am certain the Council will help you." She was sure the injured one's hand could be repaired as well, and it would gladden her heart to make certain of it.

"Of course," her new friend said. And if his smile seemed a little weary and thin, well. He and his companion had both obviously suffered terribly. "Let's go right now. I'd love to meet your Council and get the cure from them."

"Please," Teyla said, "follow me." Joyously, she led the way back to the Ring.

She'd been sitting in the room for what felt like hours.

Tegan licked her lips, feeling the familiar tug of her lipring. Gently, she scratched her nail along the dark wood of the conference table she was sitting at, marveling that she had traveled half-way across the world and was still trapped in someone's office, deep underground.

It was hard for her to believe that she'd still been in Cardiff just last night, helping that cute Torchwood bloke Ianto load her suitcase into the back of the Range Rover. It had been very nice of Captain Jack to let her store her stuff at their Hub while she was going to be away. Then again, two years of her life had amounted to only two pathetic boxes, most of which were nursing texts. They could have thrown them into the nearest rubbish bin the second she had left, for all she knew.

It had been the first time she'd ever flown in an airplane, and taking off had been one of the most brilliant things she had experienced. Eleven hours later however, she was more than ready to land. Having to endure another two hours in the back of a bumpy military vehicle right after really hadn't been her cup of tea. Especially as she had to keep reminding herself that they weren't driving on the wrong side of the road, and she actually wasn't going to die in a fiery car crash.

They had cleared the impressive-looking gates and driven right into Cheyenne Mountain, and before Tegan had even been able to catch her breath, Dr. Weir had hustled her onto an elevator that seemed to go down forever. They were as deep underground as a tall building, Dr. Weir had said, and for a moment Tegan had felt faint with the idea of all that rock pressing down on her.
The moment had passed as soon as she had seen the sheer wonder of the place.

It was like a fortress, or a palace, or a castle, with hundreds of people working and living far under the earth. Most of them were military, but some were civilians. "Scientists," Dr. Weir had said as Tegan had looked at two men, both speaking fluent Spanish, who passed by them without a second glance. "We have people working here who come from all over the world."

Dr. Weir had taken her up a short flight of stairs into what she called the Command Centre, to meet a man named General Landry. The General, Dr. Weir explained, was sort of Dr. Weir's boss, even though she didn't actually report to him. "The politics are complicated," Dr. Weir had said. "I'll explain it all when we get to Atlantis." Tegan had just nodded, too amazed to worry about it.

So far, it had been the most exciting adventure of her life.

"Dr. Weir!" The General had exclaimed loudly as he'd stepped out of his office and took the Doctor's hand. He was an average-looking older man, with brown hair and blue eyes half-hidden by heavy lids. But his gaze was sharp and his smile short-lived. He took one look at Tegan and turned to Dr. Weir, his mouth frowning. "Who the hell is this?"

"This," Dr. Weir said, one eyebrow raised against the General's words, "is Ms. Tegan Blin. She's the latest member of the Atlantis expedition."

The General turned his frown on her. "She looks like a reject from 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show'."

Dr.Weir's expression turned deadly. "She's a talented Healer!" she said. "Exactly what Atlantis needs right now." She pulled out a folder of papers from her bag. "If you would just sign her contract, I'll go get her outfitted and—"

"No," The General said. And his tone was so harsh that Tegan gasped.

"What?" Dr. Weir said, and the word came out like a shriek. "What the hell do you mean—!"

"In my office, now!" General Landry said and he turned and went directly to his office, Dr. Weir right on his heels. They had started shouting at each other the second he had shut the door.

Tegan couldn't hear a word of what was being said. She had stood by the table, watching, until the General had glared at her and dropped the blinds.

She'd been sitting alone at the table ever since.

Tegan sighed and began picking at the black polish on another nail, her heart pounding in a strange combination of anxiety and relief. She didn't really want to go to Atlantis. Not completely. Not deep down. The idea was full-on dodgy: flying through a wormhole millions of light-years away to a city that had been hiding underwater for ten-thousand years. She'd have to be a total fuckwit to believe any of it. It was actually a relief to think that the General didn't want her, and she could go home.

She licked her lips. Not that she actually had anything to go home to.

And that's the problem, isn't it? she thought to herself with disgust. No family, no friends to speak of, no nursing degree, no hope. That woman, Gwen, at Torchwood had said that coming to Atlantis would be a 'grand adventure', and the part of Tegan that wasn't frightened out of her head actually wanted that. Wanted something to happen in her otherwise bland and pathetic and hopeless life.

But General Landry didn't want her, and now she was going to have to go back to Cardiff, with nothing to look forward too, ever again.

If she were lucky, she might be able to get her job back delivering pizzas, if she begged hard enough.

She stood and walked over to the engraved glass that separated the conference area from the actual Stargate on the level below. The glass was clear, with white and red lines on it, connecting what seemed to be planets. The lines spread out straight in all directions, with a whole fan of red lines starting from one red dot. Earth, she thought, reaching out to touch it with one shaking finger. You travel to other planets through the Stargate. The Stargate, which was right down there.

"Incredible, huh?"

Tegan whirled, pressing her back against the glass panel before she was even aware of it. Her hand was against her chest, heart pounding beneath her palm.

"Sorry," the man said. He flashed her a smile that showed a lot of straight, white teeth. "'Didn't mean to startle you."

Tegan's heart continued to pound, but not out of fear this time.

He was probably the most beautiful man Tegan had ever seen. He was tall, and broad-shouldered, with a chest and arms that looked just gorgeous in his plain black tee-shirt. His hair was military short and light brown, but his eyes were a stunning bright, flashing blue. His American accent was a honey-covered drawl that seemed to pour all the way down her spine. Her mouth dropped open.

"Uh, hi," he said. He moved around the conference table towards her, a puzzled expression on his face. It was only at that moment that she realized that he was using crutches to walk, and his face was actually badly bruised. He had dark purple rings underneath both of his eyes, which she remembered from nursing school meant his nose had been recently broken. "My name's Cameron. Who're you?"

"Um—Tegan," she said far too quickly. He took a few limping steps closer, and she instinctively moved back, smacking the back of her head against the glass.

He winced in sympathy. "Ow," but the effect was ruined when he laughed.

Tegan found herself laughing too.

"You can come away from there," he said, gesturing for her to come closer with his fingers. "I don't bite."

"Oh, yeah," Tegan said. She took a few steps towards him, self-consciously smoothing down the back of her hair from where it had stuck momentarily against the glass. "I guess you wouldn't." For some reason, the thought that he might made her blush.

He pulled out one of the conference chairs and dropped into it, moving his crutches out of the way in an impossibly graceful motion. He propped them against the table behind him and eased up one black-booted foot to rest on the chair in front, wincing as he did it. There was a large, black brace wrapping his leg from ankle to thigh. "Damn!" he exclaimed. "That fucking hurts!"

"Are you all right?" Tegan asked, assessing him with her eyes. His beauty was still startling, but if she didn't look at his face she could keep it sorted. It was obvious that he'd been badly injured, and the way that he was guarding his chest Tegan thought that most likely it was more than just his face and leg. He probably shouldn't even be out of bed, really. The question was out of her mouth before she could stop herself. "Shouldn't you be in hospital?"

"I should be dead!" he said with far too much glee. "It was awesome! This fucking Replicator," he said, illustrating wildly with his hands, "took over the body of this guy and made his skeleton metal! It was exactly like that Terminator movie, you know? He beat the shit out of me." He laughed and shook his head. "Broke my face, my skull, all my ribs on one side. Nearly busted my liver and a kidney. Dislocated my fucking knee!" He laughed again. "It was excellent!"

Tegan felt her face twisting in disbelief. She blurted the words instinctively: "Are you daft?"

To her surprise, Cameron just grinned back at her. "I'm sure there're lots of people on the base who think so." He shrugged, his expression going totally serious. "I can't get hurt. At all. Like, ever. And this guy hurt me. It was..." He shrugged. "Different, you know?"

Tegan found herself smiling at him. Cameron was clearly barmy from being hit on the head one too many times. He was most likely Gifted too, from the way he talked like he was some kind of superhero. But he was irresistible when he smiled, and he seemed to do it often. "Well, at least you're on the mend, then?"

"Sure," he agreed, but he made a face. "But it's really boring. I've been stuck in the Infirmary for weeks. This is the first time I've been out." He leaned forward, like he was sharing a secret, and Tegan found herself leaning towards him in return. "I'm actually a fugitive," he said happily. This close it was easy to see that his pupils were a bit bigger than they should be, leaving narrow circles of the beautiful blue. "Dr. Lam is probably having a fit right now." He grinned with sudden realization. "I'm on the lam from Dr. Lam!" He laughed.

"Oh," Tegan said. "Um, maybe you should go back?" Up close it was easy to see that he was a bit stoned from the painkillers he had been given.

"Later," Cameron said, waving a hand like he didn't care. He tilted his head, looking puzzled again. "Where are you from?"

"Wales," Tegan said. "Cardiff, actually."

"Oh," Cameron said. "You the Healer Lizzie went out to get?"

Tegan shrugged. "I guess."

He rubbed his side absently. "You with that group out there that McKay's always going on about? What're they called? Touch-wood?"

"Torchwood," Tegan corrected him, then shook her head. "I didn't even know about them until yesterday."

"No shit, really?" Then he laughed. "I thought you didn't look like one of them."

Tegan felt herself stiffen. What did someone from Torchwood look like anyway? She thought of Gwen, with her huge eyes, thick, luscious hair and that adorable gap between her teeth. Beautiful, probably, she thought. She licked her lips.

"Whoa," Cameron said, eyes narrowing as he watched her. "What the fuck is that?"

"My lipring," Tegan said stiffly. "Why?"

"It's gross," Cameron said. He peered at her. "You got one in your nose, too? And your eyebrow? Am I seeing that right? It's hard to tell with all your makeup on." He stared at her for a moment. "You look like a Wraith."

"I like my piercings," Tegan said. "And my make-up." She could hear the defensiveness in her voice.

"Yeah, well they won't like 'em on Atlantis," Cameron said. "Didn't Lizzie tell you about the dress code?"

"No," Tegan said. It was probably one of the things that Dr. Weir would have mentioned sooner or later, Tegan thought. Not that it mattered now. "I'm not going."

"What?" Cameron asked. "Why the hell not?"

Tegan shrugged, trying for a nonchalance she didn't feel. "Because the General doesn't like me," she said. "It's all right."

Cameron laughed. "Landry doesn't like anybody. In fact, he probably hates me the most out of anyone. Well, except for McKay." He looked at her, his blue eyes curious and strangely sympathetic. "Why aren't you going?"

"General Landry and Dr. Weir have been in his office yelling at each other for ages." Tegan looked down and started picking polish off one of her nails. "I don't think it means anything good."

Cameron made a face. "Why would that mean you're not going?" he said again. "Landry knows how much Atlantis needs a Healer right now, and here you are!"

"He said I looked like a reject," Tegan said. She forced herself to smile. "Fucking wanker."

"Don't talk about the General that way," Cameron said sharply. Tegan's smile fell, but Cameron grinned at her. "Figures Landry would have a huge problem with your getup."

Tegan shrugged again. She thought it was probably a bit more than her clothes, but she nodded.

"Okay, come on," Cameron said. He got to his feet, swaying with the sudden movement.

Before she could think, Tegan found herself underneath his arm, helping him balance. His entire body felt as firm as his arms looked. She knew she was blushing again. "Careful."

Cameron smiled at her. "I'm okay. Just a little lightheaded." She let go and stood back as he scooped his crutches up, deftly replacing them under his arms. He turned to her. "All right, here's what we're going to do. First, you need some new clothes."

"What?" she said.

"New clothes!" Cameron repeated. "C'mon. It'll be fun."

Tegan was about to protest again when she abruptly changed her mind. Gwen had said this would be an adventure, and if she had to leave anyway, she might as well make the most of it. She found herself following Cameron as he maneuvered himself down the stairs and towards the banks of computers that sat facing the giant circle Dr. Weir had told her was the Stargate itself. Tegan stopped for a moment, just staring. An alien portal to alien worlds.

"Sorry, sir," a thin man with a nearly-bald head and glasses was saying to Cameron. "I don't think I can help with that."

"Oh come on, Walter!" Cameron said. "Look at her!" He gestured at Tegan with one of his crutches. "There's no way Landry's going to be able to see past that outfit! Get her one of those, you know, jump suits or something."

She saw the man called Walter sniff. "Those are usually for off-worlders. Or prisoners."

"Okay," Cameron went on, "get her kitted for Atlantis, then. I know you got to have some lying around."

She saw as the man Walter took a deep breath. "Sir," he said again, "with all due respect, if the General doesn't want her going to Atlantis, he's certainly not going to appreciate us raiding stores for her! I can't do it." He turned back towards his computer screen, a set look on his face.

Cameron rolled his eyes. "Don't be so damn stuffy, Walter!" He grinned again, his teeth flashing. "It'll be fun." Tegan grinned to herself. Clearly 'fun' was important to her new friend.

"'Fun'?" Walter repeated, gaping. "Landry would demote me! That's not 'fun'!"

Cameron shrugged with one shoulder. "We won't tell him it's you."

"How can you—he—" Walter let out an exasperated breath and closed his eyes briefly behind his round glasses. "All right!" he said, clearly not meaning it. "I'll go get her a uniform."

"Now that's what I'm talking about!" Cameron fairly crowed.

Walter glared at him. "This is the last favour I do for you, Colonel! Understand?"

"Perfectly," Cameron said, face overly-serious. He turned and winked at Tegan. "Let's go!"

Elizabeth had never been so angry in her life.

"We're wasting time here!" she shouted at Landry. She was standing in his office, shaking with rage, trying desperately hard to not give in to the tears of exhaustion and frustration that were stabbing at her eyelids. "People are dying!"

"You think I don't know that?" Landry shouted back. "You think I haven't heard the reports or seen McKay's video? Of course I know that! But I'm still saying no!"

"You can't do that!" Elizabeth yelled. They'd been having the same argument for over half-an-hour, and Landry refused to budge. Elizabeth could feel his anger as it had ratcheted up to rage and then to fury over the last several minutes. Normally, she would have used her Gift to judge his temperament and tailored her arguments accordingly, but she was well past any kind of reconciliatory gesture. Her people were dying and Landry was preventing her from helping them. She would die herself before she gave up this fight.

"I don't want to fight with you, Dr. Weir," Landry said, as if reading her thoughts. "But you must understand how inappropriate it would be to send a civilian to—"

"Half the expedition is made up of civilians!" Elizabeth shouted.

"An untrained, unprepared civilian," Landry raised his voice to speak over her interruption. "She's untrained, Elizabeth! Which means she is not ready to go to Atlantis! That's not even considering the fact that there's a disease up there that could kill her in a matter of days!" He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but I can't put anyone else at risk. I just can't."

"The SGC had no problem putting Daniel Jackson's life at risk!" Elizabeth spat. "He was the first non-com to go through the Gate, back when we had no clue what was out there at all! Why is this different?"

"She's a child!" Landry exclaimed. "Jackson was a grown man when we sent him. That's a huge difference, and you know it!"

"She's twenty-three!" Elizabeth shot back. "Captain Ford was twenty-five when—"

"Capt. Ford was a trained Marine!" Landry replied. "There is no comparison!"

Elizabeth felt more tears stinging her eyes and blinked furiously. "But she's a Healer!" She had probably repeated the same statement over a hundred times by now. "She'll be able to cure the disease and you know it! Don't my people deserve a chance?"

Landry exhaled a long breath. "Of course they do," he said quietly.

"Then let her go," Elizabeth said. She wiped a tear that had escaped from under her eyelid, hating how she was dissolving in front of Landry. Over forty-eight hours of too little sleep and even less food were catching up with her at the worst moment.

"What about you?" Landry asked. "You're at just as much risk as that girl out there." He shook his head. "I can't, in all good conscience, send you to Atlantis knowing that you'll catch a disease that could kill you!"

"I'll wear a hazmat suit!" Elizabeth said desperately. "We'll both wear one!" She stepped closer, hands clasped, forcing the words out past the hard lump of tears in her throat. "Please General. I'm begging you."

He looked at her, his eyes softening. "Healer, huh?" he said. It was like he was hearing her for the first time.

"Yes," Elizabeth said. She could feel Landry's emotions shifting around him, consideration overtaking his certainty of moments before.

His gaze narrowed. "You're sure she can actually do what you say she can do? She could heal them?"

She had no evidence of that. If anything, she had only heard the opposite. The one attempt Tegan had told her about had ostensibly resulted in that patient's death. Ianto had identified her not as a Healer, but a Potentiater, which really wasn't the same thing. Elizabeth actually had no way of knowing if Tegan could do anything good for the Lanteans at all. She fisted her hands. "Yes."

Landry had noticed her pause. Elizabeth could feel the flare of uncertainty as he assessed her. "Huh," he said. He sighed. "Look, Elizabeth." He suddenly sounded very tired. "I want this just as much as you. I'd love nothing better than to be able to send your Healer to Atlantis, and know everything is going to be okay."

"They why don't you?" Elizabeth could hear the pleading note in her voice. "Tegan could literally be the difference between life and death for the Lanteans! Surely that's worth the risk?"

Landry shook his head, but Elizabeth could tell he was less certain than before.

"What if you ask her?" she went on quickly. "She is a civilian, after all, and not obligated to follow orders. If she's willing to take the risk, shouldn't that be enough to allow her to go?"

"If she knows the risks, and agrees, and you both wear Hazmat suits and she could actually heal the expedition members?" Landry mused, but he turned towards his office door before she could answer. He opened it, clearly looking for Tegan, and the ripple of curiosity from him was unexpected. "Elizabeth," he said, signaling her to come closer to the door, "who's that playing cards with Colonel Mitchell?"

Elizabeth looked out, and did a double take. The woman sitting at the table was almost unrecognizable as the scowling Goth-girl that Elizabeth had brought from Cardiff. The Atlantis-style medical technician's uniform she was wearing fit her well and made her look instantly professional. The dye was gone from her hair, and it was now a natural brown colour, pulled back into a relaxed bun that let tendrils curl around her face in a soft, attractive style. Her skin glowed with health, and she was smiling broadly at something Cameron had said. She looked comfortable and qualified and like she belonged at the SGC, sitting with the second in-command of their flagship team. Her eyebrow and lip piercing had disappeared. The only one visible was a thin silver ring that delicately punctured one nostril.

Elizabeth had no idea what had occurred to change her look so drastically, but it was definitely an improvement. She cleared her throat.

"That's Tegan Blin, General. The woman I brought with me."

Landry looked at her, one eyebrow raised. "No kidding?"

Elizabeth shook her head. "No, sir. She must have gotten a uniform from somewhere, but that's her."

"Huh," he said again. Landry exited the office and walked over to the table.

"General!" Cameron exclaimed, and made as if to stand.

"At ease, flyboy," the General said with a wave of his hand. "You stand up, you'll probably fall over." He turned a sharp gaze to him. "What are you doing out of bed? And who gave you back your uniform?" Cameron opened his mouth to reply but Landry cut him off. "Never mind, it's probably best that I don't know." He narrowed his eyes at Cameron. "You have ten more minutes of this fooling around, and then you go right back to the Infirmary, understand?"

"Loud and clear, sir!" Cameron said, but he was grinning at Tegan.

Landry turned towards Tegan, who had instinctively sat up straighter at his and Elizabeth's approach. Landry was obviously considering something as he looked at Tegan. Elizabeth could read what he was feeling: contemplative and unsure, and she was certain he was trying to come to a satisfactory conclusion about what to do about Elizabeth's request. She could feel his strong desire to help the Lanteans, and how it was at war with his desire to keep Tegan from harm. He was searching for something in Tegan that would tell him what choice to make, Elizabeth realized. Mentally she crossed her fingers.

"Now," he said, still staring at Tegan. "What's your story?"

"Sir?" Tegan said as she carefully moved the cards out of the way. Elizabeth winced at the surge of fear Landry's attention caused.

"Atlantis is a dangerous place," Landry said without preamble. "People go there and die every day. It's even worse right now. There's a disease there, a sickness that only attacks Gifted people. You're Gifted, right?"

"Yes, sir," she said. Her eyes were very big.

"It could mean your life if you went." He looked at her closely.

"Yes, sir," she said again. Her voice was quiet but steady. "I know."

Landry looked at her. "You're all right with that?"

"I don't want to die," she said, meeting his gaze, "but Dr. Weir says that there are a lot of people on Atlantis. Good people, who will die if I don't help them." She licked her lips. "I'd like to help, if I can." And Elizabeth felt a surge of hope.

"Can you?" Landry asked. "I mean, Dr. Weir tells me you're a Healer. Could you actually heal something like that?"

The hope was short-lived. Elizabeth felt the flurry of Tegan's emotions—shame, fear, desperation all rolled into one wave of misery that caused Elizabeth to actually step back. She grasped the back of one of the chairs for balance.

Tegan was taking too long to respond. Elizabeth could feel her momentary confidence collapsing as she thought about Landry's question, and any second now, she was going to blow it, for herself and all of Atlantis. Elizabeth wanted to scream. She inhaled sharply instead, willing Tegan to do or say something to convince Landry that she could go.

Tegan licked her lips. "Actually," she started. She glanced at Elizabeth, who could feel her flooding with panic. "I—"

"Heal me," Cameron said. Elizabeth looked at him, startled. In the rush of Tegan's emotions, she had nearly forgotten that the Lt. Colonel was there. She could feel his concern and his desire to help, woven through with curiosity, excitement, and a bright thread of almost-giddy nervousness, like someone about to step on an amusement park ride. Cameron was surely also picking up on Tegan's insecurity about her Gift from the terrified expression on her face, but for some reason, it was worth it to him to try. "Heal me, Tegan," he repeated quietly. "Show the General what you got."

Tegan visibly blanched. Her eyes darted from Cameron to Elizabeth to the General and back. "I—I..."

Elizabeth closed her eyes. This would be Landry's test. If Tegan wouldn't, or couldn't heal Cameron, then it would all be for nothing. Radek, she thought helplessly. Her eyes burned from unshed tears.

"Come on," Cameron said, and the strength of his belief had Elizabeth opening her eyes. She could feel how sure Cameron was that Tegan could do this. She hoped, somehow, that Tegan could feel it too. He offered her his hand.

Tegan shook her head. "No," she said, and Elizabeth's heart sank.

"I don't need to touch you," Tegan continued. She took a deep breath, and Elizabeth could feel it, a sense of purpose and hope and a flicker of confidence. "Just—" Tegan focused on Cameron, "let me..."

Cameron gasped. "Whoa." His head tipped against the back of the chair, and he closed his eyes.

Tegan raised one of her hands towards him, her forehead glistening with sweat. Landry was tense beside Elizabeth, coils of anxiety tapping against Elizabeth's psyche, but she found herself smiling, relishing the feeling of calm and trust that she could sense from Cameron. Whatever Tegan was doing to him, it didn't hurt.

Suddenly, Tegan let out a breath and pressed her fingers against her temples. "Whew," she said. "Dizzy."

"Whoa," Cameron said again. His voice was slurring with obvious exhaustion. There wasn't a trace of bruising anywhere on his handsome face, but he looked completely wiped. "Wow," he said. He let his leg fall off the chair in front of him with a thump and listed forward in his seat, eyes half-closing. "What did you do to me?"

"Walter!" Landry shouted. "Medical emergency in the conference room! Get Dr. Lam's team here now!" Elizabeth could feel his burst of panic, it was echoing her own.

"Yessir!" Walter called back as he keyed his radio.

"No, no," Cameron said, he lifted his hand in a vague semblance of a wave. "S'cool. I'm fine. Jus' tired." He pillowed his head on his arms, a small smile curving his lips. "I feel good," he said. "No pain. Jus' tired." His eyes drifted shut. "She did good."

Landry put his hand gently on Cameron's shoulder. "You sure you're okay?"

"Uh huh," Cameron murmured, eyes still closed. "Fine. Everythin's fine." His breathing deepened into sleep.

"Belay that order!" Landry called down to Walter, who dutifully cancelled the mobilization of the medical staff.

Tegan had slumped over on the table, head on her arms, clearly asleep as well.

Landry blinked at Tegan and Cameron, sleeping together like toddlers. "Wow," he said. "What the hell just happened?"

"I don't know," Elizabeth said, but she felt herself begining to smile, beaming in hope and joy. "But I think she healed him."

"Yeah, I think she did, too," Landry said. He was smiling as well, looking down at the two sleepers. "Elizabeth," he said, "I think you're good to go."

The Gate flared to life with a noise like the ocean, and Ronon was on his feet instantly, all but dumping Chuck off the Jumper bench and onto the floor. He grabbed the tech by the scruff of his hoodie and hauled him back on to the bench. Chuck just kept murmuring to himself and twitching, not even resting as he slept.

John and Rodney walked through the circle of blue. They both looked all right, but Rodney was moving slowly, tired. His face was grey as ashes, and his eyes kept darting nervously to John, like Rodney was scared of him.

John's face was like stone. He said nothing, and even though Ronon wasn't expecting any words out of him this silence felt different—dark, instead of resigned. It reminded Ronon a little too much of when John had been turning into an Iratus bug. It had been hard for him to talk then, too. It was kind of like John wasn't totally human anymore. His cast was gone.

"Rodney, you can hear everything I say again," he said as he walked towards the Jumper. He barely glanced at Ronon, just shoved a box into Ronon's hands. It was black, longer than it was wide, warmed by the heat of John's skin. It felt insubstantial, like there wasn't anything inside it.

"What's this?" Ronon asked Rodney.

"The cure," Rodney said dully. He was blinking a lot, moving slowly like an old man. Hungry, Ronon thought. Getting sick the way he did when he didn't eat for too long, where he got weak and jittery and stupid. He swayed a little, but caught his balance before Ronon could fumble the box to reach for him. "It's the cure," Rodney repeated, like he didn't remember he'd just said that.

Ronon looked at the box, then back at Rodney. "That's good, right?" he asked, because even if Rodney was sick, he should've been happy about it. John should've been.

"Yeah," Rodney said. His voice sounded bad, too dry. He swallowed. "We, um, we need to go. I have to...I have to, uh..."

"Rodney, you feel fine," John snapped from the Jumper's cockpit. He sounded angry, the way he did when he was actually scared. "Get in here and turn the ARD on."

"Sure," Rodney said. He sounded a little bit better, but didn't really move like he was.

Ronon followed them and John closed the hatch behind him. Ronon left Chuck still sleeping on the bench in the back, sat on his normal chair behind Sheppard. John was palming a handful of glucose tablets. He slapped them into his mouth then grabbed the Jumper's yoke. The ship started rising. "What happened?" Ronon asked.

"Nothing happened," Rodney said, except his voice was clipped and he was looking at his tablet so he wouldn't have to look at Ronon. Ronon could tell. "It went perfectly. They did exactly what Sheppard wanted." He held out the tablet. "Hit that key."

Ronon did, and he heard the ARD start up as they left this Atlantis and her dead and leapt into the clear, clean black of the sky. "You got the cure, though, right?" Ronon asked, but he didn't wait for Rodney to answer him. "So, what's the problem?"

"They did exactly what Sheppard wanted," Rodney said.

Ronon looked at John. John's face still showed nothing at all, but his eyes were wet and red.

"They murdered the whole expedition, Sheppard," Ronon said.

"I know," John said. He swallowed, nodded. "I know that. I'm fine. Don't worry about it."

Ronon believed him, and he didn't worry at all.

Eight realities later, they were back.

John put the Jumper down in the centre of the bay, opening the back hatch even before they touched. There was already a medical team waiting with three gurneys and enough IV bags for at least six people, and Jennifer looking hopeful and excited and terrified all at once.

"You got it? Really? They just gave it to you?" Jennifer asked John incredulously as Ronon put the black box into her hands.

I'm a Charmer, John wanted to snarl at her. What the fuck do you think they would do? But he couldn't say anything at all, so he just ignored her. Jennifer had already opened the box and was looking at the three little ampoules nestled into their secure casing, so it wasn't like she was waiting for an answer anyway.

She looked up at him, beaming. "This is fantastic. This is really, really fantastic. I've got to get this to the Infirmary." She closed the box like it carried the Holy Grail and handed it to one of the med techs. "Bring this to my lab. Carefully! Don't drop it!" She sounded so much like Rodney that John almost smiled.

Ronon helped a medic get Campbell onto a gurney, and two more medics swarmed up, taking John by the arms to lead him to a gurney of his own. "Let go of me, I'm fine," he snapped at them. "Go help Rodney."

They let go of him like automatons, turning and going into the Jumper instead. John followed them.

Rodney was still sitting in the co-pilot's seat, staring blankly down at the tablet in his hands, even though he couldn't touch the keys. "Oh, hey, John," he said when he saw him. He blinked at the two medics, pulling on his tablet when one tried to gently take it from him. "What's going on?"

"Rodney, stand up," John said through his teeth. Rodney all but rocketed out of his seat, the tablet still gripped in his hand. And then his eyes rolled back and his knees gave out.

"No!" John's shout was instinctive, full of denial and fear. The medics stopped trying to grab Rodney as if John had forbidden them. It probably kept them from breaking their hands on his shield. Rodney collapsed to his knees, then face down on the deck, his shield fizzing gold around each part of him as it touched. Rodney didn't move. His shield didn't shut down.

"No! No, Rodney!" John shoved the medics out of the way, throwing himself to his knees at Rodney's head in the cramped space of the cockpit. He put his hands on Rodney's head but couldn't feel anything through the shield.

"Colonel, sir," one of the medics began tentatively, "please let us—"

"Shut up," John hissed at her. "Both of you—get out." He didn't look away from Rodney to see if they left. He knew they would.

It was like it had been on the desert planet, except this time it was worse. Rodney's shield had dropped, then, when he lost consciousness. John had been able to touch him, keep him alive until help could come.

Now help was right there, outside the Jumper, but no one could do a damn thing.

John swallowed, took a breath, then focused his Gift.

"Drop your shield, Rodney," John said.

Nothing happened.

"Rodney, listen to me! Drop your shield!" John could feel the sickening rush of exhaustion clawing through the terror and adrenaline. He ignored it. "Drop your shield! Come on, Rodney, do it! Turn off your fucking shield!"


John heard footsteps rattling on the metal of the deck. "Get out!" he snarled without turning his head. They left.

Rodney's body started trembling, falling into a seizure.

"No!" It was the desert, all over again. John was watching Rodney die. "Stop the seizure, Rodney," he said, terrified. "Relax you body. You can do it. That's it, that's it—"

John came to with Ronon pulling him upright, away from Rodney. He had no idea how long he'd been unconscious, hadn't known he'd passed out at all. Rodney's body wasn't moving.

"Rodney!" John bucked against Ronon's hold, trying to slam his head back into Ronon's face. He was so dizzy the Jumper had begun a slow spin in front of his eyes, but he had to get back to Rodney. Rodney wasn't moving. "Let me go!"

Ronon dropped him like John had caught fire, but John's legs wouldn't hold him anymore. He hit hard on his chest, badly enough to make the world drop out again. He snapped awake already moving, stretching his arm towards Rodney. His fingertips grazed Rodney's shield.

The relief almost pulled him under another time, But John fought it, propped himself up on one bent arm, blinking sweat out of his eyes. "Live, Rodney," he said, forcing his Gift into the word with every bit of strength he had.

Dr. Garret Corrigan lay face down on the grass, dying.

It felt like his bones were cracking, slamming against each other with every creaking breath he took. They were splintering inside him, flaying his skin from the inside out. He was on fire, burning and sweating and aching so deeply inside that his lungs felt crushed by the pain.

He had no idea how long he had been laying there, the half-metre he'd crawled from the entrance of his tent was farther now than the distance of the Beta site from Atlantis. He couldn't remember why he'd come out here, either. Was he going to dial the Gate? Had he thought it was cooler outside? None of it mattered anymore. He was being torn apart, burning to ashes. He just hoped he'd be dead soon.

The need to use his Gift clawed like a rabid animal, tearing at his skull with thick, razored nails. He'd fought it at first, pushing and shoving the need back time after time until finally it had overwhelmed him, but there was no other human being on this planet. No energy or auras or anything for his Gift to interact with. He kept reaching out with his Gift, extending its scope time and time again, but there was nothing

Each time he failed, the animal inside howled and bit and killed him by degrees.

His hand curled against the soft tendrils of grass, the taste of plant and dirt in his mouth, the press of stalks discernable through his t-shirt, prickling against his bare arms, his right cheek. Tears were sliding hot and wet down the side of his face.

Happy, he thought, trying to picture her face. The only image he could conjure was that of the last time he had seen her, pale and bleeding, eyes closed, being loaded onto a stretcher by a medical team. The last time he'd spoken to Danny, his team lead had said that she was still recovering in the Infirmary, heavily sedated to keep her Gift from activating on it's own. But Garret had no idea if Happy could stay unconscious through this kind of pain. He prayed she could, that she was. And if not, he prayed that she was already dead.

He wished he were dead. Maybe that's what he had been planning on doing: contacting Atlantis and asking for a gun.

The Gate was only a few metres in front of him, as far away as the moon. Even if he wanted to radio Atlantis, he'd never make it to the DHD now.

He heard a 'whooshing' sound, and there was a blast of frigid air that felt blissful against his scorching skin.

Then he felt it, the unmistakable sense of someone's aura, approaching him from the Gate. Two people, actually, and he had never, ever felt anything so good as their auras did at that moment. The lessening of his pain was so intense that Garret whimpered, fingers digging into the ground.

"Oh my God!" Jennifer Keller said, her green-yellow aura flaring as she approached. "No wonder he missed his check-in. Help me with him."

He knew his eyes were open, but he was blind to anything but the auras in front of him, his vision taken over by his Gift. Jennifer was a blob of green and yellow by his head, helping to turn him onto his back. Malcom Parker, one of the medics, was kneeling by his shoulders, gently helping as he was moved. His aura was dark and solid as earth.

The touch of their hands on his feverish body felt like brands and Garret moaned. He could hear Jennifer talking to him, her words sounding urgent and like something he should listen to, but he couldn't seem to remember how to make them make sense. He heard something like 'injection' and 'cure' but he wasn't sure what the context was, or even if she was actually talking to him. He had been lifted into a half-sitting position, with Malcom supporting his back. He knew it was him by his aura. His aura and and Jennifer's blended into each other, becoming a strange, swirling mixture of brown, yellow and green. It felt like their hands on him left trails of burnt skin in their wake. The needle Jennifer pressed into Garret's shoulder was like a tiny shard of superheated glass, with molten lava flowing directly into his arm.

Garret pulled against them, knowing it was useless and futile, desperate to get away from their touch, and yet he didn't want to move. Their auras were fascinating, intricate designs of infinite and minute shades and shadows of colour. Jennifer wasn't just a green-yellow, she was chartreuse and lemon, wheat and lime. Malcom was every shade of sand and soil, from the lightest beige to darkest brown. Garret could feel their energy, a physical presence against his raw skin, pressure and heat and weight. It was like being inside a furnace and he was the fuel.

"Please," he said. His voice was a broken whisper. He had no idea what he was pleading for. Garret felt another needle sliding into his forearm, and then the strange sensation of something cooler than his blood entering his system. Suddenly, the agony lessened.

"I've started an IV and given you something for the pain," Jennifer said. "You're going to feel so much better in just a few hours. I promise." He felt something cool and wet against his lips. Malcom was offering him water, and he drank. "Just hold on," Jennifer was saying, and he could hear the tears of joy in her voice. "You're going to be fine. I promise. Sheppard found the cure."

John woke up gasping, surging upright with the remnants of nightmares splintering around him.


Someone put their hands on his shoulders, trying to hold him down, but he had to get to Rodney, use his Gift—

John jabbed his fist into Carson Beckett's stomach the same instant he realized who it was.

Carson let out a grunt of surprise and pain and let go of John to stagger backwards, bent over with his arms clasped around his stomach.

"John! Stop this! We are your friends!" That was Teyla, her slim, strong hand around John's wrist, and reality finally finished clicking into place in his head and he recognized the Infirmary, knew he was lying on a bed, felt the sting in his wrist where his sudden, violent movement had yanked the IV catheter out.

"Bloody hell, you've a strong punch," Carson said. He was standing up again, one hand still protectively over his bruised middle. He was wearing sunglasses and he looked unkempt and maybe in pain, and John didn't know why he was there, instead of quarantined in his room.

"You're in the Infirmary, John," Teyla said. She was still holding his wrist. "You were given the cure. The disease will be gone in a few hours."

John ignored her. "Where's Rodney?"

"He's here," Teyla said. "And he is still with us." She took a breath. "But he is dying."

It felt to John like his heart was richocheting around his chest, hurtling from relief to terror. "Let me go!" he demanded. "I have to help him!"

Teyla released him instantly, but John was hit by a flood of weakness like a tidal bore crashing through him. He felt himself sagging sideways but couldn't do anything to stop it.

Carson grabbed his shoulder with both hands, propping him up. John fell back against the raised top of the bed, gasping.

"Stop it! Stop it now!" Carson blasted at him. "Good God, man—you were barely breathing when we got you in here, and that was with your charm ameliorated! I wouldn't even let you out of bed right now, except that Rodney's life is at stake!"

"I know," John said, struggling to sit up again. He struggled not to give in to the sleep buzzing behind his eyes. "Please—"

"You must stop talking!" Teyla snapped, and John's eyes flew open, staring at her. John winced as Carson grabbed his wrist, cleaned it and slid in a new catheter and IV lock. "Save your strength and listen," she continued sharply. "Dr. Weir has found another Healer for Atlantis. They are at the SGC and will be here as soon as possible."

"When?" John demanded. He tried to sit up again. Teyla put her hand on his chest and shoved him back.

"They will be here soon," Teyla said, because she was still compelled to answer his question."But it is possible Rodney will not survive until then."

John nodded numbly, mind reeling. "How long was I out?" How long since he passed out in the Jumper, leaving Rodney with no one to help him?

"A little over an hour," Carson said. "We've been synthesizing and distributing the cure since almost the instant you came back. You and I have both had a dose, and we're sending Elizabeth some at Midway. Now shut it."

An hour. He'd been unconscious for an hour, with Rodney dying behind his shield. He opened his mouth to speak, Just let me get to Rodney! but Teyla smacked her hand over his mouth, glowering.

"You must listen," she snapped.

"Aye," Carson said. John looked at him to see he was holding up a syringe to the light, tapping it with his gloved hand. "I'm giving you a stimulant, but you'll still need to conserve your energies, mind you." When he looked at John his eyes were grave and worried. "The truth is, I wouldn't let you do this at all if there were any other choice. You shouldn't even be awake, but Rodney's fading and your Gift is still strong enough to hopefully talk him through it. But if you collapse before the Healer gets here, Rodney could die. Y'ken?"

John nodded again. He watched as Carson injected the stimulant into the port of his IV line. Almost instantly he felt alert, stronger, the buzzing muted until it was almost nothing.

"Good," Carson said, nodding. He looked at the IV bag, made a face. It was still a third full. John wondered how many he'd been given. "Not enough, but it can't be helped. All right then." He gave John a wan smile. "Go save your man."

"Come," Teyla said. She took John's arm when he was unsteady getting out of the bed. He was still in his uniform; it was soaked through with sweat. Even his boots were on.

Rodney was on a bed only a few steps away, across from Campbell, Radek and Lorne, and near Grodin and L'Heureux, and Gordon Sparks, obviously brought there from the stasis chamber. His lights were rioting around him, but John knew he had to be improving or he wouldn't be there at all. They were all still unconscious, all still attached to IV bags, like something out of a horror movie.

Rodney was lying on his back on his bed, eyes closed and mouth slack. The only sign that he was still clinging to life was his weak, rapid breathing and the sweat making his hair damp and darkening the his tee-shirt under his jacket. John knew that came from the lack of glucose, though Rodney was probably too dehydrated to sweat very much. His shield crackled gold all along the frame of his body where it touched the bed. John didn't know if he'd stopped seizing because John had told him to, or because he'd slipped that much closer to death. He might already be brain-damaged from the lack of sugar. John just hoped to hell he wasn't.

But first Rodney had to live.

Teyla guided him to a chair near Rodney's head, wheeling the mobile IV stand up next to him. John would have rather stood, but he got that he needed to save as much energy as possible. He licked his lips, steeling himself, pushing the fear away. He didn't have time to be afraid.

He wished he could hold Rodney's hand.

"Okay, Rodney," he said, putting his Gift into it. "I need you to listen."

Tegan slept in the Infirmary on IV glucose for an hour. Dr. Lam had insisted on it, even though Tegan felt mostly fine if still a bit knackered after her nap in the conference room. She woke up to see Dr. Weir pacing worriedly next to her bed, but Dr. Weir smiled warmly at her anyway.

Tegan bolted a sandwich on the way to the Gate room, and walked into what looked like a beautiful pool of blue water before she really got a chance to think about what was happening.

Between one step and the next, they were at Midway. The fact that the small space-station rested half-way between two galaxies would have been overwhelming in itself, but it paled in comparison to the fact that Tegan had just stepped through a wormhole to get there.

She wanted to stop and look round with her eyes wide open and her mouth gaping, and completely take in the reality that she was in a space station! But Dr. Weir had started walking with those long, purposeful strides of hers the second they had come through the Gate, and Tegan now found herself jogging to keep up.

"Dr. Kavanagh," Dr. Weir said, not slowing her pace as a tall bloke with short-cropped curly hair, wire-rimmed glasses and a scowl fell into step beside her. "We're not stopping here, so we'll need the hazmat suits immediately, please."

"You won't need the suits," Dr. Kavanagh snapped. His tone took Tegan aback. Even after knowing Dr. Weir for only a couple of days, she would never have thought that anyone would have gotten stroppy with her. It made her wonder if Dr. Weir and Dr. Kavanagh had some kind of history together. He wasn't a bad looking man, if you didn't mind the pale skin and the sneer.

Dr. Weir stopped, and her face lit up. "They've found a cure?"

"No." Dr. Kavanagh's sneer grew wider. "They don't have nearly enough brain power up there to—" The look that Dr. Weir gave him was harsh enough to cause his mouth to snap shut. "Well, they didn't find a cure," he insisted. "They got the ARD to work and Sheppard and McKay had to track it down across, like five different realities!"

"But they did get one," Dr. Weir said. "And they've been using it?"

"Yes, yes," Dr. Kavanagh said with a wave of his hand. "Everyone's been inoculated. Well, except Dr. McKay of course. Seems his shield is still up..."

Dr. Weir's gaze turned withering.

"They sent inoculations through about ten minutes before you arrived," Dr. Kavanagh said quickly.

"Excellent," Dr. Weir said as she started walking again. "We'll be leaving as soon as we receive the medication."

"No, you won't," Dr. Kavanagh said, jogging a few steps to catch up with her. "After you're injected, Dr. Keller wants you to wait here for at least twelve hours before you continue on to Atlantis, to make sure that you're protected from the disease before you get there."

Dr. Weir didn't even slow down. "I sincerely doubt she said that. Dr. McKay needs us now."

Dr. Kavanagh stepped into her path and crossed his arms. "Dr. Keller understands the importance of following policy, Dr. Weir! And SGC policy states that you must wait a minimum of twelve hours before recommencing Gate travel after receiving an inoculation!" "

"So Dr. Keller didn't say she intended us to wait and further jeapordize Dr. McKay's life," Dr. Weir said cooly.

"Well, no," Dr. Kavanagh said. He sounded nervous, but then drew himself up straighter. "But this isn't about McKay! This is about policy, and I'm sure Dr. Keller understands that! And anyway, if you're not willing to do what I say," he said, sounding much more confident, "I won't release the medicine to you. These rules are in place to protect you, and I think you need to follow them." His sneer was back again. "You're probably too emotional right now to understand the risk you're putting yourself into, so it's my job to ensure your safety." Tegan gasped, her eyes flying to Dr. Weir's face to see her reaction.

"All right," Dr. Weir said slowly, her eyes narrowing a bit. "I understand your concern. Tegan and I will wait until after the injections."

"Do you promise you'll wait?" Dr. Kavanagh said in a tone that, to Tegan, sounded like the worst of her lecturers from uni.

"Absolutely," Dr. Weir said. "I promise that we'll wait."

"Fine," Dr. Kavanagh said. He turned and they followed him out of the Gate room into a smaller anti-chamber. He picked up something that looked like a miniature red plastic suitcase and popped it open. Inside it was lined with a grey sponge that held two pre-loaded syringes, a pair of medical gloves and some alcohol swabs. "Now," Dr. Kavanagh said as he reached in to grab the gloves, who's first?"

"I am," said Dr. Weir, "but Tegan will give me mine." She shot him a look that could have melted glass.

"Fine," he said again, nearly thrusting the case at her.

Tegan felt herself start. "Me?" she said. "But I haven't done any nursing for at least two years!"

Dr. Weir gave her a wry smile. "I'm sure you'll be better than Dr. Kavanagh." He sniffed.

"If you're sure..." Tegan said. She moved two of the chairs in the room together and sat down, putting the case at her feet. She then cleaned her hands with a small bit of alcohol hand rub from the case and slipped the gloves on. The feel of the thin plastic was so familiar that she felt a sudden rush of tears. She had forgotten how much she missed nursing. Her eyes flicked to Dr. Weir's. The other woman had sat down beside her and was looking at her sympathetically.

"You'll get that back," she whispered. Tegan nodded as she busied herself with preparing Dr. Weir's shoulder for the injection, throat too thick to speak. It was probably Dr. Weir's Gift that helped her know what it was that Tegan was feeling, but it had been so long since anyone had given a toss about her that she didn't even know how to respond. "This might pinch a bit," she said as she quickly thrust the needle deep into Dr. Weir's shoulder.

"Thank you." Dr. Weir smiled at her. "I didn't feel a thing."

"Do you mind if I give you your injection?" Dr. Kavanagh said to Tegan although he was looking at Dr. Weir. "Or are you also too worried to let me?"

"Oh, don't trouble yourself," Tegan said with a quick glance at Dr. Weir. "I'll inject it into my thigh."

"Suit yourself," Dr. Kavanagh said as he turned away. "Call me when you're done and I'll show you to your quarters for the duration of your stay. They're not luxurious, but then again, it's only for twelve more hours." He left, letting the door swish shut behind him.

"We're not going to wait," Dr. Weir said as soon as the door was fully shut.

Tegan looked at Dr. Weir. "Right," she said, feeling oddly both exhilarated and a little frightened. "Um. Do you mind if I take my trousers off?"

"I don't mind," Dr. Weir said, standing up and turning around so that she was facing away.

"Ta," Tegan said, quickly taking off her uniform trousers and pulling them down to her knees. She sat down on the chair again, cleaned her hands and, taking a moment to remember where to inject, swabbed her leg and jammed in the needle. She pulled her trousers back up and kept standing, knowing that using her leg would help the medicine absorb more quickly. She could feel it oozing its way through her muscle, thick and painful, and without really thinking about it she turned on her Gift. Closing her eyes, Tegan found the liquid in her leg and nudged the flesh around it so that it diffused faster. It was surprisingly easy, and it was even easier still to follow the liquid's path into her bloodstream, and watch as her immune cells found it and started to interact. Tegan bit her lip, her heart speeding up as she made a decision. It was her body after all, no one else would get hurt if she mucked it up.

Gently, she nudged her immune cells, and then her entire immune system, helping it to create antibodies against the disease in minutes instead of hours. It wasn't hard at all, and actually felt, well, nice to use her Gift. It was rather like uncrossing your legs when you'd been sitting too long, she thought. She pushed harder, and her cells worked even faster, humming through her veins like bees in a hive. She felt herself smiling with the pleasure of it, and was almost sad when she was finished. She opened her eyes.

Dr. Weir was looking at her, and her smile was very broad. "You're immune now, aren't you? You used your Gift." It wasn't a question.

"Yeah," Tegan said, feeling herself smile in return. She felt a bit dizzy, but she wasn't sure if it was from using her Gift or the fact that she had and it had worked, and she was still alive. "Yeah, I guess I did."

Dr. Weir handed her three tablets that Tegan assumed were glucose, and Tegan dutifully put them into her mouth and started chewing. They were as pasty as the ones she'd had at school, but at least the fruit flavour wasn't horrible. Dr. Weir cleared her throat.

"Do you think—well, would you be able to do that for me?"

"Yes," Tegan said confidently "Yes, I can."

"Fabulous." Dr. Weir beamed at her. "Let's do it."

They left through the Gate towards Atlantis fifteen minutes later, Dr. Kavanagh's protests about broken promises ringing in their ears. "We did wait until after the injections!" Dr. Weir said as they headed back to the Gate room. "Just like I promised. Don't forget, I never promised you how long we'd wait for." She winked at Tegan as the Gate's symbols lit up and the strange blue water filled the circle. "Good-bye, Doctor, Give my best to Dr. Lee!"

"Nice to meet you!" Tegan said, fluttering her fingers at him.

"If you get killed over there, don't come running to me!" Dr. Kavanagh shouted as they walked up the short ramp towards the Gate.

Dr. Weir's smile was the last thing Tegan saw as she stepped through.

He was standing on the other side of the Gate when they arrived, face scowling and more beautiful than Elizabeth had even remembered.

"Ronon!" Elizabeth cried, rushing into his arms. She knew she was the Civilian Commander of Atlantis and that her position required a constant level of dignity and detachment, but right that second she couldn't give a damn. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and felt his huge hands pressing against her back, lifting her off her feet and nearly crushing her to him. She was surrounded by Ronon's emotions: Anger, concern, desire and love, flowing through her like the heat from his body traveled across her skin. She breathed in his scent—the clean scent of his dreds, the leather of his clothes and the musk that was so much himself, Ronon, her lover. And she finally felt like she was home.

Gently, he lowered her back to the floor, his big thumbs brushing the tears away from her cheeks. He was still glowering at her.

"Where the fuck is your suit?" he said by way of greeting.

Elizabeth gestured towards Tegan, who was who was standing in the middle of the Gate room floor, looking around her with an expression of complete and utter awe. "Tegan is the Healer I went to find," Elizabeth said by way of explanation. "She was able to make Jennifer's injection work faster. I'm perfectly safe."

"Good," Ronon growled. He bent down and kissed her, hard and passionate, his relief and fear weaving around her like strands of light. Dimly she was aware of the surprise of the others in the Gate room from her very obvious display of affection. Tegan, she was sure, was probably standing behind her in open-mouthed astonishment. Elizabeth smiled against Ronon's mouth.

"Perhaps we should continue this in a less public forum?"

He grunted his assent and let her go, but his hand stayed firmly clasped around hers. He looked over her shoulder to Tegan, and then turned back to Elizabeth. "She any good?"

"Yes," Elizabeth said with certainty.

"Then bring her," Ronon said. "McKay needs her. Now."

Tegan felt like her brain was going to explode.

That morning—no, it was yesterday—no she had woken up in her dingy little flat in Cardiff, expecting to deliver pizza for the rest of her life, and now, she was standing in the Infirmary of the lost city of Atlantis, attempting to figure out how to heal a bloke whose Gift had gone mad because he was infected with a disease created by an alien race from another reality.

She was sure that the second this crisis had passed, she'd start to laugh or cry or something and wouldn't stop for ages. But right now, it was very clear that she had a job to do.

And that job was to heal Dr. McKay before he died of Gift-induced hypoglycemia and dehydration.

If she could only figure out how.

"It's okay, I'll lead you through it," the pretty blond woman standing beside her said, in a strangely flat type of English Tegan thought probably came from Canada. The woman's name was Martine, and Dr. Weir had introduced her as a nurse who specialized in helping Gifted people control their Gifts. But right now, it was Martine's own Gift that Tegan was meant to use to help her heal Dr. McKay. "It won't be hard, I promise."

"That one, Albert, is going to link our Gifts, yeah?" Tegan said, licking her lips. She was looking at Albert, who was a Sergeant with the American Marine Corps. Albert was also Gifted, and would apparently be joining Martine and Tegan's minds together somehow. He was sitting in a chair someone had brought for him, since he was still sick and using his Gift like this would be quite taxing for him. His handsome face was set in serious lines, which Tegan found a bit intimidating. She wished that he would smile.

But it was the bloke near Dr. McKay's head who intimidated Tegan the most. He was all in black with mad, spiking hair, though the way he was sitting meant Tegan couldn't see his face. He was bent over with his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands, like he didn't have the strength to stay upright. There was an IV in his arm, like Albert had, and with the way he looked, it was likely he'd collapse without it.

He was speaking to Dr. McKay, first ordering, then begging him to stay alive, and Tegan wondered if the man had been allowed out of his own sickbed to visit his dying friend. She'd tried not to listen since it wasn't polite, but she couldn't help it. She couldn't not listen, as if there wasn't a choice. It was like his voice was the only noise in the whole room. No one else had spoken until the small, beautiful woman at his side had told him Tegan was there.

He'd looked up, then, right at her. He had incredibly compelling green eyes, and was as georgeous in his own way as Cameron Mitchell had been back at the SGC, but his face was so desolate with grief that Tegan almost couldn't bear to look at him.

"You may want to close your eyes," Albert said in an accent that sounded like one off of American telly. "It won't hurt. Y'all try to relax, 'kay? Martine and I'll do the rest."

"Okay," Tegan said. She licked her lips again, glancing at Dr. Weir, who had come to the Infirmary with her. She was standing well back and out of the way, but she gave Tegan a warm smile. Tegan smiled nervously back, then closed her eyes. She wished irrationally that her piercings were still in place, as if they could have offered any protection against what was about to happen. Her heart was pounding so hard she thought she would faint, and she dearly wished she could just refuse and run off and hide. But Dr. McKay was lying on the casualty bed, looking as pale and grey as death itself, and no matter how frightened she was, Tegan knew she wouldn't abandon him. Nurses didn't abandon their patients. Not ever.

"And here we are," Martine said.

Tegan opened her eyes.

She was still standing in the hospital, but somehow knew that she was now looking through Martine's eyes. Martine was looking at Dr. McKay, but it was a different sort of looking. "My Gift needs direct contact, so I need you to use your Gift so I can use mine," Martine said. And dutifully, Tegan reached out, making contact with Dr. McKay's still form. She felt Martine's Gift flair to life inside her, as if it was hers, but yet it felt separate as well. She watched, through Martine's eyes, as Martine's Gift flowed through Dr. McKay, immediately identifying the pathogen as specks of black contaminants. Her first instinct was to latch onto those horrifying specks, and try to potentiate them into extinction, but Martine's Gift was pulling her upwards, and she followed it, up and up, until she was inside his brain.

"Can you see it?" Martine was panting, and Tegan could feel the effort it was costing Martine to use her Gift in such a controlled manner. Martine had only been cured of the pathogen herself a few hours before and, according to the super-fast report she'd received from Dr. Keller, the disease caused Gifted people to instinctively want to over-use their Gift until they died of it. It was the same for all the Gifted people on Atlantis, and the symptoms wouldn't go away entirely until the medicine had completely wiped the pathogen from their system. Some of them were still at risk; Tegan was to heal them all.

Dr. McKay was the first. He couldn't even receive his injection because his shield was still up. Tegan's job was to get him to lower his shield, otherwise it would only collapse when he died.

Tegan refocused on Dr. McKay's brain. Martine had led her there, and now Martine's Gift was showing where Dr. McKay's Gift came from, deep within it. The area was surrounded by the flecks of black pathogen, like fly specks on a window. Even though she wasn't touching it, Tegan could feel its disgusting presence and it actually made her shudder. She started to gag.

Easy, she heard Albert's voice in her head. You're alright. She could feel the strain he was under, too. Marie Yau, the kind nurse who had brought Tegan to McKay, had explained how Albert's Gift worked, and Tegan felt badly for him that he was back with so many people when his cure hadn't finished working yet. He was trying not to link everyone in the Infirmary.

"Okay, yeah," she said out loud, and took a deep breath. She took another look at the infected area of Dr. McKay's brain, and reached out with her Gift, unsure of what she should do. You killed a man once, just like this, she thought, and the rush of adrenalin that came with it was so sharp she thought she really was going to throw up.

It was true. She had killed a man just like this, by attempting to get rid of the bacteria causing his illness. Instead, she had made the number of bacteria grow until she'd swamped the poor patient's immune system. His ability to fight the disease had disappeared in seconds, and he had died minutes later, and it had all been her fault.

Now she was going to do the exact same thing again.

"No!" she cried. She pushed back, throwing herself out of the link and ending up with both knees and one hand on the floor of the hospital, Martine kneeling beside her, looking sick and pained and like she'd just run a marathon.

"Damn it!" Albert swore, clutching his head. "You trying to kill us?"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" Tegan said in between sobs. She felt dizzy and stomach sick and like the fear and guilt was trying to tear its way through her. "I'm going to kill him if I do this! I can't help him. I can't!"

"Tegan, listen to me," a man said.

Her head snapped up. Every other thought forgotten except for the overwhelming, all-consuming desire to listen to everything he had to say. She stared, rapt, at the man she'd seen before. The IV was gone and he was walking towards her, the small woman following close behind. He was all but swaying on his feet, but the desolation she'd seen on his face had been replaced by a fierce, almost ferocious determination. His black uniform suited his bearing perfectly. He was glaring at her. She wanted to look away, but he had told her to listen, and she couldn't do anything else.

"Yes, sir?" she said, somehow knowing the honourific was right for him.

"You can do this," he said, his voice measured and even. "It's easy for you. A walk in the park. As simple and natural as breathing. Okay?"

She frowned. "Are you sure? I—I killed one of my patients trying to cure a disease in him. I don't want the same thing to happen to Dr. McKay." She licked her lips. She so badly wanted this to be easy for her, just as the man said. She looked up at him expectantly, listening.

"That was in the past, Tegan," he said. His voice was mostly kind, but there was an edge to it, like he was trying not to be angry. "Things are different now. You know how to use your Gift now. Now it's easy. You can heal McKay with no problem, and you know it, don't you?"

"Oh," she whispered. "Right." A rush of calm and confidence was pouring through her. Using her Gift was easy. It did feel as natural as breathing. She did know that. Of course she did. There was no reason in the world why she couldn't do this. And she could feel it, the confidence of knowing that what he said was right. She stood, and dusted off her knees, ready to face the task again.

"You're fine, Martine," the man was now saying to the woman next to her. "You feel rested and good, and your Gift is under your complete control."

"Yes, Colonel, I do feel good," Martine said. She stood as well and took Tegan's hand, flashing her a brave smile.

"You're head's fine, Conroy," the Colonel continued, looking at the Marine Sergeant, "and you're ready to carry on."

"Yessir," Albert said seriously. "Thank you."

"Let's do this," the Colonel said.

Tegan nodded and closed her eyes.

Then she was back with Martine, flowing through Dr. McKay. It was easy this time, almost too easy, to find the injured spot in his brain. Tegan looked at it, scared that the fear would come back, but this time it was nearly gone. It was like the Colonel's words had somehow locked it behind the doors of a glass cabinet, so she could see it but it had no power to affect her. Gently, like blowing the puff from a dandelion, she moved the black flecks away from the afflicted part of Dr. McKay's brain, while coaxing his immune system to step up and push them back. His immune cells were weak, and not really able to do much damage to the disease, but she nudged, and prodded, and eventually they were able to make enough of a response so that the area was nearly completely cleared.

Tegan felt sweat beginning to wet her back. She could feel it along her hairline and at her temples. This was hard work. Harder than anything she'd ever done with her Gift, but she was almost there. Instinctively, she knew that there was a threshold of pathogen that had to be destroyed in order for McKay's Gift to stop, but she had to help him reach it.

But she'd have to stay on her feet long enough for that to happen, and the pathogens were beginning to fight back.

They were dividing then dividing again, faster than any bacteria Tegan had ever learned about, swarming Dr. McKay's immune cells with a strength and determination that didn't make sense in any non-sentient organism, but Tegan didn't have time to marvel at the implications of it all.

Instead, she doubled her efforts, abandoning a delicate touch for one more like throwing the telly at a fly. She was shaking now, her shirt damp with sweat. Dimly, she was aware of someone standing behind her, their hands on her back, helping to hold her up.

"You're doing well, Tegan," someone whispered, and she knew right away it was the Colonel. He was holding her, supporting her, and his being there felt like strength.

"Thanks," she breathed, and pushed harder.

"His shield is down!" Marie shouted. "Get an IV started, stat!"

"You did it!" The Colonel said, "You did it!" Abruptly he pulled her into his arms and hugged her tightly.

"Thanks," she said again, and closed her eyes. Falling away into quiet darkness.

The room was red.

USMC Master Sergeant Thomas Bates sat up slowly and looked around.

His first impression had been correct. The room was red, due to the use of a single red bulb tucked into a socket high up in a corner of the ceiling.

To help preserve night vision, Thomas thought as he surveyed the room. The narrow bed he sat on was clearly from an Infirmary, if the raised bars on the side were any indication. A few pieces of medical equipment had been moved off to the side, as if they had been recently taken out of use. Thomas didn't spend a lot of time in the Infirmary, but he recognized one of the machines as being for blood pressure. The other was square with a lot of wires from it, and Thomas speculated that it was probably a heart monitor. He wondered if they had been used on him.

There was an IV pole that someone had pushed out of the way beside the bed with an empty bag hanging from it.

Quickly, Thomas checked his arms, and found a small piece of gauze taped to his left forearm, probably where the IV had come out. He noted that he was wearing Atlantis-style medical scrubs, but he wasn't going to assume that was where he actually was without more information. Assuming things was easy, but it wasn't smart or safe.

He did a quick check of his body. Except for the tiny bandage, he had no visible injuries. He moved the sheets off his legs and discovered his feet were bare.

It took him only seconds to locate the CCTV camera nearly hidden high in a corner of the room. He wondered if they were watching him right now.

As soon as he figured out who they were, he'd try to use that to his advantage.

Slowly, so as to not arouse alarm, he moved to the end of the bed and deftly levered himself to a standing position. There was no dizziness with his change of position, no pain, no shortness of breath. Which was good if it meant that whoever had put him here had healed him of whatever had required this medical equipment. It would be bad, however, if they had taken him like this, and were planning on using the medical equipment for something more sinister.

Thomas felt his eyes narrow. They wouldn't take him without a fight.

He made a careful circuit of the room. There was a sink and a tap that was extremely reminiscent of Atlantis architecture. He filled the small glass beside it, sniffed, tasted, and then drank, then drank three more in quick succession. The water might be poisoned, he mused, but he had already apparently been unconscious in that bed for quite some time. There would have been easier ways to kill him before now.

He gently put the glass back and continued his search. The door was locked, as he suspected it would be. The small table by the wall contained nothing but non-lethal medical supplies, although the tourniquet could be useful in a pinch.

Thomas realized his fists were clenched, and he forced his hands to relax. No need to let anyone know I'm bothered by this, he thought. There would always be time for that later.

He moved back to the end of the bed and stood looking at it, hoping his demeanour made him seem like he was merely considering returning to bed. Think! he ordered himself. How did you end up here?

John Sheppard, was his immediate answer. John Sheppard charmed me. The thought that the Colonel had used his Gift on him made Thomas' heart speed up. He took a few deep breaths, forcing his mind to centre. He remembered the moments before being charmed. He had been standing in the East wing of Atlantis, and he had just realized that someone was lying to him. Someone he trusted...

"Kate!" The name was out of his mouth before he could stop it. He remembered. He had been feeling unwell, and then he had suddenly realized that all the expedition members were lying to him. He had gone to see Kate about it. She had greeted him warmly, but as soon as she started speaking, he had known with his Gift, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she had been lying to him as well.

That realization had nearly broken his heart.

He had pulled out his gun and pressed it to the side of her head.

"Oh my God," Thomas said, hand over his mouth. His legs gave way and he sat down hard on the floor.

That's why he was in the room, locked up, with the red light on so he could be watched no matter what time of day or night.

Because that's what you did to vicious animals that kill the ones they love.

"Kate!" Thomas howled, sobs tearing through him. He wrapped his arms around his torso, collapsed over himself like the weight of his body was too much to bear. He had shot her. The woman he loved.

"Thomas! Thomas, lad!" Carson was calling to him. The Doctor was kneeling in front of him, one hand on his shoulder the other on the back of his neck. "Thomas!" he said again, "Dear Lord, what's wrong?"

Thomas shook his head. The enormity of what he'd done was choking him, trapping the air in his lungs. There were no words for it.

"Oh God, lad, it can't be that bad! Here," Carson said, "I'll just call Kate, shall I?" he keyed his radio, said something in it, all the while stroking Thomas' shoulder. "You'll be all right, son," he said quietly. "Whatever it is, we'll sort it out. You'll see."

Thomas didn't even pretend to respond. He would never be all right again.


His head whipped up, his eyes widening even as he saw her running towards him. Her hair was loose, glowing amber in the red light, her eyes an unearthly violet. Carson shifted and suddenly she was beside Thomas, her hands on his face, stroking his hair, his cheek, and her eyes were full of concern and compassion, and deep, deep love.

"Kate?" he whispered.

"Yes, my love, it's me. I'm here." She smiled

"Oh my God!" In one moment he was on his knees and his arms were around her, crushing her to him, his face pressed up against her neck. He was crying again, weeping softly, unsure what he had done to deserve such a miracle, but greedily accepting it nevertheless. "Kate," he said, burrowed against her skin. "I thought I'd killed you."

"Oh no, no, no," she said, and her voice was laughter and tears together. "You would never hurt me, Thomas. Never."

She believed it. He could tell. Even without his Gift he would know she wasn't lying. "I'm so sorry," he said, voice shaking. The words were pitiful and completely inadequate. "I can't believe I—"

"Shhh," she hushed him. Gently she lifted his head until he was looking at her, her hands against his face, thumbs on his cheekbones. "You were sick, Thomas. Dying from a disease that affected the minds of all the Gifted people on Atlantis. You were sick," she repeated. "It wasn't you."

"I would never hurt you," he said.

"I know," she replied, wiping his remaining tears with a tender movement of her thumbs. Even though her cheeks were wet, she was smiling.

He took both her hands in his, feeling his lips curve upwards.

"I guess you're doing better, then?" Carson said to him. Thomas nodded, never taking his eyes from Kate's.

"Good," Carson said. "I'll be going. He made a gesture towards the CCTV that Thomas caught out of the corner of his eye. "You probably don't need this anymore. " He left, shutting the door solidly behind him.

"I love you," Thomas said to Kate, "more than my own life."

"I love you," Kate said. And it was the truth.

Thomas put one hand behind her head, pulled her close, and kissed her.

"Go rest, lass, you've earned it," Carson said. He smiled warmly, though the effect was slightly marred by the dark glasses he was still wearing. He really couldn't carry them off the way Colonel Sheppard could. "Let me take over for you."

Jennifer returned his smile tiredly, looking up at him from the chair she was sitting on in the small office they shared at the back of the Infirmary. "I'm almost through here," she said. "I just want to compare the most recent blood samples before I check on the patients again."

"Aye," Carson said. "And noble as that is, I'd wager you can't even spell your own name right now, let alone tell if you're looking at Immunoglobulin A or M."

Jennifer smirked, a little embarrassed. "Is it that obvious?" She rubbed her eyes with her fingertips. "I just want to make sure the cure is really working, you know?" she said, smile falling away. "I'm just terrified that we're going to turn around two days from now and find out that the pathogen has mutated, and all the Gifted are still infected."

"I know how you feel," Carson said seriously. "I'm sure that's a nightmare that's going to keep me up at night for a good while myself." He shook his head, hooking a finger under his sunglasses to rub below his eye. "Believe me, I understand how hard it is to let go, sometimes. But we've got help now." He gestured at the Infirmary beyond their small office, and Jennifer knew he meant Tegan, currently deeply asleep. "And you've been on your feet for two days. It's all right if you turn the Infirmary over to the Chief of Medicine."

"I'm not the one wearing sunglasses because I've got a Gift-induced migraine," Jennifer said, trying to make it sound more like a joke than an argument. She was already pushing her chair back, conceding defeat. She knew, migraine or no, that Carson wouldn't hesitate to order her off-duty if he had to. She smiled as she stood, though she was sure it looked a little thin. She closed the lid of the laptop, then stuffed her hands in her lab coat pockets and turned to face him again. She gestured at the still-open laptop. "You'll let me know if any of the lab results come back positive for infection, right?"

Carson nodded solemnly. "Aye." He smiled again. "Now stop worrying and get to bed. I don't want to see hide nor hair of you until tomorrow morning, got it?"
Jennifer nodded, smiling ruefully. She gave a mock salute. "Got it." It was justa bout seven AM, which meant that she wasn't supposed to be back in the Infirmary for twenty-four hours. Jennifer knew she would have given the same orders herself, but part of her couldn't help bristling a little at the idea she was meant to be all curled up in her bed like everything was fine when some of the Gifted in the Infirmary hadn't even woken up from sedation yet. So far the cure showed every indication of eliminating all traces of the pathogen after eight to ten hours, but what if one of the Gifted suddenly had a bad reaction and coded? The Infirmary had been cut down to just a skeleton staff. What if there was some new, awful emergency?

"Jennifer?" Carson said. His voice was gentle but it still made Jennifer nearly jump out of her skin. She realized she'd kind of zoned out in the doorway of the office, looking at the few beds that were still occupied.

"Sorry!" Carson said, wincing in what was likely both contrition and pain at her tiny shriek. "You just looked to be asleep on your feet."

"Sorry," Jennifer echoed, feeling like an idiot. "I guess I'm more tired than I thought." She gave a small, embarrassed laugh. "I'll um, see you later." She started walking quickly, shaking her head at herself. She always started jumping at shadows when she was exhausted.

She was so busy being annoyed with herself that she almost ran right into Dr. Parrish at the entrance to the Infirmary. She managed not to scream again.

"My goodness! I'm sorry!" David exclaimed, dodging out of her way with surprising grace for a man as tall and lanky as he was.

"No, no, it's my fault," Jennifer said, sure she had to have gone red as a fire engine. She tucked a few strands of hair behind her ear, and then backed up so she could look David in the face without feeling like she was going to break her neck. "I'm just really tired. How are you feeling?"

"Fine," David said, though he ducked his head and Jennifer could see him blushing as badly as she was. "I, um, I really should thank you for saving my life after I'd been so foolish." He lifted his head, smiling apologetically. "I knew very well that going back to the Botany lab was dangerous, but I couldn't seem to help myself."

"It's all right, David," Jennifer said, putting her hand on his arm. She smiled warmly at him. "First of all, you're very welcome, and second, no one's blaming you for what happened. The craving you were feeling was the same for everyone with a Gift. But it was much worse for people like you, who could actually keep their Gifts from activating. Honestly, I think it's remarkable that you didn't do it sooner."

"Really?" David blinked at her. He smiled shyly. "Well, ah, thank you. I appreciate that."

"No problem," Jennifer said, grinning. She pointed vaguely down the corridor. "Now, if you don't mind..."

"Yes, of course," David said quickly. He made an old-fashioned gesture for her to walk past him, but then seemed to remember the small flowerpot in his hand. "Oh, right—this is for you." His arm swooped down and held it out to her.

Jennifer grabbed the pot automatically. She recognized the design and colour as being Athosian, but she'd never seen the odd little flower before. It was short, with fat, round, waxy leaves of a pleasant light green. There single flower looked a bit like a poppy, with the same kind of large, sort-of crinkly petals, but it was an astonishing blue-green.

"Papaver aeruginosus," David said, obviously meaning the flower. He smiled, at once smug and a little uncertain. "It, ah, means 'blue-green poppy,' basically. But it's very distinctive, don't you think?"

"Oh, yes, definitely," Jennifer said, nodding at the plant. "You're giving this to me?" She knew she was being a little slow on the uptake because of the exhaustion, but she couldn't figure out why she was suddenly standing there with an admittedly lovely blue-green poppy in her hands. Her mind creaked towards the first thing that made sense. "Did you make this with your Gift?"

David blinked at her again. "What? Oh!" He smiled, understanding. "No—I mean, yes, I grew it from the seed, but no. I just grow things, I can't change petal colors, or anything like that."

She grinned at David, delighted. "It's beautiful, thank you."

"You're welcome," David said, looking pleased. "But it's not really from me. I mean, I grew it," he added quickly when he saw her confusion, "and I am extremely appreciative of what you did for me. But Evan is the one who asked me to give it to him. For you. I mean, he asked me to grow it for him to give to you."

"Evan asked you to grow this for me?" Jennifer repeated.

David nodded. "I'm sure he intended to bring it himself, but he, well, he fell asleep on my couch while he was waiting for me to grow it." He gave an apologetic half-shrug. "Normally I would have woken him, of course, but after what happened..."

"Oh, right, of course." Jennifer nodded quickly, making sure to smile. "I'm glad Major Lorne is resting, actually. He still needs it." She hoped David had no idea how very sick Evan was when Ronon had brought him in the previous night. She had refused to release Evan this morning before she'd watched him eat a Power bar and keep it down. There had also been a few dire threats about an enforced Infirmary stay if he didn't go straight to his quarters. Apparently he interpreted her direct orders about as loosely as Sheppard did.

"He didn't tell me what he wanted to give it to you for, actually," David said, "but he did want to make sure you got it before you went off shift. So I, uh, thought I should bring it." He smiled self-consciously. "I hope I didn't spoil anything."

Jennifer's grin widened. "I'm pretty sure I know what this is for, David. And I promise, you didn't spoil a thing."

She thanked him again and walked to her quarters, smiling to herself and feeling a lot less tired, cradling the little poppy in her hands.

"I swear to God, she's the luckiest bitch alive."

Aiden raised his eyebrows at his 2IC. "I'm guessing you mean Cadman."

"Totally!" Blair 'Boom-Boom' Kaufman agreed as he leaned close enough to Aiden that their shoulders were touching. "Anyone else you can think of who would fit that bill?"

They were standing at the edge of the Gate room, waiting for Dr. Garret Corrigan to return from his exile at the Beta site. Now that Boom-Boom, Sparky and Anders had been cured of the disease, Aiden knew his team wouldn't miss Garret's return for anything.

"Stonetree's team was also caught off-world," Aiden said as they watched the four members of Team Cadman be soundly greeted by a group of Marines and scientists, before being back-slapped and hugged out of the Gate room.

"Yeah," Boom-Boom continued as the cheering died down, "but Stonetree's team just wasn't scheduled to come back. Cadman's team was stuck off-world because of a bizarre Gate malfunction that corrected itself just in time for them to be redirected to the Alpha site." Boom-Boom shook his head. "She is stupid lucky."

Aiden made a face at him. "That's her Gift, dude. She makes luck."

Boom-Boom looked impressed. "No shit?"

They watched as Stonetree's team return to the same enthusiastic welcome as Cadman's. "Hey, I think Garret's up next," Aiden said.

"Cool!" Boom-Boom grinned. They jogged over to where Sparky was standing with Anders and the members of Team Stackhouse. Aiden watched as Boom-Boom slipped his arm around Sparky's waist and they grinned at each other, Sparky's lights blinking in an excited blend of yellow and orange, a shade lighter than the red of his hair.

Aiden looked over to where Happy was standing beside Anders. Anders was a big, blond pale Dane who stood easily over six foot, while Happy was a tiny, dark-skinned Canadian who barely reached five foot in her boots. The contrast between them would have been funny, except for the anxious expression on Happy's face, and the way that Anders' big hand rested lightly on her shoulder in an obvious show of support. Happy's hand was resting on her abdomen, and Aiden winced in sympathy when he realized that she was holding her injury. The new girl, Tegan, had helped heal Happy that morning, but Aiden guessed that she might've been still too tired from helping save Rodney to really finish the job.

The Gate flashed to life in front of them like a horizontal geyser of water.

"Scheduled off-world activation, Corporal Parker's IDC," Peter Grodin said from the control room at the top of the stairs. Aiden blinked at hearing the wrong accent, before he remembered that Chuck was still in the Infirmary.

The medic came through first, whistling with a knapsack slung over his shoulder. He waved to Peter before he headed to the nearest transporter. A moment later, Garret stepped through.

Dude looks like hell, Aiden thought. Garret's dark brown hair was a spiky and stiff collection of bed-head and dried sweat. His two days worth of beard was shadowing cheeks that were unnaturally pale even for him, making his dark brown eyes seem huge in his face. His uniform was wrinkled, and even from his vantage point at the edge of the Gate, Aiden could tell Garret needed sleep and a shower, and not necessarily in that order.

But as soon as Garret saw Happy, he looked like he lit up inside. His smile was so broad that Aiden could see the white of his teeth.

"Garret!" Happy exclaimed, and started moving towards him, but she was wounded, and he was running, so he got to her first. He skidded to his knees in front of her, and for a second Aiden actually thought he had fallen until he realized that Garret had taken both of Happy's hands in his own, and was looking up at her as if everyone in the Gate room—or even all of Atlantis—had just disappeared and she was the only one there.

"Oh boy," Boom-Boom muttered, leaning towards Aiden again. "If this is going to go where I think this is going to go, you may need to get me a barf—"

"Shut up!" Aiden hissed. "This is important!"

"Happy," Garret was saying, "The whole time I was away, I kept thinking about you, and about how much I love you, and..." he stopped. No one in the Gate room made a sound. "God," he laughed. "This was so much easier in my head back on the Beta site!" Happy's smile was tremulous and encouraging, and Aiden saw as Garret took a fortifying breath. "I guess what I'm trying to say is, well, I love you, and I can't imagine the rest of my life without you. And when I thought that I might never see you again—" He stopped again, and this time it was to loosen one of his hands from Happy's and swipe at his eyes. "Sorry," he mumbled. Happy's eyes were suspiciously shiny too.

"Ten bucks says she'll start bawling with him," Boom-Boom said out of the side of his mouth.

"She's an ex-member of the Canadian Special Ops Regiment!" Aiden whispered back. "They're like Marines—they don't cry! And shut up!"

Aiden turned his attention back to the couple. "Okay," Garret continued. "Whew!" He smiled up at her again. "Happy?" he said on a breath. "Will you marry me?"

"Yes!" Happy said, and there were tears running down her cheeks. "Yes I will!"

The Gate room exploded into applause and hoots of congratulations as Garret stood and Happy kissed him. She was so little that she had to lean up to reach him, even though Garret stood only about five-six himself. They were immediately surrounded by their team and nearly crushed in the group hug.

"Wow," Boom-Boom said, and there was awe in his voice. "They're going to have really tiny babies."

Aiden punched him in the arm.

"Ow!" Boom-Boom said indignantly, and then, "you owe me ten bucks."

"That was fucking brilliant, mate!" Sparky said before Aiden could punch Boom-Boom again. He looked at Boom-Boom, and his grin turned mischievous. "And when are you going to make an honest bloke out of me?"

Boom-Boom's look of horror made Aiden laugh out loud. "Come on," he said, slapping Boom-Boom on the back. "Let's go take the happy couple to the East Pier. First round's on me."

Radek awoke to the light sound of medical machines and the blissful quiet of his own head.

He remembered finishing the ARD—the song the machine sung to him, and the immense sense of joy and relief that had come from having completed the task. After that, things got blurry. It had been so hard to focus near the end, Atlantis singing her sweet songs, the music of her circuitry surrounding him. Like he was standing in the centre of an orchestra more beautiful than anything he had ever heard.

He had been so deep in his Gift that the thought of dying amidst all that glory hadn't bothered him at all.

Now he was awake, and the disease was completely gone from his body. He felt healthy and clean, and his mind was wholly, wonderfully clear.

He smiled, and opened his eyes.

"Hey," Ronon said. The big man was sitting on a chair pulled up next to Radek's Infirmary bed. There was nothing in Ronon's appearance or demeanour that Radek could have put his finger on, but it looked like Ronon had been there all night.

Radek felt his heart flip in his chest as Ronon smiled. Ronon was gruff and taciturn at best, but Radek felt Ronon's love for him like the ticking of a clock: constant, reliable, and strong as a heartbeat.

"Hello, my darling," he said, hearing the rough quality of his voice, knowing it was caused by more than the disuse of sleep.

"Hey," Ronon said again, and gripped his hand. Ronon turned his head to the side. "I brought someone with me."

"Elizabeth!" Radek exclaimed. He struggled to sit up, suddenly realizing he was weak as a baby bird. Ronon was immediately there, standing beside him, helping to prop him up and stuffing pillows behind him to keep him there.

"Hello, my heart," Elizabeth said, putting her soft hand against his cheek. Radek cupped her hand with his, placing his other hand against her face, letting his thumb stroke against her cheek, feeling the angle of her cheekbone. Her eyes were a luminous green in the Infirmary light.

"It is good to see you," he said. The words were completely inadequate and trite for the enormity of what he was feeling.

"It's good to see you, too." He could feel her smile against his palm.

"Glad you're better," Ronon said, putting his hand on Radek's shoulder. Ronon's touch was incredibly gentle, his fingers pressing sweetly against Radek's neck.

Radek smiled up at him, his heart swelling with the love he felt for both these people. How did I ever become so lucky? he asked himself. Most people spent their whole lives looking for that one special person. Radek had found two.

He moved and took both their hands, gripping tightly. "I love you both, so much," he said. Elizabeth's cheeks coloured prettily, and Ronon glanced down. Radek knew that, even though Elizabeth was an Empath, she wasn't particularly good with her emotions. Nor was Ronon with his. Elizabeth had told him it was because she had spent so much of her early womanhood trying to keep what she felt separate from everyone around her. With Ronon, Radek had guessed it was because of the terrible losses he had suffered. But if the last two days had taught Radek anything, it was that life was unpredictable and death could claim any of them, at any time. He would not die with those words left unsaid. "I love you," he repeated. "You are both my life."

"Me, too," Elizabeth said, gripping his hand tightly.

"Yeah," Ronon said, squeezing Radek's hand briefly in his own.

Their declarations hadn't been poetic, or even particularly eloquent, but Radek knew they were deep and heartfelt.

He lay back against the pillows, smiling.

"Now eat something," Ronon growled, loosening Radek's hand long enough to swing a table-tray over his bed. It already had a tray of food on it. "You're too pale." He turned his shaggy head to Elizabeth. "You too."

Elizabeth laughed and patted the seat beside her, "Only if you sit with us."

"Not going anywhere," Ronon muttered. He sat down.

Neither am I, Radek thought. Not as long as I can help it.

Albert stood in front of Teyla's door, sweating.

He'd been standing there for at least fifteen minutes, letting the conversation he'd had with Dr. Garret Corrigan roll around in his mind while he tried to get up the courage to do what he had to do.

He'd cornered the Archaeologist in the mess right before supper, pulling him away from his team to ask him some really important questions about Athosian culture. Garret was studying Athosian folk-tales in his spare time and had learned a lot about what made them all tick. He was extremely helpful in answering Albert's questions.

The only trouble was, now Albert actually had the answers, and they were settling heavily in his stomach.

"C'mon, Albert," he muttered, wiping damp palms on the legs of his pants. "Do or die."

Teyla was in her room. He could feel the coolness of her thoughts through the heavy Atlantian architecture that surrounded them. A part of him wanted badly to link with her, to know for sure he wasn't going to make a terrible mistake.

But he remembered, back on the Gamma site, even when he'd been nearly dead from sickness, her thoughts had told him she loved him.

Now it was his turn to return the favour, if he didn't pass out from nerves first.

Taking a deep breath, he swiped over her door chime with the palm of his hand. Half a lifetime later, it slid open.

"Albert," Teyla said, her beautiful smile lighting her face. "How pleasant to see you."

"Teyla," he said, hands clenched at his sides, breath coming in gasps and his heart jerking. "I want to be the father of your children."

Her mouth formed a small, perfect 'o' of surprise.

"Teyla," he said again. "I know this is probably hard to believe, considering I never said nothing in over four years, but I love you, and—and I think you love me, too. And Garret said that when Athosians love each other, they decide to have children. So, I'm telling you, I love you and I want to have children with you." He gulped. "If you'll have me."

The expression of confusion on Teyla's face slowly morphed into a small smile. Then a big smile, and then broadened until she was nearly blinding in her beauty. She took his hands in hers. "My heart is glad to hear this, Albert. I have been waiting for you for a long time."

And so saying, she started gently pulling him into her room.

Albert didn't resist at all.

Rodney came out of sleep like floating up through fathoms of water. He could hear John's voice somewhere above him: Come on, Rodney, that's it. Wake up, buddy. Come back to me, and he followed it like a glowing thread in the darkness, drifting up, until he finally forced his leaden eyelids open.

He was lying on a bed in one of the Infirmary's isolation rooms, which were mostly used for quarantine. He probably had been there for a long time, considering how much his back was protesting. There were IV catheter locks in both his arms, near his elbows instead of his wrists, though only one of them had a tube in it. A quick physical inventory came up with a headache, the exhaustion still tugging at him, the backache of course and the fact that he was starving, despite the decalitres of glucose that had doubtlessly been pumped into his system. And someone was holding his hand. He squeezed back a little, experimentally, and felt a warm, gentle squeeze in return.

Rodney smiled, and then he continued the inventory and realized he could also feel the unpleasant tug of a third catheter, and he didn't even need to look at himself to know he was in one of those horrid hospital gowns.

He made a face, and someone—John—huffed out a small laugh. Rodney rolled his head to the side, and there was John, beaming at him, even though he looked haggard and scruffy and so tired his eyes were barely open. They were lying side-by-side, their two beds pressed together. John was in a hilariously ugly spotted hospital gown, though he only had one IV lock.

"Hey," John said.

"Hey," Rodney said. His voice creaked, and he also realized he was thirsty as hell.

There was a tray table next to John's bed, and John laboriously rolled onto his back, grabbed a litre bottle of water, then shakily passed it over. Rodney managed to fumble the cap off and get most of it into his mouth. His throat burned painfully around each swallow, but he drank until the bottle was empty. "Oh, thank God. That's better," he breathed when it was finished.

John quietly took the bottle and put it back on the table, then rolled onto his side again. He slowly reached out until he could touch Rodney's mouth, smoothing away the drops of water that had spilled onto his lips and chin.

Rodney caught John's fingers, pulled his hand to his chest and held it there. He wanted to squirm over and curl up against him, but knew he didn't have the strength to get that far. "What happened?" Rodney asked.

John blinked at him. "We all caught a disease and lost control of our Gifts," John said. "Your shield—"

"I know that!" Rodney groused weakly. John gave a quiet smirk. "What I meant was, why are you here? I mean, you're all right, right?" Rodney knew he had to be out of it because that hadn't even occurred to him that there might be an actual reason John was lying here on a bed in a hospital gown. "Did—did the thing with the Bizarro-world Athosians work? Because I don't really remember."

"It went fine, Rodney," John said. "You were kind of...fading there, on the way back, but we got the cure and got it back to Atlantis, and Jennifer and her team were able to make more of it and give it to everyone. None of the Gifted are infected anymore, and no one's a carrier. We can go back to Earth." He smiled again, and Rodney let out a sigh of relief. He knew that smile, and it wasn't the one where John was trying to pretend he wasn't about to be executed or actually bleeding to death or something equally dire to keep his team from worrying. This smile was genuine, though Rodney wasn't sure why there was...something, there in John's eyes. Like sadness, maybe. It was always so hard for Rodney to tell these things.

"I don't remember turning off my shield," Rodney said.

John's face clouded. "Yeah," he said quietly, and now Rodney had no problem recognizing the pain in his eyes. "Elizabeth brought a new Healer, from Earth. Well, she's not actually a Healer, but it doesn't matter. You can interrogate her when you meet her. She helped you fight the disease off yourself, until your shield dropped."

"Oh," Rodney said. "I hope you're going to thank her."

John laughed. "Yes, Rodney," he said fondly. "I'll make sure to say 'thank you'."

"Good," Rodney said. "But you didn't tell me what happened to you."

John shrugged. "It's nothing. Carson was a little worried that I'd been using my Gift so much, so he wanted to make sure I had enough glucose and saline. Stuff like that."

Even Rodney could tell that was a blatant lie. He narrowed his eyes, despite how it made his headache worse. John tried to move his hand away, but Rodney wouldn't let him. "How close to death were you?"

"Rodney," John said, trying to sound exasperated. "I'm fine."

"Tell me or I'll ask Carson," Rodney said. "And you know he'll tell me everything."

John glared at him. He tried to flop onto his back, but Rodney wouldn't let his hand go, so John closed his eyes. "I don't know, Rodney," he said, sounding weary. "I mean it," he insisted when Rodney made a disbelieving snort. "Carson asked me to use my Gift to help you keep it together, while we were waiting for Elizabeth and the Healer to get here. Then I helped the Healer to fix you when she started having problems." He shrugged his higher shoulder. "I remember hugging her, after your shield finally went down. She passed out, and then I guess I must've too, because I don't remember anything until I woke up in the Infirmary."

"Did your heart stop?" Rodney asked flatly.

John's eyes flew open, then shifted away. "I don't know," he said, and Rodney knew for sure he was lying again.

Rodney sucked in a breath. His own heart had started thudding unpleasantly. "How long?"

"What makes you think that even happened?" John asked.

"Because mine did when we were shielding the city," Rodney snapped, because he knew John was hedging, the bastard. "And so did Kaufman's when he supplied his Gift for you to blow up the Asuran satellite. And I'm pretty sure that you charming an entire civilization and then talking me out of dying for—" He stopped, arching his eyebrows. "How long did you keep me from dying?"

John looked away. "An hour or so," he said, like it was immaterial.

"Right," Rodney went on, glaring. "So at least two hours even before the new Healer got there, and then you helped her. So, how much time did it take them to start your heart again?"

John swallowed. "Maybe a minute? Less?"

Rodney closed his eyes. "Jesus Christ." He clutched John's hand against his chest, as if that would anchor him to this place, to Rodney, life. "I'm going to fucking kill Carson when I get out of here." He opened his eyes again to glare. "How the hell could he let you do that?"

"He didn't have a choice, Rodney!" John snapped. "And if he didn't tell me to do it, I would've made him! I wasn't just going to lie there and watch you die!"

"And what about you?" Rodney shot back. Anger was making him feel more awake, but his head was hurting worse. "What if I'd woken up alone here, with you dead? What the hell would I have done then?"

"You would've been alive, Rodney!" John retorted loudly.

"Yeah—alive without you, you son of a bitch!" Rodney yelled. "How could you do that to me?"

John opened his mouth, looking furious, then abruptly he closed it again. He started to laugh.

"What?" Rodney snarled at him. "What? What the hell is so funny about this? We're discussing your hypothetical suicidal demise here, leaving me...leaving me bereft, and, and pissed off!"—John laughed harder—"And lonely!"

John's laughter faded away, and then they were looking soberly at each other, under the dimmed Infirmary lights.

"I'd do anything for you, Rodney," John said.

"I know," Rodney said miserably. "But I don't want you to. You almost died."

"Yeah, well," John said roughly. "I kind of owed you one. You shielded me from a drone once, remember?"

"That was different!" Rodney protested. "That was a sure death by fiery annihilation! I had to use my Gift to save you!"

John just looked at him. "As opposed to a slow death by hypoglycemic shock. That I could talk you out of. With my Gift."

"Oh, shut up," Rodney said crossly. He managed to shuffle farther to the middle of the two beds, with John shifting over from his side, until they met more-or-less in the center and Rodney was lying completely uncomfortably on John's left arm with John squashing his right and the blankets mashed between them.

"My arm's going to go numb," Rodney groused. "And I'll probably get gangrene from you lying on my IV."

"Suck it up, McKay," John said, and then nuzzled forward and kissed him. Rodney's mouth tasted like plaster paste to him, but John didn't seem to mind, and John's mouth was kind of gross anyway.

Rodney pulled away first, still feeling weak enough to be a little breathless. He leaned his forehead against John's. "Um, I hope the camera in this isolation room isn't actually working."

John chuckled. Rodney could feel the warm puffs of his breath. "No, Rodney. Carson assured me no one would be watching when he wheeled me in here."

"Well, good," Rodney said. His relationship with John was mostly an open secret by now, but that didn't mean they could just flaunt themselves with PDAs all over the security system.

John's answer was just to haul him closer, wrapping his arms tightly around Rodney's back. "You really scared me," he said quietly. "Just...don't do that again, okay?"

"I'm sorry," Rodney said, because that was the only answer he could really give him. That, and to hold John just as tight.

"I don't care about that bullshit!" Colonel Sheppard had shouted. "Sort it out later!"

'Later' had finally come.

Chuck stood in the training area, bantos rods held loosely in his hands. The wooden floor felt smooth and cool beneath his bare feet, puffs of warm air sliding gently over his naked chest from his lungs. The drawstring pants he was wearing hit just above his ankle bone, the black cloth soft and faded from years of use.

That fucking Corporal Kemper had only been on Atlantis for about three weeks. Not enough time for him to apply his supposedly impressive martial arts skills to learning the Athosian art of stick fighting.

It was the only advantage Chuck knew he had.

He eyed Kemper speculatively as they slowly circled each other in the training gym. Kemper was about the same height he was, but broader, and while Chuck was no slouch physically, Kemper was definitely in better shape. He moved with a feral grace made all the more menacing by the slits of his dark eyes and the way his lips were pulled back from his teeth. He twirled the sticks with an impressive surety and an obvious ferocity, every move designed to intimidate and impress.

Chuck refused to be either. Let's see him fix a broken DHD! Chuck thought as he narrowed his eyes and arced the sticks around his hand, whistling them through the air in the way that Teyla had taught him.

Kemper's eyes widened a fraction, and Chuck grinned. The bruise on his cheekbone pulled uncomfortably, even five days after Kemper had given it to him. It was an unpleasant reminder of how badly Kemper had whipped him the last time they had fought. Kemper was probably going to win this fight as well, but Chuck was still going all in.

The prize, after all, was Martine, and that was worth every bit of the thrashing Chuck suspected he was going to get.

It had taken them nearly a week to get to this point. After the return trip from the alternate reality, Chuck had been delirious and badly hypoglycemic, sucked into the sensory world of his Gift and unable to get out. He'd woken up in the Infirmary three days later, scruffy and coherent and fully in control.

Three days after that, he still hadn't seen Martine. She was avoiding him; not responding to his pages, ignoring his emails and not answering the notes he had left under her door.

Chuck knew he should take the hint. Something had happened to his relationship with Martine while they both had been ill. Something bad. Clearly she wanted nothing to do with him anymore.

His heart should have been broken, but it wasn't. Instead, he had become obsessed with finishing the fight that Sheppard had interrupted on the Gamma site. The fight between himself and Kemper over Martine.

It was illogical and irrational, but somehow he had it in his head that if he fought Kemper and won, he'd win Martine back, and everything would be fine.

In the part of his mind that was still sane, Chuck figured that maybe he and Kemper might still be under Sheppard's charm, and these thoughts might not actually be of his own making. Despite his love of being a soldier, he didn't relish fighting. And he also knew that 'men banging sticks off of each other's heads didn't generally mend relationships.

But here he was, facing down Kemper, ready to do just that.

Kemper swung his bantos rods in a lethal drive towards his neck, and suddenly Chuck was too busy to think about anything much at all.

Chuck's wrist was broken.

He pressed his damaged right arm against his chest, crouched in a defensive posture, wheezing against the pain. He clutched his remaining bantos rod tightly in his left hand, the grip growing slick with sweat from his palm.

More sweat was trickling down his forehead and into his eyes, dripping uncomfortably off his nose and sliding down his neck. He tossed his head with a quick shake, never taking his eyes of Kemper. The small movement caused the welt on his temple to throb in pain. He could feel his legs shaking, the hit to his thigh cramping and stabbing with each step.

Kemper, that fucking bastard, wasn't even winded. His skin was shiny from his exertion, and his breathing was a bit uneven, but beyond that he didn't even look like he was in a fight. Except for the livid bruise forming on his right shoulder where Chuck had landed a lucky blow. It made Chuck smile to see it.

"Give up, Campbell," Kemper smirked. "You're hurt, beaten. Give up now and I'll let you live."

Chuck shook his head, snarling from the pain in his temple. "No."

Kemper snorted. "Martine's mine, old man. There's nothing you can do about it."

"No!" Chuck shouted and brought his rod up and over in an arcing blow. It caught Kemper on his upper arm, causing him to stumble, and Chuck kicked him in the stomach. Hard.

Kemper staggered back, but before Chuck could press his advantage, Kemper had regained his footing and retaliated, swinging his rods in front of him with deadly accuracy, forcing Chuck to backpedal.

His injured leg gave way and he fell, landing on his side, his arm half-way underneath him. The pain from his wrist tore up his arm and exploded in his head and down his back. Chuck screamed.

Kemper shoved him onto his back, and then knelt on his chest. "I think we've sorted this out, huh?" he said with nothing close to a smile. He fisted his hand through Chuck's hair and pulled his head up. "Martine's mine, dude." He drew his fist back.

"NO!" Martine shrieked. Kemper dropped Chuck's head, and it banged against the floor. Kemper leapt up and away from him.

"Ow," Chuck mumbled.

"Martine!" Kemper exclaimed, turning towards her, his hands outstretched. "Martine, baby! I won the fight! You're mine!"

Martine looked at him, blinked, and then pushed past him to kneel beside Chuck. She put up her hands to touch him, then seemed to change her mind, leaving her arms bent in front of her, palms out. "Chuck?"

Gingerly, Chuck levered himself onto his left side, right arm against his chest. It was throbbing now in time with his head, painful enough to make him grit his teeth. He wiped his mouth on his shoulder and left a small smear of blood. He had no idea where that came from. "Hi."

"Oh my God. What did he do to you?" Martine said, and something seemed to click on inside her. She began running her hands over his head and down his neck, performing some sort of nursing assessment with her fingers. "How badly are you hurt?"

"I'm okay," Chuck said, then winced as her hand brushed his arm. "Ow!"

Her eyes narrowed at him. "No, you're not. You need to go to the Infirmary, now."

Chuck went to shake his head then stopped. "Yeah, probably."

Martine's eyes were roving over him, clearly looking for more evidence of injury. "Can you walk?"

"Yes," Chuck said, then "I don't know." His leg was still trembling. It felt like he might have torn a muscle. He collapsed back onto the mat with a grunt.

"But we sorted it out, just like the Colonel said," Kemper said quietly. He was standing off to the side of the room, rubbing absently at the welt forming on his arm and watching them both with a puzzled expression. Chuck could have almost felt sorry for him, except he didn't.

Martine looked between him and Chuck. "What? What's he talking about?"

"Back during the Great Screwdriver Hunt thing," Chuck sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. "We got into a fight over you, and Sheppard told us to 'sort it out later'. So we did."

"What?" Martine said again, her blond eyebrows drawn in confusion. "You were fighting? Over me?"

"Yeah," Chuck said. "He was thinking...stuff about you. So I hit him."

"But I won!" Kemper interjected. "So you're mine." He looked uncertain. "Right?"

"No!" Martine shouted at him. "I am not yours! Go away!"

Kemper shook his head, looking like a large cat shaking off a nap. "Whoa," he said slowly, blinking like he really had just woken up. "That was weird."

Chuck could feel it, too. The strange sense like some sort of compulsion had just fallen off him with Martine's words. The idiocy of what he had just done came crashing down on him, and he winced.

"Are you in pain?" Martine asked, bending over him and stroking his forehead.

"Yeah," Chuck said, staring up into her soft blue eyes.

Kemper looked at Chuck and Martine, and seemed to come to some conclusion. "Sorry," he muttered, and bolted.

"I need to call this in to the Infirmary," she said, her hand going to her radio.

"No, wait," Chuck said. He reached up with his good hand and clasped her wrist.

She looked at him, her blue eyes large and confused. "But you're hurt."

"Not that bad," Chuck said. He swallowed, feeling his heart kick in his chest. "You can check, if you like."

She gasped. "You—you'd let me do that?" The after what I did to you? unspoken between them.

He nodded, a quick jerk of his chin, holding her gaze. "I trust you."

She blinked, her eyes glistening. "Really?"

"Yeah," he said. "I do."

She nodded, and took his good hand in both her own, holding it between her breasts. Her eyes drifted shut.

Chuck closed his eyes as well, feeling the gentle buzz of her Gift as it flowed through him.

Slowly, she opened her eyes, her gaze refocusing, a small frown pulling down the corner of her mouth. "Your wrist is broken," she said. "And you've torn part of the muscle in your left thigh. You're going to have a heck of a bruise on the side of your head, too. But other than that, I guess it's not too bad."

He smiled up at her. "I could've told you that."

Her frown deepened, and her gaze dropped. "I was so awful to you," she said quietly.

"You weren't there when I woke up," he said, eyebrows furrowing. "Why?"

"I visited you every day in the Infirmary. Until you woke up," she said, her eyes not meeting his. "But then, when you were awake, after what I did..."

"Hey," he said, "Martine. Look at me." Their eyes met. "You were sick. We both were. I can't blame you for that."

"I tried to force my Gift on you!" she insisted. "I flirted with Kemper right in front of you!" She looked down again. "I told you I wanted you to die."

"You were sick," he repeated. "Jonesing for your Gift and out of your mind with it." He smiled at her. "I understand."

"I've been too afraid to face you," she said. "I've been such a coward." His hand was still pressed tightly to her chest.

"You came at the right time today." He grinned at her.

She smiled back, but it was fleeting. "I'm so sorry for everything I've done to you. How could you ever forgive me?"

His smile deepened. "You were sick,'' he repeated. ''There's nothing to forgive."

She smiled at him through her tears. "I love you, Charles Campbell."

"I love you, Martine Fraser."

She bent down, and kissed him, her lips a gentle pressure against his own. All too soon she moved back.

Her smile broadened. "I promise to never flirt with Sergeant Kemper again."

"You'd better not," Chuck said, groaning as he sat up. "Because then I really will have to kill him."

She was still laughing as she called in the medical emergency.

"Oh!" the young woman said, looking up from the chart she was reading, "I wasn't expecting anyone else."

Anders turned his lips up in what he hoped was a friendly manner. He hadn't been feeling particularly friendly of late, choosing instead to keep to himself and only spend time with his team when necessary. They had noticed his absence, and Cpt. Ford had even commented on it once or twice, but overall they had respected his desire for distance.

What they didn't know was that he had decided to make that distance permanent. Tomorrow, he was planning on resigning from the expedition.

"I didn't mean to disturb you," he said, turning back to the shelf in the Infirmary where he'd been searching, "I was only here to gather some things."

"You just startled me a bit." She smiled, then tilted her head to one side. "You sound Norwegian."

"Danish, actually," Anders replied. He frowned as he sorted through some files. He hadn't realized he had left so much paperwork to do before the illness had struck.

She was still looking at him. "Do you have a paper due as well? Nurse Yau is a very tough mentor."

He shook his head. "No."

"Oh," she said, and looked back at her chart. Anders sighed, hoping that would be the end of their conversation. She seemed nice, and was pretty in a young, fresh-faced kind of way, but he had no interest in meeting anyone new right now. Not when he'd be leaving so soon. Not when he was no one that anyone would actually want to know. He put the papers down and turned back to his cubby above the nursing station.

"Are you a nurse?" She asked suddenly, and Anders actually startled, dropping his stethoscope. "Sorry!" she said, and there was a laugh bubbling in her voice. "I didn't mean to make you jump!"

"It's okay," Anders said. "I'm just preoccupied." She was still looking at him expectantly, her brown eyes wide and so very sweet-looking. It would be unfair to inflict his bad mood on her. "No," he replied resignedly, "I'm not a nurse. I'm a..." He paused, looking for the English equivalent, "med-tech? I think you would call it? I work with Dr. Beckett and the Nurses when I'm not out with my team."

"You're like a paramedic, then?" she asked. "You know, helping with all the bad trauma in casualty and with the other soldiers out in the field?" She beamed at him. "That must be brilliant!"

It was, Anders thought. Back when I could trust myself to actually do no harm. He shrugged. "I liked it."

Her expression turned quizzical. "You don't do it anymore?"

He shook his head again. "No."

"That's too bad," she said. "I'm sorry."

His eyes snapped to hers. What did she know? As far as Anders knew, only the people who had been in the Infirmary at the time knew that he had killed Josť Prieto. He was planning on leaving Atlantis anyway, but he very much didn't want rumours to be spread. "Why would you say that?"

"Well, uh," she stammered, clearly not expecting his question. "It's just that, well, I dropped out of nursing school when I really loved it." A faint blush was colouring her cheeks and she turned back to the chart she was reading. "That's all, really."

"Huh," Anders said. He made a pile of the medical equipment he had collected from his cubby. His stethoscope, bandage scissors and penlight balanced on top of his pocket pharmaceutical guide. Pitifully little evidence of nearly four years of work on Atlantis. Work he had truly enjoyed. He eyed the young woman again. She was sitting at a small table in the nurses' station, seemingly absorbed in what she was reading, occasionally scratching some notes on a pad beside her, a small frown creasing the skin between her eyes. A strand of light brown hair had escaped her ponytail and she pushed it back behind her ear.

"You have a nose ring," Anders said, surprising himself. He hadn't intended to continue their conversation.

She looked up at him, that bright smile back on her face. "Yeah," she said. "I know it's not part of the dress code but..." She shrugged. "I got it when—when I dropped out of school."

It was the second time she'd mentioned that, and despite himself Anders felt curious. He turned and leaned against the desk behind him, palms resting on the smooth countertop. "What happened?"

She licked her lips, and took a deep breath, clearly deciding something. "I killed someone," she blurted. "Bloody hell," she said with a short, mirthless laugh. "It's been over two years and it's still near impossible to say." She looked down. "But that's what happened."

"I'm sorry," Anders said, hearing the sudden thickness in his voice as he thought about her tragedy reflecting his own. "That must have been terrible."

"It was," she agreed. "I wanted to help a patient of mine who was septic." She started scraping one thumbnail with another. "So I tried to heal him with my Gift. But it didn't work. Instead of helping him, I accidentally helped the bacteria instead. Within minutes he was dead."

Anders took a deep breath. He knew exactly what that felt like. The shock and horror of your Gift doing the complete opposite of what you expected it would. "I'm so sorry," he repeated.

The young woman shrugged. "I was stupid," she said. "My Gift had just started up, and I thought I could control it. I should have gone to see the Gifted counselor on campus, or talked to my mentor first, but I thought I could do it." Her voice dropped to nearly a whisper. "I didn't mean for that to happen."

They were silent for a while. Anders supposed she was thinking about her terrible mistake just as he was thinking of his own. She didn't appear eager to talk anymore, and he still had several pages of paperwork to finish before he resigned the next day. But he couldn't just leave, not yet. He cleared his throat. "Why are you here?"

Her gaze flew to his. "What?"

"I mean," he said, pulling his thoughts together. "After what happened, how did you come back?" He thought of his own decision to walk away from Atlantis, and medicine, and perhaps even the military all together.

"I dropped out right away, and I was sure I'd never go back." Her lips curved up in an ironic smile. "But then, I was contacted by an organization called 'Torchwood', who introduced me to Dr. Weir. And she told me that, if I didn't come to Atlantis, loads of people would die. And how could I say no?"

He knew who she was now, the new Healer that Dr. Weir had brought back from Earth. He hadn't met her yet, but he had heard about how she had healed the sickest of the sick in the first few hours after her arrival. "But, how did you make your Gift work?" he asked, hearing the note of urgency in his voice. "Weren't you scared you'd kill someone else?"

"Oh, yeah!" she said, eyes wide. "Absolutely! But there was this bloke, Colonel Mitchell, at the Mountain place? He just flat out expected me to do it. And if I didn't, the General there, Landry? He wouldn't have let me go, and everyone Gifted here would die. So I did." She shrugged." I healed him. Not much choice there, really."

Anders shook his head. "But what about the guilt?" he said. She looked shocked by his question, so he tried to explain. "You killed someone, and even if it was by accident, there is still guilt, yes?"

She nodded, her eyes wary.

"So, even if you healed Colonel Mitchell," he pressed further, "or Dr. McKay, or Happy or Sparky or anyone, you still know that there was one person out there, one person that, in your ignorance, you destroyed. How do you live with that?" He scrubbed his face with his hands, astonished by his outburst. He knew damn well it wasn't her experience he was talking about.

She licked her lips. "I had a nice chat with Martine Fraser about just that last week, after everything had settled down again." She tilted her head again. "Do you know her?"

Anders nodded, wrapping his arms around his waist. "And what did Martine say?"

"Martine said that, while it was a terrible thing to have happened, it would be even worse if my patient's death led to the loss of my life, too."

Anders shook his head. "But how could you forgive?"

Her eyes met his again. "Because I had to," she said. "Martine told me that I had to forgive myself because it was a mistake. She said I need to live the rest of my life honouring the man I killed by helping as many others as I could."

Anders felt his heart speed up. "I don't know how you would do that."

"I don't know either," she replied honestly. "I hope I can. But I've been hating myself for so long, it was hard to hear that I shouldn't."

Despite himself, Anders nodded. "I killed someone, too." It was out of his mouth before he even knew he was going to say it.

"Oh you poor thing," she said, her dark eyes full of compassion. "What happened?"

And then, he was telling her everything. From the moment Blair had caused the explosion, to the minute he had realized that Josť Prieto was dying, and he knew that it was his fault.

When he was finished, his heart was pounding so hard it felt like he had just run a marathon. He looked at her, afraid of what he might see. Afraid she might hate him now, the way he hated himself.

But her eyes still held the same compassion that he'd seen before. "That's so awful!" she said. "How awful for you to live through that!"

"It was my fault," he repeated. "My Gift—"

"No." She shook her head. "No, you tried to save him, not kill him. You didn't know your Gift wasn't going to work."

"Blair's Gift wasn't working," Anders said. "I could have guessed."

"Maybe," she agreed. "But maybe not quite when someone was dying right in front of you, yeah?"

He smiled ruefully. "No, I guess not."

"It was the illness," she said, "not you. It wasn't your fault."

He swallowed. "I'm not sure I can believe that."

"But you must!" she said. "Just like Martine told me. Otherwise you're planning on leaving Atlantis. And then nobody will be helped by your Gift. What good could possibly come from that?"

He blinked. "I hadn't thought of that."

"Well, you should," she said.

He smiled. The first time he'd felt like it in days. "Maybe I will."

"Well, good."

They looked at each other, and his smile widened.

A blush crept up her cheeks. Suddenly she pushed away from the table. "You must think I'm daft," she said as she stood, unfolding her body gracefully from the chair. "Going on like that when you don't even know my name!" She stuck out her hand. "Tegan,"

"Anders," he replied, his large hand neatly engulfing hers. Her skin was soft and warm against his palm. She didn't pull away.

"That's probably enough studying for now," Tegan said as they disengaged their hands. "I was just going to head to the caf for a cuppa." She looked at him, a question in her dark eyes. "Would you like to come?"

"Yes," he said, realizing that he actually wanted to. "I would."

He held the door open for her. "So," she said with studied casualness over her shoulder, "you going to the movie tomorrow night?"

Anders had been planning on spending the night in his room, packing. "Yes," he said, feeling happier than he had since he became sick. "I think I might."

Maybe he wouldn't be leaving so soon, after all.

"Oh, good, you're here," Rodney said to John as he stomped into John's quarters. "The movie starts in an hour and I haven't had dinner yet, and if we don't get there early enough to get a seat in the back I'm probably going to have to sit in front of Peter, and if I have to listen to his hyena laugh for two hours straight I won't be held responsible for my—What the hell are you doing?"

"Don't get your panties in a twist. I'm not doing anything," John said. He looked annoyed, but Rodney could see how hard he was clenching the shooting gloves in his fist, how quickly he shoved them next to his thigh, like Rodney had walked in on him doing something unspeakable and he was trying to hide the evidence.

"You were wearing gloves!" Rodney said, his voice loud with accusation and worry. "You had your shooting gloves on! What the hell were you wearing gloves for?"

"I was not!" John shot back. "Jesus, Rodney!" He held up his naked hands. "Look, ma, no gloves. See?"

"Yes, I see!" Rodney snapped. He stalked over to the bed where John was sitting and loomed over him, snatching the gloves from beside his leg. "You were thinking about wearing these again, weren't you?" Rodney clutched them in one hand and waggled the gloves in John's face.

"No I wasn't!" John snapped just as loudly. He shoved Rodney's hand to the side and stood, forcing Rodney to back away from him so they wouldn't knock foreheads. He crossed his arms, glaring. "I was just lookingat them, okay? Jesus Christ, they're just gloves! It's not like you walked in on me masturbating or something."

"As if I would've minded that," Rodney scoffed. He showed John the gloves again. "These aren't just gloves, John!" Rodney said it with such ferocity that John's head jerked back. "I come in here and find you wearing these like—like some fucking addict who's having just one more hit of cocaine! What the fuck were you wearing them for? Why the hell are they even in your quarters, anyway?"

"I WASN'T WEARING THEM!!" John roared. "I was just trying to figure out if I should!" He gestured violently at the pieces of cloth and leather in Rodney's hand. "I was thinking that maybe, maybe I needed them again." His voice had dwindled down to a near-whisper, while Rodney blinked at him, as if John was ashamed of what he was saying. John slid his hands into his pockets and looked down at the floor.

The misery radiating from him was so strong Rodney almost felt like he could reach out and skim his fingertips over it, like a shield. Rodney's anger ran out of him like water. "Do you?" he asked.

John looked up at him. "No."

"Good," Rodney said. He dropped the shooting gloves on the floor then grabbed John, pulling their mouths together. He kissed him ferociously, feeling like he was trying to exorcise his anger and fear by breathing it into John's mouth.

John didn't resist at all, kissing Rodney back like his life depended on it, like he could lick salvation off the roof of Rodney's mouth, suck it from his tongue. One of his hands was hot as a brand on the nape of Rodney's neck, the other migrating up the back of Rodney's shirt, stroking along the valley of his spine. Skin to skin, and Rodney was so relieved he kissed John for that, too.

It took awhile before they broke apart, both of them hard and panting. John slowly slid his hand around from Rodney's spine to his side, settling it just above his hip. His eyes had gone night black, surrounded by a rim of animal green.

"I don't need the gloves anymore, Rodney," John said.

"Good," Rodney said again. He didn't smile. "I am never going to see you with those fucking things again," he said. "I mean it, John" he added, when John's lips quirked dangerously towards a smile. "You are never wearing gloves again. Never."

John blinked guillessly. "What if my hands are cold?"

"I'm not kidding about this, John!" Rodney snapped, more loudly than he'd even expected to. "Don't you dare start thinking you're a monster again! Not because you got sick! Not for anything! You understand me? We all got sick! None of us could control our Gifts! And I know you wanted to use your Gift just as badly as I did, but you didn't hurt anyone, did you? Not even those fucking bastard Athosians! We're all alive now because of your fucking Gift! So don't you ever pretend you're anything less than the finest man I know, all right? Because I will fucking end you if you so much as put a Band-aid on your finger if you don't need it. You are not doing this to yourself again!"

"Whoa!" John said. "Whoa, hey—I was kidding! I was kidding about the gloves thing." He wasn't smiling anymore. "I was kidding, Rodney." He moved his hand on the back of Rodney's neck, gently caressing. "I know I don't need the gloves anymore. I was just...I was just making sure, you know? It was..." His jaw worked, like he didn't want to actually have to say it. Finally he shrugged. "I never want to have that kind of power over people again."

"You and me both," Rodney said vehemently. He pulled John to him, wrapping his arms around his lean, solid body. "You are the finest man I know, John," he said.

"Thank you," John said quietly. "And, um, likewise."

Rodney snorted. "Yeah, that was heartfelt." But he hugged John a little tighter.

"My hands might get cold, though," John said. "Seriously." Rodney could hear the smile in his voice.

"I'll knit you mittens," Rodney said.

John started lazily nuzzling into the side of Rodney's neck. "You mean, you'll have Miko knit me mittens."

"Of course not," Rodney said. "She uses her Gift for me."

John pulled back in obvious surprise. "You're really going to knit me mittens?"

Rodney tried to pretend he wasn't blushing. "Well, I can't promise you'd be able to wear them, or anything."

John grinned. "My boyfriend is going to knit me mittens."

"Shut up," Rodney said, and then kissed John again so he wouldn't start laughing. "I love you, idiot," he said when he pulled back.

John smirked. "You say the sweetest things, Rodney," he said.

Rodney smiled. "Yes, well, some of us are just naturally charming. Live with it."

He pulled John close again, so he could feel the vibrations as he laughed.