Day 274: "One step at a time."
"You know, I've missed this. Stretching my legs, watch some boring harvest festival and eat with the locals. It's actually nice to get out of the lab. Can you believe it? Me?"
"Rodney." Smirking slightly, John gestured to the DHD McKay was currently standing next to. "Do you mind? Some of us got plans tonight."
"Oh, rub it in my face, why don't you?" grumbled McKay, his good mood transformed into his typical low-sugar level scowl. With stiff motions, he punched the buttons on the DHD. On the raised platform some metres away, the stargate came to life. Within moments, an event horizon formed and McKay stepped back from the DHD. "There. Don't let it hit you where the sun won't shine."
A few amused titters sounded around the group. John just rolled his eyes and input his code on his GDO. When he was done, he pocketed it and waved the rest of his team forward. "Alright, people. Let's get this stuff to Atlantis. Got some hungry people waiting for us."
At his cue, the ten Atlanteans in the group each picked up crates and baskets of fruits, meat and various other items given to them by the Saelin, a newly acquired ally, and stepped through the gate.
On the other side, Atlantis's gate room was filled with brilliant sunlight. A team of people stepped forward to help them with the load. John noticed their wide grins and excited faces as they chatted and relished over the new kinds of fruit they'd brought. It made him smirk faintly as he pocketed two of the unfamiliar fruits before heading over to the SOs.
"Welcome back, Colonel." Dawkins descended the grand staircase, as always neatly dressed in his base uniform. "I trust everything went okay?"
"Yeah, no problem. Milk run." Having handed over his weapons to the SOs, John turned to the other lieutenant colonel. "The Saelin were happy to see us again, especially when I told them the deal's on." He gestured to the stacks of food being transported out of the gate room. "This'll be the first of a weekly shipment."
"Excellent." Dawkins smiled. "That brings us up to eight trading partners in total. Not a bad number, right?"
"Right." But not the official one… John's smile didn't quite reach his eyes. Although deceiving Dawkins was, he had to admit, an easy job, John was starting to feel a bit tired of balancing truth and lie these days. They were just piling up day by day. He was starting to get headaches.
"Miss Xiaoyi will be very pleased," Dawkins said. "She's been very concerned about our food stores. We never know if the Wraith will suddenly show up again and we will have to start yet another cat and mouse chase. She suggested we stock up preserved food just in case."
"Thinking ahead," John commented, to which Dawkins nodded. "Well, we don't want to be caught with our pants down again."
"Not when we're all that's left..." His voice taking on a more sombre tone, Dawkins stared off into the air for a moment, a shadow crossing his eyes. It seemed unfamiliar of him, which made John wonder, but Dawkins soon shook himself out of his reverie and straightened. "Anyway, there was something I wanted to run by you regarding AR-4's mission to M4R-776…"
John held back an inward sigh. Lately, Dawkins had wanted to run a lot of things by him. Not that it was a necessarily bad thing. Even though he'd been given military command of Atlantis, at least Dawkins seemed to realise when something was beyond his current experience. In John's eyes, it was one of his few redeeming qualities.
"Could we do it on the way? I need to get a shower before I head off." John gestured towards the exit.
"Of course." Following him out of the gate room, Dawkins smiled again. "You're visiting the Athosians again this weekend, aren't you?"
…Not really, John thought with a wince. I'd rather face Teyla's ass-whopping...
"How about this: we create a Dyson ring or a bubble of solar power panel satellites around a small star. Rig a wireless transfer satellite, fix the beam weapon to it, and put a spacegate directly in front of it. Dial it up and tear the Wraith a new one." Sitting on the edge of Sam's bed, a small stool set with food in front of her, Hailey waved her fork in the air for emphasis.
Biting her lip, Sam shook her head. "Too little time. Daedalus heads out in two weeks. In three, they'll be too far away to respond immediately if the Wraith suddenly attacks, even if they push their engines. Besides, we don't have the manpower or the resources. We need a different plan." Eying Hailey's barely touched plate, Sam pointed at it. "Eat. Or I tell Keller where you're hiding out."
Hailey blew a breath, rolling her eyes. With an exaggerated motion, she took another bite of her steak. It didn't stop her from talking with her mouth full. "The Wraith don't even know where we are, or Atlantis'd be blown to pieces by now." She swallowed. "I bet they're hiding for some reason. Maybe the other Wraith factions scared it off."
"Doubtful." Sam began to pace a little in front of the cabin's fireplace. "We need to be prepared for anything, especially since Rathorn's still on the loose."
"That bastard," Hailey muttered, a dark look crossing her face. She stabbed her fork into her steak and sliced it almost violently. "Fine, then we stick to our original plan. Use all the naquadria generators we can get our hands on. I'll see what I can do once I get down to the Batcave."
"Nuh-uh. Don't even think about it, Jenn. You're not working on anything until you get the medical go-ahead," Sam said, giving her a pointed stare. "Frankly, you should still be in bed recuperating. I should've sent you back to Atlantis the moment you got here…"
Hailey gave her the stink eye. "Ma'am, with all due respect… Stop. Patronising. Me." She raised her chin defiantly. "I'm fine. Besides, we're on a deadline and I'm wasted in that infirmary. Yes, I was shot, but I'm not dead. My brain's still functioning. I'm—ow, ow, ow, careful! I was eating that!" Having reached for the plate Sam pulled away, Hailey hunched over, clutching her left side in pain. The action had most likely pulled at her stitches and broken ribs.
"I rest my case," Sam said, putting the plate back on the stool in front of the younger woman. Hailey glared at her. With a resigned sigh, Sam kneeled down. "Look, I'm just worried about you, Jenn. Something like this…it takes time to heal. I know that all too well. I don't want you to push yourself too quickly. You don't need to make a point, if that's what it's all about."
"It's not," Hailey insisted, her glare softening slightly. She looked down at her hands. "You can get Ferrars to monitor me, change my bandages, report to Keller, whatever. I know he's capable of it. Just…don't send me back there." She looked up into Sam's eyes. "Please."
Eying her closely, Sam eventually gave in. "Okay. But I'm gonna have Ferrars follow you around and make sure you don't do any heavy lifting or working."
"Geez, it's like you don't trust me," Hailey muttered, but she was smiling in spite of her tone. "Can I at least keep my brain from atrophying?"
"As long as it's nothing too classified," Sam said, bemused, as she got back to her feet. Ferrars might have an inkling of what they were really doing down in the Batcave, but only four people knew the exact details: Caldwell, John and the two of them. Sam might be paranoid, but she'd rather be safe than sorry. Xiaoyi still had her sources in camp. "Now, eat up, Captain. You need your proteins."
Hailey smirked. "Aye, ma'am."
"You're thinking again." John's statement brought her out of her thoughts. He was dropping soft kisses along her neck. They were in her quarters, the early morning light streaming in through the windows across the bed, warm and bright.
Sighing contently, Sam arched backwards, further spooning against him. "It's been known to happen. You should try it sometime."
His strong arms encircled her, pulling her closer as his chin came to rest upon her shoulder. "Aw, I dunno. You're the brains in this operation, Sam."
"Liar." Craning her neck, Sam gave him a pointed look, but it was ruined by her grin.
The smug look on John's face went by without verbal elaboration or explanation, but they both knew what it meant. He did far more in this 'operation' than simply provide muscle and an occasional sounding board, and there was still that Mensa invitation that John just 'happened' to forget.
Chuckling, Sam reached up to grasp John's head. "Come here."
He obliged with a grin, closing the gap between them. Sam sighed against his lips, the touch as sweet as she'd remembered. God, it'd been so long. She just wanted to—
Sam startled awake.
"Whoa! Easy, Sam." Standing behind her, slightly wary, John held up his palms as he took a step back. Slung over his shoulder was his overnight bag, his attire changed from his more casual downtime clothes to his standard BDU. He dropped his bag in the back compartment of the Jumper and turned back towards the pilot's chair. "Rough night?"
"Ough. Kinda." Pushing off the dashboard, Sam slumped back in her seat and rubbed her eyes tiredly. Her neck complained from her having fallen asleep at an awkward angle. It didn't help that the vividness of her dream had all of her nerves on edge.
John eased past her into the pilot's chair, his touch on the controls immediately waking the instruments to life. He gave her a sideward glance as the back hatch closed, then silently produced two alien-looking fruits from his pockets. "Heard Hailey went AWOL from the infirmary this morning…"
Accepting the fruit John handed her, and electrified by his brief touch, Sam groaned. She'd forgotten how he sometimes knew exactly what was going on inside her head. "Yep. Showed up at 0500. Set off the alarm with her unscheduled activation. I expected the Wraith. Or the Genii."
"Some wake-up call, huh." Eyes on the instruments, John brought the HUD online. With one hand, he brought the alien fruit to his lips and bit into it. It seemed to melt in his hand, juices spilling over his fingers. Sam watched him lick his lips with a twist of her stomach.
"Yeah…" Putting the fruit aside, Sam ran a hand over her braid, felt the tufts of hair sticking out and removed the rubber band. The blond tresses spilled loose as she shook her head. "And then she just refused to go back." She blew an annoyed breath as she began to braid her hair anew. "She's so stubborn."
"Guess it's true what McKay says about you two: the apple doesn't fall far." To the side, John smirked widely as he finished off the small fruit in one large bite and wiped his hands clean on his pants. Then he ran his fingers over the instruments, engaging the Jumper's pre-flight preparation sequence.
Sam glared at him. "I'm not even gonna deign that with an answer."
Chuckling, John got the go-ahead from the Jumper's interface and then fired up the engines. "You set to go?"
Sam nodded and fastened her new braid with the rubber band before settling back in her seat. The fruit was left untouched on the edge of the dashboard and while John seemed to notice, he didn't comment on it.
"All right. Time to visit our other friends." As John pulled the Jumper into the air and engaged the cloak, Sam saw his smirk falter slightly and tension lines appeared on his face. She recognised the look. It'd become a familiar sight on these particular visits.
For some reason, it comforted her a little to know he didn't really want to go. Sam thought it might mean something, especially in light of things that'd been subtly implied after the Genii coup d'état. Taking pity on him as the Jumper soared over the treetops towards the stargate, she changed topics.
"So, how did it go with the Saelin?"
"Managed to get a deal," John said, his tension lines easing up somewhat. "Xiaoyi agreed to all their terms, so they're on the official watch list now. Daedalus will add them to its patrol route."
"That's great." Sam smiled. Outside the windscreen, the stargate came into view with the security teams on standby. Sam transmitted a short message to the sergeant in charge and saw him look up in their general direction with a raised thumb. Coast was clear.
"Seems to get her a lot of respect from people," John continued as Sam leaned over to input the target address into the Jumper's DHD. "Even McKay's singing her praises."
"Let me guess…whenever he eats?" Sam teased, settling back in her seat again. It was no secret that McKay loved a bit of comfort food, or at least a larger variety than fish, porridge and dried fruit. Below them, the stargate began to spin into life.
"Dead on," John said, smirking. "The rest of the time, he's sort of undecided. He's starting to get a bit frustrated that he can't boss around the eggheads like he used to, and that he's stuck with working on Atlantis' shields. Practically begged me to join the mission today."
The event horizon burst outwards from the stargate and then settled into the familiar blue-shimmering surface.
"All jokes aside, though," said Sam as John positioned the Jumper. "Any boost for morale is a good thing. Can't deny that. And it's nice to get a varied diet."
John gave her a sideward questioning glance. "Do I detect an ounce of respect? From you?"
"Personally? Not on your life." Sam's expression darkened. "Professionally? Maybe an ounce. A very tiny one. You can hardly see it."
She blew a breath as the Jumper threaded the needle. A moment later, they appeared on the other side of the wormhole, the blackness of space surrounding them. John turned the puddle jumper around.
Closing her eyes for a second, Sam sighed and ran a hand across her face. "I just… I want people to be happy again. Even if it's due to her… There's been too much—"
"Uh… Sam?" John's tense tone made her stop and look out through the windscreen.
The Aurora-class warship they were scheduled to meet at this position hovered right in front of them. Spread out around it, however, were dozens of generational ships of all sizes, types and shapes. The fleet dwarfed them by comparison and, as Sam watched, some of them moved menacingly towards the spacegate they'd just exited. According to the Jumper's HUD, they were bringing their weapons systems online.
Sam met John's eyes tensely. "You didn't do anything to upset Larrin last time…right?"
John set the Jumper down in the Ancient warship's hangar bay, his eyes paying close attention to everything happening outside the windscreen. There was a flurry of activity with people transporting crates and equipment amidst the haphazardly positioned stacks of supplies. Cables and handcrafted rigs were lying everywhere.
"Seems they've had some new additions," Sam said, calling his attention to four puddle jumpers stored in the walls of the bay. "Wonder where they got those."
Seeing Larrin stride briskly towards their Jumper ahead of a Traveler entourage, John felt a nervous shiver run down his spine. "You ask her. I think I might just stay here. Keep the engine going. Might need a quick getaway."
Sam snorted. "Just stay clear of her bite and you'll be fine."
"Hope you brought a tetanus shot," John muttered, "because I've seen that look before." He reluctantly got to his feet and followed Sam to the back compartment. He watched as Sam picked up her backpack with a wary look. "Can I at least bring my gun?"
Chuckling, Sam rolled her eyes. "Just open the door."
"Don't say I didn't warn you…"
John reached out to press the door release. With a hiss of air, the hatch slowly opened and came to rest against the ground. Outside the door, Larrin stood waiting, her look stoic and intense.
"Um…Hi," Sam said tentatively, putting on her biggest smile.
Larrin looked at her and frowned. "What happened to your face? You run into a bulkhead?"
Sam tensed visibly and brushed her hand across the small bandage that covered her still-healing ricochet wound from two weeks ago. "Just a minor mishap. Accident."
Larrin only raised an eyebrow. "That sorry excuse might work with whoever you hang around these days…but I'll let it slide."
That made John cock his eyebrow at her. Letting things slide wasn't exactly Larrin's MO. Before he could say anything, however, Larrin was already waving them out of the Jumper and he followed in Sam's wake as the two women walked ahead.
"I have good news and bad news," Larrin said, cutting straight to the chase. "I managed to scrounge up the thrusters you requested and they're ready for transport." She pointed at a stack of crates when they passed it.
"And the bad news?" Sam glanced at Larrin as they exited the hangar bay into a less busy hallway, her face contorting into a frown.
Larrin eyed Sam's bandage again. "You sure that doesn't have something to do with certain rumours we hear about the Genii? Doesn't look recent."
Sam's cheeks flushed.
Larrin grimaced. "Yeah, thought so." She stopped once they reached the first intersection. "There's no point denying it, Sam. Word's gone around. We know you were involved in the Genii civil war and that you've put out a bounty on former Commander Rathorn."
"Last time I checked, the Travelers weren't concerned with the dealings of the Genii, or the rest of the galaxy for that matter," John said, his brows furrowed. "Your paths never crossed."
"They do now." Larrin gave him a fierce look. "A few months back, the Genii infiltrated several of our colonies. Took off with a lot of valuable tech. Since then, we've kept a close eye on them. They're dangerous. Power-seekers always are."
John met Sam's eyes tensely. Could it be Radim's work or Rathorn's?
Unperturbed by their silent communication, Larrin turned and addressed Sam. "Look, you've kept up your end of your deal, but there are people who don't like the idea of working with Genii sympathisers. Some of the captains want to break off the deal."
Sam tensed. "And the rest?"
Larrin smiled tightly. "Divided on the issue. What happens next is up to the individual captains. Lucky for you, they've all gathered here today. Special treatment for you." She gestured to one of the people in her entourage. "Please escort Colonel Carter to the conference room."
"Hang on—" John began to say, but before he could argue further, Larrin had gripped his arm tightly and started pulling him down the hallway.
"You're with me today, Sheppard," she said. "We need your gene."
The rest of her entourage crowded around Sam, blocking her from his view. Despite his resistance, John could only watch as they started moving as one indistinguishable mass in the opposite direction.
There was something very disconcerting about the twenty-odd faces staring at her across the conference table. Most were unknowns. A few were captains who'd fought with Atlantis in the Battle of Asuras, and seemed to be the only ones who didn't give her openly hostile looks.
Sam cleared her throat. "I understand you wish to discuss our current arrangement. If you had called beforehand, I would've brought—"
"A Genii bribe?" One of the captains, a male in his forties with a black goatee, sneered.
Sam bit back her retort. That was what they wanted, obviously: to unbalance her. She recognised the tactic; it'd been heavily used by the IOA. But she wasn't going to fall for that again. She was stronger than that.
The captain's sneer disappeared abruptly. Barely. Some of the other captains stirred uneasily in their seats, glancing towards the woman seated at the end of the table. Regal-looking even in her simple leathers, Treya exuded a calm, wise and no-nonsense assertiveness that garnered respect, which was probably why she was the Traveler Council's elected spokeswoman. In this particular meeting, however, she was just one voice of many and did not have any more power than the next one, at least in theory.
Once silence descended, Treya faced Sam. "Colonel Carter, I apologise for not giving you time to prepare for this meeting. Matters have arisen quite…suddenly." She paused for a moment, letting the words echo in the spacious room. "Did Captain Larrin inform you of the issue at hand?"
Steeling herself, Sam pushed all her doubts, insecurities and fears to the back of her head; she needed to think clearly for this. Based on Larrin's curt words, emotions were running high among the Travelers, and Sam had to counter that with her only available tool: logic. First, however, she had to get a feel of the situation; she felt like she was currently fumbling in the darkness.
"I believe you have questions about some rumours involving myself and the Genii," she stated, resting her hands on the tabletop and meeting the eyes of every captain and civilian representative around the conference room table.
"To put it mildly," muttered Gaelon.
"Do you deny their validity?" Another captain asked, a woman in her fifties with long, red curls and a jagged scar across her neck.
Neck tensing, Sam took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "No."
A chorus of mutters broke out around the table. People were shaking or nodding their heads at each other, others were whispering lowly in intense tones.
Treya's face showed no indication of her alignment. "Perhaps you could tell us, Colonel," she said, bringing the room to a hushed silence again, "what, exactly, your relationship with the Genii is, or has been."
"The rumours seem to suggest otherwise, Colonel," a middle-aged man said quietly. Sam recognised him as Darian, one of the captains from the Battle of Asuras. "You assisted in the Genii's recent civil war, did you not?"
Sam ignored the urge to touch her bandage, her annoyance with Rathorn flaring up momentarily. "Not by design, I assure you."
"How so?" the redheaded woman asked, frowning.
Sam chose her words carefully; there were things, she decided, that the Travelers had no right or need to know given that they hadn't fully committed to a long-term plan to fight the Wraith. "I walked into a trap. Word of the coup d'état hadn't reached Atlantis, so when I visited them for a pre-arranged trade meeting, their new leader, Rathorn, captured me. When my people came to extract me, the Genii civil war broke out. We were caught in the middle."
"Convenient." Off to the side, Gaelon narrowed his eyes at her. Some of his sidemen nodded in agreement. Others, Sam noticed, shot him a nasty look.
"But true." Sam met Gaelon's eyes head-on. He silenced, his expression changing into a grimace.
"So you decided to side with one of the factions fighting for control?" The redheaded woman asked, leaning forward. Her eyes grew hard. "And judging by the bounty put on this Commander Rathorn, you chose Chief Radim's?"
"I made a tactical decision based on the circumstances," Sam said lowly, shifting her gaze to look at each of the captains around the table. She left out the bit where Rathorn intended to hand her off to the Wraith for some nefarious purpose. She wasn't here to play the victim.
"Spoken like a true commander." Gaelon looked for a moment like he was about to applaud her. His expression, however, was anything but in awe. "And your decision had nothing to do with your past dealings with the Genii?"
"Any particular dealings you had in mind?" Sam narrowed her eyes in challenge, already suspecting what was to come.
Gaelon's lips thinned, but it was the redheaded woman who answered. "Colonel, were you aware of the Genii's intention to enter our colonies and steal valuable technology from us three months ago?"
"No," Sam said immediately. "If I had, I would've done whatever I could to stop it."
"Those are pretty words, Colonel," Gaelon said, his expression turning dark. "And easy to say."
Sam's teeth clenched at the familiar vibe of insinuating attitude and she closed her eyes for a moment. Opening them, she stared directly at Gaelon. "If there's something you'd like to say, Captain, just say it. It'll save us all a lot of time." She levelled her eyes around at the rest of the gathered Travelers. "That goes for all of you."
Some of the captains squirmed uncomfortably in their seats, looking guilty. Others straightened their shoulders or clenched their jaws indignantly in an obvious attempt to hold something back.
Treya alone seemed unaffected, but her deep, keen eyes never strayed from Sam.
In the Ancient warship's control room, the general chatter from earlier had toned down to a hushed silence. One of the technicians at a nearby console stared at the display in front of him. "The readings check out, Captain. The Asgard shields are at 100 %."
"Bring it up on the display, Sheppard." Standing a few steps away from the control chair, Larrin jerked her head towards the major HUD display at the front of the room. Holding back a sigh, John complied and an image of a three-dimensional warship popped up inside a translucent bubble on the display. The surface of the bubble rippled with steady power surges. "Well, would you look at that…?"
"See? Told you. Can I go now?" John knew he sounded petulant, but he didn't care. He shifted his legs restlessly in the control chair. They'd been at it for over an hour already. He didn't like sitting in chairs so close to Larrin; he half-expected chains to suddenly appear and tie him down.
"Not yet." Larrin grinned, stood up straight and moved over to a different console, toggling one of the buttons. "Maxxon, this is the Vestige. Fire a volley at us. Use the heavy guns."
"You gotta be kidding me…" John groaned when he caught on to Larrin's game. "Look, you gotta work on that—whoa!"
The impulses from the sensors combined with the warship's systems flashed through his mind. In slow motion, he sensed the discharge of combined railgun and energy weapons from a nearby Traveler ship and immediately grabbed hold of the shields. The warship barely rocked with the impact, but to John's mind it felt like an attack on his entire nervous system. Golden stars exploded behind his eyelids.
Coming back to reality, John opened his eyes and glared at Larrin. "You satisfied?"
Larrin looked away from the HUD display and grinned at him. "Very. You got more of these lying around? Got a whole fleet interested."
John grimaced as he thought of Earth. "You'll have to make do with the one you got."
"Shame," Larrin said, approaching him. John took it as a cue for him to finally ease the control chair back into a powered-down state. "Fortunately, we've got all these brilliant engineers. They'll think of something."
"Yeah? Good luck with that," John muttered. Even though they had a couple of colonies now, the Travelers still had limited supply capabilities. Apparently, with the option to stay on the ground came the relaxation of the population control issue, and baby booms in the last year or so had left them with too many mouths to feed.
John jumped out of the control chair and walked a couple of steps until he felt fully connected to this world again. Interfacing with a control chair always made him feel slightly out-of-balance for a couple of moments, as if stepping out of a different reality altogether. He gestured towards the door. "If there's nothing else…?"
"I've never seen you so eager to leave before, Sheppard." Larrin grinned. She sauntered towards him, leaning into his personal space while lowering her voice suggestively. "Something change recently?"
John tensed and instinctively took a step back. Seeing Larrin's grin only widen, irritation bubbled up inside him and he reclaimed the step he'd taken. "Look, it's one thing to lock me up every time something bad happens to you guys, but ambush Sam like that after everything she's done for you? Not cool. So yeah, I'd like to leave now."
He turned on the spot and stalked towards the bridge's exit, not waiting around for her permission. He didn't get far, though. Two guards positioned outside the door stopped him with a swift aim of their particle magnum guns.
John groaned loudly and swung back to face Larrin. "Really?"
Larrin gestured for the guards to stand down, her smile gone. "I'm not done with you yet."
Sam's jaw was hurting. She forced herself to unclench it and breathe deeply, but she wasn't sure it was working. Not for the first time, she cursed General O'Neill. He just had to pick her, didn't he?
"Running out of excuses, Colonel?" Gaelon's forehead was furrowed, his eyes glinting dangerously. Sam thought she could see the beginning signs of sweat under his armpits. A vein on his neck had started to pulse more rapidly in the last hour or so, his face reddening with each failure to get her to admit guilt.
"I'm going to say this for the last time: I didn't have anything to do with the Genii thefts!" Sam gritted her teeth, her hands clenched on top of the table. "Do I do business with them? Yes. Did I know about their plans? No. Would I have stopped them if I did? Yes!"
Fire threatening to burst out of her, Sam stared at all of the captains around the table, her pulse beginning to race. "Look, I get it. You got screwed over and you're pissed. You want to assign blame and you go for the one you consider the most likely suspect. Given your social circles, I guess I'm not surprised I was your first choice."
The captains skirted glances at each other, obviously seeking affirmation in their various allies. Her words, it seemed, had hit home.
Sam pushed on, her voice rising in intensity. "Only, you're barking up the wrong tree! Atlantis had nothing to do with it." She rose to her feet, leaning her fists on the tabletop. Some of the captains suddenly looked uneasy. "I'm not a big fan of the Genii. I'll be the first to tell you that some of them cannot be trusted by a long shot. God knows they've tried to screw us over in the past, but that's changed. You know why? Because they need us."
Gaelon scoffed. "Yes, indeed. How else did they manage to get inside our—"
"God! How can you be so damn short-sighted?" Sam snapped, half-tempted to bang her fist into the table for emphasis. John had to be rubbing off on her. "You know what's happening in this galaxy right now. You know about the Wraith civil war, about the Wraith superhive that'd rather completely destroy a human settlement than let one of their rivals get to it. You've lost ships and people because of that. You agreed to help us in return for technology that'd better protect your ships. You need us as much as we need you!"
"Hardly—" Gaelon began, but he was cut off.
"Colonel Carter has a fair point," Darian said. His sidemen nodded in agreement. "We are not alone in this galaxy. This new threat is unlike any we've encountered before, hence our initial exchange agreement with Atlantis. Our technology cannot measure up to it."
"Something easily solved by leaving Pegasus," a different captain spoke up. Sam recognised her as Katana Labrea, one of the Travelers Atlantis had worked with in the past. "We're Travelers, not settlers. We have the ships. We can just leave."
"And go where?" the redheaded woman asked pointedly, clearly annoyed. "We have no guarantee there is a galaxy out there without a threat like the Wraith. None of our scout ships have returned and it has been four years. If we leave, we could just be heading to something worse."
Like in the Milky Way galaxy, Sam thought instinctually.
"Of course we're not leaving! The thought is ridiculous!" Gaelon burst out, jerking forwards in his chair. "The Wraith have always been our enemy and we have always evaded them, but not anymore. We need to take the fight to them, even if it means committing all our forces and resources to it. But we don't need her or her so-called 'business allies'! We've survived so far on our own. We can continue doing so."
"Have you forgotten about the Asurans already?" Darian countered. "About how Atlantis and even the Wraith helped us stop them from finding more of our colonies? Atlantis has helped us in the past. They're helping us now. What does it matter who they otherwise have dealings with? We don't even know which Genii faction is behind the thefts – it could be this Rathorn character Colonel Carter told us about earlier. A civil war doesn't just happen. It's planned. Rathorn had most likely been in business for months. Perhaps our—"
"You're just guessing!" the redheaded woman said, shaking her head.
"What does it matter which Genii did it?" Katana interjected before the other woman could continue. "What's done is done. We should take advantage of the apparent lull in the Wraith civil war and leave. There won't be another chance like this."
"Out of the question—"
"We should be discussing Atlantis's deal instead! Who are they to—"
"Don't change the subject—"
"We should never—"
"She's the one who—"
And just like that, everything derailed.
"This is getting old."
In the dimmed room, Sheppard glared at her in the sole stream of light from overhead. His fists were clenched, Larrin noticed, and he kept flexing his muscles against the restraints to test their flexibility. It only made her grin.
"Keeps you still." She inched around the chair, trailing her fingers up his arms and across the exposed skin of his neck. Leaning down, she breathed hot air across his ear. "You're always on the move, Sheppard. Why's that?"
Jerking his head away, Sheppard struggled against the restraints, his tone gruff. "What'd you want, Larrin? Personal boy-toy? Sorry, I ain't applying."
While she didn't get his strange idioms, Larrin understood his underlying subtext. She chuckled as she continued around the chair until she faced him fully. "You're always so tense. Don't you people ever release your valves?"
Sheppard's lips thinned.
"Ooh, touchy subject." Larrin crouched down in front of the chair, resting her outstretched palms on Sheppard's thighs, her thumbs starting to caress the insides. "Prefer a different ship, do you?"
"Larrin…" The name was gritted out from a clenched jaw. Sheppard's eyes glinted as he once more struggled against the restraints, his whole body starting to tremble beneath her touch. "I swear to God… Get. Me. Out. Of. This. Fucking. Chair."
Larrin rolled her eyes and got back up to her feet. "You used to be fun."
She walked over to a table pushed up against the wall and picked up a small needle-like device. Turning back, she saw Sheppard eye her darkly. He'd stilled completely.
"What's your game, Larrin?"
She held up the device for him to see, her voice turning hard. "Insurance."
Tense, Sam paced in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows in the warship's VIP suite. Outside, the Traveler fleet had shifted into almost indiscernible groups; most likely as a result of the heated debate Sam had been witness to an hour earlier.
She hadn't known it'd been this bad. There'd always been murmurs of dissent since some of the Travelers decided to live on planets instead of ships, but this felt like they were on the verge of a schism. Was she watching another people break apart – in the middle of a violent and dangerous galaxy warzone?
The doors whooshed open. Sam turned just in time to see John stumble inside, clothes slightly disarrayed, hair mussed up and a bruise forming on his left cheek. She caught a brief glimpse of a red-faced Larrin before the doors closed again and felt like a stone had dropped into the bottom of her stomach.
"John?" Her voice sounded strangled.
John touched his jaw and winced as he hit the bruise. "Goddamnit." Spotting her, he gave her a glare. "I'm never going back here, so you might as well throw me in the brig for insubordination when we get back to Atlantis."
Sam let out a half-hearted chuckle. "Not your direct CO anymore, remember? Could always get the Tiranians to build one, though." Stomach churning uncomfortably, Sam hesitated before asking, "What happened?"
Feeling the outside of a metal water jug on the nearby dining table, John picked it up and held it against his bruise with a grimace. "Larrin doesn't know how to ask nicely. Wanted a dozen samples of my blood. Called it insurance."
Sam gave him a look of confusion. As far as she knew, the only thing special about John's blood was the presence of his naturally occurring ATA gene, but the Travelers had received samples of the gene therapy months ago as part of their deal with her. She raised an eyebrow, opting for breaking the tension between them. "Think they want to clone you?"
John snorted, then winced as the action stretched the bruised skin of his cheek. He slumped down onto the couch facing the wall-sized window. "Dunno. The only explanation I got was this." He gestured to the bruise, which seemed almost hand-shaped. "Though, it might've been for calling her names."
Sam smiled, but it didn't quite reach her eyes. There was something off about him; something he wasn't telling her, and her mind immediately assumed the worst. Crossing her arms tightly, she turned back to the window and took a couple of deep breaths. "When this is over, I'm retiring."
"Meeting went that well, huh?" John's tone was sardonic. "Lemme guess, inbred politicians and gun-crazed maniacs who didn't want anything to do with the Wraith?"
Clear that he was still trying to lighten the mood, Sam pushed down those definite personal feelings she was experiencing at the moment and went to sit on the other end of the couch. "Something like it. The Travelers are breaking apart. Turns out the Genii thefts and our involvement with the Genii civil war have become their fuel for fire." She sighed and ran a hand over her eyes, rubbing them. "I don't know how to salvage this."
"It's their problem," John said, his tone annoyed. "You don't have to fix anything."
Sam glared at him. "We need this ship, their fleet, John. If we wanna protect this galaxy from suffering the same atrocities as back home…" She paused, half-surprised her throat didn't choke up at the reference to the Milky Way. John met her eyes steadily, his jaw clenched slightly. "If there's a schism, our deal's off. Count on it. What then? The Ascalon is still a month away from completion, Daedalus needs to head out on patrol to protect our allies and find that missing superhive, and all Atlantis has are improved shields and a cloak that the superhive can penetrate in seconds." She stared outside at the slowly shifting Traveler fleet. The distances were getting more defined. "We'll all be as dead as Earth."
The silence that followed was tense. Sam sat ramrod straight and alert, conscious of every breath and movement John made. How it'd come to this – another unspoken, edgy fight – she didn't know. It felt like that time in her office; him on one side, her on another. Two superpowers faced off in yet another Cold War.
"You'll think of something." The softness in John's voice startled her. She looked at him. He sat as tense as her, but his eyes were less hard than she'd expected.
Recognising the quiet support for what it was, Sam relaxed a fraction and sank slowly back in the cushions. She let out a deep breath and gave him a small smile. "Thank you, John."
He nodded in acknowledgment, but didn't say anything else.
Eventually, Sam broke the silence. "Need that tetanus shot?"
It elicited another snort from John.
Opening her eyes, Larrin let the control chair power down and sat up. A headache was threatening to split her head in two, and she'd only been in it for less than ten minutes.
"Larrin?" Councillor Treya stood off to one side of the chair, her eyes worried. She rested a hand on Larrin's, the contact comforting until Larrin realised they weren't alone in the room. Many of the technicians looked away hurriedly when she levelled her eyes at them.
"I'm fine." Larrin waved the hand away and slumped forward with elbows on her knees. The images and voices of the two Atlanteans remained at the front of her mind, jumbled together with the surge of headaches. It took a moment to sort it all out as she came down from the overwhelming high of being connected to the control chair.
"So?" Treya's voice was expectant yet hesitant. There'd been doubts about this approach, but it seemed to be the only chance to learn what the Atlanteans were thinking.
Larrin sighed. She had a feeling some of those words and images would stick with her for a long time. Even from a different point of view, she could sense their underlying emotion and the pain associated with them. She'd seen far more than she'd liked. No wonder Sheppard had been tight-lipped earlier.
Staring up at her mother, Larrin's tone was grim. "It's bad."
"Before Larrin dragged me off to be exsanguinated, she had me test the Asgard shields." John swallowed the bite he'd been chewing and almost immediately put a new bite into his mouth while talking out of one side of his mouth. Used to this kind of behaviour, Sam only rolled her eyes and ate her own food at a more leisurely pace. "The installation is complete and functional, and they're about halfway through the other necessary upgrades to withstand the Wraith. Kept bugging me about access to more shield generators, though. Also dropped a not so subtle hint that she wouldn't mind one of the Asgard plasma beam weapons."
"Blueprints for railguns weren't enough?" Sam snorted, picking up her glass of water and swirling the contents around with a roll of her hand. "The Genii, the Travelers… They all want a piece of the pie, but when we suggest—"
The rest of her sentence was lost in the sound of doors that whooshed open and the immediate entry of Larrin and Councillor Treya. Both women looked solemn, although Larrin with more fire in her eyes than the Councillor.
"Councillor?" Putting down her glass, Sam turned in her chair with a look of confusion. "Has something happened?"
"Is it true that your homeworld is gone?" Treya asked without any preamble.
Both Sam and John froze solid. Underneath her skin, Sam felt her heart suddenly thump like a galloping horse. Her breath was caught in her throat as she quickly sped through her options. Before she could open her mouth, however, John spoke in a harsh tone.
"Where did you hear that?"
Neither of the Traveler women answered him. Instead, Treya repeated, "Is it true, Colonel Carter?"
Although initially unsettled, Sam became grounded by John's accusation. Where had they heard that? It was by far their best-kept secret. Even the IOA had been clear that there'd be no indication to their allies that there was no big and vicious back-up waiting just a call away. In their weakened state, Atlantis needed the unspoken threat of a powerful Earth. Appearances were their ally, which was also why Sam didn't broadcast the fact that she wasn't the de facto leader of Atlantis anymore. So what had they done? Did they have a mole in Atlantis?
"I believe my XO asked you a question." Sam's voice was equal to John's. She levelled her eyes at Treya, forcing as much power into her expression as possible.
The Councillor didn't back down. For a long while, both gauged the other, tested each other's grit, while the tension in the room grew exponentially. Sam's heart began to calm underneath that gaze as she realised she could hold it without flinching. Her shoulders straightened, her chin lifted just a fraction, and her eyes hardened.
Finally, Treya blinked. "This room has ears."
"You eavesdropped on us?" John's cutlery dropped onto the plate with a clatter. "That how you treat—"
"Is it true?" Larrin interjected, crossing her arms tightly and looking from John to Sam. "Your homeworld is lost?"
Sam surveyed the two Traveler women: the tension lines around Treya's eyes, the determined yet slightly worried lilt to Larrin's lips, and the overall edgy energy pulsating off their entire being. She frowned. "Why do you want to know?"
Larrin shifted on her feet while Treya remained still. They gave each other a brief look that didn't reveal anything to Sam, after which the elder woman turned fully towards her. "We are worried, Colonel Carter. During the past year, the galaxy has changed faster than we can keep up with it. Our last scout report stated that the Wraith superhive is either decimating its enemies or allying themselves with them. Some deny it, but many of our people are scared. This is the closest we've been to extinction in generations. A unified Wraith force hasn't been seen since the Ancestors inhabited Atlantis."
"Some are saying it's an omen." Scoffing darkly, Larrin started to pace back and forth, her frustration shining through her tone of voice and expression. Treya eyed her with a slight look of worry. "We spend more energy on keeping our people together for just one more day than actually doing something about this whole mess."
"What they need is hope and a target," the Councillor said, turning back to Sam. "So far, we have managed to stay one step ahead of the Wraith by consolidating our forces and relocating civilians to our central colony, as you suggested several months ago." She paused, sighing and gesturing to the split fleet outside the wall-sized window. "The consequence, however, is this. Our people are breaking apart."
Outside the window, the distance between the different groups of ships was obvious now. It almost felt like a Mexican standoff. Sam could see that it pained Treya to admit the truth. She sympathised. After all, it'd happened on Atlantis too, only the line was less clear these days since Sam had taken her Wraith-fighting agenda underground.
"You were hoping we could offer sanctuary," Sam stated quietly.
She looked at the two Traveler women. Larrin had stopped completely and Treya had grown as still as a rock, but the answer was clear in their expressions. At the moment, the Travelers were too divided to function and thus vulnerable to attack. If they could move their base of operations to the Milky Way, however, they might be able to fulfil everyone's wishes. Those who wished to fight or flight could do so, and those who wished to live on ships or planets could do so as well. It seemed the ideal solution.
Sam sighed deeply and glanced at John. He sat impossibly still, his dark eyes surveying the Travelers. Finally, he met her eyes.
What should I do, John? Is it time? Can we trust them?
The answer didn't come immediately or easily. There was an edge in John's expression, a mix of reluctance and resignation that connected with something deep inside her. Despite his reservations and his less-than-great experiences with the Travelers, John felt for them. He cared about them. He wanted to salvage this too so that they could all survive, simply out of the goodness of his heart. It made Sam smile and want to tear up. Deep down, he was a good guy. Capable of terrible things, yes, but so was she. They were one and the same, and that thought comforted her.
"Earth was attacked by an unknown alien force nine months ago." Sam broke away her gaze from John's and turned to the two Traveler women. "We've been unable to contact them ever since."
"It is presumed that the rest of the galaxy has suffered the same fate," John added, his voice softer than it'd been earlier. "So we're stuck here, same as you."
For a moment, there was no response. Then, Larrin cursed loudly. "Not what I wanted to hear right now." She looked at Treya, running a frustrated hand through her curly hair. "So, what's next?"
Treya eyed Sam and John pensively, not as visibly shook as Larrin. "We proceed as planned."
The stoic faces of the Traveler captains hadn't changed in the hours between the meetings. Now, however, some of them didn't only view her in a hostile manner, but also several of their own.
'Beneath the surface of what you witnessed earlier today, Colonel Carter, the Travelers are grateful for the things you have provided for us,' Treya had told her earlier in the VIP suite. 'The City of Atlantis has been a valuable ally in the past. She should be so again.'
"I didn't come here today to talk about the Genii; I came to honour our deal," Sam began, sitting straight in her seat, her chin raised. "Colonel Sheppard has informed me that many of your ships have now successfully installed new railguns from our designs, and that this ship's new shields are functioning perfectly. Against the standard Wraith ships, it is now easily the most powerful ship in your fleet. How it fares against the superhive, however, remains to be seen."
Sam paused for a moment. "When the superhive was barely finished, it almost decimated the city of Atlantis and our battle cruiser. We escaped that encounter by sheer luck and good timing. We then did as you do now – evaded them – and it worked. We survived and are still alive today." She sent a round of pointed looks at the captains she'd identified as leaders of the various factions. "But that stopped when the superhive eradicated the first human settlements."
"It took me a while to acknowledge that the rules of the game had changed," Sam continued. Behind her, she thought she could hear John shift on his feet. He would know. It'd killed the thing between them that they couldn't openly acknowledge. Sam pushed that painful memory down to the deepest recesses of her mind. "At least one Wraith faction no longer cares about the sustainable development of humans. It'd rather decimate an entire settlement than risk any of its rivals coming there to cull. From a military perspective, it tells me this Wraith faction has some higher agenda than simple civil war; that is why they can afford to do this. Whatever that might be" – Sam had a suspicion, however, given the Wraith's previous interest in Earth – "this change affects all of us."
"It is why leaving this galaxy might be our only option," Katana said quietly.
"Or at least relocating back onto our ships again," the redheaded woman said with no trace of spite or annoyance. Just a statement. Perhaps the past couple of hours had tempered them, or so Sam hoped.
While some of the other captains seemed eager to respond, one look from Treya seemed to quell them immediately. Apparently, she had no wish for another debate as the one earlier. It particularly seemed to affect Gaelon, who didn't look at Sam or anyone else. He just stared at the opposite wall, his chin raised high.
Sam addressed the two female captains. "Both are of course your prerogative, but I'd like to take this opportunity to urge you to reconsider. It is true that currently, the civil war is keeping the Wraith busy and that it has whittled the Wraith armada down to less than half its original number of Hive ships. It is also true that we have no guaranteed defenses or offensive weapons that'll help us survive the Wraith superhive and its allies when they come." Many of the captains looked questioningly at her. "Yes, I use when intentionally," Sam clarified. "Per today, the Wraith superhive is too powerful for any one of us alone, including the other Wraith factions. Once those factions realize that, they'll join the superhive's fleet. Many have already begun. When they come at us united…we won't stand a chance."
"A divided Wraith race have always been our ally," Darian agreed. "They fought each other more than they fought us."
Sam nodded. "It's been a loophole we've taken advantage of so far. If they band together like they did against the Ancients ten thousand years ago, however, we'll lose Pegasus."
A solemn atmosphere filled the silence. People skirted their eyes at each other, perhaps beginning to realize the severity of what was going on, although Sam knew from Treya that they'd probably known all along. They'd just sought out different solutions to the problem and then accused everyone else of ignoring the best possible course of action.
"It is my belief, though, that if we work together, we can beat them. We can kick them back to wherever the hell they came from."
"And how do you propose that?" One of Gaelon's sidemen asked.
"We have a plan in motion," Sam said frankly, recalling Treya's words of the Travelers needing hope and a common target. "For now, it's been about creating defences that can withstand a prolonged attack from the superhive, but if they work…we'll be willing to share."
"In return for what?" The redheaded woman asked, the snide returning briefly to her face.
"A mutually beneficial alliance." Sam leaned forward in her seat, knitting her fingers together on the tabletop. "We've already started to share some things, but there is a whole lot of other possibilities that we can look at. Technological exchange, scientific and military assistance, plain resources…"
"And where does the Genii fit into all of this?" Gaelon's question was sudden, but his voice was low, almost quiet, as if contemplative. He still didn't meet her eyes and it felt like it was done out of spite.
"As I mentioned earlier, the Genii – those led by Chief Radim – are our ally in some aspects. We have each helped the other with vital projects."
"Such as?" asked the redheaded woman.
Sam sought out Treya's eyes for confirmation. Unnoticed by the captains, who were too busy looking at Sam, the councillor gave an almost imperceptible nod.
"Chief Radim asked for assistance in creating a nuclear power plant that wouldn't threaten the population's health and at the same time provide a stable power source." Sam paused, lowering her voice slightly. "In return, they provided us with necessary resources for a new weapons project designed specifically to take down the Wraith superhive."
Astonished silence followed, soon broken by a smattering of whispers.
"You are in possession of such a thing?" Darian finally asked, bringing the whispers to a halt.
"It is not finished, nor tested, but if it performs as it is intended to…yes." Sam shifted in her seat, giving everyone around the table a second glance. It was clear that many of them were intrigued. "It'll be able to protect a colony against any Wraith ships and it is one of the many things you will have access to if you decide to formally join forces with us against the Wraith."
"Why do you even care?" Gaelon bit out, turning to glare at her. "You don't belong in this galaxy, Colonel. If you hadn't come, the Wraith would still be in hibernation. We'd have another generation or so to prepare for their return. Instead, our plans were cut short and we've lost thousands of people since. Whole ships and colonies gone. But maybe this offer of yours is a lie. All you've been concerned about is that precious city. You practically said it yourself – you've developed these defences to protect Atlantis, haven't you? Why not take the city and go back to where you come from? Are you planning to replace the Wraith instead? Lure us in and then stab us in the back when the Wraith are gone?"
Gaelon's words faced only silence. None of the Travelers questioned him. They all just skirted their eyes at her expectantly, most likely wondering about the same things themselves.
This is it. I just hope it works.
Sam heard John shift behind her as if reminding her of his presence, of his support. A warm feeling rushed through her and she straightened in her seat, facing the Traveler captains with every bit of confidence she could scrounge up.
"Our homeworld was attacked."
She's changed. The thought kept running through John's mind as he watched Sam tell the whole story of Earth's demise. She never faltered, never choked up, and never released her hold on her audience. Just like the colonel from the SGC legends. And yet…there was something about her that was intrinsically…just Sam.
It brought a soft smile to John's lips.
"It is estimated that we lost more than six billion people that night," Sam was saying. Stunned expressions showed on many of the captains' faces. It heartened John. Perhaps they'd pull this off after all. "And we suspect the rest of the galaxy isn't faring any better if the stargates were shut down. Worst case scenario, that brings the total number of deaths in our home galaxy up to the twelve-digit number."
"How can you be sure if you've had no contact with anyone?" asked one of the captains, her voice hushed and solemn.
"We cannot," Sam said without hesitance. "Not one hundred per cent. However, we can reconfigure which stargate addresses to contact and so far we've been unable to connect with any of the Milky Way gates. Given the technologically advanced races we've left behind, that shouldn't be possible unless the network is still down."
"Which means these aliens are most likely still present," another captain finished. He looked disturbed by the news. He looked at Katana, who seemed dejected. "It would seem our best option is to stay here. At least we know who and where our enemy is: the Wraith."
Some of the other captains seemed about to respond, but the councillor at the end of the table raised her hand in a gesture of silence. As she'd told them earlier, this meeting was all about Sam presenting their options. They'd have to settle their internal business elsewhere.
Sam continued. "Even if there aren't that many of us left, we can still give the Wraith a real run for their money. We've held them off so far, we crippled the superhive for a time and we can do it again." Sam stared at all of them, her shoulders squared, her expression firm and filled with confidence. John smiled again. "Pegasus is our home now. On Earth, we fought for what's ours with whatever means necessary. If that means we now have to ally ourselves with the Genii, who in turn owe us for our assistance in returning Chief Radim to power, then so be it." She paused for effect and John had a feeling of what was coming next. She'd practiced a bit with him earlier. "We have a saying on Earth that I believe some of you have heard from me once before: The enemy of my enemy is my friend." The captains that'd helped them in the Battle of Asuras offered a variety of nods and smiles. Sam raised her chin. "If you can work with the Wraith to take out the Asurans once and for all, then the Genii under Chief Radim should be no different. The choice is up to you, however. You can either join us and reap the benefits we offer or stay on the sidelines."
She left it at that and rose to her feet without asking permission. Giving one final, "Thank you for your time," she turned and left the room. John followed her without question.
Once they turned a corner down towards the hangar bay and faced an empty corridor, Sam began to slow down, releasing the breath of air she'd held back. "Holy Hannah… My hands won't stop shaking."
John chuckled and Sam joined him, running a shaky hand across her brow. She met his eyes hesitantly, a bit embarrassed, and saw approval written all over his face.
"You were great." The baritone-voiced praise sent shivers down her spine. Sam wrung her hands, hoping the shaking would stop soon. She startled when she felt his large, warm hands reach out and cover hers between them. Electric jolts exploded everywhere and she half-began to withdraw her hands, but John held them firmly. His expression became more serious. "I mean it."
Sam opened and closed her mouth several times, her throat clenched. Finally, she managed a strangled "Thank you". John smiled, his touch hot and comforting, but also setting all her frayed nerves on end.
She made to turn her hands over so she could squeeze back, but the sudden hiss of a nearby door opening caused them to break apart like teenagers caught red-handed.
"Sam." It was Larrin. She exited the door and paused when she saw them, a frown on her face. It soon disappeared, replaced briefly by an amused smirk before ending on a more serious expression. "Councillor Treya asked me to convey a message. If you have the time, she'd like for you to stay overnight and talk to the captains individually tomorrow before their final gathering. Might help your case and ours."
Sam met John's eyes, saw him raise an eyebrow – do we really have a choice? – then she gave Larrin a curt smile. "Sure."
"I'll report it back to base," John said immediately. On her nod, he left for the hangar bay, looking almost as if he couldn't wait to get out – which was probably true.
Larrin gestured back to where she'd come. "I've got a room here on the Vestige that you can use. Real nice and comfortable."
Sam smiled. "Thank you."
Standing in the room Larrin had assigned not only her, but them, Sam groaned. "I'm going to kill her."
"Get in line." Edging past her with his overnight bag, John dropped it unceremoniously in a corner. He then glanced around the tiny room and eyed the single bed with a wince. "Ooo-kay, I'm gonna take the floor."
"Feel free." Sam entered the room fully, the door whooshing close behind her, and walked over to the bed. She sank down at the edge and sighed. "Been a long time since I camped without my toothbrush. You probably shouldn't talk to me tomorrow until I've had a strong cup of coffee, or whatever they pass for it anyway."
In the process of rifling through his overnight bag, John snorted. "Don't really need reminding." Sam tensed. As if realising belatedly that he'd made an intimate reference, John looked at her and winced. "Sorry."
"No, it's… It's okay." Sam gave him a shaky smile, memories of mornings back then running through her mind. "What's done is done, right? Can't deny it."
"Right." John refocused his attention on the contents of his bag. Seconds later, he produced a black T-shirt and threw it onto the bed beside her, not meeting her eyes. "It's clean. If you'd like something else to sleep in."
Sam picked it up, a soft smile crossing her lips. Despite the obvious awkwardness and painful reminders, she was touched by his gesture. "Thank you."
"Yeah, yeah." John waved it off dismissively as he fluffed up his overnight bag and used it as a pillow. He covered himself with his leather jacket and stretched out with his long legs on the metal floor.
Sam stared at him trying to find a good position, her emotions raging with her logic. Lying on the hard floor would be hard on his back in the morning, but the alternative…was a whole other cookie entirely, one she wouldn't – couldn't – touch even with a five-foot pole.
Dejected and angry with herself for all those things she'd done to him, Sam quickly changed clothes and crawled underneath the blanket. The T-shirt smelled of him. Inhaling that scent, she clutched it close as the lights dimmed and struggled to hold back her tears.
One by one or in small groups of three and four, the Traveler captains passed the puddle jumper's windscreen to their respective transports. A range of emotions was splayed across their faces: anger, relief, sadness, stoniness, worry and other less discernible ones.
"Folsom Prison Blues" blaring in his headphones, John watched them warily from inside the Jumper, wondering about the verdict, if indeed there had been one. Neither of them looked particularly pleased when they glanced at each other. Some of them even sent him nasty looks when they noticed him, so whatever note their final meeting had ended on, it was clear that some things had yet to become water under the bridge.
He checked his watch. Sam should probably be done by now too. He had yet to see her, though. Could be she was talking to the councillor again. Judging by the expressions on the captains' faces, they undoubtedly had something or other to discuss further.
John had passed the last few hours by priming the Jumper's system, fiddling with the controls and trying to see if there were any commands and systems he had yet to discover. There weren't any. His mind made it practically impossible to ignore anything once connected. So he'd moved on to listening to Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar on his mp3 player, now on its third repeat.
A groan escaped his lips as the lyrics reached its chorus and the memories of last night filtered through his mind once more. No matter how much he tried to suppress them, they kept coming back.
Brief glimpses of long naked legs before he was able to turn his back to the sight of her changing clothes; the sound of restless movement and the almost imperceptible sniffles; the stars in the skylight above the bed she slept in; the eternity it took for her to fall asleep and for him to finally relax a notch; the regret and frustrations that made him shift position again and—
John jumped in his seat. Larrin leaned up against the windscreen, a wide grin on her face. Slowly, she removed her hands, leaving a slight misty mark on the glass. She gestured to the back of the Jumper and John pulled off his headphones, groaning. Getting to his feet, he crossed into the back compartment and hit the hatch release control.
"What?" he asked through gritted teeth as the hatch hit the floor.
Larrin strode right into the back compartment. Standing within a foot of him, she inspected the inside, her wild hair brushing across his chest when she jerked her head back and forth. "A bit cramped here. I think you'll have to make a return trip."
John frowned. "What?"
"Forgotten about the thrusters already?" Larrin shot him a teasing look and then stepped even closer to him. "I'll admit, I'm quite a—"
"Larrin, please," John said, leaning back against the wall and counting to ten. "No games. I'm not in the mood. Why're we getting the thrusters?"
"Still haven't got your valve release, huh? Even after last night? I thought that was why you were walking funny today." She stepped close enough to exhale her hot breath all over the exposed skin of his neck, her eyes staring up at him from underneath lush eyelashes. "Maybe you need someone else?"
John stared back steadily, not making any move, but wary about what she might do next. His body was tingling all over, and not exactly the good kind.
For a moment, Larrin leaned forward, head angled, and John instinctively pressed further up against the wall. Larrin stopped. There was a flash of something in her eyes, and then she blew an annoyed breath and took two steps away. John felt like a tonne of bricks had lifted from his chest.
"It's the Council's order." Larrin stood faced away from him in the doorway between the two compartments. "A deal's a deal. You've provided us with an edge we didn't have before, and we're returning the favour." She turned, her face stoic now, and added, "Sam explained what the thrusters were for. If the Ascelon or whatever you call it turns that superhive into space dust…it'll be worth it."
John eyed her warily. "Everyone agrees on that?"
"No. Our situation is…still unresolved." Larrin's lips thinned. "Katana intends to leave, no matter what. Her crew will follow her."
"I'm sorry." From what experiences he had with the Travelers, John knew the two women were close.
"It's their choice." Larrin waved her hand, but she didn't meet his eyes. She strode out of the puddle jumper and hollered to someone outside John's view. Turning back to him, she gave a tight smile. "I'm not going down without a fight, though, so you just give me a call, Sheppard. The Vestige is on your side."
Not sure what to say exactly, John just shifted on his feet. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw people start piling past the Jumper's windscreen with heavy containers between them. He stepped out of the Jumper as they rounded the side, and then watched as Larrin instructed her crew to stack the containers inside the back compartment.
John glanced at his watch again. The action didn't go unnoticed.
"She's fine." The ghost of a smile crossed Larrin's lips, but there was also something dejected in her eyes. "No one's tied her up. Don't think they'd dare to if what the rumours about the Genii civil war were true. Did she actually blow up their main power source?"
John's lips twitched briefly. The memory of finding Sam on that underground bridge, all bloodied and wild, but still fighting with her last bit of strength – and winning – swam to the front of his mind. In that brief moment, despite all the other crazy emotions running through him, he'd been impressed. It'd been stuff worthy of her SG-1 legends.
"Yes." His eyes sought towards the hangar bay exit. No sign of Sam yet, but if the Council's decision on the thrusters were any indication she might turn up any minute.
There was a moment of silence, and then Larrin said, "So it was the two of you, huh?"
"No need to deny it, Sheppard. It's all over your soppy face." John opened his mouth indignantly – he was not soppy! – but she headed him off with a sigh. "Guess it makes sense. I haven't seen her smile like she did yesterday for a long time."
John closed his mouth and looked away. Inside the puddle jumper, the containers were now stacked up neatly and secured, with just enough space to wiggle past on one side. Larrin's crew returned to their other duties, leaving just the two of them. Shifting on his feet, John pushed his hands deep into his pockets and paced a few steps, restless.
"What was it like? To be with someone you…"
Larrin's voice was quiet, hesitant. John glanced at her. There was an unspoken conflict in her eyes, a mix of vulnerability and fierce severity. Two people in one, struggling with each other. He looked away, feeling uncomfortable. He'd never really seen the vulnerable side to Larrin.
"It's…complicated." Leaning against the hull of the puddle jumper, John crossed his arms. He eyed Larrin from underneath his brows. "We're not together now."
"Your home world?" Larrin raised an eyebrow, showing a surprising amount of insight for a self-proclaimed casual encounters kind of woman. John nodded reluctantly, his jaw tightening a little at the memories of the harsh looks Sam had given him up until they broke things off. "Sorry."
"That's life. Shit happens."
"We're friends." Larrin only stared at him. "We're friends," John repeated, a little forcibly. He pushed off the hull of the puddle jumper and glanced at his watch again. She had to be running late now. He was starting to get anxious to leave, if only to get away from the things he saw in Larrin's eyes. "Not to mention she's my CO."
Larrin scoffed and shook her head. "You're a damn idiot, Sheppard."
Without any further remark, Larrin turned and disappeared from sight. John remained outside the puddle jumper with a large confused frown on his face, wondering what the hell had just happened.
Seeing the Jumper come into view amidst the other transports, Sam felt her pace quicken just a little. She smiled widely when she saw John in the pilot's seat, headphones on, his eyes fixed on something she couldn't see. He looked lost in thought until he noticed her approach and startled slightly.
"All done?" he asked after she'd shut the back hatch and squeezed past the stack of containers in the back compartment. He didn't quite meet her eyes, something that puzzled her, but Sam let it go. She was too jazzed.
"Yep. Hashed out some important things with the Council," she said as she dropped down into the front passenger seat. Fastening her seat belt, she picked up the fruit John had brought her yesterday from the Saelin and bit into it with relish. "They've got things to sort out on their own, but they've shown a lot of interest in the Ascalon. I think I might get them on board in helping to build a better power source than the one we'd originally planned." She swallowed and looked at the fruit. "This is really sweet. What'd the Saelin call it?"
"Pation," John said, putting his mp3 player and headphones away. He placed his hands on the controls and brought the Jumper to life. The HUD screen popped up, immediately marking the other Ancient vehicles and devices in the vicinity. A disembark vector was laid in within a second. "And the Genii issue?"
Sam swallowed another bite, drops of fruit juice running down her fingers. "Settled, for now. They're not open for cooperating with them yet, but they're going to think about meeting them at some point to discuss the thefts. I'll check in with them in a week or so. They have to discuss it in a forum first."
"Along with a couple of other things, most likely," John said sardonically. Sam smiled and made an affirmative sound as she continued to eat the pation fruit.
John steered the Jumper through the hangar bay and out through the now open bay doors. The Traveler fleet was largely diminished. Only the Ancient warship and a couple of larger ships remained. It seemed a far less intimidating sight than the one that'd greeted them upon their arrival.
"I hope they'll get their house in order soon," Sam said, staring at the fleet before the Jumper turned away and left only the dark of space in their sights. "It'd be so much easier…"
"Life's not easy, though." John's voice was soft. "Things happen when the rules of the game change. Some for the better and some…" He left the rest unsaid, but Sam knew. Why he was suddenly turning philosophical, though, she had no idea.
Swallowing the last fruit bite, Sam sucked on her fingers to get the sticky juice off and then wiped her hands on her pants. Outside the windscreen, the spacegate came into view in the distance; a metallic ring barely reflecting the nearby sun's light.
Sam reached out to dial the gate only to find John's hand on hers, halting her. She looked at him in confusion.
"We're going to need to talk sometime." Although not looking at her, John's expression was dark and fierce. "About us."
It was like a bucket of cold water thrown over her head. Sam tensed up and she became acutely aware that John was still holding her hand firmly. The lingering taste of the sweet fruit disappeared, replaced by a sudden dry mouth.
"I thought…" Sam didn't know what to say. This'd always been something they couldn't talk about. The unspoken words in the Daedalus infirmary two weeks ago had only been further proof of that. Heart starting to pound in her chest, she cleared her throat. "Um, okay… Now?"
"I heard you last night." John's voice became tinged with pain as he sat back, releasing his hold on her hand. He stared outside into the blackness of space, jaw clenched tightly.
Sam froze. "…I hoped you wouldn't."
"Yeah, well, I did." He played with the edge of his pants pocket, probably because he didn't have his golf ball handy. His expression darkened. "It's hard. Being together with you and not…not being able to…" Whatever he intended to say, he left it at that, his expression turning frustrated.
Sam thought she understood, though. Sometimes, the pull towards him was too great; too painful. Like every fibre of her being wanted to connect to him, only to be held back by a steel thread that was growing weaker by the day. "…Me too."
For a long while, neither of them spoke, the distant spacegate's slow drift outside the windscreen the only movement. Inside her chest, Sam's heart beat furiously, thumping its way up into her throat. Shivers began to run down her spine and she suddenly felt cold.
Not able to leave it at that, Sam broke the silence. "Do you regret it? Us being more than…" She didn't know if she really wanted to know the answer, but they'd gotten this far. She didn't know if they'd ever have the chance again.
"…Sometimes." John's voice was quiet, his expression solemn. He turned and stared at her, his eyes deep pools of black. "You made me care, Sam. I can't turn it off, even if I sometimes wish I could."
Tears welled up in Sam's eyes but didn't fall. "I'm sorry. I really messed us up."
John's eyes softened and he sighed. "Wasn't all you. I played my part. Not to mention we were in a pretty lousy situation…" He paused, staring back into space again, and his voice lowered almost to a whisper. "I wouldn't mind a friend, though."
Recognising his attempt at reaching out, at doing his part to salvage this, Sam smiled and blinked away her tears. "Me neither. I'm…" She hesitated, the truth of her next words making her go very still. "I'm running a little low on those right now."
The comment made him look at her and she saw in his eyes that he was painfully aware that while he'd kept the majority of his friends on Atlantis, she'd had her majority back on Earth. Her breath hitched when he offered his hand, no hesitance at all, staying true to his word.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Sam reached out and intertwined their fingers, and the touch was warm and comforting. It dispelled the cold that'd suddenly set into her bones.
"I still care about you too." Her words were strangled, but they were finally out. A wave of relief rushed over her, and for a moment the elephant in the room seemed diminished.
Then tension lines appeared on John's face, and something began to swirl in his dark eyes before he looked away, his lips becoming thin lines.
I messed up again. The thought ran through Sam's panicked mind and she hardly dared to breathe as John's jaw began to clench tightly. In her hand, his had become like ice.
"One step at a time." The words were almost gruff, but there was something about the way he squeezed her hand once and then let go that didn't send Sam plunging straight into the pit of her stomach. Instantly, her mind snapped her back to that fateful day last year…
A wide happy, scared grin filled her entire expression. John returned it, so much wider and honest than the one he usually gave people, and it felt like that moment right before an F-302 take-off when her body was locked between weightlessness and gravity. The only thing that kept her anchored was his hand in hers.
"So…" John began. Behind him, the setting sun reflected off the balcony in a wonderful display of reds and yellows. It made his eyes twinkle. "One step at a time?"
Exhilarated and giddy like a teenager, Sam squeezed his hand. "One step at a time."
Tears welled up in Sam's eyes. She didn't dare ask if the words were a coincidence. John had put his hands on the control and now waited, still not looking at her.
Pulling herself together, Sam took a deep breath and reached over to input the gate address for Tirana. Moments later, the spacegate in the distance burst to life.
The rest of the trip back to Tirana was conducted in silence. As they touched down in the forest clearing some distance from the stargate, John finally looked at her. Not with frustration nor with love, but with that whole range of emotions that constituted the complexity of their connection.
Still unsure what to think, Sam gave him a smile nevertheless and nodded. "One step at a time."
It seemed to be enough. While John powered down the puddle jumper, Sam got to her feet and edged past the stack of containers in the back compartment. She felt depraved for air. The atmosphere was too thick inside. Hitting the door release, she watched green trees fill her entire vision…until someone else stepped into her line of sight.
"Daniel?" She frowned. "What're you doing here?"A huge grin split Daniel's face in half. "She's awake, Sam."