vain_glorious: (shep)
[personal profile] vain_glorious
 Title: The Light of Compassion
Author:[livejournal.com profile] vain_glorious 
Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis
Word Count: ~32,000 in total. In multiple posts due to length.
Rating: R for disturbing imagery and concepts. Gen. See Warnings.
Spoilers: Explicit for 5x01, more general for 5X08 and 5X09
Summary: A year after the events of 5X01 "Search and Rescue", tragedy strikes Atlantis.
Warnings: Character Death(s). Dark.
Disclaimer:  Not mine.
Author's notes: Please heed warnings. If you're out of order, here's part 1.


It turned out the final step in the Athosian funeral rites was cremation. A funeral pyre that would burn to ashes.

Other people were aware of this, somehow, had set up preparations so that Teyla didn’t even have to ask. Sheppard tried not to think about the numbers, hated that his first thought was the logistics of that kind of thing. But the Engineering department, bless them, clearly had thought it through such that she could have the ceremony – a massive, larger than ever intended ceremony – safely.

It was back on the planet where the Athosians had been living before Michael took them. Sheppard thought that was kind of fitting. Like the year they’d had after being rescued had just been borrowed time.

The location was a rocky outcropping near the mouth of a small creek, only a few hearty green sprigs growing in tiny deposits of soil. The rock walls would contain the flames, prevent the ceremony from accidentally starting a forest fire. It was actually kind of pretty, too, and the wind was blowing away from the bank where Sheppard’s team and a number of the Atlantis crew were standing.

All the same, Torrin and the four Athosian babies were way back, far from the ceremony site, in their new four-man baby mobile. Rodney volunteered to stay back with them. He’d covered the wheels of their stroller with a fire blanket and had a couple of extinguishers resting by it. Sheppard didn’t have it in him to mock it, just kind of made a face at him and went to stand up front near Teyla. Ronon was on her other side.

Sheppard tried really hard not to look inside the rock alcove very much. In his peripheral vision he could see the outlines of human figures, turned on their sides with their knees curled up. He didn’t know how Teyla could look out so calmly on the scene. She was holding herself tightly upright, all her movements slow and purposeful.  Teyla was wearing a dress he’d never seen before; he guessed it was exclusively for ritual such at this. It was a big, heavy thing in dark, rich fabric but it had short sleeves that didn’t extend past the elbow.

Sheppard was in his dress uniform. It wouldn’t pass inspection – he’d yanked it out the back of his closet and tried to make it look freshly pressed instead of dusty and crimped. He’d only remembered to get it after sending out an e-mail order to all military to wear theirs if they were attending Teyla’s thing.

At least the military had something for the occasion. The civilians were kind of on their own. A few of the men had suits. Woolsey did, anyway, but Sheppard sure as hell hadn’t spared any of his limiting personal item space for a suit and tie, and neither had most of the other men. The women fared better, probably because they wore dresses and skirts voluntarily. It was kind of strange to see the women of Atlantis milling around in what probably were supposed to be sexy little black dresses, all looking uncomfortable and unhappy. He was glad to see it, anyway, had no idea if Teyla even noticed.

Sheppard didn’t know exactly what the ceremony entailed. Again, because he hadn’t asked. He glanced at Ronon, standing besides Teyla stone-faced and empty-handed. He wasn’t wearing anything different, but then again he didn’t really have to.

“Anything you need me to do?” he whispered, leaning over slightly to be close to Teyla’s ears.

Teyla shook her head slightly, only the movement of her hair letting him see the motion.

“Stand with me,” she whispered back, not looking at him.

He already was, but Sheppard readjusted his stance so that he was closer to her.

Next thing he knew, Teyla had a long, tapered candle. He didn’t see where she got it from or how she lit it – hell, maybe Ronon had a Bic in his pocket. She took three steps forward, lifted her dress over the rocky wall that formed a barrier. Sheppard saw her kneel down, bringing the flame to touch something on the ground. He noticed for the first time the row of brush lining the alcove. He hadn’t realized its purpose. It looked more artistic than anything else.

The flames went up so fast Ronon actually reached over the rock wall and yanked Teyla back into the audience. The ground cover had to be coated with some kind of fire-starter. Sheppard could feel the heat on his face, took a small step backwards. Ronon still had hold of Teyla, and he moved even with Sheppard.

The fire blazed, the smoke and flames obscuring what was burning.

It didn’t take long. Didn’t seem long, anyway. Standing between him and Ronon, Teyla shifted in place. For a few moments, her shoulder pressed against Sheppard’s side as she kind of leaned into him. Then, her weight vanished and she was close against Ronon. She kept switching, wiping at her face with the alternate hand.

They stood like that for a while, in silence. The fire hissed and cracked loudly, a violent one-sided conversation.

When the flames sank down and danced close to the ground, it was over. Teyla pressed both hands to her face, than quickly dropped her arms to her side. She stepped purposefully out from between Ronon and Sheppard, knitting her hands together at her waist as she turned to face the audience.

“Thank you all for coming,” she said, voice steadier than Sheppard expected. Teyla dipped her head, in acknowledgement or dismissal.

Sheppard caught the eyes of various engineers, silently made sure that they’d see that the still burning fire actually extinguished itself. He didn’t think that the fire, hot as it had felt to his skin, had in point of fact been an effective method of cremation. He didn’t really want to look though, equally didn’t want to ask anyone else to, either.

Teyla was already striding back towards the ‘Gate, as if the ceremony were truly concluded.  While the rest of the crew kind of milled around awkwardly, Sheppard quickly moved to catch up with Teyla. He could feel Ronon at his heels.

She paused when she reached Torrin and the babies, to smile at Rodney and take her son from him. Rodney pivoted the giant baby carriage, huffing a little as he began to push it. Sheppard fell into step besides Teyla, letting Ronon pick up the rear.

Teyla caught his eye as he was attempting to formulate his question as least offensively as possible.

“That is all, John,” she said, and gave a weak but sincere smile. “They are gone now.”

~

The hits kept coming.

Barely two weeks after the final farewell to the Athosians, Atlantis lost eleven more people. A four-man reconnaissance team, the anthropologist tagging along, a five-man xenobiology team collecting samples in the field, and the Marine assigned to watch their backs. Eleven goddamn people on a single, peaceful planet where the natives were friendly and armed with little more than pitchforks.

Eleven people gone. Vanished. No bodies, no packs, no biology samples, nothing. Natives who insisted all Atlantis personnel had left through the ‘Gate to go home, but looked terrified while doing so.

Woolsey sent Sheppard and his team to  M3X-108 investigate.

It wasn’t going to go well.

It was the first real mission with the newest member of Sheppard’s team, the anthropologist Teyla had selected to replace her. The woman’s name was Noa Rosen. She was Israeli, had joined the Atlantis mission in the past year, and that was all Sheppard knew about her.

Teyla had chosen her, though, out of all the personnel files. She hadn’t given a specific reason, but Sheppard guessed that she had liked that Rosen had served in her country’s military prior to getting her Ph.D in anthropology.

So far, in the two weeks she’d been with the team, Rosen had been attentive, punctual, and competent. She was fine, Sheppard guessed. She was taller than he was, which was a little unsettling. He was used to looking down to find small, dark Teyla, eventually he’d stop being momentarily confused by the taller, lighter woman in her place.

Ronon and Rodney were, respectively, being horrible to her.

McKay took the more predictable route, which involved constant rudeness, condescension, insults, and general verbal abuse. Rosen looked like she was somewhat aware that he’d stepped it up a notch on her behalf and wasn’t particularly thrilled. However, neither had she tried to shoot him yet, so she passed the first test.

Ronon wasn’t that immature, but he also wasn’t helping. Rather than overtly mean, he was mostly just ignoring her. Sheppard reassured himself that Ronon was generally cold to people he didn’t yet know or trust, and that this would pass. If it didn’t, he’d have to give both his teammates lectures like they were bullying kindergartners. Or maybe he could make Teyla do it. With sticks.

Sheppard was not thrilled about going into a mission that had the potential to get hot really fast with his team acting like children. He didn’t have high hopes that the eleven mission members were still alive and he had suspicions – all of them very, very bad – about why that could be.

It didn’t get any better on the ground.

The natives kept up their act. They led Sheppard’s team to the clearing in the forest where the xenobiologists had been working, claimed it was the last place the Atlantis mission members had been before they left – voluntarily and alive – through the ‘Gate.

They were lying, and badly.

Sheppard kept his weapon up, ordered everyone else to stay alert. The forest was still and silent except for the rustle of leaves when the wind blew. The natives – other than being lying assholes – weren’t acting aggressively. But Sheppard had spikes of fear creeping up his spine. Something was very, very wrong here. He didn’t know what it was, but it had already taken eleven of his people.

Ronon looked similarly unsettled. He was staring at the empty clearing like it was hiding something sinister. Probably studying the way saplings were bent and leaves were scattered. He was better than Sheppard at that, so Sheppard let him be. Just a quick glance told him the xenobiologists – or someone else – had been here and trampled all over the place.

McKay was babbling. He knew the xenobiology team – thought they were useless soft-science bores, of course – but he knew them.  For reasons unknown to Sheppard, McKay was ticking off their names. Or trying, too, but he couldn’t remember if the team head guy was Stanley or Shanley. She was Shan Lee, but Sheppard didn’t bother to correct him. McKay said that Shan Lee was anal retentive to an insane degree and would never, ever violate protocol by departing a mission a minute earlier or later than scheduled unless there was an emergency and she was still kind of freaked out by being offworld and maintained constant contact with the city. Sheppard let McKay keep going. They both knew the quirks of the missing teams had nothing to do with why they were gone.

Rosen was interrogating the native leader. Sheppard’s own instincts at the moment were to shove the barrel of his P-90 against the guy’s face and ask less nicely. That was why he was standing next to Rodney, listening to him assess the personalities of eleven people that were most likely dead. Rosen was doing an okay job. The tall thing was kind of intimidating. She wasn’t going easy and Sheppard could hear her threatening to cease all trade relations from Atlantis.

He didn’t think it was going to work. Short of violent military reprisal that Woolsey, the IOA, and probably his own conscience would never approve, it didn’t seem likely that anything else would get through to the natives that were clearly more scared of someone els

Ronon, evidently, agreed. He kind of snarled at the nearest group of native councilmen – sent a dozen of them scattering – and stalked off to poke around the rest of the forest. Unfortunately, that made the rest of the natives decide it was time to run away, too.

Rosen stomped after them – McKay jerked in place like he was going to follow. Sheppard grabbed him by the arm and held him in place. He wasn’t going to help and if Sheppard let him go at them, then he himself was going to get a turn, too.

“Get that anthropologist lady over here,” Ronon’s voice came over Sheppard’s earpiece. He was on the team frequency, so Rosen could hear him, too.

She stopped in her tracks, which of course made the natives decide to scatter for real. Frowning, Rosen raised one hand to her own earpiece. “My name is Noa,” she said, annoyed.

Ronon didn’t care. “Get over here,” he said.

Finding him didn’t take long. He’d walked a little past the clearing to where the trees were a bit thicker. Sheppard and McKay followed Rosen – McKay was worrying Ronon had found bodies, but Sheppard knew that Ronon wouldn’t be ambiguous about that

Ronon was standing in front of a massive tree trunk, his back to the approaching team.

McKay peered around nervously. “What is it?”

Ronon took a step to the side. He jerked his chin at the tree before him. “What’s that?”

He was asking Rosen, but Sheppard actually knew. Incised into the bark – maybe burned – just about at eye level was an Athosian glyph.

“That’s Athosian,” Rodney said, before anyone else. Sheppard glanced at him, surprised he knew.

“I know,” said Ronon. “What’s it say?”

That, Sheppard didn’t know. And neither, evidently, did McKay.

“Be,” Rosen said, sounding confused. “It’s the imperative form of the verb ‘to be.’ Arsha. Be.”

“What’s it doing here?” asked Rodney, his voice taking on a new note of panic. “Are these people…” he paused and looked horrified. “...sick like the Athosians?”

Sheppard’s mind hadn’t even gone there. Now that it did, the fear in his spine shifted to horror in his stomach.

“Let’s find out,” he said. “And if they’ll tell us where the hell that came from.”

Rosen turned around to go back to the scattered natives. She looked over her shoulder at Ronon. “I could use some help being scary,” she said, pointedly

Without a word, Ronon picked up his feet and followed her.

“I’m gonna get a medical team out here,” Sheppard said to McKay. “See if that’s the case.”

McKay’s face was taut. He didn’t even say anything about providing medical care to natives that had something to do with eleven of their people vanishing.

~

The people of  M3X-103 were not dying. They were not ill. They showed no sign of the condition that killed the Athosians. And even after learning why Atlantis sent doctors to check them out – when eleven of their people were still missing – the natives still wouldn’t say a word about the fate of those eleven or where the burned glyph had come from.

When they got back to the city – as soon as the debriefing meeting wherein Woolsey’s face nearly creased in half was over – Sheppard went and found Teyla. She was in the crèche, as usual. Holding one baby or the other, and he was sitting down beside her before he even realized that she was breastfeeding the kid.

Teyla silently readjusted the front of her shirt, more of a reaction to the look on his face than anything else.

“Did you find the missing teams?” she asked, but she already looked like he was broadcasting that they hadn’t.

“No,” he said, and then he told her what they had found instead.

Teyla’s face darkened and she frowned. Her bottom lip moved as if to speak, but at first she said nothing. Sheppard guessed her mind was in the same place as everyone else’s: that this was completely unclear and unexplained, and yet felt immediately sinister.

Her first question was the same as Rodney’s. “Are the people of the planet ill?” she asked, eyebrows knitting fearfully.

“No,” Sheppard said. “But they’re terrified of something.”

Teyla was silent for a few seconds.

“Michael,” she said, not quite a question.

~

It stopped being any kind of question just three weeks later. They’d stepped up security protocols. All science teams were accompanied by a military unit, even if there was already a reconnaissance team with them. All teams were ordered to be alert  - more alert – and on the lookout for trouble in any form. Even on friendly worlds with long-established relations.

It made things more complicated. Scheduling a military attachment for the scientists ruffled feathers on both sides. The scientists liked to use Marines as manual labor and the Marines liked to boss around the geeks. The military presence also offended some of the Pegasus natives, particularly long-term allies who noticed the change and correctly perceived it as a sign of mistrust, got pissed about it.

The precautions didn’t help. It happened again.

When the teams on P3X-212 didn’t check in as scheduled, Woolsey immediately sent Sheppard’s team and two units of Marines to check it out. The backup wasn’t necessary. The picture was clear the moment they stepped through the ‘Gate.

The ‘Gate was several miles from the village. But burned into the trunk of a broad tree directly in front of it was another Athosian glyph.

“My leader,” Rosen translated without being asked. “Ema Diwi. Female form of the noun. Possesive. My female leader.”

They couldn’t find the Atlantis teams. But there was more this time. There were no natives to question. The village was empty. Livestock in pens, the occasional stray dog in the street. Smoke came out of the rafters from burning fireplaces in empty houses.

But there wasn’t a single sign of violence. No bodies, no damage to the houses, no bullet casings.

“How many people lived here?” Sheppard asked.

“A lot,” answered Ronon, and he was only judging from the emptied village, but he was probably right.

“Around a hundred,” Rosen said.

McKay didn’t say anything, but his face was twisted up into a horrible frown. He was holding his gun up and at the ready.

 Fourteen members of the Atlantis mission vanished from that planet. A four-man reconnaissance team, five-man squad of Marines, and five botanists. It made Sheppard angry. It also filled him with a worse feeling, that of helpless, frightened adrenaline. They were a step behind, reacting instead of acting.

On Atlantis, Woolsey seemed to feel the same way. He cancelled all off-world missions, declaring that the loss of twenty-five people in a single month to a threat they didn’t even fully understand was too dangerous to allow any more missions until they had a better battle plan. Sheppard agreed with the decision.

Ronon didn’t.  “It’s a Wraith,” he said. “That’s all you need to understand.”

“You’re presuming it’s Michael,” Woolsey said. He hadn’t been there for any of that, but he must have read the reports because he looked suitably horrified.

“It’s a good bet,” Sheppard said, since Ronon was just sneering. “The stealth is new, targeting Atlantis personnel is new, but he does have a history of abducting whole communities –”

“To do horrible experiments on,” McKay interrupted.

“Yeah,” Sheppard said.

“The Athosian glyphs?” Woolsey asked, looking for an explanation.

“He’s obsessed with Teyla,” McKay said. “And the baby. He took her people the first time, then he killed them. Round two must be everyone on Atlantis. We’re the only people she has left. He’s coming for us.”

Sheppard was glad Teyla wasn’t in the room to hear that.

“Good,” Ronon said.

Woolsey looked confused.

“What?” asked McKay.

“I’m glad,” Ronon said. “If he comes for us, I can kill him.”

Teyla had already heard about the outcome of the mission and the suspension of all off-world teams by the time Sheppard went to see her. He could tell the moment he laid eyes on her. She looked stiff and unsettled, her mouth set in a grim line. And even if she hadn’t heard McKay’s rundown of the situation, she had probably come to the same conclusion on her own.

“How many people were taken?” she asked, softly because she was surrounded by sleeping infants.

“A little over hundred,” Sheppard answered, honestly. “And our people.”

“He is beginning again,” Teyla said, harshly. “His experiments.”

“Probably,” Sheppard said, taking a seat next to her. He could see Torrin sleeping in the nearest bassinet. “We never understood what he wanted to do in the first place, Teyla.”

Hurt me,” Teyla said, immediately. “Hurt all of us.”

Sheppard couldn’t disagree with that. He didn’t say anything, for a few minutes.

“We’re going to find him and kill him this time,” he settled on. Ronon usually had the right idea. “I promise.”

Teyla ignored him. “There was another message in Athosian?”

“Yeah,” Sheppard said.

“May I see it?”

Sheppard dug out his digital camera with which he’d taken pictures of the empty village. He scanned to the photo of the glyph emblazoned on the tree and handed it to Teyla.

As soon as she looked down at the screen, her chin dipped downwards in distaste.

“Rosen said it means –” Sheppard began.

Teyla interrupted, shoved the camera back at him like she didn’t want to touch it a second longer. “My queen,” she said. “It means my queen.”

~

Things stayed rough. Even without off-world missions, it seemed like everything still had had something to do with the twenty-five missing crewmembers. Sheppard and Woolsey had to make a decision classifying the military ones as MIA, KIA, or POW. It wasn’t much of a choice. They had to go with MIA, since they had no bodies, no witnesses, and no evidence to support a death certificate.

Sheppard would have preferred to have signed twenty-five death certificates. He suspected – as did Woolsey – that their people were still alive. Whether or not they were still human was a better question. He thought of all the…things…they’d encountered in Michael’s various labs. It made him uncontrollably angry, made him want to go shoot things.

And that was the plan. They just didn’t know where to go. Striking against Atlantis reconnaissance teams and their allies was a new and odd tactic. It disturbed Sheppard that Michael had either retained or accumulated enough knowledge of their protocols to predict their missions. He went to Ronon with this thought, got an immediate shakeup on that thinking.

Ronon said that with a basic understanding of where and how Atlantis mission teams operated, figuring out where they’d been and when they’d come back wouldn’t be that hard. He imparted this without pointedly reminding Sheppard that he’d been the one that had enabled Michael to have that knowledge in the first place. Ronon wasn’t one to say ‘I told you so,’ anyway. But Michael’s success was not just knowledge. It was more a matter of subtlety. Michael had to have the patience to wait for them. The ability to neutralize the natives from sending warning or, as the case had been, telling on him afterwards.

It meant Michael had minions, again, human – or human-looking – agents who could move either without detection or without suspicion among the communities he’d targeted.  And maybe it meant Atlantis’ missing twenty-five were alive, in some way.

Sheppard wasn’t the only one having anger-management issues. Ronon was beating the ever loving crap out of anyone who sparred with him. At least he had an outlet. A lot of the crew were doing that quiet franticness thing that seemed to come naturally to the civilians. Like they suddenly had a very personal reminder that they were, in fact, living in a galaxy with enemies that wanted to kill them in nasty ways. Maybe Sheppard was being too hard on them. He would admit that Michael was a very unique enemy who wanted to inflict as much suffering as he could, specifically on them. But it was Atlantis who had created Michael, and being terrified of a monster your own people were responsible for led to some very circular, very unsettling thinking.                 

They started having memorial services for the missing. It might have been premature, maybe miraculously unnecessary. Sheppard didn’t think so. And it gave the crew an avenue to express their emotion, a reasonably healthy one at that.

Unsurprisingly, Rodney was doing the frantic thing, but not at all quietly. And his avenue of emotional expression was to be an unrelenting asshole to everyone.

Katie Brown had been among the botanists that vanished from P3X-212. Sheppard had noticed that immediately, of course, but hadn’t had time to fully process it. She was one of twenty-five of his people. One of over a hundred people total that Michael had taken. He hadn’t had time to check on Rodney about it. Hadn’t really wanted to, to be honest. Rodney’s hostile reaction didn’t exactly encourage friendly inquiries into how he was handling the death of woman he’d once wanted to marry.

But it explained the intensity of Rodney’s emotion. He wasn’t just angry and afraid like the rest of the crew; he looked like he wanted to vomit.

And Sheppard felt like a dick, then. He of all people wasn’t repelled by Rodney’s honed instincts to alienate anyone who cared about him, or at least it took a hell of a lot more effort on Rodney’s part than Sheppard thought he was up to emitting.

Three days before the memorial service for Katie Brown, Sheppard went looking for Rodney. He was actually fairly hard to find, which was odd since he didn’t have any assignments. No one had any assignments right now except to contribute to the woefully small collection of strategies to engage Michael.

Sheppard wasn’t too subtle about it. He carried with him a six-pack of beer and the resolution to drag Rodney away from whatever useless distraction the man had invented to work on.

He found Rodney in one of the deep, back labs. Rodney wasn’t answering on the intercom – well he was answering, but only to tell Sheppard that he was working and wanted to be left alone. But Sheppard came anyway, locating him in the dark lab by following the continuous stream of cursing coming from the far corner.

“Hey,” Sheppard said, as he approached.

All the same, Rodney flinched in place and glanced over his shoulder with irritation. “What are you doing here? I told you I was busy. Working here!”

Sheppard walked closer and peered down at the Ancient device Rodney was either assembling or disassembling. Immediately, Rodney tried to cover it with his hands, which meant that Sheppard would be able to tell by looking that it was a pointless project he had every right to interrupt.

Without comment, Sheppard hefted his beer offering. “Want a drinking buddy.”

Predictably, Rodney scowled and pretended like he didn’t like beer. “Get Ronon.”

“Looked,” Sheppard lied. “Can’t find him.”

“Ronon is always in one of three places,” Rodney said, not buying it. “Sleeping, eating, or beating people up in the gym.”

 “He took his earpiece out,” Sheppard suggested.

“Gym,” Rodney said. “I told him what would happen if that thing got shoved into the ear canal.” Sheppard winced. “Teyla,” he continued.

“Teyla is trying to breastfeed like four babies,” Sheppard said. “She has no interest in beer.” And that was true.

“Rosen,” Rodney said, and Sheppard rolled his eyes. “Ronon likes her,” Rodney said. “She taught him Jew-fu, so he’s cool with her now.”

Jew-fu?” Sheppard stifled a laugh. “You mean krav maga?”

“I heard the Marines calling it Jew-fu,” Rodney said, defensively.

“Okay.” Sheppard reached out with his hand and directed his attention at the Ancient device in front of Rodney. He thought ‘off’ intently and the object immediately dimmed.

“Hey!” Rodney yelled, outraged. “That’s cheating!”

Sheppard put one hand on Rodney’s bicep, preparing to haul him out of his seat, next.

But Rodney was already rising, not really fighting.

“You can always drink alone,” he muttered.

“That’s alcoholism,” Sheppard said as they moved out of the lab.

They went to a way-off pier. Rodney made a few comments like he was going to runoff and find something productive to do, but he also peered at Sheppard’s beer and asked what country it was from.

It didn’t take long for everything to come spilling out. Halfway through their first beer each, Sheppard made a comment about having to write twenty-five unique eulogies. Rodney’s gaze went glossy and distant, his face hardening up.

Sheppard found out then that McKay had talked Katie Brown into staying on Atlantis. He’d known she’d requested a transfer – the paperwork had come across his desk citing ‘personal reasons’. He’d approved it and forwarded it to Sam Carter, but noted that she had no professional grounds to leave her position and copied the prepared statement for when Atlantis personnel quit against the recommendation of their department head and city leadership. It happened a lot. Usually because the science geeks saw their first Wraith, wet their pants, and wanted to go home. Less frequently it was because of botched marriage proposals. Sheppard had known she’d cancelled the request. He hadn’t known why.

It was because, apparently, Rodney had gone to Katie, told her that she shouldn’t leave on his account, and promised to leave her completely alone for the duration of both their stays in the city outside of professional interaction.

“I said she was good at her job and she shouldn’t leave a position that she’d never, ever get the chance to have again on account of me being a jerk.” Rodney sniffed, wiped angrily at his face, and pointedly didn’t look at Sheppard.

“That was classy,” Sheppard said. Because it was, and had probably been really, really hard for Rodney to do without making it painful for both of them. Or maybe it had been painful and embarrassing, but he’d done it anyway. Sheppard was impressed he’d done it so quietly.

“Yeah,” Rodney said, bitterly. “Real classy. Dead classy.”

“Not your fault, Rodney.”

“Yeah, it is.” And now Rodney raised his head and looked Sheppard in the eye. “And it’s yours too.” He didn’t pause. “We created Michael. We created a monster that wants to kill everyone in this city. If we’re lucky, he won’t turn us into hybrid freaks beforehand.”

Sheppard found he couldn’t – didn’t want to – argue that point again. “We created him,” he said. “And we will kill him.”

They didn’t say much for the rest of the night. Drank all of Sheppard’s beer, though. It wasn’t enough to get either of them wasted, but it still accomplished an end.

 ~ 

The subject of Atlantis’ culpability in Michael’s ongoing rampage wasn’t something Sheppard really had time to engage. It also wasn’t something he could forget. Rodney, Ronon, and Teyla were both dwelling on it to the extreme. Rodney still wouldn’t shut up about it. He was more subdued, now, at least.

Teyla and Ronon were taking it a lot harder, if a lot more quietly. Sheppard figured they had the right. It was their galaxy, after all. It was Teyla’s goddamn people. She had repeatedly asked Sheppard how they intended to locate and eliminate Michael. Hadn’t seemed at all satisfied with his answers, which he understood because he knew they sucked. She was very restrained and serious about it, part of which he knew was just the way Teyla was. Part of it was new, though. She bit back her anger, now, wouldn’t express to him stuff that he thought she used to. Like she thought it’d be…unprofessional. As if she’d withdrawn from a closer, personal connection. And he didn’t know why. Well, okay, he did. Because she was hurting, because she’d just lost the father of her son, followed by nearly everyone she cared about, and maybe she was just too fucking raw to let anyone get too close right now. Sheppard wasn’t all that available, anyway. Teyla wouldn’t open up for beer and superficial conversation.

Ronon hadn’t withdrawn at all. He was reliably unchanged. It was almost comforting. It was also somewhat problematic in that Ronon had directly informed Sheppard that the only thing he was going he was going to do involving Wraith was kill them all. Starting with Michael, of course, but he made it perfectly clear that he was done playing around. He’d always thought the alliance with Todd and Keller’s efforts to mutate the Wraith into lapdogs were both ridiculous, something he’d cooperated with but never hid his disdain for. Sheppard appreciated the honesty. It was a warning that next time Ronon saw the opportunity to take out Wraith – hopefully Michael – he’d go for it regardless of Sheppard’s orders. Ronon didn’t posture, mock, or gloat. He was telling Sheppard what he thought needed to be heard.

Sheppard did hear. He heard one teammate – former teammate, goddamn it, eventually he’d remember Teyla had quit –  acting like he was more her boss than her friend and another teammate telling him the exact opposite. He was getting ahead of himself, maybe, since all missions were still suspended. But he really didn’t like picturing Ronon having every intention of disobeying him in a combat situation. Didn’t like the overall message, either, that Ronon maybe wasn’t much interested in sticking around much longer if all the Atlantis mission was going to do was fuck up his galaxy.

Suspending ‘Gate missions only protected Atlantis teams. There was no way of knowing how Michael had known where to find the previous victims, no way of knowing how he’d selected the planets he’d targeted, no way of knowing if stopping offworld missions did anything at all to interfere with Michael’s plans.  If Michael wanted an audience for the suffering, it cost him that. If he really wanted to pick off Atlantis reconnaissance team by reconnaissance team – unlikely – he needed a new plan.

Atlantis’ allies were pissed. Of course. The city was well-stocked with supplies now. Some bureaucrat had actually proposed that, provided the shield held, Atlantis could withstand a siege for nearly a year before food ran out. And the Daedalus had recently visited, too, meaning they had cookies and beer and luxuries for a while. Halting trade missions didn’t have any immediate ramification on the city besides boredom.

That wasn’t the case with their allies. It wasn’t something that registered with either Sheppard or Woolsey immediately. Their partners expected the normal trade schedule to be kept, were relying on receiving their standard shipment in exchange for the established trade goods. And they were not happy when it didn’t happen.

Neither Woolsey or Sheppard had anticipated this. Sheppard felt slightly less idiotic, since it was his job to think about the military side of things and this fell mostly under civilian purview. But angry allies wouldn’t stay allies for long and the last thing they needed was more enemies. Trying to explain the reason for the cessation in trade didn’t really work out. They couldn’t really warn against Michael. They didn’t know how he was attacking the settlements – if he came via the ‘Gate or if he had a ship again. And even if they did know how he got there, the defensive abilities of most of these contacts consisted of bows and arrows and running away.

Sheppard could guess how most people would react to being told there was a maniacal Wraith – more maniacal than the usual brand, ahem – probably coming for them, mostly because of their relationship to Atlantis, which incidentally was battening down the hatches and would neither be coming to their aide nor offering any solutions.

They resumed trade missions after a week and a half. With apologies to their agitated allies and with new, tight security protocols in place. Trade teams were under strict instructions not to leave the vicinity of the ‘Gate. An hour was the maximum amount of time they could be out of contact and they were encouraged to make trade relations occur as quickly as possible. A squad of Marines accompanied every mission. Just in case.

It wasn’t perfect. A lot of the allies had elaborate (but pointless) trade rituals. The Marine presence made no one happy.  Most settlements weren’t located particularly close to the ‘Gate – being as how the Wraith liked to use it for easy entry, after all. And it sucked having every mission feel like stepping a toe over some imaginary line.

It also sucked because it was boring.

McKay spent all of the four missions Sheppard’s team was sent on during this time bitching that his brain was too valuable to be delegated to the bean-counting assignment. Which was true, but still annoying and so unhelpful.

Ronon felt equally unimpressed, frustrated that they still weren’t doing anything about Michael except freaking out and being afraid of him. A valid point, and Sheppard tried explaining how destabilizing Atlantis’ food supply by abandoning and infuriating their allies wasn’t a good tactic for the long term. He knew Ronon understood that, practically-speaking. They all understood it, practically-speaking. Emotionally was another story.

Sheppard planted himself firmly in the role of leader, alternated between telling McKay to stop whining and trying less successfully to get Ronon to stop growling and harping on how cowardly he thought they were being.

Rosen was really the only happy one. She genuinely enjoyed the “cultural exchanges,” but even her excitement was tempered by the fact that most of the team was pretty much having a tantrum. But she did all the talky parts while Ronon looked on with disdain and Rodney pouted.

But even with the frustration, the strategy seemed to be working. Michael hadn’t made a reappearance. Sheppard wasn’t sure it could be counted as a success, though. Dialing back offworld activity as extensively as they had essentially crippled all endeavors other than basic trade. And Ronon wasn’t wrong. It was cowardly.

Pretending they were using the time to strategize against Michael didn’t really hold water. They still didn’t know anything about how or where he was choosing to attack and they weren’t doing anything to actively learn.

It sucked having to come back from every mission and visit Teyla, only to tell her that, yeah, they were still doing nothing.

It sucked more having to tell her Michael had taken even more people.

Their fifth mission, a month into the abbreviated schedule, the natives on P3X-115 didn’t show up at the ‘Gate to meet Sheppard’s team. New protocol meant they should immediately go back to Atlantis.

They didn’t.

“Something’s wrong,” Ronon said.

Sheppard could feel it, too. The area surrounding the ‘Gate was clear and calm. The landscape was empty save for a few trees. They could see the village in the distance, little black specks of livestock grazing just outside it.

“Let’s check it out,” Sheppard said.

Rodney looked at him, mouth open as if to remind him that of the new rules that said they shouldn’t. But then his teeth clicked shut and he pulled his weapon up higher.

“Finally,” he said, and began walking like he was going to take point.

Sheppard moved quickly to get in front of him. He saw Ronon take up their six, silent but clearly approving. In the middle, Rosen looked less happy. She looked downright afraid.

It took them nearly two hours to reach the village. Long enough that their absence was probably noted by Woolsey, maybe enough that there was already another team coming through the ‘Gate looking for them. Sheppard hadn’t radioed back to tell anyone they were going on to the village, because Woolsey would have told them not to.

Sheppard knew it before they even reached the village entrance. The place was silent. No one came out to meet them. Cold worry was already growing in his spine, made him stiffly alert.

The place was empty. Untouched, undamaged, and completely empty.

Sheppard looked at his team, said nothing because there wasn’t anything to say.

“There were five hundred people living here,” Rosen said, her voice high-pitched and frantic.

They found the Athosian glyph burned into the side of a barn, this time. All the way through, so they could see the cows tied up inside. There were two, this time. Each on opposite sides of the building.

“At. Miya,” Rosen translated. She shrugged, and they trudged to the other side. “Um…” Rosen paused, looked uncertain. “Home? Dashia. Home. I think.”

“Be my queen at home,” Rodney said, piecing together all three messages. He scowled.

It wasn’t hard to understand. Ronon grunted, turned around, and stomped off towards the ‘Gate. Sheppard silently took out his camera and snapped a few shots of the glyphs and deserted village, then gave the signal to the rest of the team to follow Ronon.

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May 2015

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