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Title: The Secret Language of Grief, Book One
Characters: J. Sheppard, R. McKay, C. Beckett, E. Lorne, R. Woolsey, and various OCs
Pairings: None
Warnings: Violence, Mentions of Major Character Deaths
Disclaimer: Stargate: Atlantis and her characters are the property of MGM.  All I lay claim to is my passion for the show and the original characters within this work of fiction
Summary: 20 years after the Wraith decimated Earth in The Great Culling, the SGC is once again ready to resume the Atlantis Expedition. Top brass wants only one man for the job, unfortunately for them John Sheppard has been MIA since the end of the War. A slip-up reveals John's current location, but will he be able to forgive the ultimate betrayal and return?


Chapter 18 - Life and Death
Part One

He sat in a chair in the cold, shoulders hunched with elbows resting on thighs and hands clasped between his knees. There was a clock bolted to the wall behind his head and its ceaseless ticking punctuated the silence of the room with a persistent yet precise rhythm.

And it wasn't right.

Time should have stopped instantly...

The universe should have paused, at least for a moment, to mourn for what it had lost. Not continue on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

John Sheppard felt moisture pool in his eyes and for once, he didn't try to fight against it. Instead, he ran trembling fingers through his disheveled hair on a shuddering sigh. Let the dampness gather mass and weight on his lashes until the tears could hold their places no longer and released to splash down onto the grey stone tiles between his boots.

John could count on one hand the number of times he'd ever let himself cry, but there was no stopping those damn tears today. They were like some silent language of his grief and he watched them drip down onto the pale tile floor before running callused palms down over his face to wipe away the wet. When he pulled his hands away, the dampness there glistened in the garish overhead light of the morgue and he rubbed his fingertips together, contemplating the evidence of his anguish.

But it was all too raw to handle at the moment and he wiped the sorrow away on his trousers just as the door to the morgue opened on a soft hiss of air.

"...I thought I might find you here."

It was an odd statement because John was pretty sure the staff of the morgue had tracked this particular visitor down in the hopes that he could talk John into giving up his death bed vigil. It wasn't going to work though, he wanted to tell Rodney right then and there. He couldn't bear the idea of the coroner cutting into his oldest of friends just yet, and until he could wrap his head around that particular thought, they could all of them just keep the fuck out.

John collapsed back against the frigid metal of the chair he was sitting in on a bone weary release of breath that shook his entire frame and Rodney shuffled up to stand beside him.

"John," he said gently, "you need to come away now. There are things they need to come in here and do for him."

"I just…" he paused, unsure of how to put into words what he really needed in that moment; terrified of what his grief might make him say, "...just give me some damn time, would ya?"

"Come on John, you've been here for hours. It's time to come away now and get some rest."

John pulled his tired and red rimmed eyes away from the shrouded figure on the steel table beside him and regarded Rodney McKay heavily. The scientist was looking back at him with something like pity behind his own eyes and John resisted the urge to shake the man and scream at him for being so put together when their dead friend was lying only a few feet away, covered by nothing more than a thin white sheet.

"He shouldn't be alone, Rodney," he said thickly and turned away once more.

His grief was making him reckless where he needed to be strong.

He had to hold it together for the sake of the people around him. Needed to prove to Fitzpatrick and McKay that he could handle things like this because John Sheppard was about to lead an entire expedition into a wild and uncharted galaxy, and people were going to die. It was a cold hard fact, as real as the tears evaporating near his boots on this floor.

This would not be the last death scene he took part in but why, oh why, did it have to be Carson's? Why did he have to be the first casualty of a battle that wasn't even his to fight and before their doomed little expedition had even gotten off the ground?

John kept wanting to look around, half expecting the universe to have left some sort of token behind to make up for what it had taken from him. But it never did work that way, did it? The universe was as cold and unapologetic as the corpse beside him and lamentation, its only gift.

"He's in a better place now, John." Rodney said next and John snorted. Platitudes had never been one of Rodney McKay's strong suits.

"You don't believe that."

"Well okay, I don't. But my views on the afterlife aside, do you really think that if there was some kind of heaven, or glowey genetics lab in the sky waiting for him, that Carson would have stuck around this hell hole any longer than he had to? He's gone now, John."

Rodney's words were far from comforting, but John let them cut through a little of the heavy grey fog he was enveloped in.

"And the least you can do is leave the man in peace and let the morgue guys do their thing."

Rodney walked over to the autopsy table then and placed his hands on either side of Carson's shrouded body. When his hands gripped the edges of the sheet, John stiffened.

"Rodney... buddy? What are you doin'?"

"Have you taken a peak yet?" The scientist asked and before John could stop him, he lifted the shroud. "Ugh, that's disgusting. I've never seen one look so… dead before."

"Rodney, what the hell's the matter with you?" John sat forward in his chair in shock. "Knock it off."

The temperature in the morgue had plummeted. Ice water filled John's veins and he wondered if maybe this was some kind of weird delayed reaction on the scientist's part from having to deal with the fact that their friend had just died. Whatever the reason for it though, it was completely inappropriate and the urge to preserve the sanctity of Carson's current resting place had John rising from his chair.

"Oh Relax, Johnny boy," Rodney smiled wickedly when he noticed John move. "I'm just looking at your handiwork.

What I really want to know is if I'll look the same way when you eventually let me die, too. I mean, I've always been pasty, but this would be kinda pushin' it."

"Rodney, if this is some sick, twisted attempt to get me to leave, bad move chief," he warned darkly, but Rodney's strange smile only widened.

"Have you looked at this?" He asked, inclining his head towards the corpse still hidden from John's view by the sheet.

"Seriously Rodney, knock it off."

"You haven't have you!" Rodney's eyes filled with something like glee and he looked back and forth between John and Carson's still hidden form.

"Do you supposed there's a special place in heaven for all the people you killed, John? It'd have to be a pretty massive place I would imagine. I mean, what's the body count up to these days? About two billion three?

Shit, hell's going to have a nice special place all made up for you when you finally kick the bucket, Sheppard."

"Jesus, Rodney!" He snapped, looking away just as McKay finally threw the sheet back and revealed Carson's cold, grey face. "What the fuck's gotten into you? Enough already!"

"Think that's what Teyla said right before she died, John? Enough already? Is that why she let the Wraith snap her neck like a friggin' twig, so she didn't have to spend one more moment in your insufferable company?"

Rodney's cruel words slashed across his body in vicious strokes, drawing blood as they passed and opening up already raw wounds John had only just managed to close.

"Or how about Ronon? Did he love it when that blade slid home because he would finally be rid of you?"

John wrapped his arms around himself and tried to keep his insides from falling out through the holes that Rodney punched into him mercilessly.

"There wasn't a coroner around to do those autopsies though, was there John? Because you couldn't be bothered to take five fucking minutes and go back to retrieve their bodies. You're pathetic, and it should be you lying here on this table, not him... Not Carson."

John's entire body shook with the force of his friend's blows. They were well aimed strikes, too. Meant to inflict the most amount of trauma with the least amount of effort and he was crumbling under that accusatory gaze of his last surviving friend.

And Rodney laughed. "Nothing to say John? Per the usual, I see. Is it just that you can't believe what I'm telling you or are you too stunned to respond because everything I just said is the god's honest truth?

John?

...oh General Sheeeeeeeppard!

Sheppard!"

John was jolted from the chaos of his dream by a warm hand on his shoulder and instantly bolted upright in his chair.

The cold grey of the morgue he'd been trapped in slowly gave way to the softer amber tones of the SGC infirmary and John blinked up into the shocked face of a nurse standing beside him. Her wrinkled hazel eyes had gone wide with concern and John raked a shaking hand down the side of his face, trying to escape the last terrible vestiges of the nightmare that still clung to him with cloying, grasping hands.

"General Sheppard… are you okay?" She asked nervously, stepping in closer like she half expected him to pass out right there in the chair, and John dropped the hand away from his face to give her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. She was elderly, with one of those kind faces that always managed to put people at ease. If only it could have worked on him.

"I'm alright," he lied point blank, and shakily sank back against the uncomfortable infirmary chair he'd somehow managed to fall asleep in. The nurse eyed him skeptically for a moment, but apparently the smile he had somehow managed to conjure had been convincing enough, and she bustled off a moment later to resume her work.

John's entire body was trembling and he took a moment to close his eyes and try to get a better purchase on reality. The dream had yet to recede from him completely and it kept trying to reach back up out of his subconscious and choke him. Even Rodney's wide and unforgiving grin had managed to superimpose itself over the blackness behind his eyelids. But as terrible as seeing that cruel smirk again was, John just couldn't talk his eyes into opening again. He couldn't make himself look up and over at that unmoving figure lying on the bed beside him because if he did - if the nightmare had become reality and he opened his eyes to find that same grey face staring up at him like in the dream - John was going to lose it completely.

Scraping together the last dregs of self control he had at the bottom of himself, John pulled in as big a breath as his irrational fear would allow and made himself open his eyes... letting that same breath out a moment later when his reluctant gaze finally settled on Carson Beckett who was still very much alive.

Though machines were doing most of the living for him at the moment, Carson's skin held nothing of that sickly grey pallor of death like it had in his dream. In fact, it was still flush with color. An effect, someone had explained to John earlier, of the cyanide that he'd been poisoned with.

The lower half of the doctor's face was obscured by the pale blue tubing of the ventilator helping him to breathe and a rainbow array of multi-colored IV bags hung from the poles at the head of his bed. The lines leading from IV bag to port painted strange colored patters across the white blankets covering most of Carson and John couldn't even pronounce the names of half the drugs they had him on. But whatever their names, they were doing their jobs and helping Carson's body to combat against the effects of the poison wreaking havoc on his system. A poison that was slowly starving his body of vital oxygen, had sent him into a coma, and that had flung his body into excruciating convulsions that John had barely been able to watch. But mercifully most all of that had happened in the chaotic first few hours after Carson had arrived in the infirmary and now that his doctors had administered the correct drugs and at the proper dosages, things had finally begun to quiet down.

Memories of those first few hours were almost as terrible to revisit as his nightmare. Cyanide was not a pretty poison and John had been asked to leave on more than one occasion to give his friend some privacy as the infirmary staff cleaned up after each relentless attack. But thankfully, after administering some charcoal concoction designed to absorb any more poison that might still be lingering in his system, the drugs had finally begun to work and in the quiet space of relief that had followed, John had somehow managed to fall asleep in one of the infirmary's notoriously uncomfortable chairs.

"How's he doing?" John asked tentatively and the nurse who had quietly been checking monitors and jotting down notes on the clipboard she carried looked over at him with something in her eyes John couldn't quite name.

"There's no change, but he's holding his own alright."

She said it almost hopefully and leaned over to lay a careful hand on the one place on Carson's arm that wasn't crisscrossed by some vital wire. It seemed like a normal enough gesture, but it was the nurse's eyes that gave her away and John understood what he was seeing. If Carson didn't make it through this, John Sheppard would not be the only one who mourned him. There was an entire mountain out there, filled with people whose lives Carson had touched, be it solider, scientist, civilian or friend.

"General Sheppard, are you sure you're alright, sir?" the nurse asked again, touching his shoulder lightly as he swiped moisture away from the corners of his eyes. He hadn't even seen her approach.

"I'm fine," he lied again. "But thank you." He was far from alright, in fact he felt broken open and completely exposed, but he wasn't about to worry some poor old woman with all the shit swirling around in his agitated brain.

"Well, alright," she replied, sounding far from convinced. "But if you change your mind, I'll just be right outside at the nurses' station." She gave him a genuine smile that deepened the wrinkles around her mouth and eyes then left him on a soft tinkle of metal as she pulled the privacy curtain closed behind her.

Alone again at last, John sighed and shifted uncomfortably in his chair, gingerly stretching out joints that hadn't been properly moved in hours. His neck, stiff from the odd position he'd slept in, was a painful mass of knotted sinew and John dug angry fingertips into the tense muscle, trying to break it apart by sheer force alone. When that didn't help matters much he pulled himself up and out of the chair he'd been occupying for hours to try and get his blood flowing again.

Carson's bed was situated in one corner of the infirmary in a small space cordoned off from the rest of the medical wing by a thin curtain. The infirmary staff had been keeping people away for most of the night and except for the few ubiquitous nurses and doctors that stopped by every so often to check on Carson's status, John had pretty much been left to himself.

It seemed wrong somehow that Carson, the natural healer, should be under the care of other doctors like this and John hobbled forward on a protesting knee to stand beside the bed. The joint he'd abused so thoroughly the day before was threatening imminent collapse but John was so tired of that chair he would take the pain any day over having to collapse back into it and he let his eyes linger on the comatose figure before him.

Seeing Carson Beckett confined to a hospital bed and on life support was like the punch line to some tasteless joke. He didn't deserve to be there. He'd already given more of himself than any other person in all of the SGC and if it had been the intention of the saboteur to strike at the heart of the Atlantis Expedition, well then they had certainly chosen their target well.

Carson Beckett was no solider, but what he lacked in the tactical he made up for in the heart he wore around on his sleeve for all to see. He was the unwavering infrastructure that kept the whole damn thing from crumbling down around them; the consummate physician whose empathy for those he treated was utterly boundless. But more than any of that, he was a true and loyal friend and John just couldn't handle the idea that he might not make it through all of this alive.

And if Carson Beckett died, god help the man or woman who was responsible because they just might succeed where Richard Woolsey had failed, and make a killer out of him yet. They'd messed with the wrong person and there was no force in heaven or on Earth that would keep John Sheppard from tracking that psychopath down.

Fuck, when was enough, enough? When was fate going to look down at his little used up shell of a body and say, 'Alright, this one has paid his dues. Enough now.'? God, he was so fucking tired of being the victim all the time!

John used to be indestructible. Then one unimaginable event 20 years ago had shattered him into a million pieces and stripped him of everything. And ever since that day in the skies above Earth with the Wraith, John had been trying to pull himself back together. He'd scoured the country side and tiny backwater towns trying to do it, never realizing that he had carried all the pieces within himself the entire time. Only he'd been too afraid to stop and examine what was rattling around inside of him to realize what they really were.

Christ, the things he'd missed out on because he'd been so fucking terrified of facing the past.

Carrie was a big one. If he would have just let that woman in the way she deserved, he probably would have found the peace he'd been so desperately searching for a long time ago. She wouldn't have hated him for what he'd been tricked into doing with the Wraith. She would have done for him what Carson and Rodney had been trying to do ever since he'd arrived back at the SGC: convince him that what had happened that day on Atlantis was in no way his fault.

And it really wasn't, was it? What control did he have over what madmen decided in a little windowless room in Switzerland?

They'd managed to dismantled him completely, yes, but John had been the one who let those broken pieces stay broken and now look where it had landed them. His friend was in the infirmary, barely clinging to life, and all because John Sheppard had let the heavy weight of the past pull his focus away from what was happening right in front of him.

Well no more!

He was through with letting the past hold him back, with letting it keep him from the life he had loved. The events of that day were always going to be a part of him, that would never change, but instead of being hindered by it, John was going to wrap up all the rage that it generated into the catalyst it always should have been, and use it to track down the person responsible for trying to murder his friend. And then he was going to fly Atlantis back to Pegasus and be the leader the expedition deserved. Because that was who he truly was.

...John felt it then: that last layer of the past slipping away from around his shoulders to finally release him completely.

The last chunk of that big ugly nothing in the center of his chest finally breaking apart to disappear forever.

John leaned forward on the momentum of his epiphany and threaded a hand through the side rails of Carson's bed to grip the doctor's hand firmly. Carson's fingers were warm and reassuring under his own grip and John squeezed them slightly.

"Shit Carson, you were right, weren't you?" he said out loud, the sound of his own voice startling him after so much silent introspection. "I couldn't let it go, even after you and Rodney tried to pound into my brain that it wasn't my fault. Well, I'm done with it; all of it. But you gotta meet me half way here, buddy, and wake up, alright? You and me, we gotta fly our city back home now and show whatever rat bastard did this to you that it takes more than just a little cyanide to bring this team crashing down..."

"Well it's about damn time you showed back up, John Sheppard," an amused voice interrupted him from behind and John whipped his head around just as Rodney McKay pushed past the privacy curtain and entered the room.

John froze for a moment, embarrassed at having been caught in such a tender moment, but Carson was not the only one he owed an apology to and he cleared his throat.

"Rodney, I'm..." but the scientist held up a hand.

"I know you are, John," he replied solemnly, but not unkindly. There was no hint of the Rodney McKay from his dream in the man who stood before him now. "Apology accepted, but only if you promise to put all of this behind you now and help me fix this." Rodney placed a careful hand on one of Carson's shins visible under the infirmary blanket.

"You've got yourself a deal, McKay," John replied determinedly and Rodney lifted his chin to smile over at John like the scientist had just been reunited with a long lost best friend. A best friend that he would follow anywhere and into anything and it struck John then how very much the moment they were in now was mirroring one that had happened long ago.

After he had lost control of Atlantis and she had crashed into the San Francisco bay there had been a moment outside the Gateroom when all three men had silently voiced their loyalty to one another even as the world was falling down around them. While Carson wasn't conscious or able to participate this time around, the moment was still powerful and it was as if some missing link had reestablished itself between the three of them: the last ragged remnants of a once prodigious team. Mighty still, even after all they had lost.

"So what do we know so far?" John asked Rodney as he sank back into his chair and the scientist pulled over one for himself.

"That's actually what I came to talk to you about. My lab just finished with the analysis and you were right, John. It was that damn haggis he had flown in from Scotland."

"I knew it," John muttered. As soon as Carson had been revived by the medical team and rushed to the infirmary, John had suggested testing the haggis the doc had eaten that evening at dinner. "If this is an inside job, then chances are whomever is responsible got their hands on that package somehow. Maybe if we went through the security…"

"Already on it, John," Rodney interrupted with a small smile. "Lorne's neen combing through security footage all night."

"He find anything?" John asked hopefully, even though he was pretty sure the answer was going to be no. While Rodney had always had a flare for the dramatic, he would know better than to bury a lead like that.

McKay shrugged. "The last time I spoke with him he hadn't, but that was a few hours ago now. I'm actually kind of surprised that he hasn't checked in with you yet." But John could understand it. What had happened to Carson, it had hit them all hard, and Lorne had jumped headlong into the investigation without a moment's hesitation.

Carson had been poisoned with cyanide. The same compound that had been used to murder all of the ATA gene carriers months before and there was no doubt in John's mind now that the same person was responsible for each heinous crime. Their saboteur was back in action, and the frustrating thing was, there were about a thousand people within Cheyenne Mountain who could possibly be the culprit.

Before he'd fallen asleep in his chair, John had been running through the very short list of people he'd met since returning to the SGC, trying to decide if any one of them could be capable of attempted murder.

Rodney and Lorne were out of the question, obviously. Landry certainly had the clout and the means to pull something like this off, but what was the motive there? The death of his uncle? John just couldn't see the IOA making Landry leader of the entire friggin' program if there was even the slightest chance that he harbored some secret deep seated hatred for all things Atlantis. Then there was the fact that he had been on a plane headed for New York City when it had all gone down, granted they didn't know when exactly Carson's food had been poisoned. But even though John didn't know Landry all that well, McKay had vouched for him and John still found that he trusted the guy. The same went for Fitzpatrick, though he knew even less about that kid than he did Landry. The former Navy Seal had been working tirelessly to get John back to the man he'd been before the Wraith though, thus ensuring the expedition's continued success in the process.

So that just left the rest of Cheyenne Mountain… and the SGC was brimming with highly skilled service men and woman; any one of whom could be the one they were looking for, hiding in plain sight. The forces that provided security within the mountain were trained to know the base inside and out. To stand unobtrusively in the shadows, observing anything and everything around them at any given moment, all while remaining invisible to those that they were watching. All it would take was one whispered conversation before the wrong security checkpoint and BAM, a psychopath had the means necessary to poison a highly valued member of the Atlantis expedition.

It was pissing John off that one person was managing to pull everything down around them and chances were, their saboteur was far from finished. They needed to act fast before more people started dying and a plan was already starting to form in his mind... well, reform actually because it was something he'd brought up in the meeting a few days ago.

John was the only one right now with the ATA gene strong enough to pilot the city and that fact most likely meant he was #1 on any list of potential targets their guy might have. If he figured out a way to dangle himself as bait, maybe they could finally get this asshole to slip up and stop this once and for all.

Whomever was responsible, they were smart, cunning even, and John's only concern with his plan was the potential innocent bystanders who might get caught in the crossfire. And that thought had John instantly thinking of Blue River. Shit, if what had happened today was in any way related to his mystery visitor there, John really was going to rip someone's throat out. The first thing he was going to do when he got back to his bunk was try Eddie again in Chicago and then check in with the Marines stationed in his old home town, keeping watch over the woman he loved.

"You got awfully quiet," Rodney prodded gently, shifting a little in his seat beside John and pulling him out of the internal dialog he'd gotten lost in again.

John scrubbed a hand across his face and sighed heavily. "I was just thinking about that guy who showed up in Blue River asking about me."

"You're worried they're related?" Rodney asked, seemingly reading his thoughts, and John nodded.

"Yeah, but Landry did send a couple of Marines out there to keep an eye on things and so far nothing's come up."

"You know, it still could just be Woolsey," Rodney offered hopefully. "I wouldn't put it past the guy to try something like that since his last attempt at contacting you went oh so well."

John almost smiled at the reminder.

"I guess we'll finally find out once Landry gets back from New York in a couple of days. I'm just hoping it turns out to be nothing, especially after what happened to him last night." John nodded his head in Carson's direction.

"Shit, I still can't believe they poisoned him like that. I mean, it's Carson for goodness sake. It's like murdering your favorite grandpa."

"Don't let him hear you say that," Rodney snorted.

"You know that's not what I mean. Carson is, I don't know… he's… off limits."

"I get it, John. I do. But Carson knew what he was signing up for; what restarting his ATA gene research would mean. We all know what we're in for, so don't start beating yourself up over what's happened here."

"Relax, Rodney," John admonished. "It's like you heard me tell Carson: I'm done with it. Clean slate."

"Seriously, John," Rodney laughed, smiling over at him, "It is really good to have you back."

John grinned back. "I didn't go anywhere Rodney, I just kinda got lost under it all for a while there."

"Understatement of the year."

"Hey, I was dealing with some pretty heavy shit! You don't accidently kill 2 billion people and then walk away from it unscathed. He reminded me of that." John cast his eyes over to Carson again, gaze captured for a moment by the steady yet mechanical rise and fall of his friend's chest beneath the blankets.

"Do you have any idea how lucky he is?" Rodney murmured and John looked back over at him and shook his head.

"What do you mean?"

"I did some research while I was waiting for the analysis on the haggis to finish and most people who are poisoned as badly as he was never make it. He never should have made it."

"But he did, Rodney," John replied, getting the scientist to look back over at him. "He's alive."

"Yeah, but John, cyanide deprives the body of oxygen. What if he… I mean, what if there's permanent damage?"

"You can't think like that, buddy. Carson…" but John was interrupted by a commotion just outside the privacy curtain that set it to swaying and the sound of raised voices wafted in. Something was going on and the two men shared a look.

"Should we go check it out?" Rodney asked and John shrugged but turned his head so he could listen in on the chaos unfolding on the other side of the curtain.

Medical emergencies were commonplace in the SGC, but one so soon after what had happened with Carson had John pushing out of his chair to go make sure nothing major was happening. But what sent him out into the main room of the infirmary quicker than he ever would have thought possible on his swelling knee, was one word cutting through the din, clear as crystal.

Cyanide.

John heard Rodney's chair scrape along the tile floor as he pushed himself out of it to follow after John, and they both stumbled out from behind the curtain to take in the confused scene playing out before them.

A crush of white coated medical personnel were swarming around a gurney, trying desperately to resuscitate the still figure of the woman lying there. John couldn't see her face, but something about her felt familiar and he stepped in closer just as everyone paused and stepped back on the lead doctor's orders.

The ambou bag obscuring the young woman's face was removed and John found himself staring at the unseeing eyes of Lieutenant Macy Hayden.

"Jesus!" John breathed and took an unconscious step back. It couldn't be.

"Wait, isn't that the girl you were talking to at dinner the other night, John?" Rodney asked but all he could do was nod, unable to tear his eyes away from that face. It was cold... and it was grey...

Shit.

"General Sheppard, they found her this way in her bunk this morning, but I'm afraid we were too late," his nurse from before said, breaking away from the main group as the lead doctor began pronouncing time of death. "We won't be completely sure until we run some tests, but she's showing all the same signs of cyanide poisoning."

John closed his eyes and clenched his jaw on an angry sigh.

"Who is she, Rodney?" He ground out, opening his eyes to glare over at McKay, but the scientist just shrugged.

"Beats me!"

"She was an ATA gene carrier," a voice said from behind them, "and she was the best damn one we had."

John turned and Evan Lorne walked solemnly into the infirmary to join them.

"I thought you were supposed to be protecting them, Lorne!" John shot off without thinking, instantly regretting the accusation the moment it left his lips. Lorne just stiffened in anger.

"I was trying to, Sheppard!" the man spat back, eyes flashing. "No one was supposed to know who any of them were."

"Well someone obviously found out!"

He knew it was just the stress of the day and the long hours he'd spent waiting that had given him such a short fuse, but Macy Haden was dead and the blood in John's veins was boiling.

"What kind of a clown show are you people running around here, Lorne?!"

"What would you have me do, John? Huh? Lock 'em in their rooms? Never let them see the light of day? They're people for Christ's sake! And maybe you'd see that if you weren't so busy walking around this place with you head up your ass!"

"Woah, woah, woah, you two!" Rodney finally interjected, stepping up between them just as John took an angry step forward.

"A girl is dead and your friend is on the other side of that curtain fighting for his goddamn life." The scientist pointed a finger over to where Carson lay, "And you two are out here yelling at each other like a couple of teenage girls! Have some damn respect for heaven's sake!?"

Rodney's words punched into John's gut and he backed off immediately as all the fight went out of him in an instant. Lorne did the same and deflated visibly. under Rodney's hot admonishment.

"That's better," Rodney continued, dropping the arms he'd put out to keep them apart. "Now why don't you two act like the level headed senior military officers I know you are, and start working together on this before even more people start dying."

John ducked his head in embarrassment, humiliated by how he had just acted and he turned back to Lorne. "I didn't mean to snap at you like that, Evan. I hope you'll forgive me."

"No harm done," Lorne said with half a tentative smile. "And I'm sorry, too. We're all under too much pressure right now, but you did make a good point. I'm supposed to be protecting them, but as you might have guessed after meeting her last night, Macy Hayden didn't exactly make that easy for me."

"What happened here, Lorne?" Rodney asked like he was trying to dispel any lingering awkwardness and the Colonel cast sad eyes in the direction of the most recent casualty.

"I talked with the friend who found her and from what I gather, Lieutenant Hayden must have been exposed to the poison around the same time as Dr. Beckett. But unlike Carson, she went back to her bunk alone after dinner last night. I searched her quarters a few minutes ago but there was nothing there, just like last time. My team's sweeping the barracks now, looking for any more victims."

One of the nurses near Macy shook out a sheet and John watched her cover the Lieutenant's body respectfully. This had to end.

"Lorne," John started thickly, pulling his eyes away from the scene as visions from his dream earlier tried to rise up assault him again. "I think it might be time for us to do what I suggested at the meeting the other day."

Two penetrating gazes fell on him instantly.

"You mean that asinine suggestion you made about using yourself as bait?" Rodney questioned but it was Lorne who John looked over at. The Colonel was eyeing him strangely, but it wasn't in surprise. It was more like the man had been expecting John to bring this particular subject up sooner or later.

"Think about it guys," John said to them both but kept his eyes fixed firmly on Lorne. "I'm the one he wants. With me out of the way the Atlantis Expedition can't go forward until someone else with the ATA gene is found. So why not use that to our advantage? Why not use me to lure him out in the open and end this once and for all?"

"Are you kidding me with this right now?" Rodney snorted. "Lorne, please talk some damn sense into him!"

"Rodney's right, John. It's too dangerous." Lorne said it with enough finality, but John thought he caught the slightest hint of resignation flitting behind the Colonel's eyes... like Lorne had come to the sudden realization that John would never back down and that he would never win this particular battle.

"Screw dangerous, you guys! They brought me back to ensure the safety of this expedition and stop the sabotage. So let me do my goddamn job!"

"There is no expedition if you're dead, Sheppard!" Rodney argued, trying to get John to look over at him again. When he did Rodney's eyes were full of panic. "What if something goes wrong and that bastard kills you?"

"Then you keep looking for someone else with the ATA gene strong enough to pilot the city, Rodney!" He cried, knowing how it sounded. "And you help Carson get healthy again so he can get his gene therapy research back up and running. We all know he's going to crack that eventually, despite what he tries to tell us.

You wanted the old John Sheppard back, McKay? Well, now you've got him."

The scientist opened his mouth as if to argue, then quickly shut it again. Rodney McKay stunned silent, now there was something that didn't happen every day.


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