ShaViva's Stargate Fan ... Stuff


Murphy's Christmas

Author: ShaViva

Rating: T

Content Warning: Some violence/bloodshed – nothing too bad

Season: post season 5

Summary: When Teyla and Lorne find an Ancient facility off world Evan discovers that Murphy’s Law applies in the Pegasus galaxy too. Can John and the rest of the team get to them before their luck runs out? John/Teyla established, Lorne/Cadman pre-ship. Follows on from The Ghost of An Idea (last year’s Christmas story).

Classifications: Friendship/Romance

Pairings: John/Teyla established; Lorne/Cadman pre-ship

Spoilers for: Nothing really.

Acknowledgements: Wikipedia and the wonder that is Stargate.

Disclaimer: The Stargate characters, storylines, etc aren’t mine. I am unfortunately not associated in any way with the creators, owners, or producers of Stargate or any of its media franchises – if I was Lorne would have been in A LOT more episodes and they actually would have shown that of course Sheppard and Lorne would have been FRIENDS! All publicly recognizable characters, settings, equipment, etc are the property of whoever owns them. The original characters and plot and anything else I made up are the property of me, the author. No copyright infringement is intended.

Copyright (c) 2009 ShaViva

Authors Note:

This is a follow on story from The Ghost of an Idea (link), my story from last Christmas ... you could read that now but it's probably not completely essential for this one. This new story is AU in the sense that Atlantis wasn't left floating in San Francisco Bay at the end of season 5 when another Christmas story from me would have to take place. Instead they did what they needed to do for Enemy at the Gate and then returned to the Pegasus Galaxy to continue their work there. Everything else from Season 5 happened as was portrayed.

Murphy's Extended Law:
If a series of events can go wrong, they will do so in the worst possible sequence. Wikipedia.


Chapter 1: Automated defences

"This is just great," Major Evan Lorne looked around the dimly lit room in disgust.

"It was not your fault Major," Teyla's voice was calm and reassuring as usual but Evan wasn't ready to be let off the hook just yet.

"I should have reported in and gotten Colonel Sheppard to bring McKay instead of deciding to check this out myself," he returned insistently. "Then you wouldn't be stuck down here with the wrong person. At least if McKay were here he'd be able to fix that thing and open the doors again." He pointed to the device that took centre stage in the room they found themselves trapped in. His team had escorted Teyla to M6R-581 so that she could begin talking trade agreements with the local village. As always something apparently simple had shed its innocent facade and become complex, annoying and, if they didn't find a way out quickly, progressively worrying.

"There was no reason to call Atlantis," Teyla countered simply. "Amalita wished only to confirm that their place of worship was in fact descended from the Ancestors. Why would we expect anything more than the ruins we most often find?"

"Because this is the Pegasus galaxy," Lorne quipped sarcastically before conceding reluctantly, letting his self flagellation go in favour of working out what to do next. Shining the light on his P-90 around the room he took note of everything thoughtfully, considering their options.

Amalita had told them about the yearly pilgrimage the residents of M6R-581 made to their 'sacred' site - a series of stone columns surrounding what had turned out to be a doorway leading downwards. The hatch had opened when Lorne had tripped a switch entirely by accident. The stairs leading down were intact where the surface had been in ruins, the incongruence of that enough to get Lorne's interest. The only thing they'd found at the bottom was a single door with standard Ancient controls. Evan had swiped a hand over them, not really expecting the door to open ... it had though, revealing the large room they now found themselves trapped in.

The room was already dimly lit with the faint blue glow of the ancient lights that had come on as soon as Lorne had set foot in the room. It was empty save for the console that dominated the centre of the large space ... the decorative markings around the walls giving no clues to the rooms original purpose. "Probably some kind of research facility," Lorne commented as he walked slowly around the console, shining his light carefully up and down the walls and along the ceiling. "Would have made sense to include more than one way in," he added under his breath as he completed his circuit and returned to the still closed entrance.

"They would not have expected the door to malfunction," Teyla was also walking slowing across the room, checking for anything that would help them. “It has been many years since anyone set foot here.”

"That's if it is broken," Evan shot a grin over at his companion. "Wouldn't put it past the Ancients to create something like this just to annoy us." Catching sight of a faint shadow off to one corner, Lorne moved forward, shining the light slowly out from the middle of the room.

"You have found something?" Teyla moved to stand at his shoulder, casting a curious glance at the wall.

"Maybe," Lorne said absently, narrowing his eyes as he lowered his P-90 and stepped up to run a hand over the wall.

Teyla obligingly shone her own light to assist as Lorne searched and then appeared to find what he was looking for.

"I think there's a hidden door here," Lorne explained, casting a glance back at her with a shrug. "We just have to see if we can open it."

"There is nothing at the console that would help?" Teyla asked.

"Wouldn't matter if there was," Evan replied. "Far as I can tell there's no power getting to the controls ... the lights being on means there is still power so there must be some kind of glitch before it can get to the console." Forcing his fingers into one of the grooves that ran from floor to ceiling, Lorne shifted to lean a shoulder on the wall as he began applying force to pull the door open. "Come on," he muttered grimly, the effort he was expending evident in the reddening of his face and the way the veins in his neck began to stand out.

Abruptly something seemed to give and the panels slid apart with a grating whoosh. Lorne stumbled and only just managed to keep himself from falling backwards. "Wait," he put a hand out to stop Teyla from walking forward. "Let me just ...," he trailed off, bringing his P-90 forward again and moving to stand in the opening. It was very dark inside what turned out to be a long corridor that seemed to lead away from their location. The air wasn't stale which gave Lorne reason to believe there was at the very least some kind of opening to the surface letting in fresh air.

There was nothing to indicate where the corridor led which did give him pause. The rest of his team were back at the gate ... once he and Teyla failed to come back at the scheduled time Captain Lewis and Private Collins would act. Someone would come looking for them eventually.

"You are thinking that it might be better to stay and wait for rescue," Teyla stated.

"Yeah," Lorne nodded. "Lewis will call Atlantis and report that we're missing so they'll send someone to search for us. Trouble is they might not work out we're down here even if they manage to hook up with Amalita and she leads them right to the ruins."

"Because the hatch closed behind us," Teyla acknowledged.

"Exactly," Lorne agreed. "We know radioing Lewis at the gate isn't working. That could just mean we're out of range because we're under ground ... or it could mean something down here is blocking our signal."

"If it is the later we will be unable to contact the search teams to report our location even if they are directly above us," Teyla concluded. She glanced at their apparent escape route before turning her gaze back to Lorne. "I am happy to proceed Major," she said confidently.

Lorne stood, thinking for a moment. Neither option was guaranteed and at the end of the day he'd rather be doing something than sitting around waiting for others to do it. "Okay," he said decisively, taking out his torch and switching it on. "Let's check it out ... we can always come back if we can't get through."

Teyla nodded, falling into step beside Lorne as they moved forward. The corridor certainly looked Ancient - Evan thought it was a shame there were no automatic lights to come on at their approach. The torches were fine, he just didn't like the uncertainty of not knowing what might be hidden in the darkness outside the torches range. They'd walked maybe sixty feet when the sound of the door whooshing closed behind them echoed loudly back to them.

"Damn!" Lorne muttered, spinning and running back the way they'd come. Unlike the other side, the door slotted into the walls meaning there was no way he could force it open. There were no controls either so even if he had McKay's talent or the man himself there to assist they couldn't even jimmy the door open.

"Looks like we're going this way regardless," Lorne announced as he returned to Teyla's side. She nodded simply, letting nothing of her feelings show, for which he was more than grateful. Silence reined, only the sounds of their footsteps on the stone floor accompanying them as they walked at an even pace. The corridor led straight and true, no turns or bends to alter their course, as though the Ancients had simply drawn a line between the first room and wherever the long corridor led and just ploughed through everything to connect them. If Lorne's compass was working true they were heading roughly towards the gate, a bonus he didn’t want to acknowledge as good luck just yet.

"John said you were not returning to Earth for Christmas this year," Teyla's soft voice sounded louder in the enclosed space.

"No," Evan glanced at her with a shrug. "First year I get leave to be there on the day and my sister decides to win a family holiday." He grinned. "Given a choice between an Uncle visiting and Disneyland for Christmas I think I'd go with Mickey myself."

"I am sorry," Teyla's tone was sympathetic.

"It's okay," Lorne replied. "I saw them last year ... missed presents and the like but I did manage to get there on Christmas Day. And there's always next year." He was genuinely okay with the situation ... after Colonel Sheppard's abrupt change of heart last year he'd ended up with a week of the leave he'd had previously rejected. It had been enough for Evan to renew his connection to his family, to the fond memories he had of Christmases as a kid. "What about you?" he turned attention away from his own situation. "This will be your first with the Colonel together. I bet Torren’s excited."

"He is very excited," Teyla said with a smile. "As is John ... they are like two children plotting. I am not sure exactly what to expect," she added, raising an eyebrow at Lorne expectantly.

"Hey, even if I knew something I know better than to tell you," Evan said with a laugh. "Colonel Sheppard can assign me to duties I haven't had to do for a long time ... the ones you hope never to have to do again."

"He tells me anticipation is part of the experience," Teyla commented. She'd shared in the celebration of Christmas for a number of years - since she'd joined the Atlantis expedition on a permanent basis - but this was her first when so intimately connected to someone who'd grown up with the tradition.

"It is," Evan agreed. He paused for a moment before speaking again. "Sucks, doesn't it?"

"Yes it does," Teyla replied simply, the two sharing a glance before they both started laughing.

"The good stuff begins from Christmas Eve," Evan commented. "So you've only got the rest of today to get through ... only a few more hours before the party kicks off."

"Yes," Teyla paused, "and to be honest I have enjoyed seeing John reconnecting with his childhood love of Christmas."

"Makes a change from the Scrooge he used to be," Lorne agreed casually.

Teyla was surprised at his reference to the classic tale - Evan didn't know of John's experiences from the previous year even though he'd been partially affected by them. She would have said more about it but Lorne's abrupt change from conversational to alert had her freezing even before he'd raised his fist in the silent signal to stop. She strained to hear what he might have but it was completely silent. Turning to watch Evan she was intrigued to see a similar expression on his face as John always got when he was doing things that required the Ancient gene.

"Major?" she asked in a low tone, watching him closely.

"Something's not right," Evan whispered back. He waited a few more moments but nothing happened. "Wait here," he gave the order firmly, getting Teyla's nod before raising his weapon to the ready position and moving cautiously forward, one step at a time.

The beam came out of nowhere, heading straight for Lorne's head. He reacted instantly, firing at the source as he leapt out of the way.

Teyla rushed forward, already firing at the box like object protruding from the ceiling. A second beam struck out before she managed to destroy the weapon in a shower of sparks. Turning she was greeted with the sight of Major Lorne crumpled against the wall, not moving.

"Major!" she ran and dropped to his side, putting a hand to his chest and feeling the relief wash over her in time with the steady beat of his heart. "Major," she said again, looking for signs of injury as she carefully rolled him away from the wall to lie flat on his back. The spreading circle of blood at his shoulder told its own story ... the beam's force had been deadly enough to cut through the protective inserts in his tac vest. Ripping open pockets in her own vest Teyla got what she needed and moved to remove Lorne's vest.

"Ouch," Evan moaned in a pained voice, opening his eyes to see Teyla leaning over him, her expression both worried and purposeful. He moved to sit up and didn't need Teyla's firm hand to have him dropping back down with a groan.

"Lie still Major," Teyla advised firmly, pressing a bandage to his wound with enough force to have him growling in pain.

"Evan," he met her eyes, struggling to ignore his physical condition. "Don't you think it's time you called me by my first name ... especially now?"

"Very well ... Evan," Teyla said with a faint smile. "Please lie still while I assess your condition."

"What was that thing?" he ground out, craning his head to see how bad the damage was, although the fiery pain in his shoulder said it probably wasn't good.

"I do not know," Teyla replied. She'd opened Lorne's vest and shirt and was cutting away his t-shirt to get at the wound, relaxing just slightly when she saw it wasn't as bad as she'd feared. There was a small puncture wound though, blood seeping in a steady flow down the side of Evan's chest.

"How bad is it?" Lorne couldn't see enough to do his own diagnosis.

Applying a pressure bandage Teyla met Lorne's eyes. "Can you raise yourself up just slightly so I can see ..," she began.

"If it went all the way through," Lorne concluded, shifting his elbows to the ground so he could give her room to check his back.

"There is a wound here too – not serious. You will be fine," Teyla said confidently, hoping the beam hadn't hit anything crucial on the way through to make that a lie.

"Just patch me up and we'll keep moving then," Lorne requested. The wound might be minor but it still hurt and he couldn't help but groan a little at the pain as he moved to take off his own vest and shirt, trying to help. Down to his t-shirt he sat still, letting Teyla destroy the back of his t-shirt too before she quickly cleaned, packed and dressed both wounds, strapping a bandage across his shoulder and around his chest to hold them firmly. "Thanks Teyla," he pulled on a new t-shirt carefully, wincing a couple of times but deciding in the whole scheme of things that it wasn't too bad. He didn't have a spare uniform shirt so just made do with putting his tac vest back on over the t-shirt, bundling the destroyed clothing back into his pack.

"There is pain relief," Teyla offered neutrally.

"I'm okay for now," Lorne returned just as she'd expected. "Let's push forward."

"Very well," Teyla agreed, moving to his side, still watching him to make sure he really was good enough to keep going. "You sensed something?" she asked curiously, putting a hand to his arm to stop him before he could head off again.

"I thought ...," he paused, regrouped, "something Ancient," he admitted. "Kind of like the feeling I get when the Puddle Jumper systems activate without me consciously requesting them." He thought for a moment, frowning. "I'm thinking that was some kind of automated defence system, which means we need to be extra careful. You destroyed that one but if it were me I'd have installed more than one."

"As would I," Teyla agreed.

"I should be able to pick up the activation easier if there is another one," Lorne offered. "Now I know what to watch out for."

Nodding, Teyla kept close to the Major's side as they began walking again. A few metres later Evan got that same inkling ... this time they located the weapon before it could activate and destroyed it before moving forward again. A third automated weapon was easily destroyed and then Lorne relaxed.

"That's it ... I think," he announced.

Teyla nodded, her eyes still concerned. "How are you feeling Evan?" she asked.

"I'm fine Teyla," he said quickly. "I mean, I'm not going to be hitting a home run anytime soon but I'm okay." He lifted his arms in a carefree kind of gesture to prove the point and then lowered them quickly with a wince. "I wouldn't say no to getting out of here soon though," he admitted with a rueful smile.

"Neither would I," Teyla agreed. She considered offering him the pain medication again - his face was too pale and he was holding himself stiffly, not in the relaxed manner she was used to seeing. But Teyla knew Lorne enough to know he'd refuse the medication as he had before. He'd taken responsibility for their predicament and nothing she said would sway him from that view. It hadn't helped that John had jokingly told Lorne to look after his girl when they'd left for the mission that afternoon. It was something that Evan would always take seriously but even more so since he'd been in charge of the team the day Michael's agents had fooled them in Kroya and she'd been captured. Even months later when she'd been safe and the mother of a healthy baby boy Evan hadn't forgiven himself, despite her urgings for him to put it from his mind.

"What's this?" Lorne's voice drew her attention from her thoughts back to the present. Evan had been walking about a step in front of Teyla - now he moved and shone his light for her to see what had grabbed his attention. "This is not good," he muttered, turning a worried look to Teyla.

"No, it is not," she agreed, taking in the blocked corridor with a sinking heart. The roof had clearly collapsed at some time in the past, filling the passage with rubble. There was no way through and with their entrance sealed as well there was only one conclusion to be made.

They were trapped.

Chapter 2: Stairway to rescue

"Unscheduled off world activation," Chuck's voice drew John's attention up to the control room. He'd been on his way across the gate room - now he detoured and ran up the stairs instead.

"Who is it?" he asked, stopping to stand behind Chuck's shoulder.

"It's Captain Lewis's IDC Sir," Chuck replied.

"Captain?" John spoke, knowing Chuck would be sending their signal through to M6R-581.

"Major Lorne and Teyla are late for their check in Sir," Lewis reported. "We tried radioing them but didn't get a response."

"How long have they been gone Captain?" Sheppard asked, worried but not letting any of that show.

"Two hours plus twenty Sir," Lewis returned.

"Twenty minutes overdue," John looked to the doorway to see Richard Woolsey arriving from his office. "Lorne's team," he quickly filled the city's leader in on the little he knew. "I'll go," he made it sound like an offer even though it wasn't. He'd be taking his team through to M6R-581 with or without Woolsey's agreement, and that despite the fact that he'd grown to respect the man in the year since he'd taken over command of the base.

"Very well," Woolsey agreed, knowing there was little chance it would be anyone other than John who'd go, given Teyla’s involvement.

"Hang tight Captain," John told Lewis. "We'll be there soon."

"Thank you Sir," Lewis's relief that the Colonel himself was on the way was evident as the wormhole shut down.

"Ronon, McKay," Sheppard radioed the rest of his team and ordered them to meet him in the Gateroom fully kitted out as quickly as possible. He added extra orders for a second team to go with them to assist before running to grab his own gear. He briefly considered taking a Jumper but discounted its usefulness ... the planet's terrain was heavily tree orientated. Even the area around the gate was forested, making flying in a Jumper difficult, even if it was possible to see anything of the ground through the thick covering of trees. That's why Lorne hadn't taken a Jumper himself.

"Where are we going?" Rodney's voice held a tinge of the imminent complaint that always seemed to hover over the scientist.

"M6R-581," John said simply, noting everyone was present and nodding up to Chuck to dial their destination.

"Teyla?" Ronon frowned, concerned.

"She and Lorne haven't checked in," John reported, watching the wormhole whoosh outwards before settling to stability. "Lewis couldn't reach them on the radio."

"Could be some kind of interference," Rodney offered. "Wouldn't be the first time."

"No, but neither Lorne nor Teyla are known for missing a check in McKay," John pointed out, letting some of his concern show, if only to the rest of his team.

"Right, right," Rodney nodded, swallowed weakly and turning his eyes resolutely to the Stargate. "Let's go find them then," he said firmly, walking forward and disappearing into the event horizon.

John looked at Ronon who shook his head, smirking slightly. Gone were the days when Rodney cowered behind someone else ... John wasn't sure whether that made him proud or nervous.

"Permission to come along Sir," Lieutenant Cadman practically screeched to a stop in front of John, breath puffing out harshly as she looked at him hopefully.

John considered her for a moment, eyes narrowed, before he nodded.

"Thank you Sir," she grinned, almost running through the open wormhole as if she was worried he'd change his mind.

Sheppard looked at Ronon again ... he shrugged and followed Rodney and the others through. John glanced up at the control room, throwing Woolsey a sloppy salute. "Don't start the party without us," he quipped before turning and disappearing into the puddle himself.

"So this is where you led them?" John checked, looking around the ruin with a frown. They'd gotten a sit rep from Captain Lewis, leaving the back up team at the gate and taking the rest of Lorne's team with them to the village. Amalita had stepped forward on their arrival, surprised to see another party from Atlantis so soon after the last one. When John told her Lorne and Teyla had gone missing she'd been eager to help. He'd left Lewis and Collins in the village just in case their people made contact through there and continued into the forest with the native woman.

"This is the place," she said. "Teyla asked if they might examine the ruins for a time so I left them here and returned to the village." She looked apologetic as she continued. "I did expect them to return to me once they were finished but didn't think anything of it when they didn't. I'm sorry ... if I had thought you would have known much sooner that something was wrong."

"It's okay," John reassured her. "Plus we don't know anything's wrong."

"They might have taken a wrong turn on the way back to the gate," Cadman had been pacing around the ruin too, eyes trained to the ground looking for traces of anything. She made the suggestion but her tone said she didn't really believe it was a possibility.

"Well there's no sign of anything on this planet likely to cause interference,” Rodney announced irritably, "so unless you're suggesting both their radios malfunctioned at exactly the same time I think that's a little unlikely." Catching sight of John's glare he quickly backtracked. "Not that it couldn’t' happen of course. I'm just saying ....," he trailed off awkwardly. "So how come you were in such an all fired hurry to come on this mission Cadman?" he tried to deflect attention away from his own social ineptitude. "Search and rescue is hardly your specialty.”

"Just helping out McKay," Laura returned, not letting him provoke her. "Crew's light this close to Christmas ... not a lot of people around who weren't already scheduled for the dial in back to Earth after the party tonight."

"You're not going home?" For some reason that surprised Rodney ... he'd had Cadman inside his head - he knew how important her family was to her. Frowning, he tried to recall if Laura had ever been around the city over Christmas.

"Daedalus was full up," she said simply. "I'll get leave next holiday, when it's not so busy. It's not like I don't get back to the SGC on a regular basis."

Her answer didn't ring true but even Rodney was aware enough to realise she didn't want to talk about it. Nodding he turned his attention back to the Ancient scanner he had in hand. "I'm not picking up anything useful on this," he admitted.

"What's below us?" John asked abruptly, his expression suddenly focussed.

Tapping a few keys Rodney shifted the scanners function, his eyebrow raised in surprise at the result. "Big open space - we're standing almost smack in the middle of it," he reported. "Plus an energy reading ... faint, but something's definitely running down there."

Sheppard nodded, not surprised. He’d felt something, that faint tingling that said Ancient systems were nearby. "Do you know how we can get down there?" he turned to Amalita purposefully.

"Until your colleague spoke I had no idea there was anything below us but dirt and rocks," Amalita said weakly, her face pale.

"Here," Rodney had been watching the scanner as he walked slowly forward. He'd stopped at a point equidistant between the columns on a circular stone that looked like nothing more than that. Ronon and Cadman joined him so that all three were standing around the stone. Kneeling, Rodney pulled grass away from one edge and swiped his hand over the controls he'd revealed. Nothing happened. "Humph," he muttered with a frown. "You try," he ordered John impatiently.

Saying nothing, Sheppard moved forward and swiped his own hand over the controls, again getting nothing in response. "McKay?" John looked at Rodney expectantly when his friend made the same ‘surprised Rodney’ sound.

"That usually works," Rodney muttered, consulting his scanner again.

Ronon dropped down to look at the controls and the area around it. "Someone's been here recently," he offered, pulling a thin clump of grass from the ground and standing to show John the broken stems. "Maybe two, three hours ago. Could be them."

"Could be?!" Rodney looked at Ronon incredulously. "Because of course there are multitudes of people running around capable of opening an Ancient door! Of course it was them."

"Keep your shirt on McKay," Ronon shot John a look, his eyes twinkling. His teasing never failed to reel the scientist in.

"Get it open Rodney," John motioned for Rodney to get to work.

"How big is it down there?" Laura moved to Rodney side, hoping there was something she could do to help, not that Rodney would accept it of course.

"Big enough to be comfortable," Rodney said absently, wedging a screwdriver under the control pad cover and flipping it off. Muttering to himself he pulled out some crystals and reorganised them, swiping a hand over the unit again but still getting nothing. "It's a power problem," he announced to no one in particular. Pulling out his radio he spoke rapidly. "Captain ...," he stopped, looking to Laura expectantly.

"Michaels," she supplied the name of their backup team's leader with a shake of her head. For a man so smart Rodney always had too much trouble remembering simple names.

"Right, Captain Michaels," Rodney began again. "I need you to dial Atlantis and have them send through a naquadah generator plus connections for an ancient door system. Once you have that I need someone to bring it to the ruins at ...," he looked to Laura again and dutifully repeated their position to the man at the gate. "And hurry up - we haven't got all day," Rodney finished impatiently.

"You know you'd be a hell of a lot more popular if you pretended to be nice ... and remembered their names every now and then," Laura advised mock helpfully.

"I'm popular enough," Rodney shot back, getting up from the ground and dusting off his hands.

"I guess you are," Laura laughed, still amazed that someone with his air of ... inattention to the social niceties had hooked up with someone as sweet and kind as Jennifer Keller.

"You know, you could have filled me in before giving orders to my men," John told Rodney when they rejoined the others.

"What, you were going to say no?" Rodney said sarcastically.

"No, I just ...," Sheppard broke off, knowing there was no point in trying to explain for the hundredth time that the chain of command applied to Rodney too - all the time, not just when the situation was dire and John was yelling at him to do what he was told.

"Is there any way to expand the scanner's range?" Cadman asked. "See if Major Lorne and Teyla are down there?"

"I can't tell you more than what I know so far," Rodney explained, "not without being down there myself. From what I can tell, there's a room and something that's drawing a small amount of power from somewhere. None that's making its way up here ... it's fluctuating though which means it's probably malfunctioning. That would explain how Lorne got the door open but we can't. Might also explain why they haven't returned - if they couldn't get it open again."

"But you said no life signs," Ronon pointed out, casting a quick glance at John before looking at Rodney pointedly.

"Right, but I don't think the scanner is working properly," Rodney explained quickly. "It's not interference as such but there are some ancient materials designed to block scanning capability, at least partially."

"So we wait for the generator, go down there and see for ourselves," John concluded.

"Exactly," Rodney replied.

"How're you doing Cadman?" John passed the Lieutenant on one of his laps around the ruins and stopped at the confused look on her face.

Her expression cleared immediately as she looked up to her commanding officer. "I'm fine Sir ... no reason not to be ... well, apart from our people being missing but I'm sure we'll fix that one soon ...," she trailed off awkwardly, stopping the stream of nervous chatter. "How are you doing Sir?" she regrouped.

"I'm concerned Lieutenant," John replied, "but I'm also confident Teyla and Major Lorne can handle themselves just fine. As should you be," he added, giving her a pointed look that said a lot without a single additional word.

"Yes Sir," Cadman said weakly, smiling when he nodded and then returned to his patrol of the clearing, leaving her to her thoughts. "Nice one Laura," she admonished herself. "Now you've got a superior officer suspicious ... you won't have to figure out a non humiliating way to tell Evan how you feel because the dishonourable discharge will do it for you!" Shaking her head, Laura moved to sit with her back against a tree, watching the path from the Gate so she'd be the first to spot whoever Michael's sent returning from the gate with the generator. Life was always busy and confusing when you worked on a ship like the Daedalus, even more so during the weeks of resupply mixed in with whatever missions for Atlantis she could score. Developing feelings for another officer certainly added to that ... especially one of superior rank and in a position to have every non frat warning bell sounding loudly.

Unprofessional relationships are those interpersonal relationships that erode good order, discipline, respect for authority, unit cohesion and, ultimately, mission accomplishment. Relationships are unprofessional, whether pursued on or off-duty, when they detract from the authority of superiors or result in, or reasonably create the appearance of, favouritism, misuse of office or position, or the abandonment of organizational goals for personal interests.” The words from air force instruction 136-2909 sounded in her head as though they’d been spoken aloud ... she knew them too well for the number of times she’d read the document lately. Sometimes the Uniform Code of Military Justice was unforgivingly cruel.

She squinted through the trees again, jumping up when this time she spotted something – Private Wilson if she wasn't mistaken, on his way towards them. “Sir,” she nodded in the right direction as she moved to the centre of the ruin beside the Colonel.

“Private,” Sheppard greeted the younger man, containing a smile with difficulty when Rodney practically snatched the generator from Wilson's hands with barely an acknowledgement, let alone thanks. “Any news from Atlantis?” John asked.

“No Sir,” the young Private replied. “Mr Woolsey wants another check in in an hour.”

“Head back to the gate then,” John replied. “We’ll radio back when it's time.”

Nodding Wilson spun on a heel and headed back the way he’d come, all military posture and eagerness to obey.

“Was I ever that ...,” Cadman trailed off, eyes still on the Private's retreating back.

“Eager?” Sheppard suggested.

“Young,” Ronon supplied at the same time.

“Painful,” was Rodney’s muttered contribution.

“All of the above,” Laura said with a laugh.

“No, but we didn’t acquire your services until after you became jaded,” Sheppard quipped, laughing when she looked momentarily affronted.

“Okay, stand back,” Rodney said before Cadman could retort something she shouldn’t say to a superior officer, even one as laid back as the Colonel. Pressing a button McKay watched his read outs for a moment before motioning John forward again. “Try it now,” he suggested.

Sheppard swiped a hand over the controls, this time rewarded when the hatch opened to reveal a narrow set of stone stairs leading down. “Nice work Rodney,” he complimented, ripping open a pocket to grab his torch. Turning it on he shone it down the stairs for a moment before moving forward.

Rodney went next, Cadman following him and Ronon bringing up the rear. The stairs went on for longer than any of them would have thought likely. “This is deeper than I was expecting,” Rodney muttered, his voice shaky with nerves.

“You okay McKay?” Sheppard asked, his tone neutral.

“Yes ... no,” Rodney stopped to collect himself. “Tight spaces,” he said simply.

“I know,” John said just as lightly, as though they were discussing a new laptop McKay wanted but wasn’t sure he could afford.

They continued down until abruptly John had stepped to the floor. In front of him was a doorway sitting smack in the middle of solid rock. Moving forward quickly to activate it, Sheppard touched the controls.

“Damn it!” he slammed a hand against the stubbornly still closed door in frustration. “This is ...,”

“Fixable,” Rodney got in first, pushing past his team leader and kneeling before the door controls. “Just give me a few minutes,” he added.

Sheppard nodded, shifting to give the scientist some room, turning his gaze to stare up the stairs they’d just walked down.

‘They’re fine,” Ronon stood beside him, reassuring. “She’s fine.”

“I know,” John agreed.

“I hope so,” Laura muttered under her breath at the same time.

Authors Note:

I must acknowledge for this specific chapter epubs AFI36-2909.pdf where I got the direct quotes of the part of the regs that most seem to apply here.

Chapter 3: Rubble road block

"Evan, you need to rest," Teyla's voice took on an insistent, stubborn edge that said she'd make him rest if he didn't do it voluntarily. They'd decided to attempt removing some of the rubble blocking their way - enough to see how deep it went and whether there was any chance they could make a path to the other side. It had been an hour already ... an hour of careful work, testing each piece before shifting it for fear of bringing more rubble down on top of them. The signs were promising and so they'd continued at the same slow and steady pace. Lorne had stubbornly lifted rubble side by side with Teyla despite his shoulder wound, the only saving grace being that even the largest pieces were lift-able by two people - with varying degrees of effort of course.

"I'm ... okay," Lorne totally missed the warning in Teyla's tone, everything in his world about choosing his next piece, lifting it, spinning and depositing it behind them. He didn't notice the blood running down his bare arm but as Teyla grabbed him and spun him too easily towards her, she did.

"You are bleeding again!" She glared at him reproachfully, pushing him down to sit on one of their shifted boulders and kneeling in front of him. Pulling his vest open she lifted the neck of his t-shirt and then sighed at the blood soaked bandage that was revealed.

Lorne glanced down at his shoulder dispassionately. "Stitch it," he said firmly, looking up at her expectantly.

"Evan ...," Teyla frowned, her eyes meeting his. She knew how to do what he'd requested, had done it in the past, but their current conditions were hardly ideal for such an activity.

"I need to be able to keep going Teyla," Evan pointed out grimly. "If you stitch the wounds the bleeding will stop ... otherwise you'll be carrying me out of here. Please," he added when she continued to hesitate.

"Very well," Teyla reluctantly agreed, taking the first aid kit from her pack and quickly assembling what she needed. "But you will take the morphine first," she insisted.

"No," Evan grabbed her wrist and held on without hurting her. "No - it makes me ... loopy and I need to be alert just in case there are other Ancient systems running down here. I can't leave you unprotected Teyla."

They looked at each other silently for a few moments before Teyla nodded, turning away to begin. "Do you have another t-shirt?" she asked lightly, understanding how important it was for him to continue to take charge of her safety and equally understanding she shouldn't deny him that nor draw attention to it. When he shook his head she helped him remove the one he was wearing, nothing of her emotions showing on her face.

It was painful ... and it was all Evan could do not to flinch and put her off but eventually the job was done, back and front, and Teyla was cleaning up and packing everything away again. Lorne slowly put his t-shirt back on, skin crawling a little as the still slightly wet and sticky shoulder and sleeve settled back into place. "Teyla," his voice was low and careful, his gaze earnest as he waited for her to look at him. "Thank you," he said simply when she did.

"You are welcome," Teyla put a hand on his good shoulder on her way to return the first aid kit to her pack. Returning to the rubble still blocking their way she glanced sideways at the Major. "You will rest for a few moments Evan ... I can continue our work alone for now."

"Right," Lorne agreed reluctantly. "Just for a minute or two," he added firmly. Resting his head against the wall he closed his eyes, blood loss on top of an hour of exertion making it hard for him to stay awake. When Teyla looked over to check on him a few minutes later he was asleep. With a smile she continued her work, carefully making an opening they could both fit through.

"Teyla?" Lorne awoke with a start, blinking in confusion before an instant later the entirety of their situation came back to him. "Teyla?" he called again more insistently into the empty space.

"I am here," Teyla's head poked through a hole in the wall, her face grimy with dirt but a smile evident.

"You got to the other side?" Evan pushed himself up from the floor, swayed for a moment and then steadied. Putting a hand to his shoulder he winced as he carefully rotated it in a small circle. "It's fine," he said in response to Teyla's unspoken question. He walked to her, craning his head to look around her to the 'tunnel' she'd made.

"The rocks became smaller and easier to move the closer I got to the other side," Teyla wriggled from the hole, dropping lightly to the floor arms first and quickly rolling to standing. "It is not far - perhaps a body length plus one half."

"O-kay," Lorne looked at the way out, rolled his shoulder a couple more times and then with a sigh hoisted himself up and into the space. It had looked a lot bigger when Teyla had been lying in it ... his taller, more muscular physique only just fitting. He had to use both arms to pull himself forward - he tried to be careful and could only hope he wasn't undoing Teyla's careful stitching job. Of all the places to be injured! It was if 'someone' had known Evan would have to commando crawl through a tunnel of rock and had deliberately given him an injury that would make it as hard as possible. He had a few more scrapes and scratches to go along with his shoulder wounds by the time he finally reached the other side, dropping to the ground and only just rolling before his bad shoulder hit the ground.

"God," Lorne swallowed back a groan of pain. "I'll just lie here for a moment," he thought, head resting on the floor swimming dizzily.

"Evan," Teyla was suddenly kneeling beside him, the water canteen held out for him. Taking it gratefully he leaned up and took a few small swallows, knowing they didn't have a huge supply of water and that there was no telling how long it would be before they could get more.

"I checked your wounds," Teyla surprised him by saying ... when had that happened? "The stitches appear to have held."

"Thanks," he handed the water back and took the power bar she offered him next, pulling himself into a sitting position against the wall. Teyla sat down next to him with her own power bar, the two eating companionably. "So ... you think Colonel Sheppard and the others are already looking for us?" he asked.

"I am sure that John would let no others lead the search," Teyla said with a smile.

Lorne was silent for a moment before he spoke again, the darkness lit only by their torches giving him the courage to say something he'd been meaning to say for a while. "You're good for him," he said simply.

"Thank you," Teyla turned to smile at him, her eyes shining with pleasure.

"He was always ... friendly," Evan continued, shifting to get comfortable, "but there was a barrier there, you know? A line you didn't cross. Most of the time you hardly noticed - except for times like now, when everyone's excited about the holiday."

"Christmas was a difficult time for John for many years," Teyla said softly.

"If you don't mind me asking, what happened to change his mind?" Lorne asked. When she slanted him a curious look he shrugged. "The regs, if you take them at their strictest, apply to the two of you as well. I was just ... curious about the Colonel's motivation to put that aside."

"Just 'curious'," Teyla repeated with an amused smile. "There is nothing else motivating your interest?"

"Ah ...," Lorne struggled not to flush, neither confirming nor denying Teyla's suspicions that there was someone driving his interest.

"I assume you know the story of Scrooge," Teyla let him off the hook, settling back herself as she began the tale. Lorne nodded. "Last year, as John tells it, he had his own experience with the elements of the story."

"What - a ghost of Christmas past, present and future?" Evan asked, something the Colonel had said to him at last year's party coming back with clarity. "He told me," Lorne said in surprise. "Not the details but he said that was the reason he'd changed his mind about my leave request."

"They were not real ghosts of course," Teyla explained. "But I believe .... as does John I think ... that an old friend showed him exactly what he needed to see to force him to act. Before it was too late and his course was locked in forever."

"Well, whatever the reason I'm glad things worked out for you both," Lorne concluded.

"As am I," Teyla smiled again. She waited a few moments before speaking again. "And what would it take to force you to act on your feelings Evan?" she asked knowingly.

"I don't ... ah ...," he stopped, not wanting to lie to her but unable to confirm her suspicions either.

"You have feelings for Laura Cadman, yes?" Teyla didn't wait for him to confirm or deny it. "And yet you have not told her. Why?"

"You know the non-frat regulations Teyla," Evan's evasion was a confirmation in itself but he didn't notice in his efforts to explain. "At their strictest they prohibit non professional relationships between anyone in the armed services under the same command as well as civilians in their employ. For Atlantis that means no-one should be dating anyone else ... although I know Colonel Sheppard has been a little lenient on that when there's no real connection between the two people concerned."

"So in your mind John and I are in violation of these regulations?" Teyla asked.

"Well ...," Evan hesitated, not wanting to upset her. "Technically yes, but you could equally argue that not being from Earth means you're not bound by the laws governing conduct."

"In agreeing to live and work on Atlantis I agreed to be governed by the same rules as everyone else," Teyla countered.

"It's a difficult situation," Evan frowned, resting his head back against the wall and closing his eyes again. He'd spent a lot of time thinking about the regs, testing within himself his belief in their need and purpose and had come to the conclusion that they were valid. If he were in command of a mission and Laura was in danger he knew himself enough to know he'd have to act. He wouldn't throw out the mission objectives but he wouldn't sacrifice her for them either. It was that simple. The real sticking point in his mind, the thing that had him lying awake at night worrying was that he wasn't in a relationship with Laura, had carefully admitted nothing to her or anyone else, and yet he'd still act that way. It didn't matter that he didn't get to express his feelings or share them with Laura because they were still there. He should be talking to Colonel Sheppard about it but the idea of admitting he'd fallen for someone attached to the expedition, someone the regs said he couldn't have, was more than a little uncomfortable. Instead he'd stepped back from Laura as much as he could, stopped seeing her as a friend outside of shifts, tried to ignore her hurt and confusion at his actions, and just generally made himself miserable missing even the small part of her he'd previously allowed himself.

"You should talk to John," Teyla could see the torment on his face, even under the limited light of their torches.

"I know," Evan turned to look at her, forcing a smile. "And I will ... when everything else stops working."

"Evan," Teyla began.

"We should get moving," Lorne pushed himself up the wall, turning to shine his torch into the darkness they still had to travel through. Glancing at his watch he frowned. "Three hours overdue," he commented, holding out a hand to help Teyla up. "They should be up there looking for us by now." Keying his radio he got the expected static he'd gotten the other times he'd checked. "Probably need to be closer to the surface still," he commented.

"John sees more than you give him credit for," Teyla squeezed Evan's hand before letting the matter rest. Stopping, she tilted her head, testing something. "Do you feel that?" she asked softly.

"A faint breeze," Evan nodded. "There's access to the surface somewhere ahead."

"Yes," Teyla looked at Lorne carefully, noting that although still pale he seemed steadier.

"Let's go," he walked forward slowly, taking the lead position, focussing everything on getting them both to safety. There'd be time enough to worry about the rest when they were back on Atlantis.

Teyla noticed the faint scratching sound first. "Evan," she put a hand to his arm, stopping and listening carefully again. "There is something ahead," she said in a low tone, eyes narrowed on the darkness ahead.

"I hear it," Evan agreed. Switching from his torch to the P-90 light he moved forward again, weapon at the ready.

They came in a rush ... snarling, hungry. They were rodent like in appearance, but a hell of a lot bigger than any rodent Lorne had ever seen, and in numbers too great to count. Teeth glinted in the light along with the flash of bullets fired in short bursts. The creatures fell but more pushed forward to take their place, forcing Lorne and Teyla to step back the way they'd come. Their numbers and the lack of good illumination was a lethal combination that would have already proven fatal were it not for their ability to fire large numbers of rounds in quick succession. "Thank God for automatic weapons," Evan thought as he rapidly slotted in a second magazine and resumed firing.

"There are too many," Teyla yelled, efficiently firing at a creature about to leap on her before spinning to cover them from the right side.

"Keep firing!" Lorne yelled back, taking down creature after creature, the noise of weapons fire and the howls of pain and anger from the creatures immense.

Teyla had been right ... there were too many. As they took step after step backwards Lorne was aware that time wasn't on their side. Either they'd run out of bullets or run out of tunnel ... and if they ended up trapped against the rubble it wouldn't be long before the creatures got too close to fight off with a P-90. His day had just gotten a whole lot worse!

Chapter 4: Possibilities

"What's taking so long?" Sheppard stood over Rodney's shoulder, looking at the mess of wires the other man had connected between his equipment and the Ancient door.

"Contrary to popular belief Ancient tech isn't just plug and play!" Rodney shot back irritably, not taking his eyes from his work. "We just make it look like it is ...," he added before refocussing on his work. He had the naquadah generator to power the door but the connections were proving stubborn. He'd had to splice two different cables together to get what he needed, meaning his few minutes estimate was creeping up into the almost hour range, but finally he was ready to give it a shot.

"Okay," he pushed a button, falling back to the ground when the door opened with a whoosh.

"Finally!" John pushed forward, stepping into a room that was already lit with enough light for him to see immediately that no one else was there.

"Are they ...?" Cadman followed quickly, stopping a step away from the console when she too realised they were alone. "How?" she turned in a full 360 degree spin, noting there were no other exits apparent save the one they'd just stepped through.

"We're sure they came down here?" John asked.

"Tracks say yes," Ronon pointed to the dusty footprints covering the floor in places they hadn't stepped yet.

"So there's another way out of here," John concluded, starting to walk slowly around the room, eyes intent.

"Over here," Ronon stated confidently only moments later. "There are more prints here than anywhere else," he explained.

John considered the wall carefully, trying to see what Teyla and Lorne must have seen to find a way out. Keying his radio on he tried to make contact. "Lorne, this is Sheppard, are you reading me, over?" There was nothing but since he'd expected that Sheppard didn't let it bother him, moving quickly on to the next problem to be solved. "We need to get this open," he said, frowning at the wall again.

"If you let me power up this console I can open any door in this room," Rodney said, already kneeling beside the console and opening the hatch on the floor.

"How long?" John demanded, impatient with all the delays. For every barrier they found and passed through another seemed to take its place, too quickly.

"Ten minutes, fifteen tops," Rodney estimated confidently, for once not making an issue of Sheppard's continual need for timing guestimates.

"Do it," John nodded, motioning for Ronon to watch him. "Cadman and I will return to the surface to radio Michaels at the gate," he added, motioning for the Lieutenant to join him.

Laura fell into step behind Sheppard, running up the steps easily until they were back in the clearing.

“Michaels, this is Sheppard,” John radioed the team at the Stargate.

“Go ahead Sir,” Michaels replied.

“Dial Atlantis,” John waited patiently until a connection had been made and Richard Woolsey was on the other end of the line. “We haven’t found Lorne or Teyla yet but we do have pretty clear indicators that we’re on the right track,” he reported.

“Indicators?” Woolsey queried.

“It looks like they found an underground facility – Ancient,” Sheppard revealed. “The scanners don’t seem able to read anything through the walls and there’s a problem with the power that’s stopping us from opening the door. McKay’s working on it now.”

“Understood,” Richard could see there was nothing else John could give him beyond that vague accounting.

“Listen, once we get through the door it’s likely we’ll be out of contact too,” John offered. “So don’t worry if Michaels can’t report on our progress at the next check-in.”

“Acknowledged Colonel,” Woolsey said reluctantly, not liking the turn the mission was taking.

“We’ll check back in when we can,” John advised before signing off.

Laura moved to head back down the stairs until John's words stopped her.

"You and Major Lorne are friends, right?" John asked casually.

"Ah ... I thought so Sir," Laura replied, unable to keep her recent uncertainty from emerging.

"So I was right - there has been a little ... tension between the two of you lately," John surmised.

"He won't talk to me!" it all came out in a rush of emotion. "That's part of why I wanted to come on the mission. I thought there might be a chance I could pin him down ... once we'd found them of course." She didn't mention that her main motivator had been fear for Evan's safety and the need to be doing something about that rather than sitting in the city worrying about him. Cadman wasn't good at waiting ... something everyone knew about her.

"Did you have a fight?" John asked awkwardly, feeling suddenly unqualified for the conversation he'd gotten himself into.

"No! That's the thing!" Laura shot back, pacing back and forth in front of him. "He just suddenly stopped coming to movie night, told me he was busy whenever I asked him to do something ... started avoiding me whenever I was in the city."

"But you don't know why," John concluded.

"No," Laura insisted. "Nothing happened and I don't understand how he could just switch his friendship off like that!"

"Really?" John asked uncertainly, wishing like hell that Teyla were there to have this conversation in his place. She'd know how to get Laura to see what seemed pretty obvious to him. Was it being too close to the situation that made people so blind?

"Rea -," Laura broke off, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. "Do you know something Sir? Did Major Lorne speak to you?"

"No, but I've got eyes Lieutenant," John shook his head with a laugh. "Think about it Laura," he added, his use of her first name rare enough to have her focussing on him intently. "What would prompt you to step back from a professional relationship if you were in Major Lorne's position?"

"Oh God," Laura's face paled as the only explanation occurred to her. "He knows I ...," she broke off, turning a tormented gaze to her CO, knowing if she said it she'd be opening herself up to the potential consequences or at the very least putting Sheppard in a position where he'd have to do something. "This is ... awkward," she fixed her eyes to the ground, wishing the floor would open up and swallow her and the miserable day she was suffering through without a trace. If she understood the Colonel properly, Evan already knew she'd developed personal feelings for him, beyond the friendship they'd enjoyed since their first year associated with Atlantis together. He knew and he didn't feel the same ... rather than send her somewhere else he'd gone with distancing himself instead. She felt panicked all of a sudden ... and sick ... and god, sad in a way she hadn't for a very long time.

"Relax Cadman," John advised, amused by her reaction despite the fact that he could see she was upset. "I don't think Major Lorne knows anything about what you might feel or not feel. He'd too busy worrying about his own feelings to wonder at yours."

"Oh God," Laura said again, this time hopefully. Was it possible that Evan felt the same? Her insides leapt at the thought but then the reality of the situation intruded and she deflated abruptly. "It wouldn't matter either way Sir," she said in a low voice. "Not that I'm admitting to anything of course."

"Of course," John agreed with a smile. "Whatever the situation, the two of you do need to talk Lieutenant. I need my unflappable 2IC back and Lorne's been distracted lately."

"I'll try Sir," Laura agreed, her thoughts a swirling mess of hope and despair. It wasn't fixable ... how was talking going to change that?

"Just don't make assumptions Laura," John added.

"Sir?" Laura frowned in confusion.

"Look at me," John shrugged. "If I'd made assumptions about what was and what wasn't possible, Teyla and I wouldn't have been together the past year. Just ... be open to the possibilities."

"I don't think this situation is the same Sir," Laura returned, hardly able to believe she was having this conversation with Evan's CO.

"Sheppard," Ronon's voice at the top of the stairs interrupted them. "McKay's ready to try the door."

"Okay, be right there," John nodded, waiting until Ronon had disappeared again before speaking. "Once you've talked to Lorne, come and talk to me ... both of you."

"Yes Sir," Laura agreed, trying not to let hope take her over. The regs were clear and even someone as important to Atlantis as Colonel John Sheppard couldn't change that.

"Do it McKay," Sheppard said as he crossed the threshold and moved to stand in front of the hidden doorway. A moment’s pause while Rodney activated the controls and then the door was opening with a faint hum. Shining his torch inside, John assessed the situation. "Tunnel," he said simply.

"Any signs of Teyla or Lorne?" Rodney asked, unplugging his laptop but leaving the generator connected.

"More footprints," John reported, directing light to the floor. "They definitely came through here."

"Let's go," Ronon moved past Sheppard and took a few steps into the corridor. John motioned for the others to follow, slapping a hand to Ronon's shoulder as he took back the lead position.

They'd walked for maybe fifteen minutes before they found further evidence that someone had been there before them.

"Here," Ronon stopped, squatting to look at something on the floor. "Blood," he said, touching the spot lightly with his index finger. "Fresh," he added, wiping his hand on his pants and standing up.

Cadman shone her own light over the grim scene. "Too much blood," she added, swallowing to clear the sudden lump in her throat.

"One of them is hurt?" Rodney asked weakly, looking from the evidence on the floor to meet John's eyes.

"Looks like it," John agreed, not letting his worry show. If Teyla were badly inured ... "don't go there John," he told himself, grimly determined to remain positive.

"Weapon's fire," Ronon drew Sheppard's attention to the shell casings scattered around. Moving forward he found debris on the ground. Looking up he noticed the remains of the Ancient weapon. "Some kind of laser," the Satedan decided after looking at it closely and noting the singe marks and the components that had only been partially destroyed. "Ancient."

"They disabled it but not before someone took a hit," John concluded.

"Yeah," Ronon glanced at Cadman before continuing. "Probably Lorne ... he'd take the lead."

"He would," John agreed, knowing Lorne would stop at nothing to protect Teyla. Since her abduction by Michael the younger man had strived to atone for something John had told him repeatedly wasn't his fault. Lorne would simply nod with a respectful 'Yes Sir' and then continue to behave in exactly the same way ... John never pushed the issue because he knew that similar baggage he himself carried sometimes pushed him to behave in certain ways. "Okay, let’s proceed carefully," John decided. "Just in case there are more of them."

"Not likely," Ronon offered. "They'd have destroyed any others too."

"If they were able to," Rodney muttered under his breath, casting a worried glance at the broken Ancient weapon on his way past.

The additional debris they found some distance away, followed by more further along the corridor, both with no signs of further injury, told its own story. John felt a mix of relief along with continuing worry ... the longer it took to find Teyla and Lorne the more concerned he got, more so now he knew one of them was injured. They had to catch up before anything else could happen to the pair.

They'd walked slowly for a few more minutes before the sounds of rapid and repeated gunfire sounded in the distance. P-90 fire if Sheppard wasn't mistaken. Breaking into a run, aware that Ronon and Cadman were running too, John headed towards the sound, his torch light swinging back and forth wildly against the walls in time with his strides. He skidding to a halt when they reached the rubble blocking their way and had just enough time to notice there was a hole big enough for a peron to get through before a rumbling sound heralded more bad news.

"Get back!" he shouted, putting out an arm to stop Cadman from rushing forward. Dust billowed out from the hole along with a shower of small rock chips and a noise that made it clear the wall had collapsed on the other side. “Teyla!” he yelled once it was quiet again. "Lorne?" he activated his radio, hoping to make contact that way. "Teyla? Are you reading me? Lorne? Please respond."

There was no reply and John didn't know if that was because of continuing interference ... or because neither could respond.

Chapter 5: Ugly critters of excessive size

"Move towards the wall," Lorne yelled to Teyla as they both continued firing. "Try and draw them away from the tunnel opening."

Nodding, Teyla shifted slightly. Shoulder to shoulder they killed every creature in front of them, shifting until their backs were against the wall. The creatures all crowded around them, trying to get closer. Occasionally one would come at them from the direction they needed to go in, only to be shot down.

It became a mess of noise, gun fire flashes of light in the darkness, and blood ... dead creatures littering the floor in a half circle surrounding them. There were moments when it could have gone either way - when the balance threatened to weigh against them - Evan just kept at it, one creature after another, his mind on the big picture but his focus on what was right in front of him. It was working too ... just when it seemed numbers were finally thinning and no new creatures were emerging from the unexplored section of the tunnel another creature leapt from the darkness, bigger and meaner than the others, landing on Lorne's chest before he could get his P-90 around to fire at it.

The next few moments were a wrestling match between Evan and the rodent that had random scenes from the Princess Bride flittering through his head, especially when it seemed the creature was trying to gnaw on him alive. He was peripherally aware of Teyla still firing at the others, his position on the ground giving him a strange view of the battle as he grappled with his opponent. His eyes locked on the ceiling close to the rubble wall and an idea occurred to him.

"Teyla," he ground out, dodging the creature’s teeth and trying to smash its head with the butt of his rifle. "When I give the go ahead, run towards me!"

"Very well," Teyla's voice was jumpy with exertion as she ruthlessly continued to kill everything before her. The animals were mad ... mindless ... they could not be reasoned with. It was a mercy to her mind to put them out of their misery.

"Now!" Lorne spun his rifle around, aiming for the ceiling, yelling as the creature took the opportunity to sink its teeth into his upper arm. Firing repeatedly his efforts were rewarded when the ceiling, already unstable, began to collapse. Cries of anger and hunger turned to squeals of fear as the remaining creatures were crushed under the rocks. Smaller rocks were raining down on Evan too as he returned his attention to the rodent still attacking him. He felt the flood of warm blood over his chest as Teyla rushed forward and ruthlessly cut the throat of his opponent before dragging him to safety.

It took moments for the dust to settle, for them to get their breath back enough to assess the result. Buried under a large pile of rocks was every last rodent ... they waited, breath audible in the silence, for a few moments and no more appeared. But their defeat had come at a cost ... the path Teyla had made through the rubble was gone. Once again they had no choice but to go forward, the way back blocked.

Sitting up with a groan, Lorne put a hand to his arm, his fingers slipping in the blood that covered it. "Son of a bitch bit me!" he said grimly, ripping his vest pocket open and taking out a bandage.

"Let me," Teyla moved his hands away and looked closely at the jagged wounds, only inches away from his existing shoulder injury. "You are certainly in the wars today Major," she reproached as though somehow it were his fault. Getting out the first aid kit again she cleaned the wounds, her expression still guarded. "These should really be stitched as well," she admitted. "You have already lost too much blood."

"Just tape it up and bandage it tightly," Lorne ordered. "I don't want to hang around here any longer just in case the rodents have even uglier friends."

"How could such creatures survive underground?" Teyla asked as she did as Evan had asked, applying butterfly tapes in a neat line down each of the three jagged cuts.

"There must be a way up to the surface," Evan offered, manfully trying not to flinch as Teyla messed with his latest wounds. "I'm guessing whatever it is, it's not fit for humans, just going on the size of their claws. Suggests some serious climbing requirements," he added when Teyla stopped to look at him quizzically.

Nodding, Teyla carefully wrapped a bandage around Evan's arm, fastening it securely before sitting back. "There," she said, casting an assessing eye over him. Checking him over for further injuries she was pleased to see he had only minor scratches and no new bleeding from the laser wound. "How are you feeling?"

"You've seen the Princess Bride right?" he asked, waiting for Teyla's nod and faint smile. "I feel like Wesley, after Miracle Max's cure," Evan joked, testing his arm and finding the additional pain wasn't taking much away from his overall comfort (or lack thereof) level. "Its fine Teyla," he reassured her, glossing over the additional weakness further loss of blood had engendered. It was his job to protect her, not the other way around. Maybe at the back of his mind he wanted to redeem himself for the whole Michael kidnap thing too ... even in a small way.

"Perhaps we should rest for longer," Teyla suggested worriedly.

"No, the sooner we're out of here the better," Evan shot back. "We've already been down here too long." He did let Teyla help him up though, giving her hand a squeeze before letting go and turning his attention to the way ahead.

"You will tell me if you need to rest," Teyla stated it like an order.

"Yes Ma'am," Evan said with a faint smile.

They walked in silence for a time. It was still dark, no signs of light from ahead. Their torches cast eerie shadows over the walls and floors that Lorne thought were more than a little creepy. "Lucky McKay's not here," he joked.

"Yes," Teyla agreed lightly. "Rodney is not fond of such places."

"To be honest I'm not exactly fond of them myself," Evan admitted, "not after today anyway. Don't tell McKay I said that," he added quickly.

"Your secret is safe with me Major," Teyla said, the amusement evident in her tone.

Lorne checked his watch again, noting that they'd been down there for four hours ... they'd set out for the mission after lunch Atlantis time which meant it was around 6pm back in the city. Subconsciously he picked up the pace a little.

"Evan?" Teyla questioned his sudden need to hurry.

"It's stupid I know but when this thing started I was determined to get you home before the Christmas Eve party started," Evan admitted ruefully. "By my estimation that means we've got another hour, hour and a half tops."

"I believe it is fashionable on your planet to arrive to such things late," Teyla offered with a smile.

"True," Lorne grinned, reminded again of all the reasons he admired and respected the woman beside him. "Not sure Colonel Sheppard will see it that way though. He did tell me to look after you - pretty sure this isn't what he had in mind."

"John knows very well that I can look after myself," Teyla said firmly.

"I know," Lorne returned, "but just because you can doesn't mean you should have to all the time."

"I believe John would say 'back at you'," Teyla was gracious but stubborn and Evan knew it would be better to let it drop.

"We should still pick up the pace a little anyway," he said. "If we're still down here when it gets dark this place is gonna get very cold."

Nodding Teyla fell in with his increased pace, the two falling silent again. Lorne was aware of Teyla's occasional glances, the way she was surreptitiously checking on him, and hoped the relative darkness hid at least some of his expression. Truth be known he still felt weak, the pain in his shoulder now nothing compared to the bite wounds from their furry rodent friends. He didn't want to draw attention to that fact by checking his arm but if he had he was pretty sure it would be red and swollen. That wasn't a surprise of course - Teyla had done her best to clean the wounds but who knew what kinds of bugs those rodents had living in their teeth. Bugs that were steadily turning his arm into a throbbing mess and making him feel hot and cold both at the same time. He kept going though - what other choice did he have? Had to get Teyla home, it was as simple as that.

The tunnel had been running pretty straight since they'd begun their journey so it was a surprise to be confronted with a corner. Lorne motioned Teyla to stop, pushing himself close to the wall and peeking out quickly to see if the way was clear. It was ... and that wasn't all.

"Light," he announced, motioning for her to follow him. The glow of daylight further down the tunnel was harsh on their eyes but in a good way. Lorne wouldn't have said that he wasn't paying attention as such, he was. It was just that they didn't have the position of advantage.

"Stop right there," a voice called to them from the distant shadows.

"We're peaceful travellers," Lorne said in an easy tone, holding his hands out and away from his weapon.

"We don't care," came the response. "Go back to where you came from!"

"I don't think you understand us," Evan tried again. "We can't go back - the tunnel is blocked. We just want to go home so if you'll let us through we'll be out of your hair in no time."

"And I don't think you understand me," the voice replied. Evan watched as a man stepped forward, dressed in clothes that looked patched together from various animals. That wasn't the interesting thing though - no, that would be the rifle he was pointing right at Lorne as he continued. "Go back or we kill you where you stand."

"We need to get through here!" John paced in front of the wall of rock separating him from finding Teyla and Lorne. He'd been so close! Only minutes had separated them before the collapse on the other side.

"No shit," Rodney muttered.

"Rodney," Cadman put a hand on his arm, her open and pleading expression not one he was used to seeing from the young explosives expert. "Can you scan through the rocks - see if they're okay?"

"I can try, although I suspect it's the rocks themselves that are confusing our radios and the scanner," Rodney replied. He pointed the scanner over the surface, looked at the screen, muttered a curse and then began tapping away at the controls. Laura just stood and watched, her mind blank as she tried to ignore the implications of that shower of dirt and rock shards. On top of the probable reality that Evan was already injured it was too much. The idea of him, trapped under rubble, in the dark ... "don't go there Laura!" she chided herself.

"I'm not picking up any life signs," Rodney admitted, his tone reluctant at sharing that news. "I've altered the scanner slightly but the range is minimal. If they've moved even a few feet away from the wall the scanner might not detect them."

"I could ...," Ronon drew his stun pistol and spun it around one finger before pointing it at the rubble wall.

"Wait!" Rodney shouted. "I'm not saying that's not a viable option - just that we need to be careful not to bring down more of the roof. I need to get a complete picture of the stress and weight bearing points. Then you can start blasting away."

"How long?" John couldn't help but ask.

"I don't know!" Rodney had begun to sound irritable but Sheppard and the others knew it wasn't in response to being questioned. He wanted to get to their team mates as much as anyone else and it frustrated him with the technology he relied on wasn't completely up to the task.

"Just ... hurry," that was as much of his worry as John was going to show. He might have gotten more in touch with his feelings in the past year, since he'd been forced to consider how he dealt with people and realised that unconsciously he held everyone apart from him. He was certainly better at sharing than he used to be, at letting his friends see more of the real John Sheppard, but in situations like this his first instinct was always to ignore feelings in favour of action. There was nothing he could do either, a fact that had him wanting to tear his hair out ... or shoot something. Instead he started pacing again, back and forth, four or five steps across the tunnel and then back again.

"Stop!" Rodney turned to glare at him. "Can you please just find somewhere to sit down?"

"Right," John nodded. Ronon had already taken up a spot close to McKay, guarding his teammate even though no guard seemed required. It was a habit though and because he could sit completely still and not distract Rodney, the scientist allowed it. Cadman was still standing frozen in the middle of the space, her eyes fixed on the rubble.

"Cadman," John moved next to her, not expecting her to startle and blink in surprise as she did. "Sit down," he ordered.

Nodding, Laura chose a spot directly across from where Rodney worked, as though she too wanted to keep a watchful eye on him. Sheppard sat down next to her, the two of them silent as they waited for Rodney to work a way through the tunnel.

And speaking of sharing ... no time like the present. "Did I ever tell you how Teyla and I got together?" John asked out of the blue, his tone low enough to lend some privacy to their conversation.

"Ah ... no," Laura replied uncertainly. "I heard rumours about a kiss under the mistletoe but that was it."

"It's not common knowledge," Sheppard offered, settling his shoulders back against the wall and stretching his legs out. Contemplating his boots instead of her, he began. "This time last year - on this exact day actually - I had what could only be described as a Christmas Carol experience."

"What, Ebenezer Scrooge and all that?" Laura asked, her interest piqued.

"Exactly," Sheppard nodded. "I still don't know if it really happened," he looked to her and explained, "I hit my head pretty hard that morning so it could have been nothing more than a hallucination."

"But you don't think so," Laura concluded.

"No," John agreed.

"What happened?" Laura was both intrigued and grateful for the distraction from her current concerns.

"What you'd expect," Sheppard replied with a faint chuckle. "My own versions of ghosts - past, present and future. Showed me how I'd come by my dislike for Christmas, how I'd blocked out any kind of opportunity to get close to someone, how I wasn't happy and just pretending that I was." He paused. "How desolate my life would be if I lost what I didn't even know I had."

"Teyla," Laura said softly, smiling.

"Teyla," he agreed. "And Torren. Family ... closeness ... someone to share the day to day with." He shrugged self deprecatingly. "I'm sure coming from me that's a surprise. It surprised me too - how different, how much better life could be if I just let the possibilities become reality. I had no choice after that but to act ... lucky for me Teyla felt the same way."

"It's a wonderful story Sir," Cadman offered.

"You ever feel that way about someone Lieutenant?" John asked, already knowing the answer. He knew too that Teyla would be impressed that he'd seemed almost comfortable sharing their story with Laura ... maybe there was a little selfishness in his motivations that she'd understand too. Talking about Teyla strangely made him feel closer to her - it helped with the whole positivity thing, that they'd find her and Lorne before too much longer.

"Permission to speak off the record Sir?" Laura asked.


"Yes I have felt that way about someone," Laura admitted. "I feel that way about someone. I don't know if he feels the same way and like I said before it hardly matters because it's against the regs for us to be together." She sighed. "Actually, it's probably against the regs for me to have these feelings, even without acting on them."

"Atlantis is a long way from Earth," John said. "And yes, the military is in charge but the IOA also have a fair hand in how the place is run. Do you think I just ignored the regs after I kissed Teyla last Christmas?"

"Ah .... I never really thought about it Sir," Laura replied. "I guess I assumed because Teyla is Athosian that the regs wouldn't even apply."

"In the strictest sense they do," John countered. "Teyla is an employee of the SGC just like any other civilian here. More than that our relative positions create the opportunity for favouritism to be implied on a regular basis."

"You spoke to someone back on Earth," Cadman realised abruptly.

"I did," John agreed. "Look, you want to get picky about the regs, then no one assigned to Atlantis in any capacity can form a non professional relationship with anyone else. That's just crazy in a place where there are no other options! We're isolated ... you can't go to the local bar, can't just pick up the phone and talk to someone. If you don't find it in the city you won't find it at all. I can't see the value in stopping people from forming attachments that will help them better handle that isolation. Turns out the President and the head of the IOA agreed with my reasoning." He laughed. "I think the annual spend on new recruits and training, along with my projections for the next five years might have had something to do with that."

"So you're saying ...," Laura didn't want to get her hopes up.

"I'm saying talk to Lorne, prepare your case," John concluded. "You report to Colonel Caldwell, you're only in the city two weeks out of every eight. As far as I can tell there's very little chance Lorne could do anything that would compromise the integrity of the mission ... not that he would anyway."

"Wow," Laura didn't know what to say.

"Scary isn't it?" Sheppard said in a low tone.

"What is Sir?" Cadman frowned in confusion.

"When you don't have excuses anymore," John said with a smile. Patting her shoulder he jumped to his feet, dusting off his pants. "Now you have to talk to Lorne!"

"Right," Laura swallowed weakly, thoughts going internal again. All she had to do was talk to Evan and tell him how she felt. Piece of cake right?

Authors Note:

Acknowledgement to The Princess Bride, which has been a favourite of mine since it came out in 1987 ... I wanted big, hairy creatures - lots of them - but being so familiar with that movie meant every attempt to write my own only ended up sounding like the ROUS - so I just decided to bow to the inevitable and have Lorne seeing the similarities too!

Chapter 6: Tunnel dwellers

"I don't believe this!" Lorne muttered under his breath, exchanging worried glances with Teyla.

"Perhaps we have something we can trade for safe passage," Teyla called out.

"Anything you have is tainted since it came from the Ancestors," the man replied. "Now go before I'm forced to shoot you!"

Grabbing Teyla's arm Lorne moved back around the corner, stopping once they were clear of sight from their new foes. "I don't think we're gonna reason with them," he said grimly. "Which means fighting our way through. We need some kind of indicator on how good those weapons of theirs are."

"If you are suggesting walking back out there to confront them in order to find out," Teyla began.

"No," Evan returned, thinking. "I wonder who they are, and how long they've been making use of these tunnels."

"I have not heard of anyone other than Amalita's people living on this planet," Teyla offered.

"Which means they've probably been down here a long time," he concluded, an idea forming. Turning he approached the corner again, Teyla at his shoulder. "Listen ... whoever you are," he called out, "we don't want any trouble here ... don't you think it'd be in your best interests to let us pass? I'm guessing the last thing you want is for us to tell the locals you're here. Plus if you don't let us pass then our friends are gonna come looking for us ... that means lots and lots of people down here messing with your space.

The bullet ricocheting off the wall across from him was his only answer.

"We have weapons too," Evan yelled, angry now. Shouldering his P-90, he sighted a few metres up the corridor and fired a short burst that lit up the corridor and echoed harshly in everyone's ears. Waiting for the dust to settle he spoke again. "Believe me, you don't want to mess with us!"

Another bullet slammed into the wall near his head, tiny chips of rock hitting his face painfully.

"Fine!" Evan knelt low to the ground, readying his weapon again.

"What do you intend?" Teyla asked.

"I'm just gonna put a warning shot a little closer to home," Evan reassured her. "Make sure they know our capabilities." He had no wish to kill anyone, particularly people who were only trying to defend their homes. "This just caps off a shitty day," he muttered, his words echoing into the corridor. "I've been shot by an Ancient laser, squashed through a wall of rock and almost eaten alive by rodents. We got through all of that; we can get through this too."

"Wait!" the voice of their foe called out suddenly. "You defeated the Scarba?"

"The what?" Lorne called back.

"The Scarba ... large creatures who leap through the darkness and attack any who enter their tunnels," the man replied.

"Right," Lorne frowned, hoping like hell the Scarba didn't turn out to be the sacred animal of these tunnel dwellers. "Then yeah, we did defeat them."

"All of them?" the tone shifted into disbelief.

"All of the ones that came at us. Buried them under a mountain of rock," Lorne clarified, "which is why we're stuck needing to get past you!"

There was a moments silence ... Evan was sure their assailant and his friends were busily whispering about what to do with the interlopers. The longer the silence went on the edgier Lorne became.

"We have put up our weapons," the man's tone was now much friendlier but Evan wasn't convinced it wasn't a trap. "Please," the man added when neither Teyla nor Lorne appeared. "My name is Loc. On behalf of my people I thank you for removing the Scarba. They have been a source of much aggravation over the years but we never possessed the means to completely destroy them, only control their numbers somewhat."

"He sounds sincere," Teyla whispered.

Lorne agreed but he still wasn't willing to take any chances. "Stay back until I say it’s okay," he told her in a low tone. Moving forward he walked around the corner and then stopped, waiting for Loc to approach him. When the other man did, he was without his weapon and had a welcoming smile on his face. He was about the same height as Lorne but slender and pale and more scholarly looking that Evan would have guessed while Loc had been shooting at them.

"Welcome," Loc said, holding out a hand in greeting. The familiar gesture surprised Lorne enough that he was putting a hand into the resulting handshake before he thought about it. His right hand ... the one attached to his right arm which was still burning and throbbing in time to the beat of his heart. He couldn't help but wince as Loc shook hands, drawing the man's attention to his condition that was also advertised by his blood stained shirt and arm.

"You are injured," Loc said simply.

"It's nothing," Lorne shrugged. "One of the Scarba decided I'd make a nice dinner ... I disagreed."

Laughing Loc motioned for one of his own people to come forward. "Gret is well versed at healing Scarba bites," he said. "She will assist you."

"That's okay," Lorne countered. "Teyla," he called back for her to join him. "This is Teyla Emmagen and I'm Evan Lorne. What I'd really appreciate is if you could point us to the way back to the surface."

"I am sorry Evan Lorne," Loc replied and by his expression he really looked sorry too. "There is no way to leave these tunnels."

"This is gonna be tricky," Rodney muttered, still working the controls of his scanner. 

Nodding wordlessly, Cadman couldn’t help but agree.  Once she’d gotten over her initial fear and shock Laura had shifted into action mode, falling back on her explosives experience to assist Rodney.  Very quickly they’d worked out using the limited amount of C4 they had on hand would be dangerous and not necessarily guarantee them a result.  Instead they’d decided to use Ronon’s weapon – direct the energy at the right points to remove individual rocks while maintaining the supporting structure.

"What is?" Ronon asked impatiently.

"Breaking through this wall without killing all of us," Rodney snapped back. "You'll need to hit each point I indicate precisely, with just the right amount of force."

"I can do that," Ronon said confidently.

"Of course you can," Rodney shot back, turning to John. "We've done all we can - we either act or find another way to get to Teyla and Lorne."

"Do it," Sheppard told Ronon without hesitation.

Nodding, the Satedan stepped into position, listening carefully to Rodney's instructions.  Cadman shifted to watch Rodney’s scanner screen, anxiously waiting to see if their plan was going to work.

"Okay, first point," Rodney consulted his screen and then marked a cross on a rock with a smaller one he picked up from the ground. "Here - short blast, lowest setting." He knew the power of Ronon's weapon and had factored that in to his force calculations, deriving the needed durations for each point.

Saying nothing Ronon fired competently, waiting while Rodney checked his readings.  Cadman and McKay checked their results carefully before they each seemed to relax a little ... it was going to work!

"Good," Rodney moved to another spot and marked another rock. "This one - full blast, medium setting."

Ronon acted again, again getting a nod of approval from Rodney. They went on in the same manner for some time to the point where Sheppard lost all interest in the process and moved well beyond impatience into that state of barely controlled energy.

"This is taking too long," Cadman whispered, leaving Rodney’s side to stand beside John.  She so wanted to just blast her way through this latest obstacle – having patience forced upon her under any circumstances didn’t sit well.  Here, when Evan’s status was an unknown, it was all the more difficult and Laura knew the Colonel would be feeling the same.  They both knew the stats ... the longer a person remained buried in a tunnel collapse without rescue the less chance there was they'd survive. Not that they had any evidence that Lorne and Teyla were buried but they had to operate under a worst case scenario. 

"We'll get to them," John tried to express enough confidence for both of them.

"That can't be right!" Lorne protested Loc's words. "How do you get food and water if you can't leave the tunnels?"

"Come to our settlement, we will show you," Loc replied, motioning for Lorne and Teyla to follow him.

It wasn't like they had any other options. Nodding, Lorne walked beside the tunnel dwellers until they joined the rest of Loc's group - six others, all dressed as he was and holding the same weapons. "With the Scarba loose we could not afford to go out unarmed," Loc explained.

"Any idea where they came from?" Lorne asked as Loc continued to lead them through the tunnels.

"No, just that they have been here as long as we have," Loc replied.

"How did your people end up here?" Teyla moved closer to ask.

"Legends tell of a great flight from creatures who would suck the very life from us," Loc explained. "We came down here to hide ... in retaliation the creatures destroyed our means of entry."

"The Wraith," Teyla said, getting a nod from Evan and a puzzled look from Loc. "A foe much active on many worlds," Teyla explained. "Your people did well to avoid their culling."

Lorne was going to ask another question but they turned a corner and he was struck speechless by the site before him. An unbelievably large, almost round room - well, a canyon really, well lit with natural light from a long way above. The walls were almost mirror smooth, the effect beautiful as they reflected the colours of the plants that grew in the centre and the water that rippled nearby. As he looked closer he decided it wasn't a natural formation - something had made the opening but Lorne was pretty sure it hadn't been Loc's people - they'd simply taken advantage of it being there.

"This is ... amazing," Lorne turned in a slow circle to take it all in. There were no signs of accommodation, the entire space taken up with food and water for the people living there. "Where do you live ... sleep?" he asked curiously.

"There are many caves not that far from here," Loc explained. "We sleep there, patrol the tunnels to ward off the Scarba population, and then gather and eat here."

They spent the next few minutes walking around the large space ... at first Lorne was openly appreciative but when they were only part way around the canyon he began struggling to keep his focus. His arm hurt like hell and everything was starting to get a little hazy around the edges. Swallowing hard he blinked and tried to pay attention to what the others were saying.

"Your home is very beautiful," Teyla complimented softly.

"Thank you," Loc smiled. "You are both welcome to come and live among us."

"Thanks for the offer but we have people waiting for us back home," Evan returned, frowning. "The Scarba must have had some way to get to the surface," he tried to reason it out. "Did you never find any other canyons leading above ground?"

"There are others," Loc admitted. "Even more inaccessible that this one. Only the Scarba with their deadly claws were able to get up there ... they can dig into the very rock itself to climb to the surface."

"Right," Lorne nodded, taking a moment t get his bearings. "Can you show us one of them ... we have equipment that might help us use their canyons too."

"We might also be able to use our radios," Teyla put a hand on Lorne's arm, speaking in a low tone just to him. When she felt how hot his arm was she recoiled, moving to stand in front of him and putting her hand on his forehead. "You are burning with fever!" she exclaimed.

"I'll be fine," Evan tried to shift away but she held him still, taking his arm and examining it closely.

"You will not be fine!" Teyla shot back. "This is in all likelihood infected."

"It is the Scarba," Loc explained apologetically. "Their bites are toxic ... without treatment the survival rate is very low. Gret!" He gestured for the same young woman from the tunnel to come forward again. "Go with Gret ... please Evan Lorne."

"Just Evan," Lorne said. He felt fine enough ... well, maybe a little spaced out and hot ... yeah, pretty damn hot actually, and if he could remove the section of his arm that had him flinching every time he moved that would be just fine.

"Gret will look after you Evan," Loc repeated. "You can trust her."

How could Lorne explain that it wasn't a matter of trust? He'd promised himself that Teyla would be home in time for the Christmas Eve party ... that was still a possibility even though it would have started by now. Plus he could imagine the torment Colonel Sheppard was going through searching for but not finding his girlfriend. He knew how he'd feel if it were Laura who was missing for so long. "Don't go there buddy," he told himself.

"Please do as Loc says. You will be safe with me," Gret said in a sweet voice.

"Sorry, did I say that aloud?" Evan frowned in confusion. It was as though the mere act of mentioning his injuries had suddenly magnified all of them tenfold.

"Evan," Teyla took his good arm and led him forward gently. "Let us check your wounds."

"Okay," Evan smiled dizzily at Teyla. "But you gotta stay with me okay? John would have my hide if I let anything happen to you."

"I am safe Evan," Teyla was all understanding as she dealt with his suddenly confused state. Nodding to Gret she followed the other woman, guiding Evan to walk beside her. Gret had a neat clean space clearly meant for such work. Together the two women settled Lorne on a palate, Teyla moving to sit beside him so that he could see her. It only took a few seconds for him to close his eyes and lapse into unconsciousness, Teyla quickly checking his pulse and finding it still strong and true.

Gret was very competent as she removed Evan's tac vest, ruined shirt and the bandages Teyla had previously applied. "This wound was not made by the Scarba," she commented, bending to look closer at the neatly stitched laser shot.

"No," Teyla agreed. "We came across weapons left by the Ancestors. Evan was hit before we managed to disable them."

"You got past the punishers?" Gret asked, very surprised.

"Evan was able to detect them before we were in range," Teyla explained, giving only enough to tell the barest minimum.

"We must tell Loc of this," Gret exclaimed excitedly. "There are parts of the tunnel system we are unable to explore. Beams of light shoot out that burn like fire and cut through everything."

"I am sure that Evan will help you with this problem, once he is well enough," Teyla promised, turning her attention back to her injured team mate.

"This salve will draw out the toxins of the Scarba," Gret explained, taking up a stone bowl with a bright blue paste inside. She pressed it into all three bite marks with enough force to have Evan flinching and shifting uncomfortably even in his unconsciousness. "It must go deep," Gret said regretfully. Once she seemed satisfied with her work she sat back. "The salve needs to be left to work in the open air," Gret said, meeting Teyla's eyes with a reassuring smile. "It is fast acting - within an hour or so he should awaken. Then we will bandage the wounds so that they might heal properly."

"Thank you Gret," Teyla said gratefully. Smoothing Evan's hair away from his forehead she frowned. He was still so hot and pale ... without the usual controlled energy she associated with John's 2IC.

"He is your mate?" Gret asked curiously.

"No," Teyla smiled. "He is the friend of my mate ... and my friend as well."

"I am sorry," Gret said sadly.

"We will see each other again," Teyla said with certainty. "John - my mate - would never stop searching for me. And Evan has reasons for returning home beyond his need to protect me."

"Then I hope that the impossible will prove possible for you," Gret bowed her head low. "We already own you much - removing the threat of the Scarba as well as some of the punishers is more than we could ever have dreamed of."

"How many of your people live here Gret?" Teyla rose to her feet, moving a few steps away from Lorne's sleeping figure to look out at the surrounding openings in the walls - all homes for other tunnel dwellers?

"Three hundred," Gret offered uncertainly. "Once we were more but over time our numbers have dwindled ... too many were attacked by the Scarba before we perfected the salve. They all died painful deaths, riddled with fever and disease."

"They were a formidable foe," Teyla said, the understanding and compliment to their ability to cope in such harsh conditions evident.

"And yet you defeat them," Gret said in wonder. "From where do you and your friend originate?"

"Atlantis," Teyla said simply, knowing she could trust the woman with the knowledge. Who would she tell down here in the tunnels?

"The city of the Ancestors?" Gret was fearful now.

"Be at peace Gret," Teyla put a hand on the girl's arm. "Evan's people found the city abandoned and were able to make use of its wonders, but they are not the Ancestors. They have helped more people that you could ever imagine."

"But the punishers?" Gret persisted.

"In all likelihood left in defence against the Scarba many, many years ago," Teyla suggested. "They could not have anticipated a time when people would live down here too."

Evan's groan and the way he began to writhe had Teyla returning to his side. She put a hand on his chest and found his heart was beating very fast, and looked up to Gret in concern.

"His reaction is normal," Gret moved to check her patient and seemed satisfied with the results. "It will not be long before he wakes ... much faster than I have seen before."

"He's from somewhere so far away I have no words to describe it," Teyla said softly, smiling fondly down at the Major. "And he is very stubborn."

"A trait that will serve him well here," Gret offered.

Teyla chose not to comment, knowing Evan would not be content with anything other than finding a way out of the tunnels. Perhaps the tunnels the people had not explored would prove fruitful. Settling at Lorne's side she waited for him to awake.

"This next one should do it," Rodney was leaning half his body into the rubble now to mark his targets. It was like the weirdest version of pickup sticks or Jenga that John had ever seen.

Nodding, Ronon fired his weapon where indicated. The dust settled and they all moved as one to look at the result. The other side of the tunnel ... just one commando crawl away.

"About time," John slapped a hand to Rodney's shoulder, doing the same to Ronon as he moved past the bigger man. Hoisting himself up he started crawling, making quick work of getting to the other side. Another scene of dismay greeted him, enough that he was still standing in the same spot when Ronon came through after him.

"What?" Ronon asked, looking around. "Oh," he squatted beside one of several squashed ... things covered in maybe two or three layers of rocks from the ceiling above. Not enough to block their way but they'd have to be careful climbing over them.

"What the hell are those?" Rodney had fallen through the hole and quickly got up, dusting off his pants, his expression distasteful.

"No idea," John admitted. "They look mean though ... explains why Lorne and Teyla collapsed this tunnel on them."

"You think they did it deliberately?" Cadman asked hopefully.

"Looks like it," John returned. Climbing over the rocks he was more than a little dismayed at the numbers of dead creatures he saw lying bloodied on the ground. There were literally hundreds - he had no idea how Lorne and Teyla had managed to fight them off for long enough to set off the collapse.

"So where are they then?!" Laura asked, frustrated.

"They'd want to get well clear of this area," John pointed out. "Just in case more of those things were lurking around."

"Of course," Cadman looked contrite and just a tinge embarrassed she hadn't realised that for herself. If anyone were still in doubt as to why she'd come on the rescue mission her behaviour would spell it out for them.

"Come on," Sheppard moved forward again, skirting the bodies until they began to thin out. Ronon had gone on ahead - wordlessly he pointed something out to John. More blood, plus a discarded bandage someone had missed in the clean up.

"Damn," he muttered, frowning in concern. "Okay, let's pick up the pace," he said decisively, leaving the evidence of more injuries behind quickly.

The straight tunnel stopped abruptly at a corner. Turning, John was greeted with the unexpected.

"Stop! Go back the way you came or else we'll shoot you!"

Chapter 7: All's well that ends well

"Teyla?" Evan woke for the second time that day confused about his situation.

"I am here," Teyla's quick response had him relaxing immediately. Sitting up he winced at the pain in his arm before realising that it was a lot better than it had been. The blue gloop that was all over his bare shoulder and arm was probably behind that and he looked for Gret to offer his thanks.

"You are welcome," Gret replied shyly. "I wish there was more I could do for the ones who have made our lives so much easier."

"You wouldn't happen to have a shirt my size lying around anywhere, would you?" Evan smiled at the girl, getting a blushing nod in reply before she hurried off.

"Stop that," Teyla admonished with an amused chuckle. If she were not mistaken Gret had taken a shine to their good looking 2IC ... she would be disappointed to learn that he was already 'taken', in his own heart if not in fact.

"What?" Lorne retorted innocently.

"You know very well what I'm talking about," Teyla replied.

"No harm in being friendly," Evan excused, "particularly if it'll help us find a way out of here." Sitting up he tested his arm by rotating it slowly. "This stuff is amazing," he commented, touching a finger to the mixture and looking at it closely.

"They have spent many years perfecting it," Teyla explained.

"Did you find out anything that's gonna help us get back to the surface?" Evan asked, running hands through his messy hair and only making it messier.

Hiding a smile Teyla nodded. "There are more of the Ancient automated defences," she offered.

"And they don't know what's behind them," Lorne concluded with interest.

"They were unable to get past," Teyla confirmed.

"Okay, well let’s get them to show us then," Evan pushed himself to his feet and then staggered drunkenly.

"I think you should sit down Major," Teyla pushed him back to the palate.

"Teyla is right," Gret returned with one of Loc's shirts. Putting it aside she collected cloth and efficiently bandaged Lorne's arm and shoulder, sealing in all the salve, her eyes on her work the whole time. "You will need to change this in one day," she instructed, looking up at him and then quickly away again. Getting up she grabbed the shirt and held it out to her patient.

"Thanks Gret," Evan took the shirt and moving carefully, put it on. It was surprisingly soft ... and looked vaguely familiar. "Is this ...?" he trailed off.

"Scarba hide - yes," Gret smiled, amused at his faint look of distaste. "One cannot afford to overlook any resources, no matter their origin," she said.

"Right," Evan finished buttoning the shirt and then swivelled to look at Teyla. "So, can I get up now?" He didn't say it but the unspoken 'Mom' was there just the same.

"If you will be careful," Teyla agreed, offering her hand and pulling him up.

He stood stock still for a few moments, not trying to move this time until he felt completely stable. He wasn't at his best of course - still felt a little hot and a little spaced out but he was good enough to get going. "Okay, show us these ...," he looked over at Teyla quizzically.

"Punishers," Teyla supplied.

“Show us these punishers, please” Lorne completed his request.

"I will have Loc lead you," Gret showed them the way back to the main area where Loc was talking with one of his men. Gret spoke to him first and with a nod he said something to his man and then moved to join Teyla and Lorne.

"Gret says you can disable the punishers," Loc's voice said he didn't think it possible but he was willing to hope.

"Yeah," Lorne replied. Teyla gave him his P-90 back and he held it up for Loc to see. "I can detect each of the weapons before we get in range ... shoot it before it shoots me."

"We have never heard of such a thing," Loc intoned in wonder.

"It's not that amazing where I come from," Lorne said modestly. "Just show me where and I'll see what I can do."

"What we can do," Teyla corrected, fully intending to go with him.

Loc turned and led them across the main canyon and out another corridor running almost parallel to the one they'd walked in from. Lorne felt the tingling of an Ancient system activating before Loc stopped them and pointed further down the corridor.

Nodding, Teyla and Lorne pushed forward a small step at a time until they had sight on the weapon. They both fired one straight burst and the weapon fell to the floor with a clatter. "There might be more further ahead," Evan said, he and Teyla going to check and destroying another two units as before. It seemed the Ancients had at least been predictable in placing three weapons per corridor. "Next," Lorne said, inviting Loc to lead them again.

They went back the way they'd come, Loc speechless at how easily the Atlantians had taken out something that had halted their progress for too many years to count. He led them to the next corridor and they repeated the process of sneaking up on the weapon and destroying it. After one final location Loc took them back to the main canyon again where many of the tunnel dwellers seemed to have congregated - probably for their evening meal. "It's done," he told his people, arms held wide in joy. "The visitors have destroyed all the punishers! We are finally free to explore our home in its entirety."

Cheers rose up to the point that Lorne was flushing in embarrassment. Before he could say anything the same man they'd seen talking to Loc approached him again and spoke rapidly close to his ears. Frowning, Loc glances at Lorne thoughtfully. "You said your friends would come looking for you?" he queried.

"I'd guess they already are," Evan replied.

"Then in all likelihood they are here," Loc smiled. "Go Hector, invite them to join us here."

"We don't want any trouble," Sheppard shouted back. "We're just looking for our friends."

"Go back!" A shot accompanied that order, forcing John to duck back around the corridor.

"This is insane," Cadman muttered. "Could the Major and Teyla have possibly discovered any more problems down here?!"

"It's certainly turning into a Murphy kind of day," John agreed, leaning back against the wall, thinking.

"I'll talk to them," Ronon put a hand to his blaster, making it clear how he intended to do that.

"Not yet," Sheppard moved to peek around the corner again. "You must have seen our friends," he tried again. "A man and a woman, probably injured. We know they didn't come back this way so you must have let them through."

"What are their names?" it seemed like an odd question but Sheppard was happy to play along.

"Lorne and Teyla," he called back.

"Wait there," the abrupt response was all they got.

Sliding back to rest against the wall he met Rodney's eyes.

"That sounded promising, right?" Rodney said weakly.

"They knew the names," Ronon agreed. "Let's just hope it was a friendly exchange."

Cadman could hardly stand still - she felt they were so close to finding Evan and Teyla again the delay was almost more painful than the hours that had come before.

"Relax Lieutenant," Sheppard said in a low tone, even though he was feeling pretty impatient himself. Nodding, Laura tried to calm herself - visibly at least. There was no way she'd calm the nerves jumping inside until she saw for herself that Evan was all right.

"Please, follow us," a man stepped out of the shadows and motioned for them to join him, his expression open and friendly.

"Just checking - you do know our friends right?" John asked first.

"Evan and Teyla are with our leader," the man explained. "I am Hector - Loc's second."

"Hector," John repeated, stepping forward. He held out a hand, surprised when the man knew what to do with it. "John Sheppard," he took the cue Lorne had provided and left off his rank. Pointing to the others he introduced everyone. "Laura Cadman, Ronon Dex and Rodney McKay."

"Welcome," Hector smiled. "It is a momentous day for us - we have not had even one visitor here on record, and now we have several."

"Yeah, well it's been that kind of day for us too," John quipped back, following Hector. The increasing light in the tunnel signalled the terrain was about to change but still he was surprised when they came to the canyon. "Wow," he murmured under his breath, turning in a slow circle to look around.

"That's pretty much what I thought too Sir," Lorne's voice had him spinning back around again.

"Nice place you've discovered here," John said, distracted as his eyes met Teyla's. Moving forward, his gaze checking her for injuries and finding no outward sign of any, he stopped when they were toe to toe and then wordlessly leaned down until his forehead rested against hers. "Hi," he said simply.

"John," Teyla smiled, returning his traditional Athosian greeting before putting her arms around him and hugging him tight.

"Sounds like you've had quite a day," John commented to Lorne once he'd finished hugging Teyla. He kept her close to his side though, spinning them both around so he could look at his 2IC closely. Lorne looked pale and tired but okay enough John was happy to keep with the light-hearted tone. "Nice shirt by the way."

"Had to send the other one out to the cleaners," Evan quipped with a grin.

"I can't believe this!" Laura stepped from behind Ronon, her angry voice Lorne’s first clue that she was even there.

"Laura?" his surprise at seeing her caused him to slip, using her first name without thinking about it.

"We've spent hours looking for you," Laura's breath was hitching as she struggled to control her emotions. "We found the blood and the ... the ... those things! And you're joking around?!" Glaring at him angrily she turned and stormed back the way they'd come.

"What?" Lorne took his glance from her retreating back to look at his CO.

"Don't you think you should go talk to her?" Sheppard asked casually.

"Ah ... I don't think that would be a good idea Sir," Evan countered awkwardly. No way was he talking to an emotional, upset Laura Cadman, especially when he was clearly the one who'd upset her.

"Go talk to her Major," John's tone was purposeful and Evan knew he wasn't getting out of it.

"Yes Sir," he nodded to Loc, Teyla and the others before taking the same path Laura had taken, his torchlight bouncing off the walls. He found her halfway down the part of the tunnel they'd been in just before they'd found Loc. She was sitting on the floor, back against the wall, just staring into the darkness.

"Can you point that somewhere else?" she requested, putting a hand over her eyes to block the light.

"Sure," Lorne pointed the torch towards the floor, plunging them back into semi darkness. "What was that all about?" his voice was even as he looked at her for a moment and then sat down beside her, wincing when his arm touched the wall.

"You're hurt," Laura's voice sounded odd. If he didn't know her better he'd think she'd actually been crying.

"It's nothing," he dismissed.

"It's not!" Laura growled, going from blank indifference to anger in the blink of an eye. "Could you just for once not be a macho idiot?!"

"Sir," Evan completed lightly. That stopped her short, her eyes meeting his in surprise. "Could you just for once not be a macho idiot Sir," he clarified, smiling so she'd know he wasn't seriously insisting she remember ranks. "It really is nothing Laura ... just a small puncture wound from the automated defence system which Teyla stitched up. One of the Scarba bit me too but the people here have an excellent healing salve for that. I won't deny I felt pretty miserable a while back but I really am feeling better now."

"Right," Laura looked away, directing her attention to her feet.

"So, you gonna tell me what had you storming off like that?" he persisted, nudging his good shoulder against hers.

"It's been a long day," Laura tried to give him something that would stop him questioning her further. "I'm just tired is all."

"Right, just tired," Lorne repeated disbelievingly.

"What, you don't believe me?" Laura felt her ire rising again. Only this man had her emotions jumping all over the place so easily.

"In a word, no," he shot back, getting a little riled up himself.

"Fine, what would you believe then?" Laura got up, turning to glare down at him. "Because you know, you can hardly talk about unexplainable behaviour!"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Evan got up too, taking a step forward expecting her to step back. She didn't and they ended up toe to toe in the centre of the corridor.

"Nothing, it doesn't matter," Laura deflated suddenly, turning away.

"It's not nothing," Evan insisted, grabbing her arm and turning her back to face him. They stared at each other for a few silent moments, moments when he could clearly see the hurt and torment in her eyes even illuminated from just a torch on the floor. "I'm sorry," he muttered, abruptly pulling her close and hugging her. "I didn't want to shut you out Laura ... I just didn't have a choice."

"Why?" her voice was muffled against his chest as she clung to him tightly, her tears making spots on the Scarba shirt.

"You know why," he rested his chin on her head, swaying slightly, running a hand up and down her back.

"Maybe I do now," she moved away to look up at him, "but maybe I want to hear you explain it anyway."

"If I do that it's all over," he said simply, taking her hands and caressing the tops with his thumbs. "No more being posted together even for a couple of weeks, no more friendship, no more Atlantis," he spelled it out in an even, serious voice. "No more us."

"I don't care," she said suddenly. "I really ...," she swallowed. "You made me miserable Evan. For weeks! Wondering what I did wrong, why you didn't want to be friends with me anymore. I really need you to do this for me."

It was a plea he couldn't refuse. "Once only," Evan put his hands on her shoulders and drew her closer again. "And then we have to agree I never said anything Laura. Promise me."

"If you think you can force it all back in the box afterwards then I can too," she gave her answer confidently.

He stood just looking at her for what felt like endless moments. She could almost see the wheels spinning in his head as he considered what to do next. "Fine," he abruptly agreed. "I had no choice but to create some distance between us Laura because ... because what I feel for you is anything but professional."

Before he could avoid her, Laura had her arms around his neck and was pulling him down to her. The feel of her lips on his brought back that floating feeling from before ... and then he was kissing her back, putting his arms around her waist and really getting into the moment, the rational part of his brain for once not spoiling it for him.

"Oh God," Laura broke the kiss, breathing hard, her weight resting against him as though she were unable to fully support herself.

"Oh God indeed," Evan swallowed hard, unable to break his gaze from her eyes. The expression in them was all knowledge and triumph - he knew he shouldn't have come to talk to her in this mood! "We are in so much trouble," he muttered grimly.

“Ordinarily I’d agree with that,” Colonel Sheppard’s voice from behind them had Evan groaning in dismay before he turned to face the music.

“Sir this isn’t ..,” he stopped. “Actually it is,” he admitted, feeling the heat rising in his face at being caught in such a compromising situation. Straightening, he took a deep breath. “This was all my doing Sir,” he began, determined Laura wouldn’t suffer for being the recipient of his feelings.

“At ease Major,” John said, amused. “Didn’t you talk to him yet?” he asked Laura.

“I got ... distracted Sir,” Laura smirked, sure the Colonel would know exactly how.

“Well it’ll have to wait until we get back to Atlantis now,” Sheppard replied. “Pack up your gear kids and let’s get out of here.”

“Yes Sir,” Lorne gave Laura a searching look before moving to join his CO.

“It’s gonna take us a while to walk back the way we came,” John commented as they headed back to the main canyon.

“What about the new tunnels Sir?” Evan asked.

“What new tunnels?” John frowned.

“The ones previously protected by more of the automated weapons,” Lorne explained. “With any luck another exit will be at the end of one of them. Could get us home a lot faster than going back to the ruins.”

“We can check it out,” John agreed as they rejoined Teyla and the others.

“Finished having your tantrum?” Rodney teased Laura as she stopped beside him.

“I don’t know – have you finished being an ass?” Laura shot back.

“Guys,” John’s voice held a warning for the two not to get started mutually snarking each other. He nodded to Lorne to speak with Loc before they left.

“We’re gonna check out those new tunnels,” Evan explained to the settlement's leader. “See if there’s an exit there.”

“You are welcome to go where you need,” Loc replied. “With your permission I will accompany you.”

“Of course,” Evan agreed after getting a subtle nod from Sheppard. Loc led the way back again, Lorne walking beside him. He wasn’t avoiding Laura as such, he just didn’t know what to make of that whole scene back in the tunnel, Laura's behaviour and Colonel Sheppard's reaction. “So, do you think your people will return to the surface, now you can walk the tunnels safely?” he asked Loc curiously.

“We are fond of our home,” Loc said thoughtfully. “Being able to move freely through all of it is a gift whose value you cannot imagine Evan. It opens up our world ... perhaps in time we will feel able to take that all the way back to the surface.”

“What you have here is unique,” Lorne agreed. “And the Wraith – those enemies from your legends – they’re still around. Being down here is as good a defence as any.”

Laura watched Evan talking with the settlement's leader until Teyla dropped back to walk beside her. “Is he really okay?” she asked the Athosian, knowing no more was needed.

“Doctor Keller will need to check him,” Teyla said. “Evan is too stubborn to admit that the day has been difficult, that he is not as well as he would like to be.” She glanced at Laura with a smile. “He will be fine Laura,” she added gently.

“He said as much when I asked him,” Laura admitted. “I knew you’d tell it to me straight though.” She fell silent, her thoughts troubled.

“Is everything all right?” Teyla asked after watching her for a moment.

“Colonel Sheppard told me how the two of you got together,” Laura admitted. “How he spoke to the IOA and the SGC.”

“Ah,” Teyla smiled, understanding the other woman’s distraction.

“Ah good, or ah bad?” Laura asked worriedly.

“Ah, as in I understand you have much to think about,” Teyla said evasively.

“You wouldn’t tell me even if Evan talked to you about us would you?” Laura couldn’t help but laugh when Teyla shook her head, her dark eyes twinkling. “I didn’t think so.”

“The two of you will have to work this one out together,” Teyla advised.

“Yeah, once I chase him down,” Laura joked, getting a laugh from Teyla.

“Well ... he is injured,” Teyla offered, the two laughing again.

In the end finding the way out proved to be an anti climax. Lorne chose the tunnel that had continued in the same direction as the first, hopefully meaning they’d break out somewhere near the gate. Loc appeared nervous as they approached the place the automated defences would normally kick in, stepping around the wrecked weapon with a breathless “amazing”.

“You’ve been busy,” Sheppard commented to his 2IC.

“Ancient system,” Lorne said with a shrug. “You would have sensed it too, probably before getting yourself shot Sir.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself Major,” John returned. “This is hardly the place I’d expect to find an active system.”

“I wonder how it’s still active, so many years since it was probably initiated,” Evan commented.

“Takes surprisingly little power to operate,” Rodney explained. “Kind of like solar power – recharges at regular intervals, more so when the weapons get activated. It’s very efficient actually. The Ancients built to last so there’s no telling how long they would have continued if you hadn’t come along and destroyed them.”

They passed the point they’d stopped at before and it was only a few moments later that they came to what looked like a dead end.

“I am sorry,” Loc said with regret, looking at the wall in dismay. "Perhaps one of the other tunnels?"

“Not so fast Loc,” Lorne smiled, moving closer and running his hands over the wall much as he had before. “Here,” he made to muscle the door open but was brought up short when Teyla spoke.

“I am sure that Gert would be most unhappy were you to undo all her efforts Major,” she said with a hint of warning apparent.

“Ah ... right,” Lorne stepped back, making room for Ronon to do the dirty work. The big man grinned, fitting his finger in the gap and applying his considerable strength to the task.

“Who’s Gert,” Laura couldn’t help but ask.

“She is our healer,” Loc was the one to explain. “Very capable, especially with Scarba bites.”

“Jealous much?” Rodney leaned close to Cadman, keeping his voice low.

“I just ...,” Laura forcibly stopped herself from saying more. “Get a grip,” she told herself, knowing that if Rodney McKay was picking up on the undercurrents between her and Evan then she was in serious danger of blowing the whole thing.

The door grated open under Ronon’s efforts, revealing a room that looked a lot like the one that had started the day. Finally they'd managed to find some good luck!

“This is where we leave you,” Lorne told Loc, holding out a hand. “Thanks for your help,” he said simply.

“No, it is I who should thank you,” Loc returned, shaking Evan’s hand firmly. “You have made a big difference in the lives of everyone who lives here Evan. If ever we can lend our assistance to your cause you have only to ask.”

“Thank you,” Evan didn’t bother to downplay his contribution to the settlement, knowing the leader would be determined to see it as something miraculous.

“Ready to go home?” Sheppard asked lightly after making his own thanks to Loc.

“Yes Sir,” Lorne grinned. “We can all be fashionably late for the party.”

“That we can,” John agreed. Turning to Loc he continued. “If you like we can send someone to check in with you and your people from time to time, just in case you find more of the Ancient’s weapons.”

“We would like that,” Loc agreed. Stepping aside he watched as the visitors walked through the doorway to what looked like another world. When the door whooshed closed behind them, Loc stood for a moment contemplating the days unexpected events before turning to return to his people.

“So this is where you’re hiding." It was hours later and Laura’s voice was quiet as she stepped onto the balcony where Evan stood looking out at the ocean.

“If I were hiding you wouldn’t have found me,” Evan retorted, turning and resting his weight against the railing. Crossing his arms he looked at her for a moment. Doctor Keller had restitched his wounds, given him a host of fast acting antibiotics and only released him from the infirmary because it was almost Christmas. If he pushed it too hard she’d revoke that – her words and not something he wanted to test out. “So,” he said, giving Laura the small opening reluctantly. He wasn’t sure he was ready for the conversation he knew they had to have. He’d avoided it, avoided dealing with the whole sticky mess for too long because he knew once brought into the open life would change. It wasn’t a happy situation to be in love with someone off limits and not be able to speak of it but to his mind it was still better than the probable alternative – not being able to be with them at all.

“So,” Cadman repeated, moving to stand next to him, her eyes on the sea. “I had an interesting conversation with Colonel Sheppard while we were looking for you,” she began. “Did you know he approached the IOA about his situation with Teyla?”

“No,” Evan frowned, wondering if Teyla knew he’d done that. If so, she hadn’t thought to mention it when they’d been talking about the same subject.

“Well he did,” Laura continued. “They gave permission for them to be together. Can you believe that?”

“Ah ... maybe,” Evan said uncertainly, not sure where she was going with this. “Teyla’s not from Earth though – it makes sense they’d relax the rules a little under those circumstances.”

“They’re not the only ones,” Laura pointed out, her tone suddenly hopeful.

“Laura,” Evan put a hand on her arm, waiting for her to look at him. “Just cut to the chase ... it’s been a long day and I’m not up to the cryptic stuff right now.”

“Okay,” Laura seemed to steel herself as she turned to face him. Looking him straight in the eye she spoke with surety. “The reason why I was so miserable when you pulled back from our friendship, the reason I was angry you could joke about what you went through today is because I feel more than just professionally towards you too ... a lot more. If there’s a way to make that something that won’t get us both kicked from the service I’m all for exploring it.”

“You think the IOA will give us permission?” Lorne asked in disbelief.

“I didn’t but Colonel Sheppard convinced me that it was a real possibility,” she shot back.

“You spoke to Colonel Sheppard about this?” Evan couldn’t keep the anger from his voice. “You realise that’s enough to get you into serious trouble right?!”

“Relax,” Laura said complacently. “It was off the record. And besides, he already knows something’s going on. He said you’ve been distracted lately.”

“That’s just great,” Evan turned away, gripping the railing tightly as he thought about the implications. “You should have talked to me first!”

“You don’t want to even try, do you?” Laura tried not to let that upset her but couldn’t entirely keep the disappointment from leaking through. “I thought ... I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I’ll just go and ...,” she trailed off, already turning towards the exit, eager to put the whole sorry mess behind her.

“Laura, wait,” Evan grabbed her arm before she could escape, pulling her around to face him. “Just give me a minute here okay. I just need to think!”

“That’s what you always do!” Laura protested. “You’ll think and think and talk yourself out of doing anything!”

“This isn’t some whim,” he shot back. “This is our lives ... our careers. If we get this wrong there’s no going back.”

“I know,” she sighed, looking away. “It’s too hard, isn’t it?”

“Look, just tell me what Colonel Sheppard said to you,” Evan requested.

She nodded, running through both conversations she’d had with John, word for word as best she could recall. Evan was silent when she’d finished, his eyes on her but his thoughts clearly elsewhere. “Well?” she asked when the silence became unbearable.

“Okay ... we’ll talk to him,” Evan agreed.

“Really?” Laura wasn’t sure what to make of that. Had he just made a declaration?

“I have been distracted lately,” Evan admitted, taking her hands. “Distracted trying to ignore you ... an impossible task I should have known wouldn’t work.” Urging her towards him he wrapped his arms around her, hugging her closely. “I really am sorry about that Laura. I should have talked to you ... I just wasn’t sure you’d want to have that kind of conversation.” He sighed. “And maybe I was being selfish too ... I wasn’t ready to bring everything out into the open if it meant I had to lose you.”

“Well, now you know,” Laura let herself be drawn into him, his warmth, the energy that was uniquely his. One of them had to stop talking in careful riddles and weak truths. Somehow it seemed right that it should be her. “Just so we’re clear,” she said softly against his chest. “I’m talking love here, as in I seriously love you Evan Lorne.”

She felt him smile against her hair. “I knew that,” he moved until his mouth was against her ear. “I love you too,” he whispered, his breath tickling her skin and sending shivers down her spine.

“I guess a kiss is out of the question?” she asked hopefully.

“Well ... it is Christmas Eve,” Evan smiled. “Got any mistletoe?”

“I’m sure I could find some,” she laughed, pulling away and grabbing his hand. “Let’s go look.”

Laughing, Evan let her drag him back towards the party.

“Did I tell you how glad I am you’re okay?” John absently played with Teyla’s hand as he surveyed the party going on around them. Somehow they’d ended up at the same table as last year, the memories something he looked on with fondness even though it hadn’t been easy at the time.

“More than once,” Teyla smiled. Her eyes were drawn to the entrance, her smile deepening at what she saw there.

John turned to see what had caught her interest ... Lorne and Cadman returning to the party and looking a lot more comfortable together than they had in a long time.

“They spoke,” Teyla concluded lightly.

“Looks like it,” John caught Evan’s eyes, motioning for the pair to join his table. When they arrived moments later he grinned. “How’re you feeling Major?”

“Better Sir,” Evan smiled. “Lucky too – those ROUS’s were almost too much to handle.”

“Rodents of Unusual Size?” John gave a bark of laughter when Lorne nodded. “They did have a Princess Bride look about them, didn’t they?”

“Even at the time I thought so,” Evan chuckled when Laura rolled her eyes, still unimpressed that he wasn’t taking the whole thing more seriously.

“What’s the joke?” Rodney returned to the table, Jennifer on his arm.

“Nothing you’d think was funny,” John dismissed lightly, nodding to Jennifer as she sat down.

Rodney opened his mouth to protest but John stopped him. “I’ll be back in a sec,” he told Teyla. “Just have to go speak with someone.”

Teyla looked puzzled as she watched him hurry away. When he returned a few minutes later with a satisfied expression her curiosity was sparked. She let him see her quizzical expression, her brow raised but John just shook his head slightly, the silent communication telling her to wait and see what happened next.

The wait wasn't long ... Ronon returned to the table moments later, his eyes twinkling as he acknowledged everyone before turning to Evan. “Shep’s been teaching me about your holiday - your customs. Giving Christmas gifts the night before is traditional too, right?” he asked almost conversationally.

“Ah, sure,” Lorne looked puzzled by the question. “Although it depends on which part of Earth you come from. Why?”

“Seems to me after what you did for those people you should get an early Christmas present,” Ronon held up his hand, showing everyone the sprig of mistletoe he had nestled there.

“Oh, you’re in trouble now,” Rodney laughed at Lorne’s faintly sick expression.

Ronon shifted to hold the mistletoe over Evan and Laura’s heads, making it clear who he expected the Major to be kissing. Laura shot Evan a teasing look, knowing they were both thinking the same thing – that they’d wanted the excuse, just not in front of every person on Atlantis.

“Time to pay up Major,” John grinned, enjoying seeing his 2IC speechless for probably the first time ... and to being the one not on the receiving end of a mistletoe potentially embarrassing moment.

“Right,” Evan gave Laura a raised eyebrow, getting a faint nod of agreement in return. Standing he turned and pulled Laura from her chair. She laughed in delight when he gathered her close and then dipped her low. They were both smiling when he kissed her ... no friendly peck for them. It wasn’t the first time they’d kissed and it wouldn’t be the last but still, the moment seemed to call for an expression of passion and intent. It was only when Evan broke the kiss and set Laura back to her feet that he realised the rest of the room was cheering them.

“What is it with you flyboys?” Rodney commented. “Do they teach flamboyance at the academy or something?”

“No point in doing anything in half measures,” Lorne shrugged, retaking his seat with Laura beside him.

“See now, this is a tradition I could get used to,” Sheppard raised Teyla’s hand and kissed it lightly.

“It does have promise,” Teyla agreed, both of them remembering their own kiss from the year before.

Nodding, John turned his attention back to Lorne and Cadman who were still smiling at each other. “Come and talk to me tomorrow,” he told them.

“Yes Sir,” they chorused together.

Evan knew it wouldn’t be as easy as that, that the end result wasn’t guaranteed, but for the first time in ages he actually felt hopeful.

The End!




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