The return with Ronon to Sateda, to find that the wraith are attacking and his city is about to fall.
John's dour demeanour as he made his way through the city the next morning, could not dull the air of excitement that permeated the city. Ronan, after enjoying the comforts of Atlantis hospitality, was escorted to the cafeteria for breakfast by a somewhat surly John and was content to load his plate and sit back to watch both the activity around him and the darkening expressions that crossed John's face. He raised an eyebrow. “Something wrong Colonel?” Sensing the frustration rolling off John in tangible waves, a slight grin quirked the side of his mouth, suspecting what the problem might be.
“Nah.. not really...” John toyed with the piece of toast in front of him, idly flicking crumbs off the table onto the floor.
“Concerned about your woman?” Not quite able to keep the smirk out of his voice, his words caused John's eyes to snap.
“She's NOT my 'woman', just another member of my team and one that seems to cause me no end of trouble! After the amount of champagne she was plied with last night... kinda wondering what sort of shape she will be in for today's mission. I get stuck with babysitting! Huh!”
“Not your woman eh? Didn't look that way from where I was standing...” Another smirk and Ronan lowered his head to his dwindling stack of food.
“Looks, my friend, can be deceiving...” As if making a decision, John rose and went to collect two steaming cups of coffee oblivious to Ronan's knowing smile.
Cassie finished her shower, completed a cursory look in the mirror, sighing at the dark circles under her eyes, tied her hair into a loose ponytail on top of her head that allowed her curls to cascade down her back, and opened the door to her room. Leaning negligently against the opposite wall, holding two almost steaming cups of coffee, one of which was halfway to his mouth, stood John Sheppard. He took in the shadowed eyes and less than enthusiastic demeanour and couldn't resist the small smile that came unbidden to his face.
“Uh... something tells me you could use this...” He lifted one of the cups in an inviting gesture and watched as her eyes lifted slightly, warming a little.
Crossing the hall, Cassie reached up and gratefully took one of the cups out of his hands and took a large, much needed gulp, closing her eyes in bliss as the warmth spread immediately through her and that first lifesaving jolt of caffeine eased some of the cobwebs out of her system.
“Aah... caffeine... nectar of the Gods. Colonel John Sheppard, you are my true hero!” Spontaneously, she reached up on tiptoes, brushing a feather light kiss across his jawline and moved off down the hallway, tossing a cheeky look over her shoulder. He shook his head a little, still feeling the soft slide of her lips on his face and acknowledged the fact that she made an extremely fetching picture in her slightly oversized base BDU's. Suddenly the day did not seem so gray and with a lighter step and slight smile on his face he followed her.
Just before 9am, John's team stood in the gate room, along with Elizabeth and Ronan, inspecting the equipment they would be taking with them. Weapons had been distributed, both the Berettas and P90s and combat knives would be worn by all the team except for Cassie, who deliberately chose only the Beretta. Rodney had arranged small transportation containers to collect soil and rock samples and Cassie helped him to stow these between their packs. All team members were wearing tactical vests, a black nylon vest containing several pockets filled with various items such as field dressings and other useful equipment, lined with light kevlar to slow down the impact of any gun blasts. John shook his head as he watched Cassie struggle with hers, and somewhat impatiently pushed her hands away to do the task himself. His dark head bent down towards her light one and with a bit more tug than was absolutely necessary, tightened the straps to make sure that she had a secure fit.
Taking a small breath she managed to get out “Is breathing a part of this mission's requirement... if it is, perhaps you could loosen those just a little...Just saying!”
“Stop complaining! They have to be tight. Here, pass me the pack – it needs to be clipped to the tac vest at the back.” John gave one final pull on the tabs and she stumbled at the unnecessary force, tipping her face up to glare at him.
Barely able to bend with the tight jacket, Cassie hoisted the pack that had been resting on the ground in front of her and pushed it at him hard, accompanying it with a flash of spark in her eyes.
“oommpphh..” John caught the pack in the stomach. “Was that necessary? And just what the hell is in here? Bricks?” He opened the pack to see what was making it so heavy and complained to Rodney. “Why is Cassie carrying so much of this gear? She'll never carry this any distance!”
Not giving Rodney a chance to answer, John chose to clamp his lips together. He placed his hands on her shoulders, gently recalled the still vivid bruising that was there and turned her around so that he could attach the back pack via the clips on the vest, making sure that it fit securely against her back. Hearing a muffled noise that sounded suspiciously like a laugh coming from Ronan, John cast a quelling glare his way, then turned back to find Cassie listing like small boat in a big storm. Weighed down by an impossibly large pack for her small frame, she did make a rather amusing sight and John had to bite down, very hard, on his own laugh.
“Seriously Cass? You won't last 500 meters...” Challenge on! She muttered to herself, then straightening her body as much as she was able, she drew herself up, with much difficulty, to her full height of 5 foot four inches and marched a little unsteadily toward the stargate. John shook his head and followed, then looking back at Elizabeth in the control room gave the acknowledgement that the team were ready and to begin dialling the gate.
Watching the chevrons light up, Cassie could not help the smile that lit her face as she felt the humming power that flowed through the gate and crackled in the air. She turned back to the others, eyes alight with excitement and that beautiful smile that lit up the entire gate room. Her disposition was infectious, and she received answering smiles in return and long after she turned back to watch the progress of the gate engaging, John's smile remained, somewhat foolishly, on his face.
John and Ronan were the first through the gate as soon as the event horizon had settled to it's shimmering azure blue, Teyla, Rodney and Cassie taking the middle and Major Lorne the last one through to take their backs. With some measure of expectation this time, the journey through the wormhole sent a massive surge of stimuli through Cassie's nerve endings and she exited the other side, Ronan's world of Sateda with a rush of energy that had her continuing forward with the momentum of her too large pack, finally overbalancing and rolling over and over, coming to rest against a large rock. Ronan reached her first, and with little effort, picked her up with one hand and set her back on her feet, chuckling a little at the dirt and twigs that had gathered in her hair.
John's concern for her was immediate, but came to a halt behind Ronan when he heard him laugh and Cassie's answering giggle. Shaking his head he pulled a cap out of his vest, placing himself in front of her, pulled as many of the small offending twigs out of her hair as he could and with a little more force than was strictly necessary, and clamped the black military style cap on her head. “Not that I think that will do you any good” he muttered darkly “should have brought you a hard hat!”
Still grinning, she tipped her face up towards his and he gave more tug on the brim of her cap as she readjusted her pack and huffed an experimental breath.
Ronan gathered the group together. “About an hour's walk in that direction is our largest city. It's an easy walk through mostly forest and the city chancellor will be expecting us for the midday meal.” Rodney smiled and gave a little jiggle of excitement. “..mmm... food!” accompanied by a loud stomach growl that resulted in an answering groan from John. “What?!” Rodney indignantly replied. “I have low blood sugar!”
Somewhat impatiently, John cut in “Ok folks, can we cut the chatter. Let's move out! Lorne, take our six.”
Ronan and John led the way down a semi paved path, leading away from the stargate towards the start of a large forest containing trees that did not look any different to those found on earth. Cassie sidled closer to Rodney and whispered, in jest, “I was expecting something more... alien?” Rodney opened his mouth to begin a no doubt scientific and extremely complicated explanation as to why the vegetation would be the same on this planet as on earth, when Teyla, who was immediately behind them, abruptly stopped and called out.
“What is it Teyla?” John and Ronan halted causing Cassie and Rodney, who were still in whispered conversation and not concentrating on what was happening in front, to bump into John and Ronan as they turned. John automatically reached out to steady Cassie while Ronan just glared down at a flustered Rodney, who quickly stepped out his way. Noticing Teyla's pale face, John shifted Cassie aside to move closer.
“Wraith, Colonel. I can sense them, they are here, nearby.” Ronan immediately came to attention, scanning the sky while releasing his large weapon from his belt. “Look, smoke, beyond the treeline! Something is wrong. We need to move, NOW!” Not waiting to see who followed, concerned for his city and the welfare of his people, he broke into a run.
A screaming noise broke through the air, followed by a long needle like ship that shot overhead emitting a light beam beneath it that widened to a large circular pattern travelling along the ground beneath the low flying ship. Ronan called back urgently over his shoulder. “Wraith darts. Get off the path and into the trees.” Struggling to keep up with the long legged Satedan, Rodney puffed along. “Aah.. shouldn't we head back to the stargate.. to Atlantis... just saying...”
John slowed and pulled his team members into a thicker group of trees, leaving Ronan to continue on ahead without them. Grabbing Cassie by the arm, he thrust her towards Teyla and Lorne. “I need to help Ronan. Lorne, get this group back to the stargate and get some marine teams assembled to bring back here as reinforcements.”
“Colonel, be careful and stay away from the beams. They transport the humans to the ships for future feeding.” Teyla called after him as he went to take the direction Ronan had taken, intent on following the trail of smoke that that had begun to billow across the sky in thickening formations.
“John...be careful” Not knowing what else to say, Cassie reached out a hand, then quickly drew it back down again. John flashed her a quick salute and was gone.
“Don't worry Cassie, he's trained for this, he'll be fine.” Lorne ran his hand down her hair in reassurance and hooked a finger under her chin to tip it up slightly. “Really Cassie, he will be fine!” when she looked at him with worried eyes. “Now let's follow his orders and get back to the stargate and get reinforcements. Rodney?” He caught the attention of the scientist. “You need to dial Atlantis as soon as we get to the gate.”
John set off at a fast clip through the forest path, pushing his concern for his team to the back of his mind and focusing on getting to the city ahead. The whine of the wraith darts became more noticeable, passing overhead at regular intervals and John was careful to stay away from the lethal tractor beam. Reaching the edge of the treeline he noticed that the smoke had thickened and began to hear the terrified screams of people, interspersed with the constant shriek of the darts. John had to watch in horror, powerless as a group of five people were caught in the beam of a nearby dart and disappeared in front of his eyes.
“Ronan!” He caught sight of the big Satedan as he scaled the smoking remains of a structure that would once have been a large building, now reduced to rubble. Overhead he could see larger ships, wraith cruisers, projecting firepower down on the city, in wave after wave, destroying buildings, killing people and leaving very little standing.
Scrambling to follow Ronan, he reached a sheltered part of the rubble and found Ronan huddled with a group of soot covered people. “Ronan. We need to group together as many survivors as we can, get them out of here and back to the stargate and Atlantis. Ronan!” Shouting to pull his attention away from the wraith cruisers overhead, John struggled to be heard over the continued sounds of a one way losing battle.
“No! We'll stay and fight!” Ronan's voice was fierce and he aimed his weapon towards the sky, pulsing out a bright red and yellow flare of firepower that hit one side of a dart as it flew over. Black smoke erupted from the hit dart and triumphantly he watched it waver, then spiral downwards.
“Ronan...” John's voice was softer now. “We need to get these civillians out of here. We need a little more help, we should have some marines with firepower here soon.”
Angrily Ronan thumped the wall hanging his head at the devastation and chaos that was around them, then agreed. “We'll get these people to a safe nearby location,” he conceded “Then I fight!”
The battle raged and slowly Sateda fell to the ongoing slaughter of the wraith. John and Ronan found a secure location to house the survivors and they slowly made their way through the city, gathering up more survivors and killing any wraith foot soldiers they came across.
Meanwhile Major Lorne and his group cautiously started back to the gate. They were halted upon hearing nearby screams and Teyla's pained expression had them turning away from their path and moving further into the trees. Major Lorne attempted to divert them but Teyla stood her ground. “We cannot leave these people Major Lorne. They need our help. We need to gather survivors and take them back to safety, to Atlantis.”
Lorne was divided in his loyalty. “I have my orders Teyla and they are to get you back safely, then send through reinforcements.”
Teyla turned to Rodney. “You can go to the gate Rodney and send back reinforcements. Take Cassie with you. Major Lorne and I can stay and search for survivors.” She looked at Lorne. “You know that this is the right thing to do.”
“No!” Cassie stood her ground. “I'm going with you. Rodney will make it to the gate quicker without me.”
“Sheppard's going to to skin me alive for his...” Lorne keyed his comm. “Colonel, do you read? This is Lorne, we have a small change of plans...” Static came back over the comm and the sound of gunfire. Rodney's face briefly registered terror, but he gathered himself and shouldered his pack. With a glance at the others he headed back to the gate at a trot.
The nearby screaming had gotten louder and Teyla pushed out of the trees they had been sheltering in and ran ahead, with Lorne left to take up the rear, keeping a wary eye on the darts that flew incessantly overhead. “Major Lorne we must hurry, or I fear we will be too late to save anyone.”
Emerging from the trees they found themselves in an open area and saw a group of people, ten in total, banded together in a tight group, making their way as fast as they could from one side of the field to the other, when a dart appeared overhead, lethal beam relentlessly tracking it's human targets. Teyla screamed at them. “Get back to the treeline, you will be safer there!” She watched in horror as the group stumbled out of the field and the last two members were caught in the beam and instantly vanished. A little girl at the rear of the group let go of the hand that was pulling her along and out of harms way and started screaming in horror as the two people behind her were taken. “Mam, Mam, Mam” she sobbed dropping to the ground just as the dart made another turn over the field.
“No!” shouted Cassie, and dropping her pack that she had unclipped earlier, she ran across the field, scooping up the little girl and throwing the two of them under a tree just as the dart and it's beam crossed behind her.
“God, Cassie, are you crazy.” Lorne was after her in a shot, making it across the field with Teyla just as the dart crossed back again. Cassie was facedown in the dirt with the little girl huddled to her side, sobbing. The other survivors stood off under the trees, terrified of both the darts above, and the strangers in front of them. Teyla sought to reassure them, while Lorne turned Cassie over to find her face covered in dirt and looked dazedly up at him. “Wow, guess track training in high school was a good thing, huh?” Lorne relieved, let out a small laugh reaching out to brush some of the dirt that now caked her face. “Sheppard was wrong, even a hard hat is not enough!” He helped her sit up and she cradled the little girl close to her tucking her head under her chin. Lorne had squatted down beside them, a hand resting on Cassie's shoulder and she looked up at him now, tears forming in her eyes. “She just lost her family, Evan and we watched it happen. No child should have to see something like that. Those... animals! I cannot comprehend what the people of this galaxy must have gone through, what Teyla and her people must have gone through! A sob burst out of her and she swallowed it quickly, Lorne feeling a pull of protectiveness, drew her towards him and rubbed his chin on the top of her head. She leaned into him briefly, then he pulled away and stood up.
Addressing Cassie now he said “We need to get these people somewhere safe. Can you wait here and I'll scout out some nearby places and see if there is anything where we can wait out the wraith attack. I don't think we will make it back to the stargate with this lot in tow.”
Still a little dazed by all that she had seen, Cassie remained seated with the little girl still crying softly beside her. “Shhh sweetheart, I know you're scared, but I'll stay with you. I won't leave you.” Carefully she picked her up and made her way over to the little group that Teyla and managed to organise and soonafter they heard Major Lorne coming back through the trees, slightly out of breath.
“I've found somewhere safe. Bring these people and we'll get them to safety and I'll try and make contact with Sheppard again. There is too much radio interference with all this dart activity. I have no idea where he is at the moment, but I do know he is going to be extremely pissed when he finds out we are not back at Atlantis!”
Lorne set the pace with a light jog and the others had no choice but to follow, arriving ten minutes later in a small clearing that held a cliff like formation of rocks at one side and at the bottom, a dark area that promised a cave, and relative safety from the darts. Lorne and Teyla got everyone settled. “Teyla, there are other people nearby, I heard them before. These people are safe here, we need to go and gather anyone else that needs assistance. Cass?” Tiredly she looked up at him from her resting place on the floor of the dark cave, the little girl, who she had discovered was called Keisha, cradled on her lap sound asleep. “I can't leave her Evan, she's been through too much already. I'll wait here with these people, you go. I'll be fine. I'll keep trying John on the comm.” At Lorne's hesitation, she said more forcibly “Go! I'll be fine!” With a last look, he turned and left the cave after Teyla.
Cassie keyed the comm. 'John. Please... I don't know if you are receiving this, but we need you. We're in a cave. Somewhere. We have some survivors with us. Please come!” Exhausted, she rested her head back against the rock. Her radio crackled briefly, but no response seemed to come from it. The Satedan's talked quietly amongst themselves for a short while, Cassie content just to sit back and listen, then they fell silent, listening to the occasional whine of a dart from outside, now muffled by the thick cave walls. Cassie, near the edge of the cave, heard the cracking of undergrowth and thinking that either Lorne had returned with more refugees, or perhaps John and Ronan had found them, pushed herself up to her feet, bracing the child carefully and ducked out of the darkness of the cave to meet them.
A shriek escaped her as she came face to face with a powerful wraith, standing tall and imposing in the centre of the small clearing, yellow eyes fixed hungrily upon her face, weapon raised and ready. He cocked his head, taking in her dishevelled appearance and recognising that she was different from others of this world, his eyes travelled up and down her body.
Cassie felt a sudden stabbing of pain in her head, and her legs buckled slightly, and remembering the burden she still held, forced herself to remain standing. A darkness tried to cloud her mind, fingers of cold and push squeezed her eyes tight, to shut it out.
“Human! Where are you from? You are not of this world.” Cassie, startled by the gutteral sound that projected from him, backed up against the outside of the cave. Keisha had awakened and upon seeing the wraith advancing on them, starting screaming. Cassie took the time to tuck her face into her shoulder and whisper in her ear. “Shhh... keep your eyes closed. Don't look.”
He hand carefully went for the Beretta that rested in the leg holster and she brought the weapon up quickly, firing and catching his hand that held the gun. He grunted, jerking once and dropping the gun, but kept advancing, a cold and deadly smile on his scaled and marked face, feeding hand held at the ready.
“Cassie! Cassie! For God's sake, where are you?” Cassie sobbed in relief at hearing John's voice and he burst out of the trees, flanked by Ronan and several marines, all of whom were weapon ready. “Hold your fire! He's too close to her!” The wraith turned and John took his opportunity, coming up on his flank and opening fire with his P90. Keisha screamed at the stuttering sound of the P90 and the wraith dropped to the ground twitching, but not dead. “Jesus, will you die already!” Stepping closing, John kept firing, until the twitching finally stopped and the wraith lay dead in a bloodied mess on the ground. Cassie had slid down the wall of the outside of the cave, tightly keeping her hold on Keisha and closed her eyes against the carnage before her. She kept Keisha's head firmly pressed away and took deep shuddering breaths. John was beside her in seconds, hands framing her dirt covered tear streaked face and she leaned into him, needing the comfort that he offered and he rested his forehead against hers and closing his eyes, he allowed the embrace briefly.
Lorne burst out of the trees with Teyla and more refugees and stopped in relief when he saw Sheppard and the marines. John had pulled away from Cassie slightly, his eyes had flicked over with trained awareness noting that there was no injury, and when he looked up at Lorne anger had hardened his features and Lorne knew there would be hell to pay for disobeying orders. John spoke brusquely “Let's get these people back to Atlantis!”
Weapon at the ready, John stayed close to Cassie on the journey back to the stargate, still carrying her young burden. His arm brushed against hers and she turned her tear and dirt streaked face to him, tears glistening afresh. “They killed her family John! Right in front of her. In front of us! What kind of animals are they?” The threatening tears fell, making grimy streaks down her face and using one hand, she rubbed at her face, only serving to create more smears.
“Shhh...Cass” Not touching her, he calmed her with his eyes and she took a hiccuping deep breath, grimacing a little at the weight of Keisha.
“Let me take her...” he reached for Keisha. Shaking her head she moved resolutely ahead, only agreeing to finally relinguish her small bundle when she stumbled in exhaustion. Knowing the others were weapons ready, he reholstered his own weapon, tucked Keisha securely into one side of his body, and used the other arm to support Cassie, who barely dragged herself along the last part of the semi paved path leading to the gate. “Almost there, love.” he murmured when she stumbled again and then they were stepping through the wormhole.
The gate shut down and the weary, filthy group stood uncertainly in the glare of the gate room lights. Carson and a team of medics were standing by to assist, taking charge of the refugees, easing their confusion as they stepped into unknown surroundings. John handed the child over to a nurse and awake now, she turned and reached out urgently to Cassie. “It's OK sweetheart, go with this lady. I'll be there soon.” John and Elizabeth exchanged a look and John knew that base protocol demanded an immediate mission debriefing, one that he was not looking forward to.
“Right folks. Debriefing now, conference room one.” At the brusque tone of his voice, Carson raised his eyebrows, but chose wisely, not to intervene. Cassie had sunk to the ground and leaned her head forward, stretching out tight neck muscles, now aching from the long period of carrying Keisha. John started to pull her back to her feet but she shook her head. “Leave me alone. Just wanna rest... Tired...” She dropped her head forward, groaning again and John, wanting to get this over with snapped “Up Cass... Now!” Taking no further argument, she was pulled to her feet and sent off in the direction of conference room one with a not so gentle swat on her backside.
“Ronan, you're excused. You wanna go get your people settled?” He walked up to the big man and laid a hand on his shoulder, no words for what he had just lost.
In deference to their exhaustion and a little wary of John's scarcely kept in check anger, Elizabeth elected to keep the debriefing short. Lorne flinched, knowing what was to come and John did not disappoint.
“This needs to go on record Lorne. You disobeyed a direct order. I needed you to take my team back to Atlantis, not go off after other survivors until we had reinforcements.” He held up a hand when Teyla and Cassie interupted to explain their role in Lorne's change of plans. 'Save it ladies. I made a military decision and gave a military order. Lorne knows the score. I have no doubt that the two of you played a part in this however, and I'll deal with you later!”
Cassie leapt to her feet, the emotion and tension of the day just gone erupting in one large knot inside her. She thumped the table in front of her in frustration. “Stop right there John. We made a unified decision out there and it was the right one. You know that!” He came around the table until they were face to face, emotional overload on both sides warring for it's place.
“There is a chain of command and as commanding officer, I make the decisions that are best for my team and give orders that I expect to be followed out. Without question! If this was a military situation, you would be court martialled!”
He wanted to hit something and clenched his fists at his sides in an effort to curb the escalating anger. Cassie's eyes narrowed at the gesture. “You can stick your military, your rules, your orders. You want to hit me right now Colonel Shepphard, well go ahead and I'll damn well hit you right back. We helped saved those people and if I had to do it all again, I would. I'm tired, I'm dirty and I don't want to argue with you any more. I'm leaving now...” Tears threatened again, and she pushed John out of the way, in his surprise causing him to stumble slightly and stormed out of the room.
A moments silence accompanied her departure awaiting John's reaction, but there was no surprise when he turned and strode off after her.
Elizabeth raised at eyebrow at the others in the room. “He really has no idea, does he?” It was Teyla who answered. “They are life mates, but neither one will recognise it now. It is not the time. They will know when it is.” Nodding wisely, she too left the room.
He found her some time later in the infirmary, exhaustion etched across her features, her hair a tangled mess and still his breath hitched slightly at the warmth he saw in those green eyes, not for him of course, but for the little girl Keisha who sat up in the bed beside where she stood. Even in her dishevelled state, she was breathtaking. Rubbing a hand along the back of her neck, she stretched again and he moved then, to replace her hand with his and gently began rubbing out the tension he could feel knotted there. The harsh words exchanged melted away, suddenly unimportant in the large picture. They were both alive. She relaxed into his touch and he stepped closer, just a whisper of air separating them, yet she could feel his body warmth.
“We did do some good today John. Amongst the death, the destruction and the pure evil that we encountered, we did do some good today! Don't take that away from me, from us...” she said it gently though, without anger while looking down at Keisha. Turning, she curled into him for a fierce hug and he held her that way, for just a little while, and the real world slipped away.