First Nights

by Domenika Marzione


I - John Sheppard

Ford comes up to him while he's still arguing with a gaggle of scientists about the not-entirely-arbitrary-(but-close) bivouacing arrangements for their first night in Atlantis.

The Athosians, supervised by Teyla, are puppy-piling in a pair of large rooms, but the expedition members are being assigned by gender and alphabetical order to one of five rooms. And, despite the drama of the city rising and no ZPM, the fact that they've already suffered an important casualty, and that they are unprotected against a superior enemy, the expedition is largely -- and increasingly loudly -- unhappy with the arrangement.

John Sheppard, numb from the day's events and crashing hard off of the adrenaline rush, can't bring himself to care. Weir has given him this responsibility, supporting his decision but not making it her own, and it's all he can do to not snap at the next irate double-doctorate who comes storming up and demanding a change in billet. It may look like a giant geek slumber party, but it really isn't and he can't figure out why all these so-smart people can't grasp that.

Most of them don't seem to care who is in the room with them, but instead bridle at the rules laid down -- no wandering around Atlantis to retrieve anything, no visiting other rooms, no bunking down in labs or hallways or whereverthehell they spent the day doing their thing, no leaving until 0700 tomorrow unless it's a chaperoned trip to the bathrooms they found earlier today. No exceptions, not even for Rodney McKay, who first tries to pull rank and then threatens to break out using his sharp mind and knowledge of Ancient technology. John ignores the rank thing and responds to the threat by pointing out that McKay will be surrounded by armed men with orders to shoot anything that moves (true) and that John himself can use his gene to override anything McKay tries to hotwire (untested). McKay storms off angrily, tripping over the legs of a couple of the more docile scientists as he goes to find Weir.

Ford is still grinning at the exchange when John turns to him, but the grin falters and then fails completely. "We're done setting up the gateroom, Sir," he says, drawing himself up into proper posture. "I went with the same setup they have at SGC."

John nods because there's nothing he can say. He has no idea what the setup at the SGC was like, having only ever seen it during the practice runs for the expedition. "Relief's in place?" he asks instead.

"Yes, Sir." Ford frowns a little. "We don't have the manpower to handle anything, so I left the order that nobody comes through, not anyone for any reason. But Teyla had said that there might be Athosians returning..."

John shakes his head. "They won't know where to go, so they're not going to come here. We're going back tomorrow to pick up their camp and look for stragglers. They'll keep."

Ford is both too young and too inexperienced for the job he's been handed, but he's done all right so far and if there's anything he's going to get in Atlantis, it's experience. In the meanwhile, he looks to John with wide eyes and an eagerness for approval.

"Good job," he adds, thinking it sounds fake, but Ford practically lights up instead.

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II - Aiden Ford

"What the hell is all that clatter?"

Aiden Ford heard the very distinctive voice of Dr. McKay as he ran past the hallway that led to the gateroom. The 'clatter' was louder here in the closed space of the stairwell, where two dozen Marines were running up metal stairs. The men were grunting, groaning, gasping, farting, laughing, and bitching; the heavy pound of feet on stairs set off by the jingle of dogtags worked free of shirts; the occasional slap of sweaty palms onto bannisters and and the just as occasional bark of someone else to quit cheating and run like a Marine. Up five stories, across the hall to the next stairwell, down five stories, across the hall to the first stairwell. Repeat. Again.

The men had been antsy since the teams had first returned from Athos after the Wraith attack and there were only so many ways to keep them busy. Colonel Sumner's death hadn't helped, nor had the scientists' gradual assertion of authority and independence, nor had the realization of the scope of what was involved in their mission and the fact that they had a lieutenant and an Air Force officer in charge. They were without orders, without order, and restless, all of which was a bad combination in Atlantis's tense environment. Lacking the ability to set up a routine, Major Sheppard had tried for the next best thing -- tire 'em out so they didn't have the energy to cause trouble.

The stairwells stank of sweat and belch on top of the stale air that Atlantis was still filled with; they'd opened windows where they could, but there were none by the stairs. They all gasped hungrily when they made the hallways, squinting against the brighter light before plunging back in to the dimness of the stairs.

The Marines didn't know what to think about Sheppard, not that Aiden did. Sheppard was Air Force and they had an instinctive reaction to that, justified or not, time spent with the SGC or not. That Sheppard had been stationed in Antarctica instead of someplace real was also a minus; that he'd been in Afghanistan and Iraq before that didn't count -- every one of them (except him) had done tours in the sandbox, where the joke was that you knew you were close to going home when you were on your third set of Air Force guys because the USAF deployments were so short.

"Do they have to do that here? Can't they go further out, explore the city or something useful while the rest of us are performing essential tasks that their stampede is at risk of interrupting?"

Near-universal opinion was that Sheppard was Dr. Weir's boytoy, there because of his genetics and not because he had a purpose. And now he was their CO. The men resented that Dr. Weir had forced Sheppard on Colonel Sumner at every opportunity, publicly and ostentatiously, the pawn in their power play (the default, unquestioned belief being that Sumner was always right and Weir always wrong went without saying). They didn't care if he was competent on the ground, had flown a space ship into battle like Luke Skywalker, or that he had saved the lives of two of their own. They'd had six months of Sheppard practically flaunting that he wasn't in their chain of command, of his not being involved in their training or their preparations or their lives, and one day wasn't going to change anything. They weren't insubordinate -- Aiden would have busted the first one who was -- but they were skeptical. Rightfully so, he admitted, because they hadn't seen what he had.

The running was starting to make his lungs ache, his thighs burn, his left armpit chafe from where sweaty t-shirt was pressed in and rubbing. He was a good runner, had run track in high school even, but he was a sprinter and not a distance man. The Major... the Major was a distance man. They'd split the Marines in half, each officer taking one group. Sheppard had taken his group first, not leading but certainly more than keeping up. That had been hours ago; he'd seen a washed-and-fed Markham pressed into service by the scientists while on his way to meet with his half of the platoon. Sheppard himself was Lord knows where; the command radios buzzed constantly with his name -- come here, initialize that, why aren't these hallways guarded, where are we supposed to put all that if you won't authorize the lab as safe? -- and Aiden couldn't help but wonder how Sumner would have handled the same requests. Not nearly as amenably, that's for sure. Sumner hadn't been trying to establish himself -- he already had.

"Come on, Toussaint, you're slowing down," Aiden called as he passed by the giant sergeant. Toussaint's bald head glistened with sweat and he gave Aiden a murderous glare. "Three more circuits to go."

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III - Radek Zelenka

Some people are born happy, some people have happiness thrust upon them, and some tend not to realize happiness until it is gone even if it has been biting them in the ass the entire time.

Radek would like to think that he is in the first group, although there have been times when happiness has not been anywhere he could grasp it. Graduate school, life in Prague in the mid-1980's, and the long slow disentanglement that was the end of his first true romantic relationship come to mind.

But here, two weeks into this adventure of a lifetime, he is happy. It is not an easy admission, not with the very real presence of death (both past and promise) and the natural let-down that came with realizing that there wasn't another ZPM just sitting in Atlantis waiting for them and they may end up being here for a while -- at risk and with dwindling supplies -- because of it. But in between narrowly avoided catastrophes, there is life and there is hope and there is wonder on a level he has never felt, not even in 1989.

The work is never-ending, the to-do list prioritized by "ASAP", "immediately", "before even that", "right the fuck now", and "later". It comes in varieties ranging from "what the hell?" to "but it worked in Antarctica" to "find someone with the ATA gene" to "give it to Major Sheppard" to "don't touch that -- no, really, don't touch that" to "oh that's what it does" to "oops".

Radek isn't alone in not wanting it any other way. It keeps them from being scared of running out of food and it keeps them from worrying about how they've encountered two different kinds of life-energy sucking entities in as many weeks and it means they're all over-caffeinated and under-rested and tense and filled with awe at the majesty that is Atlantis.

Ancient technology looks like bad 1970's science fiction and acts like nothing they could have ever dreamt of in their wildest fantasies. It is the antithesis of Earth technology in form and function; the sleek metal and microcomputer compactness that Earth's aesthetics have imparted to its most advanced designs are a jarring contrast to the Ancients' world of brass and glass and color and grandeur. Ancient technology takes up space and renegotiates the boundary between form and function to a place that the science division is largely ill-equipped to handle.

They are even more unprepared to negotiate with Atlantis for her cooperation and amenability. On Earth, the loose understanding that the ATA gene worked as a key to anything Ancient was required in order to get any meaningful work done. But here in Atlantis, it requires an entirely new level of appreciation. The ATA gene carriers have all been surprised by the strength of her power -- both to aid and to obstruct. Atlantis both is and isn't an Ancient device writ large; the tricks that worked on the baubles in Antarctica may or may not work when it comes to opening a door or initializing a possibly critical system here. Atlantis may not be sentient in the way it would be in the movies -- and more than a few of the science staff have been making HAL references -- but the quickest way to an unproductive session is to assume that Atlantis is simply a machine. She may not have a soul -- and Radek, in his heart of hearts, is willing to suspend even that assumption -- but she has a mind and a personality and a heart.

A heart that, for the time being, belongs entirely to Major Sheppard.

Radek doesn't think Sheppard has had time to absorb this gift, to see it as a gift at all. He is too busy accepting the other changes that the last fortnight has brought, most importantly those to himself. The casual, good-natured, politely distant man they ordered around in Antarctica like an especially slow grad student is gone, stripped away by two weeks of terror and death and responsibility. He orders them around now -- with far more grace and humor than they treated him back when he was the ATA Gene Who Walked -- and runs headfirst into trouble for their sakes. But while it is deeply, deeply comforting to know that a man such as him is in charge of protecting them, Radek mourns the disappearance of the lazy slouches and the bemused, indulgent cooperation of a man who had nothing better to do than play light switch for an under-the-ice colony of scientists.

In terms familiar to Antarctica, they need Sheppard both more and less these days. Beckett's successful test of the artificially-induced ATA gene in McKay has given them an occasional shortcut past the "find someone with the ATA gene" step of research and McKay has made the most of it. In turn, it has made him a little more intolerable, but he was always a little intolerable. Arrogant, petty, and self-absorbed in a way that only the truly well-funded researcher can be, McKay would be impossible to work either for or with if he were anything less than deserving of his own inflated self-worth. He's brilliant -- insufferable, but brilliant. And he is so sure that he can solve anything Atlantis can throw at him that he makes them all believe it as well, which in turn makes them try all the harder to keep up. They suffer to work for him, but it is the kind of suffering that is worthwhile. And, to a man and woman, they would rather throw themselves before an energy-sucking vampire before letting Rodney know that.

There is so much to Atlantis, to its expedition, that Radek has not seen yet, not gotten a chance to experience in anything other than a fleeting capacity, limned by panic or washed in exhaustion. But there is no time yet. There will be, soon, eventually, sometime before they either collapse from overwork or get overrun by their new enemies. And Radek has a list. He wants time to stand on a balcony and look at the ocean. He wants time to see the city beyond the corridors that take him between the tower with the stargate and the irregularly-shaped, oddly-decorated room he calls his home. He wants time to drink the Athosians' tea. He wants time to ponder whether his heart skips a beat when Elizabeth Weir walks by because of who the last two weeks have revealed her to be or because of how the last two weeks have reminded him that you cannot wait forever. He believes that there will be time for all of this. Eventually.

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