Last night it had rained, but today the leaves were crisp and dry under Rodney’s feet. He walked slowly through the forest—had to force himself to walk slowly, to not panic, to not rush. He kept his hands deep inside the pockets of his BDUs.
He had one hour.
The sun had come up as the last of the rain came down. Rodney’s captors had pulled him to his feet and drawn him forward to the front of the tent. They were gentle with him. Releasing his binds, pointing him toward the forest. “Find them,” he was told.
Fingers twitching; cold, heavy hands: “They’re in the trees?” he’d asked.
“They are the trees.”
He’d wasted more than fifteen minutes convinced, convincing himself that it was a metaphor.
He walked slowly. Trampling the leaves under his boots, the sound like the crunch of brittle bones. There was a graveyard by his house when he was growing up, narrow paths between the tilted stones. It had looked like this, he thought: exactly, not-at-all like this.
The graveyard had had markers. There were no guideposts here.
He saw Ronon first. He wasn’t sure how he knew. Something about the slant of the trunk, like it had been arrested mid-motion, like it was running still. Something in the rough whirls of bark that could easily be swirls of embedded ink.
He had to be sure. There were no second chances. He had to be sure.
He didn’t have time to second-guess.
Hand pulled from his pocket, skin scraping across rough fabric. Then a press of hesitant fingertips against cold, silent wood.
“Ronon,” he whispered.
His teammate fell forward against the forest floor. Rodney was there to witness it, but the descent still didn’t make a sound.
He took the time to check Ronon’s pulse, feel and see the reassuring rise and fall of his chest. Then he was walking forward again, flush with new purpose, more terrified now, having saved one, than when he had saved no one, when he was all alone.
Hope was a dangerous thing.
He found Teyla next. Or he thought he did: he was less sure, this time. But he thought: that one, there—slim and strong, the center of a grove, the one that all the other trees turned to. “Teyla,” he said, touching smooth bark that dissolved into smoother skin. Her, he caught as she fell.
Two down, one to go. He tried to reassure himself with this tally, but his heart only beat faster. Because one, the one... The wave of panic finally hit, and he looked around: bare branches and fallen leaves, as far as the eye could see. He was running out of time; he couldn’t see the trees for all the forest.
No. No. He could do this. He’d been right twice and he would be right again; correct answers were just something that came to him, the flashes of brilliance that made him who and what he was. Logically, he just had to look for the tree exhibiting that certain lazy slouch, the tree with the ridiculous tuft of leaves, the tree that all the other trees couldn’t look at without awe.
He saw trees like that. Plenty of trees which at first glance seemed to be the flirt or the flyboy, the leader, the lover, the Lantean prince. But Rodney couldn’t move more than a couple feet toward any of them without realizing that they were wrong, all wrong: not him, not him...
He hadn’t realized how silent it had become—just the crunch of the leaves and his own heavy breathing—until he heard the singing. The low, lilting sound of the harvest song: his captors, coming toward him. Come to take him away, and leave those he hadn’t found behind.
“No,” he said, “no!” He looked around, frantic, and the forest swirled in a kaleidoscope of muted color. That night it would rain again. It would rain; and maybe the trees would grow, and maybe the leaves on the ground would rot.
“No,” he said, and he squeezed his eyes shut tight.
When he opened them, he could see clearly.
The tree stood apart, stood hunched, as if against a great wind. Its bark was thick, but in places worn away, as if it had been exposed to howling storms of sand or snow. In the center of the trunk was a wide, dark knot, and Rodney knew that if he reached inside, he could burrow deep, and uncover all its secrets.
But the voices around him were growing louder, and so Rodney did the only thing that was left to him: flung himself forward, feet flying over scraps of red and orange and gold: threw his arms around the heavy weight of wood, and held on.
And he said, “Sheppard, Sheppard”; pleading: “Sheppard. John.”
When the roughness faded away and the warm body melted into his, Rodney was too stunned to be relieved. He could barely support his own weight, not to mention John’s own, but he held them up as the voices circled in around them, like a spiralling column of dry leaves. He had done it—they were safe now—but it was as if the fall had stopped without the dream having ended, without him waking up. “What are we waiting for?” he tried to ask, but his throat felt splintery and rough, and no sound came out.
John’s breath was like a warm gust of wind on his neck, the fingers clutching at his shirt like nettles, and Rodney just stood there, rooted to the spot.