John's head throbbed, his temples felt tender, his mouth dry as dust, his eyes gritty. His entire body was being jostled unpleasantly, and he wondered if he was going to puke. He put a hand over his face, sighing, trying to block the sunlight and to remember what he'd had to drink the night before. And where -- he didn't normally indulge himself in alcohol. Then he remembered.
Gasping at the sharp pain in his head, he rolled onto his side and sat up. He was in a cage, like an old-fashioned circus cage for hauling animals, and he hoped there weren't any clowns about to jump out at him. It was pulled by something like one of the creatures he'd seen in reports from Abydos; mastadges, he thought they were called. Big, lumpy, and stinky, but obviously very strong, it pulled the cart with the enormous cage easily. Around him, others were being ridden, two were pulling elaborate wagons, like prairie schooners, covered in dirty white canvas, and one carried a tower-like structure out of a scene from The Lord of the Rings, at the Battle of Pelennor Fields. The air was dry, and rang with bells from the animals' halters and reins. Men dressed in dusty dark robes walked beside the animals, and bells rang from them, too.
"Hey!" he shouted. None of the men looked up. "Hey!" He kept shouting, but no one paid him the slightest attention, so he slumped back, shoulders bumping into the thick beams of his cage. "Fuck." He was thirsty and would kill for an aspirin, but his pack was not in the cage with him. Nothing was but a thin layer of dust.
He was remembering more. He'd stepped through the stargate with his team into a poor village that pretty obviously had nothing to trade. Rodney had immediately found something interesting and they'd trailed after him, nodding at the people hoeing the fields, the smell of cut grasses and something like tomatoes filling the air. "This way," Rodney had said, nearly stumbling in his excitement. "Not a ZPM, but something," he mumbled, staring into his tablet.
They'd followed him like a Pied Piper into the shabby village, the main road and Rodney leading them to a stone platform, the front decorated with a colorful mosaic -- depicting the animals surrounding him, John now realized; that's what the decoration had been. Once there, they'd gathered around Rodney as he stared at the empty altar, frowning at it.
"Welcome!" a man had called to them, striding from a tall narrow building with a peaked roof. "You have come to be tested?"
"Ah, tested for what?" John had asked.
The man had smiled, touched the back of the stone platform, and a miniature dumb waiter rose. On it sat a shiny round ball, obviously not made by the same people who had built either the altar or the village. "Please. Pick it up."
"Why?" John asked, grabbing Rodney's wrist before he could touch it. "What will it do?"
"Nothing," the man assured him. "It is a formality."
"Well, if it's only a formality," Rodney said, but John narrowed his eyes.
"We've talked about this before, Rodney," he said in a quiet voice. Rodney pursed his lips and looked away.
"Will no one participate in our ritual?" the man asked.
Ronon snagged the ball before John could say or do anything. He tossed it once and handed it to Teyla, who took it, examining it curiously. "It is heavier than it appears," she said, and put out her hand, ball balanced in her palm.
Rodney reached for it but again John was faster. He snatched the ball from Teyla and suddenly a heavy white light fell on him, nearly blinding him.
"Ancestors!" the man cried, and the villagers nearby fell to their knees.
"Shit," Rodney said.
"Oh, Ancestors be thanked!" the man said, clapping his hands. "We must celebrate! Please, you will eat and drink with us. Oh, this is a day longed for. Come, come." The entire village burst into life, the people nearby running in all directions: some into the fields, calling to the workers who dropped their implements and ran back up the road toward them, others into the houses.
"What's going on?" John asked. He thought off, off as hard as he could at the ball, and the light shut off as neatly as the doors opened for him in Atlantis. "Who are you? What is this place?"
"I am Zoroah, and this is the Altar of the Ancestors. All visitors through the stargate lift the holy relic, but only you, Ancestor, have brought it to light. We welcome and honor your return."
"Return?" Rodney asked. "This is what I was picking up," he said to John. "Very low level of energy, but definitely naquadah. That's what generated the light."
Zoroah arranged a huge banquet, right there in the middle of the unpaved street: the people brought out sawhorses and carpenter's benches and long planks, assembling them into tables. Women began wringing the necks of the chickens pecking at their feet, and somewhere a pig squealed frantically. John felt his eyes widen, but he kept watch over his team and the villagers, backing away from the chaos. Rodney came to stand next to him.
"How come they always kill the fatted calf for you?" he murmured, but John could tell he was only a bit serious.
"Not for me," John reminded him. "The Ancestors."
"Well." Rodney looked away, at Zoroah, who was smiling at Teyla even as he directed the building of a fire in the middle of the street.
Trying to hold his aching head still, John couldn't remember too much more. They were feasted, they were toasted, and then . . . He remembered Teyla growing sleepy, slumped against his shoulder, and Rodney's eyelids fluttering closed. He remembered feeling a bit light headed, and wanting to get some air, even though they were seated in the open air. And he had a vivid memory of Ronon shouting, knocking over a table, falling to his knees -- and then he remembered nothing.
Drugged, of course. Of course. "Rodney!" he bellowed, clutching his head. "McKay! Teyla! Ronon!"
No response. He gave up for the moment and stretched out on the dusty wooden floor of the wagon. He realized he could see between the slats, and fell asleep watching the ground roll away beneath him.
He woke wet; someone had tossed a bucket of warm water over him. He sputtered and sat up, wiping his face and eyes, sucking the water from his lips and wrist. The caravan had stopped, and the sun was hovering near the horizon. "More," he croaked. An enormous man grinned at him, his teeth a startling red in his dark face, and obliged, flinging another bucket of water over John. Then he thrust a waterskin through the bars; John drank gratefully. He felt significantly better. His wet clothes evaporated almost immediately, cooling him a bit, and his head wasn't pounding quite as hard.
The man unlocked the cage and seized John's ankles, jerking him forward so quickly that he went flat on his back. By the time he'd struggled back up, his legs were shackled together, a thin chain glittering between them. The chain was feather-light, and chimed softly when he moved. The man gestured: out, out, so John slid from the wagon to the ground, clutching at the enormous wagon wheel to keep from toppling over. His headache was coming back.
The man took his shoulder and pushed him, so he started to walk. He had to keep his stride short or the chain tripped him, but his escort kept him upright. Around them, camp was being set up: the animals unhitched and brushed, yurt-like things being unrolled, fires kindled. He sniffed; he must be better because he was hungry.
They reached a large yurt. John began to enter but the man held him back. Another man, standing in front of the draped opening, stared at John, then turned his head and spoke sharply to someone inside. Someone responded, and then someone else, and then John was pushed inside.
It was dark and hot, but candles and lanterns cast shadows on the fabric walls. He looked around him cautiously. Chests lined the walls, elaborately carved; he wondered where they'd come from. Almost directly across from him two men settled a large carved chair, and then another man sat in it, legs sprawled open. "Zhawn," the man said, and it took a moment for John to realize that he was saying his name. His guard pushed him again, and the chains tripped him, so he fell, catching himself on the corner of one of the chests.
"Look," he said, struggling to rise without tangling himself further, "I don't know what the hell you think you're doing, but where's my team? Where's the stargate? Just let me go and we can forget about this."
"Shut up," the man said.
"No, see, you're gonna shut up. But first tell me where my team is. Where's Doctor McKay? What do you think you're doing?"
"You will refer to me as Sah, and you will speak only when instructed to."
"Fuck you, asshole." Sah smiled at him, and John straightened up, muscles tensing, but no one else moved. "Where. Is. My. Team." Sah flipped his hand to John's right, and one of the men who'd been carrying the chair lifted down a jingling mass of leather straps and brought it toward John. He backed up, right into his escort, who held him tightly. "Let me go," John said, sounding more desperate than he wanted to. "We're just looking to trade. We need food; we're not a threat to you. Just let me get my team out of here and --"
His head was seized and held; he bellowed in rage and kicked out, using his whole body to wrench himself away, but fingers wrapped around his throat and then the leather contraption was wrapped out his head and something thrust into his mouth, pressing down his tongue. When he was released, he couldn't speak, only growl in frustration. He tasted rusty metal; sour saliva pooled in his mouth, and for a minute he thought he'd suffocate or drown. He forced himself to breathe slowly through his nose.
"You will be silent, or I will make you silent," Sah told him when he'd settled down. "Bring him here."
The guards pushed him to the foot of Sah's chair and down, so he first knelt and then sat before him. He focused on his breathing, trying not to choke. The thought of Rodney in this situation, though, made John's heart race.
"We are going to the City of Stone," Sah told him slowly. "You understand? Nod, Zhawn, if you understand the Sah."
"Good. This is a long journey. You can be bound and gagged like this; you can be beaten. What happens depends on you. If you learn to be civilized, the journey will be less difficult. If you remain a savage, you will be treated as such. Do you understand me, Zhawn? Nod or shake your head."
John shrugged, trying to look earnest and puzzled.
"You are a savage; I cannot expect you to understand. Very well. You will remain in the bridle while I eat and bathe. Listen and learn how to be human, Zhawn."
Where was Rodney, John wondered again, watching the men move about their tasks. He remained seated before the chair. Sah watched him for a moment more but then another man entered carrying a tray heavy with food: roasted meat, bread, a bowl of greens, a pitcher and cup. Other men carried a table to Sah, shooing John back and to one side. His stomach growled, surprising him -- with the bridle-thing wrapped around his head and in his mouth, and the hangover from whatever drug he'd been given at Zoroah's feast, he couldn't understand how he could be hungry.
Sah glanced at him, his dark brown eyes reminding John of Ronon, and where was he? Being held in some horrible harness and cage as well? With Teyla? Ronon and Teyla could take care of themselves, but Rodney -- well, Rodney had gotten better in the years in the Pegasus Galaxy, John had seen to that himself. He'd taught Rodney to fire a Beretti and his P90, and how to keep his head down, but no one had ever been able to teach Rodney to keep his mouth shut.
The evening passed slowly. John studied Sah as he ate. He was a big man, as tall as John but broader through the shoulders and chest, and his thighs, especially sprawled out in that chair, were enormous. Like all the men in the camp, he wore a beard, though his was trimmed. As John observed Sah, he watched John.
The servants soon took away the tray but left Sah's cup of wine that he sipped while his bath was prepared. He stripped without embarrassment and stepped into the round tub they'd filled with water and let himself be washed.
"You will be quiet?" he asked at one point. John nodded, and Sah waved a careless hand. The same guard who'd strapped on the bridle removed it; John couldn't help gagging when the disgusting thing was pulled from his mouth. "Remember that," Sah said as John wiped his eyes and nose, and spat onto the floor.
John wondered if the guards had names, if anyone ever spoke except Sah, if he would be fed, if he were a slave or a pet or a commodity to be traded. Mostly he wondered when he'd be home in Atlantis again.
"Zhawn," Sah said when he rose dripping. "You may wash." He indicated the water in the tub, his used water, so John didn't jump to climb in, but one of the guards jerked him to his feet and began pulling off his clothes.
"Hey, hey!" John said, trying to back away, but he was held tightly. Great. Forcibly bathed in another man's water. A bit too intimate for John, but when he opened his mouth to continue his protests, another guard shook the bridle at him and he shut up. Well, he consoled himself, he'd still be cleaner than he was now.
The water was cool, and not that dirty, and John couldn't help but sigh when he sank back into it. The tub was deep enough that, when he slouched back, the water sloshed around his shoulders. Just as they had for Sah, two men began washing him; John just closed his eyes and let them. He was tired, and hungry, and trying to figure how to talk his way out of this when they wouldn't let him talk. He didn't have any energy left to be embarrassed.
When he'd been dried and dressed in a long black robe -- much more comfortable, he admitted to himself, than his dirty cammies and stinky tee-shirt -- he was settled again in front of Sah, on the floor, his ankles shackled together again.. Sah leaned forward holding out his cup; John could smell the wine in it. He reached for the cup, but Sah didn't let go. Instead, he helped John drink from the cup, in a way John knew had to be symbolic, but he was thirsty, and the wine wasn't bad, and when Sah stroked his head, he submitted.
"Food," Sah ordered, and at last, John was permitted to eat. The meat was dry, but still warm, and he dipped the dry bread into his wine to soften it. He was so hungry that he ate every bite, licking his fingers afterwards. Sah leaned forward with the cup. John sighed, and let Sah hold the cup to his lips so he could drink it dry.
"Tomorrow we travel again, and for two more days. Then we will reach the Meadow of Flowers, where we will stay. You will be quiet, listen, and learn. If you behave, no bridle. If not, bridle and a beating; you understand?" John's mouth twitched, but he silently nodded. "Now you will sleep."
The guard who'd shaken the bridle opened a chest and pulled out blankets, while others moved out the tub and made space on the floor for him to fold several felt pads together. John understood he was to sleep there. Sah watched silently as he struggled with the decision, but he could see no way to escape other than by close observation of his captors. He sighed, and rolled into the makeshift bed. It was more comfortable than he'd anticipated.
He shot upright when Sah lay next to him. "Zhawn," he said warningly. The possibility of sexual assault had occurred to John; everyone in captivity feared it as much as being beaten or tortured. Guards extinguished the candles and lanterns; most left, though an unfamiliar face loomed over him for a moment, studying him and Sah before dropping the flap of fabric wall over the opening. They were alone in the yurt.
Sah did not touch him; in the dim light filtering into the yurt, John could see his eyes were closed. Wasn't he afraid John would kill him in his sleep? His behavior made no sense to John. He would have thrown his captive back into that cage, or tied him up, not lain down next to him. Who was the lion and who was the lamb? John wondered, and then lay down. He was tired, his head still hurt, his muscles ached, but he was full and relatively clean, and so tired.
He'd worry about this tomorrow. Now, he would sleep.
To his surprise, he slept well, comfortable in Sah's makeshift bed. He woke when Sah rose, the servants and guards bustling into the tent, rolling up the walls, carrying the chests away and onto wagons like the one he'd been caged in. Sah shared his breakfast with John, everyone as silent as they had been the day before, and he began to notice how they communicated: in small gestures, nods, chin jerks, flashes of the whites of their eyes. The animals were noisy: farting, belching, bellowing in protest as they were harnessed to the wagons, but the humans were nearly soundless. Occasionally one of the servants would grunt as he hefted a chest or staggered under the weight of the fabric-bearing poles of the yurts, but they never spoke.
John followed Sah into the morning and watched as he faced the rising sun, bowing three times to it and then peeing in its direction. Hesitantly, he pulled aside his robe, full of piss himself; Sah nodded approvingly and John sighed in relief.
He followed Sah for most of the day, taking careful small steps so he wouldn't get tangled in his shackles. The chain rang with each step, and he realized that everyone except Sah wore some kind of bell, each with a slightly different sound. He learned to recognized the sound of the guard who had shackled him, the one who had bathed him, the one who brought Sah trays of food.
By the time the sun was fully risen, they had begun their march. Today, John could see they were climbing steadily higher, the land around them like a tilted board. He had a little trouble breathing and wondered how high they were. Sah walked near the head of what John saw was a lengthy caravan. The wagons following them had the dusty white canvases that had been draped over his cage yesterday, but behind them the wagons were clustered by different colors: faded green, three sunflower yellow ones, their canvas much patched, and two dirty dark brown ones.
They didn't stop for the noon meal but ate on the move, Sah sharing his food with John again: sweet dates, dried fruit like apricots, and more bread, just as chewy as last night's. They drank watery wine, but the men around them chewed betelnut, or something like it, and spit cherry-red saliva on the ground.
Only after that did Sah speak, very quietly, and only to John, who hurried to get closer. "You see I am an important person," he explained, gesturing around them. "These people do my bidding. If I want you dead, you will die before your next breath. Nod if you understand, Zhawn." John nodded vigorously. "I do not want you dead. I want you to come with me to the City of Stone. But it is dangerous there for everyone. You have much to learn if you are to survive your time there.
"First and always, silence. If you speak, I will bridle you. If you speak in front of others, I will have you beaten. It would be easier to bind you to a hygros and carry you like luggage, but I prefer to teach you.
"Among my people, I am a madra -- do you know the word? I thought not. It means a teacher of great wisdom. I have proven myself on the battlefield. I have one hundred sons, and one hundred wives. The land you see around you, I govern.
"You spoke of your team, and of Rodney. They remain at the stargate, believing that they are negotiating for your return. You are far, far from them, and they cannot follow. Tonight, I will walk you through the caravan. You will see that the grasses over which we travel are made not to leave a trail. It is the work of the Ancestors, praise them, to save us from the Wraith. We can move on the steppe and leave no sign of our comings and goings. No one will follow us, Zhawn. You slept a full day before you woke, and now another day and a half have passed. If the Wraith cannot find us, your team cannot.
"So put them behind you, Zhawn. Your heart will ache but hearts recover. I have left many, Zhawn. If you can learn, you will become one of the fortuitous."
John nodded, wondering how many miles they'd come. If Sah was telling the truth and the rest of his team weren't locked up somewhere but had been left by the stargate, they would have brought Lorne and his team through by now, and maybe Elizabeth as well to negotiate. But Lorne could fly many miles in many directions without finding him, and the caravan would just get farther and farther away.
"That is enough," Sah said. "Too much at once saddens our hearts and yours is already sad. I see this on your face, and I hear it in your dreams. Walk now in silence, Zhawn. You will learn to be a man of the fortuitous. Few have this honor now."
John wanted to shout at him; his muscles tensed, ready to sprint away from Sah and the caravan, but common sense told him he would be caught and, if not killed, certainly punished. Sah had been very open about that. For a while, John's path was clear: walk to the City of Stone. But he twitched, his shackles jangling loudly, and he missed Rodney's barrage of words more than he thought possible.
The men around him seemed to love Sah. They obeyed him in silence, often before John caught any clue he wanted something. He studied Sah, at first covertly but then openly, not caring if he saw he was being watched. He appeared a little older than John, but not much. His face was peaceful, with few lines except around his eyes. He reminded John of Ronon in his self-contained presence, though he didn't have Ronon's size. He had Teyla's serenity, and even something of Rodney in him, in his lively eyes and the intensity with which he spoke.
Several times John nearly asked something, catching himself in time to turn his words into coughs. Sah glanced warningly at him. John had always prized his laconism, but this was carried too far. He never minded intelligent questions and he solicited ideas from his team. Apparently Sah considered himself too full of wisdom to need that. It irritated John, but he managed to stay quiet.
The evening and night passed the same as his first, with one difference: after their bath, Sah took John through the caravan as he'd promised. John saw that the different colored canvas coverings of the wagons indicated different groups or clans joined under Sah. "Sah, sah," he heard everywhere, almost whispered as the people bowed to him, as if the entire caravan were sighing at the sight of him. "S-s-sah."
They walked past the last of the animals and, in the setting sun, John saw that Sah had told the truth: through dozens of wagons and nearly a hundred oxen had trampled the grasses, they stood upright, knee height, as far as he could see. Genetically engineered, he guessed. He knelt and fingered the grass; the top was feather soft, but the stalk was both firm and flexible. When he pressed it down, it immediately sprang up.
"No one will follow, Zhawn," Sah said. John looked up at him. In his black robes moving with the evening breeze, he looked as alien as Hermiod. He looked rooted in this planet. John studied the way they'd come, back toward the stargate, he assumed. He imagined Elizabeth trying to negotiate his release, Lorne and Ronon and Teyla standing behind her looking fierce, and Rodney pacing angrily, calling John names for letting himself be stolen away. "Who do you think of?" Sah asked him. "Yes, speak."
"My team," he said, unwilling to name names.
"Ah. Of Rodney. You called his name in your sleep last night. He is dear to you, I see. I am sorry. If I'd had known I would have had him brought as your companion, to make you less sad. Well, he is too far to fetch, even for you. Come, Zhawn. We must sleep. One more long day but then we will reach the Meadow of Flowers. You are blessed by the Ancestors to see it."
Sah walked back, this time around the caravan rather than through it. John tumbled once, catching his foot in a hole; Sah caught him and helped him upright. "The shackles will not be removed," he said into John's ear. "But they can be lengthened. Earn this right, Zhawn. Please me."
John shivered and pulled away, but Sah didn't touch him again. He didn't know what pleasing meant to Sah; maybe just keeping his mouth shut and obeying orders promptly.
It was very late the next evening when they reached the Meadow of Flowers. John had been expecting something metaphorical, but the name was true: square miles of wild flowers blossomed around them. Like the steppe grass, the flowers were not crushed beneath the weight of the wagons or oxen. Red, orange, and yellow were still visible even in the twilight, and the riotous scent nearly overwhelmed him. Everyone, even the animals, inhaled deeply. John did feel blessed to see this. He wished his team could.
He had almost no sleep that night. Sah's tent filled with petitioners, bowing deeply before him, some prostrating themselves, murmuring their requests and hopes, begging forgiveness for some trespass, offering amends. John sat at Sah's right foot, his shackles sparkling in the lantern-light. Occasionally, Sah would offer him a sip of wine from his cup, and twice he rested his hand proprietarily on John's head, lightly stroking his hair. John swallowed his protests; he was being used, he knew, but shackled, among Sah's subjects, he didn't know how to object without danger to himself.
They stayed in the Meadow of Flowers for three nights. The days and evenings were spent in bureaucratic busy-ness, Sah acting as police, judge, jury, reminding the people of custom and precedent, telling stories from long ago and from myths John had never heard before. The last night there, a woman was brought to Sah. "My wife," he cried, rising to greet her. John watched them kiss formally, and remembered that Sah had claimed to have one hundred wives and one hundred sons.
They fucked on the blanket next to John that night; he tried to creep away, but Sah's hand on his shoulder kept him in the same crowded nest. The woman kept Sah busy for hours, sucking him, playing with his dick; John never caught her looking at him, and wondered if she wondered what he was doing in her husband's bed. He certainly wondered, and worried.
Sah came three times, twice early in the evening and again later after much work on the woman's part. The third time, he put both his hands on John, one on his shoulder and one on his hip; John lay facing away from them but they'd pushed right up against him. He was hard himself, trying to hide his awareness and arousal, but he was sure Sah knew.
The third time, Sah kissed his wife and sent her away. "She is pregnant," he told John, stretching languorously. "Another son." John tried not to roll his eyes at Sah's arrogance. "Each domain, each village, each inn offers me a wife in the hopes of having a child to protect them. The more sons I have, the more power. You learn, Zhawn. You see the people come to me to make their decisions, to settle their disputes, to punish and to reward them. A child binds as closely as land."
"Where now?" John asked before remembering he wasn't supposed to speak. Fortunately, Sah was relaxed and forgiving. "The Roof of Heaven. It is a long climb, which is why we rested here. The way is strenuous. The animals cry, and only their love for me keeps the men going."
Rodney, John thought, smiling, doesn't have a patch on this guy's ego.
"You smile. Tell me why."
John shrugged. What did it matter? "Rodney," he said, and rolled away from Sah.
"Yes, Rodney. I already knew. I regret his absence. Only he makes you smile." He put his hand on John's hip again; John tried not to crawl away. "Not even I do that."
"No," he said abruptly.
Sah removed his hand, and they slept the few hours till dawn, when they started the climb to the Roof of Heaven.
John was better prepared this time; he didn't assume the roof to be metaphorical. The steppe rolled on, higher and higher, the grasses grower shorter. They left the miles of flowers behind, and the air smelled like dust again. The days grew cooler and the nights colder, so he found himself waking up huddled next to Sah for warmth.
Even here, in the barren heights, people came to Sah, riding the big creatures that pulled the wagons or smaller donkey-like creatures with sour tempers. "Sah, sah," they murmured, kneeling at his feet. Sah never stopped walking, so they scampered behind him, sometimes tugging at his robes, usually offering him something: a tiny woolly creature with big grey eyes, a heavy bag of vegetables, and once a girl with Sah's brown eyes. "A daughter," he said, staring at her. She looked solemnly at him, then bowed. "Good. Send her to my winter pastures; she will be married there to my son from Samara."
"Sah, good sah," her father whispered, bending low over Sah's hand.
That night, when they were alone, John said, "You married your daughter to your son?"
"Always," Sah said. "To strengthen the blood. You will see my winter pastures, Zhawn. So beautiful. I have a permanent dwelling place there," he added proudly. "The walls do not roll up but remain no matter where I am."
John thought of Atlantis. Oddly, it made him happy to know that Atlantis was still there, no matter where he was. Like Sah's winter pastures, only bigger and better and infinitely more beautiful.
He wondered where Elizabeth and Rodney were now. It had been over two weeks; would they have given up? Gone back to Atlantis? Were Lorne and the others flying cloaked puddlejumpers looking for him? Had the Daedalus returned yet, and was Caldwell en route, with Hermiod to hunt for him?
He knew Rodney at least had not given up. He could picture him, pacing, shouting, snapping his fingers, irritating everyone, just the way he had when John was caught in the time dilation field with Teer and the others trying to ascend. John had heard lots of stories about Rodney's behavior; he still felt a bit embarrassed that he'd assumed they'd given up on him so quickly.
He felt asleep thinking about Rodney, his insults and ill-temper and what John could only name his fidelity.
The days grew harder; the steppe had given away to rugged terrain, crisscrossed with dry creeks and narrow canyons they had to climb across or up. The animals cried, just as Sah said they would, shrill and mournful pleas in the thin air.
John slowly walked behind Sah, breathing deeply and carefully. He'd once gone hiking in the Rockies at around eleven thousand feet; he thought the air was as thin here. Even Sah moved more slowly, and spoke less. The second morning, as he and John had stood catching their breath, he said, "The landscape teaches." John nodded, not sure what he meant, but he had no breath for questions.
The animals and wagons had to go single file now, the wagon wheels creaking in the dry thin air, and twice the men had to hoist each wagon over a narrow gorge. John lay on the ground at its edge, peering down, but he had no way to guess how deep it was. That day, only half the caravan made the crossing and John spent the night tossing and turning, waking with a jump, thinking he'd somehow tumbled into the gorge. Sah woke with him, his hand on John's shoulder. John tried hard not to find it comforting. He missed Rodney's snores in the tent they shared off-world, Teyla's light voice as she hummed making tea, Ronon's cooking, and how he'd slap Rodney's hand away from some morsel while Teyla raised her eyebrow at John.
He missed them all. Sah was not an adequate substitute for the community they'd built. He missed seeing Elizabeth in the mess hall, he missed shooting the shit with Lorne, hearing Zelenka's Czech curses, Carson's sputtering at something Cadman said or did.
Maybe the landscape did teach, he thought, sipping at Sah's cup of wine. The thin clear light, the thin dry air, the thin pale dust -- he knew he was someplace else, other than what his heart called home. He saw Atlantis superimposed over the mountains, the jagged boulders turning into her spires, the canyons her corridors, and the plains below them the ocean she floated in. The bells that continually rang around him transmuted into the voices of her inhabitants, because in Atlantis, unlike here, everybody always had something to say. He never could have guessed how much he'd miss their conversations and arguments and power-point presentations and gossiping. Even in the Sanctuary, he'd had conversation. Here, only the dry silence and, occasionally, Sah's soft voice.
John lost track of how many days they labored up and into the mountains. The Roof of Heaven really must be the roof of heaven, he decided. He slept poorly at night; the altitude, he guessed, and Sah's presence. It was so cold that they wrapped their arms around each other, Sah at John's back, his breath in John's ear; John often woke with his head on Sah's shoulder and his arm around Sah's waist. The intimacy embarrassed him, but the warmth was a comfort.
One afternoon, Sah whispered, "We are here." Everything stopped; even the bells stopped ringing for a moment. Sah held John's arm proudly as he looked around. "The Roof of Heaven, Zhawn," he said. "I was born here." John couldn't understand -- how could anyone be born here? Nobody could live here. No houses, no yurts, nothing. The animals would have a hard time grazing here. "Come. You will learn."
Sah led John forward, moving quickly enough that John had trouble both with his shackles and his breath. Suddenly, John realized that what he'd thought was air was in fact an enormous lake. "Ysyk. I rose from the water here," Sah told him in a barely-audible whisper. "Yes, even as you see me, here, sixty-three cycles of the seasons ago. I walked onto this shore, here." He pulled John down, so they crouched at the edge of the lake.
John hesitantly put his hand into the water; it was icy cold. He sniffed at his wet hand, then licked his thumb. Salty as the ocean, but in the middle of a mountain range. "I've never heard of anything like this."
"No, you will not. The waters come, but they cannot go. The rains wash the minerals from the mountains, we take the salt from the water. Very valuable, and a beautiful white. I woke here, Zhawn. From death to life." He smiled at John.
I don't understand, John thought, but Sah had taught him not to ask too many questions. Rodney would have peppered Sah with a thousand, and a thousand snide comments. You rose from the lake? What, you're Venus? Did you sail in on a half-shell of an oyster, or surf in? He smiled to himself. Rodney would still be wearing that bridle, he bet.
No petitioners came to them at this altitude. The animals cried sadly, keeping John awake at night despite the difficult climbing he'd been doing, and each subsequent night as they circumnavigated the lake, which really did seem to go on forever. It mirrored the cloudless pale blue sky, a piece of the sky captured by the mountain. They came to the salt pans, glaringly white, and stopped for two days. John watched as the men collected towers of dried salt, packing it into chest after chest. Others prepared for the next collection, digging long trenches so the water would run back into the lake and drain, letting the air and sun dry the salt.
The descent into the next valley was more difficult, in its own way, than their ascent to the salt lake. John was tired; he was in good shape, he knew, but never had he walked so far day after day after day. His feet ached, his lower back, and his eyes watered. Sah arranged a servant to care for John, massaging him with oils, and placing damp leaves over his eyes to rest them.
He learned the names of Sah's servants and guards. The big guard, the first person he'd met in Sah's caravan, was Qof. John pronounced it "cough," though Qof tried to teach him the correct pronunciation. The servant who brought Sah his food and wine was Istah. The oxen-mastadges were actually hygrosa, and a yurt was really a kibitk. Putting an a at the end of a word seemed to make it plural, John determined.
The others called John tiur; not a name, he thought, but a word for his position among them. The little grey lamb creature was also tiur, so maybe it meant pet. Ses tiur was how they addressed him; he hoped ses meant sir.
When they reached altitudes where John could breathe more easily, the petitioners returned, more than ever, so they traveled only every other day. John sat at Sah's right foot, chained, petted, and he learned, coveted. One man stared speculatively at John. "My son is worthier," he murmured to Sah. "Younger, stronger, and a better fuck, I warrant. Let me have this one and replace him with one more suited to your court."
Sah rested his hand on John's head, pressing him down. John knew how to run in his shackles now; he knew he couldn't get far, but he could kill this asshole before getting caught. "You son is worthy," Sah said. "Send him to my winter pastures. I will see him married well. You will also send the wheat in your southern acreages, and all your cotton, not just the quarter you sent last year."
The man turned red with anger, but he bowed silently. "You see, Zhawn," Sah said loudly, "I punish those who dismiss you. I know your worth." John clenched his fist in his robes and managed to stay quiet, but the men watching murmured among themselves. Word would get out, he knew. John didn't know who he was angrier at: the asshole who wanted to trade for him or Sah.
Wives came to Sah almost every night now; sometimes in a group of men, sometimes carrying children, sometimes young. He fucked them next to John, holding John's hand in his, or placing it on his wife's breast or ass. "Hold her," he whispered one night, and pressed his wife into John's arms, so she lay on top of John, her hair in his face, his dick hardening against her lower back. Sah stared into John's eyes as he fucked her, and John came helplessly, the warm semen spreading between them. He refused to apologize, but no one expected it.
Sah really must have a hundred kids, John decided; he fucked every woman who came to him, called her wife, claimed her children. Some of the children didn't look the least bit like him, but they were still his, and the boys were especially dear to him. Tiur he called them, too.
Sometimes young men came to him, and he fucked them, too, or let them suck him off. He watched John closely, observing his arousal, until one night, after he'd come, he pushed the young man to John. Sah wrapped his long fingers around John's dick and guided it into the man's hot, wet mouth, a drop of Sah's semen still glistening on his lower lip. John cried out when Sah slid an oiled finger into his asshole, coming harder than when the woman had lain on top of him.
When the young man had gone, Sah said, "Tomorrow we will reach Thousand Biqa Orchard. Many will wish to see me; they are a litigious people. I have several wives there, too, including two pairs of sisters. You will fuck one of the sisters for me."
John closed his eyes at the thought. "I don't have any protection," he managed to say.
Sah waved his hand; John felt the air move in the dark. "No need. Your children are mine, Zhawn. I will see them married well."
"In the winter pastures, yeah. No, I won't do it," he said angrily. "I won't leave children across a strange galaxy. I won't catch some kind of space clap."
Sah rolled onto his elbow to look at John. "They are not your children," he said slowly, obviously speaking to someone stupid. "If they are my wives, and in my bed, they are my children."
Sah stared at him. "Very well. It was meant kindly. Do you wish me to fuck you instead?"
"No! Jesus." He remembered Sah's finger up his ass, though, and his eyes on him as he'd fucked his wife. "No, and I don't want to fuck you, either."
Even in the dark, John could tell Sah was amused. "I will remember that," was all he said. "Now, silence and sleep."
"Fine," John said shortly, and rolled over. Sah tucked himself against John's back as usual. It was cold, though, and John was tired and freaked out; more than that, he was used to Sah's presence. He shook his head, and fell asleep.
Sah was right about Thousand Biqa Orchard people; they argued all the time. John had gotten used to the silence Sah required in his caravan and his head hurt after a few hours of listening. He wasn't permitted to leave, though; he stayed in his usual position, sitting at Sah's right foot. When he fidgeted too much, Sah's hand pressed him in place, tugging sharply at his hair or squeezing the back of his neck.
Before the women came that night, Sah scolded him. "I have rejoiced in you. Your company, your silence, your obedience. But I will not hesitate to have you beaten, Zhawn. Your body is mine, as all bodies here are. My kindness may have been a disservice. We are growing close to the City of Stone, and disobedience is not tolerated there. What do you need? Do you need to be beaten? Fucked? Tell me."
"Nothing," John said, aware he sounded like a sulking teenager.
"Tell me, or I will tell you."
"I want to go home," John snapped. "I want my friends. I don't want to lie next to you night after night, and especially not when you're having conjugal visits and making new subjects. I don't want to go to the City of Stone. I don't want any of this. You kidnapped me, Sah. I can hardly thank you for that."
"I took you, a savage, away from savages. I have shared my home and my bed, my food and my wives. I have treated you as my first wife. Why is this not enough?" He sounded genuinely curious. "Why am I not your home?"
"My home --" He almost said my home isn't a person, but he realized that wasn't really true. His home was a bunch of people. It was Elizabeth's worry. It was Teyla's calm. It was Ronon's warmth, and Lorne's sense of irony. It was Radek's passion. It was a flying, floating city and all her inhabitants. It was Rodney McKay of the big brain and even bigger mouth. "My home isn't here," he finally said. "You don't have the right to, to steal another human being. You just don't. Not you, not anyone."
Sah studied him; learning, John thought. Sah was like Rodney in that; he was always learning. "I see you believe this," he said at last. "I punish no man for his beliefs, only for his actions. See you behave. Hold out your wrist."
John stared at him, puzzled at the sudden change of subject. "Your left wrist," Sah said. John slowly held out his hand. Sah snapped a chain around it, made of the same light silver material as his shackles. "Your unclean hand," Sah told him, holding his hand. The chain was silken against the tender skin of his wrist. "The hand of your heart. The hand I hold; had you noticed? Do you understand?"
John thought he did. He'd been claimed; he'd known that, but somehow managed not to think about it. But Sah always held him by his left hand, and he was always seated so his left hand was nearest Sah. He wasn't entirely sure how to interpret this -- differently than he would on Earth, whether home in the States or in the Muslim world -- but that Sah touched John's unclean hand would speak volumes to his people.
"Go. We are too much together lately. You will spend the night elsewhere. Qof!" Qof stuck his head into the kibitk. "Zhawn is to spend the night in the orchard. Assign him two guards. His body is mine."
Qof nodded and looked pointedly at John. He knew he was supposed to leave, but he hesitated. "Thank you," he finally said. Sah flapped his hand at him but refused to meet his eyes; that was a punishment in itself. Hesitantly, John reached out and touched the inside of Sah's left wrist. Sah twisted his hand out, so John could hold it for a minute, still not looking at him, before he left following Qof.
Biqa were the apricot-like fruit they ate dried at noon; the orchard was swollen with ripening fruit, the air perfumed with their sugary scent. Wordlessly, John followed Qof through the neat rows of trees; two men followed them carrying the felt pads of beds, and a brazier. Though it was warmer down here than on the Roof of Heaven, it was late autumn, and the nights were chilly; John knew he'd be glad of a fire later, without Sah to keep him warm. In the middle of the orchard, trees had been cleared in a large circle around an enormous biq.
Qof bowed to the tree, as did the other two guards, so John did, too. They began to set up a camp. Qof took John aside. "Very holy," he whispered. "Very dangerous. Sah had a great vision here many years ago. My father found him sick the next morning. Sleep with one eye, Zhawn-tiur."
Then Qof cleared his throat, making the other two look up, and pointed at John's left wrist. John held it up and out, so the silver chain caught the light falling through the biqa leaves. His guards saw the delicate chain and their eyes widened. Qof left.
Night fell quickly on this slope of the mountain. John understood they were moving into winter, heading toward the City of Stone. He'd figured out that Sah was a king or emir in this part of the world, and that he was consolidating his lands and people. He didn't know if there was an external threat to his kingdom, but he suspected so; at the very least, there were rival clans within the kingdom. That explained all the wives and children.
How John fit into Sah's scheme, though, he still had no idea. Sah had said to be silent and learn, and John had tried. He listened to the disputes, and admired most of Sah's judgments. Punishments were rare, and fair; rewards more common, and modest but meaningful. Sah was, in John's consideration, a good ruler.
But of what he ruled, John still didn't understand. He lay on his back on the comfortable felt pads that made his bed, arms crossed beneath his head, and stared up through the leaves. Beyond them, one of the moons was nearly full; its pale light filtered through the biqa trees made the grasses around the trees glow. Bioluminescence? he wondered, or just an optical illusion? Two trees down, his guards' brazier burned; he smelled roasting meat.
They carried his meal to him on a tray as ornate as Sah's. Meat, bread, a bowl of bitter herbs, a tiny bowl of salt, and a pitcher full of watery red wine. John knew he was feasting like a king on this world, but he missed arguing over flavors of powerbars with Rodney, and the variety of MRE; he missed teasing Teyla about her cooking. He missed so much.
They washed him after dinner, carefully wiping his hands and face, then under his arms and even between his legs. He'd never really get used to being handled by others; at least, not unless it was done with love and desire, but he'd learned to put up with the false intimacy. The servants and guards didn't seem to mind, or even notice.
At last, he lay back again, full, clean, but he missed Sah's body next to his. He knew he wouldn't have him alone tonight; he had two wives to satisfy, or at least impregnate, and two more tomorrow. John hoped he would be permitted to stay another night in the orchard. Sah was right; they had been too much together. He needed time away to figure how to get away.
At Sah's word, Qof had lengthened the shackles between his ankles so he could walk more easily, but running was difficult, and impossible over rough terrain. This land was rich with fruit and nut trees, and he'd seen wild berries growing in the grasses, but to get to the stargate he'd have to climb to the Roof of Heaven again. Without supplies, that would be impossible, assuming he could even find his way back.
He wasn't even sure how long he'd been separated from his people. Over two months, he guessed, mostly by the length of his beard. It would be late summer in Atlantis by now; they'd been about to celebrate the combined Fourth of July and Canada Day on the mainland with a big picnic. He wondered if they'd held it in his absence, or if they were waiting.
At last he fell asleep, and in his dreams he was surfing at the beach near the Athosian encampment. Riding the surf as smoothly as on a skateboard, splashing toward his friends on shore. He could see Rodney waiting for him, hands on his hips, a weathered straw hat on his head, and zinc oxide smeared on his nose.
When Sah had done his duties to the litigious people of Thousand Biqa Orchard, the caravan moved on, back down into the steppes and away from the trees. Nights were even colder, and lonelier. John was glad to return to Sah's bed on the floor of his kibitk. He hadn't slept regularly with someone since college, and he'd forgotten the simple animal pleasure of warm skin.
He liked Sah, too. He liked his captor. Some kind of Stockholm syndrome, he assumed, and remained wary of his feelings for Sah, even as they grew warmer. They traveled quickly now across the steppe, the hygrosa grower fatter again after the arduous trek over the mountains. He'd grown accustomed to their bells ringing, to the gestures and signals used by the silent men, to the flavor of the roasted meat and the texture of the grainy bread. He looked forward to his bath after a long day of walking beside the wagons that carried so much -- the offerings, the taxes, the gifts, everything they'd collected and were taking to the City of Stone. They were drinking a different wine now, a straw-yellow color that reminded him of a time spent in Venice.
"How long to the City of Stone?" John whispered to Sah one night.
Sah rested his hand on John's shoulder, stroking him lightly. John had never known how much he missed being touched until he'd grown accustomed to Sah's caresses. "Soon, Zhawn. We will see it soon, from a long way away. The stone is blood red and glows in the morning."
"Why are you taking me there?" John asked that often, but Sah had never answered.
"What have you learned?"
John sighed, but Sah gently tugged his hair, encouraging him to talk. "You seem to be consolidating your position. Are you a rival for something -- a kingship?"
"Not a king, no. That means a ruler of men, yes? I am already that. No, a qa-se-re-u, which you might call a king of kings. But in the City of Stone is the College of Qa-se-re-u. I will be the qa-se-re-u."
"You could do that without me."
"Yes, Zhawn, I know this. I am glad you have learned it. You see my wisdom now. And there is more, but I keep my secret from you. Like a cook keeps his, to surprise his guests, I will surprise you in the City of Stone. And you, beloved Zhawn-tiur, will be my surprise."
Sah cupped the back of John's head and pulled him closer, till his breath warmed John's lips. Sah could do anything to him and no one would stop him. He should hate Sah, or fear him, or fight him. John closed his eyes against the sight of Sah's deep brown ones, against his quirky smile, He'd never forced John to do anything except be silent and to stay with him. Which, John thought, was a helluva lot. He really should fight.
Instead, he opened his eyes so he knew who he was with, and lightly touched his lips to Sah's. Sah sighed happily, and licked at John's mouth until he opened and sucked on Sah's tongue. No woman between them tonight; just their bodies pressed tightly together. John's stomach twisted in apprehension because he knew what he wanted. "Let me suck you," he murmured against Sah's lips, shocked and excited at his own desires. Sah groaned and kissed him harder.
"Put it in your mouth," Sah whispered, pushing the blanket down to their thighs. John had seen Sah erect many times; he was a big man, circumcised, hairy; he'd seen women and men suck Sah's dick; he'd seen it disappear into a woman's pussy and a man's asshole. He'd seen it ridden, and he'd seen Sah's buttocks clench as he thrust into one of his wives. Now he would join the others. John thought of condoms, and the flavor of latex, and what Carson would say if he knew what he was doing. But Carson was across the galaxy, as were all the condoms John knew of, and Sah was right here, kissing him, stroking him, touching his dick and his balls, slipping his finger between his cheeks. "Zhawn," he said, and John obeyed. He crawled over Sah, kissed the tip of his dick, and slid it into his mouth. He could hear Rodney in his head, yelling at him about space AIDS and intergalactic clap and Pegasus syphilis, but he didn't believe it. Not here, and not Sah. He felt safe, with Sah's dick in his mouth, his hand on John's head.
Sah didn't come for a long time; he rolled John onto his stomach and kissed his lower back, leaving a puddle of saliva between his cheeks so he could slide his dick there, pushing against John's ass, which felt more erotic than John ever would have guessed. He turned John onto his back and grabbed both their dicks, jerking them off. He put his dick between John's thighs and worked rhythmically. John was sweating with exertion, shaking with pleasure, and he opened his legs to Sah, who pushed them up toward his chest and sucked at John's balls, biting them gently. Silence was so ingrained by now that John could only gasp, his hips rising helplessly as he pumped against the air. Sah flipped him onto his stomach again, letting him rub against the felt pad beneath them while Sah fingered his asshole and kissed his neck and ears. John came with a hoarse cry, trying to be quiet. When he relaxed, Sah moved until John could suck him again. He came in John's mouth, silent as always.
"Now you are truly mine," Sah whispered to him. "Any child of yours will be mine as well. Sleep, tiur-Zhawn-tiur."
Two days later, John could see the red glow of the City of Stone in the morning. He swallowed nervously; it was enormous, like Bologna or even Atlantis. He'd never succeeded in coaxing Sah to explain in any detail what would happen there, or why he was being taken.
"It's because of that ball, isn't it," John asked one night, sleepy after sex. Sah was fucking a new wife every night, but as always he sent them away afterwards, and turned to John, who was jealous and aroused. "It lit up when I picked it up -- that guy, Zoroah. He works for you."
Sah kissed John quiet, refusing as always to answer, but John was sure that was it. For some reason, Sah was testing for the ATA gene, not that these people knew what genes were. Or cared -- each time John sucked Sah off, he'd kiss John passionately, telling him, "Your children will be my children." But he was desired, he knew, for his ability, the same way he'd been desired for the trip to Atlantis. Everything came back to that gene, his freak-of-nature coin toss that gave him abilities no one else shared.
The nearer they came to the City of Stone, the more petitioners arrived; now they traveled only every third day. Along with the petitioners came men Sah called daies. They carried notched sticks, emblems, John figured out, of their station, and tablets of real paper. Sah met with them diligently, and John sat at his right, trying to learn. "This aka has been damaged by flooding," one said, spreading a map on the floor in front of Sah's chair. "Here, see? I have levied a tax upon the workers to pay for repair to the canals, but they say they cannot pay."
"A devil spoiled the water in this well," another explained. "I levied a tax to pay for digging a new one, but the dowser says he requires a third wife, preferably male, to help him."
"This bridge was washed out in the last flood. It sits like an island being eaten by the river. I levied a tax but the people cannot cross the river to pay it."
"I levied a tax," John teased Sah that night, rubbing his shoulders.
"The daies -- they are a great evil on this land," Sah said. "Oh, yes, there, harder. Levy a tax -- when the fields are destroyed! They do evil in my name. Tomorrow we will visit the aka , then the dowser, and then the bridge. My men will help the people rebuild, and my own dowser will find water. Then the people will love me again. I must also have many sons here. Zhawn, your children are mine; will you not help me?"
"I can't, Sah." John stared into space. He couldn't believe he was here, nearing the City of Stone, being asked to father children in the name of Sah. "I won't."
Sah turned, looking up at John, touching his face to pull his attention back. "Have my child, Zhawn. Our son would move mountains, such a man he would be."
"It doesn't work that way," John started, but gave up. Sah would never understand, any more than he would understand how Sah could want this. Sah moved them to their bed, calling Qof to dim the lanterns. He held John tenderly, kissing his face and throat, stroking his body, arousing John yet again. He hadn't had so much good sex since his early twenties.
They moved on the next day, John and Sah walking together. Sah quietly instructed John in the ways of the daies. "The Lord of Death is like me, a qa-se-re-u. Like me, he has many, many daies. His are red, with horns, and carry paper that falls like snow in the Roof of Heaven. When we die, the Lord of Death sends his daies and they do an accounting. Always we fall short, always a tax is levied. I want to be greater than the Lord of Death, to give more than I take."
"That's unnatural," John said, thinking of the IRS, and Sah laughed, making his servants and guards look at them.
"My Zhawn," Sah said fondly. "I have never had a wife like you."
John staggered at his words -- he was a wife? He didn't think he was anybody's wife, or husband for that matter. But he remembered the women and men Sah claimed as wives. "What does wife mean?" he asked. Sah only smiled at him, silent as he so often was.
More people came, slowing their progress to the City of Stone. John was always good at being quiet; by now, he knew how to avoid looking into the men's eyes, how to lean up to drink from Sah's wine cup, when to slouch against Sah's leg, how to follow him through a crowd. Each morning they greeted the sun with prayers and piss, a walk through the caravan to check on the growing crowd following Sah, discussions about dividing up offerings, tithes, taxes, and gifts, about cultivating and repairing canals or bridges. Then they'd settle in Sah's kibitk for the next stream of visitors.
Inexorably, they made their way to the City of Stone, finally reaching the outlying farms. The caravan was much longer now, stretched in single file, many more wagons in many more colors than when John first woke in the cage. He wondered how many miles he'd walked to reach this place, and what would happen when they finally arrived. Ancient technology was involved, he was sure, but Sah refused to explain, even threatening him with the bridle again when he pushed too hard.
One night, when the kibitk was shut and Qof standing guard outside, Sah put John on his knees, ass in the air, head on his folded arms. He braced to be penetrated; he'd been expecting this since the beginning and had resigned himself to it, but Sah slid his dick between John's thighs, not inside him. John squeezed his upper legs together tightly, pressing around Sah's dick, and Sah groaned, bent over his back, holding onto his shoulders, his head between John's shoulder blades, while they sweated together. "Now, now," he whispered, and released John so he twisted around to suck Sah just as he came. Sah cried out once sharply, sounding almost in pain, and then relaxed on top of John. After a moment he squeezed John's swollen dick. "Not tonight," he said. "You wait until I tell you."
"Sah," John said, but Sah squeezed hard enough to hurt.
"No, Zhawn. Speak no more tonight."
He lay down, sulkily obedient. This had never happened before, and John knew it meant something. He couldn't guess what.
They walked into the City that day, stopping in a circular field. People were everywhere: small stalls selling wine and sweets lined the streets, open air taverns, bakers, potters, weavers, prostitutes, hard at work alongside children being herded in groups like beads on a string, women followed by servants carrying packages, soldiers on leave gawking at the sights. Everyone stared at them, at Sah's entourage, and their silence made them stand out. John was bathed early, his hair and beard combed, and Istah brought him a sheer new robe, lighter weight and softer, that clung to his body. "This isn't decent," John complained first to Istah and then to Sah, who put his hands in his belt and studied John.
"Shorter," he told Istah, who hitched the robe into the belt. John knew Sah wanted everyone to see the silver shackles he still wore between his ankles. "Now go." When they were alone in the kibitk, Sah said, "We enter the City now. You stay one step behind me, to my right. Turn your left hand out, like this, so the inside of your wrist is visible. You have learned much, Zhawn; remember everything. Be not surprised at what you see or what happens. I will protect you."
This was, John knew, his chance to escape. Once they were inside the City of Stone, he would be more on guard than ever. To Sah, he bowed his head and turned out his left wrist.
They walked the rest of the way that evening. Sah wore a white robe, freshly woven from the cotton they'd taken. Qof walked first carrying an enormous curved sword; his bells rang loudly in the stone streets. Then Sah, and immediately behind him John, who kept his head down and watched Sah's boots. Behind John were four guards, two carrying clubs and two with long straight swords, and behind them, a hygros pulling Sah's wagon, the canvas freshly washed and gleaming in the setting sun.
It was a long walk, but John had walked half a world by now. He knew where they were going: a high oval stone structure, the civic center of the City of Stone. The blood red stone of the center was what he had seen nearly a month ago. Whatever was going to happen would happen there.
Sah never paused as they neared and John kept pace. They crossed a red stone bridge over a river tinged red by the setting sun; a broad avenue opened up before them leading to hundreds of steps. The air was cooling rapidly even down here; it would be snowing on the Roof of Heaven, John thought, but hot in Atlantis even now, the end of summer there.
People lined the streets, the bridge, the avenue, the steps, and more lined the passageway under the vaulted roof of the City of Stone. Enormous pillars twined with stony vines and stone-red grapes led them deep into the center. Voices echoed against the stone, bouncing like water in a storm-swollen river, and John shivered under the weight of curious eyes.
Qof led them onto a pier-like structure that stuck into the center of the oval hollow of the City. Thousands of people were there, more people in one place than John had ever seen in the Pegasus Galaxy. Six such structures ringed the center. Sah and John stood literally heads above the people watching them. Buskers sang and juggled and played stringed instruments below, and men sold cups of wine, and fried fishes on skewers, and women and boys wandered through the crowds. John kept his head bent but looked under his lashes at the activity.
Qof stepped aside, and Sah touched John's left wrist, then nodded and nodded again more sharply. John knew he wanted him to walk to the end of the pier, in sight of all these people. He took a deep breath, and obeyed.
The pier lit up, and John realized it contained Ancient technology. Gold lights flickered on under his feet, on the stone parapet, up the pillars on either side, into the ceiling vaults, then around the entire center, until every stone glowed dully. The crowd stilled, and for a moment all was silent.
Behind him, John heard Sah take a breath, but then someone shouted, "Thief!" He looked up; across the crowd, on the pier to his left, stood Rodney, pointing at him. Behind Rodney were Lorne, Teyla, and Ronon, and behind them, four marines. All of them were wearing pale blue robes, the color, John knew, of Rodney's eyes. "Sah-i-Saha is a thief!" Rodney bellowed.
Sah pushed next to John. "Who dares --" he began, but Rodney kept talking.
"He stole my wife! Drugged me and my family and kidnapped him. Half a world I have searched, and here he is in Sah's robes, in Sah's chains. Thief!"
The crowd roared, and John felt dizzy with shock. What the fuck was Rodney doing in a robe, talking about wives and family? He realized he didn't care, and laughed, leaning forward over the parapet, reaching toward Rodney, no longer a stargate away. "Rodney!" he shouted, slapping the railing so the lights flickered more brightly. Teyla beamed at him, Lorne raised an eyebrow, and Ronon growled.
"This is nonsense," Sah said into John's ear. "I will see him killed."
"Oh, fuck off," John said recklessly. He slapped the railing again, and the pier jerked forward, nearly knocking him off his feet, but then it smoothly stretched out over the crowd until it merged with the pier Rodney stood on. The railings retreated and reformed, so John could simply walk a little further and stand in front of Rodney. "What the hell took you so long?" he asked. He felt wildly happy, drunk with the surprise.
Rodney seized his left arm and shook him. "Why are you wearing this?" he demanded. "Lorne!"
Lorne appeared at this side, carrying a device John had never seen before, obviously of Ancient design. "Good to see you again, sir." He slid the device between John's arm and the chain, and the chain parted. Rodney caught it as it fell, and tucked it inside his robe.
"You are in so much trouble, Colonel," Rodney said, and John couldn't tell if he was angry or happy to see John again. Maybe both. "Four months I've been chasing you, four months on this godforsaken world, four months away from my work and my comfortable bed, and you are in so, so much trouble."
"Who's taking care of Atlantis?"
"Elizabeth, Caldwell, and Radek. Shut up. Let me give my oration and get you the hell out of here." He pushed John behind him; Lorne took his arm firmly and pulled him back, so Teyla and Ronon could crowd against him.
"It is good to see you well, John," Teyla said, and Ronon punched his shoulder. The four marines stared at him; he could see their uniforms beneath the collars of their blue robes.
"Sah-i-saha, you wish to be qa-si-re-u of this college of qa-si-re-u, but I tell you no," Rodney shouted. "You are a liar and a thief. Everywhere you go, you pillage and you steal and you rape. How many women, Sah? How many men? How many aka of cotton, of wheat, of biqa have you collected in your travels? What have you left behind? You are a swarm of locusts denuding the countryside; you are a scourge upon the land; you are a rotting carcass in the family well. You have despoiled and ravaged wherever you've gone.
"You are no qa-si-re-u, and you are not welcome in the City of Stone. Even it turns against you!" Rodney slammed his hands into the railing on either side of him, and the lights of the city instantly went out. Only the smoking lanterns remained, casting ghostly shadows on his face, emphasizing his bulk.
"That's not how it was, Rodney," John felt compelled to whisper. Lorne pulled him farther back.
"Shut up, sir," he hissed. "Not helping."
But no one else had heard; when the lights of the Ancients went out at Rodney's command, the crowd began to roar again, not in pleasure. Fights broke out, and figures on the four other piers began to shout at Sah. Lorne pulled at John, and the marines surrounded him. Ronon unfolded another blue robe and draped it over John's head; this one had a hood Teyla arranged almost over his face, and they pulled him away.
"Out, out, get out you morons," Rodney insisted. The crowds drew away from them, some applauding, some staring hostilely at them, but no one tried to hinder them. "Come on," Rodney said, and they began to jog.
They went out a different way than John and Sah had entered, to a different field behind the red stone civic center, toward a blue canvas-covered wagon. Only when they walked up the ramp did John recognize it as a disguised puddlejumper, with wagon wheels fixed to the exterior.
"Not many followed us," Ronon said, and hit the button to raise the ramp. "Weapons don't look bad."
"We should not leave now," Teyla said, obviously starting up an old conversation. "There will be much debate about the qa-si-re-u. You will be wanted, Rodney."
"Fuck 'em," he said, staring at John. "We need to get him out of here before that asshole Sah finds us."
"Teyla's right, Doc," Lorne said. "Look, they're going back inside. Let's give it a bit more time. The fewer people who see us leave, the better."
"Then watch the monitors," Rodney barked at him. "No, here, use this tablet. You, up front," he said to John, and when John was slow to move, Rodney pulled him, hitting the switch so the bulkhead between the cabin shut leaving them in relative privacy. "Four fucking months," he said again, and John realized how big Rodney was. His shoulders were massive, and even under the robes John could see that his biceps were flexing. John hadn't been mistreated, but he hadn't eaten well in all those months, and he'd walked forever; suddenly, his inch and a half on Rodney didn't amount to very much. "Months I could have used to repair Atlantis, to prepare for the Wraith, to do groundbreaking work in physics, but what do I have to do? Learn the political science of a backwater planet, form alliances with depraved old kings, foment unrest, and marry you in absentia in a public ceremony with Elizabeth and Caldwell presiding. Carson was my best man," he added. "Teyla was your maid of honor."
"What?" John asked, dazed, and for an instant, he thought Rodney really was going to hit him. But he pushed John up against the bulkhead and stared into his eyes.
"Did he hurt you?"
"Sah? No, no. He treated me really well. What you said -- it wasn't true, Rodney. He's a good ruler, a good man --"
"Shut up. I don't give a fuck if he's St. Francis of Assisi. It got you away from him, didn't it?"
John couldn't take his eyes off Rodney. "I can't believe this. I dreamt about you so many times. I thought -- I really thought I'd never see any of you again."
"They said you were his concubine. Catamite. Whatever the term is. We met so many women and men who said you shared his bed. That your sons were his sons."
"Not like that, Rodney, shit. It -- it's alien, it was weird, but no. I never."
"Open," Ronon's voice said.
"Fuck." Rodney hit the switch and the bulkhead doors slid open. "What now?"
"Let's get out of here," Lorne said, pushing past them into the cabin, sliding into the pilot's seat.
"Cloaked," Rodney said. Lorne gave him an annoyed look, but said nothing. Beyond him, the ground fell away, until even the enormous City of Stone was only a ruby gleam in the night, and then there was nothing but the dark of space.
John felt stunned, almost in pain at the sudden transition from one life to another. He was hot in the two robes, thirsty, hungry for familiar food and company but unable to remember what that was. No one spoke to him but everyone stared. He looked at the jumper's floor, some kind of rubberized mat. "Call Atlantis, Doc," Lorne finally said, diving back into the planet's atmosphere. John didn't know why he'd flown into the stratosphere, but he was grateful; it had felt more like home looking out into the black.
"Yes, ma'am," he heard Lorne say, and then distant applause -- from Atlantis, he realized. Celebrating his return.
Lorne set the jumper down right in the gateroom, just beneath the stargate. It was morning in Atlantis, and light fell through the stained glass window behind the gate. Throngs of people, everyone in Atlantis, John guessed, had crowded into the Observation Center. Elizabeth was crying, and even Radek seemed teary-eyed. Caldwell looked grim. Carson and Cadman stood together, and Biro next to them. Applause broke out again when Lorne opened the hatch behind the pilot's seat. The marines stood almost at attention, and John realized that, of course, he was considered deeply compromised. They might be happy to have him back, but he was under suspicion.
Elizabeth ran to him to hug him tightly; he gently patted her back and accepted her kiss on his cheek. Radek pumped his hand, saying, "Colonel, so good, we have missed you, and Rodney, too, no amusing arguments in far too long." Rodney scowled at Radek but didn't disagree. Caldwell studied him unsmilingly. "Colonel. Good to see you." Cadman saluted him, and then to his shock hugged him, and Carson hugged him, too, then Biro. Others crowded up, welcoming him back. His team stood at his heels.
Elizabeth finally clapped her hands. "I think it's obvious that we missed you," she said, and everyone cheered. "Now, off to the infirmary. We'll have a formal welcome back dinner in a few days, once you're cleared."
Rodney nudged John, so he said, "Thank you, everyone. It's good to be back. It's good to be home." Rodney nudged him again, and he followed Carson and Biro, his team still right behind him.
"Laura, darling, run along," Carson said. "Now, Colonel, let's get those robes off you." He jerked the privacy curtain closed, separating John and Biro from the others. "We'll need to run all the usual tests and a lot more. Is there anything you need to tell me?"
John looked at Biro, who said, "I'll prepare the equipment, Carson," and slipped away.
"You need to test me for, uh --"
"I understand. I had every intention. Now, strip." He turned his back on John, pulling on latex gloves and looping a stethoscope around his neck.
John spent three nights in the infirmary, people coming and going. He gave blood and urine and stool, and lay patiently while every imaging technique known to two galaxies was used on him. Nearby, his team waited, often together, sometimes in shifts, sometimes with Elizabeth or Caldwell. Others came to visit him, bringing small gifts, including Halling from the mainland, and a few visitors from other worlds with whom they'd become allies. Kate Heightmeyer came to see him each day, spending a fifty-minute hour with him, asking him uncomfortable questions in her soft voice.
Almost always, Rodney waited, arms crossed, his face sunburned and scowling, but unnaturally silent.
The third night, Caldwell and Elizabeth sat with Carson and John. Caldwell, to John's surprise, brought a bottle of very good Scotch that he shared out in toothglasses Carson supplied. "To your safe return," Caldwell said, and they toasted him.
"Thank you," John said. "This is -- I really thought --" He stopped abruptly and sipped his Scotch. "Good stuff, Colonel."
Caldwell nodded. "Let's get the difficult issues on the table. You are not cleared yet to return. Dr. Weir, Dr. Beckett, and Dr. Heightmeyer agree you need time to, to acclimate. The SGC wants to be sure you aren't compromised. I'm needed elsewhere, so I'm putting Major Lorne in charge until you're cleared. In an emergency, the SGC will send someone more senior through.
"Your clearance has been revoked temporarily. Your only job for the next few weeks is to recover. Dr. Beckett tells me that you're slightly malnourished, and even I can see that you've lost weight. Ms. Emmagen has agreed to assume responsibility for your physical training. You have permission to visit the mainland, but not go offworld. You may not pilot a jumper alone. Any violation of these restrictions will be seen as indications that you are not ready to return to full service, so I ask you to use uncustomary caution."
Caldwell stared at John, his mouth down-turned. "You have been sorely missed, Colonel. Many people are anxious to talk to you. I urge you not to respond to rumors shared with you until you've discussed them with Dr. Heightmeyer. Do you understand me?"
"You mean whether or not I've been sexually assaulted," John said, staring back at him.
Caldwell opened his mouth but said nothing for a moment, then nodded. "There is concern about that, yes. Dr. Beckett said there is no sign of abuse or misuse, but that there might not be."
Carson turned bright red, sensitive as always to any discussion of sex, but nodded. "No trace of anything, ah, in your blood, Colonel. Physically, you are a bit thin, and you need to continue the vitamins and special diet, but I see no sign of any kind of abuse." He stressed the word any.
"I wasn't abused," John said. "I know you don't want to believe me. Rodney told me a little what people were saying, and it isn't true. I'm not compromised. But I'll follow procedures."
Elizabeth looked miserable. "John, the things we heard -- I'm sorry, but in a small enclave like Atlantis, rumors do fly. From experience, I know that only time will help, but there will always be a few who want to believe the worst."
"He didn't rape me," John said, loudly enough so anyone in the infirmary could hear him. "He never, uh, penetrated me. I never had intercourse with him." He held his head high. "Never." He remembered President Clinton denying that a blow job was sex; he hadn't denied that yet, but he would if he had to, if he were asked.
"Good, good," Elizabeth said in relief. "I'm so glad to hear that, John. Really, the things people will say." Her cheeks were bright pink, as were Carson's, who kept gulping at the Scotch.
Caldwell nodded. "We're glad you're back, son," he said, and clapped John's shoulder heartily. "Fatten him up, doctor," he said. He refilled their glasses and left.
"Oh, John," Elizabeth said, and hugged him again.
"Really, Elizabeth," he said into her hair. "It's okay. I'm okay. It was hard at first. Some bad things did happen. But not many, and not often."
"Thank God. Thank God." She wiped her eyes. "You'll meet with Kate every day at nine. You're being assigned to the lab, to assist with some project Radek is running; he'll explain it to you. Rodney's been away, so Radek is in charge right now. Rodney's asked that he continue to be; he's done such a good job. I think Rodney needs to recover a bit as well."
"He worked night and day to find you," Carson said. "He is a good friend, despite his bluster."
"Yeah," John said, and drained his glass. Rodney hadn't yelled at him since the City of Stone. He wondered what that meant.
Carson released him the next morning; Lorne and Cadman escorted John back to his quarters. "We had it cleaned for you, sir," Cadman said. "Dr. Weir had us stock it with bottled water and snacks, and she brought you some books and magazines. I think Rodney, I mean Dr. McKay, did, too."
"I might have slipped in some stuff myself, sir," Lorne said in his driest tone.
"Am I under guard?" John asked.
"No, sir," Lorne said. "Or no more than any of us in a place like Atlantis. I imagine you'll want to go flying pretty soon. I'll be happy to accompany you, or Dr. McKay, if you prefer. He's been practicing in your absence, but I'm a lousy teacher."
"He's getting better, though," Cadman said thoughtfully. "He flew us to the mainland a couple weeks ago and it was the best landing he's made yet."
"Just lacks confidence," Lorne said. John wondered if they were trying to tell him something, or just making conversation. He felt out of practice with them, out of practice with their words.
"Anything you need, sir?" Cadman asked when the doors to his quarters slid open.
He shook his head. "No, nothing, thanks. Just --"
"You could do with some time alone," Lorne said. "Well, we're just a shout away, sir. Don't hesitate. All of Atlantis is anxious to help."
"Thank you both." They saluted him, their faces serious, and he felt a wave of appreciation so profound that he snapped back his best salute since OTS. When they'd gone, he fell onto his bed. So different from the felt pads he'd been sleeping on for the last months, and it smelled a bit musty.
In his head, he could hear the bells of Sah's caravan, but in his room, he could hear Atlantis: the air moving through vents, water through the pipes, waves rolling against the piers, a constant stream of the voices of the city's inhabitants. His bed was narrow and empty, though, and he couldn't lie to himself: he missed Sah. Or at least, he missed a warm body, someone to discuss the day, to share private jokes, to touch. Did that mean he was compromised? He didn't know.
He also wondered why he didn't wonder more about Sah and what had happened after John had been spirited back to Atlantis. Not too much, though -- he was happy to leave that world behind. He didn't tell Kate about having sex with Sah, only that Sah had had sex with others with John at his side, in his bed, night after night. But he remembered. At night, John remembered.
Kate didn't ask a lot of questions. Each morning, he showered, had coffee, and met with her for an hour. They talked desultorily about Atlantis, the Athosians, Earth, the SGC, and then she'd say, "Tell me about Sah."
"He was a good leader," John said the first day. "He was kind to me," he said the second. "He threatened me with beatings," he said the fourth day. "He had a bridle strapped to my head, so I couldn't talk," he said the seventh day. That night, he went running with Ronon for the first time since his return. He might have lost weight while away, but he could run longer than ever before. "All that walking was good for something," he panted to Ronon, who only grunted in response.
"You'd've fit well with them," he said when they reached the western pier. "Silence was prized."
"Too quiet," Ronon said. "Liked it better when you talked more."
"You think I'm more quiet?"
Ronon just looked at him. "Head back now?"
When they'd returned to John's quarters, Ronon said, "McKay did good. He learned a lot."
"A lot of what?"
"See ya tomorrow."
John was supposed to be spending time in the labs, working for Radek, but the non-stop discussions and arguments made his head ache. Radek was quiet, watching him over his glasses as he explained what he wanted John to do, but John could see it was largely make-work, helpful in some long-term way, but it wasn't necessary.
Training with Teyla made John feel more like himself. Nothing had changed: she could still knock him on his ass with the same patient smile. Despite not picking up a baton in all his time away, the moves came back quickly. "You are stronger," she told him approvingly. "Now you must work on speed and follow-through."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, grateful that she accepted him so easily. "Work on that now?"
They stood side-by-side, and he copied her graceful sweeping moves, letting the baton slip through his fingers only once. She didn't laugh at him, but retrieved it easily, tapping him on the butt with it lightly before returning it to him. "I should report you to Caldwell," he teased her. "He's so worried about abuse."
"John," she said, looking stricken. "I am so sorry."
"No, Teyla, Jesus. It was a stupid joke. Smack me all you want, okay? I missed it. I missed you." To his shame, his throat started to close, so he shut up, wringing the baton in his hands.
"John. John." She rested her hand on his. "I missed you, too. My heart rejoices that you are home with us again." She smiled at him. "If you wish, I will smack you again."
"Teyla, did you just make a joke?" She did smack him then, lightly, and they laughed, John more grateful than he knew how to express.
When he was sweating and growing clumsy, she said, "Tomorrow will you fly me to the mainland? Halling would like to see you again, now that you are settled."
"I'd love it."
"Good. Will you ask Rodney to accompany us?"
"Ah, sure." John hadn't seen Rodney since he'd left the infirmary, except for brief glimpses in the mess hall and once from the west pier when he'd stood catching his breath with Ronon. Rodney had been alone on the lower level, arms folded, watching the sunset. Ronon had stared at John but said nothing, and then they'd retraced their route.
In the morning, Kate said, "Tell me about the bridle again, John."
"There's not much to say. It was only the one time."
He shrugged. "It's embarrassing," he said, knowing how sullen he sounded. "They held me down and wrapped it around my head. There was a piece that went into my mouth." He leaned forward, not meeting her eyes. "Tasted bad."
"What was the purpose?"
John swallowed, tasting the rusty, sour metal again. "Held down my tongue."
"So it made you hold your tongue. Why?"
He stared at his boots. "Talked too much. They valued silence."
"More than we do."
"Yeah." He forced himself to laugh. "Atlantis is a noisy place."
"Do you think it's too noisy?"
He thought about that. At night, he remembered Sah's whispers, his hand on John's hip, the silent Qof just outside. Here in Atlantis, he was alone despite the crowds and noise in a way he'd never experienced in Sah's caravan.
"I'm thinking, Kate, okay?"
They sat in silence. John could hear so much more here. Sometimes he thought it was Atlantis herself whispering to him, other times that it was the ocean around him, sighing. Maybe it was both. Some nights he dreamt he could hear everyone in Atlantis: not just their conversations but their thoughts and dreams as well. "No," he finally said. "No. It's not too noisy."
Kate watched him carefully, her face composed and calm. "Is it too quiet?"
He stood up. "I'm flying Teyla to the mainland, Kate. See you tomorrow."
"All right, John. Tomorrow."
"Where is Dr. McKay?" Teyla asked when he picked her up. "Is he not coming with us?"
"Uh, I forgot to ask him. You want to swing by his quarters?"
"No, another time. Major Lorne knows we are going?"
"Yes, Mother, I filed a flight plan per my orders."
She raised an eyebrow.
Halling hugged John, lifting him to his toes. "It is good to see you, little brother," he said. "You have been missed."
"John! John!" Jinto shouted, racing toward him.
"My God, but you've grown," John said, stunned at Jinto's height. Clearly he took after his father.
"Yes, and you are grown thin," Halling said. "Thank you, Teyla, for bringing him back to us. We will share a meal."
"Tell me everything," Jinto said, hanging on to John's hand. "You are so brave!"
John shook his head, smiling at Jinto's enthusiasm. "I'd rather hear about you. What are you learning? Any girlfriends?"
Halling and Teyla groaned. Jinto beamed at him. "The most beautiful girl ever, John. Wait till you see her." He whispered into John's ear, "It's Taka's daughter Soon."
Soon was a pretty girl; she was also several years older than Jinto. John understood Halling and Teyla's reaction. "Does Soon know you consider her a girlfriend?"
"Not yet," Jinto said confidently. "It's just a matter of time, though. Laura told me that faint heart ne'er won, uh, ne'er won fair maiden."
The adults laughed, and Jinto scowled at them, but after a while he grinned too.
"You mean Laura Cadman? Well, she'd know," John said, remembering her enthusiastic pursuit of Carson.
Halling had cooked enough for a dozen guests, and they lay on the beach watching the children play while the others coaxed John into eating more. "Just a bite," Halling said again and again. "I know you like this."
The afternoon passed into a calm evening. John couldn't remember the last time he'd done nothing but laugh and talk and eat and swim. He built sandcastles with Charin's great-grandchildren, taught Jinto how to play solitaire, practiced wrestling with Teyla, and showed Halling's nieces how to dogpaddle. He flopped onto the sand next to Teyla, who smiled at him. "Thank you for this day, John."
"Thank you, Teyla." He caught her hand and impulsively kissed it. "You're a good friend."
"Oooh!" the little girls cried. "Uncle John kissed Auntie Teyla!" They raced to their mother.
"Sorry," John said, but Teyla smiled.
"I am so happy you are here." She kissed his forehead, brushing his long hair from his face. "Welcome home, John."
"Guess I should get that cut. I look worse than Lorne these days."
"It is flattering on you both. Also, Rodney is most jealous."
They flew back not long afterwards. Night was falling; the season was turning here in Atlantis, so John would have his second autumn of the year, and the nights came on early. John said goodnight to Teyla, met briefly with Lorne to reassure him that they'd returned safely, swung by the mess hall to pick up a thermos of chilled erif juice, and bumped into Elizabeth en route to her yoga class. By the time he opened the doors of his balcony and breathed in the sweet ocean air, it was fully dark. He dragged a chair out, took a swig of juice, and thought: I'm home.
He put his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands and tried to breathe evenly. The presence of Atlantis felt tangible tonight, almost a weight pressing against him, like Sah holding him in the dark kibitk. He could hear voices in the air: from the balconies around him, from the pier below, from nearby rooms with their windows open to the night air.
"You okay?" Rodney asked. John rubbed his face before turning in his chair. Rodney was in his room, standing at the balcony door. "Sorry. You didn't answer, but life signs said you were here."
"Yeah. Come in. Hi."
"Hi." Rodney came out to the balcony, leaning against the railing. "Beautiful night. Not too hot for a change."
"Yeah. Listen, Teyla asked me to ask you to come with us to the mainland today, but I forgot."
Rodney shrugged. "Another time."
"Yeah. Maybe you'll fly."
"I'm better, you know."
"So I've been told. Lorne and Ronon both said you'd been practicing."
"Yeah. Well. Lorne sucks as a teacher."
Rodney didn't answer for several minutes, but then he said, "I've been avoiding you. I was so angry."
"Well, you got yourself kidnapped; we woke up and you were gone, and nobody knew anything, or would tell us anything, and you were gone for months. Yes, I was angry."
"It took me a lot of sessions with Heightmeyer to be able to articulate that, so I'd appreciate more than a 'huh.'"
"What do you want me to say, Rodney? Thank you for your honesty? I'm sorry you're angry? I'm sorry I was kidnapped?"
Rodney sighed heavily. "I didn't practice the next part with Kate. Although I am sorry you were kidnapped. Pretty shitty."
John laughed. "Yeah, you could say that. Kidnapped, held against my will, bridled like a goddamn pony -- I think that qualifies as shitty."
"Bridled? Jesus, what are you saying?"
"Oh, you mean that tidbit hasn't been shared with larger Atlantis? Just that I'd been raped?"
"Look, Colonel, we were freaked, okay? Everybody we met said you'd, that he'd -- everybody said it. What was I supposed to think?"
"No, it's okay, Rodney. I'd've thought the same thing. And it's almost true. He kept me in his bed; that much was true."
"We met some of his wives, and they said that you, uh, that you participated."
"Not like you're thinking. I never fucked any of them. And nobody fucked me. But there was a lot of, of touching. Inappropriate touching, Kate calls it."
"I met pregnant women who said you'd, that you were the father."
Rodney nodded. "I hated that fucking planet."
"I don't have the best memories of it myself."
They remained silent for a long time. Rodney turned back to watch the moon rise; John drank his erif juice. He propped his feet on the balcony railing and, after a while, Rodney leaned against his legs. In a few more minutes, his big hand rested on John's shin. They stayed that way, quiet, peaceful, calm. When Rodney left, John said, "Thanks. Come by again."
"Yeah. Uh, you, too."
Kate said, "Tell me about the bridle."
"You know everything. They only used it once. It didn't hurt me."
"You gagged. If you'd vomited, you would have asphyxiated. It was humiliating. They used it as a threat."
"Yeah, well." He sighed, stood up, and began to pace. "I mentioned it to Rodney. By accident. He hasn't followed up, which is pretty unusual for him."
"Do you want to talk about the bridle with him?"
"Yeah. No, no. I just meant it's weird for him not to chase something."
"You said yes before you said no. Is it yes or no?"
John stared out the window. It was a cloudy morning; he could see a squall moving across the water, a smudge against the bright reflection of the silver clouds. The ocean looked mirror calm this morning.
"Why did it take you so long to find me?" he asked. He felt removed, not with Kate, as if he were out on the ocean, skimming along the surface with the squall.
"You'll have to ask Rodney that, John. He coordinated the search efforts, with the help of Dr. Weir, Major Lorne, and Colonel Caldwell."
"Everything always comes back to Rodney," he murmured.
"I'm sorry; what did you say?"
"I'll see you tomorrow, Kate."
He left her office and walked briskly away from the populated center of Atlantis, moving as if he had someplace to be. He felt like the squall, swept before some alien wind, marring the mirror-bright surface. He began to run, gasping, bouncing off a corridor wall before bursting out onto the south pier, the wide platform facing away from the mainland, looking out to sea. He slowed, and took the deep steps down to where the ocean splashed into Atlantis. The biologists told him there was current here coming up from the south bringing warm water that kept the mainland temperate even in winter.
He sat down and undid his bootlaces, pulling off his boots and socks, rolling up his trousers, and then scooted down two more steps until his feet were in the water. Warm current my ass, he thought; it was cold. He'd had no summer at all this year; only that one day on the beach with Teyla and Halling and the other Athosians. No Canada Day, no Fourth of July, not even Labor Day. Just a long walk on a cold dry world.
He pulled his feet out of the water, but continued sitting until he was too cold. He stuffed his socks into his boots and stood up to find Rodney watching him.
They met halfway up the steps. Rodney curled his hand around John's left upper arm. "You're shaking with cold," Rodney said. His eyes were the same color as the bruise of the squall had been when it had sailed past Kate's window. "Come inside." He slid his arm around John, encouraging him the rest of the way up the steps, across the wide platform, and back into Atlantis. He took John to his own quarters, and pulled out a pair of his own socks. "Put these on."
John stood dumbly in Rodney's room, looking around it as if he'd never seen it before. The photos of Rodney's triumphs, his cat, his sister were suddenly new to him. The books and journals, a tee shirt hung over a chair, a laptop humming on the desk were as alien as Sah's robes and chests and swords. No one ever knows anyone, he thought; no one can ever understand a word we say. We might as well all be wearing bridles.
"John!" Rodney snapped at him, and pushed him onto the bed. "Do you need Carson? Dammit." He shoved at John until he was lying on the bed, and then wrapped him in the covers, rubbing John's hands, then his feet. "You're like ice. Goddammit. Goddammit." His voice broke, and he bowed his head over John's feet, holding his right foot tenderly, his hands warm and comforting. "I'm so fucking sorry," he whispered, and rested his cheek against John's ankle. "I tried so hard, but it wasn't good enough. It's never good enough."
John closed his eyes and listened to Rodney's voice rumbling on and on. He'd missed that voice. He remembered dreaming about it, imagining what Rodney would say, how much trouble he'd get into. He smiled. "Come here," he whispered, opening his left hand blindly. Rodney caught his hand and lay next to him, even on top of the covers warmer than Sah had ever been. "It's true, I didn't think you'd come, but I never stopped hoping, I never stopped wanting you to."
"Fuck," Rodney said. "I thought my heart would explode. I know I'm a bit of a hypochondriac but even Carson was worried. They'd only let me work six days a week, and only sixteen hours a day. They assigned two marines to me to make sure I stopped, and one time Carson had me sedated. Lorne had to stop me from killing Zoroah before he'd tell us anything. Afterwards, Ronon sat on me for hours until I calmed down enough to figure out how to get you. I flew back twenty-six times before we found you." He ran his fingers through John's hair. "Don't cut this yet. I need to see you like this, to know you're really here, that this is after, and not a dream of before." He tugged, and John let him, his head rocking with each tug. He was so relaxed that he felt drugged again, at peace in Rodney's arms and bed.
"I dreamed of this," he murmured.
Rodney froze, his breath jerky. "What this?"
"This this," John sighed. "Just exactly this. Being back with you."
He slept. When he woke, Rodney was snoring next to him, his head tilted uncomfortably. He snorted and woke. "You idiot," Rodney said, and kissed him. Not an aesthete's kiss like Sah's, but a big and clumsy kiss, just like Rodney. "I shouldn't have done that, not now, are you okay?" Rodney asked anxiously. "What happened -- I don't want to upset you, to pressure you. Whatever you want, do you want me to go?"
"It's your room, Rodney."
"It doesn't matter. Just tell me what you --" John kissed him, and suddenly his heart was pounding, his hands trembling on Rodney's face. With Sah, he'd been afraid; he'd known that Sah would eventually tear him apart, rip him open in his continued use of John's body to consolidate his power, but Rodney treasured him, not what he could do for Rodney. There wasn't anything he could do for Rodney but love him.
John asked, "Did you say you married me?"
"Yeah. We had to, I forget where, but people said you were one of that asshole's wives so I said no, you were already mine, and they said they'd have to see it to believe it, so Elizabeth figured out something and she and Caldwell made up this ceremony."
"Yeah. Well, he's from SGC; stuff like that does happen."
"I'd heard rumors."
"You okay? We can get it annulled."
John smiled at him. "That would mean we'd never consummated the marriage, right? So if we consummate . . ."
Rodney said, "Look. You're still, Kate says to go slow, and I think you're, that what happened was so horrible --"
"No, actually it wasn't. People keep assuming that, but it really wasn't. Once Sah had what he wanted, yeah, I think it's possible, but up until that night, it was good."
"You said he bridled you."
John rested his forehead against Rodney's shoulder. "Someday I'll tell you," he promised. "Not now. Just know that I'm not damaged, okay? I wasn't raped, I've been traumatized a lot worse, and I'm recovering."
"When you're recovered, then." Rodney pulled John closer and kissed the top of his head. "When you're fully recovered, and reinstated, and we've returned to normal, then here's what will happen. You'll tell me everything, and I'll tell you everything. And then, if you still want, we'll, ah, consummate."
"No consummation tonight?"
"No," he said firmly. John was disappointed. He lightly bit Rodney's collarbone, so he smacked John's ass. "Behave," he said. John raised his head so they could kiss more.
"I'm spending the night here, though," he said later.
"Hell, yeah. And no more wandering around Atlantis. Radek says he's hardly seen you in the lab. You know you won't be cleared to return to service until you start, you know, obeying the occasional order."
"Like you do?"
"Shut up. Listen, there's something else. Everybody, well, not everybody, but a lot of people think we were, um, involved. Before everything happened. And that's why. Anyway. Caldwell does, too. I didn't disabuse him of the notion."
"She knows the truth. And the team. And Carson and Cadman. Radek, of course. And Lorne."
"So the people who matter know."
"Well. Yeah, I guess so."
"Then fuck everybody else. I don't care, Rodney. It's not like they can do anything to me, not if Caldwell thinks that. I mean, he married us, right?"
Rodney began to laugh. "Oh my God, was that an interesting conversation. And the ceremony! Jesus, the things Elizabeth comes up with. I think Cadman secretly videotaped it, if you want to see it sometime." They groaned. "We'll show our grandkids someday."
"Grandkids," John repeated.
"You'll keep seeing Heightmeyer."
"As will you."
"Start working in the labs."
"What about you?"
"So we'll both show up tomorrow. Serve Radek right."
"He kept telling me that I'd be one of the fortuitous ones."
"Sah? Yeah, that's what his people were called. Do you know why?" John shook his head. "He appeared magically to them, like the Lady of the Lake, just appearing one day with all these big plans. He was supposed to be a god. If we were in the Milky Way, I'd suspect him of being a Goa'uld. I think he was psychotic, and brought everybody into his psychosis."
"What's Kate say?"
Rodney shrugged. "She says it doesn't matter. That I should focus on getting better."
John touched Rodney's lips. "I think so, too." He traced Rodney's profile, his eyebrows, the lines around his mouth, and then kissed him lightly.
Rodney caught his hand and kissed it. "I hated him. Because he had you, and I didn't."
"He never did. Not for one minute. Not even my body."
Rodney's face relaxed, and he nodded minutely. "Yeah. I figured that out just today." John rested his head on Rodney's shoulder again, and Rodney stroked his hair. Sleep came to wash him away again, but Rodney's scent, the weight of his hand on John's head, his breath in John's face, kept John floating in Atlantis, safe in the harbor of home. Your heart will ache, but hearts recover, Sah had told him. In that, John thought, Sah had been right.
Title from Dark Night by Frank Bidart.