The portal's blue light wavered before stabilizing; the portal mages were exhausted, on both sides. At the top of the stairs, Rodney's fingers tightened on the railing, his knuckles white. The blue glow of the portal made his drawn face gray and brought out the dark shadows under his eyes.
Taranan refugees staggered through in small bunches, clinging to each other. Some were so shell-shocked that they could only stumble to a stop and stand, trembling and staring at the floor. Others scanned the other knots of refugees in the portal chamber, looking for friends and loved ones. Several Earth soldiers shepherded them, urging them along.
The last through the portal were Teyla and Ronon, Teyla with her charmed sticks held in the ready position, and Ronon with a child clinging to his neck, her tiny hands crossed above his wings. Rodney relaxed a little upon seeing them; when John followed them through, hands held before him and limned with green fire, Rodney's shoulders slumped.
"Let it collapse!" John shouted, his voice ragged with exhaustion as he brought down his hands in a tearing motion. The portal mages let it fall, the magic bleeding away into the world, and for a moment everyone simply stood still in the suddenly altered light.
Then Carson sprang into action with his staff of nurses and healers, sorting out the injured from the stunned and frightened as best he could, gently soothing the shaken refugees. He was also, Rodney knew, searching for Wraith taint; John, too, despite his obvious weariness, wove a complicated route through the crowded room, his eyes quickly scanning the shifting crowd.
The Atlantis portal room was as magic-clean as they could make it, woven about with the very best wards that the sharpest minds of two galaxies could produce. So far, they hadn't had another breach of anti-Wraith security, but the memories of the first time -- and the scars -- were still fresh in all their minds.
Woolsey descended the stairs. Like everyone else in the room, he was visibly exhausted. For two days he'd been helping hold the portal and block the Wraith from finishing the job they'd started on Taranus. Rodney, listening from above, heard him ask John, "They're all clean?"
"Far as I can tell." John ran his hand over his stubble. "I think we won this one."
They had been winning most of the battles, but Rodney wasn't sure if they were winning the war. The Wraith had lain low for awhile after the defeat of one nest on Atlantis, but lately they'd started to become bolder, encroaching once again on the human-inhabited areas of the galaxy. So far, most of the Atlanteans' victories had depended upon picking their battles carefully. Their main advantage lay in the fact that the Wraith weren't prepared for Earth magic, nor for the advances that Teyla's people and some of the other Pegasus peoples had made in anti-Wraith rune technology since the last Wraith war. To keep that advantage, though, they had to avoid too many direct confrontations, particularly another all-out battle like the one that had taken place on Atlantis.
For one thing, Rodney thought, they probably couldn't win another all-out battle. They'd only won the first one because John had almost killed himself in the chair. Working around the clock, the science department was making slow headway on figuring out the chair's functions, but Rodney didn't plan on letting John near it until they'd figured out how to use it without risking the operator's life.
Of course, that didn't stop their fighting contingent from risking their lives offworld in the meantime.
"We really have to stop meeting like this," Rodney said as Teyla and Ronon reached the top of the stairs. He meant it to come out flippant, but it only sounded small and scared.
Teyla smiled wearily. Her runes were smudged, her hair a mess, but she looked lovely to him. Reaching out, she lightly smoothed her palm down his cheek. "We promised to return, Rodney," she said. "And so we have."
"Yeah, that's another thing," he said, managing to steady the betraying wobble in his voice. "You shouldn't make promises like that. It isn't fair, you don't know that you'll be able to keep --"
Ronon reached a long arm around to cuff him in the back of the head. "Settle down, McKay. We got the Taranans out."
Rodney looked down into the portal chamber. John was still talking with Woolsey, as the last of the refugees trickled out of the chamber with medical staff fussing over them. "Is that all of them?" Rodney asked. It had seemed a lot when they were filling the chamber with their noise and fuss, but from what Teyla had said of Taranus, it had contained cities.
"All that are left," Teyla said quietly.
John climbed the stairs, and Rodney knew him well enough by now to recognize the depth of the exhaustion dragging down his limbs, the strength of will that he was exerting to hold himself together. The Atlantis expedition had few mages to spare for offworld operations, and Rodney knew enough about Earth magic to know that those few mages had to draw heavily upon their own energy to channel their magic.
Seeing the three of them waiting at the top of the stairs, John visibly drew himself together; there was even a bit of a spring in his step when he reached the top, a little hop off the top step. "Have fun holding down the fort, Rodney?" he said, a lightness to his rough voice that hadn't been there when he'd been talking to Woolsey.
"You know these idiots would sink the city in hours if I ever left," Rodney managed in reply, but then his throat was too tight to speak, and he didn't pull away when John laced dirty fingers through his own.
"Next time," Rodney said, "I'm coming with you guys." He avoided their eyes. "Even if it's dangerous. I mean, I know I don't go offworld much, but -- I don't want to do this again, okay?"
John's fingers gave his a light squeeze. Teyla's hand settled gently on his other arm, and he took them home, or maybe they took him.
After a year and a few months, Rodney had almost gotten used to having the Atlantis expedition cluttering up his city. But adults were one thing kids were quite another. Especially these kids. Teyla had occasionally brought some Athosian children with her to see the City of Ancestors over the years, but those had been so quiet and well-behaved that he'd hardly even known they were there; they'd learned from infancy how to properly conduct themselves on trading trips. The Taranan kids, on the other hand ...
"We are trying to find a world where we can resettle them," Teyla explained patiently. "Athos cannot take in every group of refugees that comes through the portal; it simply is not possible, especially with winter coming on our continent. We are looking at possibly settling them on the other hemisphere of Athos, but we would have to rely on your mages to ferry them there, and they would not have access to a portal of their own."
"Fine, whatever," Rodney sighed. "Just ... don't let them touch anything, okay?"
Part of the problem with the Taranan children was a lack of sufficient adults to care for them. Many of them were orphans, and in addition to that, many of the adults were too traumatized to feed themselves, let alone to look after a bunch of fractious and upset kids. The only thing that kept the situation from getting completely out of hand was the intervention of the whales, who, as it turned out, loved human kids. Most of the Taranan children could swim, so they were parked at the South Pier to be whalesat. (Rodney was very definitely not jealous at all. No matter what John claimed.)
Of course, there were still problems. Rodney was finally managing to get some work done on the chair, for the first time in days, when Carson stuck his head in. "Ah, there you are. We could use your help, Rodney."
"Now what?" Rodney said over his shoulder.
"One of the kids has gone missing," Carson said, and Rodney rolled his eyes before he could stop himself. "You know this city better than anyone. The life sign detectors aren't showing anyone we can't account for, so either she's in one of the damaged parts of the city..."
"Or we have more Wraith," Rodney said quietly. During the battle they'd learned all too well that Wraith shadow-magic could mask a prisoner from detection by either human senses or magic. In the aftermath of their dubious victory, a further problem was that Atlantis's extensive network of spells had been damaged by the work that the Wraith had done while infesting the city's mages. John and the remaining mages had been working hard to fix and restore Atlantis's magic, but there were still areas of the city that weren't working properly, and certain others where water had been allowed to leak in by the failure of the spells that had kept it well-preserved and dry through the millennia. Rodney hated to admit it, but the city that he used to know like the back of his hand had become strange to him. And there were an awful lot of places where a nosy, inquisitive child -- or a frightened one -- could slip through the cracks.
"Have you talked to Ford?" Rodney asked. "That's what he's for, after all." Ford had done a very capable job in the wake of Sumner's death during the battle, and he'd managed to retain command of the city's military despite his youth and inexperience.
Carson nodded. "We're sweeping the city quietly. We don't want to cause a panic. But we could really use your help, Rodney."
"Ask my sister," Rodney said tartly. "She talks to the city."
Carson raised his eyebrows. "She's back on Earth, Rodney; she's been gone for weeks."
"Oh. Really? Permanently?" She hadn't even said goodbye. Or maybe she had and he'd forgotten. Maybe he ought to pay more attention to the general goings-on in the city.
"No, not permanently," Carson sighed. "Am I your family's answering service now? If you'll excuse me, we have a missing child to find."
"Of course we do," Rodney snapped, and packed up his equipment.
He found himself paired off with a nervous, twitchy apprentice mage and an equally nervous-looking young soldier for, quote-unquote, "protection". They wandered around the outer reaches of the city. Occasionally they passed pairs of soldiers, trying to look decidedly casual and not at all like they expected to find Wraith behind every pillar.
Down, the whales suggested. If the little human podling was afraid, she'd probably dive.
The whales might be geniuses, but they did have some trouble figuring out human psychology ... and physiology. Still, Rodney thought they might have a point. Most of the damaged sections of the city that had not yet been repaired were below the water line.
During the years he was living alone on Atlantis, he'd rarely come down here. Rodney was not, of course, afraid of the water in any way -- he'd learned to swim before he could walk, after all. But being surrounded by air and yet enclosed by the pressure of all that water made him very uncomfortable; it was a tense, stifling feeling, and he'd generally left the lower levels of the city alone.
The lower halls of Atlantis were dark and kind of damp. Some of the corridors were closed off; others had a thick layer of dust on the floor, or pools of water. The young mage and soldier accompanying Rodney had gone very quiet. When a soft sound came from up ahead, they all jumped. Listening more closely, Rodney realized that it was the faint sound of a weeping child.
Finally! "I knew it couldn't be that difficult," Rodney muttered under his breath.
"Mariya?" the mage called, and was answered by a thin, plaintive cry. The three of them followed the sound through a maze of corridors growing steadily wetter and danker. Working lights were few and far between down here, and finally gave out entirely, so that only a ball of magefire in the young mage's palm lit their way.
"Why in the world did she come down here?" Rodney complained, splashing through a puddle and then remembering that he was wearing shoes. Damn. He was still used to running around mostly naked, as he'd done for years before the arrival of the Atlantis expedition.
"Probably afraid of Wraith," the soldier said. "People in this galaxy train their kids to hide underground -- in cellars, caves and the like. They ward them --"
He stopped talking when they reached a hole bisecting the corridor. Part of the damaged floor had apparently given way and collapsed into the space below. In the warm glow of the magefire, water rolled in the gap, dark and oily.
"Hello?" a small voice filtered up, trembling.
"She's down there?" Rodney knelt on the edge of the hole and peered down. This must be one of the sections of the city that had flooded, either because of damage during the Wraith siege, or simply due to spell decay over the years. He couldn't see much -- a very large open chamber of some sort, mostly full of water.
The mage pointed down, and her little ball of magefire floated down towards the water, flickering over the surface. "There she is," the mage said. The little girl was plainly visible, clinging to a drifting piece of debris, looking bedraggled and exhausted. "Don't worry, honey," the mage called down to her. "We'll have you out in just a minute!"
Annoyed as Rodney was at having his work interrupted, he couldn't help feel a twinge of pity; she looked scared and utterly miserable. Then the ball of magefire dipped to the surface of the black water, and something, deep inside the room, began to glow. For a split second he thought that it was just his eyes, but no, something was happening -- a network of blue lines spreading through the water. Damn it -- the magefire had triggered something; this was why Rule Number One in Atlantis was If you don't know what it does, don't touch it. The little girl gave a startled cry and then slipped off the piece of debris that was holding her up.
"Call for help!" Rodney yelled at the other two, who were just standing and staring. Without stopping to think, running on pure instinct, he dove into the water. He splashed to the surface and looked up to see both of them still staring; impatiently, he stabbed a finger at the runes on his neck, just recently renewed by Teyla. "I can breathe underwater. Just get some help down here!"
Without waiting to see if they'd obeyed, he ducked underwater and swam towards the girl's struggling form. She clearly knew how to tread water, but was so tired that she was having trouble keeping her head above water. As Rodney swam up under her small shape, he looked down and sucked in a deep breath of charmed water.
The room was huge, much bigger than he'd realized, and the floor was covered with an elaborate diagram -- it was a spell circle, Rodney realized, but much more complex than any of the ones he'd ever seen John and the other Earth mages create. As he watched, the blue lines flowed outward, racing like fire on gasoline along the channels of a previous hidden pattern.
With a last, despairing cry, faintly audible through the water, the little girl sank. Rodney kicked his legs and swam up to catch her from below. As he did, the circle closed beneath him, and sudden light filled the water -- a web of light, above him, below him, around him, trapping him in a blue-white tapestry. He tried to cry out, more in surprise than anything else, and then blue light filled his head along with the whales' panic, and there was nothing.
Teyla was eating in the Atlantis cafeteria when Marie called her to the infirmary. As soon as the nurse began to explain the situation, she was on her feet and running; she was most of the way there by the time Marie had finished telling her about Rodney and the missing Taranan child being found limp and unconscious in the lower levels of Atlantis.
She got her breathing under control and then stepped into the infirmary. The first thing she saw was Rodney flailing at Carson. He looked a bit pale but otherwise undamaged. "There has to be something wrong with me, Carson. They found me floating in the water. That's not normal."
"I thought floating in the water was perfectly normal for you, Rodney." But Carson looked distracted, and Teyla noticed that he kept glancing towards a drawn curtain at the far side of the infirmary. One of the nurses was sitting just outside the curtain with a weeping woman in a ragged dress of Taranan style.
Teyla quietly hailed a passing dryad. "Jennifer, how is the little girl?"
Jennifer shook her head, her leaf-green eyes sad. "She's in a coma. Rodney was wearing your protective sigils, so even unconscious in the water, he was fine. The girl, though, wasn't breathing when they were both pulled out. Excuse me, I need to go help them ..."
Teyla let her go, and went to collect Rodney. "Ah, there you are, lass," Carson said in relief. "I didn't want to let him leave without someone to keep an eye on him for a few hours, and I know you two are close."
"The whales can watch me," Rodney said, a bit sullenly.
"Someone with hands rather than flukes would be best, Rodney. Now you come back immediately if you start experiencing any strange symptoms." Carson squeezed Teyla's arm and then vanished into the back of the infirmary.
Rodney slid off the bed; Teyla noticed that he seemed a bit shaky, and put a hand on his elbow. "Healing magic," he muttered as she led him out into the corridor. "It's hardly a real discipline. Not like the hard sciences, or even parapsychology or astrology..." But he kept glancing behind him.
"It is not your fault, Rodney," Teyla said, stroking her hand down his arm. "Marie said you were very brave, jumping into the water to rescue her."
"It's not bravery if I know I can't drown, Teyla."
"But you did not know what the room would do." Teyla frowned. "What did it do, Rodney?"
Rodney shook his head. "I don't know. Zelenka's people are all over it, I guess, trying to figure out what it is -- well, what's left of it; once it discharged its magical load, it went dead and started collapsing. I would be down there too, but Carson doesn't think I should get near it, just in case there's now some sort of sympathetic connection between me and whatever they were building down there." He scowled. "Even though it might as well be a lump of clay now, for all the magic that's left in it."
"The Ancestors?" Teyla asked.
Rodney nodded. He reached up and rubbed at his neck. "I didn't get a good look at it, but those were definitely fae symbols. Uh, where are we going, anyway?"
"You are going to your quarters to rest," Teyla said firmly. "And, once it is safe to leave you, I am going back to Auralia to help John and Ronon."
"What's that and what are they doing there?"
Sometimes Teyla forgot that Rodney was almost entirely outside the Atlantis power structure and gossip mill, even more so than John or herself. "It is a world that has agreed to take in the Taranan refugees, but they recently suffered a devastating earthquake. We are helping with their cleanup."
In the wake of the battle that many on Atlantis were already referring to as the Wraith siege, Teyla was pleased to see that Atlantis as a whole had responded by becoming more involved with the Pegasus Galaxy, rather than more isolationist as she'd feared. She understood that the Magic Division back on Earth was heavily divided on this, with some of the mages wanting to close the Milky Way-Pegasus portal completely, but they had the support of Archmage Weir in keeping it open and offering their assistance to the rest of the galaxy. And Mage Woolsey, having experienced the devastation of Wraith possession firsthand, was one of their staunchest champions in maintaining the flow of aid and supplies from Earth.
"I'll come," Rodney said immediately. "Then we could go right away, right? Because you'll be keeping an eye on me."
His eyes on hers were earnest. "I meant it, Teyla. I know I don't generally go offworld, but I'm tired of watching you guys put yourself in danger all the time and having to wait and -- I mean, the not knowing ... I can help, right? Maybe it would help to have me there?"
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "Would the whales mind if you go offworld?"
"Are you kidding?" Rodney said gloomily. "They'll pitch a fit. But, you know." He scratched his neck, and his gaze dropped to his toes. "Pod is pod."
To her own amusement, Teyla had known Rodney long enough to understand what he meant.
Auralia, despite the ethereal name, was a dismal rainy heap of a world. Rodney thought of stories John and Teyla had told him of the other worlds they'd been to, beautiful worlds with sunny forests and tropical beaches. Naturally, he got to go to the one that looked like British Columbia in February. After an apocalypse.
It wasn't actually as bad as he'd feared -- he'd had visions of bodies in the streets, roaming packs of wild dogs and the like -- but many of the low stone buildings had collapsed and sloughed into the streets. Roof timbers stuck up like the spars of wrecked ships, and an avalanche had washed over one end of the sprawling mountain town, turning neighborhoods of little stone houses into a uniform mass of mud and rocks.
"Rodney!" John, his face smeared with mud and his hair plastered to his head, straightened up from a pile of rubble. "What are you doing here?"
"Whatever they want me for, I guess." Rodney poked at a rock and tried to stop imagining Wraith behind every bush. "Okay, that came out wrong."
But John grinned at him, and maybe the rain and mud was kinda, sorta worth it.
The Auralian elder who was directing the cleanup set him to work removing debris from what had once been a school. Rodney noticed Teyla giving him worried looks every time they trotted past each other with wheelbarrows of rocks and broken tile, but he really didn't feel bad at all. Actually, he felt pretty good for a guy who hadn't had much sleep in the last few months. Well, aside from the fact that his neck itched. And his arms. He scratched at his forearm, where Teyla's trailing runes vanished under the damp, muddy cuff of his jacket, and wondered if he might be having an allergic reaction to one of her new pigments. It had happened once or twice before -- never badly enough to cause a severe reaction, but enough to make him slather himself in anti-itching lotion and cetacean sympathy until the rash healed.
And he couldn't stop thinking about the little girl, and wondering if he could have, should have done things differently. No, he told himself; she'd fallen already, and you'd just have stood there watching while things happened the same way.
Aside from guilt and a bit of itching, though, he felt great. Better than great. Maybe it was being offworld, getting away from Atlantis and all the lingering bad memories of the Wraith attack. He'd been trapped in labs for so long now, when he used to spend his days swimming with his pod. Whatever the reason, he felt so energized that he could barely keep from bouncing as he climbed a pile of debris to join John and Ronon at the top, helping them shift a broken beam.
"You look cheerful," John said, flashing him a quick grin.
"Do I?" Rodney made a conscious effort to wipe whatever expression John had seen off his face, because really, even he knew it was hardly appropriate when a little kid was fighting for her life because he'd been too slow to save her -- hardly appropriate when helping people pick up the shattered pieces of their homes. And yet ...
I didn't used to think this way, he thought. A quick flicker of magefire ran down the beam as John used his powers to work it free of the debris. Propelled by magic, it slid to rest on the farm carts that would be used to haul it away. I didn't used to care what people thought of me. It wouldn't have mattered.
Why does it matter now?
Because of them, because of these people, he thought, leaning into the back of the cart as its wheels spun in the mud. Ronon was next to him, wings folded over both their shoulders like a sheltering raincoat; the rain on the wet feathers created a haze that looked like a halo of light. And he wondered why he'd never thought about it before, not in those terms. He had always found human emotions murky and opaque, including his own, but really, they followed reasonable natural laws after all. He was able to divide his attention easily between the physical labor and a mental trip back through the last couple of years, and it was surprising to him how clear the patterns became when he reflected on them and thought about it.
People weren't so hard to figure out, after all. He wondered why it had seemed murky before, when it was so plainly evident now.
They ate a cold lunch, or possibly dinner, in one of the remaining intact houses. Rodney was starving; he couldn't remember the last time he'd been this hungry. Physical activity would do that to you, he supposed. The food was very plain -- flat bread and stew -- but it tasted fantastic. He wondered if the cooks on Atlantis could get the recipe.
"Are you feeling well, Rodney?" Teyla asked quietly from her seat on the floor next to him. John and Ronon had gone back outside into the deepening, rainy dusk.
"I'm great. Really good. Why?" he wanted to know, anxiously. "Do I look bad?"
"No. You look fine. I was not expecting you to ..." Teyla hesitated. "I did not think the work would be to your liking."
"Well, nobody enjoys clambering around in the mud." Though actually, he was enjoying it. Teyla smiled at him, and Rodney returned it. The flickering firelight seemed to create a gentle nimbus of light around her, as if she was glowing softly in the dark.
Actually -- was she glowing? It wasn't quite a glow, though, more of a strange double-vision effect. Rodney saw her smile falter and realized that he was staring, but just as she opened her mouth to say something, there was a loud rumble from outside, and several shouts of alarm.
"Earthquake!" Rodney yelled, springing to his feet. A ripple of panic spread through the people gathered around the fire.
"It is not! Rodney, stop!" Teyla swung herself to her feet, gripping his shirt. "The debris piles are shifting. Sometimes, when the beams are moved too fast --"
She broke off as the curtain over the door was drawn aside and a dripping-wet Auralian pushed his way inside. "Honored guest Emmagan, your friend Sheppard --" he began, and that was all it took -- Rodney had dropped his bowl of stew, and he and Teyla were both running, out into the rain.
The steady drizzle of earlier had become a cold, stinging downpour. Wind whipped the rain into Rodney's eyes, and he squinted against it. There was still a little light in the gloomy sky, enough to show up the black hulks of collapsed houses around them. Flashlight beams flickered through the rain, and he and Teyla splashed through the mud, orienting on the source of the lights and commotion.
Even in the twilight and the rain, Ronon was very obvious -- his size and his wings were a dead giveaway. He appeared to be struggling with two Auralians. As Rodney approached, struggling through the mud as fast as he could, he heard someone saying urgently, "You cannot go up there, the pile is unstable and it could come down --"
"The hell I'm not!" Ronon snarled. "Sheppard's in there!"
"What happened?" Teyla panted, echoing Rodney's thoughts.
"The pile shifted," a pale-faced Auralian told them. "Mage Sheppard was using his magic to move some of the rocks, but something slipped and he fell down inside the wreckage."
John had been using his powers all day. He had to be impossibly weary -- and if he hadn't floated himself out yet, then either he didn't have the energy to do it, or he was hurt ...
Rodney was moving before he realized it, lunging forward to lay his hands on the rain-slick, splintery beams. The pile of debris had the same odd double-vision effect that he'd noticed with Teyla earlier, a ghostly echo of each rock and beam, overlaid on the real ones and faintly glowing in the twilight. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to reach out in a way he couldn't quite define, feeling his way down the beams with delicate psychic fingertips. He could feel the stresses in them -- it was like being able to touch physics, and for a moment he was just caught up in the awesomeness of it, before, yes, priorities here -- John trapped, John hurt; and he snapped out of his reverie, using his newfound physics senses to give a little tap here, a poke there ... he worked the equations in his head at the speed of thought, figuring how much stress he needed to exert, in which direction --
The pile of debris shuddered and shifted again. Someone gave a little shriek, and it might actually have been Teyla. But then a rock rolled aside and John was sliding out, covered with mud and bleeding from scratches on his face, but gloriously, wonderfully alive. Rodney let go of the beam and staggered backwards, reeling from a sudden exhaustion and thinking, What did I just do?
"Wow," John said. Ronon helped him to his feet, maybe holding his arm a little more tightly than necessary. "Did you guys get another mage in here? I felt someone working the energies, but I was so damn tired I couldn't do anything to help."
"It was Rodney," Teyla said.
John's head came up. Rodney tried not to meet his eyes, feeling suddenly, acutely self-conscious. "Are you okay?" Rodney said instead.
"I'm fine, just kind of banged up. Rodney, what did you do?"
"I ..." The creepy thing was, he could still feel physics happening around him, even though the awareness had receded somewhat. "... I don't know?"
"We're going back to Atlantis," John said, and no one argued.
"This is very strange," Carson said.
Rodney glared at the healer as Carson removed his hands from Rodney's shoulders, breaking off the subtle tingle of connection. The double-vision effect kept coming and going, making him dizzy when he moved his head. "Not what I want to hear, Carson!"
"What's strange, Doc?" John sat on the next bed over, while Jennifer cleaned his scrapes. She worked smoothly and efficiently, wiping down each gash with an antiseptic towelette and then smoothing her dryad-green fingers after it, using a light healing cantrip to close the torn flesh.
Carson took a step backwards, frowning at Rodney in concentration. "You haven't any fae blood, do you?"
"Not that I know of. Why?"
Carson looked over at John. "I have a little touch of the fae, Rodney. But when I lay my hands on you, I'd swear that you've got it as strong as he does. I can feel the faerie blood all throughout you."
There was a moment of silence. Ronon chose that moment to step into the main infirmary from the showers; he paused in the act of toweling his wings dry. "What?" he said, glancing back and forth between them.
"Rodney," John said, drawling it out as he squinted past Jennifer. "Something you want to tell us?" There was a bit of a challenge in his tone.
"I'm not, though!" Rodney protested, and then backpedaled, because John being John, he just would take it the wrong way. "Not that there's anything wrong with -- I mean, you know that I think it's ridiculous the way that you people fixate on human genetic purity, but, well ... I guess it's possible, but I certainly haven't heard about anything on either side of my family."
"It can skip generations," John said, swinging his legs down off the side of the bed. "No one in my immediate family --" He broke off, and continued after a moment. "There's actually one school of thought that most, if not all, people with mage abilities have some fae in them somewhere, so far back that it doesn't manifest in any obvious way."
"Thank you for the lecture, Doctor Science," Rodney snapped. "That doesn't explain why this is happening to me now. Don't mage powers manifest during puberty?"
"That room under the city ..." Carson murmured.
Rodney turned a sharp look on him. "You examined me right after I was in that room! How could you not notice that I've turned into a fae?"
"First of all," Carson said shortly, "you haven't turned into a fae, you're just exhibiting fae-like traits in your aura; but you weren't like this a few hours ago. I gave you a very thorough examination, and I can assure you that I didn't notice anything of the sort."
"Well, obviously you missed something," Rodney said sullenly, and then blinked; the auras around everything in the room had begun to give him a headache.
"Rodney? What's wrong?" Carson and John spoke almost in unison.
"Nothing, it's just ..." Rodney rubbed his eyes, waving his free hand at both of them. "I'm, uh. Seeing things, a little, I guess."
"Seeing things?" Carson asked sharply. "How long have you been 'seeing things', Rodney?"
"Since going offworld, I guess? I can't really ... it's hard to describe."
To Rodney's discomfiture, Carson placed a hand on each of his shoulders and stared into his face. "Well, try."
"I, er ..." It was a lot harder to sum up what he was seeing than he would have expected. For one thing, it wasn't just that he saw things; he felt them, too. He could feel the walls of Atlantis around him, even Carson's heartbeat rippling through the hands on his shoulders. So he tried to describe that, as best he could.
"Magesight," John said, as Rodney began to wind down, and there was a soft hint of wonder in his tone. "I think you've got magesight."
"I never really understood this magesight that you've spoken of," Teyla said, in the cautious, not-offending-the-natives tone that she always took when she was discussing Earth magic.
Rodney scratched at his forearm. "Yeah, I'm not really sure if I understand it, either. I mean, you guys talk about it, but ..." He trailed off.
John and Carson shared an eloquent look. "It's ... look, magic and healing, both of them, are all about manipulating energy, right?" John said. "Just different aspects of it. And magesight is the ability to see that energy. That's all."
Rodney gave him a sharp look. "That's a whole lot less, um, mystical than I'd always got the impression that you guys go for."
John snorted. "Right, because I'm Mr. Mystical. That's me." Jennifer was done with him, and he slid down from the bed he'd been sitting on, and hopped up beside Rodney. His thigh pressed against Rodney's, warm and secure.
"So what do you see?" Rodney asked.
John blinked, and for a moment, the normal, hazel human eyes were replaced by vivid green cats' eyes. Another blink, and they were gone. It was a measure of how much he trusted the people in this room that he was even willing to let them see him like that. "It's hard to describe, Rodney, which is why we don't generally try to describe it to non-mages. I see auras, and I see the lines of force in the room. Right now, you ..." He looked briefly disconcerted as he blinked back to magesight, waiting a long moment before flickering back to his regular eyes again. "Okay, wow. Your aura is something else again."
"Something else like what?" Rodney had thought he was beyond being freaked out, but, okay, wow, apparently not.
"It's just different." John squinted at him. "Everyone's aura is unique, but yours is incredible. I can't really describe it. Do you see it, Carson?"
"I'm not sure I'm seeing the same thing you are, lad," Carson said. "We both have the sight, but mine is more specific than yours. There's a certain difference, though."
"What difference?" Rodney practically wailed. "What does it look like? Give me a hint!"
"It's not exactly something you can describe," John said, and his long, strong fingers closed over Rodney's, trapping his hand in mid-flail. Their relationship was something of an open secret on Atlantis, but like John's cats'-eyes, it wasn't something that was often expressed in front of other people, even Teyla and Ronon.
A full-body shiver worked its way through Rodney, but he let John lower his hand until it rested on John's muscular thigh. John, despite his flippant tone, did not let go. Rodney sighed. "Great; something weird is happening to me and none of you have the slightest clue what."
Teyla sat on Rodney's other side, not quite as close as John; she had known him the longest, and because of that, she very seldom touched him without his permission. "What do the whales say?" she asked quietly.
John raised an eyebrow. None of the Earth humans had even thought to ask, of course, but Teyla would know that the connection between Rodney and the whales went much deeper than he'd bothered telling anyone.
"That I'm far too young to go offworld by myself," Rodney grumbled, "and that's pretty much it. Also, I'm starving. I don't suppose one of you could get me something from the cafeteria, since you're all standing around anyway?"
In the end, Carson released him, because there was nothing they could really do for him. Zelenka's team was still studying the mysterious room, and, though he chafed at the restriction, Rodney privately had to agree that it was probably a good idea if he stayed away from it until they knew more about how it worked. Instead, Teyla, Ronon and John herded him to the cafeteria.
Rodney almost walked into a pillar when the double-vision thing flared up again. "Okay, that's really annoying."
"What is?" Ronon asked, looking up from preening his wings, as he often did by habit when he wasn't specifically doing anything else -- ordering the ruffled feathers, laying them smoothly side by side, and plucking out damaged ones. He tended to leave a little trail of feathers in the halls.
"Magesight?" John asked.
"I guess," Rodney said; he sounded sulky even to himself, but, given recent events, he didn't really care. "How do you manage to walk anywhere without tripping over things?"
"I can teach you to turn it on and off," John said.
To Rodney's surprise, it really wasn't that hard; by the time they reached the cafeteria, he was mostly in control. He noticed John frowning at him, but the cats'-eyes weren't in evidence, so John's expression must not have to do with his allegedly freaky aura. "Well? What?"
"It's just -- I didn't even know it was possible to learn to handle magesight so quickly," John said. "You've only been doing it for a few hours."
Rodney might not have wings, but he preened anyway. "Well, I am a genius."
"If this has anything to do with what happened to you earlier, I wonder what would have happened if a mage had stepped into that room." John's eyes practically had little stars in them.
"John," Teyla said quickly.
"I wasn't planning on it. Besides, it's broken now. But still -- if it gave Rodney magesight, when he doesn't have a drop of mage talent --"
"Hey!" Rodney said. But it was hard to get angry when his mind was already moving on, skimming over possibilities at a speed he wouldn't have believed possible just this morning. "You know, I think I'm getting smarter, too. Though it's difficult to tell, since I was pretty smart to start with." There was a muffled snort of laughter from Ronon. Rodney glared over his shoulder at him. "Don't even."
"How do you know?" Teyla asked him, as they selected fruit and pastries from the all-night table. The cafeteria was dimly lit and nearly abandoned. The four of them made their way to a table by the window, looking out over the moonlit ocean. Far out on the horizon, the whales left silver rings on the waves.
"I'm just thinking faster, that's all." He couldn't figure out how to condense his thoughts down to simple human speech to explain to her. Maybe this was how it had felt for John, trying to explain about magesight. Only, of course, without the genius part. "Ooh! We need to collect data on this." Pulling a napkin towards him, he fished in a pocket for a pen. There were a few advantages to wearing clothes, he had to admit. "Teyla, give me a math problem. John, time me."
Teyla sighed and offered some of the simpler rune-math calculations that she used when she was designing a new rune. Rodney rolled his eyes. Though he'd always had a bit of trouble with rune math -- it was entirely different from either Earth or whale math; he could hardly be expected to bother learning every kind of notation in existence -- these would have been easy problems for him even under normal circumstances. "Come on. Something hard."
Teyla quizzed him while they ate, and he covered both sides of several napkin with notations in his own personal shorthand, recording his times. John, amused, timed him with a wristwatch. Picking up two napkins and comparing them, Rodney frowned. "Teyla, are these getting easier?"
Her brows climbed. "No, Rodney; I am actually giving you progressively more difficult problems."
"Huh. I'm actually getting faster. Maybe I'm getting smarter even as I sit here."
John and Ronon shared a look. Rodney scowled at them. "I saw that."
"Maybe you are just getting more used to solving this kind of problem," Teyla said, but she was frowning. "These were never easy for you before, Rodney."
Rodney scowled harder; he didn't like being reminded that any kind of (human) math was hard for him. But she was right. Also, he'd eaten one of every different kind of pastry on the table, and he was still vaguely hungry even though he was also unpleasantly stuffed. And his neck itched.
"Dunno about the rest of you, but I'm turning in," Ronon said, stretching. "Long day."
Teyla nodded and rose, graceful despite her obvious weariness. "I suggest the two of you get some sleep as well. We still have much work to do on Auralia."
"Joy," Rodney muttered, but quietly.
He watched them walk off. Though neither of them were officially attached to the Atlantis expedition, both maintained semi-permanent quarters on Atlantis for those times when they weren't on Athos.
"You going to bed?" John asked him quietly.
Rodney shook his head. "I haven't seen the whales in a while."
"How long? Hours?" John said lightly, but he rose and followed Rodney out of the cafeteria.
The ocean was flat and glittering under the Lantean moon. Rodney shed his clothes on the pier and slipped into the pleasantly cool water. A broad whaleback rose up under him and lifted him out of the water with great delicacy for something so large. He sighed and stretched out, folding his arms under his chin. Turning his head, he saw John watching him from the pier, sitting beside his pile of clothing. "Come on in," he said. "Water's fine."
John shook his head and sat on the pier, legs dangling over the edge, and smiled. "Not really in a mood for a swim."
"So why are you here, then?"
John just shrugged. "Guess I wasn't quite ready to turn in yet. Sometimes I run. Sometimes I come down and watch whales."
And watch you. It was as plain as if he'd said it aloud. In fact, for a moment, Rodney thought he had said it -- but the odd, happy little flip in his stomach was swallowed by the whales' mental flood of interest.
You're much better now at talking in the usual way, little podling.
The "usual way" was telepathy, of course -- and he could tell so, without the usual layers of obfuscation that accompanied a conversation with the whales. He'd never been bad at talking to whales, of course, but he always got the feeling that there was a whole conversation going on over his head, in frequencies he couldn't quite touch.
But it wasn't that way now. The pod were chatting, as they did, and rather than the indistinct murmur that he usually heard, he could understand most of it.
Wow, I'm almost as smart as a whale, Rodney thought in wonder, and sat up on the broad, smooth whaleback. Talk to me, guys, he thought at the whales, not bothering to vocalize as he normally did; though normally it helped him focus his thoughts in the whales' direction, he found that it was actually quite unnecessary and pointless.
Talk about what? the whale under him asked.
I don't know. Anything. Math.
Very gently and carefully, the whale offered him a three-dimensional construct of the ocean currents in her immediate vicinity. The whales always handled him with kid gloves, so to speak, when they talked math with him -- they were afraid of driving him insane by accidentally dumping too much information into his brain.
But this was easy. This was kid stuff -- kid-whale stuff, anyway. He could grasp it with ease, and reached for more. The whales, startled, responded, very cautiously at first and then with more conviction and confidence. They could recognize the changes in him, the receptivity of his mind, in a way that the humans couldn't.
Podling, what has happened to you? the fluid dynamics whale asked him. You are different.
I'm smarter. Better.
Hands on his shoulders. He reacted instinctively, acting from instincts he hadn't even known he possessed -- his brain was processing on a dozen levels at once, one level telling him very rationally that it had been several hours (really?) since he'd begun communing with whales, another handing back information on the current state of his body (chilly, low blood sugar, kind of achy and sore), another already acting to bring up his body temperature and metabolism, another informing him that the person touching him was John, even as he acted to do -- what? Green light flared around him as he tried desperately to catch up on a meta-processing level, because he'd just attacked John and he hadn't even known he could do that --
-- John, who was, of course, a mage, and deflected Rodney's unskilled flare of energy, but it knocked him back; he glided over the waves and then came back to settle on the whale's back. The whale was rock-solid under them both. The rest of the startled pod might have been frozen on the waves.
"Rodney?" John said gently, crouching down. "You okay?"
"I don't know," Rodney breathed. His voice shook. He'd attacked John. But what a rush, that wash of energy through his body. He was shaky and trembling, but he could still feel the aftereffects of that incredible, unexpected high. "What -- what happened?"
"You just blew raw energy at me." John was moving slowly and carefully -- Like he thinks I'm a wild animal or something, Rodney thought, but hadn't he just reacted like one? Already, though, his brain was working its way around this new information, slotting it into place -- next time he could react more consciously, control this newfound ability more readily.
And a tiny, scared little piece of his mind wailed, What's happening to me?
The whales, big eavesdropping busybodies, picked up on this, and when he opened his mouth to explain, what came out was a small, scared, "The whales are worried about me."
John gave a small, startled bark of laughter. "Yeah, buddy, so'm I. You've just been sitting there on that whale for hours -- no offense," he added to the whale, "-- and your aura's going crazy. Do you feel all right?"
"Yes," Rodney said. "Well, sort of. Well," he admitted in a small voice, "no. I'm cold and hungry -- I'm really hungry, and, and my arms hurt."
"Here," John said gently, "let me see," and he took Rodney's hands in his, turning them over.
Rodney sucked in a sharp breath when he got a good look, and so did John. The graceful Athosian designs that Teyla had, as usual, painstakingly inked onto his arms and the backs of his hands were delineated in swollen, red flesh. For a moment, both of them just stared in shock. Then John, with exquisite care, laid his thumb down across one of the markings; it hurt, but Rodney tried not to flinch.
"Iron," John said softly. "There are trace amounts of iron oxides in the pigment. Not enough to bother me, really -- it just feels a little bit warm to me. Have you touched anything made of iron lately?"
"Is that what -- am I --" For a man with a genius-level IQ under normal circumstances, who could almost feel himself getting smarter by the minute, Rodney was having a hard time getting his thoughts to come together. "Is Carson right? Am I going all ... fae?"
"I don't know." John's grip shifted back to Rodney's hands; he very lightly caressed the untattooed parts of Rodney's hands with his thumbs.
"Not that there's anything wrong with that," Rodney said, trying to get his voice back to normal. Somehow, John's hands were very grounding. "Can we, um, get this stuff off me now?"
"How?" John said.
"How" was a good question. The pigments normally wore off on their own, or would, if Teyla didn't keep renewing them; Rodney hadn't been entirely without them since Teyla had started doing the painting for him when they were both children.
They tried taking a shower in John's quarters. Rodney technically had quarters of his own, but he tended to spend little time there, especially now that he was sleeping with John -- they hadn't said anything or made a big deal about it, and neither of them really had a word for whatever they were to each other, but Rodney's clothes and the handful of other items that he owned were slowly but surely migrating over to John's place.
The shower was nice, and it warmed him up and relaxed him, but didn't do anything at all to the paint -- which wasn't surprising, since keeping him afloat was its entire purpose. The rash seemed to be getting steadily worse; it felt like poison ivy, itching and burning. So they ended up knocking on Teyla's door in the middle of the night. After a pause, she opened it, wrapped snugly in a patterned Athosian robe.
"Rodney?" she said, looking back and forth between them. "John? Is everything all right?"
"Sort of." John's eyes flickered nervously around her quarters. She didn't keep much stuff here, since technically she still lived on Athos, but she'd managed to deck it out like the inside of an Athosian tent. Rodney was used to it, but John rarely came here. "Um, can we come in?"
Even woken in the middle of the night, Teyla was nothing if not gracious. "Of course. Please." She took Rodney's hand and sucked in a startled breath.
"Yeah," Rodney said, "that's kind of the, um, problem."
Teyla turned on a lamp and drew him closer to it. "Rodney, what has happened? Are you allergic? I have been using the same pigments on you for years."
"I'm not sure, but it's kind of acting like I've suddenly become allergic." Rodney's knees folded and he sat down on the edge of her bed. This was all just too weird, and he was shaky and starving.
"Food," John said, "you said you were hungry, right," and he vanished out of Teyla's room, off down the hall. Rodney looked up and stared after him for a moment.
By the time John got back with a handful of pastries, Teyla had gently stripped off the paint, and Rodney had discovered yet another weird new ability -- as soon as the irritating pigments were gone from his skin, he could heal the damage in its wake. Not a mark was left.
"Oh wow," John said, when Rodney, after inhaling two pastries, told him this.
But, having discovered this newfound ability, Rodney's superfast brain had already jumped on to a related possibility. "Thanks," he said to Teyla, "thanks, really --" and he was out the door. Normally he shouldn't be able to run to the nearest transporter without even getting winded, but apparently his control over his body was better right now in all ways. Even John and Teyla had trouble keeping up.
Rodney took them to the infirmary level. "You two really don't have to come."
"Oh yes we do," John said.
The infirmary was dim and quiet, with just a single night nurse on duty, reading an old copy of the Applied Journal of Healing Magic in a pool of lamplight. She looked up at their entrance. "Can I help you?"
Rodney went shy and flustered. "The girl, the one who -- you know, the one. Can I see her?"
Most people around Atlantis tended to react to Rodney in a certain way -- giving him an odd look when he started spouting incomprehensible statements, then getting out of his way and letting him do whatever he wanted. The nurse was no exception; she just pointed to a curtain at the back of the infirmary.
The Taranan girl was still in a coma. Her mother drowsed at her bedside. When Rodney pulled the curtain aside, she started awake. "Honored McKay --" she began.
"Just a minute," Rodney said absently, and let his body do its new thing. It seemed natural to lay his hands on top of the blanket covering the girl's small body, so he did.
There was a rush of energy, a little like what he'd felt when he'd thrown all that energy at John, but richer, warmer. The little girl drew a deep breath and then she blinked sleepily up at them. She started to raise an arm and then stopped, startled by the healing filaments all over her body. "Mommy?"
Rodney took a step backwards, then another. The little girl was awake, blinking and talking with her arms around her mother's neck, and John and Teyla were staring at him. In the back of his mind, the whales made worried noises.
The next thing he knew, he was out in the corridor, and John and Teyla each had a hand on his back. He was sitting down. He didn't remember how he'd gotten like this. He could feel their worry bleeding down their arms, through their fingers, into him, and he was pretty sure the feeling was neither metaphorical nor his imagination. With the whales, he could hear their thoughts only when they were projected at him, but he was starting to be able to hear the humans around him all the time.
"What's happening to me?" he asked in a tiny voice.
"If I didn't know better," Carson said, "I'd say you were pure fae, Rodney. I've never seen anything like it."
Rodney's sensitivity to iron had grown so severe that he couldn't even stand to be in the infirmary anymore, at least not without being acutely edgy and uncomfortable, with a growing ache like he was coming down with the world's worst flu. Vaguely he recalled John once telling him that it was intensely uncomfortable for those of fae blood to live in human cities. He was starting to see why.
Luckily Atlantis had been built by fae, so as long as he stayed out of the areas where the humans had brought their Earth technology, he was fine. Right now they were out on a balcony not too far from the infirmary. The sun came up over the water while Carson examined him. Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney could see little rings of ripples in the long rays of the rising sun: the whales, keeping an eye on him in their own way.
With a great flurry of wings, Ronon landed on the edge of the balcony. "So what'd he do to himself now?"
"I didn't do anything to myself in the first place," Rodney snapped. When Ronon approached him, he winced; Ronon stopped, looking puzzled. "Knives," Rodney said. "Ow."
"He's acutely iron-sensitive," John explained to Ronon. "Worse than me now."
Ronon paused in the act of pulling a knife out of his hair. "Do these hurt you?" he asked John. "To be around 'em, I mean."
John shrugged. "Not really, not if I don't touch them. I can feel them, but it isn't painful. Rodney, on the other hand ..."
"There are only a handful of cases like this in the historical medical literature, all people who were very nearly pure fae-blooded." Carson sounded excited. Rodney restrained the urge to kick him in the shin -- or toss him off the balcony; he was pretty sure at this point he could probably do it without touching him, and wasn't that a fun thought. "Acute iron sensitivity, healing powers, magesight -- Rodney, what else can you do?"
"I'm really smart," Rodney said, and when everyone looked at him with varying degrees of exasperation: "No, more than usual, I mean. I can understand whale math." He could tell by the mental feedback, as well as the looks on their faces, that this wasn't nearly as impressive to them as it was to him. "Also, I seem to have become telepathic, which is kind of creepy, by the way."
He had to clamp down on the mental response to this, because all of them tried to blank their minds at once, which of course had the opposite effect. "Oh, stop it. I've been living with telepathic whales all my life; I know how to avoid picking up stray thoughts if I don't want to. Well, I'm learning fast, anyway. It's just a matter of not listening. What else ...? Oh, right -- I nearly blew up John." Which he still felt guilty about.
"He missed," John said.
The door to the balcony burst open, and Zelenka stumbled out into the morning sun and the wind. He looked even more mussed than usual, with his hair askew and shadows under his eyes. "There you all are! Does no one wear a communication pendant anymore?"
"What's the matter with you?" Rodney demanded, then realized an instant later, as Zelenka started to splutter through a long-winded and confused explanation, that he could just cut right to the point. He felt a brief twinge of guilt for skimming Zelenka's surface thoughts, but not nearly as much guilt as almost frying John earlier. Besides, he just needed to dip in quickly enough to find out what the werewolf was going on about.
A minute later, he panicked and blew out all the windows within three floors of the balcony.
Woolsey had been having a good day, relatively speaking, until the damage reports came in. It was all downhill from there.
"So Waystation Keeper McKay is now a fae," he said with what he thought was reasonable calm. He'd wanted to have this meeting in his office, but Dr. Beckett claimed it was too full of iron, so they were on the balcony just outside.
"Sort of a magical mutation," Zelenka put in. Rodney was uncharacteristically quiet; he had the preoccupied look on his face that he normally wore when he was communing with whales.
"And he's obtained a wide variety of psychic and magical powers." Woolsey thought he was following along pretty well with this part.
"You're telling me," John said.
"And ... he's going to die? Or vanish in some fashion? I'm not sure I understand." The mutually conflicting emails he'd gotten all at once that morning from Zelenka, Sheppard, Beckett and Rodney hadn't made him any less confused, especially since Rodney's had apparently been sent without using a computer.
Woolsey noticed that at his words, John, Teyla and Ronon all clustered a bit closer around Rodney, who still hadn't said anything.
"Let me explain," Zelenka said, pushing his glasses up his nose. "We all know that the fae left this plane of existence many generations ago -- yes?" He looked around to make sure that his audience was listening. "We know that they came out of Faerie, and went back to Faerie, but we know nothing about Faerie itself, except snatches of information from old myths and legends. It is said that time passes differently there, that eating or drinking anything will cause you to be --"
"We've all had History 101, Radek," Rodney muttered. "Even me, and I was raised by whales. Get to the point."
"Yes. Right." The werewolf scrubbed at his wild hair with one hand. "In any case, my department has come to believe that the room which was triggered by Rodney's presence is a defunct or possibly incomplete portal to Faerie. The transition into Faerie is more of a state of mind than a physical journey; the legends speak of those who could make the transition passing through from our world to the other world in many different locations, under many circumstances. We believe that the power circle under the city had been slowly building up energy for many years. It discharged into Rodney and started a series of changes in his body that will eventually cause him to transition from this plane to the one that our legends call the land of Faerie."
The little cluster of people around Rodney had grown tighter.
"And ... then what?" Woolsey said.
"Well, we don't know for sure, do we?" Rodney snapped. "Because mortals who go to Faerie tend not to come back. I'm not quite as up on my faerie lore as the rest of you people, but I do know that it's a whole lot easier to get into Faerie than to get out -- and it isn't easy to get in! I'm not good at quests and, and I remember a lot of stories about people who thought they'd only been gone for a night or two but came back to find that generations had passed and everyone they'd known was dead --"
"That is not going to happen, Rodney," Teyla said firmly, placing her hand on his arm.
"How long do we have?" Woolsey asked.
Zelenka glanced nervously at Rodney. "We are ... not sure, but --"
"Oh, don't forget I can read your mind," Rodney said crossly. "He thinks it's probably no more than 24 hours at this point," he said to the balcony at large, and turned and stomped out.
The others eventually found him off the East Pier, lying on a whale.
John and Teyla both shucked off their outer clothes without saying anything and slipped into the water. Ronon came to perch on top of the nearest whale who was willing to hold still for him.
"Mage Woolsey is arranging to have a message sent to your sister on Earth," Teyla said, slipping out of the water with a mermaid's grace to sit next to Rodney on whaleback.
"Oh good," Rodney said miserably. "So she can cut her trip short and come back to watch me disappear."
"No one's going to disappear." From the tone of John's voice, it sounded as if any fae who showed up to drag Rodney away were going to have to contend with an extremely pissed-off mage.
Rodney rolled over onto his back and stared up at the sky. "Look, guys," he said after a moment. "It's not that I don't appreciate this. Really, I do. But ... the thing is, if it was easy to get to and from Faerie, people would do it all the time, to consult with the fae about all these idiot inventions that they left lying around if nothing else."
The auras limning everything around him had grown brighter and more intense over the last day or so. Rodney remembered his excitement at realizing that he could see physics; his own eagerness seemed childish to him now.
"Radek's searching the database for any information on the passage into Faerie," John said.
"Oh, Radek's on the job; I guess I'm as good as cured." Rodney continued to stare up at the sky.
Something whacked him on the arm. He looked up in shock, expecting John, but it was Teyla.
"You hit me!"
"I did indeed." Teyla folded her arms and stared down at him. "You are not going to die, Rodney, merely translate from one plane of existence to another. As long as you can still think, you can solve problems, correct?"
"Well, of course --"
"And aren't you always reminding us that you're the best one around at solving problems?" John said.
Yeah, and at the moment one of the problems was that he could easily read the fear and uncertainty behind the facade of confidence that they were all three trying to project at him. They wanted him to believe that he could figure a way out of this, which was touching in its own way, but not one of them actually, deep down, believed that he could.
He tried not to read too much of what they were projecting at him; it felt uncomfortably voyeuristic, because they couldn't turn it off and on, unlike the whales. But it was hard to avoid being aware of the palpable affection and worry in which they saturated him, without meaning to. He'd never noticed it before, not really -- but it really was obvious even without telepathy, wasn't it? At the moment, he was positively marinating in it: Teyla's sisterly concern, Ronon's fierce protectiveness, John's ... whatever the heck he was picking up from John, a weird mix of emotion with a bottomless pit of terror underneath it. The fact that he couldn't see any of John's emotional turmoil on his face made it all the weirder.
He's afraid I'm going to die -- or, if not die, then never come back, which might be worse. They're all afraid.
If he could figure out how to stop what was happening to him, he would. And yet ... a part of him wasn't really afraid at all, and that part grew more confident and serene as the inevitability of it began to set in. He might not be able to stop this, but was it really the worst thing that could possibly happen to him? He'd get a chance to see something that few humans had ever seen, and possibly none in ten thousand years.
He felt light, floating, not quite connected to the whale underneath him; he had to glance down to make sure that he wasn't drifting off her back. Time seemed to spread and slow. He was aware of each second slipping by, carrying him one instant closer to ... what?
His friends -- his human pod -- still watched him, unable to help or understand. He wished that he could explain to them that he wasn't afraid. Well ... maybe he could.
"Teyla," he said, and took her hand in his. She looked down at their linked hands, startled, and Rodney tried to remember if he'd ever touched her like that before. It was easy to touch the whales, who reciprocated in kind, but much harder to touch humans with the same abandon. This, too, seemed childish to him now.
I've always been between two worlds, he thought, and the realization was strangely freeing. This is no different than it's always been for me.
"Rodney," John said, with a sharp note of alarm in his voice. He sat up on the whale -- Rodney was aware of him doing so without looking at him. "Your aura --"
"I know," Rodney said; he couldn't see what John was seeing, but he could feel the difference in himself. He was changing, sliding ever closer to whatever waited for him.
Teyla's hands tightened on his. Though her face was serene as always, there were tears standing in her eyes. "We will find a way to stop this, Rodney," she said. "There must be a way."
"It's all right." He leaned forward and rubbed the side of his face against hers, whale-style.
There was a flutter of wings, and Ronon landed next to him, kneeling down. He laid a big hand on Rodney's back.
The whales really didn't understand; they were picking up on his distress, but couldn't comprehend the reasons behind it. Rodney could feel their confusion, and the deeply bizarre thought occurred to him that in some ways, he understood more than they did -- right now he could, in some sense, straddle his two worlds more ably than he'd ever been able to before. It was just a matter of being able to see.
He turned his head and dragged his cheek along the side of Ronon's face. At first Ronon flinched; Rodney could feel his startlement and confusion, but after the initial, automatic jerk backwards, he didn't try to pull away. His beard was softer than it looked.
John just watched, his green eyes dark. In the tangle of emotions that emanated from him, Rodney managed to tease out thin, bitter threads of jealousy, anger, isolation and hurt.
The whales didn't know jealousy. It was something that Rodney had first encountered among humans, and he still understood it only vaguely. It made no sense to him. But it was hurting John, hurting him as much as the impending awareness of separation, and that was all he needed to know. Like so much of what he'd done lately, his response was instinctive and something that he didn't fully understand -- he reached, and something wrapped around John, something only visible to Rodney through the second sight that he'd developed. Rodney was so startled that he let it evaporate, and John sprawled on the whale's pebbly skin.
The whale sternly wanted to know what in the ocean everyone was doing up there. Sorry, Rodney said to her, and to John, a bit plaintively, "What did I just do?" He'd let go of Ronon and Teyla in surprise.
John blinked at him, and then picked himself up carefully. "You're manipulating energy directly," he said. "Same way I fly. Except, I use spells and control stones to guide it. Pure energy control, without any technological assistance, is ... it's incredibly difficult and complicated, and it wears you out quickly. Only the most talented and experienced mages can do it."
"Huh," Rodney said. "Like this?" And he picked John up the same way he'd done before, but more carefully this time, very carefully, setting him down close enough that Rodney could touch him --
-- or at any rate, that was the plan, except that as soon as his feet left the whale, John went into full "struggle and fight" mode. He broke free immediately and dropped a couple of feet to land barefoot on the whale's back. He was panting, color rising in his cheeks. He looked startled and shaken and kind of pissed.
Teyla and Ronon were looking back and forth between him and Rodney as if they didn't know which of the two of them they'd rather stare at.
"What?" Rodney said, confused. "I'm just trying to figure out how it works." It was weird -- though technically he could read John's mind, it was like being handed a book in a completely unfamiliar language that kept shifting on him. Knowing what John was thinking, and knowing why John was thinking it, were two completely different things. Right now John was mad at him and getting madder, but Rodney had no idea why.
"What?" Rodney said again, as John continued to glare at him.
"You're dying," John said, as if that explained everything.
"You're dying and all you can do is -- is try to take this apart, like it's a goddamn jigsaw puzzle, this thing that --"
John finished the sentence in his head, This thing that I've spent my whole life learning, and Rodney said cautiously, "Is that what's upset you? That I'm better at it than you are now?" Human emotions were confusing as hell, even now.
For a moment John just stared at him, utter disbelief radiating from him on the psychic level, then "No!" he snapped, and lifted off the whale. His aura flared bright green in Rodney's new magesight and dwindled above them like a little green spark, until he lit on a very high balcony.
"That was weird," Rodney said, appealing to Teyla, but she was giving him a soft, sympathetic look.
"Rodney," she said sadly, "you really have no clue sometimes, do you?"
Rodney looked back and forth between the two of them. One would think telepathy would help at times like this. "I'm ... not sure what you're talking about."
Ronon tapped him firmly on the back. "Rodney. Go to him."
"I don't know how much time I --"
"Go now, then!"
Rodney stared at them, and then wildly, desperately, clutched at whatever part of them was near enough -- Teyla's shoulder and a handful of Ronon's feathers. Letting go, he did that thing he'd done to pull John closer, only backwards. It lifted him into the air.
John actually liked to fly, which was completely insane. Rodney's main thought was Oh dear god, I'm flying, and he would have grabbed at anything handy if there'd been anything other than empty air to grab. Instead, he flailed wildly for a moment before managing to launch himself upwards. John flew like a falcon; Rodney felt more like an ungainly parade float.
John was perched on a little tiny balcony encircling a spire, high above the city. "Uh, Rodney?" he said, looking boggled when Rodney sank down next to him.
"Oh thank heaven." Rodney clutched at the decking. "I may be dying, but this is not how I want to go." He looked up at John, and fumbled for words. What came out was, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to -- I don't know what I did, but -- Are we good?"
John started to sit down. Somewhere along the way, it crumbled into a controlled fall that ended with him in a jumble of limbs next to Rodney. "It's not about the damn powers, all right?" he said, and hooked an arm around Rodney, pulled him in.
"Oh," Rodney said, very quietly.
Somehow the disconnected feeling was less when John held him -- like John was holding him down, a lifeline connecting him to the world. "I can't stop it," he said into John's neck, and then, the hardest thing: "I don't know how to stop it."
"Do the whales know anything?" John asked, into his hair.
"I -- I've asked; they're just confused. This doesn't have any meaning for them." The whales didn't even understand death, not in the way that Rodney (and, he presumed, other humans) thought of it. For them, it wasn't an end, just a passage to another, deeper ocean. They saw nothing wrong with that. It wasn't that they didn't want to help their littlest pod member, but it was entirely outside their comprehension. A drylander thing.
He had never perceived how limited they were, in their way.
"How long?" John asked quietly.
"I don't know. Not very long at all." He tingled in every limb, a gentle fizzy feeling. He could barely feel John holding on to him.
John pulled back, looked at him for a moment, then leaned in and kissed him quickly. "You know what I've always wanted to do?"
Rodney blinked at him in shock, looked down at the tiny white wakes of the whales far below and then back at John. "If you have some kind of height fetish, Sheppard ..."
"What? No." John laughed, a small weak laugh, but a genuine one. "You can fly now, right? I want to fly with you, Rodney."
He took Rodney's hand, and climbed onto the railing of the balcony.
"Oh, no way," Rodney managed faintly.
John tugged on his hand -- and they fell.
It was terrifying and horrible and -- and heady, thrilling; the wind tearing at his clothes, bringing tears to his eyes, and John was grinning crazily -- Rodney thought someone might have screamed, possibly himself, but then they were leveling off over the ocean, their bare toes grazing the waves. Rodney gasped until his pounding heart returned to something near normal. "You are insane," he choked out.
"And you," John said, "are flying."
He was, wasn't he? They rose a little, the ocean below them, the spires of Atlantis behind. After a few moments Ronon joined them, flying with long slow wingbeats, carrying Teyla in his arms; with typical Teyla foresight, she was also carrying the bundle of clothing that they'd shed on the pier. The whales swam below, keeping pace.
Rodney wasn't sure where they were going. Somehow it didn't matter. They just flew, the four of them, soaring over the waves into the setting sun, with the whales trailing in a ragged V behind them. John's fingers were warm in Rodney's, the only thing he could feel.
The sun set; color bled out of the sky, and the stars began to come out above them. Rodney thought, in a distant part of his mind, that he should probably be getting tired, but he wasn't, not at all.
"Look," Teyla whispered, leaning against Ronon's leather-clad chest.
In the afternoon sunshine it had seemed only a trick of the slanting golden light, but as dusk gathered around them, it became clear that it was no optical illusion at all. Rodney's body was glowing, and getting brighter, streamers of light trailing off him in the wake of their flight.
Teyla wondered if he was aware of it. John certainly must be, but he didn't falter, didn't slow.
She became aware of the dark line of the mainland on the horizon, breaking the moonpath on the water.
"Are you tired?" she asked Ronon, leaning her head back so that she could see the side of his face and his wings, above them, silvered in the moonlight. "I can ride on a whale for a time to give you a chance to rest." The whale pod had been keeping pace with them, long gray backs breaching and disappearing beneath their feet.
"I'm not tired."
Well, it wasn't as if she could argue with him. And if he dropped her, they weren't terribly high. Teyla tried to relax and enjoy the ride, but she couldn't, not with Rodney as bright as a glowfish in front of them.
She'd been just a child when she first met Meredith Rodney McKay, the waystation keeper's son. She'd thought him ill-mannered and rude, just a little brat of a boy, more interested in his whales than in playing with a stranger's daughter. And, well ... He was, she thought, smiling sadly to herself. He is.
She could barely remember a time when he hadn't been in her life. Though they had never slept together, she had learned his body as well as any lover in the course of painting and renewing her protective symbols. As the most accomplished rune-scientist of her generation, Teyla supplied runes of protection to most of the people, houses, weapons and technology in her village. But Rodney, she thought, had probably never realized that her best and most careful work was what she'd done on him. No one else had spent so much time under her rune-brush; no one else had so much of her own care and attention and energy worked into their skin, their soul.
If Rodney died, a piece of her would die with him.
There must be something we can do. There must be a way.
The dark bulk of the mainland humped up against the stars, distant hills rising like the spine of some ancient sea monster. A beach unrolled like a silver string against the dark continent. The bright spark that marked John and Rodney descended towards it, and Ronon banked and followed in a long, slow, curving glide.
The whales could not come closer without risking themselves in the shallows, so they circled at sea, their paths marked by criss-crossing luminescent trails and an occasional silver splash.
Ronon set her down gently on the beach. Teyla's feet touched sand, still warm from the day's heat. The susurration of the surf was much louder at ground level, a low hollow roar.
John and Rodney were in the very edge of the water's reach. Waves foamed around their feet as Teyla walked towards them, sinking to her ankles in soft sand. No, she realized -- waves were lapping at John's feet. Rodney wasn't quite touching the ground, and she could faintly see the lines of sea and land through his body. He was like a ghost, a mirage. There was nothing to him; it seemed that the wind could blow him away.
Snaky trails of light spun out slowly from his body, curled around John, brushed the tops of the waves. Teyla could see his face -- he didn't look sad or scared, just serene and a little blank. He was looking at the sky.
She started to run. And because she was running, she didn't see exactly what happened -- if he faded away gradually, or vanished in an instant, or took a step through a visible portal. By the time she got there, with Ronon a step behind her, John's arms were empty.
The three of them were alone on the beach in the moonlight.
Teyla thought she heard an echo of distant music, like faerie bells. But perhaps it was only the muttering of the waves farther down the beach.
John sank to his knees on the wet sand. Water swamped his legs; he didn't seem to notice. Teyla knelt beside him, Ronon on the other side. The water was just cool enough to be pleasant after the warmth of the afternoon.
"I saw ..." John began, and then fell silent. It must be sea spray that glistened on his cheeks, because his face was composed, blank of expression. He was staring out to sea, but Teyla didn't think he was seeing it. "There was light, bright light, and I thought I heard music. It felt -- welcoming. It felt like going home. And I tried to follow, but --" He turned his face towards her, and for a moment the mask slipped; she saw his anguish, a mirror echo of her own. "I couldn't," he finished in a whisper. "There was no door for me."
"Oh, John." Teyla put her arms around him, let his wet face sink into her shoulder, and buried her tears in his damp hair. With her face hidden, she felt Ronon's wings, still trembling from the strain of the flight, close around them both. "It's all right," she found herself whispering into John's hair, but it wasn't all right, it would never be all right again.
He hadn't been sure what to expect, but whatever he'd imagined, it hadn't been this: a road, long and curving gently between groves of pale-barked, winter-dead trees. The sky overhead was flat and gray, like an overcast day that hid the sun without blocking too much of its light.
The only color anywhere in the white and gray landscape were roses: bright splashes of red, gold and salmon on dark, leafless bushes. Rodney had no idea how the roses could be blooming when everything else seemed to have been blighted or frosted. The air wasn't cold, though, and it smelled just slightly of ash.
He started to take a step off the path, onto the colorless straw, to get a better look at the roses.
"Don't leave the road," a female voice said behind him, sharp with alarm.
He jumped and spun around. The speaker was leaning against one of the dead-looking, bone-colored trees. She was tall and stately, with pale hair and charcoal-and-white robes that rippled around her as if moved by invisible currents in the air. She would have been beautiful if not for the grayish tint to her skin, and her utterly inhuman eyes: dark liquid pools without irises or whites. But she was familiar. Rodney could swear he'd seen her somewhere before.
"You're off the road," Rodney pointed out.
Her mouth quirked. There was something about that expression -- warm, affectionate. He definitely knew her from somewhere. "I know the area well. And even I -- we -- get lost sometimes. This is not a safe place, little one."
She pointed; Rodney followed her long, grayish finger to a skeleton tangled in one of the rosebushes. It wasn't human, or even close; it looked like something that might have been dug up in a cave somewhere -- a lean fishlike form with a long sawblade for a snout. Something very old, something extinct.
"Where am I, anyway?"
"This is one of the roads to Faerie," the curiously familiar woman said.
"So this isn't Faerie itself," he said, frowning at her.
"No, just an in-between place on the way to it." She smiled and stepped away from the tree. Despite the weird eyes and her overall mysterious manner, Rodney found himself unafraid of her, though he wondered if he ought to be worried by that. Still, he'd died, hadn't he? What else was there to worry about after you were dead?
"Normally you would have a guide," she said. "Drylanders don't usually cross over into Faerie by themselves. It's very easy to get lost. That's why I came, to help you. A number of us did, but I'm the only one on this particular road ..."
It was drylanders that gave it away.
"You're a whale," he said in disbelief, squinting at her. "I know you."
She smiled -- quick, affectionate and sweet. "I'm the one you call fluid dynamics whale, in your words."
"Oh no." His eyes went wide as he worked through the implications. "Are you dead? You bunch didn't -- didn't beach yourself to follow me, or anything like that, did you?"
The whale-woman laughed, but it wasn't cruel or mocking laughter. "Oh, poor podling; no, we're all right. It isn't easy to get here -- the math is very complicated, far beyond anything we've been able to show you -- but we sometimes do. The ones you call Ancestors helped us the first time, long ago. We were all fellow intelligent beings, after all, and we used to converse frequently with the fae who lived in Atlantis. Not me personally, of course -- my own ancestors, long ago. But it is very good to see you safe and well, little podling. I was worried I wouldn't get here in time."
As she spoke, she'd stepped onto the road; now she placed her hands gently on his shoulders and rubbed her face against his. Rodney had to stifle a startled flinch, but she smelled like a whale -- salt and sea brine -- and though her gray skin looked cold, she was very warm. She rested her cheek against his for a moment. Finally he was the one to pull back.
"So you can come and go? You guys just -- cross over into Faerie whenever you want? I didn't know that was possible."
"We can't go all the way." The fluid dynamics whale drew back and looked at him with her dark deep eyes, her head tilted to one side. Rodney was reminded of the way that the whales, especially the younger ones, sometimes swam upside down to get another look at something that was puzzling them. "The fae opened a door into Faerie for us, and invited us in. We looked and decided that it wasn't for us. We like being alive -- swimming, and playing, and having sex and raising children. Faerie is very beautiful, and there's lots and lots of new math to learn, but nothing ever really changes there. Nothing is born, nothing dies. We -- my ancestors -- chose the living world with all its uncertainty and imperfection, over Faerie where they like everything perfect and neat with tidy answers." The smile that flickered on her lips was a little bit sad. "The fae closed the door and haven't spoken to us since."
Rodney had fixated on one phrase in that whole speech. "New math?"
The whale nodded, her seafoam hair shifting on her shoulders. "Faerie is a place of knowledge, little podling. You might like it there very much. They have no true bodies to distract them from the pursuit of knowledge -- no need to eat or sleep, no worries, no attempt to concern themselves with love or hate."
"Can you show me how to get there? Guide me?"
"If it's what you want, little one."
Rodney looked back over his shoulder, though there was nothing behind him but more miles of blank, empty road. "If I go on, I'll never see them again, will I? Teyla and Ronon and ... and John."
The whale shook her head. "No, little podling. They will age and die in the blink of an eye while time crawls by in Faerie. And eventually you will forget them."
"Never," Rodney said darkly.
The whale's smile was soft and sad. "Everyone does. That's how Faerie works."
"What about you?" he asked, hesitant. "You whales. Would you be able to visit me there?"
Again, a small shake of her head. "We can't go into Faerie. We aren't welcome there. We made our choice, long ago -- and when we die the true death, it's a different ocean where we swim."
Rodney turned to look up the road. A soft breeze had risen; he could smell the hinted fragrance of roses, and, very faintly, he thought he could hear the distant strains of alien music. "I'll probably never get another chance to do this, will I? Most people never come anywhere near Faerie in their entire lifetimes." A thought occurred to him and he looked at her. "Can you help me come back here someday? If I want to?"
"No," the whale said firmly. "Translating you back into the world will be hard enough, if you want to come, and it's only possible because of your current higher-energy state. All the math in the world couldn't get you to this place under normal circumstances."
"So I have to decide now."
"Yes, podling." The whale smiled at him. "You must choose. As we did, long ago."
They knelt in the sand, the three of them, until the moon was high, until Teyla's knees hurt and the deeper, longer waves had begun to come up to their chests, making Ronon's wingfeathers float out around them like a dancer's skirts.
It was Teyla and Ronon, finally, who half-led and half-dragged John up the beach to the soft, dry sand beyond the water's reach. They all collapsed in the sand and watched the waves roll in. No one spoke. There were no words for this.
The whales had apparently gotten tired of waiting, or mourning, or whatever they had been doing; the water was still and flat, all the way out to the horizon, unbroken by the gray breaching backs that had become so much a part of Teyla's life. She wondered if they would stay around Atlantis, or if they'd swim somewhere else on this world, never to be seen again.
"What's that?" Ronon said suddenly, leaning forward.
Something had broken the pale line of the surf. Teyla rose to her feet. What her eyes were telling her was simply not possible -- but how often had her teachers insisted that not possible just meant a thing had yet to be fully understood?
Rodney was walking out of the surf, naked of clothing or runes, water streaming down his tanned body.
Teyla's breath caught in her throat. The group of them stumbled down to the water's edge, and John was the first to get there.
"The whales brought me home," Rodney said. There was a little catch in his voice.
He looked -- ordinary, whole, alive. His bare skin without its runes seemed more fragile than normal, and when Teyla's hand hesitantly clasped his arm, his skin was cool and damp.
"You must be freezing," John said brusquely. The night wasn't especially cold, but he quickly stripped off his jacket and slung it around Rodney's bare shoulders. His hands hesitated on the jacket's collar, then slid up into Rodney's long wet hair. Teyla saw his eyes flicker to cats' eyes and then back to normal with a blink. "You're -- you," John said, his voice low and hoarse.
"Who else would I be?" Rodney demanded, a bit shakily.
Ronon laughed. It was catching; Teyla found herself laughing with him, and even John was laughing too, though there seemed to be a sob in the middle of it.
Rodney opened his mouth to say something indignant, judging by the look on his face. John silenced him with a kiss, deep and hungry and so nakedly raw that Teyla had to look away, though she didn't take her hand off Rodney's arm.
"Don't know about the rest of you, but my feet are getting wet," Ronon said, and then there was more laughing and they all stumbled out of the water, arm in arm or hand in hand, up the beach to the place where three of them had kept vigil.
They didn't have to talk about it, but no one had the slightest desire to fly back to Atlantis that night. John started a fire, and Ronon went spear-fishing in the edge of the sea, dropping like a great eagle with knives in both hands. Teyla went to gather soft rushes and broad leaves at the edge of the forest to make a comfortable nest beside the fire. She traced a small rune in her palm and whispered, "Water," then followed its firefly gleam as it rose in front of her and led her to a tiny stream trickling in a nest of moss.
When they had eaten, Teyla went to wash her hands in the edge of the sea. Ronon joined her, his feet bare and pants legs rolled up. "Want to explore a little, or too tired?"
Teyla cast a glance over her shoulder at the two remaining figures at the fire -- heads close together against the dying flames, one dark spiky head and one gleaming blond in the ruddy firelight.
"I think that I would like to explore," she said, and then gave a little cry as Ronon scooped her into his arms and took off with a powerful downbeat, scattering sand and dried bits of seaweed. "And perhaps some warning would be appreciated next time," she scolded, getting her breath back high above the beach.
Ronon's deep chuckle vibrated against her body. He circled in a lazy spiral; the fire shrank beneath them. Teyla turned her head to look out to sea. The whales were back as if they'd never been gone, and they seemed full of joy tonight -- cavorting under the moon, flinging themselves out of the water to fall back in a shower of silver coins.
"Where do you want to go?" Ronon asked her.
And she had an answer ready for him. "I've been to the mainland many times, but I have always wanted to see if there are mountains farther inland."
"Mountains it is," and with a snap of his great powerful wings, they left the sea behind, sweeping across the dark forest.
"So," Teyla said, nestling down against his chest. "About you and Jeannie ..."
Anything else that she would have said was cut off in a shriek as Ronon folded his wings and dropped a hundred feet or so before leveling out again.
"So," he said, once they were leveled off and climbing on a thermal updraft, while she was still catching her breath. "About you and this Kanaan guy..."
Once it was fairly evident that Teyla and Ronon weren't coming back, John and Rodney made love slowly and gently, and then lay in a nest of leaves with John's jacket over the top of them, watching the bonfire die down to coals.
"Some people have godparents," John said, propping up his head on one hand. "You apparently have godwhales."
"Matchmaking godwhales," Rodney murmured sleepily. The whales were back to their usual comforting murmur in the back of his mind; he couldn't pick out individual voices at this distance, but he could tell that they were happy.
John looked down at him, his mouth curved in the soft, gentle smile that Rodney had only seen when they were alone and on a few occasions with Teyla and Ronon. There was a leaf in his tousled hair. "You know, we're going to have to come up with some kind of explanation for Woolsey."
"Oh no. That reminds me. Jeannie ... she probably thinks I'm dead."
He tried to sit up. John pushed him back down. "Even if Woolsey sent her a message, there's nothing you can do in the middle of the night. We'd have to wait for morning in any case. And that still doesn't answer the question of what we're going to tell everyone who wasn't here."
"I'm not sure how I can explain it to anyone else when I can't even explain it to myself."
John's smile faded to something more thoughtful and inward-looking. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"I ... don't think I can." Rodney groped for words. "It's not that I don't want to, it's just -- I think this is something you're not supposed to talk about. That's the best way I can describe it. I barely remember it anyway -- I mean, I remember Fluid Dynamics Whale coming for me, and a ... a road and a forest, but the details are kind of a blur." He frowned. "And I feel like that really should bother me more than it does. I mean, normally I'd be wanting to know everything about how the process works, but this time ... I don't even want to poke at it, you know?" His hands flailed in the leaves, illustrating his thought processes as usual. "It feels like if I tug at the wrong string, it could unravel everything and I'd be right back where I started."
John's hands caught and pinned his own, trapping them in the leaves. "Then don't," John said, and bent down to kiss him again. He pulled back and looked down at Rodney with the fire's dying glow in his eyes. "Just ... stay."
Rodney's heart hurt in a way he'd never felt before. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Good," John said, and squirmed around in the leaves. "Make room. My arms are getting tired."
Rodney scooted over, and made a spot for John to wriggle down beside him, where he proceeded to tuck his head into the space between Rodney's neck and shoulder. "We are going to be so sore in the morning," Rodney complained.
John made an "mmm" noise into his neck. His breath tickled the soft growth of golden hair above Rodney's collarbone.
"I mean, seriously. We're not nineteen anymore. My arm is already falling asleep ..."
John's only answer this time was a faint snore.
"... and so are you," Rodney sighed, and squirmed around very carefully, trying not to jar John enough to wake him up, until he could rest his face in John's hair. He closed his eyes and drifted in a warm haze of contentment and afterglow, falling asleep at last to the lullaby of distant whalesong.